It depends on how you read.
Of all the New Testament references to Old Testament Scripture, the verse that receives the most New Testament attention is Psalm 110:1. It is directly quoted five times (Mt. 22:44; Mk. 12:36; Lk. 20:42–43; Acts 2:34–35; Heb. 1:13) and is alluded to in at least seven other places (Acts 7:56; 1 Cor. 15:25; Eph. 1:20; Col. 3:1; Heb. 1:3; 12:2; 1 Pet. 3:22).
When one Old Testament verse receives this much ink in the New Testament, people are forced to conclude that the truth expressed in this one verse is pretty important! So what does this verse say?
To understand it, we must understand the psalm in which it is found. Psalm 110 is a song written by King David. It is also a Messianic psalm, which means the entire song is about the specially anointed king (anointed=“messiah”), whom Yahweh will one day send to rule the entire earth in complete righteousness and peace. Concerning this coming Messiah, David sings, “The LORD says to my Lord: ‘Sit at My right hand until I make Your enemies a footstool for Your feet.’”
As for verse 1, which receives so much attention, it seems appropriate to break it down into bite-size chunks to assist our understanding. Notice first that it is the Lord who is speaking. Whenever we see the word LORD (initial capital and small caps), we know this does not refer to God as the God of the whole world but, rather, as God in His role as the covenant-keeping God of Israel. This particular name is used to emphasize God’s special relationship with His Chosen People. Second, please observe that Yahweh is speaking to someone whom David titles his lord or master (“my Lord”).
Since David is king, we know this person he considers “my Lord” must be a still greater king than David—a King of the whole world (vv. 5–6). We also know when this King will begin His reign. He will reign after the Lord makes His enemies (the nations of this world, vv. 5–6) a footstool for His feet. That will happen when Jesus returns to this earth as “KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS” (Rev. 19:16). Until that time, Jesus is sitting at the right hand of the God of Israel waiting for that Kingdom to begin.
Several conclusions automatically follow this understanding of Psalm 110:1. For example, God has a plan for the future. This plan includes a worldwide Kingdom over which Jesus reigns as King. That Kingdom has not yet begun. God has not yet made Christ’s enemies a footstool for His feet. Jesus is a king in waiting!
The Current Evangelical Consensus
If one were to poll U.S. Christian evangelicals concerning how they view the “kingdom,” the overwhelming majority would proclaim that the invisible Body of Christ (the church) in the here and now is, in one way or another, the Kingdom. Of those holding to a “kingdom now” theology, there would be various opinions concerning what happens in the future; but all would make similar statements concerning what is going on in the present.
Some would state the church is the only form of the Kingdom that will ever be. When Jesus Christ returns, they say, He will destroy the heavens and the earth by fire (2 Pet. 3:10); then the eternal state will begin. The current (and only) kingdom, as seen in the church, is a spiritual kingdom, not a physical kingdom. This viewpoint is known as Amillennialism. People arrive at this conclusion by reading the New Testament and concluding that the church has somehow replaced Israel. In other words, when the Old Testament speaks of a future for Israel, it is really referring to the church.
So, for example, when the prophet Zechariah speaks of a day when all the nations of the world will be gathered against Jerusalem to make war against her (Zech. 14:1–9), he is not speaking of a particular event regarding the city of Jerusalem. No, he is speaking about the hostility of the world system against the church down through time. The worldwide kingdom spoken of in this passage is the eternal state with God in heaven.
Others contend the Kingdom is already here, but in an incomplete form. Of these, a minority would insist that as the church spreads the gospel, more and more people will come to Christ and the world will be made a better and better place until, with the ultimate victory of the gospel, a golden age appears. (Yes, people really do believe this!) They believe that at the end of that golden age, Christ will return and judge the living and the dead, followed by the eternal state.
This was the predominant view in the 19th century. If you read closely, you will see this view alluded to in “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” (“Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord”) and in many of our old Christmas carols, such as “Joy to the World.” This idea fell out of favor after the terrible devastation of World War I. People looked around and saw that the world was not becoming a better place. They saw that it was actually getting worse and worse.
Amazingly, this idea (known as Postmillennialism) is making something of a comeback. The main idea behind this view is that the kingdom of God is not a literal, physical kingdom in the future but, rather, the rule of God in the hearts of believers. People who believe this view refer to Luke 17:20–21 and Romans 14:17. They reject as childish the idea of a future, literal Kingdom mentioned in Revelation 20. They insist Revelation 20:1–6 refers to the martyrs in heaven who died during the Roman persecution. Put another way, they reject the plain reading of the text for a reading steeped in allegory.
The rest who argue for a kingdom in the here and now maintain that Christ is ruling the world through the church, albeit in an incomplete fashion. When Christ returns, He will set up a worldwide Kingdom where He rules the nations with a rod of iron (Ps. 2:9), which will be the kingdom in its complete form. Still, even though the kingdom is not complete, it is, in one sense, already here.
Some argue that Christ’s reign through His church is an invisible, spiritual reign. Others disagree. As Darrell Bock put it, we are getting a sneak peek of the coming kingdom. This sneak peek means that Christ is ruling in the here and now—physically, not just spiritually—through His church, albeit incompletely. When He comes, His physical reign will be worldwide and complete.
This idea is usually expressed as follows: the Kingdom is already here—but not yet here. This used to be known as Covenant Premillennialism, but now a slightly different version has appeared, known as Progressive Dispensationalism. Regardless of what label is applied, however, this idea of a Kingdom that is already here but not yet here is becoming so prominent that Russell Moore, former president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, has labeled it the “emerging evangelical consensus.”
How Do We Read the Bible?
Even though there is wide disagreement concerning the nature of the Kingdom now, all these views that place the Kingdom either all or in part in the present have one thing in common: They all reject a consistent, literal interpretation of the Bible. They all, to one degree or another, rely on interpretations of portions of the Bible that go beyond the actual meanings of the words in the text. They replace the ordinary understanding of the text before them with an allegorical or spiritual interpretation.
To be sure, the degree to which they spiritualize the text varies according to the views. Additionally, not all these views spiritualize the same portions of the Bible. But all of them, without exception, abandon the normal, plain, everyday understanding of the text for an allegorical or spiritual one.
As traditional dispensationalists, we read the Bible in a manner similar to the way we read the newspaper. That is, we read the text before us with a plain, normal, matter-of-fact understanding of language. The meanings of individual words are determined by their context. We all know this intuitively, but let’s consider an example just for the sake of clarity.
Let’s consider the following headlines from a local newspaper. The first one is from the front page: “Truck hits roadside bomb.” The second is similar but is found on the sports page: “Hometown slugger hits bomb to left field.” The third is like the first two but is found in the entertainment section: “Big-budget movie a bomb.”
A plain, literal, matter-of-fact understanding of these three headlines would define bomb three different ways. In the first instance, the bomb is an explosive. In the second, it is a home run in baseball. In the third, the bomb is a bad movie. That intuitive understanding of the meaning of the word bomb demonstrates what we mean by a plain, literal, ordinary, matter-of-fact reading of the text.
We all know how to read this way. We do it all the time. Traditional dispensationalists maintain that this is exactly the way we should read the Bible. We accept figures of speech when appropriate (“I am the Light of the world,” “the bread of life,” “the good shepherd,” etc.), but we let the context define the meaning of words. We stick with the ordinary, obvious meanings unless there is something in the context to suggest otherwise.
Those who see some form of the Kingdom in the present age depart from this interpretive method. Well-meaning though they may be, when people speak of “kingdom ethics” or “the kingdom now” or “building the kingdom,” etc., you may be sure that they are interpreting the Bible at some point in a nonliteral way.
Allow me to provide an example. In Acts 2, the apostle Peter delivers his famous sermon on the Day of Pentecost. In this sermon, Peter appealed to Psalm 16 to justify his statement “But God raised Him up again, putting an end to the agony of death, since it was impossible for Him to be held in its power” (Acts 2:24, italics added). This verse, at least according to progressive dispensationalist Craig Blaising, is proof that Jesus is sitting upon the throne of David as King right now. Here is a summary of Blaising’s argument as developed in his essay “The Fulfillment of the Biblical Covenants.”
Peter uses the words raised and up (v. 24) when speaking of Christ’s resurrection from the dead. The words raise up are also used in the Davidic Covenant: “When your days are complete and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your descendant after you, who will come forth from you, and I will establish his kingdom’’ (2 Sam. 7:12, italics added). This refers to the birth of a descendant who will sit on David’s throne.
Since the phrase raise up (though in different tenses) appears in both 2 Samuel 7 and Acts 2, the concepts of each passage—namely, raising up one to the throne and raising up one from the dead—must be linked so that they happen at the same time. In other words, since the initial promise to David is connected to raising up a descendant who will sit on the throne, and Peter refers to another promise to David about being raised up in resurrection, both passages must be talking about the same thing.
This raising up from the dead (Acts 2) must be referring to the raising up to the throne as well (2 Sam. 7). Therefore, when Christ was raised from the dead, He was raised to the throne of David, where He now rules His Kingdom through the church. How do we know? Because both passages used the phrase raise up.
To show how this type of logic simply doesn’t work, let’s apply the same method to our fictional headlines: Since the first headline is about an act of war and the second headline is about a baseball game and they both use the word bomb in the same newspaper, then the movie mentioned in the third headline must be about a baseball game taking place during wartime. I know this sounds silly, but this is exactly the same method used to declare that Christ is sitting on the throne of David now.
Plain, Ordinary Language
When God wrote the Bible, He intended it to be understood. He wanted normal, everyday people like you and me to read the text and believe it. But to believe, we must understand. That’s why dispensationalists have always held firmly to what is known as the perspicuity of the Scriptures. Perspicuity simply means “clarity.” So let’s take a moment to see what kind of clarity we are talking about.
When we speak of the clarity of Scripture, we do not mean that all passages of Scripture are equally clear. We admit, like Peter (2 Pet. 3:15–16), that some passages are difficult to understand. It is for this reason that God has given teachers as gifts to His church (Eph. 4:11–13). But each passage of Scripture is clear enough that the average person reading the text in a plain, ordinary way will understand the main idea of that passage. This is why we dispensationalists insist on reading texts, even prophetic ones, like we read the newspaper.
When Does the Kingdom Begin?
This may surprise some people, but we know exactly when the Kingdom begins. The apostle Peter tells us the time and circumstances in Acts 3:19–21. As Peter preached his second sermon, he called upon the Jewish people to repent of their crucifixion of the Messiah, for they acted “in ignorance” (v. 17).
Why should they repent? They should repent because when they do, the “times of refreshing” (v. 19) will come from the presence of the Lord. These times of refreshing are defined as “the period of restoration of all things about which God spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets from ancient time” (v. 21).
What did the ancient prophets speak about? They spoke of the time when “the law will go forth from Zion and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem’’ (Isa. 2:3). They spoke of a time when the nations “will hammer their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks” (v. 4), a time when nations will no longer train for war and there will be universal peace. They spoke of the time we call the Kingdom.
What must occur before this Kingdom begins? God must “send Jesus, the Christ appointed for you [the Jews], whom heaven must receive until the period of restoration of all things about which God spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets from ancient time” (Acts 3:20–21).
Please notice it didn’t take any special understanding to draw these conclusions. All it took was the plain, face-value reading of a straightforward text.
This article was first published in the Baptist Bulletin (Sep/Oct 2020), copyright © 2020 by Regular Baptist Press, Arlington Heights, Illinois. Used by permission. All rights reserved. All Scripture quotations in this article were taken from the (NASB®) New American Standard Bible®, Copyright © 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission. All rights reserved. www.lockman.org.