Where is the Kingdom of God? Is It Heaven?


Part 8 of series:
What Was the Message of Jesus?

This post could have been entitled “Where the Kingdom of God is Not.” It deals with the first of two common misunderstandings of the kingdom of God as proclaimed by Jesus. I’ll address each of these, one today and one tomorrow, by stating something that the kingdom is not and then defending my statement with evidence from the gospels.

1. The kingdom of God is not what we call heaven.

Heaven? No, this is just an In-N-Out restaurant near LAX in Los Angeles. But, when In-N-Out opened its first Texas restaurants last week, patrons had to wait in lines for hours. Did they think it was heaven? Or just that In-N-Out has heavenly food?

In my last post I mentioned that, as a boy, I understood Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom to be an invitation to “get saved and go to heaven.” If you had asked me “Where is the kingdom of God?” I would have answered “In heaven.” This answer wouldn’t have been completely wrong, because God does reign over heaven. But it would have missed much that is essential to the kingdom of God. In fact, we misconstrue Jesus’ teaching if we think that his proclamation of the kingdom was telling us something about God’s rule up in spiritual space or in the afterlife.

Part of our confusion comes from the fact that the Gospel of Matthew records Jesus as speaking about “the kingdom of heaven” rather than “the kingdom of God.” Where Mark 1:15 reads “the kingdom of God has come near,” Matthew 3:2 has “the kingdom of heaven has come near” (literally in Greek, “the reign of the heavens,” he basileia ton ouranon, mirroring the Aramaic spoken by Jesus, malkuta’ dishmaha’). Matthew’s phraseology doesn’t mean that the kingdom is literally up in the heavens. Rather, he is using a common circumlocution for God, much as my grandmother did when she said “Good heavens” rather than “Good God.” So, the kingdom of heaven is not the kingdom that exists in heaven, but the reign of God over both heaven and earth.

The words of what we call the Lord’s Prayer confirm this understanding of the kingdom of God. Jesus taught his disciples to pray: “Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt 6:10). Notice that we are to pray for the kingdom to come. It is not a place to which we go after death. Moreover, in his use of Semitic parallelism, Jesus roughly equates the kingdom with the will of God. Currently, in heaven, God reigns and therefore his will is done. We are to pray for God’s kingdom to visit us, for his will to be done on earth.

The fact that the kingdom of God/heaven encompasses this world seems at first glance to be contradicted by something Jesus himself said to Pontius Pilate during his trial: “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36, NIV). Doesn’t Jesus mean “My kingdom is not here on earth, but up in heaven”? No, in fact this is not what Jesus means. Two pieces of evidence make this clear. First, the Greek of John 18:36 literally reads, “My reign is not from this world [ek tou kosmou toutou].” Second, the latter portion of John 18:36 explains, “But now my kingdom is from another place [ouk estin enteuthen].” Literally, this sentence reads, “Now my reign is not from here.” Jesus is speaking, not of the location of his kingdom, but of the source of his royal authority. Unlike Pilate, he does not get his authority from an earthly source (Caesar), but from God. Now it’s certainly true that Jesus was not seeking to use his divine authority to establish merely another political state on earth. Nevertheless, the kingdom he announces is, in a sense, heaven on earth, not heaven in heaven.

Sometimes when I have taught people that the kingdom of God is not equal to heaven, they have responded negatively because they assume I’m saying things I am not in fact saying. Some fear I’m denying the reality of life after death. So, let me be clear in saying that I believe there is indeed life beyond this life and that we enter this realm through faith in Jesus Christ. Moreover, our life beyond this life will include a much more immediate and pervasive experience of God’s reign.

Others fear that talking about the kingdom of God as an earthly reality necessarily leads to a liberal political agenda. This fear is stoked by the fact that many Christians who are politically and socially left of center have often used kingdom language for their political and social agendas. I believe that there is no necessary or sacred connection between the kingdom of God and any political agenda, left, right, or center. All human visions, platforms, and programs must be laid at the feet of the King of kings, who calls his followers to a surprising and utterly counter-cultural way of making a difference in the world. Perhaps I’ll have more to say about this later.

Tomorrow, I’ll discuss another place, besides heaven, where the kingdom of God is not (at least not entirely).

  • Guest

    I always have difficulties understanding kingdom of heaven. Your understanding of it makes so much sense to me, thanks.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/johndavidballa John David Balla

    What if, I mean just what if … In Heaven (there ain’t no)? Paradoxical? Yes. Heaven is an ideal. And while our imagination seems addicted to idealistic indulgences, they are like Plato’s “forms”, out there in the ethers, or Jung’s archetypes. They are real in that sense, yet unattainable. But when we think we have found the ideal woman, job, place to live, we soon become sulky…disappointed because we realize nothing’s perfect. Logic would suggest that Heaven is either a concept with no context, or more of the same as depicted in this music video… http://MySongsAboutHeaven. Very thought provoking!

  • Anonymous

    You’re welcome. I hope I’m being faithful to Jesus’ understanding of it!

  • Anonymous

    You’re welcome. I hope I’m being faithful to Jesus’ understanding of it!

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for this interesting comment. I remember one song: “Imagine there’s no heaven.” Written by Forest Gump, I think. In actuality, the biblical concept of heaven is quite far removed from the popular notion.

  • http://www.facebook.com/rick.ianniello Rick Ianniello

     nicely done

  • Anonymous

    Thanks, Rick, for your encouragement. I try!

  • Rob

    The source of Jesus’ authority was one of the key issues of His whole ministry. The Pharisees hounded Him relentlessly about it. I guess, theoretically, wherever God’s authority is acknowledged and obeyed, that is where the kingdom is. 

  • Anonymous

    That’s a good way to put it.

  • Silver Fox

    Hi Mark-

    “Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”  is to me in the present, not the future.

    To think of it as some future event denies us a part of it now, and excuses our responsibilities to it- ie, not to sin, and to love thy neighbour and be of service.

    God is vital, living, and current, and His Kingdom shall reign when WE choose, if we so choose. 

    I hope I am clear.

    If we do not work according to God’s will, we will never see it; if we do, we do, if only in glimpses.  Perhaps those glimpses may become more frequent as more of us choose to do God’s will.

    Jesus rebel!  Rail against iniquity. 

    Jesus’
    Third Way:
    • Seize the moral initiative.
    • Find a creative alternative to violence.
    • Assert your own humanity and dignity as a person.
    • Meet force with ridicule or humor.
    • Break the cycle of humiliation.
    • Refuse to submit or to accept the inferior position.
    • Expose the injustice of the system.
    • Take control of the power dynamic.
    • Shame the oppressor into repentance.
    • Stand your ground.
    • Force the Powers into decisions for which they are not prepared.
    • Recognize your own power.
    • Be willing to suffer rather than retaliate.
    • Force the oppressor to see you in a new light.
    • Deprive the oppressor of a situation where force is effective.
    • Be willing to undergo the penalty of breaking unjust laws.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for your comment. I agree, in part, though there is also a clear future dimension to the kingdom, at least in the teaching of Jesus. The kingdom is both present and future. So, yes, we can choose to live in the kingdom. But God’s full reign is not something humans can produce. It depends upon the Sovereign God, which is a rather essential element of reigning.

  • Silver Fox

     Thanks for answering. 

    I did say “To think of it as some future event denies us a PART of it now”, by which I acknowledge the future kingdom TO come. 

    I was wrong to write “not the future”, I should have said “not JUST the future”!  I could have been clearer… “To think of it ONLY as some future event denies us a part of it now”.

    Keep up the inspiring output!

    Regards,

    John Cawse

  • Anonymous

    i hear this and that about how the world is going to end i had a wonderful dream about jesus last night and i think it was telling me to repent and do the right thing in life and be born again or it meant the second coming is really coming i am honestly telling the truth on this it was an experience you have to have yourself i have been happy all morning and early afternoon. 

  • Anonymous

    John: Yes, that’s a better way to put it. Thanks.

  • Anonymous

    Fascinating! God uses many, many ways to draw us to him.

  • Ife

    Nice

  • Joyce Langwenya

    to my understand the kingdom of God is when a person have accepted the Lord the King of Kings to his or her heart and do the will of the kingdom he/she have accepted to serve under.Thy kingdom come.

  • Anonymous

    EXSCuSE me the kingdom of god is in heaven are u on drugs. U idiot

  • Esther

    Awwwww this is such an AWESOME, WELL RESEARCHED ARTICLE!! U totally answered my question, with strong scriptural evidence and sound clear writing. Thanks man- 2014 and your words are still feeding sheep. You rock Guest Contributor!

  • Brian Mc

    Q. Where is a Kingdom? A. Where the King lives & reigns!
    John 14:23 Jesus answered, If a person [really] loves Me, he will keep My word [obey My teaching]; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our home (abode, special dwelling place) with him.
    John 3:3 Jesus answered him, I assure you, most solemnly I tell you, that unless a person is born again (anew, from above), he cannot ever see (know, be acquainted with, and experience) the kingdom of God.
    John 3:5 Jesus answered, I assure you, most solemnly I tell you, unless a man is born of water and [even] the Spirit, he cannot [ever] enter the kingdom of God.
    John 3:7 Marvel not [do not be surprised, astonished] at My telling you, You must all be born anew (from above).
    Paul said – Gal 2:20 I have been crucified with Christ [in Him I have shared His crucifixion]; it is no longer I who live, but Christ (the Messiah) lives in me; and the life I now live in the body I live by faith in (by adherence to and reliance on and complete trust in) the Son of God, Who loved me and gave Himself up for me. (& into me to live His life through me … & all born again believers) – my addition in brackets
    2 Cor 5:17 Therefore if any person is [ingrafted ... see John 15:5-8 **] in Christ (the Messiah) he is a new creation (a new creature altogether); the old [previous moral and spiritual condition] has passed away. Behold, the fresh {and} new has come!
    ** cut off the old Adam vine, trimmed & shaped & grafted into the True Vine – Christ Jesus. [the Hebrew word for covenant means to cut - both the believer & Christ Jesus are cut to make a binding covenant between each other - His Life flows into the grafted in branch, first to cleanse, second to help grow & third to produce the fruit ... for the glory of Father (& to enable others to be drawn by Father to the Vine - John 6:44 No one is able to come to Me unless the Father Who sent Me attracts {and} draws him {and} gives him the desire to come to Me, and [then] I will raise him up [from the dead] at the last day. Ultimately, with Christ Jesus supplying His Life & Father caring for the Vine – 1 John 4:17 In this [union and communion with Him] love is brought to completion {and} attains perfection with us, that we may have confidence for the day of judgment [with assurance and boldness to face Him], because as He is, so are we in this world.

    Brian Mc – mcmichanco@pacific.net.au


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