As I read through the Gospels, Are we there yet? seems to echo across the pages like the unrestrained complaints of children from the backseat of a minivan. Behind every miraculous act and conversation, the air is filled with questions about Jesus and His mission, but mostly there are murmurs and conjecture around the timing of God’s kingdom. If Jesus is the Messiah, then where is His kingdom? When is it coming?
His friends speculate (Luke 19:11), His enemies ask (Luke 17:20), and Jesus Himself offers clues like “the kingdom of God is at hand” (Mark 1:15), which leaves everyone scratching his head These statements make it seem that the kingdom is about to arrive and indeed already has. But the kingdom is a future reality also, and Jesus teaches His disciples to pray for its coming (Matt. 6:10; Luke 11:2). And so, even today, Jesus’ followers continue to wonder.
On one occasion, Jesus compared it to a mustard seed:
It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches (Matt. 13:32 ESV).
The kingdom indeed came to earth with Jesus, but like the mustard seed, it’s unseen, growing quietly underground. (See Luke 17:20-21.) In this regard, then, it’s perfectly natural to talk about the kingdom also being a future reality, for the tree has not yet grown to its full stature. In short, the kingdom of God, also called the kingdom of heaven, is already and not yet.
We must view Jesus’ teaching and miracles with one eye on the kingdom as present reality and the other on the kingdom as not yet here.
But don’t we know this to be true instinctively? It doesn’t take living on this earth for too long to realize that this world hasn’t yet been made perfect just by Christ’s reign. Human sinfulness goes largely unchecked, pain and heartache leave no one untouched, and death’s shadow looms over everything. But for Christ’s followers, something has changed. We have peace with God, the fellowship of our brothers and sisters, and the hope of eternal life. In very tangible ways, the kingdom of God has come to us already. Like those children in the back of the minivan, we’re on our way—the new adventure we’ve been waiting for has begun—but we’re not quite there yet.
I am convinced we must view Jesus’ teaching and miracles with one eye on the kingdom as present reality and the other on the kingdom as not yet here. And it is by doing so that we can begin to understand the Beatitudes, those puzzling opening lines of Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount.
Why do I single out the Beatitudes as a prime example of this already-and-not-yet way of thinking? Because the Beatitudes are firmly planted in this world yet stretch out into the world to come. They are pronouncement and prophecy, consolation and hope. And apart from the kingdom, they make little sense. Everything about these statements of blessing reveal the chasm between the age we live in and the age that is to come, but more importantly, they reveal the heart of our great God.
The Wait for the Coming Kingdom
When I was seven, my dad sat me down and explained that he would no longer be living with us, and my heart broke. When I was a teenager, I came home from school one day to learn that my mother had been taken to the emergency room after cutting her wrists, and my heart broke again. And just last year, I held tight to the woman I love as she spoke to her mom for the last time this side of heaven. And my heart broke a little bit more.
This world is broken, like my heart in those moments, and is therefore jagged and sharp. If this life were all there is, it would be foolish to embrace the way of life Jesus says is blessed. In this world, we celebrate the self-made man rather than the one who is poor in spirit and recognizes his need for God. We pity those who mourn and disregard the meek altogether. We tell those who hunger and thirst for righteousness that life isn’t fair and advise them to move on as best they can. And we all know mercy is a dangerous gift to give because it is so rarely returned.
I want to celebrate the Beatitudes. I want to be meek and merciful and pure in heart. But if I’m honest, I must admit that they read like a list of qualifications for the proverbial nice guy who finishes last—out of place for anyone who wants to survive in this world and out of the question for anyone who wants to succeed. Yet Jesus says the people who exemplify these heart characteristics are blessed by God.
Our heavenly Father is not blind to our pain, and He will make right all that has gone wrong.
The Beatitudes don’t minimize the very real pain that men and women of faith experience in this life. Instead, they give weight to those experiences. Mercy and peacemaking and being persecuted for the sake of righteousness—these have value because this world is not all there is. God’s kingdom is real and His promises, true. Our heavenly Father is not blind to our pain, and He will make right all that has gone wrong. For those who can see with the eyes of faith, the path laid bare by the Beatitudes is not the path of fools. Rather, it is the only one that makes sense in a world that is passing away.
The Life of the Kingdom Already Here
In C. S. Lewis’ fantasy novel The Magician’s Nephew, a young Digory Kirke plants an apple core in his backyard in London. But the apple came from a tree in Narnia, so as a new tree sprouts, its branches reflect the weather in Narnia:
Sometimes it would move mysteriously when there was no wind blowing: I think that when this happened there were high winds in Narnia and the English tree quivered because, at that moment, the Narnia tree was rocking and swaying in a strong southwestern gale.
When we become citizens of God’s kingdom, it takes territory on earth. And we, though far from home like Digory’s tree, must never forget where we truly belong.
Jesus calls us to walk as kingdom people in the here and now because the kingdom is with us today. That’s why, while the other blessings listed are all future, the kingdom of heaven is discussed in the present tense: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven … Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:3, 10, emphasis added).
The Jewish crowds who gathered to hear Jesus speak were waiting for God’s kingdom—waiting for Him to step into history and set things right—but in the Beatitudes, Jesus makes the audacious claim that the blessings of the kingdom begin today for those who know Him.
There will come a day when “He will wipe every tear from [our] eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain” (Rev. 21:4 NLT), but the future kingdom has already begun to invade. And we are invited to walk as citizens of it right here and right now. Just like Digory’s tree, we are called to live lives that reflect the climate of the kingdom—no matter how foolish or out of place it may look to people passing by.