What is the Kingdom of Christ?

What does the Bible mean by "Kingdom?" Is it heaven after earth, heaven on earth, or something else entirely?
  • Russell Moore
  • 2011 23 Aug
What is the Kingdom of Christ?

[Editor's Note: the below was taken from Don't Call It a Comeback: The Old Faith for a New Day, edited by Kevin DeYoung; chapter contributed by Dr. Russell Moore (Crossway Books). Used by permission.]


Can there be anything more haunting than the sound of a child screaming from a grave? 


Marcus Garvey is remembered by Americans as one of the precursors of the civil rights movement in the United States. He led millions of his fellow African Americans to protest against the image of black inferiority projected by the Jim Crow era. And yet Garvey's cause never became the kind of age-transforming movement led later by figures such as Rosa Parks or Martin Luther King Jr. That's partly because, unlike the "beloved community" envisioned by the mid-twentieth-century civil rights movement, Garvey's message was of a kind of separatism and self-sufficiency that grew more and more extreme as his crusade for justice carried on. Garvey learned the self-sufficiency that would drive his life's philosophy, historians tell us, at the bottom of a newly dug grave. 


Garvey's father was a professional mason, whose responsibilities included making cemetery plots. Once, the story goes, Garvey's father took the child with him as he was digging a grave and threw him into the pit below. Marcus's father pulled up the ladder and left him alone. No matter how Marcus would scream, his father wouldn't answer. 


Garvey's father's action was abusive, to be sure, but he thought he was teaching his child a life lesson. The older man was a former slave, and he wanted his son to learn a hard lesson about making his way in the cruelty of this world: you can only rely on yourself. The young child learned the lesson and carried it with him throughout his life, preaching a virtual gospel of individual responsibility and self-sufficiency.1 


Most of us can feel, when we read this story, the psychic trauma of being a child left alone in an empty grave, crying out to a silent father as we claw at the clay around us, feeling about for a ladder that isn't there. Yet most of us have never actually been in that situation. Or have we? 


The gospel of Jesus Christ tells us that all of us have been, at some point in our lives, in a state of slavery "through fear of death" (Hebrews 2:15). We are born into a world cut off from communion with its Father, an executed world waiting for the dirt to be shoveled onto its face. The Scripture also tells us that, left to ourselves, we'll learn the wrong lesson from all this horror. We'll stop screaming and start clamoring with more ferocity, or we'll just sit in our dirt and call it home. 


Against all of this, the gospel calls us from self-sufficiency—indeed from "self" itself—and toward an entirely new reality: the kingdom of Christ. Sometimes even those who've followed Jesus for a long time find the kingdom message a difficult one to grasp. We sometimes assume kingdom is just a metaphor for "getting saved" or for another denominational program or political crusade. 


Part of that is our context. Most of us in the Western world have seen parodies of kings and crowns and kingdoms, but we've never seen anything approaching the real thing. So the language void is filled with all the chatter around us about the Prince of Wales or the local high school homecoming queen or the advertising slogans of the "King of Beers" or the "Dairy Queen." 


And yet, the Bible we believe—and the gospel we preach—is constantly slapping us back to the message of kingdom, kingdom, kingdom, repeated throughout Old and New Testaments and in every generation of the church ever since. The mission of Christ starts and ends not just in the announcement of forgiveness of sins or in the removal of condemnation—although both of those things are true and essential. The mission of Christ starts and ends with an announcement that God has made Jesus emperor of the cosmos—and he plans to bend the cosmos to fit Jesus' agenda, not the other way around. 


The Collapse of the Kingdom  

The world around us looks like pretty good proof that the gospel isn't true. If we're really honest with ourselves, don't we have to admit the universe does seem to be just what the Darwinists and the nihilists tell us it is—a bloody machine in which power, not goodness or beauty, is ultimate? The gospel, though, doesn't shy away from such questions. 


The book of Hebrews quotes a passage from the Psalms that reflects on the biblical truth that God created humans to have the rule over everything that exists:  

You have crowned him with glory and honor,  

putting everything in subjection under his feet. (Hebrews 2:7)  

This song reiterates what the Genesis account tells us from the very onset of creation itself. God gave the man and the woman dominion "over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth" (Genesis 1:26). God did this because the man and the woman would represent him, bearing his image, governing the cosmos he created for them (Genesis 1:26). But the book of Hebrews brings up a difficult point about this Bible passage. 


It isn't true. 


The writer of Hebrews points out what ought to be obvious— whether one believes the biblical creation accounts or not: we don't have "dominion" over the universe around us. The Spirit tells us, "At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him" (Hebrews 2:8). We can see that in everything from the natural forces that sap the color from our hair to the bacteria that grind our bodies to pulp as we lie in our caskets. The universe rolls around about us frenetically and, in every single case, eventually kills us. We are not the kings and queens of the world. 


Now our problem is that we think this "kinglessness" that we experience is normal. We are like historians looking at the ruins of a Nazi-era synagogue in Vienna and concluding that these Jewish Europeans must have been self-loathing Hitler sympathizers because of all the swastikas painted on the walls. Before one can learn much about the synagogue, one must distinguish between the original structure and the hate-speech graffiti left on it by its enemies. This is also true of the universe. 


Early humanity lost the rule over the universe, the Scripture tells us, to an invading power: Satan. Even those who've never seen a scrap of biblical revelation know of this Presence, and they tremble. This being, through his cunning speech, persuaded our first ancestors to join his insurrection against the Creator, in an attempt to become "as gods" with him (Genesis 3:5, KJV).


The man and the woman surrendered their kingdom to the very "creeping thing" over which they were to rule. The king and queen of the universe now pictured the chaotic and murderous reign of Satan, rather than the orderly, love-driven rule of God. Their communion with God, with one another, with their future offspring, and with the creation itself was disrupted (Genesis 3:14). Instead of joining God in his rule, they joined Satan in his guilt, bearing the sin that calls out for the judgment of God and is incapable of conformity to the love of God. They now were those for whom a just inheritance could only be "the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels" (Matthew 25:41; see also Revelation 20:10). 


The satanic powers—the power of accusation and the power of death—now gained power over humanity. God then exiled the man and the woman from the life-giving tree that was to fuel their kingdom expansion (Genesis 3:24), an exile that meant they were destined to wither away into the judgment of death. 


The creation then, designed as it was to recognize God's image in its king and queen, revolted against humanity. As Paul put it, the cosmos is in "bondage to corruption" (Romans 8:21), and so the universe is "groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now" (v. 22), waiting "for the revealing of the sons of God" (v. 19). 


And so, throughout the generations since this catastrophe, human beings have been governed by "the prince of the power of the air" (Ephesians 2:2), who drives humanity along by our cravings and by the sway he has over us through deception (2 Corinthians 2:4) and accusation (Revelation 12:10). 


The Creator God, though, threatened the snake, at the outset, that his aggression would not long stand. And so God called together a new people, a kingdom of priests who were being trained in righteousness by his Word. He promised that through this people he would establish a glorious reign in which the symphony and peace between humanity, nature, and God would be restored. 


God set over his people Israel a line of kings, promising them that it would be through the Spirit-anointed wisdom and power and righteousness of their king that the kingdom would stand or fall (Deuteronomy 17:14). It fell. And fell. And fell. And fell. The Israelite outpost of God's kingdom was itself ripped to shreds. And the collapse of the kingdom left wreckage throughout history. 


Now, this is not just the story of the ancient people of Israel. It's your story, and mine. The Scripture tells us what the end result of a loss of kingship is: moral rebellion. The old book of Judges puts it this way repeatedly: "In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes" (Judges 21:25). 


The kingdom of God in Adam collapsed in the rebellion at Eden. It is collapsing around us even now as Satan's reign is being charged back. If we're in Christ, it must collapse in our own lives, as we evacuate our fiefdoms before the coming kingdom of Jesus. 


With this the case, evangelical Christianity speaks to contemporary culture by pointing out what everyone instinctively intuits—something is wrong. Even then the most hardened and vocal atheist reflects something profoundly right—twisted and misdirected as his argument is—when he points out how suffering and evil seem inconsistent with the goodness of God. That's why a truly evangelical (that is, gospel-centered) Christianity will teach our people to groan at the world of divorce courts and abortion clinics and torture chambers and cancer wards around us. 


And that's why a central focus of evangelical Christianity's emphasis on the kingdom is to show us what's wrong with the present regime. As we grow in Christ, we grow in discontentment with the "kingdoms of the world" offered to us by their ruler even while we perceive the glory of the new kingdom breaking in through Jesus. 


The Reinvasion of the Kingdom  

Earthly revolutions almost never turn out to be as revolutionary as one hopes. But the kingdom of Jesus fulfills and perfects the hopes behind every utopian or countercultural vision one could imagine. The gospel is good news, and the good news is the announcement of a kingdom and how we can enter that kingdom through faith in the King. This starts with the glad declaration that the old order—whether it's imperial Rome or imperial Me—has been overthrown. 


When Jesus stands up to preach to the people in his hometown synagogue, he declares that the kingdom of God has shown up; now the day of the Lord is here (Luke 4:16). His sermon caused a violent riot, prompting his fellow villagers to create a Via Dolorosa three years ahead of the cross, as they dragged him up a mountain to throw him from the cliff. Why? Jesus' hearers understood how insane and megalomaniacal it sounded for Jesus to identify the coming of God's new order with his own voice. 


But Jesus didn't back down at this point. Everywhere he went he announced the kingdom was on its way, and he demonstrated it by turning back the curse in all its forms. Jesus seemed completely unperturbed by the evil spirits, by the natural order, by biological decay—they all turned back at the sound of his voice. Why? Because, as he put it, "If it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you" (Matthew 12:28). Jesus overcomes the power of the evil principalities precisely because, as one who is without sin, he is free from the accusation of Satan (John 14:30). 


Jesus as King, then, reestablished human rule over the angelic and natural orders. He lived out everything that it means to be human, establishing himself as a wise ruler with dominion over his own appetites, with a will, affections, and conscience guided by the direction of his Father—and not by that of Satan. He walked through human suffering, temptation, and, ultimately, the curse of death itself—standing in the place of wrath itself—to wrest humanity from the Accuser's fingers. 


Imagine hearing the voice of a Middle Eastern criminal, screaming through his bloody mouth as he's being executed, in a language you don't know, to the soon-to-be corpse on the stake next to him. His voice would seem desperate, I'm sure, even haunted, but that voice sums up the gospel: "Remember me when you come into your kingdom" (Luke 23:42). The robber understood that "the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God" (1 Corinthians 1:9), and that this condemnation fell rightly on him (Luke 23:41). As he looked to Jesus, he saw a rightful world ruler suffering in the place of humanity, and he pinned all hopes for mercy and redemption on this King of the Jews. 


This is precisely how Jesus explained the kingdom to Nicodemus of the Pharisees. The old order of flesh and blood will stand condemned, Jesus said, and "unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God" (John 3:1). The kingdom is made up, not of the old order of flesh and blood, but of those who have been re-created by the Spirit (John 3:5-8), who have looked to Jesus as sacrifice for sin (John 3:14-15), and who have entrusted their future judgment to the mercy found in Christ Jesus (John 3:16-21). 


Jesus' kingdom fulfills all the kingdom promises God made to the people of Israel. He and his apostles applied the language of Israel— including the imagery of temple, vine, shepherd, light of the nations, and so forth—to himself first and then to all those who are found in him. God's promise of a kingdom for Israel—with all enemies put under the people's feet—is found when God does just what he promised to the people: he raises Israel from the dead and marks him out with the Spirit (Ezekiel 37:13). Jesus in his teaching prepared his people, through stories and pictures and rebuke and encouragement, for life in this new kingdom. And then he ushered it in as the "firstborn from the dead," the "firstfruits" of God's new creation project. 


Jesus' own closest followers didn't quite get what the kingdom would be like. When he told them the kingdom would be global, they still didn't anticipate Pentecost. Above all, they couldn't comprehend one of the most troublesome mysteries of the kingdom: it doesn't arrive all at once. 


It's the same basic concept the second-century Christian preacher Justin argued with a Jewish friend named Tryph Jesus' kingdom has come in two stages. The key to what's "already" about the kingdom and what's "not yet" isn't some secret code to the Bible; it's the Christ/ church mystery. In Hebrews we see Jesus "crowned . . . with glory and honor" (Hebrews 2:7), but that's not the kind of thing we perceive in the starry sky or in the fossil record. We see it through the proclamation of the gospel, and through the invisible rustling of the Spirit (John 3:8). God exalts Jesus, grants him the kingship, but Jesus doesn't yet rule over the whole universe. 


This means we find the kingdom, then, not where we most expect to find it: in the whirl and pomp of political campaigns or in the splendor and glory of great movements. We find the kingdom, often, in the place where we, like our ancestor apostles, would be least likely to even think about something as majestic as a messianic reign: in a local church. 


Just like the kingdom language, evangelical Christians often try to make church language abstract and idealistic. We sometimes talk as though church were simply a synonym for "everybody with Jesus in his or her heart, all together." But that's not it. The Scriptures do speak of the church as that great, majestic gathering of all of God's people in Christ—those in the heavenly places and those scattered across the earth, one body with one Spirit. But this church is manifested in particular local gatherings. 


The church at Ephesus (or any other congregation you see mentioned in the Bible) wasn't a super-spiritual place. The people there would have been a lot like the people seated around you on Sunday morning. Not everyone would have had his subjects and verbs in agreement all the time. People would have squabbled from time to time over whose turn it was to set the table for the Lord's Supper or who forgot to announce the offering to help pay Sister Eunice's back taxes. 


But the kingdom was there, and King Jesus was there—and in every congregation gathered in his name (Matthew 18:15; 1 Corinthians 1:4). The church is an outpost of the coming kingdom. Part of this is the very existence of the church itself as a sign of the kingdom. These gatherings of sinners reconciled to God and to one another are, Paul says, so "the manifold wisdom of God might be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places" (Ephesians 3:10). Your church might be struggling to make budget, and you might not be able to agree on whether to sing Bill Gaither or Chris Tomlin songs in worship, but the very fact you're here says to the demons, "Your skulls are about to be crushed" (cf. Romans 16:20). 


The Future of the Kingdom  

I suspect that many evangelical Christians, perhaps even you, if strapped to a gurney and given truth serum would have to admit that heaven seems a bit, well, boring. That's because our vision of heaven—so much of our preaching and singing and funeral eulogizing—is, well, boring. We think of our future glory as a church's midweek choir practice that goes on and on and on and on—and when we've been there ten thousand years, we still have infinity ahead of us to sing and gaze into the light. 


But that's not what we have in Christ Jesus. 


Yes, the Bible teaches that immediately at death, those in Christ are spiritually in heaven—where Jesus is (2 Corinthians 2:8; Philippians 1:23). But our purpose is not to live as spirits, but to live as whole God-imaging persons, body and soul together. This is why we bury our dead in hope, as though planting seeds, waiting for the day when this dead tissue will be called to life again, patterned after Jesus' own resurrected body (1 Thessalonians 4:13; 1 Corinthians 15:35). 


The kingdom, then, is described as everything it means to live: feasting together as a family around the table (Isaiah 25:6; Matthew 8:11; Luke 22:18), personal relationships filled with love (1 Corinthians 13:8), and meaningful labor, as we join with Jesus in governing the universe (Matthew 19:28; Revelation 2:26). As a matter of fact, much of what life will be like in the kingdom is veiled to us yet because there's just no adequate way of comprehending, based on what we know now, "the glory that is to be revealed to us" (Romans 8:18). We shouldn't think of our resurrection lives as being a capstone of what went before. The kingdom of God is life, not an afterlife. 


If the kingdom is what Jesus says it is, then that means what matters isn't just what we neatly classify as spiritual. The natural world around us isn't just a temporary environment. It's part of our future inheritance in Christ. The underemployed hotel maids we walk past silently in the hallway aren't just potential objects of our charity; they are potential queens of the cosmos (James 2:5). Our jobs—whatever they might be— aren't accidental. The things we do to serve in our local churches aren't random. God is designing our lives—individually and congregationally— as internships for the eschaton. We're learning in little things how to be put in charge of great things (Matthew 25:14). 


That's because the kingdom is, after all, the kingdom of Christ—and it's all about God's purpose to make him preeminent in all things (Colossians 1:18). To be part of the kingdom, we must be "born again" (John 3:3). We must, as Jesus first told us on the shores of Lake Galilee, follow him. 


But Jesus made it clear, "Where I am going you cannot follow me now, but you will follow me afterward" (John 13:36). This isn't just straight to glory. It's, first, right behind Jesus. He isn't ushered straight from the Bethlehem feeding trough to the New Jerusalem throne. He "learned obedience through what he suffered" (Hebrews 5:8). As he relied on the Spirit, not on his own eyes or appetites, he was matured as the rightful human heir of the kingdom, made "perfect through suffering" (Hebrews 2:10). 


We too must learn to increase "in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man" (Luke 2:52). We must through life in the church be brought, ever so slowly, "to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ" (Ephesians 4:13). We too must walk through the wilderness of temptation and into the agony of the crucifixion, before we join Jesus at the feast table of the firstborn (Romans 8:17). We must learn, by patiently enduring evil in a world that seems demon haunted, not God governed, to be the kind of king (or queen) who judges "not . . . by what his eyes see" (Isaiah 11:3), to "walk by faith, not by sight" (2 Corinthians 2:7). 


The future of the kingdom gives evangelical Christianity a telescopic, global perspective. There's no aspect of life we don't care about because there's no aspect of life—except for death and sin and curse—that isn't headed somewhere in our future. At the same time, the fact that the kingdom is future keeps us from the hubris (and eventual despair) of thinking we can rule over the world or right every wrong now (1 Corinthians 1:8). Every time we speak out for justice, every time we make peace, every time we strike out the ravages of the curse, we're announcing that this wreck around us isn't yet the kingdom—it gets better than this. At the same time, we recognize that the kingdom is fully here only when we see—by sight, not just by faith—the unveiling of Christ. Until then, there is no lasting "peace and justice," and we can't find a "moral majority," not even among us. 



If evangelical Christianity is about anything, it ought to be about the gospel—that's the meaning of the term evangelical itself. If so, we must recognize that our mission is to be found in what makes the good news good. We don't have to be left to our own striving and clawing. And we don't have to try to be emperor of our own lives, or of those around us. We point instead to a kingdom that overshadows—and knocks down— every rival rule, including our own. 


This means our proclamation agrees with our non-Christian friends that something's deeply wrong with the way things are, even as we show them how they're not nearly outraged enough by the world the way it is. We tell them—and remind ourselves—of the good news of an invisible kingdom now in heaven, showing the pockets of the kingdom in our struggling little churches, and singing out for the glorious kingdom that will one day explode through the eastern skies. 


But, most importantly, we announce who is King in that kingdom: the One who joined us in our grave holes, even as we alternated between a hardened self-sufficiency and a screaming for the snake father we'd chosen for ourselves. Our Brother/Lord brought the kingdom in a way we'd never have thought of. He stopped looking for the ladder, and cried out to his Father.


And he was heard.

[Editor's Note: the above was taken from don't call it a comeback: the old faith for a new day, edited by Kevin DeYoung; chapter contributed by Dr. Russell Moore (Crossway Books). Used by permission.]

Russell Moore is Dean of the School of Theology and Senior Vice President for Academic Administration at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and executive director of the Carl F. H. Henry Institute for Evangelical Engagement. Dr. Moore is the author of The Kingdom of Christ: The New Evangelical Perspective (Crossway, 2004) and Adopted for Life: The Priority of Adoption for Christian Families and Churches (Crossway, May 2009). Visit his website at RussellMoore.com 

For Further Study

Goldsworthy, Graeme. Gospel and Kingdom: A Christian Interpretation of the Old Testament. Carlisle: Paternoster, 1981.  

Hoekema, Anthony A. The Bible and the Future. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979. 


Ladd, George Eldon. The Gospel of the Kingdom: Scriptural Studies in the Kingdom of God. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1959.  

1 This anecdote was part of an oral history documentary on Garvey on the PBS American Experience series. The transcript can be found online at http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/garvey/filmmore/pt.html.