What is the kingdom of God? The answer cannot be reduced to a word study of the term kingdom. That would be a helpful exercise, but the Bible describes the kingdom even when the word is not used.
Any kingdom will consist of a king, his realm, its citizens, and the law that regulates their lives. This is true of God’s kingdom as well. What follows is a short overview of the Bible’s presentation of God’s rule over God’s people in God’s place according to God’s law.
Adam is not called a king, but God gives him dominion (Gen. 1:26–28). From the garden forward, God exercises His authority through human rulers, whom He calls to act as His vice-regents. Satan sought to usurp God’s throne, and Adam betrayed the Ruler of the world (3:1–7). God spoke judgment on the Serpent, however, and in the word of judgment came also a promise of redemption (v. 15).
This pattern seen in the garden was repeated once Israel entered the Land of Promise. Just as God had given Adam dominion, so Israel inherited the land, God’s authority being exercised by the Word He spoke to them. Adam rebelled. Israel and her kings followed in his footsteps. God spoke judgment through the prophets, and as Adam was exiled from God’s presence in Eden, Israel was exiled from the land. Here, too, though, promises of redemption permeated the words of judgment, the prophets pointing to a glorious latterday restoration.
After the exile, Israel was restored to the land. Though promises were partially realized, the people continued to wait for the desert to bloom. Then the long-time-coming Messiah, the King of Israel, Jesus, arrived.
Jesus exercised God’s authority in word and deed, commanding unclean spirits and elements, rolling back disease and death. In the plot twist of the eons, Jesus conquered by being killed, gave life by being put to death. Being judged, He brought promised judgment on the Serpent, overcoming the treachery of Adam and Israel’s kings, casting out the usurper and laying claim to God’s kingdom by passing through death to resurrection.
Christ the King then gave gifts to His church, appointing men as Apostles, prophets, and evangelists, and giving pastors and teachers to shepherd His people until His return (Eph. 4:8–11). The undershepherds of the High King mediate His rule through the ministry of the Word. He will return, exercise everlasting dominion, and wear many crowns (Dan. 7:14; Rev. 19:12).
First, Eden was God’s place; after our exile therefrom, God met with Abraham and his sons at particular places. He then met Israel at Sinai, the mountain of God, before leading them into the new Eden, the Land of Promise. At Sinai, God gave Israel the tabernacle, which was later replaced by the temple. Then Jesus came and replaced the temple: in Him God was present, and He became the place where forgiveness of sins was made possible. Jesus gave His followers the indwelling Spirit and authority to forgive and constrain sin, making the church the new temple. Jesus will return and cause the glory of God to cover the dry lands as the waters cover the seas, and then, in the new heaven and earth, the new Jerusalem will be what the Holy of Holies was in the temple: the throne room of God and the Lamb.
God speaks of the seed of the Serpent and the seed of the woman in Genesis 3:15. In this context, He speaks the words cursed are youonly to the Serpent (Gen. 3:14). When these words are later spoken to Cain (Gen. 4:11), echoing over Canaan son of Ham (9:25), we see that those who continue in unrepentant opposition to the Lord and His people descend from their father the Devil (see also John 8:44; 1 John 3:8–15). By contrast, the seed of the woman are those who repent of their sin, believe the promises of God, embrace God’s authoritative Word, and keep the commandments of God and the testimony of Jesus (Rev. 12:17).
When God made Adam His vice-regent, God’s Word regulated and empowered him, giving both permissions and prohibitions. We see this dynamic again in Israel, as her kings were to enforce God’s law, being subject to it themselves. Jesus came as the living Word. He was the embodiment of God’s teaching, and He fulfilled the law. God continues to exercise His authority through His Word in the current expression of His kingdom, the church. With the new covenant inaugurated, God’s law is written on our hearts (Jer. 31:33; 1 John 2:20–27), and when Jesus returns, “we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2).
God’s kingdom consists of God’s rule over God’s people in God’s place. God has established His King, Jesus, and by His Spirit He gives life to His people through His Word. God’s people are now sojourners and exiles, making their way through the wilderness to God’s place — the Land of Promise, the city with foundations, the new Jerusalem, the new heaven and the new earth. The kingdom belongs to the Lord, and He will rule over His people in His place according to His Word.
This post originally appeared in Ligonier’s Tabletalk magazine and can be found on their site here.
Bibliographic info: James M. Hamilton Jr., “Kingdom,” Tabletalk (vol. 35 no. 11 November, 2011), 20–21. [the subtitle "God's place" is at the top of p. 21].