January 23, 2018

The Kingdom of God

Preston Mayes

JulyAugust2013-coverIf someone asked you to summarize the message of the Bible in one sentence, how would you answer? You could say it is about the glory of God. That is true, but the statement does not adequately express the message of Scripture. Nobody summarizing the plot of a work such as A Christmas Carol would feel he had adequately described it by saying, “It is about the stinginess of Ebenezer Scrooge.” We want to know what happens to him in the story.

Alternatively, one could say that the Bible tells men how to be saved from sin. That is true too, but it again stops short of articulating the full message of the Bible. To use the Christmas Carol analogy again we could say, “The story is about the salvation of Scrooge.” The problem is that that statement still does not answer all the questions—for instance, what did he do once saved? What was the point of it all?

Without minimizing the importance of the glory of God and His provision of salvation for man, a full accounting of the message of the Bible must answer the question of why man was initially created, how the Fall hindered his ability to perform that function, and how his salvation will restore him to that original function. It is Scripture’s portrayal of the kingdom of God that provides that answer.

“In God’s kingdom, which he has set up by creating it, the special role he has assigned to humanity is that we should serve as his ‘under-kings,’ viceregents, or stewards. We are to rule over the creation so that God’s reputation is enhanced within his cosmic kingdom.”[1] At the end of the creation week, God made man and indicated what His role was to be (Gen. 1:26–28). God desired that man have dominion or headship over every other type of creature (fish, fowl, every living thing) inhabiting each of the earth’s environments (sea, air, and land). The first recorded act of Adam shows him performing this function as he assigned names to the various animals. He was also to “be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it.” In other words, man was to have offspring to help him accomplish this goal. Furthermore, man had a role to play in the care of plant life since he was placed in the Garden of Eden “to dress it and to keep it” (Gen. 2:15).

Naturally, these goals are not ends in themselves. This work is to bring glory to the God who created everything, including man. But even in the church age, every Christian who manages his work well brings glory to God simply by doing so. He manifests the creative genius of God, who made the universe and someone in His image to have dominion over it.

As human kingdoms have a specific location in which their jurisdiction operates, so did the kingdom as constituted by God. The location provided by God was simultaneously useful and beautiful. Humanity was lavishly provided with food from “every herb bearing seed . . . and every tree” (Gen. 1:29).The tree of life also stood in the middle of the Garden of Eden where Adam was placed (Gen. 2:9).The garden itself was a most pleasant environment. The trees were watered by a river that came out of the garden and parted into four separate rivers. The indication that the River Pison travels through the land of Havilah where there is gold, bdellium, and onyx creates the sense of a royal paradise, simultaneously boasting of precious metals, exotic wildlife, and varied plant life in a lush setting. Essentially, the kingdom of God involves “God’s people, under God’s rule, in God’s place.”[2] And as they lived there in His kingdom, they ruled on His behalf for His glory.

Genesis 1–2 also indicates that God’s kingdom demonstrates His goodness. He is, of course, powerful. Everything that exists was created by the mere word of God, and He did not in any sense tire from the effort. In a sinful world, power may be used or abused, but the text emphasizes that God employed His power only in beneficial ways. The creation of light, separation of water from dry land, creation of plant life, creation of the sun, moon, and stars, and creation of animal life are all followed by the notation “God saw that it was good” (Gen. 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25). The conclusion of the creation account again draws attention to God’s goodness, noting how “God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good” (1:31).

The theme of God’s goodness is further developed in Genesis 2. The Garden of Eden was a very good place, and Adam was told to eat freely from all that was growing there, the lone exception being the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The Lord took a personal interest in Adam and met with him there. The Lord was not distant from him, and they had a perfect relationship. In addition, the Lord created Eve and brought her to Adam. Adam and Eve would have enjoyed a perfect marriage, untainted and unencumbered by sin. To have been given this type of relationship was certainly the exclamation mark on the statement of the goodness of God to them both. When everything is considered, Adam and Eve had every reason to believe that the Lord was benevolent and could indeed be trusted. God had given them a grand role to play in a magnificent kingdom and everything they needed to oversee that kingdom. All that remained was to see if they would indeed embrace that role within the very good creation of their very good God.

As we know all too well, this kingdom arrangement was undone when Satan managed to create doubt regarding the good intentions of God. Eve was deceived into thinking that God was somehow unfair to them and that ultimate human fulfillment could be found only by disobeying God. Adam then chose to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and fell into sin. Man lost his unencumbered fellowship with God and was expelled from the Garden of Eden. His access to the tree of life was blocked. Sin had drastic repercussions for all of God’s kingdom since the harmony previously existing between mankind and the rest of the creation was fractured. The role of man as head, ably assisted by his wife as they ruled together over creation, had been ignored. A serpent had told the woman what to do, and Adam allowed her to lead him into disobedience. From now on, the relationship between husband and wife would be far more difficult than it had been. Their roles, though essentially unchanged, would become far more challenging. For Adam to secure food for his family would become much more trying. The ground, initially meant to provide a place where man could walk and talk with God, would reclaim the man through death and decay. Hostility would reign between man and the animal kingdom. The woman would give birth in agony.

As we know from both Old and New Testaments, God’s Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ has provided the means to save man from his sin, and we enjoy many of the benefits of that salvation now. God’s ultimate salvation, however, does not involve saving human beings only from their sin; it also involves a full restoration of man to that role he was originally created to fill. It is nothing short of the restoration of God’s kingdom. Revelation 21–22 outlines the extent of the restoration of God’s kingdom. The Lord will once again fellowship with man in a royal garden. The New Jerusalem is prepared by God Himself and is described as a new Eden. It is constructed of “pure gold, like unto clear glass” (21:18) and adorned with “all manner of precious stones” (21:19). As in Eden, a river proceeds from the throne of the Lamb and waters the tree of life, which is also there, and whose leaves are “for the healing of the nations” (22:2). As in Genesis 1, the role of the sun and moon is noted, only this time there is no need for them. The glory of God provides the light, and there is no need to shut the city gates for there is no night. The kingdom glorifies God as “the glory and honour of the nations” come into it (21:26).The dominion of man as God’s vice-regent is restored, and “they shall reign for ever and ever” (22:5).

It is this restoration of His kingdom toward which God has been working ever since the gospel was stated in embryonic form in Genesis 3:15. With an understanding of this broad narrative of Scripture, we can see how Israel under the Mosaic Law was constituted to function as a microcosm of God’s kingdom. The land of Israel was the place where God dwelled. He placed His presence there in the tabernacle and later the temple, structures also adorned with gold. Though this was certainly something less than the fellowship of God with man in Eden, it did represent His definite personal presence with Israel. If Israel would keep covenant with Him, He would send steady rains and provide abundant food. Deuteronomy 11:12 indicates Canaan is “a land which the Lord thy God careth for: the eyes of the Lord thy God are always upon it, from the beginning of the year even unto the end of the year.” The land was provided by Him and specially cared for by Him, just like Eden and ultimately just like the New Jerusalem. Israel would then function as a demonstration for the world of the blessings of submitting to the Lord God and entering into covenant with Him. Israel was, as we might term it, a missionary nation. In a pagan world that worshipped false gods in order to secure agricultural prosperity, they would see that the God of Israel was indeed the true God. Psalm 67:1, 2 speaks of this function as it states, “God be merciful unto us, and bless us; and cause his face to shine upon us; . . . That thy way may be known upon earth, thy saving health among all nations.” Israel was to demonstrate what life under God’s rule in His kingdom could be like.

Functionally, the church is similar to Israel in that it is designed to call lost men to be reconciled to God, to be a part of His kingdom. Of course, it does so much differently. It is scattered throughout the world as opposed to residing in Palestine, and since the Spirit of God now indwells individual believers he is present “where two or three are gathered together in my name” (Matt. 18:20). The church will also be present in the New Jerusalem and enjoy fellowship with God and the saints forever. But the question arises as to how the church and millennial kingdom should be understood to fit into this overall scheme. In what sense is it appropriate to identify the present church with the kingdom of God? If it should be equated with some sort of manifestation of God’s kingdom on earth now, to what degree should the church attempt to rule over the creation, especially in government structures controlled largely by people still in active rebellion against God? And what of the millennial kingdom? Is the idea of the worldwide prominence of Israel as outlined in the Old Testament prophets to be dismissed? It is to some of those specific questions that the following articles in this issue of FrontLine will now turn.

Preston Mayes is professor of Old Testament at Maranatha Baptist Seminary. He lives in Watertown, Wisconsin, with his wife and three children.

(Excerpted from FrontLine • July/August 2013. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)

  1. Craig G. Bartholomew and Michael W. Goheen, The Drama of Scripture (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004), 37. []
  2. Michael Hill, The How and Why of Love (Kingsford, Australia: Matthias Media, 2002), 55. []

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