According to Jesus, it’s impossible for Christians to properly understand the practical nature of the Christian life without properly understanding the nature of their citizenship in God’s kingdom. In fact, one of the primary biblical descriptions of Christians is that they’re citizens in God’s kingdom.
So what is the kingdom of God? Sinclair Ferguson defines the kingdom as “the rule and reign of God, the expression of his gracious sovereign will. To belong to the kingdom of God is to belong to the people among whom the reign of God has already begun.” George Eldon Ladd defines the kingdom as “the realm in which God’s reign may be experienced.” Simply put, the kingdom of God is a kingdom where God’s appointed King—Jesus—is presently reigning in and through the lives of His people, accomplishing His will “on earth as it is in heaven” (Mt 6:10).
The presence and purpose of God’s kingdom undergird the teaching of the whole Bible, exhibiting God’s plan—past, present, and future—for this world. The most exhaustive description of God’s kingdom, though, is given to us by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5–7), where He shows the kingdom of God to be central to His teaching and to the mission of God. Throughout this sermon, Jesus descriptively shows what kingdom living in a fallen world looks like, as the kingdom shapes our experience here and now.
It’s helpful to think of the Kingdom of God in three stages: inauguration, continuation, and consummation.
The Kingdom’s Inauguration
With the arrival of King Jesus to earth, God’s kingdom was inaugurated “on earth as it is in heaven.” To be sure, Jesus had always been Lord over all creation. “For everything was created by Him . . . He is before all things, and by Him all things hold together” (Col 1:16-17). Since the dawn of time, there has never been a moment when the Lord hasn’t reigned over all that He has made. But God’s reign and rule were demonstrated in new and dramatic ways when Jesus brought it from heaven to earth in a paradigm-shattering manner.
Previously, “He looked down from his holy heights—the Lord gazed out from heaven to earth” (Ps 102:19). Prior to the incarnation, the Lord ruled from afar (although His providential activity on earth never ceases). But then Jesus came and announced, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near” (Mk 1:15). The time had come; God’s kingdom was here with us. Here was God’s kingdom earthed.
With Christ’s first coming, God began the process of reversing the curse of sin and redeeming all things. In Christ, God was moving in a new way. All of Jesus’ ministry—the words He spoke, the miracles He performed—showed there was a new order: God’s order. When Jesus healed the diseased, raised the dead, and forgave the desperate, He did so to show that with the arrival of God in the flesh came the restoration of the way God intended things to be.
Tim Keller observes that Christ’s miracles were not the suspension of the natural order but the restoration of the natural order. They were a reminder of what once was prior to the fall and a preview of what will eventually be a universal reality once again—a world of peace and justice, without death, disease, or conflict.
The inauguration of God’s kingdom through Jesus began the “great reversal”—repealing the curse of sin and death, ensuring that God had begun the process of recreating all things.
The Kingdom’s Continuation
The continuation stage of the kingdom of God is the stage we are in now—living in between Christ’s first and second coming. It’s a stage marked by tension between present and future. We’re in the period of redemptive history often referred to as “already and not yet”: the kingdom is already here in true form, but not yet full form; it’s present in its beginnings, but still future in its fullness.
This guards us from an under-realized eschatology (expecting no change now) and an over- realized eschatology (expecting all change now). In this stage, we embrace the reality that while we’re not yet what we will be, we’re also no longer what we used to be. We’re like Israel during her wilderness wanderings—we’ve left Egypt, but haven’t yet entered the Promised Land.
The Kingdom’s Consummation
The third stage, the kingdom’s consummation, will take place when Jesus comes back and the process of reversing the curse of sin and recreating all things is completed (1Co 15:51-58). When our King returns there’ll be no more sickness, death, tears, division, or tension. The “peace on earth” which the angels announced the night Christ was born will become a universal actuality. God’s cosmic rescue mission will be complete. The fraying fabric of our fallen world will be fully and perfectly rewoven. Everything and everyone will live in perfect harmony. Shalom will rule. Isaiah 11:6-9 pictures it this way:
The wolf will live with the lamb, and the leopard will lie down with the goat. The calf, the young lion, and the fatling will be together, and a child will lead them. The cow and the bear will graze, their young ones will like down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox. An infant will play beside the cobra’s pit, and a toddler will put his hand into a snake’s den. None will harm or destroy another on My entire holy mountain, for the land will be as full of the knowledge of the Lord as the sea is filled with water.
For the pardoned children of God, there will be complete harmony when Jesus comes back. We’ll work and worship in a perfectly renewed earth without the interference of sin. We who believe the gospel will enjoy sinless hearts and minds along with disease-free bodies. All that causes us pain and discomfort will be destroyed, and we will live forever. We’ll finally be able “to enjoy what is most enjoyable with unbounded energy and passion forever.” Until then, the resistance remains; the combat carries on. But we can press on faithfully knowing that for citizens in God’s Kingdom, the best is yet to come.
On Monday, January 28th at 3:00 pm EST/2:00 pm Lifeway will host a webcast discussing the mission of God and The Mission of God Study Bible hosted by Ed Stetzer. You’ll be able to tune in at lifeway.com/theexchange.