Plotting the kingdom: now and not yet and not like that

Read time: 6 minutes

In order to keep my knee-jerk prejudices against certain aspects of traditional evangelical theology in good working order I have been reading [amazon:978-1433531620:inline], edited by Grudem, Collins and Schreiner. What I have been looking for is examples of how theologians really don’t get narrative, and I have not been disappointed. Thomas R. Schreiner begins the section on the New Testament by affirming that biblical theology, unlike systematic theology, “concentrates on the historical story line of the Bible”, and then proceeds to outline “some of the main themes of New Testament theology” (109). In other words, he’s incapable of dealing with the “historical story line” without systematizing it.

The first of the main themes is the “already-not-yet” of the kingdom, which Schreiner thinks “dominates the entire New Testament and functions as a key to grasping the whole story”. I’ve discussed this before, but I’ll discuss it again.

Jews had a straightforward linear notion of the kingdom of God. Its coming would be unambiguous, clear cut: the old age (A) would come to an end, a new age would begin (B); “the enemies of God would be immediately wiped out and a new creation would dawn”. Schreiner plots it thus (117); I’ve added the A and B:

In the New Testament things are not so straightforward. Schreiner provides a clear statement of the traditional evangelical eschatological position. The Old Testament is a large, antiquated filing cabinet—my metaphor, not his—crammed with prophecies and promises about Jesus, salvation, kingdom, etc. (A). Jesus announces the imminent arrival of the kingdom of God. It is present in his person and ministry (C), but only as a mustard seed that would take time to “grow into a great tree that would tower over the entire earth”.

In other words, the kingdom was already present in Jesus and his ministry, but it was not yet present in its entirety. It was “already—but not yet.” It was inaugurated but not consummated. (110)

The kingdom will be consummated when Jesus returns and sits on his glorious throne and judges between the sheep and the goats (B).

So ‘believers pray both for the progressive growth and for the final consummation of the kingdom in the words “your kingdom come”’. This is how the Synoptic Gospels present things. John makes the same point, Schreiner suggests, using the phrase “eternal life”—that is, “the life of the age to come, which will be realized when the new creation dawns”.

Naturally, I disagree with this schematization in most of the details, if not in its overall shape. 

  • The Old Testament is not there just to point forward to Jesus. The Old Testament tells the story of the people of God from Abraham to the Maccabeans. It’s a matter only of secondary consideration that out of this troubled story there arose the expectation that YHWH would restore his people and establish his rule over the nations.
  • [pullquote]I think it is misleading to say that the kingdom of God was present in Jesus’ person and ministry.[/pullquote] That undermines the thorough-going future orientation of kingdom language in the New Testament. It would be more accurate to say that the future arrival of God’s kingdom was foreshadowed or anticipated in Jesus’ teaching and actions.
  • The parable of the mustard seed speaks of a future day when the “kingdom” of God’s people would rival the great empires of the world, providing an alternative form of security and prosperity for the nations.
  • The Lord’s prayer is not a prayer for the “progressive growth” of the kingdom—that is, I suspect, a modern construal, entirely alien to the Jewish perspective. Nor is it a prayer for the final consummation. It is a prayer for God’s will to be done in history regarding Israel and the nations. See Ezekiel 36:23 LXX: “And I will sanctify my great name, which was profaned among the nations, which you profaned in the midst of them; and the nations shall know that I am the Lord when I am sanctified among you before their eyes.”
  • In the argument about kingdom the resurrection-ascension-exaltation of Jesus is much more important than the death of Jesus, which is why there is virtually no atonement theology in Acts. An image of the ascension, therefore, is more appropriate than the cross.
  • The judgment of the sheep and the goats—so called—is not a final judgment. It is a judgment of the nations according to how they have responded to the presence of Jesus’ disciples in the period leading up to the victory of YHWH over pagan Rome.
  • The coming of the kingdom of God marks the beginning of the age to come. “Eternal life” is the life experienced by the people of God in this new age, during which Jesus reigns, along with the martyrs, at the right hand of the Father. Neither the kingdom of God nor eternal life are to be confused with the final renewal of all things, though the life of the people of God in the age to come may be thought of metaphorically as “new creation”.

The upshot is that the already-not-yet kingdom argument is formally correct but needs to be scaled down, on the one hand, and reformulated, on the other.

By scaled down I mean that it needs to be reduced to fit the historical period actually foreseen by the New Testament—the developments that lead up to the overthrow of pagan Rome, the confession of Christ as Lord by the nations, and the vindication or justification (might as well throw that in for good measure) of the prophetic churches. As the fulfilment of kingship themes articulated in the Psalms and Prophets (A), the ascension of Jesus on the clouds of heaven (C) inaugurated a state of affairs that would come to fulfilment at the parousia (B), when the Son of Man would “come”—again on the clouds of heaven—to deliver his disciples from their enemies and judge the nations according to the terms of Matthew 25:31-46.

By reformulated I mean that the already-not-yet motif can also quite reasonably be used with respect to new creation, though this adds a further layer of complexity. What the New Testament strains towards mainly is the historical horizon of  victory over pagan Rome (B). That is the kingdom narrative. But beyond that is the prospect of a final judgment of all the dead and an utter ontological renewal—as I see it (D). We are two thousand years into the period between B and D.

The resurrection of Jesus anticipates both outcomes. Jesus is the firstborn or firstfruits of the many followers who would suffer as he suffered and be vindicated as he was vindicated. But as a victory over death his resurrection is also the beginning of a new creation.

In that respect, the new creation life that we experience now as part of a redeemed people of God empowered by the Spirit is the now or already of the not-yet new creation. This was too distant a prospect for the New Testament churches to get excited about: political realities were much too urgent. But it has become a much more compelling theme in a post-imperial, globally conscious, ecologically threatened world.

Mark Edward | Wed, 04/23/2014 - 21:49 | Permalink

Trying to wrap my head around a few things. A couple of questions for clarity:

1. The historical counterpart of point C would be something like the conversion of the empire under Constantine, or perhaps the overthrow of Rome itself some 150 years later. So in this view, the ‘last days’ turned out to be a period of roughly three or four centuries. And the ‘age to come’ is essentially the same as the ‘thousand years’ (to symbolize it the way John does), i.e. what follows the fall of Rome, but precedes the resurrection and judgment on the Last Day. Is this an accurate understanding of what you’re saying?

2. If ‘now’ is the age to come, didn’t Jesus (or at least Luke) expect the resurrection to kick off the age to come, e.g. Luke 20.34-35?


@Mark Edward:

Thanks for the questions, Mark.

There are two ways of looking at the historical question. We can ask about the “historical counterpart” retrospectively, knowing more or less how history worked out, and knowing that Christendom was perhaps in many respects a disaster for the church. Or we can ask the question prospectively, and then we are looking for just three developments: i) the deliverance of the persecuted church from its sufferings; ii) an end to the dominance of the pagan belief system; and iii) the confession of Jesus as Lord by the nations to the glory of the God of Israel. What comes after that historically is beyond the purview of the New Testament—it is John’s blank 1000 year period.

Remember, too, that this is the outlook for the churches of the pagan world. For Jesus and the disciples in Jerusalem and Judea, the dominant historical horizon is, I think, the disaster that would befall Jerusalem within a generation of Jesus’ death.

The resurrection envisaged in Luke 20:34-35 is a resurrection such as that described in Daniel 12:1-3, which is expected to accompany the judgment and restoration of God’s people. I imagine that the odd resurrection of the sleeping saints from their tombs at the time of the crucifixion in Matthew 27:51-53 is also a prefiguring of such a resurrection. It is a vindication of the righteous who have died so that they can be glorified in the age to come. I think it corresponds to the resurrection of the martyrs following judgment on Rome (Rev. 20:4-6). So it is a resurrection that kicks off the age to come—from Jesus’ perspective the age following judgment on Jerusalem; from John’s the age following judgment on pagan Rome.

Francis Dawson | Fri, 04/25/2014 - 17:55 | Permalink

Hi Andrew

Always read your posts with interest. Many thanks.

I’m surprised by your description of the contemporary world  as “post- imperial”. Does the hegemony of capital not have ‘imperial’ characteristics? Could you unpack that phrase a little further please? 

@Francis Dawson:

Thank you, Francis. The “hegemony of capital” is “imperial” metaphorically speaking, but it is bigger than empire in the historical sense—it is a global and much more abstract phenomenon. I stress “post-imperial” really just to remind us that for 1500 years or more Christendom had distinctly imperial dimensions and aspirations. But also to draw attention to the fact that we are having to make sense of the biblical narrative—and the lordship of Christ—in relation to a very different type of crisis to the one which confronted the people of God in the first centuries.

peter wilkinson | Sat, 04/26/2014 - 19:08 | Permalink

In the argument about kingdom the resurrection-ascension-exaltation of Jesus is much more important than the death of Jesus, which is why there is virtually no atonement theology in Acts. An image of the ascension, therefore, is more appropriate than the cross.

I find this sentence confusing. The gospels can be shown to be a kingdom story seamlessly reaching a climax with the death of Jesus, when the story is viewed as a confrontation between the kingdom and poneros in all its varied historical manifestations. The inscription over the cross, “king of the Jews”, rather than being sadly ironic, is a declaration of a kingdom victory when viewed from this perspective.

In relation to Rome, John’s gospel, 18-19 especially, is about where true power lies, and particularly in the forthcoming death of Jesus on the cross. The cross is the place where the battle was fought and won, with a victory over Rome represented by Pilate, and over all other rulers.  The meaning of 1 Corinthians 2:8 is that the rulers of the world were being brought to nothing by the cross, and if they had known this “they would not have crucified the Lord of glory”. The rulers would include the temple hierarchy, and in the synoptics, all sorts of power representatives in the story. In John’s gospel, the ruler of the world is supremely the shadowy “prince of this world”, readily identifiable with the poneros of John 17:15 and by its close association the poneros of the Lord’s prayer of the synoptics.

 In Acts, the resurrection/ascension is part of a victory declaration, a battle fought and won on the cross — eg Acts 2:24, Acts 10:38-40, Acts 13:36-37.

A victory in battle on the cross is also described in the letters: in Colossians 2:15 in relation to overcoming “the principalities and powers”, in Hebrews 2:14-15 in relation to destroying the devil, and in 2 Corinthians 2:14 and Ephesians 4:8 in relation to a Roman “triumph”, to which its outcome can be compared, . “More than conquerors” is the natural corollary of this in Romans 8:37.

Otherwise I’m totally in sympathy with the post, though as I don’t see the focal point of the kingdom teaching in the gospels being exclusively the fall of Rome, the outbreak of unanimity quickly evaporates. The paragraph beginning “By scaled down I mean  …” and ending “according to Matthew 25:31-46” does not make sense to me within a scenario bounded by a historically limited judgment on Rome.

I  am particularly in sympathy with the sentiment that the OT is not a “filing cabinet … crammed with prophecies and promises about Jesus, salvation, kingdom, etc.”, and the implication that this is how the OT is often conceived, whether it’s really true of how Schreiner sees things or not.

On the other hand, the possibility that the OT canon was arranged as we have it, during the later times when “out of this troubled story there arose the expectation that YHWH would restore his people and establish his rule over the nations”, then that expectation would not be a “secondary consideration”. In other words, the canon as we have it may be editorially designed around this expectation. The development of the expectation may be whole point of the story and the inferences to be drawn from it, as conceived by its editors, .

More conventionally, even if the parts of the canon were received, handed down or written at around the historical times to which they relate, as part of a story of a people compiled over many years, this would still constitute a “troubled story” as a convincing and cumulative background to any later developed expectation of YHWH’s decisive intervention, once and for all, for both Jew and Gentile.

@peter wilkinson:

I find this sentence confusing.

Perhaps you’ve misunderstood it, Peter. Most people will see the cross in Schreiner’s diagram as a symbol of atonement. Atonement is part of the story, but the emphasis in the Gospels and in Acts is not on atonement but on exaltation, on Jesus being given authority to judge and rule at the right hand of the Father. Jesus does not go around telling people he is going to die for them. He asserts a claim to authority. He tells the high priest that he will see him seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven. Therefore, it seems to me better to have a symbol of the exaltation at that point rather than the cross.

You take a lot of trouble to show that the cross was seen as a victory over evil, but in my view that’s not what we mean by atonement. You don’t atone for sins by defeating an enemy in battle. You atone by making a sacrifice.

In Acts, the resurrection/ascension is part of a victory declaration, a battle fought and won on the cross - eg Acts 2:24, Acts 10:38-40, Acts 13:36-37.

I don’t see any reference to a “victory declaration” or a “battle fought and won” in these passages. Jesus died, God raised him up. That’s all. You’re reading something into the text which isn’t there. But in any case, my point is that there is no atonement theology in Acts.

@Andrew Perriman:


Not only is atonement theology missing from Acts (penal substitution in particular); having read through Peter’s and Paul’s sermons what is also missing is a high Christology related to Christs divinity.  The emphasis appears to be on the resurrection, the Lordship of Christ, and his placement at the right hand of the Father.  Acts 2:31-36

The implication is that Paul was proclaiming Jesus as Lord over Caesar -Acts 17:7.  

An emphasis of the resurrection is primary — Acts 24:21, 26:6-8, 26:23; and the Kingdom of God — Acts 28:31

What is fascinating is the complete absence of atonement theology.

Kent Haley | Thu, 05/01/2014 - 00:10 | Permalink

I still don’t see why the kingdom cannot be “already, but not yet.” Why can’t the beginnings of the kingdom be present in the person of Jesus, and still be manifested in the fall of pagan Rome and the conversion of the nations three centuries later?

Even in the OT, there is a notion of God’s kingdom already present on earth. Genesis begins with God giving man the charge to “take dominion.” The Psalms contain plently of language referencing a present kingdom of God such as: “The Lord reigns…”, (Ps 93 & 97) and “The Lord has established his throne in the heavens, and his kingdom rules over all (Ps 103). So in some since the Jews thought of God’s kingdom as already present, though of course they were looking for a fuller manifestation as indicated in passages such as Daniel 7.

In Mark, Jesus begins by saying “the time is fulfilled  and the kingdom of God is at hand.”  The gospels record Jesus as proclaiming the “gospel of the kingdom.” How is the gospel of the kingdom good news for first century Jew if no aspect of the kingdom arrives until the fourth century?


@Kent Haley:

The point I was making was that the the kingdom was already-and-not-yet insofar as Jesus was given an authority basically at the ascension to judge and rule the nations. Jesus had that authority from that point on, but the judgment of pagan Rome didn’t happen for another 300 years or so. I think that the argument about the presence of the kingdom in the person of Jesus is overstated. It seems to me that he does things that anticipate the authority that he will be given after the resurrection.

I agree that there is the idea that God is sovereign over all the earth. But the kingdom argument in the New Testament is not about the whole earth. It is about Israel and its enemies, or faithful Israel and its enemies. It’s political rather than global or cosmic or creational.

For Jesus the coming of the kingdom would mean judgment on the wicked in Israel and the transfer of the vineyard to other tenants. That is all bound up with the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. Jesus has very little to say about the implications of this event for the nations.

But for the Jewish-Christian movement in the pagan world, judgment of the nations was a much more important prospect. A consequence of God’s judgment of Israel (his putting things right in his own people) would be the judgment of the nations (his putting things right in the empire).