In my last article, The Time-Complicated Nature of the Kingdom, I unpacked some recent developments in my understanding of Kingdom Theology. It's deep and paradoxical-type stuff, but as we will see in this article, its implications are profound and powerful. If you haven't read the last article, take a few minutes and do that now, otherwise this article will doubtless make no sense! But...if we're taking that last article as a given, what does this time-complicated picture of the kingdom mean? Here are some of the implications I've been able to work out:
The Kingdom is one time-complicated event
The first thread that becomes clearer when we wrestle with God's time-complexity and his kingdom is that we realize that in a real sense, there is only one kingdom event happening through the apparently-distinct events of Jesus' incarnation, ministry, death, resurrection, ascension, present activity through the Spirit, and second coming. When we draw a timeline and look at it through our time-simple reference point these look like a series of events unfolding in a progression. That being the case, from God's time-complex perspective they are not distinct events, but one eschatological event that has happened, is happening, and will happen. The whole thing is of one piece - this is the only way that Jesus could say in one moment "the kingdom has already come" and in another "the kingdom is yet far off."
The misunderstanding that has persisted since Jesus came is that we look for a time-simple experience of the kingdom: The kingdom of God will come (future tense), then God acts and it is coming (present tense), then the kingdom has come (past tense).
Our time-simple assumption of how the kingdom of God will work is what leads to the two most common pitfalls believers make:
Because we can see the kingdom in present tense in Jesus, then the kingdom must fully be here (it is now past tense). The "day of the Lord" in the above diagram is identified with Jesus' first coming. This sometimes goes by the name of "over-realized eschatology" and taken to the worst extreme can result in a denial of the present state of reality. People who are not healed are told that they are and so forth. This can be a really damaging point of view - it can distort truth and conflate faith with denial.
Because we can see the kingdom is not fully here, then the kingdom is all yet to come (it is now future tense). The "day of the Lord" here is identified with Jesus' second coming. This understanding understands Gods' world-redeeming activity as being exclusively yet-to-come. Sure, Jesus saved us, but the end of all things is still entirely to come. I would submit this is an "under-realized eschatology" and can result in a Christian life that has no direct connection with God's birthing of the new world in the present one. The believer's role is to help others get saved and walk with God while we wait for the day he finally sorts the brokenness in the world out.
Both of these viewpoints go wrong in that they start with the wrong model of understanding how the kingdom comes. The kingdom is not time-simple, it is time-complicated. A more accurate picture might look like this:
There is one thing that is happening in history through Jesus and that one thing (God's kingship) has the strange time-complicated nature that it has happened, and yet it is happening and is yet to happen. The Day of the Lord has already happened, and yet it is also today, and it is also yet ahead.
Jesus is the pivot-point of history
The diagram above makes an additional point clear: Jesus is history's pivot point. If the kingdom of God is one time-complicated event, then the timeline of cosmic history pivots around one transitional event: the shift from looking forward to the kingdom of God, to the time-complicated presence of that kingdom. There are only really two eras: the era of looking forward to that kingdom and the era of living in the time-complicated reality of it. Every other event in history finds its meaning through this single, great divine event upon which the cosmic narrative rests.
It is for this reason that everything leading up to Jesus, and everything thereafter, only makes sense in light of Jesus. Jesus is like the central-intersection in a town; everything else is measured from him. (Oh, you are 6 blocks west of...) This leads us to reading the Scriptures from a Jesus-centered hermeneutic. Even if we find ourselves long before or far after the time described by the gospels, those events still only find their meaning in light of the gospel events. To disconnect them from the pivot point in history is to remove the reference point that anchors them in the history of God's redemptive story.
The Now-Coming of Jesus
Another implication is that the first coming (the kingdom that has come) and the second coming (the kingdom that will come) require as well the now coming of Jesus (the kingdom that is coming right now). In fact, since the kingdom is one time-complicated event, the kingdom that is coming now is the same kingdom that came with Jesus' life and ministry, and the same as the kingdom that comes when Jesus returns again one day. This is incredibly powerful: whatever it looked like then (the kingdom that has come) reveals the nature of the kingdom that is coming now.
Understood this way, this means that we can look at Jesus and see what the kingdom looks like, and understand that the same kingdom is also impinging on our world. The kingdom hasn't changed: indeed Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever - Hebrews 13:8.
This realization presses into a greater sense of clarity the role of the Holy Spirit. When Jesus was enthroned at the right hand of the Father in heaven, he sent the Spirit of God (Acts 2:33) - his spirit (Philippians 1:19) - and through his spirit he continues to come into the world. The Holy Spirit enacts this now-coming of Jesus.
If the now-coming of Jesus is of one part with the past and future comings of Jesus, that forces our own experience of faith into one of radical expectancy. Jesus and his kingdom is at hand - just as it was 2000ish years ago! There is no way to understand this in a way that does not compel our faith towards action. God's kinging activity is at hand - in fact the exact same kinging activity that was at hand in the ministry of Jesus is at hand in our reality as well. Either that is true and something incredible can happen, or this whole thing is a fiction. The one response that one cannot have is indifference; inaction is the sign that this radical message has not been fully comprehended.
If this type of logic sounds familiar, you're probably remembering it from Romans 8:11, in which Paul employs the exact same line of thought: the resurrection reveals to us that inside the kingdom event is resurrection to new life. If it happened to Jesus as part of the kingdom that has come, then that means it will be a part of the kingdom that will come. His resurrection guarantees ours because it demonstrates that resurrection included in this time-complicated kingdom. This is why Jesus is the firstborn from the dead (Colossians 1:18), and as such is the new beginning.
The kingship of Jesus is total in all moments
This time-complicated understanding also helps us wrestle with an understanding that can sometimes be misunderstood as the crux of kingdom theology. Rather than a "Day of the Lord" event which initiates the kingdom, there is instead a redemptive process. The time-complicated picture implies that there is a process of God's kingship continuing to be established, but is not reducible to trading a redemptive event for a redemptive process. If we do not deeply wrestle with the layers of time-complexity here, it is easy to hear in an articulation of kingdom theology that part of the kingdom is here and part is still coming, so I guess God's kingdom is in some way working it's way out in the world?
This may seem like a subtle distinction, but what this thinking does is frame the kingdom as present-perfect tense event. Something that has started and is continuing to unfold. To frame the kingdom this way is to misunderstand it though, for a present-perfect tense is something that is framed in a tense-simple way. That is not the way that the Bible discusses the kingdom. The Scriptures contemplate that in a very real way, the kingdom has already fully come. Jesus has already been totally crowned king. The cross was already completely a victory and a finished work. Put another way, the kingship of Jesus is not partial now and increasing as time goes on, the kingship of Jesus is total and completed already. The kingdom is indeed past tense, it is just that the past tense of the kingdom does not mean it is not also present tense and future tense. Jesus has defeated every enemy (Colossians 2:15), and yet he awaits every enemy to be made a footstool for his feet (Hebrews 10:13).
How does that work? I don't know. What I do know is, unlike a present-perfect event, there is a very real way in which the kingdom has been fully brought in Jesus. Just because it is still coming doesn't mean it didn't already fully come. This is why Jesus is already being worshiped in heaven as The One who has conquered (Revelation 5).
Whew...okay! That's about as much as my head can handle today! It's hard to think about this stuff, isn't it? But it also clicks a bunch of stuff in the Bible into clarity too, doesn't it? I think, as hard as it is to wrap our heads around this (at least as much as we can with something so far outside our experience), it is worth it because what kingdom theology does is force its way into our ongoing experience of life. If this is all true, then it compels a response. If the kingdom of God really is at hand - if God is becoming king in my life today somehow - there is no way that doesn't change the way I see my day. There is no way it doesn't call me to attention, summon me to participation. I suppose in the words of Jesus, I am forced to repent (change the my mind about reality) and believe this gospel (Mark 1:15). And that repentance, that changing of my present life and aligning myself with God as he describes reality, is well worth the work.
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 toward the future God has for the church and the world.
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