The Time-Complicated Nature of the Kingdom

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February 1, 2022
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Kingdom of God
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The last number of months, I've had the chance to be in a theological mentoring group that is dedicated to exploring kingdom theology. It has been a fascinating experience which has made me engage and wrestle with a bunch of materials from theologians who have been on the front line of developing and articulating the theology of the kingdom of God.

For those who are wondering, some of the recent books I've been engaging with lately on this subject are:

It's been a fascinating and illuminating experience, and along the way it has changed the way I understand and represent the message of the kingdom. It's something I've been processing quite a bit lately and I thought I would give a try to write it out and see how it goes. With this change in articulation, I have found a freshly inspired enthusiasm stirring in my being to live and share this message. If it's beneficial to you, I'd love to hear that as well!

A Few Foundational Framing Things

At the start of this conversation, I'm going to assume a few things and carry them forward. If this is new, there is plenty to be said on each of these individually, but not the time in this particular article. So with that, let me take as a given:

1) The Kingdom Message is the primary message and ministry of Jesus. This means this whole conversation is of extreme importance. Anyone who is a follower of Jesus needs to be carrying the same message as he did.

2) Jesus' context was ripe with eschatological expectation. Historical sources reveal to us that the Jews of Jesus' day were anticipating a dramatic intervention of God which would result in the renewal of the world under the Lordship of Yahweh.

3) When Jesus says "Kingdom of God", he is referring to God's act of ruling. Ladd phrases this in the language of "reign" instead of "realm". Said another way, what Jesus is talking about with the kingdom language is the action of God's intervention (which is understood against the backdrop of point 2).

This is all floating in the background when we take a look at what Jesus proclaims and lives out; this thing called the "Kingdom of God".

Upon reflecting a bit on points 2 & 3, it's clear that Jesus is intentionally speaking into the context, something with loaded meaning. The Jews of that day would be hearing and seeing exactly what they have been anticipating: God was in the process of acting in history in a way to wrap up the human story and set all things right.


Jesus' Puzzling Descriptions

One of the tricky parts of this however, is the way that Jesus talks about God's action in history (the kingdom). In various contexts, Jesus expresses a set of things that seem to be mutually contradictory:

God's kingdom has already happened
But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. Luke 11:20
Being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, he answered them, “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 17:20–21
God's kingdom is happening right now
And he went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people. Matthew 4:23
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 5:3
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” Mark 1:14–15
God's kingdom is yet to come
As they heard these things, he proceeded to tell a parable, because he was near to Jerusalem, and because they supposed that the kingdom of God was to appear immediately. Luke 19:11
So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. Acts 1:6–7
“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and gathered fish of every kind. When it was full, men drew it ashore and sat down and sorted the good into containers but threw away the bad. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous Matthew 13:47–49

What to make of this strange set of sayings has been the subject of much theological inquiry for the last century. Scholars using various tools called Historical Criticism have landed in a variety of places: usually invalidating either the past and present texts (in which case Jesus teaches only about. a distant future intervention of God and is reduced to an ethical teacher), or they invalidate the future texts (in which case Jesus taught a forthcoming divine inbreaking that never happened and was hence incorrect). It was the contributions of Kummel, Cullman, Ladd and others that pressed deeper and proposed that somehow it might mysteriously be a both-and. Let's press that direction even further yet.


God and Time

If we step back and look at the subject of God and time more broadly, there are actually a number of interesting things the Bible articulates about God and time. God is described as king over time (that's what the phrase "King of the ages" means - not king in every age, king over the ages themselves):

To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen. 1 Timothy 1:17

God's interaction with time is described as happening both faster and slower than ours:

But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. 2 Peter 3:8

Clearly God's relationship with time is, well, complicated. This is actually a part of the story from a very early moment. When Moses is talking with God and asks the divine name, God answers in a famously cryptic reply:

Then Moses said to God, “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel: ‘I AM has sent me to you.’” Exodus 3:13–14

The divine name Yahweh is in this verse translated as "I am who I am". My ESV bible actually adds a footnote: "or I will be what I will be". The point is that there is no tense attached, and it could equally well be translated as, "I was who I was", "I am who I am" or "I will be who I will be." This set of alternatives isn't meant to reflect a capriciousness in God's character, but rather to point to the fact that the language is intentionally ambiguous. God is trying to point to the fact that time works differently for him than it does for us. This article translates the divine name in an interesting way. Yahweh: I Am/Was/Will Be Who (or-What-or-That) I Am/Was/Will Be.

This thread of time/tense ambiguity runs right through the Bible and is picked up in the book of Revelation:

And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and within, and day and night they never cease to say, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!” Revelation 4:8

"was and is and is to come" is an intentional echo to "who I was/who I am/who I will be" from the divine name as revealed at the burning bush. The same idea is said of Jesus as well:

Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. Hebrews 13:8

What is the point of all of this? It's not just that time is weird with God - it is that with God, his time weirdness takes a particular shape. More specifically, it takes a shape that relates to tense in a way that isn't possible for us created beings.

I like charts, so let me illustrate this with a picture. Suppose I were to create a chart that pictured how the tense of a given action progressed. If I looked at tense with the action of eating breakfast on a particular day, it would proceed from future tense (I will eat), then jump to present tense (I am eating) to past tense (I ate).

My time-simple tenses

This chart illustrates that I am time-simple: my actions can only exist in one of past/present/future tense at a time. Once I am eating breakfast, I cannot say "I will eat breakfast" anymore. (More technically, I can say that eating can be a present continuous action, but the action is present continuous, not past in tense. Suffice it to say that grammatical analysis at this level this whole argument continues to hold up, and I don't want to get lost in the weeds on that particular point right now).

What the Bible tells us about God is that paradoxically, he is not time-simple. He is time-complicated. He is the God who at a given moment of praise can simultaneously be described as "was (being) and is (being) and will be (being)" all at once. As the creation intersects God, God doesn't exist in one tense at a time, God exists in all tenses at once. He is time-complicated:

God's time-complicated tenses

Just trying to understand this kind of thought process can break our heads! If God is time-complicated, then we're saying that God can be doing an action and at the same time have simultaneously already finished it! (To say nothing of yet to be doing that action in the future). This is probably one of those mysteries like the Trinity that we can work to articulate but will always seem confusing.

Confusingness aside, once we accept this, we start to see strange references to this kind of thing all over the Bible. Here is one:

All inhabitants of the earth will worship the beast—all whose names have not been written in the Lamb’s book of life, the Lamb who was slain from the creation of the world. Revelation 13:8 (NIV)

When the Time-Complicated God becomes King

Bringing this whole subject full-circle, this idea of time-complexity starts to click Jesus' confusing statements about the kingdom into clarity. What Jesus is articulating in his kingdom sayings is that the time-complicated God is becoming king.

This is a different idea than what is often articulated by kingdom theology. Often kingdom theology is framed as first a theology of redemption as a process: that God did something when Jesus came, he will complete the job when Jesus returns, and he continues to be active in the meanwhile. Framed this way, the shift that Jesus brings to the Jewish expectation is that what was expected to be one event (the Day of the Lord) is a two-stage (or multi-stage) event instead.

I'm suggesting that something more fundamental is happening here: God acting in history to become King in Jesus is actually one event, it is just a time-complicated one because God is time-complicated. Jesus' teaching on the kingdom is essentially this: Yahweh has become/is presently becoming/will become King, because that's the only way that action can be constructed. In fact, if we revisit the worship in the throne room in Revelation 4, that is just about precisely what is being said:

“Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!”

Lord God Almighty - two references to the kingship of God (to say nothing of the throne God is seated on). Holy, holy, holy is the God who was the ruling king, who is the ruling king, and who will be the ruling king.

When the time-complicated God acts, that action works through into our experience of time and history in a complex and paradoxical way. Paradoxical, but not impossible to work out some of the implications. As we'll see in the next article, this time-complicated picture works out and implies a bunch of fascinating and important things, but let's leave that to the next article - this one has already been long and mind-bending enough. For now, let me leave you with this:

God has become king in Jesus, God will become king in Jesus, and God is becoming king in Jesus right now. In this world, in your life. Wherever you are, whatever you do, if God has become king in Jesus and will become king in Jesus, then he is becoming king in Jesus right now. He is establishing his rule, setting the wrong things right and bringing the world into the Father's design. Open your eyes and tune in to God's kingship in the present moment, for the time-complicated kingdom is active in our midst. It beckons for your partnership.

Putty Putman's Spirit-inspired innovative insights come from his wild journey with Jesus from physicist to pastor to entrepreneur to author and speaker. His three main passions are the Holy Spirit, effective communication, and journeying towards the future God has for the church and the world.

Putty founded the School of Kingdom Ministry and spent eleven years as a pastor on the staff team of The Vineyard Church of Central Illinois. He is now serving as a pastor at The Chapel and preparing to church pioneer in Phoenix, Arizona. He is the author of two books, and lives with his wife and three children in Mundelein, IL.

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