Then to the Heav’n of Heav’ns he shall ascend
With victory, triumphing through the air
Over his foes and thine; there shall surprise
The Serpent, Prince of Air, and drag in chains
Through all his realm, and there confounded leave;
Then enter into glory, and resume
His seat at God’s right hand, exalted high
Above all names in Heav’n.
–John Milton, Paradise Lost [12.451-58]
Our Lord Jesus Christ, Who took upon Him to die for all, stretched forth His hands, not somewhere on the earth beneath, but in the air itself, in order that the Salvation effected by the cross might be shown to all men everywhere: destroying the devil who was working in the air: and that He might consecrate our road up to Heaven, and make it free.
–St. Athanasius, Letters [xxii]
THE COMING OF THE KINGDOM
Adam was created a king. He was to subdue the earth and have dominion over it. His kingship, however, was not absolute; Adam was a subordinate ruler, a king (prince) under God. He was a king only because God had created him as such and ordered him to rule. God’s plan was for His image to rule the world under His law and oversight. As long as Adam was faithful to his commission, he was able to have dominion over the earth.
But Adam was unfaithful. Unsatisfied with being a subordinate ruler in God’s image, applying God’s law to creation, he wanted autonomy. He wanted to be his own god, making up his own law. For this crime of rebellion he was cast out of the Garden. But, as we have seen in the preceding chapters, this incident did not abort God’s plan for dominion through His image. The Second Adam, Jesus Christ, came to accomplish the task which the First Adam had failed to do.
Throughout the Old Testament the prophets increasingly looked forward to a time when God’s appointed King would come to sit on the throne. One of the Psalms most often quoted by New Testament authors shows God the Father telling His Son, the King:
Ask of Me, and I will give you the nations for your inheritance,
And the ends of the earth for Your possession.
You shall break them with a rod of iron;
You shall dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.
The prophets made it clear that, like Adam, the coming King was to rule over the entire world (not only over Israel):
He shall have dominion also from sea to sea,
And from the River to the ends of the earth.
Those who dwell in the wilderness shall bow before Him,
And His enemies shall lick the dust….
Yes, all kings shall fall down before Him;
All nations shall serve Him.
God showed Daniel an outline of history in which a towering statue (representing the four empires of Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece, and Rome) is struck down and crushed by a stone; “and the stone that struck the statue became a great mountain and filled the whole earth” (Dan. 2:35). The meaning of this vision is the restoration of Eden under the King, as Daniel explained: “In the days of those kings [i.e., during the period of the Roman Empire] the God of heaven will set up a Kingdom which will never be destroyed; and that Kingdom will not be left for another people; it will crush and put an end to all these kingdoms, but it will itself endure forever” (Dan. 2:44). Christ, the Second Adam, will perform the task assigned to the First Adam, causing the Holy Mountain to grow and encompass the entire world.
Ascending to the Throne
In a later vision Daniel actually foresaw Christ’s enthronement as the promised King:
I kept looking in the night visions,
And behold, with the clouds of heaven
One like a Son of Man was coming,
And He came up to the Ancient of Days
And was presented before Him.
And to Him was given dominion,
Glory and a Kingdom,
That all the peoples, nations, and men of every language
Might serve Him.
His dominion is an everlasting dominion
Which will not pass away;
And His Kingdom is one
Which will not be destroyed.
It is commonly assumed today that this text describes the Second Coming, and thus that Christ’s Kingdom (often called the Millennium) begins only after His Return. Of course, this ignores the fact that Daniel had already prophesied the Kingdom beginning in the days of the Roman Empire. But notice exactly what Daniel says: Christ is seen going up, not down! The Son of man is going to the Ancient of Days, not coming from Him! He is not descending in clouds to the earth, but ascending in clouds to His Father! Daniel was not predicting the Second Coming of Christ, but rather the climax of the First Advent, in which, after atoning for sins and defeating death and Satan, the Lord ascended on the clouds of heaven to be seated on His glorious throne at His Father’s right hand. It is noteworthy too that Daniel used the term Son of Man, the expression Jesus later adopted to describe Himself. Clearly, we should understand Son of Man to mean simply Son of Adam – in other words, the Second Adam. Christ came as the Son of Man, the Second Man (1 Cor. 15:47), to accomplish the task assigned to the First Man. He came to be the King.
This is the constant message of the Gospels. Matthew’s account of the Nativity records the story of the magi from the east coming to worship the King, and Herod’s jealous attempt to destroy Him as a rival to his own unjust dominion. Instead, Christ escapes and it is Herod who dies (Matt. 2). Immediately, Matthew’s history jumps 30 years ahead to clinch his point:
Now in those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea, saying, “Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
Matthew then turns to the ministry of Jesus, giving us a summary of His basic message to Israel: “Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 4:17). “And Jesus was going about in all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the gospel of the Kingdom, and healing every kind of disease and every kind of sickness among the people” (Matt. 4:23). A simple glance at a concordance will reveal how central the gospel of the Kingdom was to Jesus’ program. And note well that the Kingdom was not some far-off millennium thousands of years in the future, after the Second Coming. Jesus announced: “The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15). Jesus clearly told Israel to repent now, because the Kingdom was coming soon. The Kingdom was at hand. He was bringing it in right before their eyes (see Matt. 12:28; Luke 10:9-11; 17:21), and soon would ascend to the Father to sit on the throne of the Kingdom. This is why He told His disciples:
Assuredly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste
death until they see the Son of Man coming in His Kingdom.
Was Jesus right or wrong? In terms of some modern teachers, Jesus was mistaken. And this was no slight miscalculation: Jesus missed the mark by thousands of years! Can we trust Him as Lord and Savior, and still hold that he was wrong, or that somehow His prophecy got derailed? Jesus was not just a man, like the First Adam. He is God, the Lord of heaven and earth; and if He sets out to bring in the Kingdom, can anything stop Him? Even the crucifixion was not a setback, for it was a crucial aspect of His plan. That is why he said, “I lay down My life that I may take it again. No one takes it from Me, but I lay it down of Myself’ (John 10:17-18). We must believe what Jesus said: within the lifetime of those who were listening to Him, He would come in His Kingdom. And that is exactly what He did, culminating in His ascension to His heavenly throne.
Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem, Matthew says, specifically fulfilled the Old Testament prophecy of the Kingdom’s inauguration:
Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!
Shout in triumph, O daughter of Jerusalem!
Behold, your King is coming to you;
He is just and endowed with salvation,
Humble, and mounted on a donkey,
Even on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
And I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim,
And the horse from Jerusalem;
And the bow of war will be cut off.
And He will speak peace to the nations;
And His dominion will be from sea to sea,
And from the River to the ends of the earth.
–Zech. 9:9-10; cf. Matt. 21:5
The Apostle Peter understood that the meaning of the Ascension was Christ’s enthronement in heaven. Citing a prophecy of King David, Peter said:
And so, because he was a prophet, and knew that God had sworn to him with an oath that of the fruit of his body, according to the flesh, He would raise up the Christ to sit on his throne; he, foreseeing this, spoke concerning the resurrection of the Christ, that His soul was not left in Hades, nor did His flesh see corruption. This Jesus God has raised up, of which we are all witnesses. Therefore being exalted to the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, He poured out this which you now see and hear. For David did not ascend into the heavens, but he says himself: “The Lord said to my Lord, ‘Sit at My right hand, until I make Your enemies Your footstool.’ ” Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.
It is crucial to understand the Bible’s own interpretation of the throne of Christ. According to the inspired Apostle Peter, David’s prophecy of Christ being seated on a throne was not a prophecy of some earthly throne in Jerusalem (as some today mistakenly insist). David was prophesying about Christ’s throne in heaven. It is the heavenly enthronement that King David foretold, Peter told his audience on the Day of Pentecost. From His throne in heaven, Christ is already ruling the world.
The Apostle Paul agreed: at Christ’s Ascension, he wrote, God “seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age, but also in the one to come. And He put all things in subjection under His feet” (Eph. 1:20-22). Now, if Christ is seated now above all rule and authority and power and dominion, if all things are now under His feet, why are some Christians waiting for His Kingdom to begin? According to Paul, God “delivered us from the domain of darkness, and transferred us into the Kingdom of His beloved Son” (Col. 1:13). The Bible says the Kingdom has arrived; some modern theologians say it hasn’t. Is there really any question about whom we should believe?
The Binding of Satan
The original promise of the Gospel was contained in God’s curse upon the serpent, that the Seed of the Woman would crush his head (Gen. 3:15). Accordingly, when Jesus came He immediately began winning victories over Satan and his demonic legions, singlehandedly engaging them in combat and effectively banishing them from the land, along with disease and death. An all-out warfare was waged during Christ’s ministry, with Satan continually losing ground and running for cover. After observing His disciples on a successful mission, Jesus exulted: “I was watching Satan fall from heaven like lightning. Behold, 1 have given you authority to tread upon serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall injure you” (Luke 10:18-19). He explained His victories over the demons by telling His audience that “the Kingdom of God has come upon you.” He continued: “How can anyone enter the strong man’s house and carry off his property, unless he first binds the strong man? And then he will plunder his house” (Matt. 12:28-29). That is exactly what Jesus was doing in the world. He was binding Satan, the “strong man,” in order to “plunder his house,” to steal men back from the devil.
The definitive defeat of Satan occurred in Christ’s death and resurrection. Again and again the apostles assured the early Christians of the fact of Christ’s victory over the devil. Through His finished work, Paul said, the Lord Jesus “disarmed the rulers and authorities”; “He made a public display of them, having triumphed over them” (Col. 2:15). The New Testament unquestionably teaches that through Christ’s bursting the bonds of death Satan was rendered powerless (Heb. 2:14). John wrote that “the Son of God appeared for this purpose, that He might destroy the work of the devil” (1 John 3:8). Again, we must note that this is in the past tense. It is an accomplished fact. This is not a prophecy about the Second Coming. It is a statement of fact about Christ’s First Advent. Christ came to bind and disarm Satan, to render him powerless, to destroy his works, and to establish His own rule as universal King, as God had intended from the beginning. According to the Bible, Christ actually fulfilled what He had set out to do; Scripture regards Satan as a defeated enemy, one who must flee when Christians oppose him, one who is unable to resist the victorious onslaught of Christ’s army. The gates of his city are doomed to collapse before the relentless attacks of the Church (Matt. 16:18).
The Growth of the Kingdom
At this point some will object: “If Jesus is King now, why aren’t all the nations converted? Why is there so much ungodliness? Why isn’t everything perfect?” In the first place, there’s no if about it. Jesus is the King, and His Kingdom has arrived. The Bible says so. In the second place, things will never be “perfect” before the Last Judgment, and even the millennium described by certain popular writers is far from perfect (in fact, theirs is far worse; for they teach that the nations will never truly be converted, but will only feign conversion while waiting for their chance to rebel).
Third, although the Kingdom was established definitively in the finished work of Christ, it is established progressively throughout history (until it is established finally on the Last Day). On the one hand, the Bible teaches that Jesus Christ is now ruling the nations with a rod of iron; He is now seated in power above all other rulers in heaven and earth, possessing all authority. On the other hand, the Bible also teaches that the Kingdom develops progressively, growing stronger and more powerful as time goes on. The same letter to the Ephesians that tells us of Christ’s absolute rule over creation (1:20-22), assuring us that we are reigning with Him (2:6), also commands us to put on armor for battle against the devil (6:10-17). There is no contradiction here – just two aspects of the same reality. And the fact that Jesus is now ruling as King of kings is precisely the reason why we can have confidence of victory in our conflict with evil. We can experience progressive triumph now, because Jesus Christ definitively triumphed over Satan in His life, death, resurrection, and ascension.
Jesus told two parables which illustrate the Kingdom’s growth. Matthew tells us:
He presented another parable to them, saying, “The Kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and sowed in his field; and this is smaller than all other seeds; but when it is full grown, it is larger than the garden plants, and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and nest in its branches.”
He spoke another parable to them, “The Kingdom of heaven is like leaven, which a woman took, and hid in three pecks of meal, until it was all leavened.”
The Kingdom was established when Christ came. But it has not yet reached its full development. Like the mustard tree, it started out small, but will grow to enormous size (just as the stone Daniel saw became a mountain and filled the whole earth). The Kingdom will grow in size, spreading everywhere, until the knowledge of God covers the earth, as the waters cover the sea. The Kingdom’s growth will be extensive.
But the Kingdom will also grow intensively. Like leaven in bread, it will transform the world, as surely as it transforms individual lives. Christ has planted into the world His gospel, the power of God unto salvation. Like yeast, the power of the Kingdom will continue to work “until all is leavened.”
After looking at this parable, you might wonder how in the world anyone could deny a dominion eschatology. How can you get around the force of this verse? Here’s how: the defeatist simply explains that the “leaven” is not the Kingdom, but is instead a picture of how evil heresies are planted into the Church by the devil! Incredibly, his case is so desperate that he will resort to sleight-of-hand tricks, turning a promise of the Kingdom’s victory into a promise of the Church’s defeat. Note well that all is leavened; the verse is teaching total conquest, by one side or the other.
According to Jesus, therefore, which side will win? Contrary to pessimists, Jesus did not say that the Kingdom is like dough, into which someone sneaks destructive, evil leaven. He said that the Kingdom is like leaven. The Kingdom started small, and its growth has often been unobtrusive and sometimes virtually invisible; yet it continues to ferment and transform the world. Where was Christianity 2000 years ago? It consisted of a mere handful of people who had been commissioned to disciple the nations – a small group who would be persecuted by their own countrymen and opposed by the armed might of the most powerful empire in history. What chance would you have given for their survival? Yet the Church came out of the conflict victoriously, the clear winner by a mile; Rome and Jerusalem didn’t get past the starting gate. The last twenty centuries have witnessed progress that only the willfully blind could deny. Has the yeast of the Kingdom spread everywhere? Of course not; not yet. But it will. God has predestined us for victory.