We know that one day Christ will return to earth physically to rule over the nations. We long for that day when he rides his white horse, his eyes “like a flame of fire,” “clothed in a robe dipped in blood” — and all in order to finally rule over the nations “with a rod of iron.” That’s what we are told to expect in Revelation 19:11–15. But does Christ rule over the nations right now? And if so, how? It’s a very good question to us from the west coast of India. “Greetings to you, Pastor John. My name is Fernandes, and I live in Goa. My question is this: Is Jesus Christ ruling over all the nations of earth now, as Paul seems to indicate in Romans 15:8–12? It seems like he has ‘all authority in heaven and on earth,’ according to Matthew 28:18. Or is this rule to come in the future, as 1 Corinthians 15:27–28 seems to suggest? Will he rule over all the nations after his second coming? Will he rule in a different way, now spiritually and later physically? Pastor John, how do you think through the reign of Christ over the nations?”
What I see in Scripture, Fernandes, are at least three ways God rules over the nations — or we could say three stages in history in which God brings the nations into complete submission.
First, there’s the absolute, all-embracing, all-pervasive rule of God’s providence over all nations at all times and in all places.
- Psalm 103:19: “The Lord has established his throne in the heavens, and his kingdom rules over all.” That’s true now, and that’s true always.
- Psalms 47:2: “The Lord . . . is . . . a great king over all the earth.”
- Proverbs 8:15: “By me kings reign.” There’s no reign of any king anywhere at any time except by God’s decree.
- Daniel 4:17: “The Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will.”
- And when God puts the kings in place, he governs what they do. Proverbs 21:1: “The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord; he turns it wherever he will.”
The most dramatic instance of God’s ruling the wills and actions of sinful rulers is the way those rulers conspired to put the Son of God to death.
In this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place. (Acts 4:27–28)
“Christ’s rule at this point is not to build a political or national or earthly civic order. That comes later.”
In other words, God governs the actions of sinful rulers, like Herod and Pilate, to accomplish his purposes, without himself ever sinning. So, the first way to think about God’s rule over the nations is that it is total, constant, and infinitely wise and just — now and always. “He does according to his will among . . . the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand or say to him, ‘What have you done?’” (Daniel 4:35).
Second, God puts his incarnate Son, Jesus Christ, on the throne of the universe at his right hand and with all authority in heaven and on earth.
And what’s new about this stage in God’s reign over the nations is, first, that before the incarnation, there never was a God-man to sit at God’s right hand to rule the nations, whereas now, the eternal Son of God is clothed with humanity, and according to Acts 2:36, “Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.”
So, as Jesus sends out his disciples and says, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matthew 28:18), he has rule as the God-man at the right hand of God now and forever. That wasn’t always the case; that’s new. All of that providential rule of stage one is vested now in the incarnate Son of God. Jesus says in Luke 10:22, “All things have been handed over to me by my Father.” Or John 5:22, “The Father . . . has given all judgment to the Son.”
Now, the second thing that’s new about this rule under the crucified, risen, incarnate Son of God is that the purpose of the rule is to establish God’s saving reign in the hearts of millions of people from all the nations of the world. His rule at this point is not to build a political or national or earthly civic order. That comes later. His purpose now is to establish his saving dominion in the hearts and lives of all the elect from every tribe and tongue and people and nation in the world.
He is sovereign in every way, but he uses his sovereignty now to rescue captives by destroying the authority of Satan in the hearts of his people, and by gathering his elect from all the nations. The penetrating thrust of the kingdom in this age is salvation and sanctification — that is, the beautification of the bride of Christ for presentation to him at the last day. That’s the dominion of God over the nations through Christ now.
Third and finally, the stage of God’s rule over the nations that is yet to be from where we stand now is going to begin at the second coming of Christ.
So, during the second stage, Christ is mainly invisible as the one who wields the power of providence and salvation. But that will change at the second coming of Christ. He will no longer be invisible — he will no longer reign invisibly from heaven — but will himself stand forth and be visibly, bodily present on the earth as the King of all kings.
Listen to the difference between the present reign over all things and the future reign over all things. We hear the difference. We hear the description of the present reign in Ephesians 1:20, and we hear the contrast of what it would be like at the future reign in 1 Corinthians 15:22. Let me read those two, and you’ll hear the contrast.
[God] raised [Christ] from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion. . . . And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church. (Ephesians 1:20–22)
In the present, Christ is seated above all rule, authority, power, and dominion, who still are very active in this world, these evil powers. But he rules over them, seated at the right hand of God, invisibly performing his influence while they have some sway on the earth. Then comes the contrast in 1 Corinthians 15:22–24,
As in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits [his resurrection], then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power.
“One day, every rule and authority and power will be destroyed; opposition will be over.”
So, there’s a difference: In this age, before the second coming of Christ, Christ sits at the right hand of God far above all rule and authority and power, and does his saving work. But in that day, every rule and authority and power will be destroyed; opposition will be over. Christ reigns until that work is completely finished. And then Paul adds, “The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Corinthians 15:26). And Revelation 20:14 describes that: “Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire.”
Then Christ will hand over the kingdom to God the Father, and God will be all in all, and through Christ, and through his body — his people — God will reign forever and ever in the new heavens and the new earth, and his people will be “from every tribe and [tongue] and people and nation,” whom Christ has made “a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth” forever and ever (Revelation 5:9–10).
John Piper (@JohnPiper) is founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. For 33 years, he served as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is author of more than 50 books, including Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist and most recently Providence.