The Kingdom of God in the Gospels

by Rick Shrader

Few subjects have been of greater interest to me in my ministry as a pastor and teacher than that of the Kingdom of God.  Coming out of high school and going to Bible College I knew nothing of its doctrinal significance.  I must confess that I knew little more than that coming out of Bible College.  The gospels especially were confusing to me and my “Life of Christ” class consisted only of lists of miracles, parables, and people.  Seminary did not have a class on the Life of Christ as such, but it had something that opened my eyes and broadened my understanding of the Bible, and that was a class on the kingdom.1 In addition, understanding the kingdom in a traditional premillennial, dispensational setting even further broadened my perspective.

Still, putting Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John together in a consistent way that made sense without destroying each book’s individual purpose was challenging.  Even more so was the definition of the kingdom in the gospel record.  But God forced the issue.  I began teaching in a West coast Bible College in 1978 and the first class I was given to teach was The Life of Christ.  The two required texts were A.T. Robertson’s Harmony of the Gospels (a valuable tool in any day) and Philip Vollmer’s The Modern Student’s Life of Christ which was anything but modern, being published in 1912.  Robertson lists 184 events in the life of Christ, so we took out a piece of paper and put #1 at the top and started there.  In a year’s time we went through 184 events, studying the time, place, and context. I did that for the next ten years and learned far more than any of my students.  In 1981 J. Dwight Pentecost published his Words and Works of Jesus Christ which became the text for my class.  Interestingly he goes through the events of Christ’s life paralleling Robertson’s harmony but with his own titles.  To me it is still the best book on the subject.  (It was my privilege again to teach a module version of the class in Kiev, Ukraine to pastors and teachers this past April).

It is because I love the subject of the kingdom of God that today’s lax use of the term catches my attention.  An insufficient understanding of the kingdom, especially in the gospels, can lead to all kinds of theological and practical errors. McClain begins his book with eight interpretations of the kingdom.2 None is more liberal than the Social-Kingdom idea.  He says,

In the long history of special interpretations of the Kingdom of God, there has been none more one-sided or guilty of greater excesses than this Social-Kingdom conception.  With fanatical zeal some of its champions have been ready to scrap almost anything in the realm of Christian faith and morals if only the process of ‘social reconstruction’ could be somehow advanced.3

McClain cites liberal thinkers such as Walter Rauschenbush, Shailer Matthews, and E. Stanley Jones as examples of liberals who were able to advance their causes (especially of a social gospel) when the definition of the kingdom was bent to suit their purposes.  It continues today.  If we used the word “church” as loosely as we use the word “kingdom,” heretical fires would begin to burn.  That is why I was interested when, browsing the marked-down section of a book store, I saw a title by W.B. Riley (a champion of fundamentalism from the generation prior to ours), The Only Hope of Church or World. Upon opening the book I had turned to chapter II which is titled “The Church and the Kingdom A Distinction.”  The chapter begins this way,

There are certain words that distinguish the liberal theologian as perfectly as ever the ranchman’s brand indicated his ownership.  Among them no word is more suggestive of loose thinking and liberal theology than the word ‘kingdom.’  They not only employ it as a synonym for the church, but as an all-inclusive term that covers every spiritual, moral, ecclesiastical, social, and now even party and political interest.4

This is not a fault just of liberals.  All of us are guilty at times of using biblical terms to suit our own purposes.  However, it seems the broad use of “kingdom” is as loose as ever.  In preaching through the Beatitudes (part of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew chapters 5-7), I constantly read of the struggle on how to understand Jesus’ use of the term.  If it can be taken to mean something in the present age (whether in addition to, or in place of, the coming age) one can find almost any social, political, or moral issue one wants.  James Boice, for example (perhaps bouncing between his predecessor’s premillennialism and his church’s amillennialism) takes the “kingdom” of the Beatitudes as somehow present and says of the second beatitude (“Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted”), “To each of us, therefore, the second beatitude is a call to involvement in the social arena.”5 Why?  Because if the kingdom is now, so must be the results of the kingdom.  It is more difficult, of course, for him to apply the pure in heart seeing God now, or the meek inheriting the earth now.

It is much more consistent and satisfying to read John Walvoord when he writes, “As in every text of Scripture, the truth presented must be first of all seen in its context.  In the gospels, Jesus was presenting Himself as the prophesied King, and the Kingdom He was offering is the prophesied kingdom.”6 Stanley Toussaint also correctly writes, “The basis of each blessing in every case is a reference to some phase of the Jewish kingdom prophesied in the Old Testament.”7 Yet many who are premillennial struggle with the concept of the kingdom NOT being present today.  Maybe they just can’t understand how God can really be in control of all things if the kingdom isn’t existing now.  Or maybe they can’t stand the thought that the Church isn’t the final phase of God’s program.  After all, aren’t we the culmination of all of God’s plans?  And, of course, it is much more pleasing to people and easier to preach a social/political gospel than a spiritual gospel because, basically, it takes no faith to believe, no hope in what is not seen.

We need the kingdom of God today to be right where it has always been—coming in the future at the return of Jesus Christ.  Any lessening of the kingdom into some allegorized version is a disappointment in the great prophecies of that golden age.  We ought to pray, “Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10).  We need to hear, “Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you” (Matt. 6:33).  We should believe that when Jesus the Messiah is accepted there will be “on earth peace, good will toward men” (Lk. 2:14).  Every believer ought to look forward to the time when “an entrance shall be ministered unto you abundantly into the everlasting kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Pet. 1:11).

The following are some of the concepts of the kingdom found in the gospels with which I struggled for years.  I am not saying there are not other ways in which good men take these statements, but I think these help find the consistency for which we look.  I do not have space to give and answer all of the opposing views.  Admittedly my view is a premillennial and dispensational view.  But I think these are great helps and not hindrances, and have been the main stay of prophetic preaching before and throughout my lifetime.

The kingdom predicted in the gospels was a continuation of the Old Testament theocratic kingdom.

This is the only way the Jews would have understood the concept of the kingdom.  In the Abrahamic covenant (Gen. 12:1-3) God made a 3-fold promise of land, seed, and blessing.  The promise of land will be fulfilled by the Palestinian covenant (Deut. 30:1-10); the promise of a seed will be fulfilled by the Davidic covenant (2 Sam. 7:12-16); and the promise of a blessing will be fulfilled in the New covenant (Jer. 31:31-34).  None of these have been fulfilled completely to this day and it will take the second coming of Christ to complete these three promises.  Zacharias, the father of John the Baptist, realized that the birth of John and Jesus would be “to perform the mercy promised to our fathers, and to remember his holy covenant; the oath which he sware to our father Abraham” (Lk. 1:72-73).

The kingdom offer to the Jews was a bona fide offer.

The Jews were to pray for the kingdom to come (Mt. 6:10) and to see that their righteousness (inward) exceeded the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees (outward) or “ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 5:20).  When the Jews attributed the power of Christ to Satan, He responded by saying, “But if I cast out devils by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God is come unto you” (Mt. 12:28).  George N.H. Peters concluded, “It follows, then, that the Jews had the privilege accorded to them of accepting the Kingdom, and if the condition annexed to it had been complied with, then the Kingdom of David would have been most gloriously re-established under the Messiah.”8 The fact that the offer was rejected in no wise annuls the offer any more than the Jews rejecting the land at Kadesh-Barnea annulled the offer of the land, or that rejecting Christ as Savior annuls the offer of salvation.

The kingdom predicted in the gospels is always to be taken as the future millennial kingdom.9

This is the only conclusion that can be drawn if the kingdom in the gospels is the same as the Old Testament theocratic kingdom.  McClain says, “The gospel records always connect the Kingdom proclaimed by our Lord with the kingdom of the Old Testament.”10 Pentecost says, “The kingdom announced and offered by the Lord Jesus was the same theocratic kingdom foretold through the Old Testament prophets.”11 The only kingdom the prophets foretold was the future millennial kingdom which will be on this earth at the return of Jesus Christ.  Jesus never had to give further explanation as to what He meant when He used the term “kingdom.”  The disciples’ question at His post-resurrection appearance shows this clearly, “Lord, wilt thou at this time restore again the kingdom to Israel” (Ac 1:6).  There is no rebuke, correction, or redefinition of the term.  If the future kingdom is not here intended, either Jesus did a poor job of teaching for three years or the disciples were incredibly poor students.

A further comment is in order here.  We have been so influenced by non-millennial views in our Christian literature, hymns, and common talk, that we hardly pay attention to how we denigrate the kingdom of God.  From Catholic to Protestant to Reformed, all speak freely as if the kingdom Jesus spoke of were existing now.  If the reader of the gospels would simply place a future definition on the word “kingdom” each time he reads, he would be amazed at what clarity it would bring to the meaning of the text.

The millennial kingdom of God was near at hand in the life of Christ.

Expressions of this abound in the gospels:  “The kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Mt. 4:17); “The kingdom of God is come nigh unto you” (LK. 10:9); The kingdom of God is come upon you” (LK. 11:20); “The kingdom of God is within you” (Lk. 17:21); “The kingdom of God is nigh at hand” (Lk. 21:31).  This must refer to something that isn’t existing now but may exist if the conditions are met.  Pentecost says, “By the term ‘at hand’ the announcement is being made that the kingdom is to be expected imminently.  It is not a guarantee that the kingdom will be instituted immediately, but rather that all impending events have been removed so that it is now imminent.”12 Toussaint says, “It was the Jewish eschatological kingdom which had drawn near.  The verb here is eggizw which means to draw near and not to be here.”13 He then uses the example of when Jesus “drew nigh unto Jerusalem” (Mt. 21:1) showing that He was near but not there yet.

The kingdom of God is “within you.”

“The kingdom of God cometh not with observation. Neither shall they say, Lo here! Or, lo there! For, behold, the kingdom of God is within you” (Lk. 17:20-21).  Perhaps no verse has been so used (and abused) to argue for a spiritual, invisible kingdom existing now in our hearts than this verse.  It is a classic case of one difficult verse being used to explain the many clear verses, rather than the many clear verses explaining the one that is difficult.

“Observation” is from the word paratere? which means that the kingdom is not coming with predictability.  “Within” is from the word entos, an adverb which can be translated a number of ways including within, among, in the midst.  It should also be noted that Jesus was talking to unbelieving Pharisees and not to believers.

George N.H. Peters took this to mean that the kingdom would have to come from within the nation of Israel if it were to come at all.14 Both Pentecost and McClain, however, have taken this to mean that the King Himself was among them.

Pentecost says, “The Lord is not asserting that His kingdom was to be a spiritual kingdom in the hearts of men.  Such is contrary to the entire tenor of the Word of God.  He is asserting that the kingdom to which they were looking was already ‘at hand’ in the person of the king.”15 McClain says,

“Surely in no sense could the Kingdom of God have been ‘within’ the hearts of the Pharisees to whom our Lord was speaking, and who had charged blasphemously that His miracles were being accomplished through the power of the devil (Matt. 12:24).  But in the person of its divinely appointed King, visibly present in incarnate form on earth where He must eventually reign, the Kingdom was in that sense already ‘in the midst of’ men regardless of their attitude, whether for or against Him.”16

And So . . .

I know I have been preaching to the choir.  These are familiar lessons to most of us and contrary lessons to many.  Yet a clear understanding of the kingdom of God is as crucial today as it has ever been.  Toward the end of W.B. Riley’s book he wrote,

The time has come when thinking churchmen recognize the fact that the Second Coming of Christ is creating and completing a definite fellowship.  The men who entertain ‘the Blessed Hope’ are bound together in a peculiar brotherhood; a brotherhood of increasing sweetness and deepening strength.  No single denomination, of the many that go to make up modern Protestantism, is as definite in its fellowship and as distinct in its doctrinal teaching as is the brotherhood of pre-millennialism.17

This is one of the reasons why the Blessed Hope is so blessed.  “For theirs is the kingdom of God.”

1. My M.Div was done at Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Minneapolis.  In those days Dr. Rolland McCune taught the course on the kingdom using Alva J. McClain’s book, The Greatness of the Kingdom. Dr. McCune also taught Dispensationalism.
2. Alva J. McClain, The Greatness of the Kingdom (Winona Lake: BMH Books, 1974).  First published by Moody Press in 1968.
3. McClain, 11.
4. W.B. Riley, The Only Hope of Church or World (London:  Pickering & Inglis, nd.) 33.
5. James Montgomery Boice, The Sermon on the Mount (Grand Rapids:  Zondervan, 1972) 31.
6. John Walvoord, Matthew—Thy Kingdom Come (Chicago:  Moody Press, 1974) 45.
7. Stanley D. Toussaint, Behold The King ( Portland:  Multnomah Press, 1981) 96.
8. George N.H. Peters, The Theocratic Kingdom, vol. I (Grand Rapids:  Kregel, 1978) 377-378.
9.   Mention should be made in this article that I recognize the existence of a universal usage of the word kingdom in a few OT passages (e.g. Psa. 103:19).   McClain devoted a whole section to it (Chapt. IV) and referenced other premillennialists who do the same. Yet, no one was more insistent on a future definition of the kingdom in the gospels than McClain.
10. McClain, 281.
11. J. Dwight Pentecost, Things To Come (Grand Rapids:  Zondervan, 1969) 447.
12. Pentecost, Things To Come, 449-450.
13. Toussaint, 63.
14. Peters, 390.
15. Pentecost, 452.
16. McClain, 272.
17. Riley, 118.