What’s Universal and Particular, Already and Not Yet?

Kingdom ethics. Kingdom work. Kingdom building. Kingdom focus. Kingdom ministry. Kingdom you-fill-in-the-blank.

Whether employed as an adjective or a noun, the kingdom of God has become a popular subject in contemporary Christian conversation. And for good reason. It is, after all, a massive biblical category—so massive that it’s easy for the concept to become blurry and disjointed.

With this confusion in mind, Robert Peterson and Christopher Morgan have edited The Kingdom of God, a volume intended to articulate a full-orbed view of the kingdom from the vantage points of the Old and New Testaments as well as historical, systematic, and practical theology. This latest installment in Crossway’s Theology in Community series features contributions from Bruce Waltke, Robert Yarbrough, Gerald Bray, Clinton Arnold, Gregg Allison, Stephen Nichols, and more.

I corresponded with Morgan, dean and professor of theology at California Baptist University, and Peterson, professor of systematic theology at Covenant Theological Seminary, about how “kingdom” became an adjective, whether Paul preached Jesus’ “gospel of the kingdom,” if non-Christians can do kingdom work, how we misunderstand the kingdom, and more.


The word “kingdom” has become something of a catch-all. So what is the kingdom of God?

That’s a great observation, and you ask a hard question. Yes, “kingdom” has become a buzzword—much like “gospel”—and it connotes a variety of things, depending on context and who’s talking.

In his two chapters on kingdom in the OT, Bruce Waltke proposes that the Bible bears witness to two forms of God’s kingdom: a “universal kingdom” and a “particular kingdom.” God’s universal kingdom refers to the activity of God in exercising his sovereignty over all things. God parcels out to the nations their lands (Deut. 2:5, 9; 32:8), rules over their kings (2:30), and even gives them their gods (4:19; 29:25-26). God’s particular kingdom refers to his exercise of authority over subjects who, because of faith in and love for him, serve him alone. These aspects of the kingdom emphasize the Lord’s comprehensive kingship: he is King of all the earth (2 Kings 19:15; Isa. 6:5; Jer. 46:18; Pss. 29:10; 99:1-4), and of his chosen people in particular (Ex. 15:18; Num. 23:21; Deut. 33:5; Isa. 43:15).

In his two chapters on kingdom in the NT, Bob Yarbrough explains that the kingdom is enigmatic in nature. Yet in spite of this mystery, it still communicates something about the way things are meant to be. It points us to who God is as Ruler over his realm, who his people are as participants in his kingdom, what his church should be in giving praise to and witnessing for their King, and how the already/not yet tension should cause us to anticipate the King’s coming in a world still marred by sin. God’s kingdom is an all-encompassing force, meant to point his people to their ultimate King. As such, the kingdom tells us where true life is to be found—and it requires a response.

What’s the “gospel of the kingdom” that Jesus preached? Did Paul preach this gospel?

Yarbrough’s chapters are again noteworthy here, as he notes that the “gospel” is associated with the kingdom (e.g., Matt. 4:23; 9:35; 24:14) and examines the relationship between “gospel” and “kingdom.” The gospel of the kingdom is “good news,” a “favorable announcement.” It transmits kingdom tidings. It announces that the reign of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is now present in a new way, to a new extent, and for a new purpose. Most importantly, it is inextricably bound to Jesus the King.

Yarbrough examines each reference to kingdom in Paul and proposes that the kingdom of God (or of Christ) is a foundational concept in his theology, much like an invisible software program running at all times in the background as Paul ministers and composes his letters.

What are some of the most common misunderstandings about the kingdom in Reformed evangelical circles today?

We don’t like to paint with such a broad brush, as there are notable exceptions. But in general, we’d say there’s a general neglect of this central biblical teaching. Though “kingdom” is a frequently used adjective, it’s rarely the focus of the discussion. For example, when the kingdom is mentioned, it’s often in the midst of theological sparring over the relationship of Israel and the church, the nature of the millennium, evangelism and social justice, and so forth. When we do address it, we tend to focus on the teachings of Jesus without any regard for the teachings of the OT. And how often do we hear about the kingdom in Acts, the General Epistles, or Revelation?

This may be in part why people often say that in Jesus the kingdom of God is “already and not yet.” We agree. But aren’t there also already-and-not-yet aspects of the kingdom in the OT? Indeed there are, and these are almost definitional to all salvation history prior to the consummation, when the already and not yet finally merge. Because of this neglect, we wonder whether Jesus’ teachings about the already and not yet of the kingdom are understood as often as they’re cited. His kingdom in some sense fulfills OT prophetic expectations and unites some of its teaching of the “not yet” to that of the “already.” Yet he doesn’t bring the kingdom in its final sense, and thus it’s still already and not yet.

If Jesus possesses all authority in heaven and on earth (Matt. 28:18), in what sense is Satan the “prince of the power of the air” (Eph. 2:2) and the “god of this world” (2 Cor. 4:4)—with “power” (Acts 26:18) to “bind” (Luke 13:16) and to “oppress” (Acts 10:38)?

Here’s a good example of why it’s important to understand the kingdom as universal in one sense and particular in another. It’s also an example of why it’s critical to hold to the tensive already and not yet of the kingdom (compare Eph. 1:20-23 to 1 Cor. 15:22-28).

Clint Arnold’s chapter addresses this question and more as he clarifies that Jesus proclaims and brings God’s kingdom in a context of strenuous opposition—chiefly from Satan. The kingdom comes, but neither instantly nor peacefully. And it comes through destroying every rule and power, through putting enemies under his feet, through putting all things in subjection to him, through conflict and conquest over the kingdom of Satan (1 Cor. 15:22-28). Indeed, creation is presently subject to two conflicting realities, one that’s not eternal and one that is. Evil in its tyranny is real and destructive, but temporary. God’s rule is universal, but still in the process of bringing evil to an end.

Can non-Christians do “kingdom work”?

Non-Christians cannot represent Christ or his particular reign. They can promote beauty, truth, justice, and goodness in a broad way. But since they don’t submit themselves to Christ’s reign, they cannot do kingdom work, which is by nature Christological.

  • MarieP

    Question: under God’s sovereignty, don’t nonbelievers unwittingly engage in some sort of “kingdom work” as Christ uses them toward the good of His people and spread of the Gospel? Not that they’ll be rewarded for it, as it’s not mixed with faith. We talk about God drawing straight lines with crooked sticks. And what about the case of apostates and the things they did in Christ’s name (though of course Christ calls them workers of iniquity on the last day).

  • http://vantilman.blogspot.com Andrew

    I found the book ‘Kingdom through Covenant’ also very helpfull on this topic. I am just finishing it now and am looking forward to reading this one next, thanks for the review.

  • Kenton

    I’m not sure I agree with the premise that “God’s kingdom is universal and particular”. Certainly God’s sovereignty and authority and ownership are universal and absolute. But “the kingdom of God” has a very distinct usage in the New Testament, such that it can’t be applied to every single thing (much as the term gospel can’t be applied to every single thing). Specifically, the kingdom of God is the reign of God that will be established suddenly when Christ returns. That is the “not yet” part. But in what way is the kingdom “already here”? Much ado has been made about the kingdom being a partial reality *in this world*. Yet Jesus never says such. Rather, the kingdom is in your midst. How so? Via the church. The language of spreading the kingdom seems to come from Jesus’ parables of the yeast and mustard seed, but are those describing the world itself, or the expansion of the church?

    It seems to me, from Scripture, that the kingdom of God isn’t social work or cultural engagement, but rather it consists of the life of the church, whose members then act in the world as citizens of the kingdom. As Paul says, “The kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. Whoever thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men.” So kingdom work cannot be done by nonbelievers precisely because they aren’t under the kingdom, the “already” of which is found within the church, where Christ’s presence is. Neither does it seem that kingdom work is a present-day extending of God’s reign and creation renewal. It is God who establishes his kingdom, yes, instantly and violently; yet, it begins among those who have believed because of the proclaimed word, and it grows in the world as the word of God is believed by more and more hearers.

    So the kingdom work is calling people into covenant with God, in all the various ways that Christ used. If what we do doesn’t have that aim, the gospel aim, then it isn’t kingdom work. This is how the yeast and mustard seed grow: through evangelism and means to evangelism. The gospel in the synoptics is called “the gospel of the kingdom”. So they are always connected. The gospel pertains to the kingdom (which Jesus equates with the preaching and reception of the word). Therefore, kingdom work is gospel work. It isn’t “gospel and kingdom” as though they were two independent poles of Christian engagement. They are the same thing.

  • John Dunn

    The “Gospel of the Kingdom” is nothing less than a proclamation that the crucified and risen Messiah King has been exalted to the highest place of authority and is presently putting all rule under his feet through the free-grace Gospel message, whereby He is drawing all men to himself.

    In this way, the Gospel and Kingdom cannot be separated. Wherever the Gospel message prevails, the Christ’s Kingdom is expanding. And only those who are born again of the Spirit of God can do this work.

  • http://www.TheTitusMandate.org Ted Bigelow

    “Yarbrough examines each reference to kingdom in Paul and proposes that the kingdom of God (or of Christ) is a foundational concept in his theology.”

    Foundational? That’s pretty important, then.

    So how often does Paul use the word “kingdom?”

    1% of his words? (1 in 100) Nope.
    .1% of his words? (1 in 1000) Nope.
    .05 of his words, or 5 in 10,000.

    Gotta love the “already” confidence of covenantalism!

    • Kenton

      With Paul, you also have to note where he uses other words that refer to the kingdom. One such pair of words is “heir/inheritance”. These terms refer to inheriting the kingdom of God, and he does use these in places where he doesn’t talk about the kingdom. There’s also “hope/resurrection/eternal life”, which in the Synoptics is connected to the kingdom of God. So there are other words that refer to the same thing (different aspects). Those are the most central.

      • http://www.TheTitusMandate.org Ted Bigelow

        Hey Kenton, my old sparring partner! Hope you are blessed and well, my friend.

        You are right that kingdom words include others, of course. But to build a theology of Paul we always start with his words lest we insert our own thoughts about his theology, such as “eternal life = kingdom.”

        Here’s a comparison. In this thread the word “kingdom” is the topic at hand. It occurs about every 6th or 7th word – 15% of the words. Pretty obvious the thread is about that topic.

        If I assigned a paper to students on the foundational theology of Paul and they used the word kingdom substantially more than 1 word in 2000 they would be over-stating Paul. In a 100 page paper of 250 words per page (250,000 words) the word “kingdom” should show up only once every 12.5 pages if they are to proportionally represent Paul.

        As a dispensationalist I have no problems reading Paul’s words on the kingdom and seeing that some aspects of kingdom-life are occurring today – spiritually speaking (Col. 1:13). But I believe Jesus will come back again and establish His visible 1000 year earthly kingdom – Mat. 23:39.

        Blessings on you and on those you love,

        • Kenton

          I wouldn’t call myself a dispensationalist, butI most certainly agree that the kingdom of God is that which Christ will definitively establish when he returns (but yet is in the midst of the church as it behaves as those who are of the kingdom).

          That said, I actually didn’t say that eternal life=kingdom. They are connected however. I think it’s very important that we also don’t read John back into Paul’s epistles. He more clearly holds eternal life to be something that is in some sense already present ( a spiritual life).

          However, eternal life, inheritance, hope, resurrection, all pertain to the age to come, the age in which God’s kingdom will fill the earth. eternal life and resurrection obviously go together. the resurrection brings about eternal life from death. In the same way, inheritance goes with the kingdom of God: it is something that is inherited, and those who inherit it are the heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, which means its a royal inheritance. Hence, it’s connection to the kingdom. Now 1 Corinthians 15 is just one place that connects the kingdom to the resurrection: “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God”. In other words, the resurrection of the just is the gate to the kingdom of God. So those two are bound together by Paul, just as Jesus’ resurrection and ascension and session at God’s right hand (as His heir, according to Hebrews 1) are bound together. As Peter says, “God raised up Jesus and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God.”

          Hope is connected to both, in Romans and in Ephesians: the hope of the glory of God, the hope of bodily adoption (resurrection and life), the hope to which He has called us (the inheritance of the saints). And the gospel pertains to this hope (Colossians?): the hope laid up for us in heaven.

          So what I mean is that Paul has much more to say about the kingdom that the term kingdom allows for. He weaves all of these terms together, such that he is preaching the gospel of the kingdom, though he doesn’t use all the terms (being in a Greek context). And all that he says has a clear future orientation, but it does have implications for how we live. And what those implications are is the question.

          Personally, I don’t see where Scripture makes the implication that we are to change the world (or even expect to), whether through social justice or lawmaking or culture-shaping or anything else. And while we are to individually show compassion to the poor and defend the cause of the widow and orphan, and while certainly there is a place for wisdom and justice in executing and administering and deciding laws, I don’t see where these things comprise any sort of mandate on the order of the Great Commissoon. Nor do I see this as the main focus of the church.

          But even those things aside, the kingdom of God is most definitely not something that is established in this world, in this age, by Chridtian or non-Christian effort. It does not consist in good works, but in the Holy Spirit, under the authority of Christ and in the presence of God. It doesn’t consist in Christian-friendly societies or good moral cultures or Christian-controlled government. Those things are not the kingdom. And I think if we rescued the hope of the gospel from the simplistic doctrine that our hope is that God takes us to heaven, then we can regain a hope that God will overthrow every rule and establish perfect justice and life. And that would compel us not to try to change the culture (as though any action other that preaching the gospel could preempt the kingdom’s establishment); rather, we would be compelled to plead with people to believe on Jesus and so be found worthy to inherit the kingdom of God, on the basis of Christ’s death and his resurrection from the dead. And then instead of trying to change cultures and societies and governments, we bring people out of the world and into the covenant of God, and they begin to live by the power of the Spiirit as citizens of heaven, who await a kingdom and glory from God.

        • MarieP

          Substitute the word “Trinity” for “kingdom” in your post….

          Would you say the same for that subject? If not, why?

  • http://www.takeacopy.com/ John Dunn

    Ted, the expanse and extent of the Kingdom is of the nature of faith . . . not seen, or touched, or handled. But believed. (Luke 17:20) The Kingdom is established in human hearts, by faith, through the powerful new life of the Spirit. It does not belong to baptized infants. The Kingdom belongs only to those New Covenant “infants in Christ” who believe, to those filled with the Spirit.

    Rom 14:17 – For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.

  • http://www.TheTitusMandate.org Ted Bigelow

    John – Lord bless you for your faith in Christ. Nice to meet you brother!

    But, your definition of the kingdom is synonymous with “new life.” Such a kingdom has no territory it rules over, no king in person who by real judgments subdues real flesh and blood enemies – no really, really cool renewed earth either – Mat. 19:28 (ESV gets this verse all wrong!).

    One day, your faith in the glorious Lord Jesus Christ will be rewarded with much more than just new life (as awesome as that is!). You will reign with Christ on earth among millions of your very BFFs! – Rev. 5:10

  • http://www.chriscastaldo.com Chris Castaldo

    Matt, it would have been interesting to hear Morgan explain the relationship of the church and the kingdom. It seems to me that one’s understanding of this relationship has profound implications for our engagement with the larger culture. I wonder if we sometimes align them too closely, which in turn leads us to strive toward cultural dominion that is not yet properly ours in an inaugurated eschatology.

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