The kingdom of God: not ‘now and not yet’

Read time: 9 minutes

It is a commonplace of Reformed and evangelical theology that the kingdom of God is ‘now and not yet’. In one sense it has already arrived; in another sense it hasn’t. According to Wikipedia the argument goes back to the Princeton Calvinist theologian Gerhardus Vos. Some sort of ‘now and not yet’ dynamic in Christian theology seems inevitable if we believe in a final transformation or renewal of all things rather than merely an indefinite continuation of present conditions. The question I have has to do with the ‘kingdom of God’ part of the formula. What I suggest is that it would have made sense in the restricted historical perspective of the early believers, but that for the post-eschatological church it needs to be translated into creational terms. This may seem merely a matter of semantics, but I think that the widespread and undiscriminating use of the formula (indeed, our kingdom of God language in general) obfuscates rather than clarifies the biblical narrative.

The original and significant not yet of the kingdom of God

For Jesus the phrase ‘kingdom of God’ or ‘kingdom of Heaven’ had reference to an event or sequence of events in the foreseeable or impending or not-too-distant or ‘at hand’ historical future. The following is a reasonably complete summary of the evidence regarding the ‘kingdom of God/heaven’ terminology, though there are other respects in which the New Testament addresses the temporal or historical nature of the events foreseen.

Like John the Baptist (Matt. 3:1), Jesus begins his ministry by announcing that the time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God is at hand, that Israel should, therefore, repent and believe this message of good news for the nation (Mk. 1:15; Matt. 4:17). The kingdom of God, in the Gospels, is always good news for Israel, not for the whole world. Jesus sends his disciples out to proclaim it throughout Israel (Lk. 9:1-6; 10:1-15) and expressly forbids them to go to the Gentiles (Matt. 10:5-6).

There is a strong sense of urgency about the need to proclaim the coming of the kingdom of God to Israel. Jesus is in hurry to ‘preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns as well; for I was sent for this purpose’ (Lk. 4:43). It is also conveyed by such sayings as ‘Leave the dead to bury their own dead. But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God,’ and ‘No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God’ (Lk. 9:60, 62).

Jesus tells a crowd gathered with his disciples that ‘there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God after it has come with power’ (Mk. 9:1; cf. Lk. 9:26). The saying only really makes sense if we suppose that Jesus is thinking of something that will take place within, say, the next 30-40 years – a period long enough, on any common sense calculation, for some of them to have died but not all. He is telling them that some will witness events within a lifetime that will radically transform the condition of Israel.

The story about a nobleman who goes away to receive a kingdom (a story in effect about the Son of Man) assumes that the servants will still be alive when their master returns (Lk. 19:11-27). It has to do with the accountability of the disciples who were entrusted with the task of proclaiming the good news first to Israel and then to the nations before the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. It concludes in Luke with the destruction of the ‘enemies’ who did not want him to reign over them, an unequivocal reference to the war against Rome.

That people will come from ‘from east and west, and from north and south, and recline at table in the kingdom of God’ is a sign of the restoration of Israel following judgment (Lk. 13:29; cf. Ps. 107:2-3).

The saying “It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into geenna, ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched’ ” (Mk. 9:47), links the advent of the kingdom of God with judgment on Jerusalem. On the one hand, Jesus evokes Jeremiah’s image of the dead being thrown into the valley of the sons of Hinnom when the city is besieged by the Babylonians (Jer. 7:32-34); on the other, the quotation from Isaiah 66:24 presents an image of Jews who are brought back to Jerusalem following judgment going out to see the dead bodies of the people who rebelled against YHWH: ‘For their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.’ These are, of course, both images of the ghastly consequences of war: they are not images of eternal punishment in a metaphysical hell.

In his parable of a net thrown into the sea and the sorting of the fish Jesus associates the kingdom of heaven with the coming judgment on Israel at the ‘close of the age’ (tē synteleia tou aiōnos) (Matt. 13:47-50). This is the same ‘close of the age’ (synteleias tou aiōnos) that is marked by the destruction of the temple and the vindication of Jesus and his disciples in Matthew 24:3.

When Jesus is asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God will come, he warns them that it is not coming with signs to be observed; rather ‘the kingdom of God is in the midst of you’ (Lk. 17:21). The contrast with the observation of signs and the subsequent account of the days of the Son of Man in terms of judgment on Israel make it clear that this ‘in the midst of you’ presupposes future developments. It is perhaps, in Jesus’ mind, the presence of the ‘Son of Man’ in their midst, unacknowledged, who will be the agent of God’s ‘kingdom’ intervention, that constitutes the kingdom of God now in the midst of them.

The kingdom of God will be taken from the chief priests and the Pharisees and given to ‘a people producing its fruits’ (Matt. 21:43). Jesus has just quoted Psalm 118:22-24. When Israel is surrounded by the nations, David overcomes not by trusting in man or in princes but by taking refuge in the Lord (118:8-13). It is as though the stone rejected by the builders as being flawed or defective (David admits that he has been disciplined severely by God: 118:18), has been recovered and made the cornerstone of the building. The Psalm makes this an issue of Israel’s survival during a time of political crisis. The kingdom of God will be taken from the current hierarchy in Jerusalem and given to a repentant and faithful people whose lives are consistent with it (cf. Matt. 5:3; Lk. 6:20).

Immediately after the resurrection the kingdom of God is still a future event. Jesus will not tell the disciples when exactly the kingdom will be restored to Israel, but he does not question the basic assumption: in speaking about the kingdom of God he is speaking about a future event (Acts 1:3, 6-7).

Paul’s exhortation to the disciples in Lystra, Iconium and Antioch that ‘through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God’ (Acts 14:21-22) points to a future consummation following a long period of persecution (see also comments on Matt. 24:13-14). The same point is made in 2 Thessalonians 1:5: ‘This is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you may be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are also suffering.’ Paul also speaks of a future inheritance of the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 6:9-10; 15:50; Gal. 5:21). We should also make note of Matthew 5:10: ‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’

The small now of the kingdom of God

This transformation was concretely and prophetically anticipated in the ministry of Jesus and of his disciples. So Jesus tells the Pharisees: if the healing of a demon-possessed man is to be reckoned as a work of God rather than as a work of satan, then they should take it as evidence that the kingdom of God has come upon them (Matt. 12:28; Lk. 11:20). The disciples are instructed to heal the sick and to say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you’ – or, for that matter, to wipe the dust off the feet as a sign of impending judgment and say, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you’ (Lk. 10:8-12). But it may cohere better with Jesus’ teaching as a whole if we regard the miraculous events not so much as manifestations of a kingdom that has already come but as signs of the future event to which so much of what he has to say points. Both healing and repudiation point forward to what God was about to do in Israel – on the one hand, to destroy; on the other hand, to restore.  The parables of the mustard seed and leaven (Lk. 13:18-21) suggest that what is beginning in a small way in Jesus’ healings will in the course of time become a transformation of national proportions.

The now and not yet of new creation

The good news that the kingdom of God is at hand has reference to the coming judgment and restoration of Israel – the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple and the emergence of a redeemed people, identified by their baptism into the defining narrative of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Just as Isaiah speaks of a messenger who brings good news to Zion, saying, ‘Your God reigns (basileusei),’ that he is about to restore Jerusalem, so Jesus proclaims the good news to Israel that YHWH is about act to judge injustice and faithlessness and to restore his sinful people. This is the focus of the prayer which he taught his disciples: ‘Your kingdom come….’

That restoration, however, is now a thing of the past, and the church has inherited the immense benefits and blessings that it brought about. God’s kingdom, in the sense that Jesus intended it, has come. It is no longer ‘now and not yet’. It simply is. There may be contexts in which the church still needs to pray for God to intervene decisively, for persecution to end, for enemies to be defeated, for believers to be vindicated, but in principle the hope of the redeemed, post-eschatological church today should be aimed, I think, at the renewal of creation.

This is the larger story of the people of God. It begins with the re-creational promise God to Abraham that he will bless him, he will make him fruitful and multiply his descendants as they fill the small world that God will give them; it passes through the resurrection of Jesus as a sui generis moment of new creation; and it orientates itself towards the final restoration of the corrupted cosmos, the defeat of evil and suffering and death, and the reunion of God and his creation. To the extent that the church in its rather poor way is able to capture something of that restoration in advance, whether through just and compassionate behaviour or through the miraculous overcoming of sickness and evil, whether actually or prophetically, it demonstrates to the world in the now the transcendent reality of the not yet.

peter wilkinson | Mon, 07/12/2010 - 11:20 | Permalink

Andrew - very detailed, yet concise, and in its own way convincingly presented.

So we are "baptised into the narrative of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit". Where is this stated or implied? Baptism, in Romans 6, is into (Christ) Jesus, his death, burial and resurrection, a person who has epxerienced these things, rather than a narrative. Today, this baptism is the hallmark of the life of discipleship commanded by Jesus in Matthew 28:18-19.

I think your argument is weakest in at least two areas.

First: the uninterrupted flow of the gospels into Acts demonstrates very obviously that Jesus's ministry was to the whole world, not just to Israel. Luke's gospel was "all that Jesus began to do and teach". The ministry of Jesus continued in Acts, but now in a wider arena. The giving of the Spirit in response to the preaching of the gospel, which was that Jesus had been raised from the dead, and was now not simply Israel's messiah, but for the whole world, was the seal of this ministry, which continues to the present day.

Second, and tellingly, you have nothing to say about Jesus's death on the cross in the summary you give. The role of the cross is vastly diminished in all your accounts, and I feel something of an embarrassment to you. Yet in all four gospels, it is the overarching event of Jesus's ministry, far more than the predicted fall of Jerusalem.

The kingdom of God does not always fit very well into your historicist scheme, and this emerges in some of the examples you have given:

"The kingdom of God will be taken from the chief priests and the Pharisees and given to ‘a people producing its fruits’ (Matt. 21:43)." It makes better sense to assume here that the kingdom of God will be a lasting possession of those 'producing its fruits', rather than something which is given, then taken away again after AD 70.

"Lord are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?" - Acts 1:6 suggests that the kingdom will be restored as a lasting possession, not as an isolated historical event. Jesus restored the kingdom  with the outpouring of the Spirit - which is also implied in the references to the kingdom and its association with the Spirit in Acts 1 (Isaiah providing, once again, the clues). The phenomenon was the forerunner of all subsequent outpourings.

When Paul says: ‘through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God’ (Acts 14:21-22) it makes better sense of 'enter the kingdom' to take its meaning as 'enter and remain in it', not pass through 'the kingdom' as a single historical event.

1 Corinthians 6:9-10 speaks of 'inheriting' the kingdom of God, where the sense of the word is of lasting possession, not of an event which occured in history. The same word is used in 1 Corinthians 15:50 and Galatians 5:21. This is quite different from a sense of inheriting the fruit or results of the kingdom (as an act of God), but implies inheriting the kingdom itself.

There is much more, but these are some anomalies within your own post which suggest that your explanation is not (yet) watertight.

Andrew, terrific piece.

Peter, once again, it seems to me that you are conflating our modern theology with the understanding of the people who lived in the first century and wrote the books.

The imminent kindgom of God, which was a new world order ruled by Israel through YHWH, is a simple concept that would have been a staple of Jewish thought in the time of Jesus. It was promised in the Hebrew Bible and was what Jews would have hoped for, whether they believed in an afterlife or not. It was the key to the message of both Jesus and Paul.

But it never happened, which was a big problem. After all, Jesus was quoted as saying that people standing with him were going to see this kingdom come. Paul advised people to not marry because the world was on the verge of being transformed by this new kingdom.

So either Jesus and Paul were wrong or their message had to be reinterpreted. The kingdom was made metaphorical. Someone had to write explanations in what what became II Thessalonians and II Peter. "Those people who said the world was ending in a few days? Well, when they said 'day' they meant 'thousand years.' "

And thus were hermeneutics created.

Peter, the suggestion about being baptized into a narrative is meant to point to the fact that the relationship between Father, Son and Spirit is narratively (rather than ontologically or synchronically) constructed in the New Testament. The early believers were baptized into Christ, agreed – but specifically into his death, burial and resurrection. That is a narrative, one which lies at the core of a larger story about what YHWH is doing in Israel for the sake of his righteousness.

As you know, I think that believers were included in this through baptism in a rather literal and realistic sense: it represented their commitment to share in Christ’s sufferings in hope of sharing in his vindication as part of the story of eschatological transition. The Father appoints the Son to save Israel through his suffering and gives the Spirit for that purpose. The early churches identified with that narrative through the public event of baptism in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Baptism today should equally be an identification with that narrative, though it could also be more than that, given the expansion of our eschatological horizon.

There is certainly continuity between the synoptics and Acts. All I’m saying is that it appears that Jesus did not have very much to say about a mission to the Gentiles. His purpose was to save Israel from destruction. It was then for the post-resurrection community, the community described in Acts, to discover the global implications of what God had done.

Second, and tellingly, you have nothing to say about Jesus’s death on the cross in the summary you give. The role of the cross is vastly diminished in all your accounts, and I feel something of an embarrassment to you.

Sorry, Peter, this is nonsense. First, the post merely considered the passages in the New Testament that speak about the kingdom of God for the purpose of establishing the likely point of reference for the notion of the coming of the kingdom of God. Secondly, the cross is central to all that I have been arguing about the Son of Man narrative, and pretty much everything I’ve written since publishing that book. The cross is not remotely an embarrassment to me. Jesus’ redemptive suffering for the sake of the people of God lies at the heart of the story of judgment and renewal and is definitive for the subsequent experience of his followers – and, I would add, definitive for the church throughout the ages.

It makes better sense to assume here that the kingdom of God will be a lasting possession of those ‘producing its fruits’, rather than something which is given, then taken away again after AD 70.

Agreed. Who said anything about it being taken away again?

Acts 1:6 suggests that the kingdom will be restored as a lasting possession, not as an isolated historical event.

Well, yes, of course. If the kingdom is restored, it stays restored. The question is at what point and through what means is it restored. That’s what the disciples ask about? They don’t ask, ‘Is the kingdom going to last forever?’ The same applies to your other comments on entering or inheriting the kingdom. The verbs of ‘coming’, ‘entering’, and ‘inheriting’ all highlight a moment – I would argue a historical moment – when the hopes generated by Jesus’ teaching and by his vindication find fulfilment.

"the relationship between Father, Son and Spirit is narratively (rather than ontologically or synchronically) constructed in the New Testament."

Well, there is a narrative involving Father, Son and Spirit - though to me it's quite different from the one you are proposing. But it is also an ontological relationship - which is quite clear in the relationship of Father and Son in the gospels, and the involvement of the Spirit in this relationship is very clear in John's gospel, 14, 15 & 16, and clear enough in the synoptics - eg Matthew 12:31.

The ontological relationship becomes even more pronounced in Acts and the letters - but is presented more in terms of where the narrative or flow of thought is going, rather than abstract analysis. In Acts 2:33, you have it as clearly presented as anywhere: God the Father exalts Jesus, who receives from Him the Holy Spirit, which he pours out on those who believe in him. You end up in a very strange place indeed if you say that the Holy Spirit was something other than God, which neither Old or New Testament do. It then makes no sense at all to say that Jesus, a mere man, had authority to pour out God!

"believers were included in this (narrative) through baptism in a rather literal and realistic sense: it represented their commitment to share in Christ’s sufferings in hope of sharing in his vindication as part of the story of eschatological transition."

I'd forgotten you had provided a new meaning of baptism. However, given the alternative interpretation of this (and much else in the NT!), I think I'd rather have baptism as it is more obviously described in Romans 6, into Christ Jesus, the person, whose death, burial and resurrection are appropriated by the believer, as initiation into the people of God, and as illustrating the basis of discipleship for believers of all ages, not just those who believed in the 1st century. Your baptism is into a narrative for believers then. I prefer a baptism into a Jesus who is alive now - with identical benefits for us as for them, and rather more than avoidance of a local historical catastrophe in the past.

"There is certainly continuity between the synoptics and Acts. All I’m saying is that it appears that Jesus did not have very much to say about a mission to the Gentiles."

This will not help your assertion that Jesus's ministry never had the rest of the world in view. The ministry of Jesus, not a God who was detached from him, continues in Acts, with a worldwide framework rapidly developing. You say:

"It was then for the post-resurrection community, the community described in Acts, to discover the global implications of what God had done."

This is true; it is also true that Acts represents what Jesus continued to do through the church, where Luke's gospel in particular was "all that Jesus began to do until the day he was taken up to heaven." 'The day' was the ascension, described in Acts 1:9, which according to the writer, was part of only the beginning of what Jesus was doing.

The implication is that we can see the unbroken continuation of the gospels in Acts in the announcement of Jesus's death and resurrection and gift of the Spirit throughout Israel and 'to the ends of the earth' - Acts 1:8. What you cannot say is that Jesus intended his ministry to be restricted to Israel because of a localised judgement coming on the nation and its temple. Neither can you say that the announcement was what God had done for Israel alone, since the Spirit was given to those outside Israel as well as Israel, making them into one people of God together.

There is no kingdom of God without the pivotal event of the cross. I think it is telling that you have no place for this event in your summary - with or without verses that mention the kingdom of God directly. The cross is very embarrassing to your position, since it requires us to believe in a God who wanted and accepted innocent human sacrifice. Since the time of Isaac, God has never at any point suggested that there would or should be such a thing. From what I have read elsewhere, I think you would prefer the suffering of Jesus on the cross to be an example for the disciples to walk the path of suffering through the events which were to come, rather than redemptive. However, now that you have said it, I wonder what you mean by 'redemptive'. Does the word still have its traditional meaning? If it does, it would only be redemptive for believers at that time, since salvation in your scheme is only rescue from the destruction of Jerusalem which was to come through Rome. I don't understand at all how the cross can be "definitive for the church throughout the ages" - since according to you it is only significant for 1st century believers.

Re the kingdom: "Who said anything about it being taken away again?" In effect, you did! You say that the kingdom was the expression of God's judgement in history against apostate Israel and pagan persecuting Rome, and the expression in history of God's salvation for his people, which was political and historical, not spiritual and eternal. You have relegated the kingdom to history, with a reorientation of focus now towards 'the new creation'. In your scheme of things, 'the kingdom' was an event which happened then, not a reality which we can live in or experience now, and see increased in the world today, as predicted in Isaiah 9:7, and described in the parables of the mustard seed and the yeast. The parables are of course relativised by you to the 1st century, but Isaiah adds "no end" to the increase of the kingdom we can expect to see.

With regard to the kingdom, you say: "The verbs of ‘coming’, ‘entering’, and ‘inheriting’ all highlight a moment." That's what the kingdom is for you: a moment in history, albeit with lasting effects. These verbs (apart from 'coming'), and the other examples I pointed out including the restoration of Israel (by the Spirit on the day of Pentecost and following), point out something which is a continuing and developing phenomenon throughout history, and which is a vital concern for the church today, not something which is past and of no current concern. The choice of words does not suggest a historical moment, but something as relevant and of concern to believers today as it was then. Your handling of the meaning places kingdom very much in the past, and of little (or no) concern today, to all practical intents and purposes.

“the relationship between Father, Son and Spirit is narratively (rather than ontologically or synchronically) constructed in the New Testament.”

Doesn't it occur to anyone that any concept that can't explained without the use of such convoluted and theological language just can't have anything to do with the intent of the authors?

Peter, the kingdom of God and the cross have nothing to do with each other, except as developed by hermeneuticians many years later. Again, the kingdom of god is a simple concept about god intervening to institute a new world order through Israel. No dying members of the godhead were required. No phDs were needed to understand it.

If the death of a savior was the key to understanding it, Jesus should have said something about it in his sermons. But he left his listeners curiously uninformed about salvation and god's plan in christian terms.

Great article to consider.

George Ladd also was a major proponent of this theology. I have always more described it as 'the already but not yet fully'.

Would you identify yourself as a full preterist? Or maybe you wouldn't like the labels. And I would love to know a better terminology that you would suggest. The kingdom 'has come and now let us renew creation'? I just don't see how we, as humanity, are able to fully renew creation. That is why I believe we are still in an in between period awaiting the full and final consummation.

Scott, I wouldn’t call myself a Preterist, partly because I don’t want to get embroiled in an old-school debate about eschatological flavours, partly because the issue here is not primarily the fulfilment of prophecy but how the New Testament deals realistically with the historical condition of the emerging church.

To say “The kingdom ‘has come and now let us renew creation’ ” is heading in the right direction, as long as we properly understand the story that lies behind ‘the kingdom has come’, and as long as we don’t take the renewal of creation motif too literally. I agree with you that neither humanity in general nor the church in particular can renew creation. I would say that the church stands in a very limited and fallible sense now for the renewal of creation – we experience through grace, obedience and the power of the Spirit of the creator God; but just as importantly the church stands as a sign of the final consummation. And for the sake of exegetical clarity, I think it helps not to construe that final consummation in terms of the coming of the kingdom of God.

So yes, we have moved beyond the ‘now and not yet’ of the coming of the kingdom of God, but we are still in the ‘now and not yet’ of the renewal of creation.

Ah, so you might say 'the kingdom has already come and now we await the final consummation of the renewal of creation' (though that's a long statement).

By the way, I am friends with Carlton Deal over here in Brussels. Maybe we'll connect one day soon in Brussels.

Andrew, I am still thinking this over about an aspect of the kingdom as still yet to come, especially when considering a passage like 1 Cor 15:24-26:

24Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. 25For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26The last enemy to be destroyed is death.

Of course, one could argue that the only thing being done by Jesus to the Father is a delivering, or handing, over of the kingdom. But the rule of God is still fully present now. But then it says, 'For he [Jesus] must reign until...' That denotes that He is reigning, but the reign is not fully realised as of yet.

Would you encourage me to read it differently.

I guess I need to pick up as copy of The Coming of the Son of Man.