Luke begins the book of Acts with a brief summary of Jesus’ activities after His resurrection: “He also presented Himself alive after His suffering by many infallible proofs, being seen by them during forty days and speaking of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God.” There is no elaboration upon this statement anywhere in the gospels, the writers of such instead concluding their accounts with incidents that underscore the resurrection itself and the commission which Jesus gives to the apostles. However, the entirety of the gospel accounts should offer some insight into the things Jesus had to say “pertaining to the kingdom of God” because they each give some emphasis to the concept. What is interesting is the ongoing failure of the apostles to truly comprehend the meaning and nature of the kingdom of heaven, given that they had likely spent three years or so listening to Jesus preach regularly on the subject and surely discussing with Him the things they had heard. Therefore, as Jesus leads them to Bethany and commands them to wait in Jerusalem for the promised assistance of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1.4-5), it is both curious and yet not unexpected that they would ask, “Lord, will You at that time restore the kingdom to Israel?” (v.6). I would love to know, at that moment, what they were thinking about this “kingdom of God.”
The Old Testament has much to say about the idea of God’s coming king and kingdom as God used His spokesmen (the prophets) to foretell of His plans for such. The concepts of God ruling over His own people are rooted in the Mosaic covenant (Ex.19.6) and it appears that those of Israel who were faithful to the covenant recognized God as their King (Judg.8.23; 1 Sam.8.5f; 12.6f). However, with the establishment of a human monarchy in Israel and Judah, that concept appears to become misplaced. That is not to argue that God failed to remind His people of His rule. In fact, He insists by promise that He will again establish His throne and rule over His people. Most of these king/kingdom prophecies appear to center around two historical circumstances. First, during the glory years of David’s reign, God promised David that his throne would be established forever, that his seed would sit upon that throne, would build a house for God and would be God’s Son (2 Sam.7.11-16). As an inspired spokesman of God, David himself prophesies repeatedly about this coming king/kingdom (Psalm 2; 22; 24; 29; 110). And the initial fulfillment of the promise – Solomon – contributes to that body of work as well (Psalm 72). The second general time wherein the coming kingdom seems to be a point of focus is during the waning years of the nations of Israel and Judah, when their centuries of anarchy and faithlessness are met with the military domination of Assyria and Babylonia. While a number of prophets during this time refer to the glorious future of God’s kingdom, it is in Isaiah and Daniel that such promises come into most sharp relief. In the shadow of national desolation, Isaiah and Daniel point the people to the days of the fourth empire (Babylonia being the first) wherein God would establish His eternal kingdom which will never be destroyed (Dan.2.31-45). Isaiah had already portrayed this rule/ruler in terms of splendor, righteousness, peace, forgiveness, judgment, victory, and dominion (Isa.2.1f; 9.1f; 11.1f; 24.21f; 25.1f; 31-35; 40-45; 49-66).
In these prophecies, along with many others declared by various OT prophets, God revealed much about this coming kingdom. Some of these facts can be stated thusly:
The King would be descended from David (2 Sam.7.11f)
The kingdom would be eternal (2 Sam.7.11f; Dan.2.44)
The King would be the Son of God (2 Sam.7.11f; Psalm 2)
The King would be a priest to God (Ps.110)
The King would be God (Isa.9.6; 44.6; 52.7-53.12; Ps.110.1)
The King would destroy His enemies (Ps.2; 110; Isa.11.4,12f)
The kingdom would be characterized by justice, righteousness, peace, forgiveness (Isa.2.1f; 9.6f; 11.1f)
The kingdom would be established during the Roman empire (Dan.2.31f)
While this list is not exhaustive, it does include some of the more prominent features of God’s prophecies. But with such in mind, we return to the original question: “What were the apostles thinking as they heard Jesus talk about the kingdom?” It is reasonable to assume that their messianic hopes were similar to those of the nation around them, and even a casual reading of the gospels indicates that their concepts were different than those being promoted by Jesus. While we appreciate the spiritual nature of these prophecies, we do so because we have the complete revelation of God’s purpose and plans. But they did not have such, and in the absence of such spiritual insight, some of their apparent misconceptions are understandable. For the better part of six centuries, the Jewish people had been essentially a captive people, imprisoned to the military and political ambitions of the Babylonians and Persians and Greeks and Romans. And while they were not living in some distant captive land during most of that time, both secular history and biblical history make it clear that they often chafed at their lack of true independence. As an oppressed people, it would be reasonable to understand the prophecies of victory and dominion (Ps.2; 110; Isa.11) as promising a temporal/military kingdom. As David had once conquered all around him, it is not hard to appreciate how they might interpret the promises of his descended king as being fulfilled in a purely physical and political way. After all, men are inclined to see in the Bible what we want to see and to emphasize some things to the exclusion, or at least neglect, of other things.
As Jesus is proclaiming the near approach of the kingdom while manifesting the miraculous powers of God, the messianic fervor in Palestine is obviously swelling. With such power at the head of a temporal army, what nation could hope to stand before them? Yet the manner and teaching of Jesus did not harmonize with this temporal/military expectation. And such was clearly confusing to the multitudes and to the apostles. He did not solicit the wealthy (Matt.19.16f), instead warning against the temptation of riches. His disciples had difficulty understanding this thinking (v.25f) – after all, who establishes a government without financial backing? He did not incite rebellion or guide the multitudes in some tactical training so that they would be prepared for the overthrow of the present powers. What king attracts thousands and thousands of followers and yet does not prepare them? In Matt.11.1f, even John the Baptist (imprisoned by Herod) appears to question the nature of Jesus’ office. Jesus did not court the powerful politico-religious leaders of His day, though they had the potential to throw their influence behind His growing movement. Instead, He so enraged them that they instigated His murder. He simply didn’t fit the picture of a king in the mold of David, raised by God to lead Israel to world dominion and glory.
However, He did emphasize the present reality of the kingdom of heaven and, eventually, of His position at its head. His teaching and preaching affirmed consistently the reality and immediacy of the kingdom’s advent (Matt.5.3f; 8.10f; 18.3f; 21.23-44; Mark 12.28-34; Lk.14.15f; 17.20f; 19.11f; Jn.3:1f). The vast majority of His parables are intended to reveal the true nature of the kingdom in order to correct the temporal misconceptions of the nation, and especially of His disciples (Matt.13; 18.21f; 20.1f; 21.28f; 22.1f; 25.1f; Lk.12.16-32f; 13.24f; 16.1f; 17.20-18.8; 19.11f; etc.). He argued that the miracles which He performed were proof of His victory over Satan, and thus proof of the present establishing of His kingdom (Matt.12.24-29f; Lk.11.15-23). And finally, after having been guided into all truth by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 2.1-21), the apostles boldly declare the enthronement of Jesus at the right hand of God in fulfillment of the prophecies concerning the royal seed of David (Acts 2.29-36). Blinded over the course of three years to the true nature of the kingdom, and inquiring to the very last day of Jesus’ earthly existence, those men finally understood just Who Jesus really is, and what He came to do. He is God. He is the King. He came to rule. Even a cursory look at Acts will note that this kingdom reality dominated their preaching (Acts 2.30f; 5.30-31; 8.12; 14.22; 17.6-7; 19.8; 20.25; 28.23,31).
There are practical implications to these considerations – very powerful ones. First, the enthronement of God’s King and emergence of His kingdom were not merely due to vagary or caprice in the unfolding of human history. This was no accident, no happenstance of circumstance. Instead, the rule of Jesus in fulfillment of dozens of prophecies serves as powerful – even overwhelming – evidence of the authority, reliability, and providence of God. God appeals to His ability to foretell the future and control the events of human history so as to prove His existence and power (Isa.41.22f; 42.9f; 45.21) and Peter reminded his readers of the supremacy of fulfilled prophecy to even that of the miraculous as evidence of the reliability of God’s Word and promises (2 Pet.1.13-21). He is worthy of my faith. Secondly, the fulfillment of such prophecies should impress upon us the import of studying, understanding, and accepting the government of Jesus Christ. If God would spend hundreds of years planning, and Jesus would make such great effort instructing and then fulfilling the plans for His reign, then that rule must be important. And in fact, it is the eternal reign of God – now in the Messianic governance and finally in the Father’s return to the throne (1 Cor.15.24-28) – that serves as the context of our redemption. We have been saved and sanctified so that we can participate in the eternal kingdom of God Almighty. And third, it is important to see the fulfillment of these prophecies in the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus because the spiritual reality of His reign and kingdom has once again been misconceived and dramatized by those who would pervert the truth of God. Premillennialism is little more than the reincarnation of the temporal yearnings of ancient Israel. The idea that God will come again and reign upon the earth for a thousand years stands opposed to almost all of the instruction of our Lord concerning the nature of His kingdom. True, the doctrine is dramatic and fantastic and appealing as it caters to our temporal yearnings, and especially in the thought that I have a second chance at salvation if I miss out on “the rapture” (a concept nowhere biblically accurate). But the Lord and His messengers made it clear in Acts 2 that the kingdom was established at the enthronement of Jesus, and that anyone who chose then or chooses now to manifest faith in Jesus as Lord and Christ – King – may become a citizen of that kingdom.
The prophecies are fulfilled. The evidence is supplied. The power of God has been revealed. The Lord reigns. May we appreciate that truth, and all that it entails.