The Bible is the message of Christ. As a message, it builds up as it goes so that the Trinity is revealed and explained through historical stages, culminating in the Incarnation (and all that that means). From Genesis to Revelation, the Bible is the one real and historical message of Christ (the King of the God’s Kingdom). As the message of the Great King, it includes those servants who represent him on Earth (his Kingdom-people) and it explains Heaven and Earth merging into one realm (God and humanity dwelling together in the Resurrection): The message is Jesus (Ephesians 1:10), as the Word became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:1). The God-Man is the very merging of the two realms in flesh (in him divinity and humanity meet).
The use of historical stages may help to structure what we have to say about this message (though the Bible itself does not expressly put it this way). The use of five parts (or five historical epochs) is not meant to be so tidy as to say there are no other major subdivisions within the Bible. But, as will be seen, the history of the unfolding message of Christ and the Kingdom of God lends itself to at least five stages (what we shall call parts). Our aim is to point to various stages of the message of Christ and the Kingdom of God, going back to creation and the garden of Eden as the first stage (the first part).
Part 1 of the message of Christ and the kingdom of God is about creating a real man to rule in a real region–in Eden, and in the garden of Eden. Adam was to rule on earth and image his creator. This initiated the rest of the unfolding history, but only as it took a turn to warfare. In Genesis 1-3 we learn about God being represented by his image-creature in a sacred space, but his man-creature turns on him in rebellion. Adam and Eve make war, as it were, with God.
Part 2 is the history of God promising to restore what man ruined, and it is the movement of history from Garden to Arid-Wanderings. As history develops, God makes promises to Adam and Eve, and later expands upon them when he creates Abraham. Abraham is promised a worldwide family wherein God undoes the curse of fallen humanity — that promised family proves to be the same family that Jesus creates in his redemption.
One can see how the promises of God survived through many generations from Adam to Abraham, even making it through a worldwide flood. Indeed, the flood itself provides the backdrop of God making a promise. There would be a history of common-grace whereby all the other parts of the message would be able to continue in history (for if God did not have mercy upon all of creation, there would be no arena for him to continue the message by coming in flesh in history).
Part 3 of this message of Christ is about God and the Kingdom concentrated in one peculiar place and people — a place where sin was also concentrated. That place was Israel, a people who oft turned to idolatry and rebellion (rather like another Adam). Despite their sin, Israel pictured the ultimate realities of presence with God and life in the face of His glory (even if they failed to live up to those realities). Therefore, in their rebellion, Israel pictured the realities of judgment, exile, and covenant curse. At the same time, in their sanctified and sanctioned Kingdom-warfare, they often portrayed the intrusion of glory upon God’s enemies (as in Numbers 31). In these instances, we see a kind of portrayal of the future when the people of God and the enemies of God will be so radically distinguishable that we could name one heaven, and the other hell. This is helpful to realize, because as Christians we can read this part of the Kingdom of God with the knowledge that we live in a different stage (the 4th stage).
Part 4 represents a pinnacle stage of the revelation of Christ. Christ himself (in flesh) is the breaking-in of God’s Kingdom on Earth in one sacred person: in Jesus. God’s Kingdom realities have come (present realities already here) and fulfill the promises made to Adam and Abraham. At the same time, there is an incompleteness to this stage of the Kingdom of God (as it were), for his Kingdom people. Namely, they do not yet experience bodily what has been won in Christ.
Part 5, the final stage of the Kingdom, is the consummation of all things; it is when those not-yet elements cease to be not yet — it is when heaven and earth are bodily experienced in the final resurrection. When Jesus returns, he will restore all things, and heaven and earth will be united in one resurrection realm.
Which part (which epoch)?
As we read the Bible, we must account for the different parts of scripture in terms of the whole. That is, we must account for the different historical epochs as related to the complete revelation of Jesus incarnated. For example, if we were reading the book of Malachi, we would want to remember that we are not under the Kingdom of God as it then was–we live in a period of time where Jesus’ Death and Resurrection has been historically realized. That is, we live in the fourth part and not the third. Likewise, one day, we shall enter into the fifth stage of the Message — which shall be experienced in a way that, for now, can only be spied as through a glass darkly.
We must constantly orient ourselves when we read the Bible to locate where we are reading — never rejecting the earlier parts — and always reading the various parts according to the development of the message of Christ. These five epochs (or five stages) are meant to suggest a kind of table of contents to the News of Christ. They are also meant to ground us on the map of incarnation history. Naming the message of Christ according to the various stages of revelation is not to say that God tried-out different kingdoms with different peoples, but he had one incarnation-goal all along. And history was always moving towards that goal, and the revelation of that message was growing, developing, and heading to its climactic destiny: The Son of God in Flesh.
One Kingdom, Five Stages
The five parts are not five different kingdoms, but are the many stages of the one Message of Christ. Various oaths and obligations were employed along the way so that the relationship between the Great King and his servants has been according to various covenants. Though many covenants were employed, there is yet the single Trinitarian thrust that is the revelation of Christ the King. And when the King made the final covenant, he came in flesh and ratified his oath on the cross, thus bringing the revelation of God to an inaugurated destiny.
The final stage of the revelation of Christ has come, but there is more. That is, we Christians do not live under the consummated stage of the Kingdom, but instead we are participants in the final stage of the Kingdom in its inaugurated form. Jesus is King, but the whole Earth is not yet identified as his realm. Satan is as the god of this age (so to speak, using the language of the Bible), and acts as the diabolical ruler of the air, so that while Christians are already under the rule of Christ, we yet battle as in an engagement that puts us into conflict with the principalities of darkness. It shall not always be so. And so we cry out, “Come, Lord Jesus. Come!” We long for the final stage of his revelation.
This presentation of the Five Stages of the Kingdom of God is an adaptation (and a departure) of classroom lectures from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and Westminster Theological Seminary, PA and CA. A somewhat cryptic summary chart of the material can be found here — though the chart looks like a cipher, it gains much clarity when explained in person and really is quite useful.