Rev. Laning is pastor of Hope Protestant Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Previous article in this series: August 2009, p. 442.
When Christ started His public preaching, He began by proclaiming boldly that the kingdom of heaven was “at hand.” Dispensationalists say that Christ, by this statement, was giving to the Jews a well-meant offer of the Davidic kingdom. But, they go on to say, since the majority of the Jews rejected Christ, He responded by withdrawing the offer for the time being, with the intention of offering it to the Jews again at His second coming.
In an effort to prove that Christ made such an offer, they frequently cite Mark 1:14, 15, which describes the content of Christ’s early preaching:
Now after that John was put in prison, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, And saying, The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe the gospel,
Christ said, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand.” Dispensationalists say that this meant that Christ was offering to the Jews an earthly kingdom, a kingdom like the one that David ruled some one thousand years before Christ came.
As was pointed out in the previous article, some have objected to this dispensational well-meant offer, arguing that it teaches that the Messianic kingdom could have been realized without the cross ever having to take place. If the Jews would have accepted such an offer—so the argument goes—the result would have been that the Messianic kingdom would have been realized on this earth without the sins of its citizens having ever been atoned for on the cross.
Dispensationalist Charles C. Ryrie responded to this line of reasoning by saying that the same argument could be used against the amillennial interpretation of the phrase “the kingdom of heaven is at hand”:
Let us suppose for sake of discussion that the dispensational interpretation of Jesus’ offer of the Davidic kingdom in the Gospels is not correct. If He was not preaching about the millennial kingdom when He said, “Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand”,
then He must have been talking about a spiritual kingdom in the hearts of men (for there are no other choices)…. If the Jews had received this spiritual kingdom and had been saved, then does this not mean that the cross might have been unnecessary? If the Jews had immediately accepted the spiritual kingdom Jesus offered, then what would have happened to the cross?¹
In this way Ryrie attempts to turn the tables on the amillennialists, in hopes that this will silence their objections.
Before considering how the Reformed amillennial could respond to such an argument, let us begin by considering what Christ meant when He said that the kingdom of heaven was at hand.
What the kingdom was that Christ said was near
There are a number of places in which Christ not only made known that the kingdom was near, but also explained what the kingdom was to which He was referring. Consider, for example, the following passages:
But if I cast out devils by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God is come unto you,
…behold, the kingdom of God is within you,
In these passages, Christ explains that the kingdom of God refers to Christ’s gracious reign inside a person. God’s kingdom, Christ says, is present wherever the Spirit is working graciously in the hearts of His people, delivering them from the power of their spiritual foes.
Dispensationists teach that the kingdom Christ preached is a kingdom that will not come until some future millennium. But Christ Himself said that those who were enjoying deliverance from sin and Satan were already at that time beginning to enjoy the blessings of the kingdom He was preaching.
Commenting on the Matthew 12 passage quoted above, dispensationalists have taught that the casting out of demons and other miracles served to demonstrate the power that Christ will one day exert when He establishes His millennial kingdom in the future. Christ, they say, was giving a demonstration of His power. But since the Jews rejected Christ’s offer, the Jews will not experience this power until sometime in the future.
This, however, is not what Christ said here. Our Lord pointed out that the casting out of demons served to manifest that the kingdom He was preaching had already come. The testimony of the miracles was not “Look what I can do for you, if you accept my offer,” but rather, “Look at what is already now taking place right before your eyes.” The miracles were proof, Christ said, that the kingdom of God “is come unto you.” It was already present. The people were called to repent and believe this good news.
What is meant by the nearness of God’s kingdom?
Christ proclaimed that the kingdom of God was a present reality. He said, “The time is fulfilled” (Mark 1:15). The prophets had proclaimed that the promised King would one day come to save God’s people. That glorious day had now arrived.
But what, then, did Christ mean when in other places He spoke of the kingdom being near? The phrase “the kingdom of God is at hand” means literally “the kingdom of God is near.” So why did Christ say that the kingdom was near, if in fact it was already present?
One of the things we must consider, to understand this statement, is the spiritual nature of the kingdom Christ was preaching. If one considers Christ’s kingdom to be a carnal, earthly kingdom, then he will likely take the word “near” to mean “about to be established on this earth.” But if one understands the spiritual, heavenly nature of Christ’s kingdom, then he will have no difficulty understanding that Christ’s kingdom is near to all those who are in the vicinity where Christ is proclaiming the gospel of our salvation.
The kingdom that is present in the hearts of all believers is near to all those who hear the gospel preached. Christ spoke of the kingdom being near even to those who did not themselves believe and enjoy the blessings of that kingdom. Our Lord spoke of this when sending out His disciples to preach about the kingdom, and to perform miracles that illustrated the blessings of that kingdom:
And heal the sick that are therein, and say unto them, The kingdom of God is come nigh unto you. But into whatsoever city ye enter, and they receive you not, go your ways out into the streets of the same, and say, Even the very dust of your city, which cleaveth on us, we do wipe off against you: notwithstanding be ye sure of this, that the kingdom of God is come nigh unto you,
The word translated “come nigh” is the same as that translated “at hand” in Mark 1:14—15. When the gospel was being preached and the signs that illustrated the gospel promise were being performed, all those in the vicinity of these wonders were told that the kingdom of God had come nigh unto them. Even the unbelievers who refused to believe the gospel were told to be assured that the kingdom had come nigh to them, and that they were going to be more without excuse on the day of judgment for rejecting the wonderful words that were proclaimed in their hearing.
A proclaimed gospel, not a conditional offer
Now let us return to consider Ryrie’s challenge to the amillennialists. He asks how we would explain what would have happened if the Jews had accepted Christ’s offer of a spiritual kingdom. If they had accepted such an offer, would that not have meant that the blessings of the kingdom could have been enjoyed without the Messiah dying on the cross?
This question would present a problem only to those amillennialists who teach the well-meant offer of the gospel. As soon as we recognize that the gospel is good news that is proclaimed as an accomplished fact, and that it is not an offer that depends on man for its fulfillment, then the problem immediately goes away.
Let us go back to the statement that “the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” When Christ preached those words, He was not making an offer to the Jews. He was proclaiming something that was absolutely true, regardless of whether those who heard Him believed or not. God had promised that the King from the line of David would one day come to save God’s people. That promise had now been fulfilled. The King was in their midst. The fulfillment of the promise had not depended upon man. God had brought it to pass, and now the people were called to repent and believe this good news.
Yet one still might ask, what if everyone had repented and believed the good news? What if the Jews had not crucified their Messiah. How could we have enjoyed the blessings of Christ’s kingdom without the atoning sacrifice of our High Priest on the cross?
The answer is that there is no way that this ever would have happened. Repentance and faith are entirely gifts of God, and God gave these gifts only to a small remnant of the Jews. In His good pleasure, He chose not to give these blessings to all the Jews, or even to the majority of the Jews. He gave them only to a small remnant, and the rest He gave over to their sins. God would have been perfectly just if He had given no one these gracious gifts. That anyone receives them is a wonder of grace.
Furthermore, it was God’s plan all along that the Messiah would come at a time of great apostasy, and that the majority of the Jews would hate and crucify Him. The death of Christ was decreed by God before the foundation of the world, and it is foolish to speak of even the slightest possibility that something contrary to God’s decree would ever have taken place. Since it was absolutely certain that the Messiah would one day come and atone for the sins of God’s people, even the saints who lived before Christ’s death were able to enjoy the kingdom blessings that Christ would one day purchase for them. When Christ said, “Repent, and believe the gospel,” all those who responded in repentance and faith certainly began to enjoy the blessings of Christ’s kingdom, even though Christ had not yet died on the cross.
A sense in which the kingdom of God is still future
Christ speaks of the kingdom of God as a present reality, while also promising that the full realization of that kingdom is still future. He spoke of the nearness of God’s kingdom when referring to the signs of His coming:
So likewise ye, when ye see these things come to pass, know ye that the kingdom of God is nigh at hand,
As we begin to see more clearly the signs of our Lord’s coming, we look upward, knowing that our full redemption is nigh.
While earnestly longing for the coming of our beloved Husband, we preach the good news that the kingdom of God is nigh at hand. Still today we preach, “The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe the gospel.” And when Christ preaches this gospel through the church today, He is not making a well-meant offer to all the people who hear it. He is proclaiming an accomplished fact. He is setting forth God’s wonderful promise, the full realization of which is absolutely certain and sure.
Such is the gospel we proclaim today. Such is the gospel our Lord proclaimed when He began His public preaching some two thousand years ago.