When Did the Kingdom of God Begin?

war“The Lord has established his throne in the heavens,
and his kingdom rules over all.”
Psalm 103:19

32 And we bring you the good news that what God promised to the fathers, 33 this he has fulfilled to us their children by raising Jesus, as also it is written in the second Psalm, “‘You are my Son, today I have begotten you.’
Acts 13:32–33

In his excellent little study on the title ‘Son of God,’ (Jesus the Son of God: A Christological Title Often Overlooked, Sometimes Misunderstood, and Currently Disputed), D. A. Carson asks the question: When did the kingdom of God begin? In typical fashion, Carson tears down any reductionistic answer and provides a vision of God’s kingdom that acknowledges the ongoing, sovereign rule of God over all creation (Ps. 103:19) and the kingdom of God that came when Jesus Christ, the Son of God, came to earth (and rose again to heaven).

Drawing on passages that cover the range of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, Carson shows how Christ inaugurated the kingdom. And it’s here where Carsons shows the polyvalent ways the Gospels speak of Christ’s kingdom. Indeed, his kingship is seen at his birth, in his life, and on the cross. Yet, it is in his resurrection and ascension where the exalted Christ “receives” his crown, if you will. While the New Testament bears witness to the forthcoming consummation of the kingdom, Christ’s service is rewarded with his crown in his resurrection (cf. Phil. 2:5–11).

Carson shows how this works and his thoughtful answer to the question of the kingdom’s beginning is worth considering and remembering as we read passages like Acts 13:32–33; Romans 1:4; and Hebrews 5:5–6, to name only a few. Here’s his answer to the question, “When did the kingdom of God begin?”

One might say that it dawned with the birth of the King. “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?” the Magi asked. “We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him” (Matt. 2:2). Jesus was not born merely to inherit the kingdom; it was his by right, his by birth.

In another sense, we might argue that Jesus’s kingdom dawns with the onset of his public ministry. His baptism at the hands of John the Baptist declares him to be the Son whom God loves (primarily denoting the Davidic king) and the Suffering Servant. Immediately after his temptation, he begins to preach in Galilee, in fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah 9 to the effect that a light has dawned in Galilee of the Gentiles (Matt. 4:15—16)—and it is in this context that Jesus preaches, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matt. 4:17).

Some might prefer to think the onset of the kingdom takes place in connection with the training of the seventy (or seventy-two), when Jesus’s disciples return with rejoicing that even the demons submit to them in Jesus’s name. Jesus responds by saying that in their ministry he saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven (Luke 10:17—18).

Others may recall how Matthew plays with the theme of Jesus reigning from the cross (Matt. 27:27—51a). It is not only a matter of the titulus, “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews” (27:37), but the mockery of soldiers (“Hail, king of the Jews!” 27:29) and of the religious authorities (“He’s the king of Israel! Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him,” 27:42), not to mention the sovereign way in which he gives up his spirit (27:50)—-an authoritative, kingly act. Granted the frequency of the “king” references in Matthew 27, it is hard to deny that, whatever the centurion and those with him meant when, thoroughly terrified, they exclaimed, “Surely he was the Son of God!” (27:54), for Matthew and his readers this sonship signaled, at very least, messianic kingly Status in David’s line.

But doubtless the event most connected with the dawning of the kingdom is Jesus’s resurrection. It is in the wake of the resurrection that Jesus insists that all authority has been given to him (Matt. 28:18). The two disciples on the Emmaus road had hoped that Jesus “was the one who was going to redeem Israel” (Luke 24:21), that is, they hoped he was the long-awaited Davidic king. In this expectation, however, they had no category for a crucified Davidic king, a crucified Messiah. Jesus rebukes their folly and asks, “Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory” (24:26). This, he insists with a larger group of disciples, is what is written: “The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day” (v. 46). In other words the Messiah, the Davidic king, has come into his own, and thus, implicitly, his kingdom has dawned. We have already observed that in John’s Gospel the message to which the disciples bear witness, the message that is to be believed if eternal life is to be gained, is that the Messiah, the Son of God, is Jesus (John 20:30-31), and this message is trumpeted in the wake of Jesus’s resurrection appearances. We have also observed how Paul links the resurrection of Jesus to the onset of Jesus’s mediatorial reign (1 Corinthians 15).

The kingdom of God in its uncontested form, of course, does not come until the end of the age. Until then we pray as the Lord taught us: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10). That is why inheriting the kingdom can on occasion be envisaged as an entirely future event (e.g., 1 Cor. 6:9-10). This consummation, however, when Jesus hands over the kingdom to God the Father (1 Cor. 15:24), is irrefragably bound up with the general resurrection, of which Jesus’s resurrection is the firstfruits (1 Cor. 15:20), thus showing once again how central the resurrection of Jesus is for the dawning of the kingdom, for the coming of the king. Moreover, just as the kingdom of God sometimes refers to the entire sweep of God’s reign, and sometimes to that subset of his reign under which there is salvation for his own people, so also Jesus’s reign can embrace all of God’s sovereignty, all authority in heaven and on earth (Matt. 28:18), and sometimes can refer to that subset of his reign under which there is life (e.g., 1 Cor. 6:9—10).

These reflections shed some light on why, in Acts 13:33— 34, Paul connects Psalm 2 with Jesus’s resurrection. In Paul’s mind, the divine decree that declares, “You are my son; today I have become your father” (Ps. 2:7), thus appointing as king the ultimate David in the Davidic trajectory, takes place most dramatically and irrefutably in Jesus’s resurrection. From now on he reigns with all authority, in anticipation of the glorious consummation. (pp. 50–53)

As you can see, there’s a lot to answering this question. In his answer, Carson models the way we must let all of Scripture speak on a subject. Rarely does one Scripture definitively answer a theological question. Rather, we must let the whole counsel of God speak. Carson does that and provides a fulsome and wonderful vision of Christ and his kingdom.

For more on the Christ as the “Son of God,” see Carson’s illuminating book Jesus the Son of God: A Christological Title Often Overlooked, Sometimes Misunderstood, and Currently Disputed.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds