Problem of the Kingdom of God

A Systems Analysis Solution

Harold R. Booher, Ph.D.

Copyright 2013 - Harold R. Booher

Chapter 5: Spiritual Kingdom Now.

In this and the next chapter, Steps 8 and 9 of the systems analysis are exercised. Step 8 establishes critical characteristics of the kingdom as predicted by prophecy and Step 9 uses the biblical database established in previous steps for deciding on the merits of the remaining four views. This chapter critically examines the Spiritual Kingdom Now view.

Is There a Spiritual Kingdom Now?

The second type of church kingdom view (spiritual within us) is held not only by liberal churches, but also by many traditional dispensationalists. The dispensationalist view is that the organized church has replaced Israel (spiritually) on earth because Israel rejected Christ. A remnant accepted him however and it is with that remnant that Christianity becomes the new Israel. John Bright expresses this as the “called out remnant.”1

Jesus founded no ecclesiastical organization, not even of the loosest sort, but as Messiah he came to call out the remnant.  In that true Israel which was obedient to his call lie the seeds of his Church, his ekklesia (i.e., the ones called out)…. In the Church, so the New Testament declares, is all the longing for a true Israel fit to inherit the promised Kingdom—a longing best summed up in the concept of the Remnant—fulfilled.2

Regarding the prophets’ vision of a resurrected nation (Ezek 37) – “Israel will indeed inherit the Kingdom of God, but it must be a new and spiritual Israel.”3 Bright concludes: “In any case, the New Testament triumphantly hails the Church as Israel according to the spirit, the true heir of Israel’s hope.”4

As we have shown, consistency in historical-grammatical facts will not allow the kingdom to be interpreted as heaven, Christ, or the organized church. None of the facts examined supports either the eternal state or Christ-- the Person, as synonymous with the Kingdom of God. Only one Bible fact could be considered supportive of the church organization being the kingdom.   Eliminating any sort of spiritual kingdom now with Christians is a bit more problematic, but we can be sure that if the church is the current spiritual kingdom, it has in no way fulfilled the Old and New Testament prophecies for an earthly kingdom. 

The Church Has Not Fulfilled Biblical Prophecies for an Earthly Kingdom

First, as concisely noted by Saucy, Christ is not currently reigning.
Although the blessings of the salvation of the kingdom are present, it is difficult to see in Paul’s words any idea of a present kingdom of Christ in which believers share in the reign. For Paul, as for all believers, being “with Christ” (Php 1:23; 1Th 4:17) and therefore reigning with him (there is no concept of reigning without him) was always in the future (2Ti 2:12). … It would seem best to say that although Christ has been exalted to receive kingly authority over the entire universe and all its contents, he is not presently exercising that kingship in the sense of “reigning,” nor are we as believers doing so.5 

Second, there has been no victory over evil.6One wonders what kind of spiritual kingdom the church is demonstrating when there has not been a single public display of God’s authority on earth in containing the reign of evil that has persisted throughout the nations of the world for nearly 2000 years.  In the short time Jesus was on earth and during the thirty years of the Acts of the Apostles, God showed his power on earth in curing disease, infirmities, and mental possession; in controlling the environment; by providing food for the hungry; and by resurrecting the dead.7

Gregory Boyd states: “The church as the body of Christ has been called to be a decisive means by which [the] final overthrow [of Satan and evil] is to be carried out.”8 This is difficult to demonstrate.  Although the church is called to revolt, spread the gospel, pray and understand it is likely to suffer, it is not shown anywhere in Scripture to be the “decisive means” for the final overthrow of Satan and evil. Even if we exclude Revelation from consideration, Scripture predicts that it will take God himself (perhaps before, but at least by the second coming) to make the final overthrow. (cf. II Timothy 3:1-13; Matthew 24:3-14; II Thess. 1:7-10; Psalm 64:2-8; Isaiah 59:19). 

 Moreover, it is highly questionable the church has accomplished anything positive in conquering Satan and evil. Experience (i.e., history) shows that the church (as an organized entity) has been at such odds with itself and the rest of the world over the past 2000 years, it defies the imagination to claim any progress at all for the church in defeating Satan and evil. When we look around the world’s iniquity today, whether human created, angel created, or naturally created, can we honestly say the church has made any real impact on the reduction of gratuitous suffering?  The most that can be demonstrated is that the church has been an important instrument in holding off total victory for the enemy.  And with no inspired word from God at all during this long period, why should we believe God is even working behind the scenes on this problem?  God’s silence with Job was broken within a reasonable time- during his lifetime. God worked with Israel through the prophets and the law, never going more than a few hundred years without speaking to someone. We have heard nothing new from God for 2000 years.

Third, compared to the earthly kingdom view, the spiritual kingdom concept has very weak support throughout the New Testament.  Chapter 4 presents the results of my study on all the New Testament verses that mention the kingdom of God.  If we count Matthew’s references to the kingdom of heaven there are 135 verses that mention the kingdom. With that many statements, we should be able to understand whether the main thrust of what Jesus, John the Baptist, Paul and numerous others9 meant was something expected then, something now, or something yet future. 

Clearly the main idea of the kingdom conveyed in the New Testament was for a government on earth ruled by God; and it was expected then, in the near term. When it did not occur the expectation became (and remains today) something still to happen in the future.  Fully 90 percent of the statements on the kingdom of God fit the future concept in some way.  Nearly half of the future verses convey only the future concept.  The Lord’s Prayer for example is future only. Of those verses that could be appropriated as guidelines for now, all convey future earthly concepts as well. While many of the concepts expressed in the beatitudes (e.g., the meek, the peacemakers) speak of desirable Christian attributes, such verses also speak of a situation for the future (i.e., when the meek inherit the earth). 

No verses were found which refer only to now.  Even in Luke 17:20-21 (the cornerstone of the “within you” idea; discussed below) Jesus is answering a question about how people will observe the kingdom “when it comes,” not something that means a spiritual kingdom in the here and now.  On the other hand, there are 13 verses that clearly state the kingdom was to occur very soon, certainly in the disciples’ lifetime. From these and the kinds of miracles performed by Jesus and the apostles during the Acts period, we have strong support that the kingdom did in fact start, and did come with power (Mark 9:1).10 It just did not continue into the full manifest kingdom.  The reason it stopped will be examined in a later book, but the fact that it has not yet fully come makes the predictions concerning the kingdom apply to the future and not the present.  

There are thirty-nine verses that carry some “now” connotations, but without exception they also contain features that can apply both to the gospel period (kingdom near) and to the future. For example in Mark 12:34 where Jesus says to a scribe “thou art not far from the kingdom of God” he is commending the scribe for having the right understanding of what was important to God then and in the future kingdom.  Such an understanding can also apply now to anyone with a similar attitude as the scribe.  Any relevance the thirty-nine verses have on now is primarily in the sense that they deal with characteristics of people who will be admitted to the realm of the kingdom of God. These verses properly interpreted do not suggest something like “the present spiritual reign of Christ in the hearts of His people,” but rather direct us to the future kingdom for which we prepare ourselves with the life we have now. The establishment of the kingdom in full as promised in the Bible is yet future and does not appear to have any bearing on the current church.

Fourth, those scriptures most heavily relied upon for the spiritual kingdom view do not hold up under a systematic analysis.  In view of the fact that nearly 90 percent of the New Testament statements on the kingdom clearly support the earthly view, one should search for reasons to reconcile the minority verses before hypothesizing a mysterious spiritual kingdom. Once one approaches the problem in this manner, it is relatively easy to reconcile the minority verses. For example, an examination of the statement about the kingdom within you by Jesus provides a perfectly logical explanation for Jesus’ response to the Pharisees. (Luke 17:20-21)  To begin, we see the context of this verse is in response to the Pharisees demanding Jesus tell them “when” the kingdom would come. This situation was not one where Jesus intended to answer with a response that either the Pharisees or Christians should build their theology upon. Jesus simply ignores their question of “when” and tells them “how” it will come – when it comes.  The answer provides very little information about the kingdom that would not already be obvious to the Israelites who knew the prophecies of the Old Testament.  The kingdom is God’s government, which like laws, society, economy, is an abstract concept.  It is not something that is observable as a building or a parade.  When it comes there will be no special events or some special place to go to observe its arrival. When it comes God will make sure everyone is aware of it “within” himself.  After it comes, and all people are aware of its presence amongst them, there will, of course, be any number of observable events as a result. For starters, the bending of swords into plowshares would be a very pleasant observation.

Another example is a deeper look at John 18:36 where Jesus says to Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world.” To the spiritual kingdom believer, this should settle it.  Jesus clearly states the kingdom is not of this world; therefore it must be somewhere else, in our minds as some spiritual condition, most likely.  But once again, context of the verse itself and amplifying it with the scriptures elsewhere in the Bible provides a more logical and consistent interpretation.  Reading the entire verse Jesus says: “My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, my servants would fight, so that I might not be delivered to the Jews; but now my kingdom is not from here.” First, Jesus is making it clear to Pilate that his kingdom is not that of the current world; which if it were he could call on his servants to fight. Moreover, his kingdom is not here now, implying it will be at some future time.  From this we see Jesus does not say his kingdom would never be on this earth, it is just not here now. Second there is much scripture to say whose kingdom is here now.  During Jesus’ temptation, Satan offered Jesus the kingdoms of the world, stating the world at that time was his to give. (Luke 4:5-7)  Jesus did not deny the devil’s claim, but neither did he accept Satan’s kingdom and therefore could certainly say to Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world.”  Satan’s kingdom was then and apparently still is now, of this world.  In Mark 3:24; Jesus gives a lesson on how a kingdom divided against itself cannot stand. In doing so he identifies two kingdoms; one God’s and one Satan’s. As Jesus is being delivered to Pilate to be convicted and crucified; surely Jesus is correct that it is not his kingdom, but Satan’s that is in charge of this evil event.

The preceding four arguments make it extremely dubious that the spiritual kingdom concept is what Jesus and Paul had in mind for the church in order to have a significant kingdom role.  Yet, the spiritual kingdom (within us) is very difficult to eliminate without also eliminating the importance of the Church to God’s kingdom plan. The church (as a collection of out-called individuals (ekklesia)) certainly plays a major role in God’s plan for the glorification of His character and His salvation plan for human kind. Although many of the weaknesses of the spiritual kingdom view have been discussed at length, it will likely take a future book that deals with the nature of the current dispensation showing the real purpose of the church in order to put the erroneous spiritual view completely to rest.

New Testament Verses in Support of the Spiritual Kingdom View

The study discussed in Chapter 4 on the New Testament verses on the Kingdom concluded most of the verses pertain to an earthly kingdom when God was, is, or will take control of the earth and make his will known on its inhabitants. It was noted that most of the people in the New Testament who mention the Kingdom understood it to be an earthly kingdom.  It was also noted that a total of sixteen verses from Jesus and Paul could support the idea of a spiritual kingdom, something mysterious that happens within people when they believe in Christ.  These were divided into two sets. The first set comprised “moderate” spiritual kingdom verses because a plain reading could suggest either earthly or spiritual views depending on interpreter bias. The second set comprised “strong” spiritual kingdom verses because a plain reading does fit with a spiritual kingdom view.  This time as we go through the verses a short reason is given for why the verse can be interpreted as describing an aspect of the kingdom that has nothing to do with a spiritual kingdom.

Spiritual Kingdom Verses Explained

The eight moderate verses could support the spiritual concept of the kingdom, if the interpreter has a strong bias in that direction. For example the verses on the mysteries of the kingdom (Matt 13:11; Mark 4:11) might be interpreted to mean Jesus was revealing something mysterious, other earthly, to the disciples. Yet, such an interpretation short-changes us intellectually by ignoring the context. The context of the mystery verses is not something mysteriously spiritual, but rather it is Jesus selectively revealing secrets to the disciples to clarify the earthly kingdom. “The field is the world … the harvest is the end of the world” (Matt 13:38-39). Similarly, when Paul says in Romans 14:17 “the kingdom of God is not meat and drink;” the spiritual kingdom believer might say, “See, Paul says we don’t have material bodies in the kingdom; because we don’t eat or drink in it.” But again, such a view is not reconciled with Paul’s many statements on a future earthly kingdom. Paul is not saying we do not eat in the kingdom, but rather the kingdom is not measured by our material needs. His statement is more meaningful if he is saying, “it is not what we consume in the kingdom that is important, it is our attitude towards higher things that is important.”  Since it is as easy to interpret these verses with the earthly view as the spiritual we conclude they do not require adding a spiritual kingdom to the earthly kingdom to reconcile the Bible’s concept of the kingdom.  . 

The moderate spiritual kingdom verses are actually discussing real characteristics of the kingdom when it is here on earth and can easily be interpreted in a non-spiritual form.

1. Mat. 12:28 “But if I cast out demons by the Spirit of God, surely the kingdom of God has come upon you.”  (Jesus was demonstrating a foretaste of the kingdom by casting out demons. He did it then, the apostles did it in Acts, but no one is casting out demons today. Having demons removed was a real physical experience, not a spiritual feeling.)

2  Mat.13:11.”Because it has been given to you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given.”  (Jesus is telling the disciples that they get to know the secrets (not mysteries) of the kingdom.  The statement in itself does not tell us whether what he is to tell them is spiritual or otherwise. However each parable he explains to the disciples about the kingdom describes a future and earthly kingdom.)

3. Mat. 23:13.”But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut up the kingdom of heaven against men; for you neither go in yourselves, nor do you allow those who are entering to go in.” (The Pharisees have no interest in acquiring the attitude and characteristics needed to enter the kingdom [when it comes] but they set up road blocks for others who are trying to have the right attitude to enter [when it comes].
4. Mar.4:11. “To you it has been given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God.” (Same as Mat. 13:11, Number 2 above.)

5. Mar. 10:15. “Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will by no means enter it.” (The mental attitude must be as a child [open to God’s word] when it comes or they cannot enter it.)

6. Lu.18:17 “Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will by no means enter it.”  (Same statement as Mark 10:15, Number 5 above)

7. Rom. 14:17. “for the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.”  Paul is not saying people will not eat or drink in the Kingdom – remember Jesus said he would not eat or drink (on earth) until he returns, when he will eat and drink in the kingdom.  Paul is saying righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit are the main features – rather than just having enough to eat and enjoying other pleasures, for example).

8. II Tim. 4:18.And the Lord will deliver me from every evil work and preserve me for His heavenly kingdom.” (The kingdom is administered by God from Heaven to Earth).

The “strong” verses (such as Luke 17:20-21; John 18:36) seem at first reading to provide clear support for the spiritual kingdom idea, but even these verses can be interpreted with an earthly kingdom view, as is argued in the text under the fourth point for the two strongest verses for the spiritual kingdom view. These and other strong verses are explained below.

9. Mat. 6:33. “But seek first the kingdom of God … and all these things shall be added unto you.” (For those who wish to enter the kingdom of God they should put it first in importance for directing their lives. When the kingdom comes all other things we worry about will be taken care of.)

10. Mar.12:34. “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”  (When you have the right attitude you are not far from the attitude requirements to enter the kingdom when it comes.)

11. Lu. 17:20. “The kingdom of God does not come with observation.” (When the kingdom comes, there will be no special event to observe in commemorating it.. It will be an administration of God  which will be part of everything you do. You do not look for it, it is “within” or “around” you. It is God’s government that is everywhere.)

12. Lu. 17:21. “For indeed the kingdom of God is within you.” (Same as No. 11 above)

13. Joh. 3:3. “unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”  (“born again means “generated from above.”  The government of God will not be understood (conceptualized, perceived, or visualized) by those not generated by God.)

14. Joh. 3:5. “unless one is born of water and Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” (Both physical [water] and intellectual [spirit] aspects of the person must be generated by God in order to comprehend the kingdom and how to live in it.)

15.. Joh. 18:36. “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would fight, … but now my kingdom is not from here.” (Jesus’ kingdom is not now, but Satan’s is.  When God’s kingdom is on earth, Jesus could not be put to death by the enemy).

16. I Cor. 15:50. “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; nor does corruption inherit incorruption.” (It is not just being a physical human being (and corrupted at that) that entitles one to inherit the kingdom, but how one leads his life on this earth.)

Summary of Spiritual Kingdom Now

In summary, all of the verses that appear to support a spiritual kingdom from a cursory look can upon closer examination be interpreted as consistent with the earthly view. As argued above in the text, the two most central verses for a spiritual view now, (Luke 17:20-21; John 18:26) can be understood as earthly views, particularly when one considers that in these strongest verses for the spiritual view, Jesus was talking with hostile audiences and was not trying to explain or enlighten them about the kingdom. In the cases where the audience was not hostile, they already believed in the earthly kingdom of the future. Jesus is simply elaborating on some of the characteristics that are needed to inherit a portion of the kingdom. He is not telling them they are entering into some kind of spiritual kingdom at the time. He certainly was not showing that the church is any kind of kingdom, since it has in no way fulfilled the Old or New Testament prophecies for a kingdom.

These explanations show that even the foundational verses for the spiritual view can be reconciled with the earthly view.  Additionally, it needs to be pointed out that the so-called spiritual kingdom verses, even if correct, do not replace the earthly kingdom. At best they would support a dual kingdom (spiritual now; earthly future) concept.  The problem with the dual kingdom approach, though, is that no verse applies only to now.  If any spiritual verse is something unique for the church, it should be something that applies specifically to now to distinguish it from the manifest kingdom. Yet any such verse that could possibly be a candidate for now also applies to near (Acts period) and future.  For example, if the verse discusses a characteristic that someone needs to enter the kingdom in the future; it applies universally to everyone past, present, and future. This is hardly a strong scriptural basis for a special spiritual kingdom for the church. Anything one might imagine to distinguish a churchly kingdom from the manifest future (and Acts foretaste) kingdom simply does not exist.




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