Kingdom of God 2: The Spiritual Foundation of God’s Kingdom

This week, I am doing a second of what may become a series of Blogs on the spiritual foundations of the notion of the Kingdom of God. Last week we looked at Isaiah. This week we skip to the end and look at end of Revelation. The project of which these blogs are a part is a look at political theology and philosophy. Interestingly, an understanding of the Kingdom of God is essential to a proper political theology and of why it is that “Secular Millenarianism” is deeply mistaken. Scholars have long noted that certain political ideologies have secularized the concept of the “Kingdom of God” and turned it into the ideal of a “Perfect Human Society.” Communism has been the most prominent of those ideologies, but the same can be said of certain right wing attempts to create a perfect world, for example the libertarian idea of eliminating government and its regulation from the lives of people.

In this blog I am looking at the way the New Testament, and in particular Revelation, takes the political ideal of the “Messianic Kingdom” found in the Old Testament and transmutes it into a spiritual ideal, or what I will call a “Transcendental Ideal” for the guidance of the Church, as the people of God who have been called out of the world into a fellowship that anticipates, but does not realize the fullness of the Kingdom of God.

The Heavenly City, the Bride and the Church

In Revelation 21, John has a vision of the people of God as a “Heavenly City,” a New Jerusalem:

Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea.  I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. (Revelation 21:1-4).

In the Heavenly City John envisions, there is no more death, nor morning, nor crying, nor pain (Rev 21:1-6). All those things within human history which result from our sinful human nature and the natural operation of creation, war, greed, poverty, starvation, hunger, lack of water, and the like—all these things pass away. In other words, the Heavenly City is not primarily a physical achievement of God or men in this world, but a spiritual vision of the church as God intends and through which he intends to redeem humankind—a vision which transcends this world.

In the vision, the Heavenly City as the Bride of Christ, comes from Heaven into our world. In the Old Testament, Jerusalem was the Holy City. It was an earthly city, the capital of the Kingdom of David, and thought to be the seat of the Messiah. On the other hand, it was the place where God and the heavens touched the earth in a special way, for God was present in Jerusalem and int the temple.

By the time Revelation was written, the City of God was not seen by John as a physical place. The Heavenly City was no longer the earthly Jerusalem ruled by the Messianic King.  Instead the Heavenly City is “the Bride of Christ,” not a place but a community of people set apart by God in which God rules and the Spirit is alive and active. [1]

This vision underscores a new understanding of the Kingdom of God, an understanding that evolves in the minds of the apostolic writers from the resurrection forward. In John 18:36, Jesus himself declares the true nature of the Kingdom of God when he says:

“My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” Then Pilate said to him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice” (John 18:36-37).

In this passage, Jesus is communicating that the Kingdom of God is not an earthly kingdom, but a kingdom unlike any earthly kingdom. It is a spiritual kingdom established by Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit which will be evident in his resurrection.

In Romans, Paul underscores the nature of God’s new kingdom saying that “the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” Romans 14:7). Thus, the Kingdom of God is not focused on earthly comforts, on the achievement of material prosperity, and the like, as are earthly kingdoms. It concerns the spiritual truth embodied by Christ received in faith by believers (John 18:37).

At the end of the Acts, we see Paul ending his ministry proclaiming the Kingdom of God, as he lives in house arrest in Rome. Dr. Luke records that:

He lived there two whole years at his own expense, and welcomed all who came to him, proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance (Acts 28:30-31).

In the New Testament, the Kingdom of God is connected to the presence of the power of the Gospel, the forgiveness of sins, and the new kind of life and community Jesus inaugurated through his life, death, and resurrection. In the New Testament, the church is the gathering of those called (“ecclesia” or “those called out”) to live under the gracious rule of Christ in which the power of faith, hope and love is to be seen and experienced. This kingdom is not the result of any human wisdom or power, but the result of the power of the Holy Spirit (I Cor 14:20).

In the end perhaps the best way to understand Paul’s message is to understand the Kingdom of God as an ideal toward which the church strives. The notion that the Kingdom of God is a transcendental ideal is indicated by the words of Jesus in Luke 17:20-21:

Being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, he answered them, “The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed, nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you.”

In other words, the Kingdom of God is not the kind of thing that can be seen with merely human eyes. It is perceived in relationships of faith, hope and love by those called into the Kingdom by God. It is seen in the people of God, who have eyes to see its hidden reality in the Church and in the people of God. The church is to embody in some respects the kingdom for the Kingdom of God exists wherever the people of God live in community by the Spirit.

The River of God’s Presence

At the end of Revelation, John records a final vision of the Kingdom of God: [2]

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign forever and ever. The angel said to me, “These words are trustworthy and true. The Lord, the God of the spirits of the prophets, sent his angel to show his servants the things that must soon take place.” (Rev 22:1-6)

In this passage, John returns to a theme that runs throughout Scripture from beginning to end. In Genesis, a river flows from the Garden of Eden functioning as the headwaters of natural rivers, and within that Garden is the Tree of Life, a symbol of God’s life-giving and life-sustaining power (Gen. 2:9-10). In Ezekiel, there is a similar vision as the prophet has a vision of a river flowing from the Temple in Jerusalem—a river that produces abundant life and trees which have healing properties (Ezekiel 47:1-12). In John, Jesus identifies himself as the source of Living Water, when he says, “Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.'” [3]

In Revelation 21, the author returns to this vision of Christ as the giver of life by the Holy Spirit when he says: “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To the thirsty I will give water without cost from the spring of the water of life. (Rev 21:6). The vision of Ezekiel has become the spiritual River of the Spirit by which the people of god and the City of God are born, are nourished and reproduce.

By this proclamation, the Risen Christ is reaffirming the promise of the prophet Isaiah:

Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost. Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy? Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and you will delight in the richest of fare.  Give ear and come to me; listen, that you may live. (Isaiah 55:1-3).

In the vision of Revelation, many of the important elements of the vision in Ezekiel are present. It is a divine vision given by an angel (Ezek 47, Rev. 21:1). The vision is of a river, this time not flowing from the temple but from the throne of God and of the Lamb of God (Rev 22:2). In Ezekiel, the river has an unusual quality, as the water flows it becomes deeper and deeper until it is so deep that the river is uncrossable (Ezek 47:5). In Ezekiel’s vision the waters of the Dead Sea, where nothing can live become able to support life and fruit trees grow on the banks of the river (Ezek 47:12). In Revelation, there is a unique a single tree with twelve trunks, like an Aspen in Colorado, growing on the side of the river (Rev 22:2).

In both Ezekiel and Revelation, it is nearly impossible to avoid the conclusion that the river is the Spirit of God flowing into the world through the witness of the Apostles and the Church with its mysterious power to create new life. This Spirit of God was often seen as a special spiritual power in the Old Testament. In the New Testament the Spirit of God is the Spirit of Christ present in and through the people of God. It is the power of God shown on the Cross and within the Church for the renewal of the human race and the world through the Gospel of Love. Thus, in Jesus, the images of Isaiah and Ezekiel are spiritualized and expanded to replace any physical implications with spiritual reality. [4]

The River and Tree of Life

In Revelation 22, John’s vision is of a spiritual river, “the river of the water of life” flowing from the throne of God and of Christ, the Lamb of God. It flows down the middle of the Main Street of the Heavenly City (the people of God), those who have been called out of the world to become God’s children and family. These people are called to expand God’s Kingdom by bearing the same fruit as Christ bore, disciples who have felt the grace of God and live in loving community with one another (Rev. 22:1-2). [5]

In Revelation, the River of the Holy Spirit flowing from the Throne of God passes through the Heavenly City out into the world. On each side of that river is the Tree of Life—a tree of Divine Life of the Resurrected Christ, the divine life from which Adam and Eve were separated by sin in the Garden of Eden and from which we are separated by our own sin, selfishness, and finitude. In other words, the tree John sees is the Tree of God’s secret Wisdom and Love and its leaves are the product of the love of God showed through Christ, the Lamb of God. As the River of the Spirit of Love travels through the City of God (the Church), carrying apostolic testimony of the Twelve Apostles, it bears fruit each month—twelve times each year (Revelation 22:2). Furthermore the leaves of Tree of are for the healing of the nations—for the healing of the ancient curse of the Fall and its terrible consequences in human history (Rev.22:2). [6]

In other words, the role of disciples is to act as healing influences in their own day and time. If the river is the spirit, and the twelve trees are the twelve apostles, then the leaves on the tree are all those who come to faith by the hearing and believing of the Word of God because of the apostolic witness of the disciples. The growth and expansion of the Kingdom of God is symbolized by the fruitful leaves of the Tree of Life. [7]

The Light of God’s Guidance

At the end of the vision, Revelation informs us that, in the Heavenly City there will be no more night for the Lord God will give the people of God his True Light (Rev 21: 3-5). One thing the Church learns from its missionary experience is that God will give it the light to do his will if it simply allows God to give us the True Light which comes from Christ through the Holy Spirit. This light of God in Christ is that wisdom and love we can only receive from God by grace, for it transcends any earthly wisdom (I Cor 1:18-25). The Kingdom of God is enlightened by the wisdom and love of Christ which is given to it by the Holy Spirit as it leads the Church of God and people of God into all truth (John 16:12).


This understanding of the Kingdom of God is important, for it leads us to three inescapable conclusions that are important for any political theology:

  1. The Kingdom of God is not an earthly kingdom and cannot be established by any earthly means. It is a kingdom created by the Holy Spirit as it works in the lives of human beings.
  2. The Kingdom of God is, therefore, a spiritual kingdom. In its earthly form, as the church, it is provisionally present in the church of God as it lives by the power of the Holy Spirit.
  3. Any political use of the term Kingdom of God to guide practical activity comes from the attempt by people of faith to achieve a provisional concrete step in the world for the achievement of a transcendental ideal found in Scripture.

Too often Christians follow the lead of secular thinkers, who have made concrete the transcendental ideal of the Heavenly Kingdom in some ideology, right or left. It is famously present in the notion of Marxism that a perfect society will emerge as human beings cooperate with economic forces which will create a classless society of perfect equality.

The excesses of Communist regimes and those in the West who attempt to inaugurate an earthly paradise through  political power and the management of economic forces is doomed to failure. Such attempts inevitably ignoresthe deep moral and spiritual roots of the Kingdom of God and of the “New Heaven and New Earth” as it emerges in Scripture and in the Christian tradition.


[1] In my view, the terms “City of God” and “Kingdom of God” are interchangeable. A city is a polity, or a kingdom, and in the ancient world what we would call nations or empires were referred to as cities, such as the Roman Empire or Athenian Empire or the Babylonian Empire. John and the other writers of the New Testament wrote in Greek and the Greek concept of the “City-State” was a part of their thought-world. What the New Testament writers did was take this common idea of their culture and make it a transcendental ideal for the people of God.

[2] The technical aspects of writing on Revelation are daunting to say the least. I am grateful for the following commentators, William Barclay, “Revelation” in the Daily Study Bible Vol. 2 rev. ed. (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1976), William Hendriksen, More than Conquerors: An Interpretation of Revelation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1940, 1967), and Bruce M. Metzger, Breaking the Code: Understanding the Book of Revelation (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1993).

[3] See, John 4:13-14, Proverbs 18:4 and Isaiah 55:1 for examples of the way in which God’s blessing is associated with water.

[4] The great error of Communism and various other ideologies, such as National Socialism and some modern forms of secular humanistic liberalism is its attempt to attain the transcendental ideal of the Kingdom within history, which is impossible and leads to the kind of mass terror seen in Russia, China, Nazi Germany, Cambodia and other places where there has been an attempt to reach and end of history within history. Human nature being what it is, this is an impossible ideal and leads to violence and oppression.

[5] See, David E. Aune, “Revelation 17-22” in Word Biblical Commentary vol. 52c (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1998), 1177.:“The “trees of life” in Paradise are metaphors for the faithful.” This image makes it clear that the twelve crops during the twelve months of every year are the fruit of the apostolic testimony, which includes the expansion of the Kingdom of God through the Gospel (Rev 22:3), which will result in the healing of the nations (v. 2).

[6] William C. Weinrich, ed “Revelation” in Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: New Testament vol. XII (Downer’s Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2005): 387-393. The healing of the nations includes the healing of violence, war death, economic injustice, and all the personal and social results of the Fall of the human race recorded in Genesis.

[7] Thus, in the first instance, the Kingdom of God is a purely Christian, religious ideal. It is not a concrete reality within history; it is a transcendent ideal towards which history moves. When we say, as we do, that the Kigdom is provisionally present in the church, we mean exactly what is being said. Within the imperfections of human history and the church as part of hat history, the Kingdom of God can be partially and imperfectly present as people reach out and live in love with one another.