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.