Archive: John Wesley’s View of the Kingdom

By Joel B. Green
January/February 1999
Good News

“Preaching in the evening at Spitalfields on “Prepare to meet thy God,” I largely showed the utter absurdity of the supposition that the world was to end that night. But notwithstanding all I could say, many were afraid to go to bed, and some wandered about in the fields, being persuaded that, if the world did not end, at least London would be swallowed up by an earthquake. I went to bed at my usual time, and was fast asleep by ten o’clock.”
-John Wesley

As illustrated by this journal entry above, Wesley was not one to predict dates for the end times. Yet that is not to say he was uninterested in the second coming of Christ or eternal life.

In fact, it is not an overexaggeration to say that for Wesley everything is oriented to the fulfillment of God’s rule in the coming kingdom. But the kingdom is no “pie-in-the-sky-in-the-sweet-by-and-by.” It is a reality that calls for present, radical commitment – a life of Christian holiness and service under the present reign of Christ.

The Old Testament depicts God’s kingdom as the ideal existence where all men and women live under the reign of their Lord. The prophets expressed their hope in a new world, where God’s rule would be extended universally – a time of peace and justice under God which would never end (Isaiah 2:4; Daniel 7:14; Zechariah 14:9).

In our own time the nature of the kingdom of God, especially as presented in the New Testament, has been a matter of controversy. Some have insisted that, for Jesus and the authors of the New Testament, the kingdom is a present reality. And they are right – partially. Jesus did teach that in his person and work the kingdom had invaded history (Matthew 12:22-28). Likewise, early Christianity proclaimed the present reign, or lordship, of Jesus Christ.

Wesley, too, spoke of “that kingdom of God upon earth whereunto all true believers in Christ, all real Christians, belong” (sermon: “Christian Perfection”). Life with God is not merely something to which we may look forward.

“Eternal life commences, when it pleases the Father to reveal his Son in our hearts; when we first know Christ … then it is that heaven is opened in the soul, that the proper, heavenly state commences, while the love of God, as loving us, is shed abroad in the heart, instantly producing love to all mankind” (sermon: “Spiritual Worship”).

In an important sense, then, the kingdom of God is a present reality.

But others have urged, with equal justification, that God’s reign will be realized in the future. According to the Gospels, Jesus looked for the kingdom to be fulfilled in the future. (See, for example, Matthew 7:21-23 and the parables about the kingdom.) The early Christians anticipated the fulfillment of the kingdom at Jesus’ return (Revelation 11:15).

As strongly as Wesley emphasized the present experience of life with God, he was equally confident that the kingdom was “not yet.” In a sermon based on Revelation 21:5 – “Behold, I make all things new” – he underscored the future dimensions of God’s kingdom:

“Very many commentators entertain a strange opinion, that this relates only to the present state of things; and gravely tell us that the words are to be referred to the flourishing state of the Church which commenced after the heathen persecutions …. What a miserable way is this of making void the whole counsel of God, with regard to all that grand chain of events, in reference to his Church, yea, and to all mankind, from the time that John was in Patmos, unto the end of the world!” (sermon: “The New Creation”).

The kingdom may be present, but it is also future. Can both be right, we may ask. Can the rule of God be both “present” and “not yet”? Yes! We experience a foretaste of the kingdom now, and yet long for its fulfillment when Jesus returns.

In his time, Wesley recognized this dual nature of God’s reign, and in his Explanatory Notes upon the New Testament wrote: “The kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of God are but two phrases for the same thing. They mean, not barely a future happy state in heaven, but a state to be enjoyed on earth…. In some places of Scripture the phrase more particularly denotes the state of it on earth; in others, it signifies only the state of glory; but it generally includes both” (Matthew 3:2).

The Last Day. What will happen at the end, when Christ returns to establish his kingdom? Wesley often spoke of “that day” – that is, the final day of the Lord. He thought of it in terms of three related events:

  1. the general resurrection,
  2. the final judgment, and
  3. the new creation.

When Wesley taught on the general resurrection, he encouraged believers to “maintain [the resurrection] hope in its full energy; longing for that glorious day, when, in the utmost extent of the expression, death shall be swallowed up forever, and millions of voices, after the long silence of the grave, shall burst out at once into that triumphant song, O death, where is thy sting? O hades, where is thy victory?” (Explanatory Notes Upon the New Testament, on 1 Corinthians 15:55). At the resurrection we will be raised in glory, to receive new bodies – immortal and incorruptible.

Afterwards will come the judgment when the righteous will be separated from the unrighteous. At that time everything will be revealed – every appetite, inclination, affection, disposition: “So shall it be clearly and infallibly seen, who was righteous, and who was unrighteous; and in what degree every action or person or character was either good or evil” (sermon: “The Great Assize”). The end of this judgment is that the righteous will inherit eternal life and the unrighteous will be delivered into everlasting punishment.

What qualifies a person for eternal life? “[N]one shall live with God, but he that now lives to God; none shall enjoy the glory of God in heaven, but that he bears the image of God on earth; none that is not saved from sin here can be saved from hell hereafter; none can see the kingdom of God above, unless the kingdom of God be in him below. Whosoever will reign with God in heaven, must have Christ reigning in him on earth” (sermon: “A Blow at the Root; or Christ Stabbed in the House of His Friends”).

This view of judgment and eternal life is fully consistent with Wesley’s emphasis on personal holiness, on living but one’s salvation by growing in Christ-likeness. For Wesley, the end times must never be divorced from life in the here and now.

At last, however, all will be made new – and Wesley accentuates the “all.” Not only humanity, but “the whole brute creation will then, undoubtedly, be restored, not only to the vigour, strength, and swiftness which they had at their creation, but to a higher degree … [as high] as the understanding of an elephant is beyond that of a worm” (sermon: “The Great Deliverance”).

But the most glorious transformation will be that of men and women, as the effects of sin are nullified and God’s people are fully restored. Then there will be no more pain, no more suffering, no more death, and no more sin. “Hence will arise an unmixed state of holiness and happiness, far superior to that which Adam enjoyed in Paradise” (sermon: “The New Creation”).

When will all this take place, and what will be the sign of its coming? On this matter Wesley differed sharply from those who major on end-time speculation, in his day as in our own. In outlining his understanding of Christian perfection, he noted that Christians are never perfect in knowledge, and that our ignorance extends to the time of the Last Day.

We can be certain of the return of Christ and the consummation of the kingdom. But our certainty should not be the basis for speculation. Whatever the Bible does reveal about the end times, this knowledge is not given to tickle our ears or satisfy our curiosity, but to call us to a right response now. “So then, dear friends, since you are looking forward to [a new heaven and a new earth], make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with him” (2 Peter 3:14).

Wesley recognized that, in view of the coming kingdom and kingdom come, Scriptural Christianity calls for radical commitment – now!

 The demands of the kingdom. This present obedience, Wesley believed, should include two elements. First, he emphasized present commitment and devotion. In his sermon on “The Signs of the Times,” Wesley taught that, if we want to be ready for the day of the Lord, we must “begin at the root …. Now repent, and believe the Gospel!” Then, “Stir up the gift of God that is within you. Walk in the light, as he is in the light.” Having become Christians through repentance and faith, we must grow in grace and holiness.

“The righteousness of Christ is doubtless necessary for any soul that enters into glory: But so is personal holiness too, for every child of man” (sermon: “On the Wedding Garment”).

But personal commitment and devotion are only part of a right response to the future God has designed. For Wesley, Christianity was “inward religion,” but much more. He goes on to give this counsel: “it behooves you, in the next place, to help your neighbors.”

Scripture is never optimistic that human efforts will build the kingdom. After all, the kingdom is God’s, and so he alone can usher it in. Nevertheless, we must prepare for the coming kingdom as we serve the Lord Jesus now.

This service is accomplished on the one hand as we, in Wesley’s words, “proclaim the glad tidings of salvation ready to be revealed.” On the other hand, “helping your neighbors” means working for social renewal. In Wesley’s own ministry this concern was obvious in his efforts on behalf of the poor and imprisoned, and in his spirited denunciation of American slavery.

 Living between the times. For now, we live between the first coming of Jesus and his future return, between the institution of the kingdom of God and its consummation. While we long for our future eternal life with God, the completion of our salvation, we can experience a foretaste of that life now as we serve the risen Lord.

Joel B. Green is a noted New Testament scholar, professor, and author of many books. This article originally appeared in the January/February 1999 issue of Good News.


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