The Jews were squirming under the iron hand of Rome. Was it lawful for a believing Jew to pay tribute to a pagan Caesar? Time was ripe for the violent Zealots. The Jews longed for independence. They envisioned a return to the Golden Age of David and Solomon. Had not Daniel and other prophets promised them as much? Israel was in expectation of God’s great indestructible kingdom.
Enter Jesus of Nazareth. The kingdom of heaven was a major theme of His ministry. No understanding of the Bible doctrine of “kingdom” will be adequate which does not study in depth what Jesus had to say. All four Gospels must be carefully examined. Any concept that focuses mainly on the Old Testament will fall woefully short. The twelve apostles, with just the Old Testament Scriptures as their source, did not grasp the basic nature of the kingdom of God. How can we today do any better, if we use only the Old Testament for our “proof texts”? No. We must see what King Jesus had to say. It is essential to interpret Old Testament prophecies in the light of New Testament teaching.
One article is insufficient to complete the task. The present article will be limited to the Gospel accounts, with Daniel as a backdrop. It will further be limited primarily to the issue of the time for the arrival of the kingdom.
84 PREACHERS ANNOUNCE ARRIVAL OF KINGDOM
For four centuries, Israel was without a prophet of God. Then one day, near the Jordan River, a man of strange garb and diet appeared. John the Baptizer began to preach an amazing message: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” (Matthew 3:2). For centuries, the Jews had been waiting for this very day! Now their dream was about to become reality! The kingdom predicted by Daniel was just around the corner! The Jews were stirred. Matthew records that “Jerusalem, all Judea, and all the region around the Jordan went out to him” (3:5).
John was anything but a self-promoter. He plainly said that his task was to “make the introductions,” so to speak. He humbly confessed, “He who is coming after me is mightier than I” (Matthew 3:11). John’s job was that of herald, forerunner. He laid the groundwork for Jesus.
From the beginning, Jesus’ message was the same as John’s: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17). He became so popular in Capernaum that the populace tried to keep Him from moving on. However, Jesus resisted their desires, saying, “I must preach the kingdom of God to the other cities also, because for this purpose I have been sent” (Luke 4:43).
In time, Jesus selected 12 men as His apostles. When He was ready to send them out on their own, He told them to preach: “The kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 10:7). This is the only direct quote recorded in the four Gospels telling what Jesus commanded the 12 to preach at that time. Mark adds that they preached repentance. Luke says they preached the Gospel. This indicates a relationship between the kingdom, the gospel and repentance.
Later Jesus sent out 70. Again, He told them to preach, “The kingdom of God has come near to you” (Luke 10:9,11). We can only deduct that, whatever they preached, the nearness of the kingdom was at the heart of their message.
In short, John, Jesus and the 12 preached, “the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” The 70 preached, “The kingdom of God has come near to you.” How remarkable that the united message of these 84 men of God was that the kingdom of the God of heaven was near. It was just around the corner. It was about to come. As Jesus Himself once put it: “The law and the prophets [were] until John. Since that time the kingdom of God has been preached” (Luke 16:16). The prophets had foretold the kingdom as something off in the future. Now Jesus declares that since John, a new phase had begun. The kingdom was just about to become a reality.
“THE TIME IS FULFILLED”
A fuller description of this message is found in Mark 1:14,15. “Jesus came to Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.’ ” Notice how Jesus interconnects four vital elements: 1) the gospel, 2) the kingdom, 3) repentance and 4) faith. It is “the gospel of the kingdom.” In addition, in preaching this gospel of the kingdom, the response Jesus was looking for was repentance and faith. There is nothing temporal here. There is nothing political here. This is a spiritual message, a message to the heart.
Not only did Jesus say that the kingdom was near; He said that this was the fulfillment of prophecy: “the time is fulfilled.” What time? The time for the kingdom. What prophecy did Israel have regarding the time for the kingdom? Surely, there is no kingdom prophecy that is more time-specific than Daniel 2. Six centuries before Jesus, Daniel prophesied regarding the fourth kingdom (Rome), “in the days of these kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom” (Daniel 2:44). (See Insight #83, “Daniel Foretells Indestructible Kingdom,” for an in-depth study of Daniel 2.)
Jesus lived under the Roman Empire. He was saying that the time foretold by Daniel was fulfilled. God was ready to set up His promised kingdom.
IN THEIR LIFETIME
Indeed, Jesus put far more stringent limits than did Daniel on the time for the arrival of the kingdom. Jesus narrowed the time considerably when He said, “There are some standing here who will not taste death till they see the kingdom of God present [footnote: having come] with power” (Mark 9:1). The companion text in Matthew records, “Assuredly, I say to you, there are some standing here who shall not taste death till they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom” (Matthew 16:28). Luke says, “there are some standing here who shall not taste death till they see the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:27).
All three record identically, “there are some standing here who will (shall) not taste death till they see… ” The remark, “taste death,” may seem strange. However, what else can it mean but this: “Some of you will not die before you see… ” Or, to put it another way, “It will happen in your lifetime.” What will happen? Matthew says, “… see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” Mark records, “… see the kingdom of God present [having come] with power.” Luke simply says, “… see the kingdom of God.” Though with different words, all three accounts record that the apostles would see the kingdom of God in their lifetime. Jesus was speaking in the year 29 A.D., more or less. By the wildest stretch, we could not look for fulfillment beyond the early days of the second century.
Any kingdom, therefore, that has begun after the second century cannot possibly be the kingdom that Jesus was talking about. By the same token, it cannot possibly be the kingdom that Daniel foretold. The fulfillment must be found in the first century (or by a stretch, early second). Early in His ministry, Jesus said, “the time is fulfilled.” Later on Jesus said, paraphrasing, “in your lifetime.”
MORE COMPARISONS WITH DANIEL 2
Jesus’ teaching coincided not only with the timing aspect of Daniel’s image-and-stone prophecy. There are a number of other parallel issues.
FIRST, Daniel also spoke of the growth of the kingdom of God. At first, the fifth kingdom was no larger than a stone. However, this stone “became a great mountain and filled the whole earth” (Daniel 2:35). This is strikingly similar to Jesus’ parable of the mustard seed. “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and sowed in his field, which indeed is the least of all the seeds; but when it is grown it is greater than the herbs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and nest in its branches” (Matthew 13:31-32). The figures are different, but the concept they teach is identical. They both speak of a small beginning, followed by great growth.
SECOND: Daniel’s great-image prophecy stressed the victory of the divine kingdom over the worldly ones. The stone “struck the image on its feet of iron and clay, and broke them in pieces… and [they] became like chaff from the summer threshing floors” (2:34,35). Centuries later, King Jesus referred to Himself as a stone. He did not quote Daniel; rather, He referred to two other “stone” prophecies as related to Himself: Psalm 118:22,23 and Isaiah 8:14,15. “The stone which the builders rejected Has become the chief cornerstone… And whoever falls on this stone will be broken; but on whomever it falls, it will grind him to powder” (Matthew 21:42,44).
Sandwiched between the two “stone” quotes, Jesus said, “Therefore I say to you, the kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to a nation bearing the fruits of it.” Thus, Jesus makes a connection between the kingdom and the “stone” texts. Both Daniel and Jesus speak of the stone breaking and reducing the enemy to chaff or powder.
It is true that Daniel 2 applies the breaking action to the kingdom, whereas Jesus applies the breaking power to the King Himself. To a student of prophecy, this poses no problem. Various times in Daniel, “king” and “kingdom” are interchangeable. Similarly, Saul, the great persecutor of the church, was accused of being the persecutor of Jesus (Acts 9:5). Therefore, the breaking power of the stone, which both Daniel and Jesus refer to, are easily seen as interconnected. After all, the King is the one who directs the activities of the kingdom.
THIRD, Daniel prophesied that the kingdom would be eternal: “A kingdom which shall never be destroyed… It shall stand forever” (2:44). Not for a century; not for five centuries; not for a millennium; but forever. It is eternal, never-ending, standing forever and ever.
Daniel’s declaration is exactly what the angel Gabriel said to Mary regarding the Son she was going to bear: “He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:33). Daniel and Gabriel agree. God’s kingdom will be eternal. The kingdom prophesied by Daniel and Gabriel is not to be a passing kingdom, but an eternal kingdom. Any kingdom lasting for only one thousand years would not be the fulfillment of either Daniel’s or Gabriel’s prophecy.
FOURTH, Daniel prophesied the spiritual nature of the kingdom. Daniel made an important point when he said of the fifth kingdom, “a stone was cut out without hands” (2:34) and, “the God of heaven will set up a kingdom” (2:44).
When Jesus stood before the Roman Governor, He said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, My servants would fight” (John 18:36). The concept is identical to Daniel’s. Jesus is pointedly declaring that His kingdom is not one that defends itself, or extends itself, by force of arms. Jesus’ weapons are not physical. His kingdom is not political. His kingdom is spiritual, otherworldly. (A future Insight will enlarge on this theme.)
TIME ALSO FOR THE KING
Daniel’s prophecy of the image and stone is not his only prediction of a specific time period. One of the most amazing time prophecies in all of Scripture is the one that pinpoints the year for the arrival of the King. It is found in Daniel 9:24-27–the famous 70-weeks prophecy. The Spirit of the living God, through Daniel, predicted that “Messiah the Prince” would arrive exactly 483 years after the command “to restore and build Jerusalem.” That command was given in the year 457 B.C. Adding 483 years, we arrive at 26 A.D. This is exactly the date of Jesus’ baptism–the date He began proclaiming, “the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (For more details on this prophecy, see Insight #44: “Jesus Fulfilled God’s Timetable.”)
The King arrived on the scene in the very year predicted! With His arrival, He announced, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand.” The fulfillment of each prophecy reinforces the other. This is more than an interesting coincidence. These are amazing predictions! They leave no room for doubt that Jesus of Nazareth was/is the promised Messiah/King. They leave no room for doubt that the kingdom of God was then just around the corner, as Jesus said.
Daniel predicted the arrival time of both the King and His kingdom. The two time prophecies coincide. The King came on time. Who can deny that the kingdom also came on time–that God did not fail–that God is faithful and kept His Word!
KINGDOM DURING JESUS’ LIFETIME
All these evidences of time lead to the specific question: exactly when was the kingdom set up?
The 84 preachers said that the kingdom of God was near. However, they never said, “The kingdom is here.” Or did they? Most texts in the Gospels point to the kingdom as being future (future to their time). However, two texts appear to say that the kingdom had already arrived. Matthew 12:28 says, “Surely the kingdom of God has come upon you.” Luke 17:21 says, “For indeed, the kingdom of God is within you.”
Since truth is not self-contradictory, we must seek the harmonizing element. Jesus came to establish the kingdom and to be its King. Though He lived under the old Law, He was involved in the process of setting up the new kingdom. He was having victory over Satan. “But if I cast out demons by the Spirit of God, surely the kingdom of God has come upon you” (Matthew 12:28).
Did Jesus mean that the kingdom had already arrived? Or, might this instead be compared to conception and birth in the physical realm? For nine months before birth, there is physical life in the womb. All the makings of the child are there, in the initial stages. Everyone is awaiting the birth. Thus it was with the kingdom. With the appearance of John and Jesus, the conception of the kingdom took place. Characteristics of the kingdom began to be on display. The presence of the kingdom could be felt, as can the movements of a baby in the womb. Nevertheless, the actual birth of the kingdom was yet a little while into the future.
The other text reads, “Now when He was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, He answered them and said, ‘The kingdom of God does not come with observation; nor will they say, “See here!” or “See there!” For indeed, the kingdom of God is within you’ [footnote: in your midst]” (Luke 17:20,21). Jesus sidesteps the question of when the kingdom would come. Rather, He calls attention to the nature of the arrival. The kingdom was not to be anticipated with fan-fare, parades and worldly show. It is something “within you.”
However, since the kingdom was obviously not “within” most of the Pharisees, the alternate translation is probably more correct: “the kingdom of God is in your midst.” Elements of the kingdom were already present, albeit, in the embryonic stage. Such a view of this text harmonizes it with the fact that, in the Gospels, the vast majority of texts regarding the timing of the kingdom put it yet a little while into the future. Specifically, Jesus put it in the near future, within the lifetime of His disciples.
JEWS COULDN’T “TELL TIME”
Those were great days in which to be alive. Days of the fulfillment of so many of the prophecies/promises made by the prophets of old. Indeed, said Jesus, “many prophets and righteous [men] desired to see what you see, and did not see [it], and to hear what you hear, and did not hear [it]” (Matthew 13:17).
How sad that so many Jews did not realize the tremendous value of what they were witnessing. The apostles and other disciples, on the one hand, were experiencing considerable difficulty comprehending what was transpiring before their eyes. On the other hand, most of the Jewish leaders and the much of the populace were having more than difficulty. They were in complete denial. “Then the Pharisees and Sadducees came, and testing Him asked that He would show them a sign from heaven. He answered and said to them… ‘Hypocrites! You know how to discern the face of the sky, but you cannot [discern] the signs of the times’ ” (Matthew 16:1-3). Luke records that Jesus said this to the “multitudes”: “Hypocrites! You can discern the face of the sky and of the earth, but how [is] [it] you do not discern this time?” (Luke 12:54-56).
Jesus repeated this theme, in far more drastic terms, at His “triumphal entry.” As He approached Jerusalem, He “wept over it, saying… ‘Days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment around you… and they will not leave in you one stone upon another, because you did not know the time of your visitation’ ” (Luke 19:41-44). “You did not know the time.” They rejected God’s kingdom because it did not fit their interpretation of prophecy. Within the week, they used Roman hands to crucify their own God-sent King. Jesus had clearly announced, “The time is fulfilled.” However, the Jews could not tell time–not spiritual time. They were blind to the fulfillment of the King and kingdom prophecies, which so many prophets and righteous men had longed to witness.
KINGDOM AT THE END OF TIME
Though Jesus clearly speaks of the arrival of the kingdom during the lifetime of His disciples, yet some Gospel texts refer to the kingdom as something at the “end of the world.” We must not ignore these texts, much less deny them.
The account of the judgment of the sheep and goats (Matthew 25) is a clear case in point. “Then the King will say to those on His right hand, ‘Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world’ ” (verse 34). Then the account ends with these words, “And these will go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” (verse 46). Thus, this text is talking about the final judgment, eternal punishment and eternal life. “Eternal life” is called “the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” It is not talking about the here-and-now or about any millennial kingdom. It is talking about judgment and eternity.
Many of the kingdom parables in Matthew 13, such as the parable of the sower, are obviously talking of the here-and-now. One at least, the parable of the dragnet, is obviously talking about the end of time. “The kingdom of heaven is like a dragnet that was cast into the sea and gathered some of every kind… So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come forth, separate the wicked from among the just, and cast them into the furnace of fire. There will be wailing and gnashing of teeth” (verses 47-50). The only conclusion to be drawn from Matthew 13 is that the kingdom of God has to do with both this world and that which is to come at the end of time.
If we take all that Scripture has to say on the subject, we must conclude that the kingdom is here in one sense and future in another sense. It may be thought of as two phases of the same kingdom. There is a sense in which the kingdom is future; there is just as certainly a sense in which the kingdom is present now. Call it “two phases,” or whatever you want to call it, neither truth can be denied.
CONNECTED WITH JESUS’ FIRST COMING
We do, indeed, look forward to the future phase of the kingdom–that blessed state of eternal life that follows the judgment at Jesus’ second coming. However, the Gospels contain abundant evidence that the initial establishment of the kingdom of God was closely connected with the first coming of Jesus.
The 84 preachers said the kingdom was, so to speak, “around the corner.” Jesus said that the prophecies regarding the time for the kingdom were fulfilled. He said the kingdom would arrive in the lifetime of His disciples. Jesus Himself fulfilled Daniel’s 70-weeks prophecy regarding the time of the King’s arrival. In addition to all this, elements of the kingdom of God were already evident during Jesus’ ministry, albeit in an embryonic stage. Since God is faithful and true, a student of prophecy would turn to the book of Acts, confidently expecting to find recorded the actual arrival of the Kingdom of God.
(Scripture in the preceding article is taken from the New King James Version. Copyright (c) 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.)