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Kingdom Kingdom of God

Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

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1 References in Synoptic Gospels.-The conception of the Kingdom which occupies so large a place in the first three Gospels finds a relatively small place in the remaining books of the NT. In our earliest, Gospel* [Note: It does not fall within the scope of this art. to consider at length the idea of the Kingdom in Christ’s teaching.] -that of St. Mark-the Kingdom of God is the main topic of Christ’s preaching. He began His ministry by announcing the good news that the Kingdom of God was at hand (Mark 1:15). To His disciples was entrusted the ‘secret plan’ about the Kingdom (Mark 4:11). The Parable of the Seed Growing Secretly explained that it would come like harvest after a period of growth, i.e. it would present itself in due time when the period of heralding its advent was over (Mark 4:26-29). Its coming would not be long delayed, for some who heard Christ speak would see it come with power (Mark 9:1). The possession of wealth was an impediment to entry into it; i.e. wealth hindered men from enrolling themselves as disciples of Christ, the coming King (Mark 10:23-24). Elsewhere we read not of the coming of the Kingdom, but of the Coming of the Son of Man (so in Mark 13:26, Mark 14:62). The meaning attached to ‘gospel’ in this book as the good news of the coming Kingdom preached by Christ is primitive, and earlier than the Pauline use of ‘gospel’ for the good news about Christ.

In the First Gospel the term is changed. We read now of the ‘kingdom of the heavens’ rather than of the Kingdom of God. But the main line of idea is the same (see W. C Allen, St. Matthew [International Critical Commentary , 1907], pp. lxvii-lxxi). The emphasis which is placed in this Gospel upon this near coming of the Son of Man to inaugurate the Kingdom (cf. Matthew 16:28; Matthew 24:3; Matthew 24:34, etc.) is due largely to the Matthaean collection of discourses used by the editor.

St. Luke returns to the phrase ‘the Kingdom of God,’ and though in general outline the idea of the Kingdom is the name as in the two prior Gospels, there are one or two suggestions that St. Luke was beginning to realize that a considerable period of history might precede the coming of the Son of Man to inaugurate the Kingdom. Jerusalem is to be trodden down by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled (Luke 21:24). And there is a hint of the idea which was soon to overshadow the anticipation of the near approach of the Son of Man, that in a very real sense the Kingdom was already present (Luke 17:21, ‘within’ or ‘among you’).

2. References in other NT books.-References to the Kingdom occur in St. Mark some 16 times, in St. Matthew some 52 times, and in St. Luke about 43 times. By contrast with this the comparative paucity of references to the Kingdom in the remaining books is very striking. In the Fourth Gospel it occurs only 5 times, and in all these passages the conception is that of a spiritual Kingdom which might be conceived of as now present. In Acts it occurs 8 times, 6 of them being references to speaking or preaching about the Kingdom. In the whole of St. Paul’s Epistles it occurs only 13 times, in the Catholic Epistles only twice (James 2:5, 2 Peter 1:11), in Hebrews only twice (Hebrews 1:8; Hebrews 12:28), in the Apocalypse 5 times (Revelation 1:6; Revelation 1:9; Revelation 5:10; Revelation 11:15; Revelation 12:10).

3. References to Christ as King.-Outside the Gospels there is also a very infrequent reference to Christ as King except in so far as this was involved in the title ‘Christ’ or ‘anointed.’ In the Gospels such references occur almost entirely in connexion with the events of the last few days of the Lord’s life (entry into Jerusalem, trial before Pilate). The exceptions are Matthew Mat_2:2 (where the Magi inquire after the one who has been born King of the Jews), Matthew 25:34 (where the term ‘king’ is placed in the mouth of Jesus as descriptive of the Son of Man sitting upon the throne of glory), John 1:49 (where Nathanael addresses Him as ‘King of Israel’), and John 6:15 (where it is said that the multitudes wished to make Him a king). Nowhere in St. Paul, in the Catholic Epistles, or in Hebrews is the term applied to Christ, But in Acts 17:7 the accusation is made against Christians that they acted contrary to the decrees of Caesar, saying that there was another king, one Jesus. Lastly, in the Apocalypse the exalted Lamb, and the Rider on the white horse, titled ‘the Word of God,’ are called ‘King of kings and Lord of lords’ (Acts 17:14, Acts 19:18; see preceding article).

4. Reasons for paucity of references in apostolic literature.-If we now ask why the idea of kingship as applied to Christ finds so little space in the literature of the Epistles, the answer must be manifold. (1) The conception of kingship found partial expression in the terms ‘Christ’ and ‘Lord.’ (2) The avoidance of the term ‘king’ was an obvious precautionary measure. Acts 17:7 is significant in this respect. The early Christian teachers had enough difficulties to contend with without inviting the accusation that they were guilty of treason against the State. Apart from Matthew, which was probably intended originally for circulation amongst Jewish Christians, the only writing of the NT which in so many words assigns the title ‘King’ to Jesus is the Apocalypse, a book written at a time when State persecution had driven the writer to an attitude of definite hostility to the Roman Empire, and had induced him to throw over the cautious attitude of a previous generation towards the State. (3) It was soon felt that the teaching of Christ was many-sided and capable of more than one interpretation. Roughly, there were two ways of thinking about the Kingdom. It might be thought of eschatologically as a Kingdom to be founded when Christ returned. This is perhaps the view which prevails in the NT. It is difficult to prove this, because the passages which speak of the Kingdom ate not brought into immediate connexion with those which speak of the Second Coming of Christ. And it is therefore often open to question whether the Kingdom referred to is a Kingdom to be established when He comes, or a Kingdom of which the Christian disciple feels himself even now to be an actual member by virtue of his relationship to God through Christ. But the eschatological sense is probable in 1 Thessalonians 2:12, where St. Paul prays that his converts may walk worthily of God, who calls them ‘to his kingdom and glory,’ and in 2 Thessalonians 1:5, ‘that you may be accounted worthy of the kingdom of God, on behalf of which you suffer.’ The same may be said of 2 Timothy 4:1, ‘his appearance and his kingdom,’ and 2 Timothy 4:18, ‘shall save me into his eternal kingdom.’ This eschatological sense appears also in 2 Peter 1:11, ‘an entry shall be granted unto us into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Saviour,’ and less certainly in Hebrews 12:28, ‘receiving a kingdom which cannot be shaken.’ But the word ‘kingdom’ here may perhaps rather mean that Christians even now become members of a spiritual kingdom which will remain unshaken even during the final catastrophe which will cause the dissolution of the material universe. The passages which speak of Christians as inheriting a kingdom may refer to the Kingdom in the eschatological sense, or, less probably, to the Kingdom conceived as present (cf. 1 Corinthians 6:9-10; 1 Corinthians 15:50, Galatians 5:21, Ephesians 5:5, James 2:5).

But the phrase ‘Kingdom of God’ might also be interpreted of the present life which Christians now live, in so far as this is governed by obedience to Him. The writers of the NT seem sometimes to regard Christians as already members of the coming Kingdom, living according to its laws, and enjoying even now in some measure its privileges. So St. Paul in Romans 14:17, ‘the kingdom of God is not meat and drink, but righteousness, and joy, and peace in the Holy Spirit,’ and in 1 Corinthians 4:20, ‘the kingdom of God is not in word but in power,’ So too Colossians 1:13, ‘hath translated us into the kingdom of the Son of his love.’ On the whole, this sense seems to be not primary but derivative and consequential. Just as the writer of the Hebrews thinks of the true rest as still in the future, belonging to the world to come (Colossians 4:9-10), and at the same time feels that Christians in some sense anticipate and enter into that rest even now (Colossians 4:3), so the NT writers think of the Kingdom of God as waiting to be manifested when Christ comes again, and yet feel that in some sense the Christian is even now a member of it, and that, as the number of Christian disciples increases, the Kingdom widens here upon earth. But in the NT this belief is always conditioned by the certainty that the Second Coming of Christ is necessary to the full manifestation of the Kingdom.

This double-sidedness of the conceptions ‘kingdom’ and ‘king’ may in some measure explain why the apostolic writers avoid them.* [Note: Sanday finds in St. Paul’s conception of ‘righteousness’ his equivalent for the Gospel term ‘kingdom’ (JThSt i. 481ff.).] And it is significant that another term which was closely connected with the doctrine of the Second Advent is also left unused outside the Gospels. The term ‘Son of Man’ is employed in the first three Gospels chiefly in connexion with the ideas circling round the thought of the Death, Resurrection, and Second Coming of Christ. Similarly in the Fourth Gospel it is used chiefly in passages which speak of the lifting up or glorification of the Son of Man. Outside the Gospels it occurs only once-in the mouth of Stephen; here too of the glorified state of the Messiah (Acts 7:56). The remaining NT writers never use it. And yet the thought of the Coming runs like a silver thread of hope through all their writings. They seem to have felt that on the one hand the phrase ‘Son of Man’ was too technically Jewish for Gentile readers, and on the other that the terms ‘King’ and ‘Kingdom’ were open to grave misconception. The King for whose appearance they looked was no earthly monarch, and His Kingdom was no rival to earthly kingdoms, nor even in so far as it was now partially present did it prevent men from loyal obedience to the existing government. Hence they choose other terms in which to clothe the Gospel hope of Christ’s return, and the state of felicity which would ensue. St. Paul uses such terms as the following: ‘to wait for his Son from heaven’ (1 Thessalonians 1:10), ‘the parousia’ of the Lord Jesus (1 Thessalonians 2:19; 1 Thessalonians 3:13; 1 Thessalonians 4:15; 1 Thessalonians 5:23), the Lord descending from heaven (1 Thessalonians 4:16), ‘the day of the Lord’ (1 Thessalonians 5:2, 2 Thessalonians 2:2, 1 Corinthians 1:8; 1 Corinthians 5:5, 2 Corinthians 1:14, Philippians 1:6), ‘the apocalypse of the Lord Jesus from heaven’ (2 Thessalonians 1:7), ‘waiting for the apocalypse’ (1 Corinthians 1:7), ‘until the Lord come’ (1 Corinthians 4:5), ‘until he come’ (1 Corinthians 11:26), ‘the day when Cod shall judge … through Jesus Christ’ (Romans 2:16), ‘from whence we await the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ’ (Philippians 3:20), ‘the Lord is near’ (Philippians 4:5), ‘the manifestation of Christ’ (Colossians 3:4), ‘the epiphany of our Lord Jesus Christ’ (1 Timothy 6:14), ‘the epiphany of our Saviour Jesus Christ’ (Titus 2:13).

In the Catholic Epistles we have: ‘the Parousia of the Lord is at hand’ (James 5:8), ‘the apocalypse of Jesus Christ’ (1 Peter 1:13), ‘when the chief Shepherd is manifested’ (1 Peter 5:4), ‘the day of the Lord’ (2 Peter 3:10), the manifestation of Christ (1 John 3:2); in Hebrews: ‘he that cometh will come, and will not tarry’ (Hebrews 10:37); and in the Apocalypse, the many references to the Coming of Christ, beginning with Revelation 1:7.* [Note: On the unique feature of the Apocalypse-the thousand years’ reign of Christ upon earth-see A. Robertson, Regnum Dei, p. 113.]

By thus expressing the Christian hope in terms of expectation of the Return of Christ, and by substituting for ‘King’ and ‘Son of Man’ such terms as ‘Lord,’ ‘Saviour,’ ‘Chief Shepherd,’ the apostolic writers were able to avoid suspicion of political propaganda, and to give to the thought of the Second Coming a far wider significance than any which they could have suggested by laying too much emphasis upon the future as the establishment of a Kingdom, however much they might have attempted to give to this term a spiritual and non-material connotation. For, after all, Christ is and will be more than king, and ‘kingdom’ does not go very far in expressing the conditions of the life with Him for which Christians long.

5. Apostolic conception of the Kingdom.-If we now ask what ideas the writers of the Apostolic Age attached to the term ‘Kingdom of God’ or ‘of Christ,’ the answer must be that for them as in the teaching of Christ in the Gospels it is a term to symbolize the inexpressible-that is to say, the future blessedness of the redeemed.† [Note: ‘It connotes, with infinite richness of meaning, all that is implied in the word “Salvation” ’ (Robertson, op. cit. p. 50).] The Anointed King had risen from the dead, and was seated at the right hand of God. His reign had therefore begun. Why then did they not conceive of His Kingdom as a heavenly one into which His followers were admitted at death? Mainly, no doubt, because of the teaching, ascribed to Christ Himself, that He would return to gather together His elect. Partly, too, because of the common apocalyptic teaching that before the inauguration of the Messianic Kingdom there must be the final act in the present world-order, the general resurrection, final judgment, and transformation of this world to fit it to be the arena of the heavenly Kingdom. Thus the Kingdom was in being, but it awaited its manifestation. The King was crowned, His subjects could serve Him. But however close the union between Him and them, there was a sense in which they were now absent from the Lord, and awaited His coming. The Kingdom would be fully manifested only when He came. Meanwhile the Kingdom could be spoken of as a present reality rather because the Christian could be transported by faith into the presence of the King than because be brought (by his Christian life) the Kingdom down into this present world.

There is hardly any trace in the Epistles of the mediaeval idea that the Church on earth was the Kingdom of God. And the idea of some modern theological writers, that this world as we know it will develop under Christian influence until it becomes the Kingdom, is quite alien to their thought. Indeed, the apostolic writers seemed to regard this world as incapable of becoming the arena of God’s Kingdom. They felt that human nature as now constituted could reach a very imperfect measure of Christian perfection. Limited as we are, even Christian knowledge must be imperfect; ‘now we see through a mirror, in a riddle,’ cries St. Paul (1 Corinthians 13:12).

There was also the problem of physical death. So long as that remained, Christ’s sovereignty could not be fully manifested. The ultimate perfection which is the goal of the individual Christian could only be dimly guessed at. ‘It doth not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that if he shall be manifested, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is’ (1 John 3:2). And in a wonderful passage St. Paul seems to express the belief that physical nature as now known to us must undergo some transformation at Christ’s return before it can be the scene of His Kingdom; ‘we know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth together in pain even until now.’ ‘For the earnest expectation of the creature waiteth for the manifestation of the sons of God’ (Romans 8:19; Romans 8:22).

Consequently, their anticipation for this world was far from being a hope of gradual amelioration. The period immediately preceding the coming of the Kingdom would be one of evil and not of good. Cf. 1 Thessalonians 1:10, ‘the wrath to come,’ 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12, ‘in the last day evil times shall come,’ 2 Timothy 3:1, and the Apocalypse, passim. The writer of 2 Peter stands alone in anticipating a destruction of the present world by fire (2 Peter 3:7). If any one of these writers had been asked whether the Kingdom was now present, he would have answered, No. Christ was King, but His Kingdom would be manifested only when He came. If he had been further asked what that Kingdom would be, or in what relation it would stand to this present world, he would probably have answered that nearly all that constitutes this present world would have vanished-imperfection, sin, death; and that as to the nature of the new world he could say but little save that Christ would be there, and that His servants would serve Him, and that that was enough for anyone to know.

When modern writers ransack the records of Christ’s teaching or the other apostolic writings for traces of the conception that the Kingdom of God is now present in human life, it is, of course, possible to find them. For, wherever a human soul is in communion with the absent King, there in some measure is the sovereignty of God exhibited and the reign of Christ realized. But in the NT the admission that the Kingdom is now in some sense present, whether in the subjection of the Christian soul to the Law of Christ, or in the Church of which He is the Head, or in the life of God streaming down into the world through the Spirit of Christ in the forms of righteousness and peace, is always made on the understanding that these foreshadowings of the Kingdom of God imply a far more perfect realization of the Kingdom in the future, and that when Christ comes again the Kingdom will come in such sense that by comparison it will seem never to have come before. The relation between the Kingdom now and the Kingdom of the future is perhaps much the same as that between the presence of Christ now and His presence when He returns. None has ever so fully been conscious of the life of Christ in him as was St. Paul: ‘I live, yet not I, but Christ liveth in me.’ Yet none has ever looked forward more earnestly, with greater expectation of living hope, to the day of Christ’s return. He could even speak of this present life as a condition of absence from the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:6). By contrast with such knowledge as we have of Christ now, vision of Him when He come again would be ‘face to face’ (1 Corinthians 13:12).

Literature.-A. Robertson, Regnum Dei, London, 1901; A. B. Bruce, The Kingdom of God4, Edinburgh, 1891; J. S. Candlish, The Kingdom of God, do. 1884; J. Orr, article ‘Kingdom’ in Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible (5 vols) ii.; W. Sanday, ‘St. Paul’s Equivalent for the “Kingdom of Heaven” ’ in Journal of Theological Studies i. [1900] 481.

Willoughby C. Allen.

Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Kingdom Kingdom of God'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​hdn/​k/kingdom-kingdom-of-god.html. 1906-1918.
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