Wellum seems to distance the idea of kingdom in the New Testament from the theme of land. On the one hand he identifies “the entire universe [as] God’s kingdom” on the basis of God as Creator and sovereign of all things (Kingdom through Covenant, 592). But he also holds that due to the Fall there is now “an important distinction between the sovereignty and rule of God over the entire creation and the coming of his saving reign in the context of a rebellious creation to make all things right” (Ibid., 593). As God’s image-bearers, humans are priest-kings through whom “God’s rule is extended throughout the life of the covenant community and to the entire creation” (Ibid., 594). On this reading, there should be a close connection between land and kingdom.
But as he turns his attention to the New Testament, Wellum seems to minimize connection of the kingdom to the land. He says, “[The kingdom of God] does not primarily refer to a certain geographical location, rather the phrase tells us more about God (the fact that he reigns) than about anything else” (Ibid., 595-96). Wellum does indicate that though the kingdom is already present its consummation is “not yet.” Nonetheless he does not specify whether or not there is a geographical component to the kingdom in the consummation (Ibid., 596-99).
There are a number of points where Wellum’s analysis can be improved. First, though in the latter part of the 20th century it was common to claim that the kingdom language of Scripture referred primarily to a reign rather than to a realm, the scholarly sentiment seems to be shifting such that scholars more and more are recongizing the realm component. See, for instance Jonathan T. Pennington, Heaven and Earth in the Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2009), 281-82, 285; Dale C. Allison, Jr., “Excursus 1: The Kingdom of God and the World to Come.” In Constructing Jesus: Memory, Imagination, and History (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2010), 201-2.
Second, the distinction between the “sovereign reign” and the “saving reign” of God is not quite the right distinction. The sovereign reign of God does need to be distinguished from the kingdom of God announced by Jesus because the former has always been present while the latter arrived with Jesus Christ. But there is a better way of explaining the difference between God’s ever-present reign and the kingdom that arrived with Christ.
The better way of distinguishing God’s sovereign/providential reign from the kingdom of God announced by Jesus arises from the storyline of Scripture as it is run through the covenants. The foundation for the needed distinction can be laid in Gentry’s observation that Hebrew grammar requires Genesis 1:26 to be translated “let us make man . . . so that they may rule. . .” (Kingdom through Covenant, 188; cf. NIV 2011). This verse is the foundation of the kingdom theme in the Bible. God made mankind to rule, and the scope of this reign is the earth (Gen. 1:28).
Sin, of course, frustrated this rule. Mankind does not rule over the world under God. He now rules in opposition to God. Injustice is often the result of human rule. The covenants exist, however, to restore the rule of man over the earth under God’s greater rule.
- The Noahic covenant reaffirms that the reign of man over the earth, though affected by the Fall, has not been removed due to the Fall.
- The Abrahamic covenant reaffirms the creation blessing in kingly terms for the sake of the nations. G K. Beale comments, “Notice that the ruling aspect of the commission is expressed to Abraham elsewhere as a role of “kingship” (Gen 17:6, 16), and likewise with respect to Jacob (Gen 35:11)” (Gregory K. Beale, “Eden, the Temple, and the Church’s Mission in the New Creation,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 48, no. 1 (March 2005): 13, n. 18. Gordon Wenham sees a royal aspect to the entire set of promises: “Behind the fourfold promise of nationhood, a great name, divine protection, and mediatorship of blessing E. Ruprecht (VT 29  445-64) has plausibly detected echoes of royal ideology. What Abram is here promised was the hope of many an oriental monarch (cf. 2 Sam 7:9; Ps. 72:17)” (Gordon Wenham, Genesis, WBC, 1:275).
- As it relates to the kingdom, the Mosaic covenant governed the establishment of Israel in the land and thus made way for the Davidic covenant.
- In the Davidic covenant a promised Davidic king who will establish God’s kingdom on earth is promised.
- The problem of sin was dealt with in Christ’s new covenant sacrifice, which led to his enthronement, now in heaven and later on the earth (Acts 2:34-36; Rev. 20:4; 22:1).
Notable to the way the covenants develop the kingdom theme is the emphasis on a human king ruling under God. It is a son of Adam, the seed of the woman, the son of Abraham, the son of David that must be king. What distinguishes the providential reign of God over all things from the kingdom of God announced by Jesus in the Gospel is that the latter is a restoration of the rule of God’s image-bearer under God. If one starts with the assumption that the kingdom is God’s providential rule over creation, then one is left with the difficult question of how the kingdom comes with the Messiah. This problem is alleviated when the kigndom of God is understood to be God’s rule mediated through God’s image-bearer. (See also Central Role of Kingdom to Biblical Theology and The Role of Man in the Kingdom of God.)
That the Messiah’s reign in the kingdom of God fulfills the reign of man over God’s world is confirmed by the quotation of Psalm 8 in Hebrews 2. Psalm 8:6 refers back to Genesis 1:26-28: “You have given him dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under his feet.” Hebrews 2:8-9 indicates that God’s purpose for mankind is fulfilled in Jesus.
On this understanding, the kingdom inaugurated by the Messiah does have an emphasis on salvation and transformation. The Messiah’s goal is to reverse the Fall by creating a people who will rule the earth under God’s greater rule (Dan. 7:27; Rev. 22:5). For this people to fulfill this goal, they must be saved and transformed. Those who are not will be judged by the king when he returns and fully establishes his reign on earth.
But this conception of the kingdom does not allow the “a theocratic state in which God rules by his human vassal in the Davidic dynasty” and “the immediate transforming reign of God” to be pitted against each other. The latter is what makes the former possible.
Further, on this understanding, it is significant that Jesus remains human even as the ascended Christ. What is more, he remains a son of Abraham and a son of David. He is specifically an Israelite king over the Israelite kingdom, and it is as such that he rules over the world. God specifically moved his kingdom plan forward through Israelite covenants.
This is part of a series of posts on Progressive Covenantalism and the land theme in Scripture: