By Harris Franklin Rall
The many-sided teaching of Jesus about the Kingdom has given rise to another controversy. Is the kingdom of God already here, or is it wholly in the future? It is yet to come, say some; it is to appear at some future day through some mighty deed of God, which shall bring to an end this present age and bring about a new earth. It is already here, say some; it is here wherever God's will is being done, and though it is not yet perfected, it is slowly but surely moving on to completion. Words of Jesus can be cited for both positions. We will consider them in turn.
The Kingdom Is to Come.—The message with which Jesus begins his work refers to the Kingdom as that which is to come. "The kingdom of God is at hand," he declares (Mark 1. 15). It is near, but it is yet to come, and the glorious news of its coming is the burden of his word. For this he bids men pray, "Thy kingdom come." He bids them look forward to the day when they shall hear him say, "Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world" (Matthew 25. 34). He describes how men shall "come from the east and west, and from the north and south, and shall sit down in the kingdom," and how the righteous shall "shine forth as the sun" (Luke 13. 29; Matthew 13. 43).
The Kingdom as Near at Hand.—It is quite clear that the coming of this Kingdom seemed to him very near. It is "at hand." There were some standing by, he declared one day, who should not see death till the kingdom of God was come with power. "This generation shall not pass away," he said at another time, "till all things be accomplished" (Luke 21. 32). And at the Last Supper he declared, "I shall not drink from henceforth of the fruit of the vine, until the kingdom of God shall come" (Luke 22. 18). All this indicates a kingdom yet to come, though near at hand.
The Kingdom As Already Present
What Jesus Saw and Did.—This, however, is not the most distinctive side of Jesus' teaching. We have here simply another illustration of the fact that Jesus' conception of the Kingdom is too rich to be confined in a single formula. The ministry of Jesus begins with the proclamation of the coming Kingdom, but it does not end there. He does not simply repeat these words and then wait for that day to come in which God shall overthrow all evil and rule alone. Nor does he, like John, simply call the people to repentance. Under his own hand he sees a work begin, in which evil is already being overthrown and the power and rule of God are shown. He forgives men and heals them. He leads men into fellowship with God, bringing God into their lives. And so he gives them the strength and the peace which only the rule of God in men can bring (Matthew 11. 25-30). He begins gathering about him a group of men whose hearts are open to God, and who share this spirit which marks the rule of God.
Three Facts That Show the Kingdom Present.—But all this is nothing less than the kingdom of God. These are only the beginnings and evil is still here, but here are three notable facts to show that the will of God's rule is already here: (1) The power of evil is being broken. (2) The gifts of the Kingdom are already being given to men. Those gifts we studied in Chapter XVII. We saw there that for Jesus the Kingdom lay not in political power or outward splendor, but in sins forgiven, in fellowship with God, in the spirit of love and good will. (3) The Kingdom as a fellowship of the children of God is already here.
The Overcoming of Evil.—Jesus saw the beginning of the Kingdom first of all in the breaking of the power of evil: in the forgiveness of sinners, the healing of men's bodies, and the casting out of demons. In his own vivid picture fashion he expressed his joy when the disciples came back and told of their victories: "I beheld Satan fallen as lightning from heaven" (Luke 10. 18). To the Pharisees he declared that his work of casting out demons was a sign that the kingdom of God was come upon them; not that it was near, but that it was already here. Significant are his words in the Nazareth synagogue. His work of teaching and healing and forgiving had been going on for some time before he returned to his boyhood home. There he read the passage in Isaiah 61 which told of the Messiah's work, and began his comment with the word: "To-day hath this scripture been fulfilled in your ears" (Luke 4. 21). What the prophet had foreseen was now present. And that is his message to John the Baptist, in words that clearly refer to Isaiah 61. 1 and 35. 5 and .imply their fulfillment: "Go and tell John the things which ye hear and see: the blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good tidings preached to them" (Matthew 11. 4, 5).
The Children of the Kingdom.—In other passages Jesus speaks of men who are already in the Kingdom. He tells how the publicans and harlots are pressing in (Matthew .21. 31, 32). He tells of the new day that has come since the time of John the Baptist; before that men looked forward to the Kingdom, now eager men are taking it by force (Matthew 11. 12). He declares that his disciples have no reason for fasting; they are sons of the bride-chamber, and the bridegroom is with them. The figure of the bridegroom and wedding feast was recognized by the Jews as Messianic, and here again Jesus is speaking of the King and the beginnings of the Kingdom.
The Kingdom As Both Present And Future
The Beginning and the End.—The Kingdom for Jesus is both present and to come. In a world of selfishness and suffering and all manner of sin, he held that he who was over all and in all was good, and believed that some time this God was to prevail in all the earth. But the beginnings of that rule he saw in his own time. It was not simply that there was some love and righteousness in the world, as there had always been, but he saw that his message and his work were even then beginning the new age. A new light and power were already at work.
The Lesson of the Mustard and the Leaven.—This paradox of a kingdom that is both present and future is solved by certain of Jesus' own sayings. In one of his most beautiful parables Jesus compares the kingdom of God with the growing grain (Mark 4. 26-29). A man casts his seed upon the earth and then goes on about his work day after day. But the seed itself grows quietly and surely until at length the glorious harvest is ready. So, silently but surely, the kingdom of God grows by its own forces. Something of the same thought is present in the parables of the leaven and the mustard seed. Here, as elsewhere, Jesus puts the same thought in parallel sayings (Luke 13. 18-21; compare Matthew 13. 44-46). Both express the same truth, the silent but sure growth of the Kingdom, with this added thought, that what is now so small and obscure shall yet become great before men; the tiny mustard seed shall become a tree, the leaven shall permeate the whole lump, the small shall become great, the hidden shall become manifest. The beginnings of the Kingdom are small and unrecognized at present, but it will come nevertheless.
The Principle of Development.—But the most significant fact about these parables is the principle of life and growth that Jesus uses to set forth the Kingdom. The Kingdom is something that lives and grows like the grain, the mustard seed, and the multiplying leaven. We have something here very much the same as that idea of development which plays so large a part in our thinking to-day. We have learned to regard all life as under this principle. Whether we study the physical man or the mental and spiritual man, whether we consider the state or the home or industry, all things human have come to be by process of development. This does not exclude sudden changes, crises, and revolutions in the life of society as of the individual. But we see that even these had their long and quiet preparation, and in turn work out their great consequences for after years under the same law.
If this be true, then we can see how the Kingdom can be present and yet to come. That is true of all life because it is all under the law of growth. The living thing is always present, and yet it is still to come. Is this boy a man, or is he not a man? He is both, we say, or rather he is a man in the making. Is this man a Christian or not? He is a Christian so far as he belongs to Christ; he is not yet a Christian so far as he fails of reaching the high goal of the spirit of Christ. We must say of him, as of the best of men, "He is a Christian in the making." So we say of the Kingdom: it is here, and it is still to come, because it is a living thing that is growing on to fullness.
The Coming Of The Kingdom
A Question of Dispute.—The question as to just when the Kingdom is to come and under what circumstances has been long a question of dispute. Most Christian thinkers of to-day refuse to be dogmatic on this point. They hold to two convictions. One is the assurance that the rule of God is coming upon earth; the other is that it is coming by means of those spiritual forces that are working in the world to-day. The details of time and manner they feel are hidden from us.
Premillennialism.—An opposing position is held by a small but aggressive group in some sections of the church. These people have an elaborate theory of the coming of the Kingdom. They expect the literal fulfillment of all the Jewish hopes set forth in the Old Testament. The Jews are to return to Palestine. They are to become a political power. Jesus is to return in bodily form and is to rule as the political as well as spiritual head, a throne being set up in Jerusalem. The world is to be saved not by the preaching of the gospel and the work of the Holy Spirit as seen to-day, but by the glory and power of this outward and visible appearance of Jesus. This reign of Jesus, in which all evil is to be overthrown, is to last for a thousand years.
No Definite Answer from the Gospels.—Almost all of these ideas are gotten by a literalizing of the Old Testament and indirectly from Jewish writings of later times. There is no definite teaching upon the subject in the Gospels.1 The thousand-year reign is mentioned but once in the New Testament, and this in a book whose visions and symbols make it one of the most obscure of writings. The early church clearly expected the immediate and visible return of Jesus. This expectation was not fulfilled. It is apparent that the manner as well as the time of the establishment of the Kingdom was hidden from the disciples.
The Real Issue.—The real question is simple: Is the Kingdom to come from without or from within? It is God who is to establish the Kingdom, that is clear. But is he to do this from without, by some act of sheer power, by some outward manifestation of splendor and glory in connection with a visible return of Jesus? Or is the Kingdom to come from within, by the word of his truth and the work of his Spirit in men's hearts, by his spiritual power transforming men's lives?
Light from the Nature of the Kingdom.—Here the Gospels give us real light. They show us Jesus' conception of the Kingdom as a spiritual power and life. If the kingdom of God is moral and spiritual, it can only come in moral and spiritual. ways. No external splendor or power can bring it, it must come as a life within. And Jesus' own way of work clearly shows this. He refused the way of power and glory for the winning of men, as the temptation story makes plain, and took the road of truth and love and service.
Light from History.—Christian history, through which God speaks to men, confirms this truth. Slowly but surely the kingdom of Christ has been advancing, and the progress has always been in one way. It has been a progress of truth and life, the work of a Spirit moving in men. The Spirit of God using the truth of God has gradually extended the sway of that spirit of Christ whose rule is the mark of the kingdom of God. It has been seen first of all in growing numbers won for Christ, then in the way in which the spirit of Christ has been changing the life of men. Autocracy is yielding to democracy. Slavery has been swept away. Ancient evils like the social evil are being fought as never before. Temperance reform has marched with rapid stride. China has shown what can be done with the even greater evil of opium. There is a new sense of industrial justice that grows stronger every day. The spirit of mercy and help toward the unfortunate of every kind was never so great, the spirit whose preeminent place Jesus set forth in Matthew 25. 35, 36. These words are written in the period of the world's greatest war; but the most striking feature of that terrible struggle is the determination of the leading nations to make this the last war. Evils are present in the world, dark and terrible and mighty, but the growing spirit of Christ has wrought three great results. First, men see evil and are facing it as never before; there is a new conscience. Second, humanity as a whole never had higher ideals than it has to-day, ideals of justice and brotherhood and love, and the master of those ideals, the master of the conscience of men is Jesus Christ. Third, men never had so firm a hope as to-day in the final triumph of good and the coming of the rule of God.
The Christian Hope.—The Christian hope should have a larger place in Christian thought. It should be for us, as for the early church, the spring of confidence and joy. Back of all differences of opinion there are certain central truths upon which we can stand together. (1) The kingdom of God is coming. (2) That Kingdom will mean the rule of the spirit of Christ in all the life of the earth, for Christ is the revelation of the heart and the will of God. (3) It is our great task to preach his gospel, to live his life in the service of men, and to work for the rule of his spirit not only in men's souls but in all the relations and institutions of earth. (4) The Kingdom itself, in every step of its coming as in its final triumph, is God's gift. "Fear not, little flock; for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom."
Directions For Study
Scripture references: Mark 1. 15; 2. 19; 9. 1; Luke 13. 2830; 21. 31, 32; 22. 18; 10. 18; 4. 17-21; Matthew 11. 2-6; Luke 13. 18-21.
Read the first passages given above in which Jesus speaks of the Kingdom as that which is yet to be, and recall that this message was what stirred the hearts of his hearers.
Review in your mind our last lessons upon the Kingdom. If the Kingdom is of such a character, if it means the rule of God in men, the presence of a certain spirit, then may it not already be present?
Consider the next following passages given above, which suggest the Kingdom as present, especially those referring to the power of God as even now overcoming evil and to the children of the Kingdom.
Note the important parables of the leaven and mustard seed. Jesus uses the picture of something living to show how the Kingdom will come. The nature of the Kingdom determines how it will come. If it is an outward rule, it can be set up in some great revolution by a deed of power. If it is an inner life, then it will grow from little to great like the seed or leaven.
1) For a discussion of the return of Jesus and the so-called apocalyptic passages of the Gospels, the reader is referred to the author's Life of Jesus, Chapter XIX.