To others it means a present spiritual rule of God operating by faith only in the hearts of voluntary subjects.
Both answers are true, but either answer alone without the other is only part of the truth.
Unless the term "kingdom" is defined according to its usage in the original Greek text,its Scriptural meaning is often misunderstood. In contemporary English literature it suggests some manner of political realm; not only the government but also the land and its people. The meaning of the English word "kingdom" is therefore something concrete or material but the Greek BASILEIA which "kingdom" is made to represent serves basically as an abstract term, limited to RULE or GOVERNMENT, having no essential and direct reference to some land or people over which the government may rule.
Yet it is true that the operation of any such rule or government may imply some object over which to govern, so the term "kingdom" does at such times indirectly suggest also a land and its inhabitants, but "kingdom" as it appears in Scripture is frequently used only in the sense of rule or reign with no essential reference to territory or people. In such cases it is wrong and untrue to draw any inferences of an earthly kingdom.
In the New Testament Scriptures the Greek word BASILEIA is always rendered as "kingdom;" a total of 150 times or more; and in many of those instances it does NOT allude to any earthly dominion or its inhabitants. There are passages, as we shall note here later, where a "kingdom" is declared to be something not visible to the physical eye and having nothing to do with such essentials of earthly habitation as food and drink. In such cases "kingdom" is exclusively spiritual.
In Old Testament Scriptures the Hebrew word MALEKUTH is rendered as kingdom something like 49 times but in 21 other passages it appears as "reign." Since the Old Testament is primarily concerned with Israel, God's covenant people, and such promises as were made to them alone, the Hebrew MALEKUTH is often but not always representative of a land and its people. In many instances the meaning reflected by the context is limited to an abstract sense; as for example, where it refers only to the duration of rule by some certain king. There it properly appears not as "kingdom" but as "reign;" for instance, "the fortieth year of the reign of David" (I Chron. 26:31).
In many passages of the New Testament, if the Greek BASILEIA had been rendered as "reign," it would have been an ideal choice; especially where the context indicates no earthly dominion was intended. In fact, "reign" as a verb is consistently and properly used for the Greek verb BASILEUO, so it is unfortunate that the noun BASILEIA was not more discreetly rendered also as "reign" in those many passages where it is obviously not concerned with any earthly realm and where the meaning is clearly restricted to the RULE of God and of Christ as a universal Sovereignty whereof only one future phase will yet appear as an earthly kingdom consisting of the land and the people of Israel, then restored to a covenant which on Israel's part is now in default. For the majority of passages in the New Testament where the Greek BASILEIA appears, it has a much wider application of a spiritual nature, not definitive of any earthly kingdom. There the intended sense would have been much better served by such a rendering as "the reign of God" rather than "the kingdom of God," thus reserving the term "kingdom" only for those passages where it is obvious that a land and its people are also intended. Yet here as we proceed to quote from various versions which indiscriminately read "the kingdom of the heavens" or "the kingdom of God," we shall usually renounce a private wish where in many instances we might have preferred to substitute "reign" for "kingdom. Instead we shall adhere to the published text, even in passages where it is apparent that no earthly dominion is intended.
This is not to deny or to compromise the Scriptural reality of a future earthly kingdom. Hebrew prophecy is emphatic that such a kingdom under the sovereignty of Christ is yet to be ruled from Jerusalem after a future generation of Israel has been restored to covenant favor with Jehovah, their covenant God. That will be a "new covenant" as distinguished from the former covenant God made with their fathers through Moses, which covenant "they brake" as Jeremiah reminds us (31.32).
The conclusion of a new covenant with Israel and Judah is still awaiting the fulfilment of much Hebrew prophecy which now remains unfulfilled, because only a small part of all Hebrew prophecy has been fulfilled in the past, and none since the days of Paul. There were something like seventy occurrences during the time of our Lord's earthly life, or beginning with the first public appearance of John the baptist, and many of such fulfilments are self-designated as in Matthew 1:22: "Now this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord." Yet all such fulfilments, mentioned or unmentioned, are few by comparison with the large volume of Hebrew prophecy which still remains unfulfilled, and our Lord indicates that all Hebrew prophecy is to be fulfilled, as it will be at least in substance or in principle, even if not in the same minute detail as He said of the law:— whereof He did say more explicitly that "one iota or serif" shall not go unfulfilled (Matt. 5:18).
Neither is it fair to assume that the bulk of present unfulfilled Hebrew prophecy may apply to the Millennium. In the prophecy of Revelation, for example, we observe that the first 19 of 22 chapters are to be fulfilled BEFORE the Millennium. There the Millennial age, the White Throne Judgment, and a still greater eon beyond are all covered by only the last three chapters while the majority of that prophecy will be fulfilled in pre-Millennial days during the remainder of this present eon, and no such prophecy can be fulfilled until the nation of Israel is restored to covenant favor after the conclusion of the present calling among the Gentiles in accord with Paul's apostleship (Rom. 11:25). It is not until afterward that Jehovah will begin to prepare for a renewal of covenant relations with Israel.
That will begin with a miraculous conviction and repentance of national dimensions in a day when God will deeply disturb the heart of every Jew in every land, where ever each one may happen to live. This will be followed summarily by a total exodus of all descendants of the Twelve Tribes, like that which occurred under Moses in the days of ancient Egypt, but in that forthcoming day it will have world-wide attention and significance. To that effect prophecy goes on to announce an intermediate trial and judgment in some future "wilderness" for all Israel, remindful of the judgment on ancient Israel in the wilderness of Sinai, because this will be preparatory to a new migration into the land God promised to Abraham, a land which by then has been recently desolated in a time of "Jacob's trouble" just preceding (Jer. 30:1-7). A new occupation of the land will follow by that generation of Israel, like when ancient Israel entered the land in the time of Joshua. There must be also the construction of new cities on the sites of what then will be previous recent ruins. There must be especially a new temple where Levitical services will be restored as in days of old. All this will become in effect a future neo-Mosaic economy. That it will be essentially pre-Millennial is well confirmed by Daniel's prophecy, by the words of our Lord, and also by the Apostle Paul, for these three agree that before the end of this eon there is yet to be a future apostasy in Israel which thus requires a previous restored state from which the future apostasy can occur. (Scriptures relevant to Israel's future renascence, beginning with an exodus from all nations, followed by a trial and judgment in some prophetic "wilderness," a reoccupation of the promised land and a future apostasy will be cited here at the conclusion of this paper.)
Matthew's account has "the kingdom of the heavens" where Mark and Luke for certain identical occasions have "the kingdom of God." (Compare, for example, Matthew 18:1,3,4 and 19:14 with Mark 10:14,15 and Luke 18:16,17). This variation is conceivably due to Matthew's native allegiance to Hebrew language and tradition. It is widely believed that Matthew's original account was written in Hebrew and that he used "heaven" or "heavens" rather than "God" because of the Hebrews' instinctive reverence for what they called "The Ineffable Name." In any case "the kingdom of the heavens" becomes especially appropriate to a future government from the heavens in an era beginning long before our Lord's personal return to Mount Olivet, because meanwhile Israel will constitute an earthly kingdom ruled from the heavens. Indirectly that will interest the Gentiles too, for prophecy shows that other nations will recognise and honor God's restored favor to His covenant people when Israel will be led providentially to occupy the land of their fathers as in the days of Moses and Joshua. Until Israel once again begins to apostatize, her Gentile neighbors will participate in the work of reconstruction as some did also in post-exile days after the Babylonian servitude (Compare Ezra 1:1-4 with Zech. 1:18-21). The future neo-Mosaic economy will be an earthly dominion, a kingdom of the heavens ruled from the heavens by an intermediate administration of messengers, for that will be prior to the ultimate arrival of the Son of Mankind when He later returns to Mount Olivet. Consistent with that future kingdom of the heavens operating through messengers, Stephen reminds us that even ancient Israel under Moses had received the law "through the ranks of messengers" (Acts 7:53 Rotherham.) Yet the Book of Hebrews tells of a subsequent "world to come" in the Millennial Age which will be no longer subject unto messengers (Heb. 2:5), for that will be after our Lord's personal return to Israel.
The parables our Lord spoke as recorded in Matthew have direct reference to a renascent Israel in that pre-Millennial state called "the kingdom of the heavens" and He indicated to His disciples that those parables contain "the secrets of the kingdom of the heavens" (13:11). For the disciples alone, not for the multitudes, He explained some of the parables but left secrets of the others still concealed, as they well may continue to be until after the earthly "kingdom of the heavens" has arrived. Yet from those parables our Lord did explain, it is manifest that they all precede and converge upon the end of this eon, for the last parable envisions the arrival of our Lord as "the Bridegroom" when the Son of Mankind comes in His glory with all His holy messengers (Matt. 25).
Now without observing where the Greek BASILEIA may pertain to an earthly kingdom and where it may not, many have mistakenly inferred that such a "kingdom" was at least conditionally near at hand in those days of our Lord's earthly ministry or until Israel had rejected Him as their long awaited Messiah. This is quite contrary to what He said as well as what He did. There was a time, for instance, when the people sought to take Him forcibly and make Him their king while He deliberately withdrew from the multitude to the privacy of His few disciples (John 6:15-17). Some may hastily assume this was only because He himself, unlike the people, was painfully aware He must first go the way of the Cross; but the magnitude of His prophecies in Matthew 24, Mark 13 and Luke 21 show quite plainly that He realised there was a need and a purpose for many centuries of Israel's defection before they could be restored to covenant favor and become a future earthly kingdom.
Thus also when Pilate manifestly sought to know if our Lord professed or desired to be a king, it is obvious that the Roman governor was concerned to know if He was seeking immediate, political, earthly power. There where "kingdom" appears for the Greek BASILEIA, it accurately signifies that our Lord was disowning any intention of seeking an earthly kingdom at that time. "My kingdom," He said, "is not of this world (the KOSMOS of Pilate's day); now is My kingdom not hence" (John 18:36). If the governor understood this, he was well informed that our Lord had no desire to displace any earthly government then existing. In that case such a "kingdom" as He then disavowed did have reference to political earthly rule, but the same term would become misleading in other passages where it would be better rendered as "reign;" especially when the context indicates no political earthly realm is intended.
The Scriptures indicate further how even our Lord's disciples had thought all along, though mistakenly so, that He would soon establish an earthly kingdom (Matt. 20:21). This was not as if they had been kept uninformed, for our Lord had plainly told them He must suffer many things and would be rejected by that generation (Luke 17:25). "Behold," He said, "we go up to Jerusalem and all things that are written by the prophets concerning the Son of man shall be accomplished; for He shall be delivered unto the Gentiles, and shall be mocked, and spitted on; and they shall scourge Him and put Him to death: and the third day He shall rise again." Despite all this we are told, "They understood none of these things; and this saying was hid from them, neither knew they the things which were spoken" (Luke 18:31-34).
Yet contrary to what has been widely supposed both then and now, neither our Lord himself nor John the baptist before Him had ever said that some earthly kingdom was about to be established. The Jews at large together with the Pharisees were blind to the fact that the sin offerings Israel had brought for those many past centuries had no merit in themselves, for they knew not the typical purpose of their own Levitical services. Some of them apparently believed that they themselves as a chosen people were the Suffering Servant of Isaiah's prophecy. They saw no need for anyone to suffer and die on their behalf. They desired only a political Messiah who would deliver them from Roman rule; and there was a general anticipation "that the kingdom of God should immediately appear" (Luke 19:11). Thus when our Lord Was asked by the Pharisees "when the kingdom of God should come," we may well imagine their astonishment and disbelief when He answered: "The kingdom of God cometh not with observation; Neither shall they Say, Lo, here! or lo there! for behold, the kingdom of God is within you" (Luke 17:20,21). Here, however, we prefer Rotherham's rendering, "the kingdom of God is among you;" much like when John the baptist previously said, "There standeth One among you Whom ye know not" (John 1:26). It is scarcely conceivable that our Lord intended to tell the Pharisees the kingdom of God was within or inside of themselves. They were spiritually blind to the truth that all authority and power for a FUTURE earthly "kingdom of the heavens" had been embodied in the One standing among them and saying by more appropriate rendering "The reign of God is among you."
Our Lord had declared no intention of establishing an earthly kingdom at any foreseeable time in that generation or the next, not even after His death and resurrection, though it is apparent that His disciples retained that mistaken thought as late as the moment when He departed from them on Mount Olivet. As Luke recalls what He had been saying to His disciples on that occasion and during a previous forty days, he indicates it was subject matter "which concerns the kingdom of God" but it is evident the disciples had mistaken all this for their own narrow interest in an earthly kingdom for that particular time. Thus at the first opportunity they injected a question of peculiar interest to themselves: "Lord art Thou at this time restoring the kingdom to Israel?" His answer shows that the time for such a kingdom was not something useful for them to know then, but this does indicate that things He had been speaking about—"that which concerns the kingdom of God"—were things most useful for them and for others to know during His Long impending absence from the earth. His disciples, however, had something much different in mind. If our Lord had been speaking to them about some prospective earthly kingdom, we could well expect their question to be concerned only with the TIME when that would begin, but their question ending with those two little telltale words "for Israel" betrays what the disciples had in mind. They were thinking only of an earthly kingdom localised to Israel whereas our Lord had been speaking of a greater spiritual kingdom. The disciples' minds were occupied mainly with Israel's future national glory even at that impending moment of our Lord' s departure. No doubt He shared their concern but His answer indicates that this was not a matter of immediate priority in the many "times and eras which the Father placed in His own jurisdiction" (Acts 1:3-7).
That was only ten days before the manifestation of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost at which time The Twelve evinced a notable change of attitude. Peter spoke with unusual power and authority to a multitude of Jews from "every nation under heaven" who were then dwelling in Jerusalem, some three thousand of whom were deeply convicted on hearing they had crucified the Lord's Anointed. They were amazed also at the appearance of certain supernatural signs which Peter likened to some things mentioned in the prophecy of Joel, though he did not say this was a fulfilment of Joel's prophecy and we must not conclude that it was, because the signs manifested at Pentecost were only a token of other and much greater signs which will appear after Israel has been restored as a covenant nation under a future kingdom of the heavens when the day' of the Lord draws near. At Pentecost there were no signs of "blood, fire and vapors of smoke;" neither was the moon turned into blood; yet those are among the prophetic phenomena which rill mark the fulfilment of Joel's words. While the Jews present at Pentecost were, as Peter said, "sons of the prophets" and of the covenant which God had made with their ancient fathers (Acts 3:26), they themselves were no longer a covenant nation, because the prophecy Isaiah once spoke to their ancestors had been fulfilled on that current generation as previously affirmed by our Lord in the privacy of His disciples (Matt. 13:13-15; see also 23:35-39). From that time onward there was no covenant nation as such, no covenant people, as there will be again when Joel and other Hebrew prophecy is to be fulfilled. It is only then that "the kingdom of the heavens" can appear as a future earthly kingdom.
Thus it would be quite erroneous to assume from Peter's speech at Pentecost that he expressed hope or promise for an earthly kingdom in the current lifetime of that generation. Again it would be a mistake to assume as if Peter had said or implied that our Lord might return to that generation. To the contrary, he said that heaven must retain Him until the times of restoration spoken through the mouths of the prophets from of old, so this requires first the fulfilment of much Hebrew prophecy which remains to be fulfilled before our Lord personally returns to Israel; fulfilments which are therefore future even now and which still require many generations including a pre-Millennial era of Israel's renascence.
Our Lord said the Pharisees of His day had locked up the kingdom of the heavens, not entering on their own part and preventing othars from entering even if they had wished (Matt. 23:13). Meanwhile to Peter alone He also assigned the high honor of unlocking that kingdom so that others could enter, and for this Peter was promised not just a singular "key" but rather "the keys" (in plural); "the keys of the kingdom of the heavens" (Matt. 16:19). Until Pentecost the kingdom of the heavens had been locked both to Jews and Gentiles. Thus first to the Jews at Pentecost, as they heard Peter speak, the kingdom of the heavens was unlocked to something like three thousand—a number later increased to something like five thousand (Acts 4:4). After that it remained for Peter on a further occasion to unlock the kingdom for a Gentile centurion, Cornelius by name, who lived at Caesarea. By that time Saul of Tarsus, later known as Paul, had been called and commissioned to bring a future evangel for the Gentiles, a ministry wherein Peter was to have no part, but before Paul could proceed with his commission it was Peter and not Paul who had been designated to unlock the kingdom for the first Gentiles, Cornelius and his household; something Peter did not many years before Paul together with Barnabas was sent out on his first missionary journey to the Gentiles at large. Thus while Paul was commissioned for a work that was not for Peter, he could not proceed until Peter had used his plural "keys" to unlock the kingdom, first to Jews at Pentecost and later to Cornelius and his household at Caesarea.
It is quite generally held that Cornelius was a proselyte of the gate as such Gentiles were called who honored the religion of Judaism without having received the rite of circumcision. They were regarded as inferior to proselytes who had received circumcision and were therefore recognised much the same as if they were Jews by birth, so those could worship in the temple at Jerusalem while proselytes of the gate could not; neither can any uncircumcised Gentile worship there in the future after Israel is restored to covenant (Ezek. 44:9). Thus Peter also reminded Cornelius that, until then, it had been "an unlawful thing for a Jew to keep company or come into one of another nation," but in this case God had shown Peter by a dramatic vision that no man then any longer should be called unclean.
The record is conclusive that Peter's Jewish associates at Jerusalem regarded Cornelius and his household only as Gentiles, because at first they took Peter to task for having gone to visit Cornelius: "Thou wentest in to men uncircumcised and didst eat with them"(Acts 11:3). It was only after they had heard a full account of Peter's strange experience in the home of Cornelius that "they held their peace, and glorified God, saying 'Then God also to the Gentiles granted repentance unto life'" (Acts 11:18). Consequently, this was the beginning of something entirely new. Hard as it was for other Jews to believe this at first, the same evangel of the kingdom which they themselves had received at Pentecost was now available for Gentiles as well as for Jews, but no one other than Peter had been qualified to make that known to Cornelius, the first Gentile to receive the evangel of the kingdom of the heavens; first for Jews, then for Gentiles.
This is further accentuated by the fact that Philip, the evangelist, had been in Caesarea not long before (Acts 8:40), just after he had evangelised the eunuch from Ethiopia who was a proselyte by the ritual of circumcision, as shown by the fact that the eunuch had been to Jerusalem for temple worship. This shows that Philip was qualified to evangelise Jews or circumcised proselytes because for them Peter had unlocked the kingdom at Pentecost; yet Philip was not sent to Cornelius. That was something no one but Peter could do. He alone had the plural "keys"—a different key therefore to unlock the kingdom for Gentiles beginning with Cornelius.
Previous to all that, Philip had gone into Samaria, to a people with whom the Jews would nat normally associate, and we are told that he "preached Christ unto them." We recall here that Philip was one of the seven who were especially chosen to assist The Twelve, and when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that the Samaritans had received the Word of God, Peter and John came down to Samaria where they prayed for those to whom Philip had witnessed, laying hands on them also, and they received the Holy Spirit though not until Peter and John had laid hands on them.
From Luke's account of Philip's visit to Samaria we learn for the first time exactly what the message proclaimed from Pentecost onward had been called. Luke defines it as "things concerning the kingdom of God" (Acts 8:12). This becomes significant. It was not called an evangel of the circumcision (and the Samaritans were not a covenant people); neither was it called an evangel of the uncircumcision as Paul afterward called such parts of his evangel as were exclusive for Gentiles. Both of those evangels are true and good, each in its own place, but the ministry which had proceeded from Jerusalem consisted of "things concerning the kingdom of God." which again is substantially the same as Luke afterward said of Paul's ministry in the prison at Rome. There also we are told that Paul went on: "preaching the kingdom of God and teaching those things which concern the Lord Jesus Christ"(Acts 28:31), and that was after Paul's last witness to the Jews at Rome.
The kingdom of God, as it was proclaimed not only by The Twelve but also by Paul, is God's universal and sovereign rule whioh was manifested first among the Jews at Pentecost and afterward at Caesarea with Cornelius and his household. The kingdom of God—His sovereignty—may be evangelised concurrently with any other evangel for any of God's people at any time, so it does not displace, and is not displaced by, a covenant evangel of circumcision in one era, as for Israel; or by an evangel of uncircumcision exclusive of covenant in some alternate era, as for Gentiles like ourselves. Thus the evangel or the kingdom was not displaced even when Paul was graced to announce the secret of a joint body with a joint celestial destiny which God had concealed from the eons in Himself until it was revealed first only to Paul and then through him to others.
As long as Paul lived he continued to evangelise the kingdom of God which, he said, consisted then not in food and drink but in righteousness, peace and joy in Holy Spirit (Rom. 14:17); a spiritual kingdom which in some of its aspects he called "the kingdom of Christ and of God" (Eph. 5:5), "the kingdom of the Son of His love" (Col. 1:13); "God's own kingdom and glory" (I Thess. 2:12), and finally "His celestial kingdom" which appears in the closing lines of Paul's last letter to Timothy, or the last letter of which we have any record.
In some future instalment, God willing, we hope to consider thst universal and multifarious kingdom of God from still further perspectives of Scripture.
(References mentioned in Paragraph 12, are Lev. 26:33-42; Deut. 4:25-31; 28:63-67; 30:1-10; Jer. 16:14-17; 30:1-7; 23:7-8; Isa. 11:11; Ezek. 20:33-42; 36:24-38; and Chapter 45 onward; Dan. 8:13-14; 12:11; Matt. 24:15; and II Thess. 2:2-5.)
Melvin E. Johnson (Treasures of Truth, Instalment Twelve, February-March 1974)