A Handful of Mud: Brainstorming the Apocalypse (XVI)

March 19, 2010

Well, even though I am going to get into the usage of the “kingdom” terminology in the Book of Revelation somewhat initially in this relatively brief post, the last one I wrote got me to thinking about how much difference in perspective can influence the way you tend to see things… especially in regard to the “kingdom of God.”

After I finished discussing the dramatic—but recently “shrinking”—difference that has historically existed between the dispensational and covenant theology understanding of the kingdom of God, it occurred to me that it might be helpful to lay out for you the most obvious reasons for why each view approaches things the way they do.  So, this post will consist of: 1) that quick explanation; 2) a brief listing of the elements that make a full-blown (i.e., reasonably comprehensive) “kingdom” concept; and 3) a “first look” (i.e., unanalyzed, at this point) at the key terminology and its usage in Revelation.

On the first point, it has long appeared to me that the dispensational view of the kingdom is most substantially impacted by their sense that the “kingdom of God” (or the “kingdom of heaven,” in Matthew) was offered by Jesus—along with His saving work—both of which were rejected by Israel.  Thus, “it makes sense” that, with the King having been rejected, His kingdom has been postponed.

Covenant theology views things from a different angle, however.  One of, if not the most foundational theological principles in their entire system is the sovereignty of God.  That means, at the very least, that God has the ongoing right and power to rule whatever he sees fit, whenever he chooses to do so.  Therefore, even though certain passages in the Bible sound like this world is, to a great degree, controlled by the Devil, that way of thinking is considered to be a short-sighted understanding.  The Lord is still in control, most especially in and through His people.

We will let those seemingly mutually exclusive ways of approaching the kingdom stand for the moment.  However, before deciding to slide completely to one side or the other, strictly because these are the two most influential viewpoints in American evangelical circles today, you might do well to recall the point made by the fable of the blind men and the elephant.

Do you remember that classic story?  A group of blind men all came at an elephant from different angles in an attempt to understand what an “elephant” is, but without being able to see it, of course.  To make a long and entertaining story short, one thought the trunk was the whole elephant, while another thought it was the leg or side or tusk or tail.  None of them could seem to grasp the sense of the whole “elephant.”

Well, suffice it to say that the “kingdom of God” is a richer concept that we often think of it as being.  And, in what I am about to say, please understand that I am not claiming to be describing a fully comprehensive kingdom concept.  I am just attempting to lay out a  relatively full-orbed listing of features for the purpose of the following discussion.

To me, any “real” kingdom must have at least the following four features: 1) a ruler (king); 2) a rule/the ability and power to do so (i.e., sovereignty); 3) a realm (i.e., a place/location); and 4) those who are ruled (i.e., the subjects of the ruler).

As noted above, though classical dispensationalism would certainly admit to the present reality of 1) and 2) in some sense, they believe the present lack of 3) and the rejection of 4) by Israel makes it inappropriate to speak of the “kingdom of God” being present today, because the idea of God’s “kingdom” is currently incomplete.  By contrast, classical covenant theology emphasizes that 3 of the 4 features are very much in play today and the fourth is not only because God, in His sovereign will, has not yet seen fit to take over the realm that is rightfully His.

When you think about it, both views have a point… but only up to a point.  What they claim is “true,” though dispensationalists appear to somewhat understate the presence of the kingdom, while covenant theology makes the opposite mistake, overstating its current presence.

In the next posts, I will probe the uses of the obvious “kingdom” terminology in Revelation.  That will put us in a position in which, just a little down the line, we will be able to test the validity of these two positions on the “kingdom,” at least to the degree that the concept is found in the Apocalypse.

Here we go (but just far enough to get our toes wet this time!): Actually, the term basileia, which is usually translated “kingdom,” is only used seven times in Revelation. If that is not surprising enough, only two of these uses is about God’s kingdom: 1:9, where John describes himself as his readers’ partner in “kingdom”; and 12:10, which refers to “the kingdom of our God and the authority of His Messiah…” (HCSB).  Now, 11:15 does refer to “kingdom of the world” beginning to be ruled by the Lord, but does not use the word.  The other four uses—all clustered closely together in one section of the book (16:10; 17:12, 17, 18)—all refer to either the “kingdom of the beast” or earthly “kingdoms” in league with him.

However, there are also numerous uses in Revelation of the Greek noun for “king” (basileus) and the verb “to reign/rule” (basileuo).  “King” is found 21 times, but, strikingly, God is only referred to as “king” three times (though believers are also said to be “kings” twice).  By contrast, fifteen of the uses refer to “the kings of the earth” or some variant wording, though one of those uses is in the new heavens and earth (21:24).  The other use is to a “king” of the demonic locusts (9:11).

Finally, the verb “to reign” is found seven times in the Apocalypse.  Quite surprisingly—at least to me, who had studied this book long and hard and never grasped this obvious “word study” point before—only three of the seven are speaking of the Lord reigning (11:15, 17; 19:6).  The other four refer to believers, whether called “the saints” or martyrs—reigning, variously, “on the earth” (5:10), for “1,000 years” (20:4, 6) or “forever and ever” (22:5).

That is the raw material that we will be working with, starting in my next post.  To put it mildly in regard to my anticipation, “Wow!”

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