The Kingdom of God
George Eldon Ladd
George Eldon Ladd is Professor of New Testament Exegesis and Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California.
There is little doubt that the central burden of our Lord's teaching was the coming of God's kingdom. Even before Jesus began His ministry, John the Baptist electrified the people with the prophetic announcement, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand" (Matt. 3:2).1 Then "Jesus began to preach, saying, 'Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand' " (Matt. 4:17). "And He went about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and preaching the gospel [i.e., the good news] of the kingdom" (Matt. 4:23).
In His Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7), Jesus describes the righteousness of the kingdom. "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 5:3). "Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 5:20). Addressing His disciples later, Jesus said, "To you it has been given to know the secrets [lit., mysteries] of the kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 13:11). At the end of His ministry, He instructed His disciples in the course of this age and the coming of the kingdom. "This gospel [good news] of the kingdom will be preached throughout the whole world, as a testimony to all nations; and then the end will come" (Matt. 24:14). Jesus gave a parable of judgment in which He described the fate of the righteous in terms of the kingdom of God by saying, "Then the King will say to those at His right hand, 'Come, 0 blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world' " (Matt. 25:34).
To understand what this means, we must turn to the Old Testament. While the Old Testament never uses the term "kingdom of God," the idea can be found in all the prophets. One thing not often noted by evangelicals is that in the Old Testament it is often God who comes to establish His kingdom. This will mean judgment for the wicked but salvation for God's righteous people. In the short book of Zephaniah the coming of God is often described as the day of the Lord.
I will utterly sweep away everything
from the face of the earth," says the Lord . . .
"I will cut off mankind
from the face of the earth," says the Lord . . .
The great day of the Lord is near, near and hastening fast;
the sound of the day of the Lord is bitter . .
A day of wrath is that day . . .
"On that day you shall not be put to shame
because of the deeds by which you have rebelled against Me;
for then I will remove from your midst your proudly exultant ones,
and you shall no longer be haughty in My holy mountain . . .
Sing aloud, O daughter of Zion;
shout, 0 Israel!
Rejoice and exult with all your heart,
O daughter of Jerusalem!
The Lord has taken away the judgments against you,
He has cast out your enemies.
The King of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst;
you shall fear evil no more.
—Zeph. 1:2-3,14-15; 3:11,14-15.
In this and in many other prophetic passages, there is no messianic personage. God Himself will visit His people to judge the wicked and bring salvation to the righteous.
The Davidic King
There are, however, three messianic passages in the prophets which speak specifically of an Anointed One who will reign in God's kingdom when it is established.
There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of His roots.
And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon Him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
And His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.
He shall not judge by what His eyes see,
or decide by what His ears hear;
but with righteousness He shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
and He shall smite the earth with the rod of His mouth,
and with the breath of His lips He shall slay the wicked.
Righteousness shall be the girdle of His waist,
and faithfulness the girdle of His loins.
The wolf shall dwell with the lamb,
and the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
and the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall feed;
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The sucking child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder's den.
They shall not hurt or destroy
in all My holy mountain;
for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.
Here is a conquering Messiah. He arises from the family of David. The line of Davidic kings will seem to have run out, but from the fallen tree will come forth a new growth. The all-important passage is: "But with righteousness He shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; and He shall smite the earth with the rod of His mouth, and with the breath of His lips He shall slay the wicked" (Isa. 11:4). Here is the twofold mission of Messiah. Although a Davidic King, He will be supernaturally endowed to destroy all who oppose the reign of God. At the same time He will bring salvation to the "meek of the earth," i.e., those whose only trust is in the Lord. His saving and judging word will also include the redemption of nature. The passage concludes with a beautiful picture of peace restored to a fallen world. Ferocious animals will no longer threaten man. Venomous animals will be tamed. "They shall not hurt or destroy in all My holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea" (Isa. 11:9).
This is basically the same picture found in Zephaniah. The wicked are judged. The righteous are saved. The world is transformed. In Zephaniah it is God who comes. In Isaiah it is a Son of David.
The Son of Man
There is a second and very different picture of the Messiah in Daniel 7, where the seer is given a vision of the coming of God's kingdom. He sees God, here called the "Ancient of Days," seated on His throne (Dan. 7:9).
I saw in the night visions,
and behold, with the clouds of heaven
there came One like a Son of Man,
and He came to the Ancient of Days
and was presented before Him.
And to Him was given dominion
and glory and kingdom,
that all peoples, nations and languages
should serve Him;
His dominion is an everlasting dominion,
which shall not pass away,
and His kingdom one
that shall not be destroyed.
Here is no son of David. Here is a heavenly, transcendent Being who comes with the clouds to the Ancient of Days to receive the kingdom of God. The passage is interpreted, "And the kingdom and the dominion and the greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven shall be given to the people of the saints of the Most High" (Dan. 7:27). He comes to the throne of God in heaven, receives a kingdom from the hand of God, and then brings it to the saints on earth, who enjoy the blessings of God's rule over them forever.
The Suffering Servant
A third messianic personage in the Old Testament is very different from the two already discussed. At this point it would be well to read the familiar words of Isaiah 53. Here is a Servant of the Lord whose mission is to suffer, to be "bruised for our iniquities" and "wounded for our transgressions," who makes Himself "an offering for sin," who shall "make many to be accounted righteous" by bearing their iniquities, who "poured out His soul to death" by bearing the sin of many.
Most of the time we read and interpret these words through Christian eyes, as we rightly should. But we should read the chapter again as though we knew nothing about Jesus and His mission. We have read about the Messiah—king in Isaiah. But the Suffering Servant does not slay the wicked with the rod of His mouth. He does not deliver God's people by supernatural power. On the contrary, He is beaten. He is afflicted. He is slain. He redeems God's people not by might or power, but by suffering for them. He is called neither the Messiah nor the Son of Man. He is called only God's Servant (Isa. 52:13).
These three diverse messianic concepts seem to have no relationship to each other: a conquering Davidic King, a heavenly, supernatural Son of Man and a humble Suffering Servant of the Lord. How can these personages be related? They seem to have nothing in common except that they are raised up by the Lord to redeem His people. The idea of a supernaturally endowed, conquering Davidic King seems the opposite of a weak, humble, suffering, dying Servant.
The Jews of Jesus' day did not know what to do with these three concepts. In the Jewish literature pre-dating the New Testament, Enoch elaborately develops the Danielic idea of a heavenly Son of Man. The Psalms of Solomon pray for the coming of the Lord's Anointed (Messiah) to smite the Romans who had taken Palestine, to purge the temple in Jerusalem of their abomination, and to gather the Jewish people at Jerusalem in victory over their foes. Here is the conquering Davidic King of Isaiah. But the Jews never knew how to relate these two concepts to the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53. Judaism did not consider this a messianic prophecy. In view of such passages as Isaiah 49:3, 5-6 and Isaiah 50:10, Judaism felt that the people of Israel constituted the servant of God.
The Kingdom of God in the Gospels
When we turn to the Gospels to ask what Jesus meant by the kingdom of God, we should first note that the basic idea in the kingdom of God (or heaven) was that of the coming of a heavenly Son of Man to judge the wicked and to redeem the righteous. "So every one who acknowledges [lit., confesses] Me before men, I also will acknowledge before My Father who is in heaven" (Matt. 10:32). We must set this verse beside a similar one: "And I tell you, every one who acknowledges [confesses] Me before men, the Son of Man also will acknowledge [confess] before the angels of God; but he who denies Me before men will be denied before the angels of God" (Luke 12:8-9). Jesus is thus destined to be the heavenly Son of Man of Daniel 7
The same fact is affirmed in Jesus' trial before the Sanhedrin. "The high priest asked Him, 'Are You the Christ [Messiah], the Son of the Blessed?' And Jesus said, 'I am; and you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven' " (Mark 14:61-62). It is notable that Jesus never advanced any claim to be the Messiah (Davidic King) throughout His ministry. However, when challenged directly, He admitted that He was the Messiah. But as the passage shows, He is the Messiah of the Danielic Son of Man type. In effect, Jesus said, "Today I am standing before the Sanhedrin being judged. But the day will come when you will stand before My judgment seat to be judged by the Son of Man."
The same "eschatological" meaning of the kingdom of God is found in a parable Jesus gave His disciples near the end of His ministry. "When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on His glorious throne" (Matt. 25:31). Before Him will be gathered all the nations of men to give account of how they have treated His "brothers," i.e., His disciples (Matt. 12:48). The wicked who have rejected and abused His disciples will be sent to the lake of fire "prepared for the devil and his angels" (Matt. 25: 41). To the righteous, who have welcomed Jesus' emissaries, He says, "Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world" (Matt. 25:34). The parable concludes, "And they [the wicked] will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life" (Matt. 25:46). Here it is clear that the kingdom awaits the glorious coming of the Son of Man, and the life of the kingdom is eternal life. We usually speak of the "second coming of Christ," but this is not a common biblical idiom and is found only in Hebrews 9:28. We will not here discuss the meaning of this parable—who the "brothers" of Jesus are or what form the kingdom of God takes. It is sufficient to emphasize that the kingdom of God comes only with the glorious coming of the Son of Man bringing eternal life to those whom God has chosen.
The same truth emerges in the discussion between Jesus and the rich young ruler, recorded in Matthew 19:16-30 and in Mark 10:17-31. The young man asked Jesus, "Teacher, what good deed must I do, to have eternal life?" (Matt. 19:16). This question must not be thought of in light of the Gospel of John, but in light of the Old Testament. Unlike John, nowhere in the three synoptic Gospels is eternal life a present blessing. The young man was asking about the eternal life of Daniel 12:2: "Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt." Eternal life, like the kingdom of God, belongs to the future—to the day of resurrection. In His reply Jesus said, "Truly, I say to you, it will be hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God" (Matt. 19:23-24). The terms "kingdom of God" and "kingdom of heaven" are interchangeable here, especially since Mark uses "kingdom of God" in both parallel passages (Mark 10:23, 25).
The disciples were amazed and asked, "Who then can be saved?" (Matt. 19:25). Jesus replied that this was beyond human ability, but it was possible with God. Then the disciples, who had left everything to follow Jesus, asked about their own fate. Jesus replied that they would experience blessings in this age, but "in the age to come eternal life" (Mark 10:30).
The Two Ages
This truth is often obscure to those who read only the King James version of the Bible. The New Testament divides redemptive history into two ages: this age of mortality, death and sin, and the age to come, when God's rule will be perfectly realized in all the world. The Old Testament does not make this division, though the idea is present. The two ages are divided by the coming of God in the person of the Son of Man. The day of the Lord will be marked by resurrection and judgment. In Matthew 18 and Mark 10, the kingdom of God, the kingdom of heaven, salvation and eternal life all belong to the age to come.
The futuristic, eschatological character of the kingdom of God is further seen in the parables of Matthew 13. At the coming of the Son of Man the angels will gather out of His kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers (Matt. 13:41). Again in the parable of the net Jesus said, "The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous, and throw them into the furnace of fire" (Matt. 13:49-50).
The same theology occurs in Paul, though he uses the term "kingdom of God" infrequently. Writing about the resurrection, Paul speaks of Christ's resurrection as the first fruits, "then at His coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when He delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For He must reign [as King] until He has put all His enemies under His feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death" (1 Cor. 15: 23-26).
The book of Revelation is largely devoted to this theme. In chapter 19 the parousia or second coming of Christ is pictured, with Christ seen as a conqueror riding a white battle horse. He first destroys the antichrist, casting him into the lake of fire. He then turns upon the power behind antichrist, the devil, and destroys him (Rev. 20). In their interpretation of Revelation 20:1-4, evangelicals differ as to whether Christ's victory proceeds in two stages (premillennialism) or only one (amillennialism). But in both interpretations the goal or underlying theology is the same—the destruction of the enemies of God and man. In Revelation, as in Corinthians, the last enemy to be destroyed is death (Rev. 20:14).
In summary, the Old Testament has the idea but not the idiom of the kingdom of God. It envisages a coming of God Himself, or of a conquering Davidic King, or of a heavenly Son of Man coming at the day of the Lord to establish God's reign in the earth. In addition, there is the idea of a Suffering Servant, apparently unrelated to the other ideas The establishment of God's perfect reign on earth will mean the judgment of the wicked, the redemption of the righteous, and the transformation of the world by a mighty creative act of God.
The New Testament also has the kingdom of God as a central theme. Its further revelation does not basically change the Old Testament concept. The New Testament divides redemptive history into two ages: this age and the age to come. These are divided by the day of the Lord and the coming of the heavenly Son of Man, with whom Jesus identified Himself. Again the kingdom of God means the perfect reign of God, destroying His enemies and bringing salvation to the righteous. We may therefore define the kingdom of God as the perfect reign of God, destroying His enemies and bringing to His people the blessings of His reign. In the passages considered thus far, the kingdom belongs to the age to come and will be established only by a mighty, Supernatural act of God in the coming of the Son of Man, usually spoken of as the second coming of Christ. However, in further study of the Gospels from an Old Testament perspective, we find an utterly unexpected phenomenon. Jesus taught that He, the son of Mary and a well-known inhabitant of Nazareth, already was the Son of Man. As the Son of Man, He claimed authority on earth to forgive sins (Mark 2:10). As the Son of Man, He claimed to be Lord of the Sabbath, i.e., of the whole Old Testament law (Mark 2:28). This amazed and confounded people. When Jesus spoke of the coming of an eschatological Son of Man, their idea of what He meant was shaped by Daniel. But when He claimed that He Himself would be the heavenly Son of Man, they became confused. And when He further claimed to already be the Son of Man, their confusion deepened. For in the Old Testament the Son of Man is a heavenly figure who comes with glory, not as a man among men.
The confusion of the Jews deepened even further when Jesus taught that He, as the Son of Man, would fulfill the prophecy of the Suffering Servant. "The Son of Man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many" (Mark 10:45). Here was mystery indeed. The Old Testament concepts of the heavenly Son of Man and of the Suffering Servant seemed to be mutually exclusive. But Jesus reinterpreted the Old Testament in terms of His own person and mission, i.e., the heavenly Son of Man had appeared on earth as a man among men to fulfill the redeeming task of the Suffering Servant. In the future He would fulfill the prophecy of Daniel by coming to earth again with glory as the heavenly Son of Man.
In other words, Jesus interpreted His twofold mission in terms of the Son of Man. He had come as the suffering Son of Man to lay down His life to redeem men. In the future He would come as the glorious Son of Man to establish God's reign in the world.
The Two Dimensions of the Kingdom of God
All the texts examined have dealt with two eschatological aspects of the future kingdom of God. Thus, the kingdom of God, like Jesus' messianic mission, has two dimensions. The reign of God will be perfectly and fully established in the world when He comes as the glorious, heavenly Son of Man. The righteous will be gathered together to enjoy the blessings of God's reign. All their enemies, even death and Satan, will be destroyed.
But Jesus also taught that He was already the Son of Man and the Suffering Servant. Therefore the kingdom of God had already come to men. In Jesus' person and mission God was already acting to defeat His enemies and to bring to His people a foretaste of the blessings of His reign.
This is most clearly seen in Matthew 12:22-32. One of Jesus' most characteristic miracles was the exorcism of demons from satanically plagued men. One day, after He had cast out a demon, the Pharisees said it was clear that Jesus had power, but He was in league with the devil and therefore His power was satanic (Matt. 12:24). Jesus replied that this was ridiculous, for a kingdom divided against itself could not stand. Then He uttered one of the clearest statements on the kingdom of God found in the Gospels: "But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you" (Matt. 12:28). The power Jesus had over demons was not satanic. It was the power of God Himself. The power of God's reign—the very power of the kingdom of God—resided in Jesus. Then Jesus uttered a difficult saying: "How can one enter a strong man's house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man? Then indeed he may plunder his house" (Matt. 12:29). Satan is the "strong man." His house is this present evil age into which Jesus has come (Gal. 1:4). His "goods" are people possessed of demons. Jesus here claims to have bound Satan. We must realize that "binding" is a metaphor. Satan is an evil, fallen spirit. No bond with which men are familiar could bind him. Jesus claimed to have invaded Satan's realm and to have broken his power. The evidence of this is the millions of men and women since Jesus' day who have lived under the power of God's reign rather than of satanic bondage. This has happened because Jesus first bound the strong man and rescued people from his evil rule. Bible students differ on when Jesus bound Satan. In my view the whole mission and ministry of Jesus consisted of binding him.
The theme of Matthew 12 also appears in Luke 10. Jesus sent out seventy of His disciples to proclaim the message, "The kingdom of God has come near to you" (Luke 10:9). The disciples returned full of enthusiasm, saying, " 'Lord, even the demons are subject to us in Your name!' And He said to them, 'I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven' "(Luke 10:17-18). "Binding" and "falling" are both metaphors. Like Matthew, Luke says that the power of Satan has been broken. He has been toppled from his place of power by the power of the kingdom of God.
Without using the kingdom of God idiom, the book of Hebrews has the same theology of victory over Satan. "Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise partook of the same nature that through death He might destroy him who has the power of death, that is, the devil" (Heb. 2:14). The key to this verse is the meaning of "destroy." It does not mean to annihilate, to make nonexistent. Rather, the Greek word means to break the power, to render inoperative. Certainly Satan is not yet finally destroyed. This will occur only at the day of the Lord and the second coming of Christ. But by His coming—His incarnation—by His miracles, by His death and resurrection, Christ has broken the power of Satan. Men and women may now receive the kingdom of God—the reign and rule of God in Christ—and be delivered from bondage to Satan. No longer are we blinded by the "god of this age" (2 Cor. 4:4). Our spiritual eyes have been given sight. We see the power and glory of God embodied in Jesus Christ.
The Kingdom of God in Christ's Parables
The presence of the kingdom of God is taught in the parables of the kingdom (Mark 4; Matt. 13). The presence of the kingdom is a "mystery" (Mark 4:11, KJV). The Revised Standard Version translates the word "secret," but this is not accurate. "Mystery" is a technical biblical word which designates a plan or purpose of God, long hidden in the heart and mind of God, but in due time made public (Rom. 16:25-26). A mystery, then, is an open secret, a newly revealed truth.
This mystery is the truth that the kingdom has come to men in a hidden, veiled form before it comes in apocalyptic power. The glorious apocalyptic Son of Man has come among men in the humble carpenter of Nazareth, who fulfilled the mission of the Suffering Servant. The kingdom of God which will yet be disclosed to all the world in apocalyptic power has come to men in the meek and humble person of Jesus. In His person the kingdom which finally casts Satan into the lake of fire has come to render him a preliminary defeat.
The parable of the four soils (Matt. 13:4-9, 18-23) reveals that the announcement of the kingdom's presence through the word of the kingdom is not always successful. There are hard hearts into which this word does not penetrate. There are superficial hearts in which the word of the kingdom cannot thrive. There are thorny hearts in which the word of the kingdom is choked out. But then there' are good hearts in which the word of the kingdom bears fruit in differing degrees. The word of the kingdom, present in Jesus, must have a human response to be fruitful.
When the kingdom of God appears, it will bring salvation to the righteous and destruction to the wicked. Jesus placed this apocalyptic event in the indeterminate future. Meanwhile, the message and parable of the kingdom, present in His person, must be received to be fruitful. "Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it" (Mark 10:15). Present reaction to the kingdom in Jesus determines destiny in the day of the Lord (Matt. 13:24-30).
The parable of the tares tells of the action of the kingdom in the world. "The field is the world" in which the word of the kingdom has come (Matt. 13:38). In the Old Testament the coming of the kingdom disrupts society and divides men into the righteous and the wicked. Jesus taught that this will happen at the time of harvest—at the day of the Lord. Meanwhile, though the kingdom of God is present, it does not disrupt society. Like tares in a wheat field, the sons of the evil one and the sons of the kingdom grow together until the harvest. Then the separation, the judgment, will occur.
The parables of the mustard seed and the leaven teach the same truths. One day the kingdom will be like a great tree in which men—the birds of the air—may find a place. But like a mustard seed, the present manifestation of the kingdom is apparently insignificant. The presence of the kingdom in Jesus did not at once fill the earth. To outward appearances He was only a harmless Jewish carpenter and rabbi.
One day the kingdom will be like a bowl filled with leaven. It will have no competition. "The earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea" (Isa. 11:9). But now it is rather like a handful of leaven buried in a bowl full of meal. Some are disturbed because ancient extrabiblical literature says nothing about Jesus. But so be it. To an ancient historian His mission was not significant enough to record.
The parables of the pearl and treasure follow naturally. Even though the kingdom is present in a humble Suffering Servant, it is the kingdom of God and should be sought and received regardless of the cost. Jesus repeatedly told His disciples that if they would follow Him, they must take up their cross. A cross is an instrument of death. One should be willing to lay down his life for the kingdom's sake.
The parable of the dragnet teaches that the presence of the kingdom in Jesus initiated a movement which, like a net drawn through the waters of the sea, catches "fish" both good and bad. The separation will occur at the coming of the Son of Man. Meanwhile, the people of the kingdom—the fish—will be a mixed lot. Some will enter the eschatological kingdom. Others will not. We will not see a pure fellowship—a pure church—this side of the judgment.
So the kingdom of God has two manifestations. In the day of the Lord the Son of Man will come in power and glory to bring God's rule openly to all the earth. Meanwhile, the same kingdom—the same rule of God—has come among men to deliver them spiritually from Satan's power and the fear of death.
Whoever does not [now] receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it [tomorrow].—Mark 10:15.
1 Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from the Revised Standard Version.