“Reign” or “Realm”? (Part I)
For a very long time interpreters of the New Testament have puzzled over the Greek expression basileia tou theou, which can be translated in various ways. The most common, and most literal, are “the Kingdom of God” and “the Reign of God.” As Jesus used the phrase (in his native Aramaic, subsequently translated into Greek), the basic idea is “lordship”: full dominion and authority over creation and human life.
The difference between Kingdom and Reign, though, raises the question as to whether Jesus was speaking of a fixed, transcendent domain into which the faithful will enter at a future time following the general resurrection and last judgment (a heavenly Kingdom or Realm), or whether he was referring to a dynamic movement already present and active within the framework of human history, a sphere in which the “divine economy” or plan for salvation is being presently worked out in the here and now (Reign). In fact, Jesus uses the expression in both ways, to indicate that kingdom and reign are two aspects of the same reality.
Why is this important for us? Because the tension between the two terms, kingdom and reign, actually defines the nature of the world and our vocation within it. Recalling the ancient Jewish notion of the “two ages,” we are invited to submit ourselves in this present age to God’s Reign, his sovereign rule or lordship, in order to enter fully into the life of his divine Realm or Kingdom in the age to come.
This does not mean, however, that the Kingdom is a strictly future reality. In the reign of God over the world and his participation in human events, the Kingdom itself is already present. With the resurrection of Christ and his victory over the power of death, the present historical age has in fact become, invisibly and mysteriously (sacramentally), the age to come. The basileia of God is thus both present and future, historical and transcendent. However, we may translate the expression in any given context, it signifies God’s saving activity in our day to day life, which leads those who long for its fulfillment toward a future life in eternal communion with the Holy Trinity.
At the beginning of St Mark’s Gospel, Jesus begins his post-baptismal ministry with proclamation of the “gospel of God.” “The time is fulfilled,” he declares, “and the basileia tou theou is drawing near; repent and believe in the good news!” The “time” that has come is expressed by the term kairos: a critical moment in salvation history, when God’s saving activity reaches its climax. That “time” reached its ultimate fulfillment with Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. The basileia drew near in Jesus’ ministry, death and resurrection, as it did in the birth of the Church and its mission to the world. And it continues to “draw near” and be realized today, as God’s lordship or reign: sovereign divine authority over human life and activity. In St Mark’s Gospel especially, that reign also involves Jesus’ overcoming of demonic power. With the approach of the “reign of God,” Satan is defeated, and the faithful children of God are freed from his corrupting power. The approach, however, is not the fulfillment. The reign has not yet completed its purpose of leading the world into the eternal realm of the Kingdom.
~Adapted from the Very Rev. John Breck, Life in Christ, Orthodox Church in America (oca.org), February 01, 2010