When Christians talk about 'the kingdom' they may mean different things. For example, the collection in a church was taken and a prayer offered for it to be well used 'for the extension of the kingdom' ‑ that is, among other things, to bring about an increase in the number of believers and their influence in the world. On the other hand, in a house-group there was expressed a longing for 'the kingdom' ‑ that is, for a time when Christ's universal rule is imposed over the earth, characterised by goodness and peace, when men know God and are obedient to Him. So is the kingdom present now, or is it future; does it grow gradually or is it imposed with all God's authority?
What is a kingdom? The dictionary gives: "A country, state or territory ruled by a king or queen". The kingdom is defined by the king being the effective ruler, and the authority he exercises, and this is applied concerning a period of time or a geographical area. The dictionary also recognises one meaning as "the spiritual reign or authority of God". Incidentally, our kings, although their authority is acknowledged, may be disobeyed, yet they still are kings. Is it so with God?
Into our common speech has slipped the idiom "till kingdom come" meaning "forever" - applied to someone, say, who may go on talking interminably "till kingdom come" - like our interminable wait for the kingdom of God? Another idiom is "to kingdom come" meaning "into the next world" - used to describe something utterly destroyed. Does this give a startling hint that someone lost to us now may be restored in God's future kingdom?
The kingdom of God is wherever or whenever God rules. That surely must be everywhere, and forever. "All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord; and all the families of the nations shall worship before him. For dominion belongs to the Lord, and he rules over the nations." (Psalm 22.27-28). "Thy kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and thy dominion endures throughout all generations" (Psalm 145.13). The present and perpetual kingship of God is the reason we expect all people to acknowledge Him in future.
But surely it is the presidents and dictators that humankind have to acknowledge? It is under God's sovereignty that rulers on earth have their authority. The great Nebuchadnezzar was told "The Most High rules in the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will" (Daniel 4.25). "He [God] has put down the mighty from their thrones" cried Mary in the Magnificat (Luke 1.52). "There is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God" claims Paul (Romans 13.1). Without teasing out all the implications for civil obedience, the main point here is that human rulers are subordinate and temporary, compared with God's rule which is supreme and permanent.
But His kingdom is not without its rebel. To Christ, Satan offered all the kingdoms of the world (Luke 4.5,6). John acknowledged "The whole world is in the power of the evil one" (1 John 5.19). The "kingdoms of the world" have not yet become "the kingdoms of our Lord and of his Christ" ‑ when "he shall reign for ever and ever" (Revelation 11.15).
Through the Bible there are prophecies about the kingdom of God being established ‑ when God's potential authority is actually seen when He is acknowledged. In Daniel's time they looked for a future kingdom of God. "In the days of those kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom which shall never be destroyed, nor shall its sovereignty be left to another people. It shall break in pieces all these kingdoms and bring them to an end and it shall stand for ever" (Daniel 2. 44). "With the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man. He came to the ancient of Days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and kingdom, that all peoples, nations and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed" (Daniel 7.14). This is the kingdom of Christ. Paul follows this, in 1 Corinthians 15.24,25 with "Then comes the end when [Christ] delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet...."
This looks to the end of the story. Meanwhile, the establishment of the kingdom of God, the sphere in which at any time His rule is acknowledged, has been seen in progressive stages through history.
1. King David, three thousand years ago in Palestine, spoke of "the throne of the kingdom of the Lord over Israel" (1 Chronicles 28.5). It was Solomon who would rule, but it was the kingdom of the Lord. God was seeking willing obedience. He had given the Law. The kings of Israel were to administer His kingdom, as a holy nation.
2. But the Israelites, while thinking of themselves as God's people, and calling themselves such, in fact were in a state of rebellion, like other men. "They have despised the Holy One of Israel, they are utterly estranged" (Isaiah 1.4). In due course, they rejected God's Son (John 1.11). The kingdom would be taken from them (Matthew 21.43) and given to a nation producing the fruits of it. They were rejected, broken off (though Paul entertains a hope for their restoration) Romans 11.15,20,25.
3. What followed has been God's kingdom in 'mystery'. God calls upon all men, everywhere, with no distinction of race or nationality, to submit voluntarily to His rule. The kingdom is an inner secret not revealed to everyone (Mark 4.11) - not obvious by observation, but apparent to the heart and mind; a kingdom which cannot be entered unless one is 'reborn' (John 3.3); a kingdom which was in their midst in the person of Jesus (Luke 17.20); not to be looked for with outward signs; but a rule of His Spirit, discerned by our spirits (1 Corinthians 2.14).
This is the phase of the kingdom which our churches pray may be extended. Where the king is, there is the kingdom, in the midst of us. That is the focus of our loyalty, our obedience. This was how Peter and John asked (Acts 4.19) whether it was right they should listen to the authorities, or to God. In our hearts we reverence Christ as Lord (1 Peter 3.15) not fearing what may come to us. Christ makes His home in our hearts - through our believing (Ephesians 3.17). We call Jesus our Lord (1 Corinthians 12.3). What applies to the individual, applies also to the Christian community; but just as there may be rebellion in the church, so individually we are not without sin.
There are New Testament references to the kingdom which speak of suffering for those who enter it. Paul speaks in 2 Thessalonians 1.5 of being worthy of the kingdom of God "for which you are suffering." He told the new Christians in Lystra, Iconium and Antioch that "through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God" (Acts.l4.22).
4. But then comes the fourth phase, which contains reward and glory. "Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world" (Matthew 25.34). "The Son of man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evil doers... the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father" (Matthew 13.41,43).
This is the time when God asserts His rule universally, a kingdom in glory, not hidden but obvious to all. Christ comes in His glory, as judge over the nations (Matthew 25.31). Every knee bows. Every tongue acknowledges Jesus as Lord. (Philippians 2.9-11).
This time of Christ's rule following His coming fulfils the longings of all creation, also the hopes of His followers, but it is not pictured as without conflict. Although those who belong to Christ have been raised from death, there are still 'enemies', not all finally dealt with until the 'end' (1 Corinthians 15.23-6). But the potential for love, peace and happiness implicit in God's sovereignty finally becomes the universal state of things, so that in the end He is "everything to everyone" (1 Corinthians 15.28). That is the fullest answer to the prayer Jesus taught us... "Thy kingdom come." That is the final outcome we look for: not only a gradual increase 'soul by soul and silently', nor just a longing to be able to serve our Lord in a better day than this; but after all the travails and processes of history, a work complete.... Thy kingdom - has come!
[This study owes much to Vine's Expository Dictionary, section on `Kingdom'.]