A number of years ago, I found myself troubled by a question: beyond avoiding sin and sharing the gospel, does the rest of my life really matter in God’s cosmic plan? To put it another way, are we all just killing time until Jesus returns? As it turns out, God’s scriptures provide rich and satisfying answers to these questions – through the biblical concept of the Kingdom of God.
Colossians 1:13-14 tells us that God “has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” As this indicates, God has not only taken us out of our sins, but he has also put us into something else: His kingdom. The idea of the Kingdom of God is not always emphasized in modern Christian thought, but it is of central importance to the gospel. In fact, when the Gospel narratives state what Jesus’ central message was, they often point here. Matthew 4:23, for example, says that “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom.”
But what, exactly, is the kingdom? The Bible seems to use kingdom language in several ways: as a general reality, a future reality, and a present reality. What do each of these look like? At the most basic level, “the kingdom” means not so much a place as God’s kingly rule – His authority and His reign. In this sense, God’s kingdom is present in every context that honors His will. Aside from the temporary rebellion of human and demonic wills, the entire cosmos in this sense rests under the kingly rule of God, and always will.
More specifically, however, the kingdom represents the amazing society that is still coming in the future. Matthew 13 predicts a great judgment and purge of all evildoers, after which “the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.” According to the final chapters of Revelation, this kingdom will be without curse, suffering, pain or death. That language echoes the predictions of the prophets centuries earlier. Isaiah 25 speaks of a great feast and a mountain where God “will swallow up death forever. The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears from all faces; he will remove the disgrace of his people from all the earth.” Isaiah 2 notes that “In the last days, … Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.” Isaiah 65 glimpses the creation of new heavens and a new earth, where we will live active and productive lives in harmony with one another, with creation, and with God.
If you’ve ever watched the evening news, you know that day has not yet come. Why, then, did Jesus sometimes indicate that the kingdom actually had become present? When the Pharisees asked Him when the kingdom would come, Jesus responded in part that “the kingdom of God is in the midst of you” (Luke 17:21). Elsewhere, he warned them that “if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you” (Matthew 12:28). When he sent seventy-two disciples to proclaim the gospel, he empowered them to go to a town and “heal the sick in it and say to them, ‘the kingdom of God has come near to you’” (Luke 10:9). A common element here, beyond the presence of the Lord’s power, was a divine assault on evil and suffering. Indeed, when John the Baptist sent men to ask whether Jesus really was the Messiah, as Luke 7:22 notes, Jesus reiterated those priorities: “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them.”
The reason this was what John needed to hear, and the reason these acts may sound familiar, is that they represented exactly the character of the eternal kingdom foretold by the ancient prophets. While John and others were expecting the Messiah’s career path to look a bit different, they all knew that when Messiah (Christ) came, he would bring life and healing and harmony and an end to the power of darkness. Now here was Jesus, starting to do those very things in their midst. Of course, the people whom Jesus healed still lived in a sinful, mortal society, and they still went on to die. God was planning to usher in the fullness of the kingdom at a later date. But Jesus made the kingdom of God manifest to those people by offering a dramatic preview of the life to come.
The idea of a preview – I mean a movie preview – offers a useful analogy. Maybe you hear that a great director is making your favorite book into a movie. You’re excited, maybe a bit apprehensive – what if they mess it up? And then, for many months, you don’t hear anything. One day, though, you go to the theater. The lights go down. Next, a green rectangle fills the screen. And then it happens – a sweeping establishing shot, and in a single moment you realize that this is the movie you’ve been waiting for! And the cinematography is brilliant. The dialogue sounds good. The music is awesome. The images you see and the sounds you hear are real clips from the movie. For two minutes, you are entranced, taking part in this movie you can’t wait to see. And then, the screen goes black and the preview is gone. You decide right then that you will be sitting in that theater on opening night, because now, nothing could convince you to miss the full experience.
This is what Jesus did as, for years, he awaited the cross. As happens in a good movie preview, the things we will see and experience when the Feature Presentation opens broke out into real lives in history. It was not the full final promise, but it was a real experience of that promise. Those who accepted God’s intervention received in their present lives a foretaste, but a real taste, of the life of the kingdom. As He healed hearts and bodies, Christ made present for them the hoped-for life with God. And that foretaste invited them to adapt their whole lives to the ways of this coming kingdom.
When we talk about Christ’s mission, we rightly emphasize the cross and the resurrection. However, many Christians often wonder why, in light of the cross, Christ’s earlier ministry mattered. What was the point of all that kingdom preaching if the main thing was to atone for our sins? Does Matthew’s good news of the kingdom have much to do with Paul’s gospel of salvation? Absolutely! The cross and resurrection hardly set aside the need for the rule of God. On the contrary, they enable us to participate fully in the kingdom, which is the goal of the gospel. Rebels against the king do not live as members of the kingdom. But because the cross guaranteed amnesty for former rebels, because the empty tomb guaranteed victory over death, and because the Spirit of Pentecost guarantees God’s presence empowering His people, we are now able like never before to say “yes” to the kingdom invitation of Christ. And that invitation demands a decisive and active response.
The writer Dallas Willard offered a helpful analogy in his book The Divine Conspiracy. He recalled how, during his youth in rural Missouri, the first electrical power lines arrived. Willard wrote,
“When those lines came by our farm, a very different way of living presented itself … Those farmers … in effect, heard the message: “Repent, for electricity is at hand.” Repent, or turn from their kerosene lamps and lanterns, their iceboxes and cellars, their scrubboards and rug beaters, their woman-powered sewing machines and their radios with dry-cell batteries. The power that could make their lives far better was right there near them where, by making relatively simple arrangements, they could utilize it. Strangely, a few did not accept it. They did not “enter the kingdom of electricity.” Some just didn’t want to change. Others could not afford it, or so they thought.”
This analogy highlights the active response required when we move from darkness into God’s kingdom. The kingdom is not just the absence of sin but the beginning of a rich new kind of life. Reconciliation with God is so important, but it is only half of the gospel picture! The full gospel re-unites us with God, and then propels us into life with Him. This is not about “works salvation.” Salvation is always by faith, through grace; but salvation always calls us to enter a new kind of life in the present. To paraphrase Dallas Willard again, a disciple of Christ is someone learning to live out the eternal kind of life in their normal lives today.
How does a church body live out this eternal kind of life? Acts 2 and 4 tell us that the very early church in Jerusalem was marked (among other things) by a generous spirit of unity that led the believers to share their possessions so that all would prosper together. This inspiring but challenging example gave Jerusalem yet another sneak preview of the coming messianic kingdom, where God’s people will live together in perfect harmony. That was a powerful witness. At the same time, this wasn’t just a savvy management decision or an effective evangelism strategy. These believers prioritized living in harmony because there is no other way to live out the kingdom that now controlled their allegiance.
In the same way, when we “do church well,” we live out the patterns of the kingdom together. As a result, we show each other and we show the world a preview of the future kingdom. The more clearly we understand the character of God’s promised future, the better we will know how to live together today; the more that we live together now on that model, the more our lives will truly flourish.
Of course, the future hope of the kingdom should always keep us from getting comfortable. We will never be truly "at home" during this evil age. So let us pray that Christ will return soon. Also, may we unceasingly fight against sin in our own lives! It is simply impossible to engage in kingdom life while deliberately rebelling against our graceful king. Along with obedience, the coming realm will also feature justice, life, healing, and joy. Therefore, let’s resist the mundane trend of just doing things to go through the motions of church. Instead, in our relationships, let’s consciously pursue the mission of confronting evil, rescuing the lost, bringing hope and healing and redemption to broken lives while glorifying Christ’s name. Whatever you do for God, your service is relevant here. When Christians give up time and effort so that the church may function in good order and health, when believers sacrifice in the name of Christ so that others may thrive, in every one of these actions we see another hint of the age to come.
When Jesus taught His disciples how to pray, he turned to kingdom language: “May your kingdom come, may your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” With that prayer, we ask our Lord to bring His eternal kingdom soon, but we also ask Him to bring His authority and His rule into our own lives today. We invite God to take jurisdiction over the spaces of our own life. In your life, in your ministry, what might it look like for God to answer that prayer? Where can the joyful rule of God expand in the things you do?