Theologians today often talk about the kingdom of God being “already and not yet.” This is an attempt to express the New Testament’s teaching that the Son of God came to inaugurate the kingdom of God in this world at his incarnation “already” but that he will “not yet” consummate it until he returns at the end of this age. And by “kingdom of God” we mean the new creation, the new heavens and new earth pictured so clearly, for example, in Revelation 21-22. This kingdom being “already” is foundational for describing Christ’s work at his first advent, which has impacted cosmic history to its core.
When was the kingdom of God inaugurated?
To see that the kingdom of God has been inaugurated, take just one aspect of it as an example: the kingship of Jesus Christ over the new creation. By virtue of his work of redemption for his people, all authority in heaven and on earth is his (Matt. 28:18; Col. 2:10, 15) both in this age and in the world to come (Eph. 1:20-22; Phil. 2:9-11) such that he now “upholds the universe by the word of his power” (Heb. 1:3). At Christ’s triumphant ascent to his Father’s right hand in resurrection glory, he took his seat with his Father on his eternal throne (Rev. 3:21), from which life in abundance will flow eternally (John 10:10) as the center of the new creation (Rev. 22:1). This means that all who are united to Christ Jesus by faith in him are themselves caught up into new creation existence already: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Cor. 5:17; cf. Eph. 2:10).
However, granted that the kingdom of God is “already” in some important ways, this raises the question of exactly when it was inaugurated. We read in the New Testament, for example, in places which summarize the proclamation of both John the Baptist and Jesus, that the kingdom of God had drawn near in their ministries (Matt. 3:1; 4:17; cf. Luke 10:9, 11). But when was it inaugurated? I had breakfast with the managing editor of Beautiful Christian Life recently, and she asked this excellent question. The following is a brief answer sketching out some key phases.
The King’s Birth
In his book on the Holy Spirit, the English puritan John Owen writes:
We have formerly declared the work of the Holy Spirit in preparing and forming the natural body of Christ. This was the beginning of the new creation.
Owen is referring to the fact that both Matthew and Luke testify that the birth of Christ was effected by the Holy Spirit through the conception of the virgin Mary (Matt. 1:18, 20; Luke 1:35). And it is fair to say that where the Holy Spirit appears in the New Testament, we are dealing with some activity of new creation. And since the kingdom of God is the new creation, the Spirit was bringing in the kingdom of God at the conception and birth of Jesus.
The birth of Christ, then, was a kingdom event. The way to approach this is to observe that the kingdom of God at this point was focused upon the entrance of its messianic king:
And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to 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 1:30-33; cf. Luke 8:28