A few days ago a friend of mine emailed to ask me what exactly the Kingdom of God is. My friend’s question shows his familiarity with the first three books of the New Testament (also known as the Synoptic Gospels), because Jesus constantly talks about the Kingdom of God (or the Kingdom of Heaven) in those three Gospels, especially in the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke. Statistically speaking, the Kingdom of God was Jesus’ very favorite topic.
For the sake of brevity, in my response I tried to distill a lot of material into the most succinct and simple answer I possibly could. This then is my answer to my friend’s request to define the Kingdom of God:
Friend, I think it is easiest to think of the Kingdom of God in terms of what it is now and what it will be someday.
Until Jesus returns the Kingdom of God is essentially the Church, that is, the devoted people of God. The Kingdom exists anywhere and wherever the faithful people of God are located and intentionally gather. In Luke 17:21, Jesus said that the Kingdom of God is in the midst of you. Actually, Jesus said something more like “y’all,” and less like “you.” Jesus meant a group of people, not an individual. Thus, the Kingdom of God is not just an individual experience; instead, it is even more profoundly experienced when God’s people intentionally gather in worship and service.
But the Kingdom of God also has a future aspect. After Jesus returns and after the resurrection of the saints, the Kingdom of God will expand to include all of redeemed creation.
Admittedly, I could have said quite a bit more about the Kingdom of God. But again, brevity and simplicity were my aim. If someone equates the faithful and sincere Church of Christ to the Kingdom of God, that equation will usually and very often fit quite nicely.
Try a counter-intuitive approach. Sometimes, surprisingly, it works. Go the opposite direction you might otherwise be inclined to go. Counter-intuit it. Sometimes the best way to approach a confusing passage or theme in Revelation is to flip it upside down or inside out. Sometimes the best interpretation of a passage in the Book of Revelation will first feel a bit weird and unlikely. It will initially confuse you. At first glance, it will not make sense.
Case in point: Death. Death is not always what it seems in Revelation. Death is not always what you might assume it to be.
In Revelation, death is sometimes good. By Revelation’s counter-intuitive reckoning, death is sometimes desirable. Go ahead and wish someone dead. Metaphorically, death is sometimes not just a good thing in Revelation, but the best possible outcome. No, not every time, but yes, death is sometimes exactly what we want. That is because death can symbolize conversion. And if that is a correct interpretation, know that other important New Testament passages say approximately the same thing (for example, Colossians 3:3).
So you’re not convinced? No, I did not think you would be. To use a cliché, the proof is in the pudding. You need to actually look at some key passages to see it there.
But first, let me explain my thought process. The reason I started to suspect that death might not be what it seems in Revelation — that it might sometimes be good — is because I noticed the potentially positive role of fire, especially in the series of Seven Trumpets. If fire is symbolic for the spoken Word of God, as I came to believe, then death by fire might not mean physical incineration, but spiritual purification. The proclaimed Word of God has the inherent power to kill or purge what is wrong within a person, and the power to inspire what is right and good within a person.
Just as baptism is a sacramental symbol of death and resurrection (as seen elsewhere in the New Testament, such as Colossians 2:12), so fire is a narrative symbol of the effective spoken Word of God (in Revelation). The spoken Word of God kills sin within the sinner and yet inspires holiness. That is my line of interpretive reasoning. And it works, if and when you read Revelation accordingly.
At the beginning of Revelation 9, the reader will come across the fifth trumpet and a demonic locust swarm. There is no question whatsoever that the locust swarm is entirely evil, for the passage points out that their king is the Angel of Abyss (see 9:11). Notably, the locust swarm cannot kill, but can merely torment (see 9:5-6). But what does that lack of lethality mean, exactly? From what I determine, our interpretive options are to understand it either literally or metaphorically. Literally, the evil locusts might not be able to physically kill anyone. That is one option. Metaphorically, the evil locusts might not able to spiritually transform anyone. That is another option. But which is right?
Keep in mind that I am arguing that death is good, in this specific context.
Then the next trumpet sounds, the sixth trumpet, and with it comes another motley crew. Surely this fearsome, mutant cavalry is just as bad or worse than the last horde, since they kill a third of mankind (see 9:15). Almost every interpreter I come across believes just so: these are bad guys. But wait. Just how does the cavalry kill? They kill with fire — fire from their mouths. Exclamation mark. What if the fire is not literal, but spiritual? What if the fire is the spoken Word of God? What if the cavalry is actually good and not bad? If fire-breathing is consistently good in Revelation, then this strange army must be good, and perhaps the death of a third of mankind means the conversion of a third of mankind. Exclamation mark. Please consider the possibility.
Is this just wishful thinking? Or might I be on the right trail?
To conclude Chapter Nine, we read that the rest of humanity, those who were not killed by these plagues, did not repent (see 9:20-21). Think about that statement in light of how I suggest the passage be interpreted. I would say, “Exactly, and of course not.” Of course the rest of humanity did not repent, because if they had repented they would be counted among the fire-consumed dead. The dead are the repentant. The dead were those killed by the fire, that is, by the spoken Word of God. The rest, by default, are the unrepentant.
Keep in mind, I am arguing that death is good, in this particular context.
Now I am going to explain when death is not good in Revelation, because sometimes death does refer to physical death, which is not good at all.
In Chapter Eleven, we read about the Two Witnesses, otherwise and just as accurately known as the Two Martyrs. Curiously, the Two Witnesses have the ability to consume would-be assailants with fire from their mouths. This fire kills their would-be assailants (see 11:5). Yes, I do read this metaphorically. The Two Witnesses, who represent the faithful, witnessing Church, consume (or convert) their foes by means of the spoken Word of God. But later in the same chapter, the Two Witnesses themselves are slain, or martyred, in the Public Square of the great city (see 11:7-8). They are not slain by fire, please notice that. They are simply slain by the Beast from the Abyss. How should we understand this? My suggestion is that we read this disturbing, unhappy passage mostly metaphorically, but also somewhat literally. No, not every Christian will physically die immediately before Christ returns, but some will. And Christians need to be ready for that. The Church will be attacked, will be persecuted, and will be rendered seemingly lifeless. In the eyes of its enemies, the Church will seem wholly defeated. But the ostensive defeat of the Church will not last very long. After a very brief time, the Church will be resurrected (literally), and will be brought to heaven in a cloud (literally), just like Christ in his ascension (see 11:11-12). Therefore, what began as an unhappy allegory ends as a totally triumphant portrait of the Church. Like Christ himself, the Church will seem defeated immediately before it is vindicated in glory.