I have chosen to divide this study into three parts: one a generalized overview of Gospel references, another of more detailed examination of a few points, and the third of its final consummation.
One outstanding contributing factor to the difference between an observable, practical view of Christianity and the theoretical “pie-in-the-sky-bye-and-bye” version is the understanding that a group promulgates of the Kingdom of God. Specifically, do they speak of it primarily in the present or the future tense?
Both of these occur in the gospel accounts, and elsewhere in the New Testament, but the Biblical balance is skewed heavily in the direction of the Kingdom as a present reality. Notice the prevalence of Jesus’ statements and his instructions to his disciples to echo them: “The Kingdom of God is (present tense) among you,” or, “The Kingdom of God has arrived” – eggiken – (perfect tense: a past event whose effect continues in the present and perhaps beyond). A few examples are in Lk.17:20-21; Mt.4:17; Mk.1:15; Mt.10:7; Lk.10:9-11.
Even more vivid, although frequently missed by English translators, is Jesus’ response to the hierarchy-types who accused him of a connection with the devil in his casting out of evil spirits, “If I am doing this by the finger [power] of God, then the Kingdom of God has gotten ahead of you!” (Mt.12:28 and Lk.11:20) Ephthasen is the aorist form of phthano, a rarely used word that speaks of one competitor in a race outrunning or overtaking another. The tense here, in both references, is aorist: something that has already happened!
Jesus put it even more plainly in Lk.16:16 and Mt.11:12: “The law and the prophets were (in effect) until John (the Baptizer). Since then, the Kingdom of God is being proclaimed!” (present tense). The King has arrived! The Kingdom exists wherever the authority of the King is recognized!
In his inaugural address (Lk.4:18-21), Jesus set forth the principles upon which his Kingdom would operate:
It would be good news to the poor, who had been despised and marginalized by a society that equated riches with God’s approval. (Does that sound familiar?)
He declared that he had been sent to announce (keruxai) release to the captives (explained at least partly in Hebrews 2:15). A “kerux” was a herald: the cultural equivalent of a news anchor – a public messenger of what was presently going on.
He would give sight to the blind (both physically and spiritually) – one of the most frequent manifestations of his power to heal.
He would set at liberty people who had been crushed by oppression (tethrausmenous). This is the only NT use of thrauno, which denotes an utterly helpless and hopeless condition. Tradition has interpreted this, and the earlier reference to “captives”, in a political sense: but Jesus did not. Neither did he postpone any of it to some sort of idyllic future. He rather affirmed, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled (perfect tense) in your hearing!”
His subsequent teaching – and activity – were simply a practical demonstration of his announced purpose: “proclaiming (keruxai again) the Lord’s accepted time.” An announcement is not a vague promise for some distant future: it is giving notice of a present event. (Eniauton refers to any defined period of time.)
Interestingly, when messengers come from John the Baptist asking about his identity (Mt.11:5, Lk.7:21), Jesus lists those same elements, with a few additions, as evidence that he is indeed “the one who was to come.”
This same orientation is present in the majority of Jesus’ parables about the Kingdom. Of eleven that he specifically says describe the Kingdom, 4 are clearly descriptions of present conditions and 6 contain both present and future elements. Only one – the sheep and goats scene in Mt.25 – focuses on the future, and even that relies on the evidence of the present behavior of those judged. (I have not counted parallels as separate events.) It is helpful to look at these in detail, but that is beyond the scope of this post. We will consider some outstanding elements of the parables in Part 2.
Jesus also found it necessary on several occasions to correct prevalent misconceptions about the Kingdom, some of which still persist, uncorrected, among his followers. The scribes, to whom he responded with one of his banquet parables, clearly had “bye-and-bye” in mind when they piously remarked (Lk.14:15), “whoever eats bread in the Kingdom of God is greatly privileged [blessed].” Jesus’ story points out that those invited do not all respond to the gracious invitation (16-24). Even more bluntly, he replies to a group fixated on a future kingdom (Lk.17:20-21), “The Kingdom of God is not coming with meticulous observations. Neither will they say ‘Look, here!’ or “There!’ For look: the Kingdom of God is already among you all!”
To those who expected that a final political consummation was imminent (Lk.19:11-24), Jesus gave a reminder that faithfulness (or lack of it) before “the end” governed the eventual outcome.
Even after the resurrection, the disciples were still asking, “Lord, is this the time you will re-establish the kingdom of Israel?” (Ac.1:6). Jesus’ reply communicates that their question is missing the point completely: he speaks instead of the gift of the Holy Spirit, who will empower the growth of his Kingdom among them.
During his time with them, Jesus had admonished his followers (Mt.6:33) to “keep seeking” for the Kingdom of God. This is a present imperative. And like most of his instructions, it is addressed in the plural – it is a mutual, group effort, not a lonely, individual quest.
He encouraged one scribe, who had responded thoughtfully in a discussion, “You are not far from the Kingdom of God” (Mk.12:34).
He told his disciples that they were privileged to have “the mysteries of the Kingdom of God” revealed to them, when he explained the meaning of parables (Mt.13:11, Lk.8:10), and urged them to dispose of anything that would hinder their participation in the Kingdom (Mk.9:47 and parallels).
There are similar indications in various epistles, of the contemporary nature of the calling to faithfulness. More of those later.
However, there are definitely aspects of the Kingdom that are not yet realized. Jesus also spoke (Mt.25 and elsewhere) of “when the Son of Man comes in his glory and the Father’s”, and several times of the Kingdom as an inheritance to be anticipated. Someone has characterized this apparent ambiguity as “living between the already and the not-yet.” Faithful followers must maintain this healthy tension, and neither discount the present nor ignore the future.
We will consider a few specifics in more detail in the next study.