Theology 101

The Kingdom in the New Testament Epistles

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We have previously noted that the apostles early on and consistently couched their preaching in kingdom terminology. The epistolary materials of the New Testament help to flesh out for us what they taught.

The Apostle Paul’s Theology of the Kingdom

Paul’s body of work is, of course, the most instructive. He consistently emphasizes the rule of Christ over the churches in particular, the present world in a permissive and providential way, and the world to come in an all-encompassing and compelling mandate of righteous wrath and promised blessing.

This is Paul’s characteristic way of teaching ethics: Jesus Christ is Lord (a declaration implying that nobody else in the Roman world is Lord) and head of the church (a grouping of confessed individual believers). Therefore Christ’s subjects should reflect his rule in their behavior.

But the church is only a (not the) manifestation of Christ’s rule. The church is more rightly denominated “the people of the kingdom,” as Professor Gregory Ladd puts it. These people, insofar as they are truly “kingdom people,” band together in association for the purpose of preaching the kingdom as Paul did, showing forth kingdom behavior as Paul urges them to do through their ethics and fellowship around the table (1 Cor. 11:23-26), anticipating and awaiting with eagerness the “blessed hope,” which is the arrival of the Messianic King in his glorious power.

Meanwhile, in the world at large and in the whole creating universe, a “subjection to futility” (Rom. 8:20) is continuing, implying by the language that there is a ruler who subjects. Paul’s teaching that evil itself is being “restrained” (2 Thess. 2:7-9) until a time when it will be personified in “the man of sin” or “lawless one” whose manipulator is Satan and whose powers will extend to “lying signs and wonders.” Such is the manner of the providential and permission rule of the heavenly king for the present age—subjection, ordination, and restraint.

Such a situation where the king can be murdered and his followers are subjected regularly to persecution (1 Thess. 1:6), tribulations (2 Thess. 1:4), and death (1 Cor 15:32), and where men steadily proceed from bad to worse in rejecting the message of the kingdom, cannot be allowed to prevail or go on indefinitely. Here’s what we are told will happen:

  1. God will send a “strong delusion” to surface in the world the desire to “believe the lie” (2 Thess 2:11).
  2. By sending the Lord Jesus “from heaven with his mighty angels” (1 Thess. 1:7), God will institute a compulsory rule that cannot be ultimately resisted or denied (1 Cor. 15:25).
  3. The Son himself “will also be subject to him who put all things under him, that God may be all in all” (1 Cor. 15:28).

Support from Other New Testament Writers

Other New Testament epistles confirm and support Paul’s theology:

  • James is apparently the earliest to urge faithful and patient behavior on his Christian auditors based on the era in which they live, “the last days (James 5:3), which will see their tormentors punished.
  • Peter urges faithfulness and obedience to Christ in the face of “various trials” because Christians have a “living hope” which is “reserved in heaven” and will be manifest “at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 1:6-7).
  • Peter’s readers are urged to act out their role as God’s “special people,” even though they live in the world as “sojourners and pilgrims” (1 Pet. 2:9, 11).
  • Peter’s second epistle joins in Paul’s warning to Timothy that men who do not hear and obey the truth will corrupt and seduce the church (2 Pet. 2:13).
  • Peter’s conclusion is that delay is within the purpose of God and the suddenness of the final cataclysm will swallow up the scoffers (2 Pet. 3:9-10).
  • The primary focus of the writer of Hebrews is Christ’s utter superiority to all things and persons that came before him. Believers can expect their lives to resemble those of the faithful in prior ages (Hebrews 11).
  • John’s ethical concerns in his epistles revolve around the contrast between the love of the Father and the love of “the world” and its “things” (1 Jn. 2:15), seen as a system in rebellion against God. The world is a place where the devil and his works, first seen biblically in the story of Cain and Abel, are encountered as hatred for righteous people (1 Jn. 3:12-13). No wonder the only thing to be done about such hostility is that the Son of God must “destroy the works of the devil” (1 Jn. 3:8).
  • Jude’s short polemic has a stated purpose of exhorting his readers to “contend earnestly for the faith one that was once for all delivered to the saints” (v. 3). Deceptions and defections within the ranks of believers threaten to carry away even those who would be faithful.

In conclusion, the correspondence with the churches of the first century in the New Testament epistles is consistent with the teaching of Jesus and the methodology of the prophets who went before him. The Kingdom of God has its present manifestation and a future consummation. The believing community is expected to behave personally and socially as those who expect a future blessing and who know they are not exempt from God’s judgments present and future.

Editor’s Note: This series was adapted from the IFWE research paper, God and Government: A Biblical Perspective (The Bible and Limited Government) by Dr. Tom Pratt. Read the full paper here.

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