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Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible

Kingdom of God

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KINGDOM OF GOD (or HEAVEN) . The Biblical writers assume that the Creator of the heavens and the earth must needs be also the everlasting Ruler of the same. The universe is God’s dominion, and every creature therein is subject to His power. And so the Hebrew poets conceive God as immanent in all natural phenomena. Wind and storm, fire and earthquake, lightnings and torrents of waters are but so many signs of the activity of the Almighty Ruler of the world ( Psalms 18:7-15; Psalms 68:7-18; Psalms 104:1-35 ). The same heavenly Power is also the supreme Sovereign of men and nations. ‘The kingdom is Jehovah’s, and he is the ruler over the nations’ ( Psalms 22:28 ). ‘Jehovah is king over all the earth’ ( Zechariah 14:9 ). ‘He sitteth upon the circle of the earth, and the Inhabitants thereof are as grasshoppers … He bringeth princes to nothing’ ( Isaiah 40:22 ). This general idea of God’s dominion over all things receives various forms of statement from the various Biblical writers, and the entire presentation constitutes a most important portion of the revelation of God and of Christ. But the Biblical doctrine has its OT and NT setting.

1. In the Old Testament . Apart from that general concept of God as Maker and Governor of the whole world, the OT writers emphasize the Divine care for individuals, families, tribes, and nations of men. It is God’s rule over those creatures who exist in His own image and likeness that calls for our special study, and this great truth is manifest from various points of view. (1) From Amos 9:7 we learn that Jehovah is the supreme Ruler of all the peoples: Syrians, Philistines, Ethiopians, as well as the tribes of Israel, were led by Him and settled in their separate lands. So He gave all the nations their inheritance ( Deuteronomy 32:8 ). But one most conspicuous feature of the OT revelation is God’s selection of Abraham and his posterity to be made a blessing to all the families of the earth. When this peculiar family had become a numerous people in the land of Egypt, God led them marvellously out of that house of bondage and adopted them to be ‘a people for his own possession above all peoples upon the face of the earth’ ( Deuteronomy 7:6 ), and ‘a kingdom of priests and a holy nation’ ( Exodus 19:6 ). The subsequent facts of the history of this chosen people reveal a noteworthy aspect of the Kingdom of God among men. (2) Along with this idea of the election and special guidance of this people there was gradually developed a lofty doctrine of the Person and power of the God of Israel. Out of the unique and sublime monolatry, which worshipped Jehovah as greatest of all the gods ( Exodus 15:11; Exodus 18:11 ), there issued the still higher and broader monotheism of the great prophets, who denied the real existence of any other God or Saviour besides the Holy One of Israel. He was conceived as seated on a lofty throne, surrounded with holy seraphs and the innumerable hosts of heaven. For naturally the highest embodiment of personal power and glory and dominion known among men, namely, that of a splendid royalty, was employed as the best figure of the glory of the heavenly King; and so we have the impressive apocalyptic portraiture of Jehovah sitting upon His throne, high and lifted up ( Isaiah 6:1-3 , Ezekiel 12:26-28 , 1 Kings 22:19 ). The mighty Monarch of earth and heaven was enthroned in inexpressible majesty and glory, and no power above or below the heavens could compare with Him. (3) This concept of the heavenly King became also enlarged so as to include the idea of a righteous Judge of all the earth. This idea appears conspicuously in the vision of Daniel 7:9-12 , where the Eternal is seen upon His throne of fiery flames, with ten thousand times ten thousand ministering before Him. His execution of judgment is as a stream of fire which issues from His presence and devours His adversaries. Zephaniah 3:8 also represents Him as ‘gathering the nations and assembling the kingdoms,’ in order to pour out upon them the fire of His fierce anger. And so in prophecy, in psalm, and in historical narrative we find numerous declarations of Jehovah about His entering into judgment with the nations and also with His own people. The unmistakable doctrine of all these Scriptures is that God is the supreme Judge and Ruler of the world. His overthrow of mighty cities and kingdoms, like Nineveh and Babylon, is a way of His ‘executing judgment in the earth,’ and the prophets call such a national catastrophe a ‘day of Jehovah.’ (4) The Messianic prophecies throw further light on the OT doctrine of the Kingdom of God. From the times of David and Solomon onwards the highest ideal of ‘the Anointed of Jehovah’ was that of a powerful and righteous king of Israel. The name of David became a synonym of the ideal king and shepherd of the Chosen People ( Hosea 3:5 , Jeremiah 30:9 , Ezekiel 34:23; Ezekiel 37:24 ). These ideals became the growing Messianic hope of Israel. According to Isaiah 9:3; Isaiah 9:7 , the child of wonderful names is to sit ‘upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to order it, and to establish it in judgment and in righteousness for ever.’ In Psalms 2:1-12 we have a dramatic picture of Jehovah establishing His Son as King upon Zion, and in Psalms 110:1-7 the conquering hero, to whom Jehovah says, ‘Sit thou at my right hand until I make thy enemies thy footstool.’ unites in Himself the threefold office of king, priest, and judge. (5) In all these and in other Messianic scriptures we shoud notice that the Anointed of Jehovah is an exalted associate of the Most High. He executes judgment in the earth, but he himself possesses no wisdom or power to act apart from Jehovah. We also note the fact that God’s dominion over the earth is entirely compatible with divers forms of human administration. Ambitious potentates may usurp authority, and think to change times and seasons, but sooner or later they come to nought. Though Nebuchadrezzar, Cyrus, or Alexander wield for a time the sceptre of the world, it is still true ‘that the Most High ruleth in the kingdom of men, and giveth it to whomsoever he will’ ( Daniel 4:32 ). ‘He removeth kings and setteth up kings’ ( Daniel 2:21 ). When Israel desired a king like other nations, Samuel charged them with rejecting God as their King ( 1 Samuel 8:7 ); but such rejection of God and the anointing of Saul for their king did not remove Jehovah from actual dominion over them; and the prophet himself admonished all Israel to fear and obey Jehovah lest He should consume both them and their king ( 1 Samuel 12:15-25 ). And when, according to the apocalyptic imagery of Daniel 7:13-14 , the ‘one like unto a son of man’ receives the kingdom from ‘the Ancient of days,’ it is not to be supposed that the Most High Himself is for a moment to abdicate His throne in the heavens, or cease to rule over all the kingdoms of men. (6) It is not given us to determine how fully or how clearly any OT prophet or psalmist conceived the real nature of the future Messianic Kingdom. It is not usually given to the prophets of great oracles to know the time and manner of the fulfilment, and such ideals as those of Micah 4:1-5 and Isaiah 11:1-10 may have been variously understood. The advent of the Messianic Son of David, expected among the seed of Abraham, would naturally be conceived as introducing a new era in the history of the people of God. He would not rule apart from Jehovah, or exercise a different authority; for the Kingdom of Messiah would also he the Kingdom of God. But it would naturally he expected that the Messiah would introduce new powers, new agencies, and new enlightenment for a blessing to all the families of the earth. According to Isaiah 65:17; Isaiah 66:22 , the new era was conceived as the creation of a new heavens and a new earth, but the prophetic language and its context do not justify the opinion that the dawn of the new era must needs be ushered in along with physical changes in the earth and the heavens, or involve any physical change in the natural constitution of man on the earth.

2. In the New Testament . In presenting the NT doctrine of the Kingdom of. God we should notice (1) the prevalent expectation of the Messiah at the time Jesus was born. There was no exact uniformity of belief or of expectation. Some enthusiasts looked for a warlike chieftain, gifted with an ability of leadership, to cast off the Roman yoke and restore the kingdom of Israel to some such splendour as it had in the days of Solomon. Others seem to have entertained a more spiritual view, as Zacharias, Simeon, and Anna ( Luke 1:67-79; Luke 2:25-38 ), and to have united the general hope of the redemption of Jerusalem with the blessed thought of confirming the ancient covenants of promise, obtaining remission of sins, personal consolation, and a life of holiness. Between these two extremes there were probably various other forms of expectation, but the more popular one was that of a temporal prince. John the Baptist shared somewhat in this current belief, and seems to have been disappointed in the failure of Jesus to fulfil his concept of the Messianic hope ( Matthew 11:2-6 ). Nevertheless, John’s ministry and preaching evinced much spiritual penetration, and his baptism of repentance was a Divinely appointed preparation for the Kingdom of heaven which he declared was close at band.

(2) The chief source of the NT doctrine is the teaching of Jesus Christ Himself . His preaching and that of His first disciples announced the Kingdom of heaven as at hand ( Matthew 4:17 , Mark 1:16 ). Such a proclamation could have meant to the hearers only that the reign of the Messiah, of whom the prophets had spoken, was about to begin. The real nature of this Kingdom, however, is to be learned only by a careful study of the various sayings of Jesus upon the subject, ( a ) It should first be observed that our Lord gave no sanction to the current Jewish expectation of a temporal prince, who would fight for dominion and exercise worldly forms of power. He did not directly oppose the prevalent belief, so as to provoke opposition, but sought rather to inculcate a more spiritual and heavenly conception of the Kingdom. His views were evidently different from those of John, for while He extolled him as His immediate forerunner, ‘much more than a prophet,’ and ‘greatest among them that are born of women,’ He declared that any one who ‘is but little in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he’ ( Matthew 11:11 ). With all his greatness John was but a Jewish prophet, and never passed beyond the necessary limitations of the pre-Messianic age. ( b ) The spiritual and heavenly character of the Kingdom is indicated, and indeed emphasized, by the phrase ‘kingdom of heaven.’ This accords with the statement that the Kingdom is not of this world ( John 18:36 ), and cometh not with observation ( Luke 17:20 ). It belongs, therefore, to the unseen and the spiritual. It is the special boon of the ‘poor in spirit,’ ‘persecuted for righteousness’ sake,’ and whose righteousness shall ‘exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees’ ( Matthew 5:3; Matthew 5:10; Matthew 5:20 ). The great ones in this Kingdom are such as become like little children ( Matthew 18:3 ), and as to rulership and authority, the greatest is he who acts as the minister and bond-servant of all ( Mark 10:43-44 ).

It may be noticed that the phrase ‘kingdom of heaven’ (or ‘of the heavens’) is peculiar to the Gospel of Matthew, in which it occurs about thirty times. In 2 Timothy 4:18 we read of ‘his heavenly kingdom,’ but elsewhere the term employed is ‘kingdom of God.’ There is no good reason to doubt that Jesus Himself made use of all these expressions, and we should not look to find any recondite or peculiar significance in any one of them. The phrase ‘kingdom of God’ occurs also four times in Mt., and often in the other Gospels and in the Acts and Epistles. We may also compare, for illustration and suggestion, ‘my Father’s kingdom’ ( Matthew 26:29 ), ‘my heavenly Father’ ( Matthew 15:13 ), and observe in the parallel texts of Matthew 26:29 , Mark 14:25 , Luke 22:20 , the interchangeable use of ‘my Father’s kingdom,’ ‘my kingdom,’ and ‘the kingdom of God.’ All these designations indicate that the Kingdom is heavenly in its origin and nature.

( c ) The parables of Jesus are especially important for learning the nature and mysteries of the Kingdom of heaven. They show in many ways that the heavenly Kingdom has to do with the spiritual nature and possibilities of man, and is, in fact, the dominion of Jesus Christ over the hearts of men. They show also that the Kingdom has its necessary collective and communal relations, for the same ethical principles which are to govern an individual life have also their manifold application to the life of a community and of all organized societies of men. Several of our Lord’s parables indicate a Judicial transfer of the Kingdom of heaven from the Jews to the Gentiles ( Matthew 21:43; Matthew 22:1-14 , Luke 14:10-24 ). The parable of the Two Sons warned the Jewish priests and elders that publicans and harlots might go into the Kingdom of God before them ( Matthew 21:28-32 ). From all this it is evident that the Kingdom of heaven includes the dispensation of heavenly grace and redemption which was inaugurated and is now continuously carried forward by the Lord Jesus. It is essentially spiritual, and its holy mysteries of regeneration and the righteousness of faith can be only spiritually discerned, ( d ) The important petitions in the Lord’s prayer, ‘Thy kingdom come; Thy will be done, as in heaven, so on earth,’ are of great value in determining the nature of the Kingdom. This prayer assumes by its very terms a moral and spiritual relationship and the ideal of a moral order in the universe of God. As the word ‘kingdom’ implies an organized community, so the will of God implies in those who do it a conformity to God in spiritual nature and action. The coming Kingdom is not a material worldly establishment, but it has its foundations in the unseen and eternal, and its power and growth will become manifest among men and nations according as the will of God is done on earth as it is in heaven. The performance of all that the will of God requires in moral beings may vary in degrees of perfect observance in heaven and in earth; we naturally predicate of heavenly things a measure of perfection far above that of earthly things. But the members of the Kingdom of God, whether on earth or in heaven, have this in common, that they all do the will of the heavenly Father, ( e ) So far as the Gospel of John supplies additional teachings of Jesus concerning the Kingdom of God, it is in essential harmony with what we find in the Synoptics, but it has its own peculiar methods of statement. We read in John 3:3; John 3:5 , ‘Except a man be born from above, he cannot see the kingdom of God.’ The Kingdom, then, is not a spectacle of worldly vision, but has to do first of all with the inner life of man. It accords with this, that in John 8:23 and John 18:36-37 Jesus says, ‘I am from above; I am not of this world: My kingdom is not of this world; if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews.’ To one of Pilate’s questions Jesus answered, ‘I am a king; to this end have I been born, and to this end am I come into the world, that I should bear witness to the truth. Every one that is of the truth heareth my voice’ ( John 18:37 ). So Christ’s Kingdom comes not forth out of the world, but is of heavenly origin. It makes no display of military forces or carnal weapons for establishing its dominion in the world. It is especially remarkable in being a Kingdom of truth. This conception is peculiarly Johannine, for in the first Epistle also Jesus Christ is set forth as the embodiment and revelation of the truth of God ( 1 John 3:18-19; 1 John 5:20; cf. John 1:17; John 8:32; John 14:6; John 17:17 ). Jesus Christ is the heavenly King who witnesses to the truth, and whose servants know, love, and obey the truth of God.

(3) In the Pauline Epistles the Kingdom of God is represented as the blessed spiritual inheritance of all who enjoy life in God through faith in Jesus Christ. Its spiritual character is obvious from Romans 14:17 , where, in discussing questions of conscience touching meats and drinks, it is said that ‘the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.’ So it is not a dominion that concerns itself about ceremonial pollutions; it grasps rather after the attainment of all spiritual blessings. It is impossible for the unrighteous and idolaters, and thieves and extortioners, and such like, to inherit this Kingdom ( 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 , Galatians 5:21 , Ephesians 5:5 ).

(4) Other portions of the NT add somewhat to this doctrine of the Kingdom, but offer no essentially different ideal. In Hebrews 12:28 mention is made of our ‘receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken.’ The context speaks of the removal of some things that were of a nature to be shaken, and the allusion is to the old fabric of defunct Judaism, which was a cult of burdensome ritual, and had become ‘old and aged and nigh unto vanishing away’ ( Hebrews 8:13 ). These temporary things and their ‘sanctuary of this world,’ which were at the most only ‘a copy and shadow of the heavenly things,’ must needs be shaken down and pass away in order that the immovable Kingdom of heaven might be revealed and abide as an ‘eternal inheritance.’ The old Jerusalem and its temporary cult must pass away and give place to ‘the heavenly Jerusalem,’ which affords personal communion and fellowship with God and Christ, and innumerable hosts of angels, and the spirits of just men made perfect ( Hebrews 12:22-24 ).

(5) Eschatological elements of the NT doctrine . Questions of the time and manner of the coming of the Kingdom arise from the various sayings of Jesus and of the NT writers, which have seemed difficult to harmonize. From the point of view both of Jesus and of the first Apostles, the Kingdom of heaven was nigh at hand, but not yet come. The coming of the Kingdom is also associated with the Parousia , or coming of the Son of Man in the clouds of heaven, the resurrection, and the final judgment of all men and nations. Jesus spoke of ‘the regeneration, when the Son of man shall sit on the throne of his glory’ ( Matthew 19:28 ). His great eschatological discourse, reported in all the Synoptics ( Matthew 24:1-51 , Mark 13:1-37 , Luke 21:1-38 ), represents His coming and the end of the age as in the near future, before that generation should pass. It also clearly makes the sublime Parousia follow immediately after the woes attending the ruin of the city and Temple of Jerusalem. Also in Matthew 16:28 and the parallels in Mk. and Lk. Jesus declares emphatically, ‘There are some of them that stand here who shall in no wise taste of death till they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom.’ The exegetical problem is to show how these statements may be adjusted to the idea of a gradually growing power and dominion which appears in Daniel’s vision of the stone which ‘became a great mountain and filled the whole earth’ ( Daniel 2:35 ), and is also implied in Jesus’ parables of the Mustard Seed, the Leaven, and the Seed Growing Secretly, ‘first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear’ ( Mark 4:26-29 ). The problem is also complicated by the fact that nearly two thousand years have passed since these words of Jesus were spoken, and ‘the end of the world’ is not yet. Of the many attempts at the explanation of these difficulties we here mention only three.

( a ) A considerable number of modern critics adopt the hypothesis that these various sayings of Jesus were misunderstood by those who heard Him, and have been reported in a confused and self-contradictory manner. The disciples confounded the fall of the Temple with the end of all things, but Jesus probably distinguished the two events in a way that does not now appear in the records. Some critics suppose that fragments of a small Jewish apocalypse have been incorporated in Matthew 24:1-51 . This hypothesis makes it the chief work of the expositor to analyze the different elements of the Evangelical tradition and reconstruct the sayings of Jesus which are supposed to be genuine. The result of such a process naturally includes a considerable amount of conjecture, and leaves the various eschatological sayings of Jesus in a very untrustworthy condition.

( b ) According to another class of expositors, the prophecies of Matthew 24:1-51 contain a double sense, the primary reference being to the fall of Jerusalem, whereas the ultimate fulfilment, of which the first is a sort of type, is to take place at the Second Coming of Christ and the end of the world. It is conceded that the two events are closely conjoined, but it is thought that Matthew 24:4-28 deal mainly with the former event, and from Matthew 24:29 onwards the lesser subject is swallowed up by the greater, and the statements made refer mainly to the still future coming of the Lord. But scarcely any two interpreters, who adopt the double-sense theory, agree in their exposition of the different parts of the chapter.

( c ) Another method of explaining and adjusting the teaching of Jesus and of all the NT statements about the coming of Christ, the resurrection and the judgment, is to understand all these related events as part and parcel of an age-long process. ‘The end of the age,’ according to this view, is not the close of the Christian era, but the end or consummation of the pre-Messianic age. The coming of the Kingdom of God, according to Jesus ( Luke 17:20 ), is not a matter of physical observation, so that one could point it out and say, ‘Lo, it is here!’ or, ‘Lo, it is there!’ Like the lightning it may appear in the east or in the west, or anywhere under the whole heaven, at one and the same moment of time. Nevertheless, no reported sayings of Christ are more positive or more notably reiterated than His declarations that some of His contemporaries would live to ‘see the kingdom of God come with power,’ and that ‘this generation shall not pass away till all these things be fulfilled.’ The decisive end of an era or dispensation or a particular cult may be seen to be near at hand, sure to come within a generation, for ‘that which is becoming old and waxeth aged is nigh unto vanishing away’ ( Hebrews 8:13 ); but the coming of a kingdom and power and glory which belongs to the things unseen, heavenly and eternal, is not of a nature to be limited to a given day or hour. There need be, then, no contradiction or inconsistency in the sayings of Jesus as they now stand in the Gospels. No great and noteworthy event could more decisively have marked the end of the pre-Messianic age and the Jewish cult than the destruction of the Temple. But ‘the powers of the age to come’ were manifest before that historic crisis, and ‘the times and the seasons’ of such spiritual, unseen things are not matters for men or angels or even the Son of God to tell. But the fall of the Temple and the establishment of the New Covenant and the Kingdom of God were so coincident that the two events might well have been thought and spoken of as essentially simultaneous. Accordingly, ‘the regeneration’ ( Matthew 19:28 ) and ‘the restoration of all things’ ( Acts 3:21 ) are now in actual process. The Son of Man is now sitting on the throne of His glory, at the right hand of God, and ‘he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet’ ( 1 Corinthians 15:25 ). Such a Kingdom is essentially millennial, and has its ages of ages for ‘making all things new.’ Its crises and triumphs are portrayed in terms of apocalyptic prophecy, and so the language of Jesus in Matthew 24:29-31 and similar passages in other parts of the NT is to be interpreted as we interpret the same forms of speech in the OT prophets (cf. Isaiah 13:9-10; Isaiah 19:1-2; Isaiah 34:4-5 , Daniel 7:13-14 ).

According to this last interpretation, the Apocalypse of John is but an enlargement of Jesus’ discourse on the Mount of Olives, and the descent of the New Jerusalem out of heaven is a visional symbol of the coming of the Kingdom of God, and the continuous answer to the prayer, ‘Thy will be done, as in heaven, so on earth.’ The Apostles, like their Lord, thought and spoke of things supernatural and invisible after the manner of the Hebrew prophets. St. Paul’s picture of the Lord’s coming from heaven (1 Thessalonians 4:14-18 ) is in striking accord with the language of Matthew 24:29-31 , and yet has its own peculiar points of difference. In Romans 16:20 he speaks of ‘the God of peace “bruising Satan” under your feet shortly,’ and in 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12 he teaches that the Antichrist, ‘the man of sin,’ is destined to be destroyed by the manifestation of the coming of the Lord Jesus. It was probably not given to the Apostle to understand that what he saw in the vision of a moment would occupy millenniums. In his forms of statement we may discern survivals of his Jewish modes of thought, and a failure to distinguish the times and seasons and methods in which the Kingdom of heaven is ultimately to overcome the prince of the powers of wickedness in high places. But in all essentials of content his prophetic picture of the coming and triumph is true to fact and to the teaching of the Lord Himself. St. Paul also speaks of the Kingdom of God as an inheritance. It is in part a present possession, but it contemplates also a future eternal blessedness. The redeemed ‘shall reign in life through Jesus Christ.’ Our heavenly Father ‘makes us meet to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light, delivers us out of the power of darkness and translates us into the kingdom of the Son of his love’ ( Colossians 1:12-13 ). Such heirs of God are ‘sealed with that Holy Spirit of promise, which is the earnest of our inheritance, unto the redemption of God’s own possession’ ( Ephesians 1:14 ). According to this conception of the heavenly Kingdom, Christ is now upon His throne and continuously making all things new. His Parousia is millennial. He is drawing all men unto Himself, and the resurrection of the dead is as continuous as His own heavenly reign. Whenever ‘the earthly house’ of any one of His servants is dissolved, he has a new habitation from God, ‘a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens’ ( 2 Corinthians 5:1-10 ). Each man must have his own last day, and each one be made manifest and answer for himself before the judgment-seat of Christ. And when all things are ultimately put in subjection unto the Christ, then also shall the Son of God Himself have perfected His redemptive reign, and God shall be all in all. See Authority, Dominion, Parousia, Power.

M. S. Terry.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Kingdom of God'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible. 1909.

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