The Nature of the Coming Messianic Kingdom as Found in its Covenants
Much has been written about the kingdom in recent years, and it is a common topic in sermons, books, and articles. Unfortunately, emphasis on the kingdom has replaced teaching about the church. Phrases like “doing kingdom work,” “advancing (or building) God’s kingdom,” and “bringing up there, down here” permeate evangelical writings and teachings.
Unfortunately, as these phrases have become part of the language of the modern church, so have the false teachings they promote. Misunderstandings about the church, Israel, future events, and even salvation have become commonplace as more and more graduates of both reformed and liberal seminaries become local church pastors. Frighteningly, this is not limited to one denomination or segment of the church. While it is most common in the historically reformed groups (Presbyterians, some Baptists), the phenomenon has gained traction in most major denominations and non-denominational churches alike. At the same time, the dispensational understanding is acknowledged but tossed aside. For instance, after correctly explaining the dispensational view, Grudem essentially warns his readers:
But it must be said that behind this argument of pretribulationists is probably a more fundamental concern: the desire to preserve a distinction between the church (which they think will be taken up into heaven to be with Christ) and Israel (which they think will constitute the people of God on earth during the tribulation and then during the millennial kingdom). But as we noted in an earlier chapter , the New Testament does not support a distinction of this kind between Israel and the church [italics original].1
Notably, in this confusion between the church and the kingdom, there is little debate over the existence of the kingdom. Rather, as the old saying goes, “The devil is in the details,” and it certainly proves to be true in this case. As evidenced in his first interaction with humanity, Satan loves to exploit loopholes—real or perceived —in God’s revelation. Thus, it should surprise no one to discover that the primary attack against the doctrine of a literal, prophecy-fulfilling Messianic kingdom is built on the serpent’s own question: “Did God really say…?” (Genesis 3:2). Consider the introductory questions (and their subsequent dismissal) in the chapter on eschatology in Olsen’s systematic theology textbook:
Christians believe and have always believed that when Christ returns the kingdom of God will be established and revealed in a new way and that eventually God will create a new heaven and new earth that will last forever. But how should these revealed truths about the future be interpreted? How should the enigmatic New Testament book of Revelation and other biblical apocalyptic books and passages be understood? Do they refer to events that were already happening when they were written or to future events or to both? What will Christ’s return be like? Is it imminent? Will it be visible and literal, surrounded by catastrophic events and figures such as the antichrist and the great beast? Will Christ personally and visibly rule and reign on the earth for a millennium? Will the new earth joined with the new heaven be somehow continuous with this world or an entirely new environment? These are just some of the questions that surround universal eschatology and sometimes obsess Christian futurists. Limitations of space will preclude any thorough, detailed examination of these issues and problems. We must settle for brushing with broad strokes and attempting only to portray the general contours of the Christian eschatological landscape.2
The purpose of this article is to explore the biblical teaching of the nature of the kingdom from the four unconditional covenants established by God. As the doctrine of the kingdom unfolds, we will discover that each of the covenants answers one of these basic questions: why, where, whose, and what kind. By accepting a literal answer to these questions, readers should arrive at the normative dispensational conclusion that the kingdom and the church are not the same. Instead, the kingdom will be Yeshua’s literal, future, earthly rule from Jerusalem, Israel.
God’s covenant with Abraham forms the basis for the very existence and purpose of the kingdom. Thus, it answers: Why the kingdom? Although the details of this covenant were presented to Abraham progressively in multiple conversations with God and God did not officially institute the covenant until Genesis 15, the basics are found in God’s announcement in Genesis 12:1-3:
Get out of your country, from your family and from your father’s house, to a land that I will show you. I will make you a great nation; I will bless you and make your name great; and you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse him who curses you; And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.
In this statement, God gave one very specific promise: “I will make you a great nation.” A nation is “a large body of people, associated with a particular territory, that is sufficiently conscious of its unity to seek or to possess a government peculiarly its own.”3 Even without the other details that God would provide later, surely these were the same basic assumptions that Abraham would have made based on the promise of “a great nation.”
First, a nation requires people, and a “great nation” requires a great number of people. Abraham (c. 2165-1990 B.C.) was born between the end of the Akkadian Empire and the emergence of the Sumerian Empire, both of which had large urban centers. He would have understood a “great nation” to consist of at least hundreds of thousands of citizens. This must mean more than Abraham becoming the “leader of a great nation.” The Hebrew verb does not allow for God to simply make a great nation for Abraham but that God would make Abraham himself into that nation. In other words, this great nation—and all its people—would have to be connected biologically to Abraham.
Second, a nation needs a physical territory to call “home.” Every civilization must have a place for its base of operations, a place for its citizens to live and work. Land ownership battles and border disputes are consistently among the leading causes of civil and multinational wars, and the search for more or certain land is often a key component.
Third, a nation needs a government to rule its people. In Abraham’s experience, he would have understood this to be a dynastic monarchy with localized control at the city-state levels. It seems that a king sitting in a capital city, exercising sovereign power over his whole empire, was the only type of government the world of Abraham’s day had truly known. Even our modern representative forms of government follow this pattern to an extent (with a few differences). A nation requires a cohesive government to operate successfully, and this has historically been accomplished by a strong ruler who can squelch those who would rebel against him.
A fourth characteristic a nation had in Abraham’s world was a common religion. Although many people today have difficulty with the concept of a national religion, this was normal in every ancient civilization. The idea of a nation with no supernatural power was a foolish one indeed. How could such a nation survive against her enemies, each of which often had many gods to protect them? Even Abraham grew up worshiping the Akkadian moon god, Sin. Religious life was powerful in ancient cultures because kings would often promote themselves and their families either as deities or as priests and priestesses to the gods. Religion and government were often inseparable.
Thus, when God promised that He would make Abraham “a great nation,” Abraham would have understood it to mean far more than a big family, but rather an organized monarchy over a large number of citizens existing within relatively fixed geographical boundaries, all sharing a common form of worship. The other three kingdom covenants prove that Abraham’s natural understanding is exactly what God intended, and still intends, to bring about.
As noted above, a nation needs its own territory or land in which to settle. Within ten years after Abraham moved from Haran, God gave him this next piece of the puzzle. The Land Covenant (often wrongly called the “Palestinian” Covenant) answers the second basic question: Where is the kingdom? Unless the kingdom is viewed as a literal entity, this question does not even matter. Yeshua was clear that one day He would come “in His glory . . . and He will sit on the throne of His glory” (Matthew 25:31). Where will this throne be located?
In Genesis 15, God restated His promise to give Abraham many descendants, this time pointing to the stars as an illustration of their number. At this point, God had Abraham make preparations for the ceremony to confirm the covenant. During this ceremony, God revealed that Abraham’s descendants would be enslaved and oppressed for 400 years (15:13), but afterward, God would personally rescue them and return them to the land He had promised to them (15:16). Specifically, God promised:
To your descendants I have given this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the River Euphrates—the Kenites, the Kenezzites, the Kadmonites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites, and the Jebusites(Genesis 15:18-21).
It seemed that their Exodus from Egypt had fulfilled this promise. However, God brought the infant nation of Israel to the border of their new home only to have them run in fear when they saw the land filled with warriors and fortified cities (Numbers 13-14). As punishment for their rebellion, God made them live as nomads for nearly 40 years until that entire generation of over 603,000 men (Numbers 1:46) had died. Upon bringing them back to the place where they would enter the land to conquer it, God promised the people great blessing if they would obey Him and great destruction if they disobeyed. Part of that destruction would be the temporary loss of their control over that land. However, couched within the conditional aspects of their well-being, God emphasized the unconditional nature of His covenant with Abraham:
If any of you are driven out to the farthest parts under heaven, from there the LORD your God will gather you, and from there He will bring you. Then the LORD your God will bring you to the land which your fathers possessed, and you shall possess it. He will prosper you and multiply you more than your fathers(Deuteronomy 30:4-5).
True to God’s Word, Israel repeatedly rebelled and faced divine punishment, including her exile to Assyria and Babylon. Yet, throughout Israel’s rebellion, the prophets continued to promise her future restoration. Most notable is the promise repeated in Jeremiah 16:14-15 and 23:7-8 in which God said the coming restoration will be so amazing that people will stop using the miracle at the Red Sea as the celebration of God’s power in favor of this dramatic restoration!
The third of the four great covenants was not given to Abraham but to King David nearly 1,000 years later. Nevertheless, it builds on the promises given before, answering the third question: Whose kingdom? We find this covenant in 2 Samuel 7:8-16. Notice the four key provisions outlined here:
1. “I have made you a great name, like the name of the great men who are on the earth.” This is like the promise to Abraham that God would make his name great (Genesis 12:2).
2. “I will appoint a place for my people Israel, and will plant them.” Like the first provision acknowledges the Abrahamic Covenant, this second promise summarizes the Land Covenant. God reminded David that there would come a time when the nation of Israel would have a territorial home and live there in peace with no disruption or oppression, but with relief from all who would try to harm them.
3. “God himself will make you a house.” This is the first promise to David as an individual rather than to the nation. To Israel’s second king, God promised what every king wants: a ruling dynasty attached to his name. This would be different, though. Instead of David having to strategize, plan, create, and defend it, God promised that He would do it personally.
4. “Your house and your kingdom shall be established forever before you. Your throne shall be established forever.” The problem with dynasties is that they eventually end. Sons are not born. Neighboring countries invade. Internal rivalries simmer. Assassination attempts succeed. There are countless ways for a dynasty to end, and David knew this. God’s promise to make his dynasty permanent was far more than David could have imagined. It would take an act of God to accomplish something of this magnitude.
This last provision demands more attention. The question at hand is: “Whose kingdom is this?” Olsen, Grudem, and others insist that it is the “kingdom of God,” yet the wording does not allow that interpretation. The coming kingdom will be a continuation of David’s dynasty. God confirmed this truth a millennium later in Nazareth when Gabriel told young Mary: “The Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David. And He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:32-33, emphasis added).
Those who wish to see a “kingdom of God” rather than a “kingdom of David” cannot interpret this verse literally without damaging their own conclusions. In 1,200 pages, Grudem’s Systematic Theology does not even address this passage! At least Berkhof acknowledged this kingship passage, but he, too, refused to take it literally: “The spiritual kingship of Christ is His royal rule over the regnum gratiae, that is over His people of the Church . . . The eternal duration of the spiritual kingship of Christ would seem to be explicitly taught in the following passages: . . . II Sam. 7:13,16; Luke 1:33.”4
But is it a spiritual kingdom? Is Yeshua sitting on David’s throne right now, as many claim? At what point did God install Yeshua as “King on My holy hill of Zion” (Psalm 2:6)? Has He broken the nations “with a rod of iron” (Psalm 2:9)? Is He ruling in the midst of His enemies from Zion (Psalm 110:2)? If this is true, if the nations have been given to Yeshua as His “inheritance” and as His “possession” (Psalm 2:8), how could John say that “the whole world lies [currently, present indicative] under the sway of the wicked one” (1 John 5:19)? What else but demonic and blasphemous could we call Paul’s assertion that Satan is “the god of this age” (2 Corinthians 4:4) if Yeshua is the reigning king?
The answer is simply that the church is not the kingdom. Yeshua has not yet returned to sit on David’s throne. He is in heaven where He “sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high” (Hebrews 1:3).
This is the last of the four unconditional covenants given by God in the Old Testament, and it reveals what kind of kingdom this will be. The main passage with the details of the New Covenant is Jeremiah 31:31-34, where God describes with whom He made the covenant, when it will take place, and how it will function.
First, notice that three times God states that this covenant is “with the house of Israel . . . and Judah,” “I took them . . . out of the land of Egypt,” “the house of Israel.” He could not have been clearer. Those who apply the New Covenant to the church must have already combined the church and kingdom before approaching this text. There is no way to read this passage literally and find reference to the church. God will make the New Covenant with the ethnic nation of Israel, the nation of descendants promised to Abraham.
Second, this covenant will not take place until God restores Israel back to her land. This is the whole context of Jeremiah 31. Some historical background is necessary. Assyria had taken captive the ten northern tribes of Israel in 722 B.C. When Jeremiah wrote this, Nebuchadnezzar had already executed the first of three captivities of Judah to Babylon in 605 B.C. (Jeremiah 29:1) and possibly the second in 598 B.C. as well. Even after the various Jewish returns to Israel in the 400s B.C., few would call that a complete restoration. The oppression of the Romans for centuries, the scattering of the Jewish apostles in Acts 8:1, and the Jewish dispersion referred to in James 1:1 and 1 Peter 1:1 all indicate that the restoration had not yet happened by the first decades of the church. Yet, because of Yeshua’s claim that His blood is the “blood of the new covenant” (Matthew 26:28), covenant scholars like Grudem claim: “This blessing finds fulfillment in the church, which is the people of God,”5 even though God’s promise to David to restore the Jewish people to their land where they will no longer be oppressed has not yet happened.
Third, the basis for this covenant is a new relationship with God. Yeshua promised that Israel would not see Him again until they say, “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the LORD!” (Matthew 23:39). At that time, “They will call on My name, and I will answer them. I will say, ‘This is My people’; and each one will say, ‘The LORD is my God’” (Zechariah 13:9). Contrary to what Grudem and others teach, this has nothing to do with individuals believing in Messiah for salvation during the church age. When the Jewish people turn to their Messiah, God will rescue them, restore them to their land, and then put His law in their minds and write it on their hearts. The result will be that He will be their God and they shall be His people (Jeremiah 31:33). Paul explained why this has not yet happened: “Blindness in part has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in” (Romans 11:25).
The coming kingdom will not be just a monarchy, as Abraham and David expected, but a theocracy where Yeshua, the God-Man, will rule supreme, both as David’s earthly heir and as God’s holy Servant. God will once again be a resident God, not hidden behind the curtains in the Tent of Meeting or the Temple but among the people—Immanuel, “God with us.” Everyone from the smallest to the greatest will know Him personally, and He will offer forgiveness for sin nationally and individually. Thus, Israel will finally be renamed from Lo-Ammi (“not my people”) to Ammi (“my people”) as God promised in Hosea 1:10-11.
We have seen that a literal, normal understanding of the numerous passages written about the kingdom does not reveal an “intricate, complex, imaginative system [that] presents an interpretation that surely never would have been thought of except in defense of a theory.”6 Nor do we find a nebulous concept that must be rationalized and applied spiritually today. Instead, we see a series of promises, given in plain language, repeated over thousands of years to different people with no contradiction, resulting in one conclusion: a physical kingdom in a physical territory promised to a specific, physical nation.
God revealed each of these four covenants before the existence of the church, and though individual salvation is made available in the church age through Yeshua’s blood, even the New Covenant will be made solely with Israel. Had God given Abraham all these details immediately, he would not have been surprised to find that the nation promised to him would have a specific land, a dynastic monarchy, and a religion she could call her own.
1 Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 1133.
2 Roger Olsen, The Mosaic of Christian Belief (Downer’s Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2002), 333-334.
3 http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/nation; accessed July 30, 2013.
4 Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 4th edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1941), 406, 410.
5 Grudem, Systematic Theology, 520. 6 Boettner, The Millennium, 146.
Daniel Goepfrich (Th.M., D.Min.), an international conference speaker and author, is the Teaching Pastor at Oak Tree Community Church (South Bend, IN). He teaches Greek at Calvary University (Kansas City, MO) and Bible exposition for Word of Life Bible Institute (international campuses) and is an Associate Professor of Bible and Theology at Tyndale Theological Seminary (Hurst, TX). In 2017, he founded Theology is for Everyone (theologyisforeveryone.com) to produce biblically-sound resources that everyone can use and understand. He is the author of Biblical Discipleship (2020), New Testament Chapter by Chapter (2017), and Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage (2007), as well as several journal articles and multiauthor contributions.