One way to look at the big picture of the Bible is to see how scripture follows a story-arc; it traces through chapters, as it were, building up as it goes, telling the story of Christ and his Kingdom. From Genesis to Revelation, the Bible is the one real and historical story of the Kingdom of God. As the story of the Great King, it includes those servants who represent him on Earth — his Kingdom-people — and it culminates with Heaven and Earth merging into one realm (God and humanity dwelling together in the Resurrection).
The use of chapters may help to structure what we have to say about this story-arc, though the Bible itself does not put it this way. The use of five chapters is not meant to be so tidy as to say there are no other chapters. But as will be seen, the history of the Kingdom of God lends itself to at least five. Our aim is to point to various stages of the Kingdom of God, going back to Creation and the Garden of Eden as the first stage (or the first chapter).
Chapter 1 of 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.
Chapter 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 chapters would be able to continue (for if God did not have mercy upon all of creation, there would be no arena for him to continue the development of his Kingdom).
Chapter 3 of the Kingdom story 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 chapter of the Kingdom of God with the knowledge that we occupy a different part of the story. We belong to Chapter 4.
Chapter 4 represents a pinnacle Stage of Kingdom development and was the breaking-in of God’s Kingdom on Earth in one sacred place: 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 irony to this stage of the Kingdom of God, for his Kingdom people do not yet experience bodily what has been won in Christ.
Chapter 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.
As we read the Bible, we read the different parts of scripture in terms of the development of the Kingdom of God. For example, when we read Malachi, we realize that we, the church, are not under the Kingdom of God as it then was, but have come to experience the Kingdom in the light of Jesus’ Death and Resurrection. In the way we have retold the story here, we would say we are in the fourth chapter and not the third. And one day, we shall enter into the fifth chapter of this Kingdom-story — 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 chapters — always reading the various parts according to the development of God’s Kingdom. These five chapters (or five stages) are meant to suggest a kind of table of contents to the story. They are also meant to ground us on the map of redemptive history. Naming the Kingdom of God according to its various stages is not to say that God tried-out different kingdoms with different peoples, but he had one Kingdom. And it was growing, developing, and heading to its climactic destiny: Jesus.
One Kingdom, Five Chapters
The five chapters are not five different stories of five different kingdoms, but are the many chapters of the one Kingdom of God in Christ. Various oaths and obligations were employed along the way so that the relationship between the Great King and his servants has always been according to various covenants. Though many covenants were employed, there is yet the story of one Kingdom and one King. And when that King made the final covenant, he came in the flesh and ratified his oath on the cross, thus bringing the Kingdom of God to its inaugurated destiny.
The final stage of the kingdom has already begun, but it is not yet in its consummate form. 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), 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 principlaities of darkness. It shall not always be so. And so we cry out, “Come, Lord Jesus. Come!”
This presentation of the Five Stages of the Kingdom of God is an adaptation 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.