Vol. 19 New Series October, 1957 No. 5
THE CHARACTER OF THE KINGDOM

Among the subjects about which confusion seems to be on the increase, in spite of all that various people have recently written about it, is the Kingdom of God; and it is high time we did something to clear away the fog. Recently a well known writer has set out thirteen Propositions about the Kingdom of God; but although much of what he says is sound he fails to get properly to grips with the subject and in several places in his discussion he confuses it hopelessly by injecting into his study incorrect assumptions which ruin it.

There is no hope of making any progress in this subject until those who write about it first approach it without any assumptions and preconceptions and until they start to think clearly and write clearly. It is no use, even, going to the Scriptures for light unless one is most careful to transcribe from them just what they say and unless one is determined to refrain from mixing them up into a sort of pudding, as it were. This is a very severe judgment; but the two quotations, below will not only show what is meant by it but justify its terms.

First: of Acts 17:31 it is said:

Now, how can a kingdom be a day? I think I have some idea what the author of this sentence means, but the whole concept is as slippery as an eel, and it is beyond my powers to set out in plain words what I suppose may be his meaning.

Second: of the day in Acts 28:23 it is said:

This is followed by the correct statement that "The kingdom of God was Paul's message for two years after Acts 28:28." Quite so—but where, then, is this supposed "great dispensational change"? This is an outstanding example of the technique of making a perfectly true statement convey a perfectly false idea by giving it an erroneous twist.

But this paper is not being put out as a criticism of this particular writer, still less as a further discussion of the Acts 28:28 "frontier" itself, about which sufficient has been said already; but as an attempt to clarify further the subject of the Kingdom. Unfortunately, the "frontier" theory has so confused this issue that we shall not be able to get away from it. The point of these preliminary remarks is that this "frontier" is a mirage; and chasing a mirage is about as profitable an occupation as a kitten chasing its own tail.

Why are so many of us so readily diverted from the Way by mirages of this sort? There is no word anywhere in the Greek Scriptures of the Kingdom being withdrawn or postponed—or suspended. The closing words of Acts show beyond any possible doubt that so far as Paul was concerned it was most definitely not suspended then.

Here I would pause to ask all supporters of the Acts "frontier" theory to consider most carefully just what supposed truth it is which they are trying so ardently to establish?

There must be some truth in an idea which evokes such enthusiasm, which fifty years ago carried away completely most of the finest Scripture students then living and many since. Now that we have demolished it, we can afford to examine and to praise what was true and valuable in it and integrate it into the real truth. Indeed, we ought to do this lest haply we go over to the opposite extreme and ourselves fall into error, though doubtless an altogether different one.

First, there can be no doubt whatever that Paul's meeting with those Roman Jews marked the end of his recorded ministry to Jews as such, and there can be little doubt that the recorded ending was the actual ending.

Second, there can be no doubt whatever that this circumstance ended any restriction which might have existed on the proclamation of the truths of the Prison Epistles.

No candid person will deny that these two consequences are of considerable importance; but can dour should compel us to admit that this importance has been grossly exaggerated. The words "might have existed" are the crux, As early as his first epistle to the Corinthians Paul wrote of "all the secrets and all the knowledge" (1. Cor. 13:2). These words are pointless if, at the time, Paul had not received all the secrets himself and been granted all the knowledge and, moreover, somewhat unreasonable if at least a few of his hearers had not done likewise or, at any rate, been eligible to do so.

There is no getting away from the plain fact that the Pauline calling had existed effectively on earth from the instant Paul himself was called and potentially from the pronouncement of Matt. 13:14, 15. The latter half of Acts primarily records the removal of Israel as a barrier to its setting-out; Paul's Epistles the setting-out itself. How far what was left of Israel's monopoly was really a barrier is perhaps a moot point; but it is arguable that except for the physical opposition of the Jews it was never an objective barrier at all, but purely a subjective one. In other words, an individual person's obstacle to entering fully into the standing of the Prison Epistles was not some pronouncement by God, or the need for waiting for some such pronouncement; but simply the difficulty of grasping it in the circumstances then current, in other words, the difficulty of attaining maturity. And that is still for most the obstacle. Paul surmounted it at a very early date. There is no reason to suppose that the apostles and prophets with him, and then other saints approaching maturity, did not soon follow him into full understanding. There is no need whatever to suppose that the circumstance that Paul had yet to meet the Roman Jews hindered in any way the approach to maturity of saints called from among the Gentiles, either in Rome or elsewhere.

The strength of this "frontier" obsession, based on a pronouncement made to Jews and not to Gentiles at all, is shown by the fact that the writer of the last quotation says "is sent" even now; though he must have known by this time that the original says "was sent"; but somehow the fact cannot penetrate below the surface of his mind. Its significance escapes him completely. We have, been told by another, in terms almost triumphant in tone, that the reading "was sent" has been perfectly well known to him all along, and that it is pointed out in the Companion Bible (p. 1659). Quite so! Then why on earth is it openly, even aggressively, ignored? This fact removes the last vestige of excuse for still insisting that Isa. 6:9, 10 was fulfilled at Acts 28 and not Matthew 13. There is something quite absurd about confusing a fact of history with its later announcement to people unaware of it.

Yet there must be some reason which seems to these men sufficiently strong to justify continuing in their chosen way in spite of all the evidence against it.

I suggest that this reason is that the character of the Kingdom has been misunderstood.

Practically everything written about the "frontier" idea refers in some way to the Kingdom. The opening quotations of this paper do. If we can get at the truth, and the whole truth, of the teaching of Scripture about the Kingdom, then there will be no need to write any more about the "frontier." The great stumbling-block to this is the character of the Kingdom. Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, and to a large extent in the minds of all Israelites during the period covered by the gospels and Acts, and, apparently, in the minds of all who believe in the "dispensational frontier" at Acts 28:28 "the Kingdom" means the earthly rule of Israel under their Messiah and King. Because this idea is wholly out of the question at the present time, it is assumed that the Kingdom! is in a state of postponement or suspense at the present time.

The point which they have overlooked is that this idea of the Kingdom has always been out of the question.

Moreover, it must continue to be so for a considerable time to come—until, in fact, Messiah is ready to take up His power and reign.

Probably this statement could be found, in some form or tucked away somewhere, in almost every "dispensational" book ever written. Yet in most of them its implications are not understood at all; for most of their readers continue to talk as if the idea of Israel's earthly Kingdom is the theme of the gospels and Acts.

It is not. All sorts of people wanted it to be the theme, the controlling feature, of their dealings with the Lord Jesus Christ. None of them ever got the slightest encouragement for any such idea. When, at the very start of Acts, the disciples asked about restoring the Kingdom to Israel, their question was gently pushed aside. Yet we are expected to believe that, somehow, it was the essential theme of the history in Acts. This account has eight references to the Kingdom (1:3, 6; 8:12; 14:22; 19:8; 20:25; 28:23, 31). Only one, the second, has any connection with restoring the Kingdom to Israel; and this is the One which the Lord Jesus deliberately avoids. Acts gives no support whatever to the idea that the setting up of God's Kingdom On earth, as foretold by the Hebrew Prophets might have, or even could have, taken place within the period covered by it. And, as already pointed out, the position as regards the Kingdom was exactly the same the day after Paul's pronouncement to the Roman Jews as it was the day before. So far as the account itself states, there was no trace at that time of any" dispensational" change, either as regards the Kingdom or, in sober fact, anything else.

The Apostle Paul's epistles have fourteen references to the Kingdom. Not one has even remotely anything to do with what has been called "the Messianic earth-rule" of the Lord Jesus apart (in a sense) from 1. Cor. 15:24, which records the ultimate giving-up of the Kingdom to God. Yet Luke ends the Acts account by telling us that for two whole years Paul remained in his own hired house, heralding the Kingdom of God, and teaching that which concerns the Lord Jesus Christ, with all boldness, unhindered. Paul indubitably regards the Kingdom "as a going concern," so to speak. Not one word has he to say about any "postponement" of it or any "suspension," any more than any other writer in the Greek Scriptures. This notion has to be read into them, as it does not exist in its own right. Yet many otherwise enlightened expositors persist in finding it.

The trouble is that an element of truth exists in the idea, but it is a partial truth thrown out of balance. This truth is that, for Israel, there is no other Kingdom than the earthly one foretold by the Prophets. The disciples in Acts 1:6 were quite correct in speaking of "restoring" the Kingdom to Israel. They were quite wrong in assuming that this restoration was primarily their Lord's intention in Acts 1:3 and they were quite wrong in assuming that "this time" was the appointed time for its restoration. The fact is that the disciples were at cross purposes with the Lord Jesus. They were thinking of Israel's earthly power and glory foretold by the Prophets. He was thinking of the Kingdom from an altogether different point of view, as the spiritual rule which must, in the nature of things, first be set up before the visible and personal rule of the King can appear on earth.

It is tempting, but very wrong and dangerous, to think of their idea as "the Kingdom according to flesh" and His as simply "the Kingdom in spirit." As Scripture does not use such expressions, we should not do so either. Why they are wrong is that Israel's future Kingdom, being one of Israel's future terrestrial blessings, is both according to flesh and in spirit; and that for Israel the two are necessarily inseparable. But their blessing necessarily has to be in spirit as well as according to flesh; so, until Israel are once more God's Covenant People, their earthly Kingdom must for them continue to lie in the future. They will not be His Covenant People because His earthly Kingdom is to be theirs; but His earthly Kingdom will be theirs because they will be in the fullest sense His Covenant People.

To enter His Kingdom they must first be His people. And that is true for us also. We must be His by faith in order to enter His glorious Kingdom.

The difference, and the essential difference, is that for us there is no earthly Kingdom, no promise of terrestrial blessing. Yet as we, one by one, become His people, we are rescued out of the jurisdiction of the Darkness and transported into the Kingdom of the Son of His love (Co1. 1:13).

And this is true for those of Israel to whom the Lord Jesus ministered on earth, as related in the Gospels. Nowhere at all in them is there any question of an immediate setting-up of the Kingdom in power and earthly glory, as a political entity, with the Lord Jesus Himself as King. Moreover, to do them justice, the churches called "Catholic" have always maintained (in theory, at any rate, even though the Papacy assumed temporal power) a witness to this truth, which we ought never to have overlooked, as far too many Protestants have done. The Pope's assumption of the title "Vicar of Christ" at least implied that he made no claim to be Christ Himself. Maintaining Truth as a whole is largely a matter of balance; many dispensationalists have failed in this respect by inclining too much to the concept of the Kingdom as one of rule over the earth itself. And many Protestants have failed either by denying to Israel the future fulfilment of their Messianic prophecies or, even worse, by arrogating these prophecies to themselves.

Dispensationalists in particular have gone to dangerous extremes of one sidedness. As the writer above quoted
says:—

Here he is, perhaps, too charitable in writing "certain," for this failing is almost, if not quite, universal among them.

He then goes on, in effect, to challenge all and sundry to define the Kingdom of God; but as so often with us fallible mortals, he is more successful in exposing the weaknesses of others' definitions than in setting up a better one himself, for not all his statements are themselves above criticism. He quotes, and dismisses as utterly worthless, a definition by Mr. C. H. Welch originally printed some 45 years ago arid repeated in The Berean Expositor for January, 1954; but forthwith he says himself:— "However, the term 'the kingdom of God' in the New Testament,
and especially in the language of the Lord Jesus, was always a future
reality."

"Always a future reality"—in the face of Acts 14:22; Rom. 14:17; Co1. 1:13; 1. Thess. 2:12; 2. Thess. 1:5. It is a pity that this so positive and self-assured writer has not yet told us plainly whether Matt. 16: 19 was fulfilled at Pentecost and, later on, for the Gentiles in Acts 10:44-46, and, if not, what actually did happen then.

No good or useful purpose is served by pretending that this matter is free from problems and difficulties; but it only adds confusion to it if we insist on shutting our eyes to the fact that in some form the Kingdom is in existence on earth now, even though certainly it is not set up in power anywhere. The assertion just quoted leads to a conclusion which is manifestly absurd. If the Kingdom was always a future reality, the sovereignty of God must have been a future reality likewise and therefore not a present reality. So, in New Testament times nobody was subject to the sovereignty, rule, order, government of God! Does this teacher actually believe that?

It is so easy to say that "Jesus Christ was sent to this earth to proclaim the kingdom of God," but that as it stands tells us very little. To proclaim it as something which lay wholly in the future for His hearers, or as something which they could enter into at once? The author of the above statement does not say. At one place he tells us that "the kingdom of God was the hope that Paul held out to his earliest converts"; on the very next page we are informed that "in the 33 years covered by the book of Acts, the first two stages of God's government were clearly seen. It began in the 'blade' stage on the day of Pentecost and advanced into the 'ear' stage as the months rolled on." Note, months, not years: yet to Paul's earliest converts years after, it was still a "hope,'" according to this teaching. So far as most Christians are concerned, this subject is just a mess; and such wild, reckless writing only makes the mess worse. Yet there ought not to be any confusion, and would not be if people would pause to think before they write and would use words with precision.

Suggested alternatives to the word "kingdom," such as sovereignty, rule, etc., have been proposed from time to time; but it is questionable whether they would go far towards clearing up the confusion which exists. To say that the Lord Jesus is Sovereign or Ruler adds nothing significant in this respect to saying that He is King. The trouble goes deeper than that. It is, in fact, failure to recognize the obvious point that all who subject themselves to the Lord Jesus Christ become members of His Kingdom. When He came, the Kingdom drew nigh. There is nothing surprising in this, it is what one would expect.

From the point of view of the ordinary Jew, of Israel according to flesh, in fact, the Kingdom which actually was heralded was a complete disappointment; neither King nor Kingdom was what he expected, or for that matter, what those expect who think of the Kingdom solely in terms of "Messianic Earth-rule." But it is not our place to lay down the law to God as to how He is to manage His Kingdom but to learn humbly from Him how He does manage it. This is not to say that the Kingdom will not, some day, be Messianic, set up in visible power and majesty; but simply that it is not so now and never yet has been.

Somehow, a synthesis of these two so widely different aspects of the Kingdom has to be found.

At the present time the essential fact of God's government on earth is that there is no government as we understand the term in ordinary human affairs. This paradox is set out in Romans 5. Judgment awaits the return of the King. It could, if He chose, operate at once in instant condemnation of a world which rejected and crucified Him; but grace and truth came with Jesus Christ and remained when He departed. That does not, in itself, imply that grace reigns; but there is something which, in conjunction with it, does. That is the fact that, after He ascended, He sent His Holy Spirit; so that, in spirit, His Spirit reigns in His stead. The resultant rule is wholly spiritual and therefore not material, political or according to flesh at all. "In spirit" is the keynote of all God's acts in this present period.

With exquisite precision this truth links up with other truth for our time and in particular what has been set out in these pages regarding Paul's Evangel and the Secret of Eph. 3:6-12. It also clears up the problems and difficulties to which "dispensationalism" has failed to supply a wholly satisfactory solution. The greatest of them is the standing and validity for us of the Sermon on the Mount. The favourite answer among the most enlightened students of Scripture has been that the Sermon has been set aside by "a change of dispensation." This idea has never been able to stand up to critical scrutiny; and now that the cruder notions of Dispensationalism have to be set aside, it has to be set aside with them. The Sermon, like all the teaching of the Lord Jesus, operates wherever the Kingdom is in operation in an appropriate setting. As the Kingdom is not of this world, the Sermon is not either; but it operates in and for the subjects of the Kingdom, in spirit. In consequence of this, the more general treatment of it in Matthew's Gospel requires temporary modification to suit the present restricted conditions wherein what is according to flesh is set aside. These modifications are displayed in Paul's Epistles, which are completely in harmony with the spirit of the Sermon on the Mount but which, entirely properly, neglect those aspects of it which are according to flesh.

G. K. Chesterton once wrote that it is untrue to declare that Christianity has failed, because it has never been tried. This is true, but only apart of the truth: it has never yet been possible to try it, because the conditions essential for such trial have never yet existed. This comment assumes that he meant "tried universally." The sort of "trial" now in progress, in which real Christianity is in actual fact an "underground movement," certainly cannot be reckoned a fair trial in Chesterton's sense.

The idea that we are individual members of an "under ground movement" is certainly startling, yet it is the truth. We differ from all other such movements in the world in one respect only: they all deliberately court secrecy for their plans; we can never get a fair hearing try how we may. Against our will we become a secret society because the world-powers of this darkness see to it that we can never become anything else.

This position is, needless to say, inherent in the present state of the Kingdom. Once we got full publicity and adequate use of modern propaganda methods, we would become a world-force. We do count now, but only as a force behind the scenes, as it were. Mistranslated, grievously misrepresented and misunderstood, God's Word speaks in some measure to millions; but as a still small voice. The loud, confident, clamorous pronouncements come from sources which are according to flesh, but in this era God speaks in spirit.

So, in this era, the true inner Kingdom has the same sphere of action as the church which is Christ's body, an organism which is wholly spiritual. This is because, so long as Paul's Evangel, which is wholly spiritual, is in operation, all God's earthly activities, including the Kingdom, must be celestial in character and destiny and wholly spiritual in nature. In the Kingdom, therefore, under present conditions rule is a relatively minor matter and, correspondingly, little is said about its Kingdom aspect and operations.

For "the Kingdom" is, by its very nature, a matter of rule and sovereignty; something which is and has a visible entity, at least in some measure. It may therefore, and does so far as its visible aspect goes, contain visible elements now which are only surface appearances and have no counterpart in its inward spiritual reality; which in consequence yield only feigned obedience to the King and which eventually will have to be cleared out (Matt. 13:41). This aspect needs to be studied; so what the Kingdom is like must be examined in another paper.

Do not let us dismiss all this as mere word-spinning, with no practical bearing on our lives and conduct. It matters, it matters very much indeed, in the practical affairs of our walk here and now, whether we are subjects of God's rule. Perhaps the most essentially practical chapter in the whole Bible, so far as we are concerned, is Romans 5; and its climax is essentially Kingdom truth: the reign of grace. The richness in synonyms of the English language has been purchased at the heavy price of confusion, in the minds of ordinary people, through the use of words with similar meanings but very different sounds. If we could say that as sin once kinged over us so grace now kings; we would see with no trouble at all what the fact that grace reigns is truth concerning God's Kingdom. Grace is primarily a matter of rule. It came with Jesus Christ, and the Evangel of Jesus Christ was in essence the Evangel of the Kingdom.

We may—many do—hold the truth of Romans 5 while denying that Kingdom truth is truth for ourselves; but such people are in fact holding only part of the truth, and holding that part upside down; and it is only by good luck rather than good management if it holds them at all—when it does. And too often it does not. It is far from certain that those who decry Paul's earlier epistles as "kingdom" or "circumcision" or "Jewish" writings are not unsound on reigning-grace—but this is a complicated matter which must await future examination.

R. B. WITHERS. Last updated 13.6.2006