Understanding the kingdom of God (see PDF diagram) is fundamental to our understanding and enjoyment of the gospel. Salvation—the new birth—is an entrance into the kingdom (John 3:3) which we are commanded to “seek first” and before the things of this world (Matthew 6:33). However simple these truths may be in relation to salvation, the broader teaching of the kingdom theme gets a little more complicated the deeper you dig. We are taught to pray that God’s kingdom would “come” (Luke 11:2), and we are waiting for it (Revelation 11:15), and yet we are told that the kingdom is within us (Luke 17:21). Furthermore, we believe that the King is on His throne, and yet we can see that all things are not yet under His feet (Hebrews 2:8).
On the surface many of these kingdom aspects seem self-contradictory and rather confusing. How can we pray that the kingdom would “come” if it was “at hand” two thousand years ago when Jesus was on earth? If we are already in the kingdom (i.e., been born again) and the kingdom is in us, how can we still be waiting for it?
The confusion arises when we think of the kingdom in terms of location and try to give it geographical, tangible, or temporal dimensions. Some think of the kingdom only in terms of heaven and eternity. Some think of intriguing eschatological events such as the rapture, the return of Jesus, the millennium, the anti-Christ, Israel, etc., etc. Others think of the kingdom as synonymous with the visible church and tend towards a social and ethical emphasis. Over-emphasizing any one of these aspects only results in a caricature of the kingdom, distorts the biblical doctrine of the kingdom, and adds confusion to an already complicated study.
It is true that the goal of the kingdom is eschatological—the consummation of all things when He will have put down all principalities and powers and when every knee will have bowed to Him. However, the focus of the kingdom in the Scripture is soteriological and always has immediate application and implication to life in the present. This is true of both the Old Testament prophecies and also of the New Testament (e.g., notice the application to the present in 1 John 3:1–3). Our study of the kingdom should be a means of grace.
So what is the kingdom of God and how should we understand it, appreciate it, and live in the light of it?
First, the kingdom of God in its most fundamental sense, is the rule of a sovereign God over all of His creation. This sovereign rule of God is absolute and universal; it includes God’s sovereignty over those who rebel against Him. God made the world, He sustains it, and He determines the destiny of any who rebel against His rule.
Lucifer, the leader of the great rebellion in heaven has established his own kingdom (Matthew 12:25ff). His other titles are Satan, the adversary, the devil, that old serpent. Satan has declared war with the kingdom of God (1 Peter 5:8) and he wields significant influence and authority in the earth (Acts 26:18) with devastating consequences (e.g., 1 Peter 5:8).
But the Lord is sovereign over all of this. He who sits in the heavens will laugh and have all rebels in derision (Psalm 2:4). While Satan enjoys his little day of limited power, he is now aware that his time is short (Revelation 12:12) and in the end the Lord will cast him and his rebel hordes into the “lake of fire” (Revelation 20:10–15). Jude tells us that “the angels which kept not their first estate, but left their own habitation, he hath reserved in everlasting chains under darkness unto the judgment of the great day” (Jude 6). God will show himself sovereign over His creation in righteous judgment.
Second, the kingdom of God is the reign of God’s sovereign grace in Christ. Although Satan had already rebelled and was cast out of heaven and condemned to everlasting chains, everything changed when humanity fell and sin entered the material world. It is in the context of humanity that the kingdom theme is developed in Scripture.
When God made Adam He told him that sin would bring death (Genesis 2:17; Romans 6:23), the same destiny as the angels. In warning Adam against disobedience, God made no promise of salvation in the event of a fall. Adam was not deceived, nor was he presumptuously hoping on some safety net or deliverance in the event of death. Adam walked into sin with no hope; it was a bold act of willful and outright rebellion and in utter hopelessness (1 Timothy 2:14). Judgment was all that Adam was aware of and all that he was promised.
When Adam rebelled, however, God acted differently towards humanity than He has acted towards the angels that sinned. To humanity God graciously made a promise of salvation (Genesis 3:15). This salvation would be fulfilled in time through humanity and would result in reconciliation with God for a particular number and a complete restoration of all things. Paradise would be restored (Revelation 21:1) and indeed, so extensive is the grace of God, that the redeemed would receive more blessings than Adam lost in the fall.
The promise to humanity, and indeed to the material world (Romans 8:22–23; Revelation 21:1), is fulfilled in Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Christ will come and establish His kingdom, which will not only rule in sovereign judgment against sin but also in sovereign grace towards sinners. These two themes—judgment and grace—run parallel throughout the entire Scriptures. The kingdom, mediated through Christ, is gracious in nature and redemptive in purpose. Christ will destroy Satan and his rebel hordes, reverse the curse of sin, and redeem a people to Himself out of fallen humanity.
Jesus Christ is the central figure of the kingdom as the mediator between fallen humanity and a Holy God, and the kingdom takes on different names. Most often referred to as the kingdom of God or of heaven (synonymous terms), it is also called kingdom of Christ (Ephesians 5:5; 2 Peter 1:11). It is this kingdom that preoccupies the entire Scriptures. Indeed, as special revelation, the Scriptures have been given specially to reveal this kingdom to us. The story of the kingdom, in terms of the message of the Bible, is more about how God deals with Satan, how He redeems and restores His fallen creation.
To establish the kingdom, the Son will enter into creation (John 1:14) and into death, taking on the enemy on his own turf and destroying him with his own weapon (Genesis 3:15; Hebrews 2:14). As the mediator between God and man, and the champion of righteousness over Satan’s rebellion Jesus Christ will put down all principalities and powers (Psalm 98:1; Colossians 2:15), save a people for Himself as the spoils of war, lead them to victory (Ephesians 1:22; 4:8), and reconcile them to the Father. The kingdom given to the Son to rule, then, is not simply a matter of sovereignty over creation, but of gracious sovereignty over a fallen creation—a rule not only of judgment against sin, but of redemption from sin.