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God rules over all creation (Ps. 103:19; Isa. 66:1; Dan. 5:21). He rules by virtue of such things as His omnipotence, innate authority, and right as Creator. He holds heaven and earth accountable to His law and renders judgment in perfect accord with that law (Ps. 11:4). In a very real sense, all creation is His kingdom, and He is its King.

The Bible commonly speaks of God’s kingship in terms of His relationship with His covenant people. In the Old Testament, He was Israel’s King (1 Sam. 8:7; Isa. 43:15) and they were His holy kingdom (Ex. 19:6; 1 Chron. 17:14). In the New Testament, His kingship over the church (1 Peter 2:9–10; Rev. 1:6; 5:10) is central to the gospel message (Matt. 24:14; Luke 16:16).

Jesus provided a helpful understanding of the nature of God’s universal kingdom and of the role of the church in it when He taught His disciples to pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10). God’s kingdom is manifested in heaven differently than on earth. In heaven, His will is done perfectly. On earth, sin ensures that His will is done imperfectly at best. The church, though, is to pray for God to expand His heavenly kingdom on earth, so that earth faithfully serves Him as perfectly as heaven does. This is God’s ultimate plan for history.

So the church on earth is called the church militant. God, the great King, has mobilized His people as soldiers in His army (Phil. 2:25; 2 Tim. 2:3; Philem. 2), commanding us to expand the borders of His kingdom by conquering and annexing enemy territory. Primarily, this is a spiritual battle fought on spiritual ground against spiritual enemies (2 Cor. 10:5; Eph. 2:2; 6:12). Nevertheless, because God’s spiritual enemies include unredeemed human beings (Rom. 11:28; Phil. 3:18), the spiritual battle necessarily engages the unbelieving human world.

Correspondingly, one of the main ways that God’s earthly kingdom grows is through the conversion of unbelievers. Before coming to Christ, all people are enemies of God and of His kingdom (Rom. 5:10; Eph. 2:1–3). In saving us, God destroys that enmity and grants us citizenship in His kingdom. The primary visible expression of that kingdom is the covenant community that God rules over—namely, the church. Consequently, the growth of the church, both by expanding into new areas and by increased membership, is the expansion of God’s heavenly kingdom to earth.

growth is victory

The Old Testament promised that God would eventually send His Messiah or Christ to rescue His people from their suffering and exile. The Christ would be a descendant of David who would defeat Israel’s enemies and take His place as Israel’s King. Under His rule, the nation would faithfully return to God and be blessed. Most Jewish theologians in the first century expected this to happen relatively quickly on “the day of the Lord” (Isa. 13:6; Mal. 4:5). When Jesus didn’t do that, they concluded that He wasn’t the Messiah. The New Testament authors recognized the tension that these first-century Jewish expectations created. So they explained that the real failure lay in wrong assumptions about God’s timeline.

Jewish and Christian theologians generally agree that the Old Testament described its own day as “this age” (Matt. 12:32; 1 Cor. 2:6–8; Eph. 1:21). It was characterized by sin, death, suffering, and the subjugation of God’s people. Theologians also agree that the Old Testament looked forward to the future, “the age to come” (Mark 10:30; Luke 18:30; Heb. 6:5), as the messianic age of redemption in which God would destroy all His enemies, would perfect creation, and would pour out blessings on His people. Under the teaching of Jesus and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, however, the New Testament writers corrected the Jewish error regarding the timing of the two ages. Instead of the age to come replacing this age all at once, the change would happen slowly. The ages would coexist and overlap for a time while God’s kingdom grew. Then, at some unknown time, Jesus would return to complete the transition between the ages.

Far from failing, God’s kingdom achieves victory in all three phases.

Modern theologians refer to this idea as inaugurated eschatology. Eschatology is the study of last things or the end times. Inaugurated eschatology is the idea that the end times have been inaugurated or begun, but they have not yet come in all their fullness. They are “already” here in some ways but “not yet” here in other ways. Often, this same vocabulary is explicitly associated with the kingdom of God, so that Christians say that God’s kingdom was inaugurated during Jesus’ earthly ministry, it continues now during His heavenly reign, and it will be consummated or completed at His return.

Far from failing, God’s kingdom achieves victory in all three phases. In God’s inaugural victory, Christ atoned for sin (1 John 2:2), established the church on the foundational ministries of the Apostles and prophets (Eph. 2:20), and began to reign from heaven (Acts 2:33; Phil. 2:9–11). During the continuation of the kingdom, the church militant grows and advances throughout the world (1 John 5:2–5) while Jesus reigns over it from heaven (Eph. 1:22). Eventually, Jesus will consummate the kingdom when He returns. This will entail God’s final victory when He consigns His enemies to punishment (1 Cor. 15:24; Rev. 20:11–15), destroys death and glorifies His faithful people (1 Cor. 15:25–26, 54), and expands His glorious kingdom throughout the new heavens and earth (2 Peter 3:13; Rev. 21:1–5).

timing of the ages

Initially, Jesus’ disciples thought like the first-century Jewish theologians. They knew that Jesus was the Messiah, and they assumed that this meant that He would soon perfect His kingdom and the world (Luke 19:11). Even after Jesus had risen from the dead, they continued to expect an imminent consummation. For instance, referring to Pentecost, they asked, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6). Only after Jesus’ ascension did the Holy Spirit remind the disciples of what Jesus had taught them (John 14:26), so that they understood the truth.

Much of what Jesus taught about the timing of God’s kingdom is recorded in His parables. For example, Jesus told the parable of the minas (Luke 19:11–27) to dispel the idea that He was going to bring God’s kingdom to earth all at once. He began by saying, “A nobleman went into a far country to receive for himself a kingdom and then return” (v. 12). Jesus wanted His disciples to know that He was going somewhere far away to obtain the kingdom they wanted. Therefore, they should not expect Him to fulfill all their expectations before He left, nor should they expect Him to come back quickly. Jesus also taught the disciples to focus not on the timing of His return but on being faithful to Him during His absence. There is a similar message in the parables of the ten virgins and talents (Matt. 25:1–30).

Later, Luke offered additional perspective on how long it might take to consummate the kingdom. In the parable of the wicked tenants, Jesus spoke of a vineyard owner who “went into another country for a long while” (Luke 20:9). The “long while” symbolized the period during which Israel had rejected the prophets who had charged the nation to repent, arguably close to a thousand years. Comparing this to the journey to the “far country” in the parable of the minas, Jesus appears to have been preparing His disciples for a long delay before His return.

In other parables, Jesus prepared His followers to endure difficult times in His absence. He taught them to rejoice in the blessings that they had already received and not to give up hope over difficulties that had not yet been removed from their lives. For instance, the parable of the weeds (Matt. 13:24–30, 36–43) describes the world as a field of wheat in which Jesus plants the sons of the kingdom while Satan plants his own sons as weeds. Satan’s sons won’t be removed until the “end of the age,” meaning the end of “this age” at the consummation of the kingdom. From this, the church militant should recognize that while it has inherited many kingdom blessings, it will face opposition from Satan and those outside the church until Jesus returns.

The parable of the sower (Matt. 13:1–9, 18–23; Mark 4:2–20; Luke 8:4–15) also uses agriculture as a metaphor for enduring problems in the inaugurated kingdom. In all three Gospels that record it, many seeds are lost because of the devil, tribulation, persecution, the cares of the world, and the deceitfulness of riches and pleasures. Nevertheless, the seeds that do survive bring in a large harvest for the Lord. Again, Jesus taught His people to persevere through the hardships and difficulties of this age until they receive the final blessings of the age to come.

It’s not surprising that Jesus’ disciples originally focused on the exciting fact that the kingdom had been inaugurated. But the church soon thereafter was facing too much turmoil to ignore the continuing troubles of this age. Paul put the matter in good perspective when he told the Thessalonians:

We ourselves boast about you . . . for your steadfastness and faith in all your persecutions and in the afflictions that you are enduring.

This is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you may be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are also suffering. (2 Thess. 1:4–5)

Yes, the kingdom of God is a wonderful blessing, but it is also at war.

suffering and defeat

It can be difficult and frustrating for the church militant to live in the “already but not yet” kingdom that exists during the overlap of “this age” and “the age to come.” Suffering is real. Christians are still persecuted and even killed for their faith. We still face temptation, heartbreak, and need. That’s the reality of still living in the age of sin and death.

Thankfully, the Holy Spirit isn’t shocked by our suffering and struggles; nor is He idle. He prays for us (Rom. 8:26). He comforts us (Acts 9:31). He helps and provides for us (Phil. 1:19). His presence with us is proof that we will be rewarded if we persevere in faith (Eph. 1:13–14; 4:30). Moreover, Jesus said that the Spirit is the effective help to us during the continuation of the kingdom (John 16:7).

Remember that the church militant faces trouble and strife because we’re engaged in a spiritual war. Who better to have on your side in a spiritual war than the Spirit who is God? The gifts that He gives us serve as weapons, armor, supplies, medications. They are manifested in individuals, but they belong to the church and are intended to serve the church (1 Cor. 12:7) so that God’s kingdom can win the spiritual war.

Still, it sometimes feels as though we’re losing the war. Suffering and apparent defeats can make us question God’s goodness and the truth of His Word, or at least His intentions toward us at the time. In reality, though, even suffering is a victory. If we suffer for being the church, it means that we have been counted worthy by God (Acts 5:41). It means that we are filling up what is lacking in Christ’s own suffering (Col. 1:24) and thereby ministering to Jesus and His church. Suffering brings us into closer fellowship with Jesus (Phil. 3:10). It sanctifies us (Heb. 5:8).

And defeat? There’s no such thing. Paul said it best:

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? . . . No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. (Rom. 8:35–37)

Do we get knocked around in the battle? Without a doubt. But the church has continued to grow and to take ground for the past two thousand years, and our ultimate victory is assured.

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