Part 10 of series:
What Was the Message of Jesus?
In my previous posts in this series (May 16, May 19), I considered the question: Where is the kingdom of God? I showed that in the teaching of Jesus, the kingdom of God is not just in heaven or in our hearts, though it touches both heaven and hearts. Rather, the kingdom of God is not so much a place as it is the reality of God’s sovereignty and power. The kingdom of God ultimately embraces all of creation, including both heaven and earth, including hearts and minds and even bodies (in a new form).
Perhaps even more intriguing than the question “Where is the kingdom of God?” is the question “When is the kingdom of God coming?” This is especially relevant these days, given the recent hubbub over the prediction by Harold Camping that the Day of Judgment would come two days ago on May 21, thus beginning the final restoration of God’s kingdom over all creation. The fact that you’re reading this piece today indicates that Mr. Camping wasn’t quite right in his prediction. But, still, you might wonder when the kingdom of God is coming?
Jesus proclaimed that the reign of God was coming to earth, but when? Did Jesus preach the coming of the kingdom as a future reality, as many Christian affirm? Or did he believe that the kingdom of God was truly present in his earthly ministry, as many other Christians affirm? In this post I want to lay out some of the basic evidence from the Gospels, focusing on the future kingdom. Then, in my next post, I’ll examine passages that suggest the kingdom of God is present. Finally, I’ll try to make sense of what Jesus teaches about the timing of the coming of the kingdom.
The Future Kingdom
In many of his sayings, Jesus appears to state that the kingdom of God will come in the future. For example:
“Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt 6:10).
This line from what we call “The Lord’s Prayer” implies that God’s kingdom isn’t present in the moment, but is something that will come in the future. As we saw earlier in this series, this echoes first-century Jewish prayers for the coming of God’s reign.
Here’s another statement of Jesus that points to the future of the kingdom:
“I tell you, many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the heirs of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt 8:11-12).
Note that many “will come” to the great messianic banquet. They haven’t yet arrived. Here Jesus draws on the prophetic hope of God’s future kingdom as “a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines” that the Lord will prepare “for all peoples” (Isa 25:6).
“I tell you, I will never again drink of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom” (Matt 26:29).
In this poignant line from the Last Supper, Jesus looks ahead to the time when he will share in the messianic banquet with his disciples. He draws from the eschatological language of the prophets in speaking of “that day” – the future day of the Lord (see Isa 25:9, for example).
One could point to many other places in the Gospels where Jesus implies that the kingdom of God will come in the future. This type of futuristic eschatology (“eschatology” = “doctrine of the end times”) is familiar to many Christians in our time of history. Most recently, I has been exemplified by Harold Camping and his followers.
When I was a young believer, my friends and I were enchanted by The Late Great Planet Earth, by Hal Lindsey. This book, which has sold over 35,000,000 copies worldwide, showed that the kingdom of God was coming in the future, and that it was coming soon, and how world events made all of this quite certain. But when Jesus didn’t hurry back to earth in the 70’s, for a while the eschatological fever broke.
In 1996, Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins published Left Behind, the first volume in their fictionalized account of the end of human history and the beginning of God’s eternal kingdom. So far, 65 million of the Left Behind books have been sold. Why has this series drawn so many readers? When I asked a group of Left Behind fans about this, one woman informed me confidently: “Because these books tell us what’s going to happen in the future.” The others agreed. Future eschatology, with certainty, wow!
Jesus clearly spoke of the kingdom of God as something that was coming in the future. He seemed less enthusiastic than many about predicting the precise timing of this event, however. In fact, Jesus once said:
“Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” (Matthew 24:42-44)
Even the closest followers of Jesus did not know when he was returning. Yet they were not alone. See who else lacks this information, according to Jesus:
“But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” (Mark 13:32)
This should give us pause when trying to predict when the kingdom of God will fully come on earth.
Yet, pause comes also from some of the things Jesus said about the kingdom of God as a present reality. I consider this tomorrow.