If you have been around the Southern Baptist Convention for a while, you're no stranger to talk of God's Kingdom. You have heard about Empowering Kingdom Growth, Kingdom Families, and the Everyone Can Kingdom Challenge. You have been encouraged to be Kingdom-minded and seek first His Kingdom. You have prayed, "Thy Kingdom come." But can you define the term "Kingdom of God"? If not, it's time to transform the concept from a catchphrase into a treasured biblical doctrine.
The Kingdom Defined
According to article nine of The Baptist Faith and Message, the "Kingdom of God" refers to both "His general sovereignty over the universe" and "His particular kingship over men who willfully acknowledge Him as King." Typically, references to the Kingdom designate the latter meaning of God's more visible reign over those who submit to His rule and work to glorify Him. Elaborating on the Lord's "particular kingship," the BF&M calls the Kingdom "the realm of salvation into which men enter by trustful, childlike commitment to Jesus Christ." Christians should "pray" and "labor" for the Kingdom to come on earth, but the "full consummation of the Kingdom" will not occur until Christ's second coming.
Put simply, the Kingdom is God's unhindered rule over His people in His realm. He established it at Christ's first coming; He will establish it in its full and final form when Jesus returns.
The term "Kingdom of God" occurs mainly in Mark and Luke. These occurrences, combined with Matthew's use of the synonymous term "Kingdom of Heaven," add up to approximately one hundred references to the Kingdom in the Synoptic Gospels. For that reason, any attempt to understand the Kingdom must begin with the Synoptics. (In that vein, this year's LifeWay Baptist Doctrine Study, written by missiologist Ed Stetzer, explains the doctrine of the Kingdom from Jesus' Kingdom parables in Matthew 13.) The Kingdom was a central component of Jesus' preaching (Mark 1:14–15). In this life, God’s Kingdom grows alongside the devil's kingdom, but members of the two kingdoms will be separated at the final judgment (Matthew 13:24–30). The Kingdom is like a small seed that one day will become a giant tree (Matthew 13:31–32). A person who recognizes the Kingdom's value will give up all He has to obtain it (Matthew 13:44–46). Evil people will be excluded from the Kingdom (Matthew 13:47–50).
The Gospels also highlight the dual reality that the Kingdom is already in the midst of Christ's people (Luke 17:21) but not yet manifested fully. In the future Jesus will eat and drink with His disciples in the Kingdom (Mark 14:25), and His followers are to pray for its coming (Matthew 6:10).
Beyond the Gospels, Scripture uses the term "Kingdom of God" sparingly—six times in Acts and eight in Paul's letters along with a smattering of mentions elsewhere. But its infrequent mention should not obscure its importance throughout God's Word. In fact, one way to view the Bible's overarching story is as God's quest to establish His Kingdom—His unhindered rule over His people in His realm.1
In the beginning, He ruled perfectly over Adam and Eve in a garden paradise (Genesis 1–2). But sin destroyed that perfect Kingdom (Genesis 3). Still, God announced that one day He would crush Satan and reestablish His rule (Genesis 3:15). Almost immediately He began that work—at first in small pockets, but on a larger scale as history progressed. At the Flood, He established His reign over Noah's family in the ark (Genesis 6–9). Later, He established His reign over Abraham's family, promising them a special land where they would enjoy His presence (Genesis 12–50). At the Exodus, God advanced His Kingdom further, reigning over the entire nation of Israel and leading it to Canaan. Under David and Solomon, the Lord made His reign over His people more evident than ever, prospering them to new levels and securing their land. He even promised that one of David's descendants would rule over an eternal Kingdom (2 Samuel 7:16).
Despite God's loving advance of the Kingdom through Israel, the people broke His laws repeatedly and rejected His reign. As a result, He exiled them from Canaan. But through the prophets, He promised that He would make a new covenant with His people and reestablish His reign in a renewed Kingdom (Jeremiah 31:31–40; Ezekiel 36:22–38). Jesus said His coming inaugurated that Kingdom (Luke 4:16–21) and that anyone who trusted Him as Lord and Savior could enter it (John 14:6). Acts and the Epistles explained that the church is an outpost of the Kingdom, God's realm where He exercises unhindered rule over His people here and now (Ephesians 2:13–22). In Revelation, Christ promised that He would return one day, extending His reign to include perfect, unhindered rule over all creation (Revelation 11:15).
The Kingdom and the SBC
In 2014, Southern Baptists of various theological stripes agree that the Kingdom is a present and future reality. But the Convention has not always enjoyed such consensus. Surprisingly, Christian theologians rarely made the Kingdom a major topic of discussion before the mid-nineteenth century. For example, the 1833 New Hampshire Confession of Faith, a precursor to the BF&M, made only a passing reference to Christ as King (Article 8). In the early twentieth century, Southern Baptist theologians focused on the present phase of the Kingdom. As a result, the 1925 BF&M's article on the Kingdom alludes only faintly to a future aspect of God's reign. By the mid-twentieth century, Baptists like Southwestern Seminary's W. T. Conner and Oklahoma pastor Herschel Hobbs began to point out the dual reality of the Kingdom. Consequently, the 1963 BF&M acknowledged its present and future components.2 Still, there was tension regarding this doctrine, as many moderates and liberals emphasized the Kingdom's present aspects and many conservatives focused on the future consummation. By the year 2000 though, a twofold understanding of the Kingdom as present and future gained general acceptance in the SBC.3 The 2000 BF&M article on the Kingdom remained unchanged from the 1963 version, but this time it likely reflected a broader consensus.
Perhaps the reason contemporary Southern Baptists mention the Kingdom so often is that it drives our cooperative vision for ministry. Because Jesus already reigns, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission advocates public policies that conform to His will and promote human flourishing; our six seminaries train ministers to shepherd God's people in righteous living; and our mission boards send workers to transform the world's cities with the Gospel of Jesus. But because the Kingdom has not yet arrived in its fullness, we beg men and women to trust Christ for eternal deliverance from Hell and we seek to free ourselves from the trappings of this world.
So as you empower Kingdom growth, build a Kingdom family, and take the Everyone Can Kingdom Challenge, work for God's reign to be extended here and now. But keep an eye to the eastern sky, because there's more to come.
- See Graeme Goldsworthy, According to Plan: The Unfolding Revelation of God in the Bible (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1991).
- James Leo Garrett, "The Kingdom of God According to Baptist Theology," Southwestern Journal of Theology 40 (1998): 53-68.
- Cf. Russell D. Moore, The Kingdom of Christ (Wheaton: Crossway, 2004); and Craig Blaising and Darrell Bock, Progressive Dispensationalism (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1993).