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3. The New Testament Doctrine of the Kingdom

Article contributed by

[John F. Walvoord, President and Professor of Systematic Theology, Dallas Theological Seminary]

The Old Testament Background

Like with many other doctrines, the doctrine of the kingdom in the New Testament builds on the concepts already revealed in the Old Testament. In summarizing the Old Testament doctrine, it was noted in a previous article that the Old Testament concept of the kingdom includes 14 major features.1 These can be summarized under three headings.

The Theocratic Kingdom of David

Prophecies of a theocratic kingdom on earth in which David would reign as king were partially fulfilled in David’s day. God also promised him that his throne and his kingdom would endure forever (2 Sam 7:16).

The Kingdom of the Future Prophesied

Details of the future theocratic kingdom on earth include the factors that it will be an earthly kingdom, that David will be resurrected to serve as a prince under Christ, that Christ Himself will be the King of kings and Lord of lords ruling over the entire earth, not simply the land conquered by Solomon. In the kingdom, Jerusalem will be its capital, Israel will be regathered to her land with the kingdom extending to the whole earth with blessing to the Gentiles as well as to Jews, and Christ’s rule will be characterized by righteousness, justice, and peace. In addition to its political and theocratic character, the kingdom will have a high level of spiritual life in which the ministry and presence of the Holy Spirit will be much in evidence.

In view of occasional sweeping statements on the part of amillenarians that the Bible nowhere teaches a premillennial kingdom of Christ on earth, it should be noted that the Old Testament has abundant evidence which, interpreted normally and literally, would clearly teach the kingdom on earth which can in no sense be fulfilled either (a) in the present age by the church in heaven, or (b) by the saints who are in the intermediate state, or in the new earth (Rev 21-22 ).

The Kingdom as a Spiritual Entity

Many Old Testament passages speak of the high level of spiritual life in the future kingdom on earth referred to as “a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah” (Jer 31:31). This New Covenant is described in Jeremiah 31:32-37 with many other Scripture passages supplying additional details. As many have pointed out, the New Testament emphasizes this spiritual character of the kingdom without contradicting its political and earthly character.

New Testament Emphasis on the Kingdom

Interpretations of the kingdom in the New Testament may be divided into four types, with some overlapping. (1) Premillennial interpreters have found confirmation in the New Testament of a kingdom on earth, as will be supported in the discussion to follow. (2) The amillennial interpretation of the New Testament, however, building on the spiritual characteristics of the kingdom, denies that the earthly kingdom will ever be literally fulfilled, and denies a literal thousand-year reign of Christ on earth. Conservative amillenarians usually follow Augustine in holding that the kingdom is on earth now in the hearts of the people of God and that at Christ’s second coming the new heavens and the new earth are immediately introduced. However, some do believe that the millennium is fulfilled in heaven or in the intermediate state. Oswald Allis traces this view to Duesterdieck (1859) and Kliefoth (1874).2 Currently some amillenarians combine the two concepts and find some prophecies fulfilled in the present age and some prophecies fulfilled in heaven. Another alternative has the prophecies fulfilled in the new heavens and the new earth. the same entity, but some like Earl Miller point out certain proper distinctions.6 In the discussion which follows (in this and an ensuing article) the New Testament passages that relate to the doctrine of the kingdom will be examined. Without reviewing all the prolific literature that has been written on all sides of the question concerning the nature of the kingdom, the question constantly before the interpreter is whether the New Testament text supports the premillennial, amillennial, postmillennial, or liberal interpretation.

The Kingdom in the Gospel of Matthew

J. Dwight Pentecost has written an excellent discussion on “The Kingdom Program in the New Testament.”7 He cites G. N. H. Peters in support of the concept that the Jews expected the Messiah, when He came, to bring in a literal fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies. Peters states:

It is universally admitted by writers of prominence (e.g., Neander, Hagenbach, Schaff, Kurtz, etc.), whatever their respective views concerning the Kingdom itself, that the Jews, including the pious, held to a personal coming of the Messiah, the literal restoration of the Davidic throne and kingdom, the personal reign of Messiah on David’s throne, the resultant exaltation of Jerusalem and the Jewish nation, and the fulfilment of the Millennial descriptions of that reign. It is also acknowledged that the utterances of Luke 1:71: Acts 1:6; Luke 2:26, 30, etc., include the above belief, and that down, at least to the day of Pentecost, the Jews, the disciples, and even the apostles held to such a view….they regarded the prophecies and covenanted promises as literal (i.e.. in their naked grammatical sense); and, believing in their fulfilment, looked for such a restoration of the Davidic Kingdom under the Messiah, with an increased power and glory befitting the majesty of the predicted King; and also that the pious of former ages would be raised up from the dead to enjoy the same.8

Amillennial and postmillennial refutation of this premillennial concept usually follows one of four patterns: (1) that the promises of the Old Testament were literal but were forfeited by Israel’s rejection of Christ; (2) that the prophecies were misinterpreted as literal and were never intended to teach a literal kingdom on earth, and that they refer instead to the present experience of the church on earth (John Calvin’s view); (3) that the promises of the kingdom refer to the future new heavens and new earth, not to the present situation; (4) that the fulfillment of the promises is found in the intermediate state in heaven at the present time. There is so much variety in the refutation of premillennialism that it is quite clear that opponents of premillennialism are not agreed among themselves except on the negative conclusion that the New Testament does not confirm the premillennial view that Christ’s coming will precede a one-thousand year reign on earth.

When Christ, preceded by John the Baptist, taught the doctrine of the kingdom, the question raised was not whether the kingdom had come but whether it was coming immediately. Even John Bright, an amillenarian, recognizes this widespread expectation of fulfillment of the prophecies of the kingdom on earth.9 On the other hand even premillenarians like George E. Ladd attempt to define the concept of the kingdom of God with comparatively little reference to the Old Testament teachings, giving as much attention to the Apocrypha and the Pseudepigrapha as he does to the Old Testament, and building his concept of the kingdom almost entirely on New Testament revelation.10 Modern liberals feel free, however, to hold that the Old Testament prophets were wrong and that they were stating merely an ideal which will never be literally fulfilled. Even conservative amillenarians tend to hold that the New Testament interpretation of the Old Testament indicates that no literal kingdom and fulfillment was intended. With these varying interpretations the Gospel narratives must now be searched to determine their contribution to the doctrine of the kingdom.

The Gospel of Matthew, as many recognize, is the bridge between the Old and New Testaments. Many Jews, who anticipated that the Messiah would immediately bring in the prophesied earthly kingdom, needed an explanation as to why this was not fulfilled. Matthew covers this by first proving beyond question that Christ is the expected Messiah and King. This is brought out in the genealogies and in the announcement to Joseph that Mary would have a son who would fulfill Isaiah’s prophecies of a virgin-born son (Matt 1:21-23, Isa 7:14) and of a son who will become a world ruler (Isa 9:6-7: Matt 1:21). Luke takes up the prophecy of Isaiah 9:7, “There will be no end to the increase of His government or of peace, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and righteousness from then on and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will accomplish this.” Luke states it, “He will be great. and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David; and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever; and His kingdom will have no end” (Luke 1:32-33).

Mary would have shared Israel’s widespread hope for the Messiah who would reign in a political sense over them and free them from the oppression of Rome. Mary would have understood Isaiah’s prophecy to refer to a literal earthly reign. If something else were intended, then Mary would have misunderstood the message and was in fact deceived by the angel. That the coming Messiah will be the spiritual Savior of those who trust Him is clear in both the Old and New Testaments. The question of whether, in addition to His work as Savior, He would also reign on earth as a king is confirmed by Luke 1:32-33, if the Scriptures are taken in the ordinary sense. Any variation would require a nonliteral interpretation of the prophecy given to Mary.

The second chapter of Matthew continues the subject of Jesus Christ as the King of the Jews (Matt 2:2). Christ was recognized by the magi as the prophesied King, and the priests and scribes informed the magi that when the Messiah came He would fulfill the prophecy of Micah 5:2, “But as for you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you One will go forth for Me to be ruler in Israel. His goings forth are from long ago, from the days of eternity.” This was quoted by the scribes and chief priests to the magi (Matt 2:5-6). Even Herod recognized it as a threat to his political kingdom and ordered the killing of male children from two years old and under in the area of Bethlehem. In Matthew 3 John the Baptist introduced the ministry of Christ by announcing, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt 3:2). John then quoted Isaiah 40:3 (Matt 3:3; cf. John 1:23), which refers to clearing “the way for the LORD in the wilderness.” This preparing the way for the Lord meant preparation for the coming of the kingdom. Whatever the spiritual character of the kingdom, it is clear that the Jewish people held to a political concept as well.

Though the Jews anticipated that the future messianic rule would be a political kingdom on earth, they were somewhat short in their understanding that it would also have spiritual and moral characteristics. This explains Christ’s emphasis in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5-7 ) in which He dealt with the spiritual and moral principles of the future kingdom of God. While many of the principles have present applications, some of the principles will not be fully applied until the future reign of Christ on earth.11 use the term “kingdom of God” (12:28 ; 19:24 ; 21:31, 43 ).12 It is also not true that Matthew avoided the term God (θεός) for he used it almost 50 times in his Gospel. Why, then, did Matthew use the term “kingdom of heaven”?

Without attempting a complete study on this question, one can observe that the kingdom of heaven has some characteristics that are not true of the kingdom of God.

As used in the New Testament, “the kingdom of God” always speaks of a realm of spiritual reality (that may include holy angels), but it never includes unsaved men. In contrast, “the kingdom of heaven” seems to refer to men alone and to include some who are merely professing Christians. This is illustrated in Matthew 13 where the kingdom of heaven is compared to a field with both wheat and tares, with the wheat representing the saved and the tares seemingly representing a sphere of profession without reality. Likewise, the kingdom of heaven is compared to a net which includes both good and bad fish. These parables are never used in the other Gospels to refer to the kingdom of God. Accordingly, the view that the kingdom of heaven refers to the spirit of profession including true believers while the kingdom of God includes only holy angels and true believers has some support in the Gospel of Matthew. As such, the kingdom of heaven can refer either to the present form of the kingdom as it does in Matthew 13, or in eschatological form to the kingdom which will follow the Second Advent. In both cases there is a sphere of profession as contrasted to the sphere of reality composed only of those who are elect men or angels.

Subsequent to Matthew 13 many additional references to the kingdom are included. Christ gave “the keys of the kingdom of heaven” to His disciples (16:19 ). He predicted that they will see the coming of the kingdom (16:28 ). He defined who is greatest in the kingdom of heaven (18:1, 3-4 ). He spoke of the King judging the works of His subjects (18:23 ). He referred to the qualities of those who enter the kingdom (19:12, 14, 23-24 ). He spoke of rewards for labor in the kingdom (20:1-16 ). He talked of those who will share His kingdom reign (Matt 21-23 ). He said tax collectors and harlots will enter the kingdom, whereas religious Jews will be left out (21:31, 43 ). He likened the kingdom to a wedding feast (22:1-4 ). He condemned the Pharisees who seek to hinder people from entering the kingdom (23:13 ). He predicted the preaching of the gospel of the kingdom worldwide (24:14 ). He likened the kingdom of heaven to the guests of a wedding (25:1-13 ). He predicted that the righteous will inherit the kingdom (25:34 ). He predicted that the disciples will drink the fruit of the vine with Him in His Father’s kingdom (26:29 ).

In these passages, the references to the kingdom are in contexts in which the kingdom is on earth, Christ is the King, failure is judged, and righteousness is rewarded. In none of these passages does Christ make any effort to correct what amillenarians feel is the misconception of the disciples that Christ was speaking of an earthly kingdom in which He would reign triumphantly as King of kings.

The Theme of Rejection of the King in the Gospel of Matthew

The Gospel of Matthew has as its purpose to explain why Christ did not bring in the predicted kingdom in His first coming. Matthew emphasizes the fact that when Christ presented Himself as King, He was rejected. While this was anticipated in the sovereign program of God and led up to the predicted death and resurrection of Christ, it does not relieve those who rejected Him of the consequences of their decision.

In his treatment of this major subject of the Gospel of Matthew, Pentecost points out that there are “three major movements in the Gospel of Matthew: (1) the presentation and authentication of the King (1:1-11:1 ); (2) the opposition to the King (11:2-16:12 ); and (3) the final rejection of the King (16:13-28:20 ).”13

There can be no question in any fair exposition of the Gospel of Matthew that Christ is presented as the rejected King. Much is made by opponents of premillennialism that Christ could not make a genuine offer of Himself as King and of His millennial kingdom because in the plan of God it was necessary for Him to die on the cross for the sins of the world. This is playing games, however, with the difference between the human and the divine standpoint. All conservative interpreters of Scripture regardless of eschatology agree that the death of Christ on the cross was essential to God’s redemptive program. It is wrong to argue that premillenarians who insist that Christ made a genuine offer of the kingdom and of Himself as King are making unnecessary the Cross of Christ in the plan of God. Obviously the plan of God included the rejection of Christ by His people when He offered Himself as their King. The fact that this was certain and essential to the ultimate plan of God that Christ be the Redeemer in no way detracts from the seriousness of the decision nor the consequences that the kingdom could not be immediately fulfilled. Nor does this contingency imply any uncertainty in the ultimate program of God to bring in His kingdom. This is the whole point of the Gospel of Matthew.

The rejection of Christ is a rejection first of His person as the Messiah-King of Israel. To quibble that there is a difference between offering Himself as the King and offering the kingdom is again an unjustified distinction. The emphasis in Matthew is on the person of Christ. But in His person He is presented first as the King rather than as the Savior of the world. In rejecting Christ, of course, those who rejected Him rejected both concepts. Beginning in Matthew 11 is a constant parade of evidence of the people’s rejection of Christ. This, of course, began with the rejection of John the Baptist as His forerunner. It includes all the controversies with the Jewish leaders in such matters as the Sabbath, and their accusation that He performed miracles in the power of Satan. Christ was constantly opposed by unbelievers in Nazareth, by Herod, and by the religious leaders. This opposition is the background of Christ’s prediction of His sufferings and death, first mentioned in Matthew 16:21. Because the nation Israel rejected Christ as the King of Israel, He then rejected the nation Israel (23:1-36 ). This passage closes with His lament over Jerusalem, whose people through the years had killed God’s prophets and rejected those whom God had sent to them (23:37-39 ). All these steps in rejection culminated, of course, in His crucifixion as the people of Israel, influenced by the religious leaders, demanded His death.

The Gospel of Matthew like the other Gospels, however, demonstrates that Christ had the right to be the Messiah-King of Israel. His resurrection, the empty tomb, the many appearances after His resurrection, combine to convince one willing to consider the evidence that Christ was indeed the Messiah-King who, though He was rejected by His people at His first coming, would return to fulfill the kingdom promises given to Israel.

This article was taken from the Theological Journal Library CD and posted with permission of Galaxie Software.

1 John F. Walvoord, “The Kingdom of God in the Old Testament. Part 2 of Interpreting Prophecy Today,” Bibliotheca Sacra 139 (April-June 1982): 124-25.

2 Oswald Allis, Prophecy in the Church (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1945), p. 5.

6 Earl Miller, The Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Heaven (Meadville, PA: Earl Miller, 1950).

7 J. Dwight Pentecost, Things to Come (Findlay, OH: Dunham Publishing Co., 1958), pp. 446-75.

8 G. N. H. Peters, Theocratic Kingdom (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1952), 1:183.

9 John Bright, The Kingdom of God (Nashville: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1953), pp. 17-18.

10 George E. Ladd, Crucial Questions about the Kingdom of God (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1952).

11 John F. Walvoord, Matthew: Thy Kingdom Come (Chicago: Moody Press, 1974). pp. 43-62.

12 Some include Matthew 6:33, but some ancient Greek manuscripts have only “the kingdom” and omit “of God.”

13 Pentecost, Things to Come, p. 456.

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