The old hymn by Fanny Crosby begins with these words: “Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine! Oh, what a foretaste of glory divine!” This remarkable stanza reflects a lovely reality in Scripture that gives believers unwavering hope in times of tumultuous trials and troublesome temptations: we fellowship with Jesus Christ now, but this is only a preview of the eternal fellowship that is yet to come. This is what theologians refer to as the “already/not yet” tension of eschatology (that branch of theology which deals with the future and last things). The “already” refers to the blessings of salvation and the kingdom of God that believers enjoy in this age, and the “not yet” refers to those same blessings which will be fully realized in the consummation when Christ returns. And this tension between the “already” and the “not yet” may be seen primarily in the Bible’s teaching regarding the kingdom of God.
The Nature of the Kingdom of God
One of the great themes of Scripture is the “kingdom of God,” which simply refers to God’s rule and reign in the hearts of His people who have submitted to His kingly dominion.1 The concept of the kingdom of God begins in and continues throughout the Old Testament,2 as it is dominated by a forward-looking anticipation of its arrival with the advent of the Messiah, who would restore God’s rule in the hearts of sinners whose rebellion is the result of the Fall. And at first glance, all the Old Testament expectations and prophecies regarding the kingdom of God appear to depict a literal kingdom characterized by triumphal victory, nationwide prowess, and Israel’s restoration to supremacy. After all, God promised that He would gather His people, establish the throne of David forever, and send a Messiah upon whose shoulders would be everlasting government (Jer. 23:3-4; 2 Sam. 7:9-13; Isaiah 9:6). Therefore, it is only natural that the most popular Jewish vision of the kingdom of God was interpreted solely in physical and political terms. For them, the arrival of the kingdom of God would entail God’s ultimate victory over evil, Israel’s vindication and restoration, and the fulfillment of all the promises made to David regarding his throne and rule.3
However, it is not until one turns the page from Malachi to Matthew that the kingdom of God is defined in terms of an invisible and spiritual nature, which is primarily emphasized by Christ’s own testimony regarding the kingdom. As Jesus begins His public ministry, He repeatedly demonstrates that the kingdom promised in the Old Testament was not to be reduced to a purely political or geographical concept. Rather, as theologian Herman Bavinck observed, “Jesus introduces a new understanding of the kingdom: it is religious-ethical and not political; it is present in repentance, faith, and rebirth, and is yet to come as a full eschatological reality.”4 And nowhere is this spiritual understanding of the kingdom more clearly expressed than in Jesus’ response to the question of the Pharisees about the coming of God’s kingdom: “The kingdom of God is not coming in ways that can be observed, nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you” (Luke 17:20b-21, emphasis mine). Thus, according to Christ, the kingdom of God that He came to usher in was initially a spiritual one, inaugurated as He thwarted demonic oppression and restored the rule of God within the rebellious hearts of sinners.
Furthermore, when Jesus was pressed to claim literal kingship by Pilate, He replied, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world” (John 18:36). Similarly, when Jesus was given the best opportunity to become an earthly king, He abandoned the scene, demonstrating that He had no interest in ruling over a purely earthly kingdom. As John wrote, “Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself” (John 6:15). Finally, that the kingdom Jesus ushered in was spiritual and not physical is apparent from His statement that entrance into the kingdom requires one to be, “born again.” As Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3).5
The Inauguration of the Kingdom of God
Now that it is abundantly clear that the arrival of God’s kingdom was meant to be understood in spiritual terms, it must also be emphasized that the Scripture teaches that the coming of God’s kingdom is to occur in two stages. That is, the “inauguration” of the kingdom of God began with the first advent of Jesus, and the “consummation” of the kingdom will commence with the second advent of Jesus. Jesus ushered in the “beginnings” of the kingdom by His first coming, and the kingdom will be fully realized when Jesus returns bodily to subject all things to Himself and finish the work of redemption that He began. Thus, the kingdom of God manifests itself in two of the most significant redemptive events: the first and second coming of Christ.6 As Cornelis Venema observed, “What from the vantage point of Old Testament expectation appeared to be a single movement has now in the New Testament become a twostage movement. Whereas the Old Testament saw only one great, future Messianic age, coinciding with the coming of the Messiah, the New Testament further reveals that the present Messianic age awaits its consummation at Christ’s coming again.”7
The kingdom of God first appeared with the arrival of the King, Jesus. He preached that the kingdom of God was “at hand” (Matthew 3:2; Mark 1:15). He also declared that the kingdom of God had “come upon” the people because of His ministry through the Holy Spirit (Matthew 12:28). He even instructed His disciples to preach that the kingdom of God had arrived (Luke 10:9). Thus, according to Jesus’ own testimony, the kingdom of God became dynamically active and present in His person and mission.8 Indeed, all throughout the Gospels, Jesus has an awareness that He was the promised “son of man” depicted in the book of Daniel as receiving and ushering in “glory and a kingdom” (Daniel 7:13-14).9
The Consummation of the Kingdom of God
However, as Jesus’ own words make clear, only the inauguration of God’s kingdom occurred during His first coming—there was more to come. Jesus instructed His disciples to pray, “Your kingdom come” (Matt. 6:10a), indicating that the kingdom of God had not yet arrived in its totality. Jesus also spoke of a future day when He would “recline at table” with His disciples (Matt. 8:11-12). And most notably, Jesus assured His disciples during the Passover meal, “I tell you I will not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom” (Matt. 26:29, emphasis mine). Even Jesus’ sayings in the Beatitudes imply that His followers currently possess the kingdom of God, but have yet to fully possess it.10 As Christ said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven . . . Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” (Matt. 5:3, 5, emphasis mine).
The Already/Not Yet Tension
Because of this, author George Eldon Ladd observed, “For Jesus, the Kingdom of God was the dynamic rule of God which had invaded history in his own person and mission to bring men in the present age the blessings of the messianic age, and which would manifest itself yet again at the end of the age to bring this same messianic salvation to its consummation.”11 Thus, because of this “already/not yet” paradigm regarding the kingdom of God, there is no contradiction between Jesus’ proclamation that the kingdom of God was “at hand” and John’s promise that the kingdom would be fully realized at some point in the future (Rev. 11:15). This is why Paul can rightly call Jesus the Lord who is “highly exalted” (Eph. 1:22-23; Phil. 2:9) without contradicting the writer of Hebrews, who said, “At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him” (Heb. 2:8c). Paul even stated that Christ is King now, but the kingdom of God over which He reigns has yet to be fully effectuated: “[Christ will deliver] the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet” (1 Cor. 15:24b-25). The kingdom of Christ is thus present still now, but not yet fully established—which is why it is sometimes called a “semirealized” kingdom.12
And this is the tension the believer is currently experiencing. Those who are saved by grace through faith are members of “the kingdom of his beloved Son” (Col. 1:13), but are living in a world dominated by the “prince of the power of the air” (Eph. 2:2). Believers have been made “a kingdom, priests to his God and Father” (Rev. 1:6a), but they must wait for the day when they shall reign in the new heavens and new earth with God and the Lamb (Rev. 22:5). For the believer, being part of God’s kingdom is joy-producing now, but the best is yet to come.13 And the good news is that the believer may still experience the profound blessings of the “already” while awaiting the “not yet.” As John Calvin aptly stated, “Earth is where we begin to taste the sweetness of God’s blessings, and where we are roused by the hope and the desire to see them fulfilled in heaven.”14
- A similar definition is found in Akin, Daniel, A Theology for the Church (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2014), 674.
- Granted, the Old Testament never uses the phrase, “the kingdom of God.”
- For more on the Jewish viewpoint of the kingdom of God, see especially Storms, Sam, Kingdom Come: The Amillennial Alternative (Scotland: Christian Focus Publications Ltd, 2012), 337.
- Bavinck, Herman, Reformed Dogmatics (Grand Rapids: Baker Publishing Group, 2011), 405.
- I owe this final observation to Wiersbe, Warren, The Bible Exposition Commentary, Volume I (Colorado Springs: Victor Books, 1989), 112).
- George Eldon Ladd said it well: “The Kingdom of God involves two great moments: fulfillment within history, and consummation at the end of history.” Ladd, George E., The Presence of the Future (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1974), 218.
- Venema, Cornelius P., The Promise of the Future (Edinburgh, UK: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2000), 28.
- This is Anthony Hoekema’s argument in The Bible and the Future (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1979), 43.
- Bavinck, 406.
- This is the assertion of George R. Beasley-Murray in Jesus and the Kingdom of God (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1986), 157-168.
- Ladd, 307.
- This is how it is referred to by Michael Horton in Pilgrim Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), 219.
- Akin, 701-702.
- Calvin, John, A Guide to Christian Living (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 2009), 96.