The Challenge of the Kingdom (Part 4)

When we study Jesus’ understanding of “kingdom” in the Gospels there are two competing themes. In some texts, Jesus seems to say that the Kingdom of God is present in his ministry. For example, Mark describes Jesus preaching that the Kingdom of God is “near” at the very beginning of his ministry (Mark 1:15, Luke 8:1). In Jesus says that if demons are cast out by the hand of God, then the kingdom of God has come (Luke 11:20). Jesus also says that the reason he teaches in parables was to reveal the secrets of the Kingdom to his disciples (Luke 8:10).

Yet in other texts he seems to say that the Kingdom is has not yet come and that his disciples ought to be prepared for a wait before the Kingdom finally comes. The parables in Matthew 25, for example, indicate that Jesus will go away for a long time before returning. The Ten Virgins (25:1-12) indicates that the disciple will have to prepare for a long wait before the “wedding banquet” begins, and the Parable of the Talents (25:14-30) tells the disciples that they will have to give an account for how they use the time before the coming of the king. The Parable of the Minas in Luke 19 is told specifically to defuse the crowd’s expectation that Jesus was about to establish a kingdom in Jerusalem at that moment.

How do we account for this apparently conflicting data? One common way is to emphasize either one or the other aspect. C. H. Dodd famously stressed the presence of the kingdom, arguing that the kingdom was “fully realized” in Jesus’ ministry. This means that there is no real future kingdom, the present Church fulfills Jesus’ vision for a kingdom. This means that there is no future restoration of Israel, the promises of the Hebrew prophets are fulfilled in the Church. One potential problem with a fully realized eschatology is that the parables warning of a long delay must be taken as creations of the church to explain the non-return of Jesus.

On the other hand, it is possible to stress only the future aspect of the kingdom. Someone like Schweitzer, for example, thought Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet who expected a messianic kingdom promised by the prophets of the Hebrew Bible. While Schweitzer thought Jesus was wrong, other streams of theology (such as classic dispensationalism) understands Jesus as teaching a future kingdom, literally fulfilling the promises of the Hebrew Bible, including a restoration of the kingdom to the Jewish people. But a wholly future kingdom does not really do justice to Jesus’ claim that the kingdom is present in his ministry.

A third option is to see Jesus’s ministry as a present kingdom, but a kingdom which does not exhaust the prophecies of the Hebrew Bible. This has the advantage of taking Jesus seriously when he says that his miracles are establishing some sort of kingdom, but also the warnings of a lengthy interim between the establishment of the kingdom and the consummation of the kingdom in the (now distant) future.

The catch-phrase “Already / Not Yet” is perhaps so overused that it has lost all rhetorical value, but it remains a fairly good way of understanding the kingdom in the gospels. Some elements of the kingdom expected by the prophets is present in Jesus’ ministry, but others remain unfulfilled until a future time.  This means we live “between the ages,” after the “already” but before the “not yet.” We look back to the death and resurrection of Jesus, but also forward to the future consummation of the ages.

What are some ways this “already/not yet” strategy helps read the message of Jesus?  Or to put it another way, what elements are “present” and what are “future”?

17 thoughts on “The Challenge of the Kingdom (Part 4)

  1. The “already” was the kingdom operating through Jesus; the “not yet” was the kingdom operating through Jesus’ disciples with Him as the King.

    That is, the consummation of the ages occurred between 70 and 100 AD and brought the kingdom of God into permanent residence in the earth. The kingdom of God is the rule of Jesus as God.

    The kingdom, administered entirely by God and apprehended entirely by faith, operates without reference to the church, which is simply the humanly-maintained residue of the vehicle God used between Pentecost and the Second Coming. Today’s church is not the body of Christ, but rather a corpse. And a dismembered one at that. Severely dismembered. (Exactly how many denominations are there?)

    All things have been summed up in Christ, and the kingdom of God is righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit. The Lord knows those who are his and let everyone who names the name of the Lord abstain from wickedness.

    • Hi Mike, that the kingdom was consummated in the latter part of the first century is certainly a possibility, but it seems to me that it has to be consummated “at Pentecost” if it the kingdom is going to be fully present. If I were to argue that point, I would probably point out that the ascension is the enthronement of the king, and that he was reigning from that time onward.

      I am more persuaded by a still-future kingdom, otherwise the kingdom-delay parables in the gospels are not particularly applicable to the church today. If Matthew 25 is talking about “church before the kingdom” and that kingdom is fully present by AD 70, then why include them in the canon?

      Perhaps you did not mean “fully realized kingdom by AD 70” in the comment, since you do mention a future coming of Jesus.

      • Thanks, Phillip.

        I believe all the NT docs were written before the coming of the Lord (simply because practically all look to it as still future and none declare it to have arrived, though they do seem to declare it as increasingly imminent). However, since the coming of the Lord was not until some time after 70 AD, the NT docs do not have to have all been written prior to 70 AD.

  2. The “already/not yet” strategy is a view that helps to bring together the two ideas that are present within the teachings of Jesus during his time on earth that deal directly with the kingdom of God. In Four Portraits, One Jesus, Strauss clearly addresses these two kingdom themes and attempts to bring the two together with the “already/not yet” mentality. In Judaism, two ideas were present based on prophecy in the Old Testament as well as statements from Jesus in the New Testament. First, God was currently universally reigning over all the earth and secondly, in the future God would establish his kingdom on earth. Within Jesus’ ministry, both of these ideas were prevalent in his teachings. Strauss also adds a third interesting element stating, “What was radically unique about Jesus’ teaching was his claim that this end-times kingdom of God was even now arriving through his own words and actions” (439). Thus not only was God reigning universally and preparing for a future kingdom, but Jesus and his ministry was also an arrival and avenue for paving the way to the future kingdom that is prophesied. Previous to our study of the kingdom of God as well as my reading of these chapters, I had always thought of God’s kingdom as a futuristic thing in the last days and associated it with Jesus’ second coming. However as Strauss points out, throughout Jesus’ ministry on earth, he clearly “announces that the kingdom of God is at hand” (439). Whether he meant that the kingdom was near, which he also states in other passages, or meant that it was presently being carried out is unclear. Utilizing the “already/not yet” strategy, Strauss suggests that while God established his reign through the person and ministry of Jesus Christ, he will also bring it to completion when He returns. I believe that this view accurately represents and serves as an explanation for Jesus’ claim that the kingdom was “at hand” as well as his warnings to the disciples and other followers that there will be a prolonged wait for the kingdom. Jesus’ death and resurrection paved the way for salvation, marking the New Covenant that the churches now live in. While we live under God’s universal reign, we still anxiously await his second coming when He will bring everything to completion and establish the full extent of his kingdom reign on earth.

  3. Say Phil, what do ya think of Joel Richarson’s new book: The Mideast Beast, The Scriptural Case For An Islamic Antichrist, (WMD Books, 2012). Indeed I don’t see how we can escape the great Eschatological reality with Islam! Radical Islam sure seems to be the followers of Ishmael, (see the NET Bible note, 18 Gen. 25:18).

    • I have not read the book (or have I seen it, for that matter). My guess is Israel’s historic enemies will always be her enemies.

      • Agreed! Richardson’s took some hits from his first book 2009. But, overall I agree that Islam, especially the more radical elements will be central in the eschatological end.

  4. I find this entire argument about the future or present aspects of the kingdom very stimulating, because, ever since I can remember learning about the Kingdom Jesus spoke of, I was always told it was a future kingdom. My classic dispensational upbringing, I suppose. The “Already/Not Yet” perspective is a very helpful one. The most obvious example in my mind of an “already” is when Jesus tells his disciples right after feeding the five thousand, “Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:27). The meaning of this verse has been sharply debated, but I think the previously mentioned clichéd phrase works very nicely here. And, as Wright noted, I think one of the most interesting examples of a “not yet” is when Jesus told the people near Jerusalem a parable because they falsely “thought that the kingdom of God was going to appear at once.” (Luke 19:11) When we “see Jesus’s ministry as a present kingdom, but a kingdom which does not exhaust the prophecies of the Hebrew Bible,” as Long says, many apparent contradictions or oddities are fairly easily taken care of.
    If I may, I’d like to take a sidestep for a moment here to point out the usefulness not of the specific example of already/not yet for the Kingdom, but the general example of understanding things can have more than one exact black and white answer. I have found this to be true in many things in my own life and culture, but I will give the brief example that Paul talks about. It may not be a perfect comparison, but I personally find it helpful, so maybe someone else will as well. “Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause him to fall” (1 Cor. 8:13). Food can be a gray area. Paul did not find meat to be sinful to eat, but some believers around him thought that it was wrong to eat it. Was either one right? Not necessarily. Sometimes things that are sinful can be because for a certain individual and not sinful for another. And there is where we need to be very mindful, aware, and nonjudgemental of people, even if we personally find what they’re doing to be wrong. And there is where we also need to be careful! If we are doing something that someone else considers wrong, we need to inspect ourselves at least, and change our behavior at most.

  5. In reading Jesus’ teachings of the Kingdom being at hand, near, or here I understood it to be the start of the Kingdom that God was establishing through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. So, in a sense it was “near/here” as the body of Christ, the Church can now seek to further Christ’s work in proclaiming the good news of redemption to all peoples and bring them into God’s kingdom and mission. As Christ is seated at the right hand of God, His rule is over the earth and so the kingdom has been started in that He finished the work necessary in order to reconcile peoples to God. The culmination and completion “not yet” of this kingdom the church awaits eagerly. When Christ will return and reign over all on earth – establishing God’s kingdom that will be for eternity. This might be one of the only views I have been taught, but after reading others, it remains to be the only explanation of the kingdom that makes sense to me and I read to be proven in the Bible and Jesus’ teachings.

  6. This strategy of “already/not yet” is something that we can look through in scripture to help us have a better understanding on what has already happened and what is yet to come. This strategy is also used in the impatient minds of humans. We always want to know what has already happened, is going to happen right now, or in the future. I cannot imagine what the people thought when Jesus said that the Kingdom of God is near, etc. I think that sometimes, when we just question what is going to happen or what needs to happen, we forget the God who is in control and who knows everything. We forget that we are not our own, and we do not know the future of our lives.

    • Good thoughts. I appreciated your comment, “I cannot imagine what the people thought when Jesus said that the Kingdom of God is near.” especially considering that the people saw Jesus as an authority, as the people said of him, that “he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law” (Matt. 7:29). Jesus is telling them repeatedly that the kingdom is “near,” but he himself is living simply and humbly, with “no place to lay his head” (Luke 9:58), and certainly no royal splendor. He was a servant, and I believe even this was an example of what the “already” Kingdom is like in part, and what the “not yet” Kingdom will be in full. “While the rulers of this world lord their power over their subjects, those who would lead in the messianic community of faith do so as servants” (Strauss, 447). This concept is spelled out plainly by Jesus when he said, “whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all” (Mark 10:43-44). A teacher advocating servanthood while spreading the news that the Kingdom is near must have been very confusing to the hearers of Jesus.

  7. The present elements or the ‘already’ arrived language describes the inauguration of the kingdom with the ministry of Jesus. The fulfillment of Old Testament passages such as Isaiah 61, which Jesus read in the temple, support the idea that the arrival of the kingdom was happening then. As mentioned in the post, Luke 11 confirms this point with Jesus’ own proclamation. The greatest indicator of the current arrival was the death and resurrection of Jesus. The gift of salvation allowed for people to become co-heirs with Christ (as the first fruits) and provides an entrance into this kingdom.

    The ‘not-yet’ realized elements of the kingdom are apparent as well. Although defeated at the cross, sin and death are still corrupting our relationships to God and one another. With the second coming of Christ this will be fixed and God’s rule will truly be the same in heaven as on earth. The future hope of the day when God will make all things new is our hope as believers.

  8. “We must therefore acknowledge both present and future dimensions in Jesus’ kingdom preaching. The kingdom is both already and not yet.” (Strauss, 439). The present Kingdom has come about because of Jesus’ death and Resurrection. “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world,'” (Matt. 25:34). The Kingdom that is to come is for God’s chosen people, Israel. That kingdom is will be established on earth and “the Lord Almighty will reign,” (Isaiah 24:23).

  9. When I see the phrase already/not yet I think of Jesus first defeating and crushing sin and Satan on the cross and coming again to through the hope given to us of a new creation. Isaiah 53 and Romans 16:20 mention Satan being crushed. There is so much power in Jesus defeating sin and death. I wonder how Satan reacted to Jesus defeating death and raised from the dead. Anyways, I think when Jesus rose from the dead the kingdom of God was “already.” Because of Jesus’ death we know have the Holy Spirit living in us (Romans 8:9-11). I believe that is part of God’s kingdom here on earth. We are now able to have a relationship with God and are able to comprehend his will for us. In Simply Jesus, Wright uses the example of King David in explaining the “already/not yet.” David was anointed king but he had to wait because Saul was king. David was king and yet he wasn’t because Saul was king (Wright, 166-117). Also, I think of God’s will being done on earth as the concept of God’s Kingdom “already” here. When I look at the “not yet” I think of 2 Corinthians 5:17. If anyone believes in Christ we become a new creation. There is hope that we may one day be created new through the power of Jesus Christ. I think the element of the “present” is the Holy Spirit living among us. The element of the “future” is the hope given to us through Jesus Christ of a new creation. Strauss says, “The kingdom is both already and not yet. In the present, people are called to submit to God’s authority and so “enter” his kingdom” (439).

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