The Kingdom of God and the Old Testament
The theme of the Bible is the kingdom of God. That is where the biblical account both starts and finishes. Salvation is the means by which the sovereign God brings sinful people into that kingdom as its willing and acceptable subjects. When Jesus began His preaching, He declared that the kingdom of God was "at hand." The term "kingdom of God" is not an Old Testament one, but the concept is. Clearly, Jesus' hearers had some concept of "kingdom" which rested on their Old Testament upbringing, and they would have recognized Jesus words as a claim that the hope or expectation of Israel was to find its fulfillment in Him.
How, then, is the kingdom of God to be seen in the Old Testament, and how does it provide the foundation for the gospel which Jesus preached? This is an important question, for there are many views current about the relationship between the Old and New Testament. Indeed, the Old Testament has provided a major problem for Christians from the second century onward, for it was then that Marcion proposed that the Old Testament should be rejected by Christians because it revealed a very different God from the God of the New Testament. Marcion was simply expressing the problem of the Christian use and interpretation of the Old Testament, and providing a very negative solution—i.e., abandon the Old Testament.
Loss of Historical Meaning
More orthodox Christians found they could not abandon the Old Testament, for they saw everywhere in the New Testament the testimony to Jesus Christ as the fulfiller of the Old. Yet the problem of how to interpret its message in a Christian way still remained. Ever since then there have been various Marcionite moves in the church ranging from outright, considered rejection of the Old Testament to plain neglect. One move to salvage the Old Testament actually led to its wrongful use. The school of Alexandrine scholars developed the method of allegorical interpretation, which ignored the plain, historical sense of the Old Testament and read out of it a supposed hidden, Christian meaning. It was, of course, open to anyone to read out of the text anything he liked. It was really a method of reading a Christian meaning into the text. In any case, the result was a gradual loss of the historical significance of the Old Testament.
Many medieval exegetes fought against the allegorizing method, but they never succeeded in providing a satisfactory alternative. By the time of the Reformation the so-called "four senses of Scripture" were widely accepted. It was held that the text had four meanings: literal, allegorical, moral and eschatological. But the literal-historical sense was given scant attention, while the other senses were established more on the authority of the church than on the basis of sound exegesis.
We should note one aspect which is no accident. The loss of the historical sense of the Old Testament went hand in hand with the medieval concept that the grace of God is primarily something done in the believer. Conversely, the recovery of the historical sense of the Old Testament by the Reformers accompanied the recovery of the understanding of God's grace as an attitude in God towards the sinner on the basis of the historical facts of the gospel.
The fact is that a clear concept of salvation history seen as the objective acts of God for men is the enemy of inner-oriented mysticism, which not only marked the medieval church, but which also characterizes much of what passes today for Protestant evangelicalism.
The Protestant Use of the Old Testament
Most evangelicals recognize that their view of the inspiration and authority of the entire Bible has saddled them with the Old Testament whether they like it or not. As a result, we see a variety of solutions to the problem of the relationship of the two Testaments. Two broad errors should be carefully avoided:
1. Many people simply draw on the great variety of Old Testament narrative for its wealth of human story. The aim is to illustrate how God deals with individuals, the godly and the ungodly. The result is a moralizing application that does little more than point up examples for us to follow and examples for us to eschew. Because there is no sense of structure and dynamic development, each narrative or text is treated in isolation from the wider framework of God's progressive revelation. Consequently, the relationship of Old to New involves little more than illustrations of gospel truth.
2. Another popular error is that of dispensationalism. Dispensationalism, to its credit, treats the Old Testament very seriously. However, it views the Old Testament as a totally different dispensation (in fact, a series of dispensations) from the New. God acts for man's salvation in the Old Testament in a way quite different from the way He acts in the gospel of the New Testament. With regard to Israel's history and prophecy, God is seen acting exclusively for Israel in a way which is unrelated to the gospel. For the Christian, then, the Old Testament is of interest only in so far as it prophesies of the future events relating to Israel. By applying a rule of interpretation which appears to guard the integrity of Scripture but which in fact is not itself drawn from Scripture, dispensationalism confines prophetic fulfillment to the future of Israel as a nation and severs Israel's history from any significant relationship to the gospel. In order to make the historical narrative relevant to Christians, it then constructs an elaborate and uncontrolled typological interpretation of the historical significance of the Old Testament and its essential unity with the New Testament.
When Luther asserted the importance of a literal reading of the Old Testament, he did not mean (as dispensationalists mean) that it is read apart from the New Testament. For Luther, the literal meaning involved both the word of the old covenant promises and the fulfillment of this as it is found in Jesus Christ. Calvin taught the unity of the covenants, pointing out that what was promised in the old covenant had its substance in Christ (see Calvin's commentary on 2 Corinthians 1:20).
The Unifying Theme of the Kingdom of God
Now let us examine the theme of the "kingdom of God" on the basis of the fact that we can discern its reality everywhere in Scripture. The kingdom of God involves three essential aspects:
1. The subjects of that rule, who are the people of God.
2. The sphere of that rule, which is the place where God is the unchallenged Lord among His people.
3. The ruling relationship by which God establishes the nature of His kingdom and its subjects according to His own eternal and unchanging character.
We may summarize these elements by saying that we see in the Bible the concept of the kingdom of God as involving:
God's people, — in God's place, — under God's rule.
The Kingdom in Eden
The first manifestation of the sovereign rule of God is the creation. It is impossible to overestimate the importance of creation, for it establishes the foundation for all our understanding of reality. It establishes once and for all the sovereignty of God and the fact that things are what they are because God made them so. The climax of God's creation was the establishment of the kind of kingdom that we are now considering. In Eden God set His people — Adam and Eve, made in His image and reflecting His rule — in their own dominion over the rest of the created order (Gen. 1:26). God's own rule was epitomized in the probationary word which set the bounds of human freedom within the kingdom (Gen. 2:15-17). The blessedness of kingdom existence consisted in both the relationship of man to God and the relationship of man to the creation. Nature was submissive to man's dominion and fruitful in providing his needs. Salvation, of course, had no place in this prototype kingdom since man was made in the kingdom and needed no saving.
The Kingdom in Israel's History
The fall of man (Gen. 3) caused a disruption in his kingdom existence. As a rebel against God, he was no longer a willing subject and had to suffer ejection from the garden. As man fell, the creation was made to fall with him. The ground was cursed, nature challenged man's dominion, and all of man's existence was now outside the garden. But judgment and grace go hand in hand. God declared His purpose to reverse the fall by means of the "woman's seed" (Gen. 3:15). Genesis 4 to 11 shows two lines of human development — one ungodly line expressing human sin and inviting God's judgment, and a godly line showing God's purpose of grace to make a people for Himself. The godly line leads us to Abraham, to whom the significant covenant promises were made. These promises have three focal points:
1. God will make of Abraham's descendants a great nation.
2. They will be given a land to dwell in.
3. They will be established on a special relationship to God.
Salvation is of grace, and the covenant of Sinai was given, not so that Israel might be saved, but because she was saved.
Here we see nothing less than the promise of the kingdom of God. Abraham's descendants are to be God's people, in God's place, under God's rule.
The rest of Genesis shows the tension between the promise and the actual experience of the patriarchs. Everything seemed to work against the fulfillment of the promises, so that only God's word of promise was left to be embraced by faith. The ultimate reversal was seen when the descendants of Jacob ended up in Egypt, where they suffered a cruel bondage.
The relationship of the covenant to Abraham and to the salvation of Israel from Egypt is clearly seen in Exodus 2:23, 24: " . . . their cry under bondage came up to God. And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob." RSV. We cannot comment here on every detail of the great exodus from Egypt, but we should note its main features, for they form the pattern of salvation in the Bible.
As to the cause of salvation, we see that it is grace alone. It is on the basis of God's gracious promise to Abraham and not on the basis of any merit in Israel that God works salvation. Next we note the function of Egypt and Pharaoh to demonstrate a real bondage as that from which salvation is a release. The hardening of Pharaoh's heart makes it doubly clear that Israel is not able of her own will to break free from this bondage, but must comply with the command, "Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the Lord, which He will work for you today . . ." Ex. 14:13, RSV. When we add to this the miracles of the plagues and the opening of the sea, followed by the miracle of Israel's preservation in the desert, we can see why Israel ever after praised God by recounting His mighty acts in history by which He saved them (e.g., see Ex. 15; Deut. 6:20-24; 26:5- 10; Josh. 24:5-13; Ps. 78; 105; 106:114; 135; 136; Neh. 9:9-15).
When God gave His covenant stipulations at Sinai, He addressed Israel as His people. It is clear that this law of Moses is not a program of works for salvation. Salvation is of grace, and the covenant of Sinai was given, not so that Israel might be saved, but because she was saved. The law is thus a manifesto for the people of the kingdom.
Again, space is too short to detail the whole range of Israel's history, but we can easily observe the emerging pattern:
1. The promise of the kingdom was given to Abraham.
2. The acts of God in bringing Israel out of Egypt were the definitive acts of salvation.
3. Sinai marked the objective constitution of Israel as the people of God.
4. Salvation as the way into the kingdom also involved the bringing of Israel into possession of Canaan. The pattern of conquest under Joshua continued the demonstration of the fact that it was the power of God at work in salvation.
5. The political development leading through the period of the judges to the establishment of the united monarchy was a demonstration (albeit imperfect) of the principle of a theocracy — a God-ruled state.
6. The rule of God in Israel was mediated through the Sinai covenant as it was administered by God's anointed, King David and his lineage, and as the focal point of this administration was established in relationship to the temple in Jerusalem.
Once again we see a clear expression of the kingdom of God answering to the promises to Abraham and exhibiting the basic characteristics of God's people, in God's place, under God's rule. But history will not permit us to oversimplify the situation, for the decline and fall of Israel between 922 B.C. and 586 B.C. raises the very important question about the nature of the fulfillment that existed under David and Solomon. In certain ways the physical characteristics of the promises to Abraham were fulfilled:
Thus the Lord gave to Israel all the land which He swore to give to their fathers. . . . Not one of all the good promises which the Lord had made to the house of Israel had failed; all came to pass — Josh. 21:43, 45, RSV.
And Judah and Israel dwelt in safety, from Dan even to Beersheba, every man under his vine and under his fig tree, all the days of Solomon. —1 Kings 4:25, RSV.
We can see in the latter reference the same reflection of the Eden paradise model of the kingdom that also figures in the promise of a land flowing with milk and honey (cf. Deut. 8:7-10). Eden will continue to be reflected in the promises of God, but any fulfillment in the present world order remains part of the fallen world, which is outside Eden. That is why the ultimate fulfillment of the promises to Abraham and of all prophecy of the kingdom of God will be apart from the present state of creation's fallenness.
So, while the kingdom of David and Solomon was a glorious fulfillment of the promises, it was nevertheless a kingdom of fallen people in a fallen world. It never could be permanent in itself, for it was imperfect. But when this kingdom fell apart, the question of the real fulfillment of the promises was a problem. The answer was given by the prophets of Israel, whose principal function was to interpret the decline as God's judgment on transgression of the covenant and to reaffirm the faithfulness of God by pointing to a great future day when all would be restored and made perfect, permanent and glorious.
The Kingdom in Prophecy
The obvious characteristic of futuristic prophecy is that it describes the future in terms which are drawn from the pattern of past history. When God moves for the final salvation of His people, it will be a repetition of the events from the time of bondage to the setting up of the theocratic state in the promised land. Their exile is a second bondage, salvation a second exodus. A second way through the wilderness will lead to a second possession of the land. The city of Jerusalem will be rebuilt and also the temple, and the Davidic king will once again rule God's people.
All this is not mere repetition, for there is a spiritualizing, or supernaturalizing, of the whole process. The exodus salvation in prophecy involves forgiveness of sins, and the covenant will be written on the heart. Human nature will be changed to conform perfectly with God's law. The land will perfectly reflect Eden by its fruitfulness, and nature will no longer be at odds with itself and with man. In fact, the renewal will be a remaking of the very sky and the earth. Sometimes the prophets deliberately mixed the restored Israel theme with the restored Eden theme (Ezek. 36:35; Isa. 51:3). So Ezekiel depicts the river of life flowing from the new temple and flanked by the tree of life (Ezek. 47:3-12; cf. Rev. 22:1,2).
Now the crucial question is, When is all this fulfilled? Clearly, the historical restoration from Babylon was not the anticipated fulfillment. It did provide a very pale reflection of fulfillment in that all the physical features were there to some degree. But the restoration that we read of in Ezra and Nehemiah, far from outshining the glories of David and Solomon's day, did not even come near to equaling them. In the face of this disappointment, the post-exilic prophets (Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi) point still to that future great day of the Lord.
The Kingdom in the New Testament
While the New Testament provides a more diversified description of the kingdom and concentrates on its reality in the spiritual plane, the same basic structure of the kingdom is there as is in the Old Testament. Because of the spiritual emphasis of the New Testament, some Christians (notably, dispensationalists) have suggested that the kingdom of the New Testament is not the one promised in the Old Testament. We must allow the testimony of Jesus and the apostles to decide that question for us. It is our firm conviction that the New Testament gospel kingdom is proclaimed everywhere as the fulfillment of the Old Testament expectations.
1. God's People. We have seen that this theme begins with Adam, not Israel. Theologically, Adam in Eden corresponds with Israel in the promised land. But to what do these elements correspond in the New Testament? Adam is the son of God (Luke 3:38). Israel is the people of God: " . . . I . . . will be your God, and you shall be My people." Lev. 26:12, RSV. This covenant formula is individualized in the king, the representative of Israel: "I will be his father, and he shall be My son." 2 Sam. 7:14, RSV. Israel is also spoken of as God's son: ". . . out of Egypt I called My son." Hosea 11:1, RSV.
The genealogy of Luke 3 makes it quite clear that Jesus is the true Son of Adam, and this accords with the use of the title "Son of Adam" in the Gospels. Jesus is the "beloved Son" with whom God is pleased (Luke 3:22). Indeed, Luke follows this baptismal declaration with his genealogy showing that through Adam, Jesus is the Son of God.
Jesus is looked upon as both the ideal Adam and the ideal Israel—that is, He is the people of God, the Seed of Abraham to whom all promises were made (see Gal. 3:16). Jesus as the Son of Adam (Son of man) accomplishes that which Adam failed to do; and likewise, as the true Israel, He does what Israel failed to do. Thus the temptation narratives show the reversal of Satan's conquest of Adam in the garden and of Israel in the wilderness.
If Jesus is the true people of God, the true Adam and the true Israel, all the prophecies concerning the restoration of Israel to be the people of God must have their fulfillment in Him. So Paul, preaching the gospel of Christ, was addressing himself to the hope of Israel (Acts 26:6, 7; 28:20). The consistent testimony of the apostle is to Christ as fulfiller (see 2 Cor. 1:20). We may not seek the true Israel outside of Christ or look for her restoration apart from the gospel. To become one of the people of God, one must be incorporated into Christ by faith (John 1:12; 2 Cor. 5:17; etc.).
2.God's Place. Israel's hope was to return to Zion, the place of God's dwelling among His people. The New Testament must tell us where Zion is if we would discover the new temple and the ruling son of David. Because Jesus is the Son of David to whom rule is given, Zion is where He is—i.e., in heaven. The kingdom of God cannot be separated from the presence of Jesus (Heb. 12:22).
In thinking of God's place, it is important not to be too conditioned by our earthly concepts of real estate. The prominence in the Old Testament of the promised land should not be allowed to establish our concept of God's place. We must remember that the promised land, Canaan, is an earthly expression of a reality which we saw set forth in the garden of Eden. But even Eden could not be Eden without the presence of God. Let Levi teach us a lesson. The tribe of Levi was chosen to be priestly representatives of Israel in having access to God (a priest is one who has access to God). God told Moses that He intended to make a nation of priests (Ex. 19:6), a truth which has its fulfillment in the priesthood of all believers. In this sense Levi was privileged to represent God's people in the ideal relationship of being accepted into God's presence. All the tribes were aportioned real estate as their inheritance, except Levi. Levi, the truly representative Israel, was given a far greater gift: "They shall have no inheritance among their brethren; the Lord is their inheritance. . . ." Deut. 18:2, RSV.
The making of the true kingdom of priests comes through the preaching of the gospel. The ultimate inheritance is related to priesthood rather than land rights. And it is this priesthood that the New Testament applies to Christians, for they have access to the presence of God through Jesus Christ. Because the hope of Israel leads thus to the blessings of the gospel, the writer to the Hebrews describes Abraham's faith in terms of its ultimate conclusion. It is not to the land of Canaan that Abraham's faith leads, but to the heavenly homeland (Heb. 11:13-16).
3. God's Rule. The concept of a theocracy established in the choice of a people as God's people and in the covenant regulation of this people, found its developed expression in the monarchy. The ruling of God's anointed king joined with the temple to provide an expression in Israel of these basic kingdom ideas. When God "walked" in the garden of Eden, there was no need of a symbol of His presence. But in the fallen world where sin separates man from God, a tangible symbol was provided. The tabernacle was given to symbolize at the one time both the presence of God among the people and the separation between a holy God and a sinful people.
Solomon's temple became a fixed symbol of God's dwelling and rule until it was destroyed in 586 B.C. Prophecy established the hope in the restored temple as the center of God's rule in Zion.
As far as the New Testament is concerned, Old Testament prophecy about the rule of God and the temple is fulfilled in the gospel. The resurrection of Jesus is not only the restoration of the temple (John 2:19-22), but also the re-enthronement of the Davidic king (Acts 2:30, 31). The true temple is in heaven, where Jesus reigns now (Acts 2:33, 36; Heb. 8:1, 2). While believers are separated from their Lord (they are on earth, He is in heaven), there is another temple created by the Holy Spirit, who unites believers with the ascended Lord (2 Cor. 6:16; Eph. 2:11-22; 1 Peter 2:4-8).
The New Testament develops Stephen's assertion that God's temple is not made with hands (Acts 7:47-50). It is, in fact, the heavenly dwelling to which temple prophecy ultimately points, and there the Eden typology is answered in the face-to-face relationship which requires no symbolic temple, for God is the temple (Rev. 21:22).
All the biblical promises find their fulfillment in Jesus Christ. Every element of the Old Testament's unfolding revelation of the kingdom leads to the Person of Jesus Christ come in the flesh. The kingdom of God has its objective reality in Him. He is God's true people. His presence marks the presence of God in the place we designate His kingdom. His word comes as God's ruling word with all authority.
The New Testament, in declaring the kingdom "at hand" with the coming of Jesus, points us to the fact that there is yet a consummation. But this consummation, such as is described in Revelation 21 and 22, is the outcome of the definitive work of Christ in the flesh, His living and dying. The great victory over the dragon of the Revelation is essentially the victory won two thousand years ago for us in the Person of Jesus Christ. To understand the gospel—Christ's life and death and resurrection for us—is to understand eschatology. The gospel, and it alone, is the key to those events which the Revelation describes as part of the process of bringing about the consummation of the kingdom. In the book of Revelation no new principle, no new aspect of the kingdom of God, is dealt with which is not already established on the basis of the gospel. The second coming of Christ and the whole of biblical eschatology involves the consummation of the gospel. The first coming of Christ determines the nature of events at His second coming.
In looking at the theme of the kingdom of God in the Old and New Testament, we have done little more than establish a framework necessary to understand the Old Testament basis of the gospel. Most importantly, this framework establishes the objective, historical nature of the gospel and rescues us from subjective caricatures of the gospel. Since all the promises and hopes of the Old Testament are fulfilled in the Person of Jesus Christ, we recognize that the "righteousness of God" is fulfilled in Him. The reading of the entire Bible as a coherent and unified revelation forces us to acknowledge that the righteousness we need for acceptance with God is outside of us in the Person of God's Christ.