God’s rule is one of the major themes of the Bible, running right through from Exodus to Revelation. In Exodus 19:6, God says to the slaves who have just been rescued from Egypt, “Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” And Revelation begins with this word of praise: “To Him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by His blood, and has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve His God and Father – to Him be glory and power for ever and ever!” (Revelation 1:5,6)
But a great deal had to happen between the promise and the fulfilment.
To begin with, the nation of Israel had no human king, but was a loose federation of tribes under the rule of God – who appointed and anointed judges from time to time, as the need arose. Samuel was the last of these judges; when he grew old, the people demanded the institution of a hereditary monarchy “such as all the other nations have” (I Samuel 8:1-8) Saul was appointed as king, but forfeited God’s favour by his disobedience. It was David who became Israel’s greatest king – the one with whom all others would be compared, and the recipient of God’s promise of an everlasting kingdom: “Your throne shall be established for ever.” (II Samuel 7:16)
Yet the kingdom did not last for ever. After just one generation, it split into two; later, first Israel and then Judah were invaded and conquered by pagan empires. Psalm 89 expresses the bewilderment of those who struggled to reconcile God’s glorious promise with the humiliation of their nation. But at the same time, the prophets began to speak in terms of a future King with an eternal Kingdom (Isaiah 9:1-7; Daniel 2:44, 7:13,14).
Then Jesus came, preaching a startling message: “The time has come. The Kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15) It was not what people had been expecting. The Kingdom of God (Matthew prefers to call it the Kingdom of Heaven) was no longer a vague entity in the distant future, but something to be grappled with in the present: “The Kingdom of God is within (or among) you.” (Luke 17:21) It was not going to be an exclusively Jewish Kingdom, either: it belongs to the poor (Matthew 5:3), the persecuted (Matthew 5:10), and the child-like (Luke 18:16) – and includes the Gentiles (Matthew 8:10-12). To explain what the Kingdom actually was, Jesus used parables (e.g. Matthew 13): it is like wheat growing in a field, like a mustard seed growing into a tree, like yeast spreading through dough, like hidden treasure, like a fisherman’s net… Most of these analogies emphasise its slow and steady progression; some, however, point to a decisive moment “at the end of the age” (e.g. Matthew 13:47-50).
However, Jesus’ followers struggled to escape from the mindset in which they had been brought up. (Luke 19:11; Acts 1:6) He had to emphasise that there would be a delay between His defeat of sin and death on the Cross and His final triumph on earth – a ‘gap’ to be filled by the evangelisation of the world. “This gospel (= good news) of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.” (Matthew 24:14) This work was begun by the apostles: Paul, for example, “preached the kingdom of God” in Ephesus (Acts 20:25) and in prison at Rome (Acts 28:31). And we are the ambassadors of God’s Kingdom today.
If we are to proclaim the Kingdom of God, we need to understand what it is. It is, quite simply, where God rules. All Christians are “citizens of heaven” (Philippians 3:20) and owe our allegiance to the King of kings (Acts 17:7). “For the Father has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the Kingdom of the Son He loves.” (Colossians 1:13) We are, in a sense, ‘outposts’ of God’s eternal Kingdom, located in time and space like embassies in a foreign country; we have the ‘down payment’ of the Kingdom – the Holy Spirit within us – but are still awaiting our full inheritance (Ephesians 1:13,14). Only at the end of time will Christ’s reign be unopposed. “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ, and He will reign for ever and ever.” (Revelation 11:15)
“Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe.” (Hebrews 12:28)