What is the Kingdom of God?


Part 3 of series:
What Was the Message of Jesus?

In my last post in the series, What Was the Message of Jesus?, I explained that the core of Jesus’ preaching was the good news of the kingdom of God. This is summarized succinctly in Mark 1:15, where Jesus proclaims, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” Of course this summary leads to an obvious follow-up question: What is the kingdom of God? What is it that, according to Jesus, has drawn near?

The kingdom of God has been equated with all sorts of things in the last two milennia. Some have claimed that it is heaven, and that Jesus was saying, in so many words, “Now you can go to heaven when you die.” Others have understood “the kingdom of God” as referring to the Church. From their perspective, Jesus announced the beginning of the age of the Church. Still others have seen the kingdom of God as a world infused by divine justice. They have taken Jesus’ announcement as a call to social action. In recent times, “spiritually” inclined people have reduced the kingdom of God to inner awareness of one’s divinity. Like the ancient Gnostics, they understand the good news of the kingdom to mean “You are divine.”

None of these renditions of the kingdom of God hits a historical home run, although the first three are in the ballpark, at least. But all of them fail to take seriously both what Jesus actually says about the kingdom of God, and what his fellow Jews, especially the Old Testament prophets, had been saying about the kingdom for centuries.

King Abdullah II of Jordan at the National Prayer Breakfast

Before we analyze Jesus’ use of the phrase “the kingdom of God,” we need to pay close attention to his use of the word “kingdom.” When we try to understand Jesus’ message of the kingdom, we easily get tripped up by a language gap. In everyday English, “kingdom” means a place where a king reigns. The Kingdom of Jordan, for example, is the place where King Abdullah II rules. But when Jesus spoke of the kingdom of God, he did not think in terms of locality, but authority.

In the New Testament Gospels, Jesus uses the Greek phrase he basileia tou theou, “the kingdom of God.” The word basileia could sometimes refer to a locale over which a king ruled, but its primary meaning in the first-century was “reign, rule, authority, sovereignty.” (The same was true of the Aramaic term, malku, the word probably spoken by Jesus.) We see this meaning clearly in one of Jesus’ parables. He speaks of a nobleman who “went to a distant country to have himself appointed king and then to return” (Luke 19:12, NIV; the NRSV reads “to get royal power for himself”). The Greek of this verse reads, literally, “he went to a distant country to receive a basileia for himself.” He didn’t go to get a new region over which to rule, but rather to get new and greater authority over the place he already lived.

We see this same meaning of “kingdom” in the Hebrew Scriptures. In Psalm 145, for example, we read:

All your works shall give thanks to you, O LORD,
and all your faithful shall bless you.
They shall speak of the glory of your kingdom
[malkuth in Hebrew; basileia in Greek],
and tell of your power (Ps 145:10-11).

Here God’s kingdom is parallel, not to the place over which God reigns, but to his divine power. God’s faithful praise his sovereignty here, not the place over which God is sovereign.

So when Jesus proclaims that the kingdom of God has come near, he doesn’t mean that a place is approaching , but that God’s own royal authority and power have come on the scene. So, we could paraphrase Mark 1:15, which summarizes Jesus’ preaching, as follows: “God’s reign is at hand. God’s power is being unleashed. Turn your life around and put your trust in this good news.”

Of course Jesus’ announcement of God’s reign didn’t come in a vacuum. It was both consistent with and a fulfillment of a central theme in the Hebrew prophets. In my next post I’ll examine how these prophets spoke of the kingdom of God, and how this prepared the way for the message and ministry of Jesus.

  • Rob

    Hence, “They Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth . . .” Thank you for the insight.

  • http://themoralchristian.blogspot.com Michael

    Dr. Roberts,

    Your paraphrase Mark 1:15 … “God’s reign is at hand. God’s power is being unleashed. Turn your life around and put your trust in this good news.” … is apt.

    But, I wonder how many of us really understand what “trusting the good news” requires of us. For example, if the good news is the understanding that repentent sinners will be saved, then acts of repentence are required — are they not?

    A more general thought your post motivates is this: too often we equate “faith in Jesus” with “faith that Jesus is who He says He is”. If, however, we understand faith as understood in Jesus’ time to be more aligned with ‘trust’, then to trust means to conduct our lives according to the teachings of Jesus — because we trust His teachings to be divine and therefore authoritative. And this, after all, is the lesson you would have us learn from your post.

    A very good lesson, I might add.

    Michael

  • Anonymous

    Michael: Thanks for your thoughtful comment.

    Yes about repentance. That’s the sense of “Turn your life around.”

    And yes about trust. Biblical faith is much more like trust than it is acknowledging certain facts. Trust requires such acknowledgment, but involves much more personal commitment.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks, Rob. Yes, that’s it.

  • Harry

    Thank you, Mark for a challenging post. God’s kingdom as you define it helps explain why the King can call us to love, be compassionate, care for the poor, etc. etc. I am in agreement with you that this is the primary teaching of Jesus. Thanks so much for challenging us to think biblically and in terms of…the kingdom.

    Harry

  • Anonymous

    Thanks, Harry, for this comment. Yes, indeed, the King has the authority to do that. And yet, amazingly, he does it in love, even respecting our freedom to disobey. Kings don’t generally do that.

  • Dave

    This is wonderful and quite helpful! Thank you.

    One of the things that makes ‘kingdom thinking’ difficult, I think, is that citizens of the United States have never needed to trust royalty for their well being (at least not in an earthly sense).

    As I understand it, one of the concepts in the OT about kingdoms is that the king could be trusted to provide. A good king was generous, benevolent, kind. He looked out for the best interests of those who lived in his kingdom.

    Unfortunately, politicians and government have not helped further the concept of kingdom. If anything, we’re perhaps more skeptical: “Looking at how government functions, living in a kingdom sounds like something not to be trusted.”

    But being able to trust a king regarding the benefits and authority of his kingdom is the only way (at least for me) that ‘kingdom’ and ‘reign’ make sense.

  • Anonymous

    Dave: Yes, good point about the cultural gap for us, given our lack of experience of a trustworthy king.

  • http://profiles.google.com/mdgantt Michael Gantt

     If you continue your study along this line (i.e. pursuit of the kingdom of God) it will upend your perception of Christianity, of church, and of other things.  Most of all, it will bring you closer to Jesus (i.e. God).  And for that reason, I commend this journey to you with all that is in me.  Do not shrink back when fears seek to divert you, as they surely will.  He who loves us will protect you every step of this journey.  But, as you rightly say, you must TRUST Him every step of the way.  He is worthy!

  • http://profiles.google.com/mdgantt Michael Gantt

     If you continue your study along this line (i.e. pursuit of the kingdom of God) it will upend your perception of Christianity, of church, and of other things.  Most of all, it will bring you closer to Jesus (i.e. God).  And for that reason, I commend this journey to you with all that is in me.  Do not shrink back when fears seek to divert you, as they surely will.  He who loves us will protect you every step of this journey.  But, as you rightly say, you must TRUST Him every step of the way.  He is worthy!

  • Anonymous

    Michael: Thanks for the comment and for your encouragement. In fact, trusting God is a central feature of the kingdom of God, is it not?

  • Bfish124

    Thank you for the enlightenment.  I was reading a book called Trustful Surrender to Divine Providence, and it said  that we are not to be anxious, that the Father knows evrything we need, He has given His word and the only condition attached is that we seek first the Kingdom of God and His justice.  We are to make this search the one great aim of our lives by bringing everything else into relation with it, to make it successful and fulfil our every duty with this end in view.  In return, He will unburden us of all anxiety and take upon Himself our needs and those of our dear ones, and that His care will be all the greater in proportion to the degree of condfidence and surrender to His will we strive to attain.  So would I be correct to assume that in every situation we are to call upon God’s authority and power to be foremost, that His will  and plan may be accomplished and bear much fruit?    


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