The New Testament, especially the Synoptic Gospels, is filled with references to the Kingdom of God (or the Kingdom of Heaven). There are 75 references to the Kingdom of God in the New Testament. There are also 34 references to the Kingdom of Heaven, which appears to be a synonymous title. And the word ‘kingdom’ is used a total of 155 times in the New Testament; with only a handful of them not referring to the Kingdom of God.
But what is this kingdom that is being proclaimed? Clearly, it was a major theme of Jesus’ teaching. And one that his followers picked up on and also proclaimed. This article is an attempt to explore this kingdom that Jesus and his apostles proclaimed.
The Background for the Kingdom of God
Before looking at the kingdom taught by Jesus and his apostles, it would be good to first examine what the expression would have meant to the people Jesus was teaching
The Old Testament and the Coming Kingdom
In 1 Kings 8:25, Solomon recounted the promise God had made to David. The promise of a throne that would never end. And that he would always have a descendant sitting on that throne. This became a theme of the prophets, looking forward to a day when David’s kingdom would be re-established, with David once more on the throne.
This was the hope of Israel when first John the Baptist and then Jesus appeared announcing the kingdom. The expectation was that the Messiah would come, free Israel from Roman occupation, and establish an independent Israel. An Israel that would be at the center of the world.
The Expectation of the Disciples
When Philip came to Nathanael to bring him to Jesus (John 1:45), he introduced him as the one that Moses and the prophets had written about. This reference to Moses was probably to Deuteronomy 18:15, where Moses said that God would raise up for them a prophet like Moses himself. The reference to the prophets could have been any of a number of passages looking forward to the Messiah. Philip’s intent here was to equate Jesus with the new Moses, as well as David, returning to claim his throne, their promised deliverer.
Later, in Mark 10:35-37, James and John requested to sit at Jesus’ right and left when he came into his kingdom. Clearly, they were anticipating an earthly kingdom with Jesus on the throne. And they were vying for the places of honor on his right and left.
And in Acts 1:6, after Jesus’ resurrection, the disciples asked if he was now ready to restore the kingdom to Israel. Through the three-plus years the disciples had followed Jesus, they had never given up hope of an earthly kingdom. While their hopes had died at the cross, they were raised to new levels at his resurrection.
The disciples who followed Jesus during his earthly ministry were looking forward to the reestablishment of a Jewish kingdom; as were most of the Jews. It was not until the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost that their understanding changed. Teaching about the kingdom continued. But it no longer centered around a physical one with Jerusalem as its capital.
Teaching about the Kingdom of God
So what did Jesus and his apostles have to say about the Kingdom of God?
Near at Hand
When John the Baptist came, he proclaimed that the kingdom of God was near (Matt. 3:2). Jesus followed him, also proclaiming the nearness of the kingdom of God (Matt. 4:17). And when Jesus sent his disciples out, they were told to announce that the kingdom is near (Matt. 10:7). The word translated as ‘near’, engizō, refers to a coming close in a temporal sense. The kingdom was just around the corner. While it had not yet arrived, it was imminent.
This would have played into the expectations of both the disciples and the crowds that followed Jesus. And it likely had something to do with the antagonism of the religious leaders. If they felt that Jesus might ferment revolt against the Romans, it would increase their opposition.
Not Exclusively Jewish
The Kingdom that the Jews were looking forward to was one with them on the top of the heap and with everyone else beneath them. They were God’s chosen people, and the rest of the world were Gentiles, dogs. So some of Jesus’ teaching must have been unsettling to his listeners.
In Matthew 8:5-13, we have the account of an encounter between Jesus and a Roman centurion with a sick servant. Jesus expressed amazement over the faith of the centurion. He then declared that many will come from the east and the west and sit at the feast. Meanwhile, the subjects of the kingdom would be thrown out into the darkness. The implication is clear that in the coming kingdom, there will be many Gentiles; while many of the Jews will find themselves on the outside looking in.
While not as clear, Jesus’ parable of the tenants in Matthew 21:33-45 also seems to allude to a transition in the kingdom. At the end of the parable, the Kingdom of God was taken from his listeners. It is then given to a people who would produce its fruit (Matt. 21:43). It could be that Jesus was simply referring to the kingdom being taken from the religious leaders. But I believe it more likely that it was being taken from the Jews who had failed to produce the fruit of the kingdom. And given to all believers, regardless of their ethnicity.
1 Peter was written to a largely Gentile audience. And he identified those he was writing to as “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession” (1 Pet. 2:9-10). While not directly identifying the kingdom, he does seem to refer to it here. And if so, he was identifying a kingdom that is made up of people crossing ethnic lines.
A Future Kingdom
In general, Jesus seemed to be announcing a kingdom that was coming, but not yet realized. The expression ‘the kingdom is near’, used by both John the Baptist and Jesus, points to a future kingdom. It is close, but not yet. It is something we are looking forward to, our hope of salvation.
In Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus told the parable of the sheep and goats. To the sheep, he said, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.” This pronouncement, made at the last judgment, ushers believers into the kingdom. Of interest in this passage is that in Matt. 25:46, he said that these same sheep will go away into eternal life. So in some ways, eternal life and the Kingdom of God are synonymous.
Inheriting the kingdom is a common expression, used in the preceding passage as well as several times in Paul’s writings and once in James. Often when Paul uses the expression it is to describe who will not enter it. For instance, people living in a certain way will not inherit the kingdom (1 Cor. 6:9-10, Gal. 5:21, and Eph. 5:5). And in 1 Corinthians 15:50, he expressed that flesh and blood would not inherit the kingdom. It is only for those who share in Christ’s resurrection.
And, in 2 Peter 1:11, we find Peter, writing to suffering believers, telling them that they “will receive a rich welcome into the eternal kingdom of our Lord.” This is a welcome that comes after our physical death. Again, something we look forward to.
A Present Reality
While most of the references to the kingdom seem to point to the future, there are some that indicate that the kingdom is a present reality. In Matthew 16:28, Jesus told his disciples that “some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” I do not know how to understand this other than that the kingdom was ushered in during the lifetime of at least some of his disciples. The most likely time for this was at Pentecost with the coming of the Holy Spirit. This transformed the disciples and ushered in the church age.
Another passage that points to the present-day reality of the kingdom is Luke 17:21. In this passage, Jesus said that people would not be locating the kingdom on a map. This would not be needed “because the kingdom of God is in [our] midst.” The kingdom has a very real existence now in the lives of believers. We currently have citizenship in the kingdom. It is not something that we have to wait for.
This points to something called “already, but not yet”. The kingdom of God has present reality, and as believers, we are already in the kingdom. But it is also awaiting a future realization. A realization that seems to be awaiting the return of Christ and our resurrection. At that time, the kingdom of God will reach its anticipated fulfillment.
Gaining Entry Into the Kingdom
Membership in an earthy kingdom generally occurs because you were born in the territory controlled by the kingdom. Or it may be because you met some other requirement for joining. In the US, that would be passing a citizenship exam and a swearing-in ceremony. In other places, it may be as simple as moving into the territory. But what about the kingdom of heaven? What are the requirements for becoming a citizen in this kingdom?
In Matthew 6:33, Jesus told us to seek the kingdom. On our own, we will never find it. But the Father will reward those who do seek, and Jesus promises that they will find what they seek (Matt. 7:7). But it requires more than just seeking. The rich man who came to Jesus looking for eternal life was seeking. But he went away sorrowful (Mark 10:17-22).
Jesus told us that in order to enter the kingdom, our righteousness must surpass that of the Pharisees (Matt. 5:20). And that we must do the will of the Father (Matt. 7:21). It would be possible to see passages like this teaching a works-based approach to entry into the kingdom. Yet it is clear in the New Testament that this is not the case. It is by faith, not works, that we are saved (Eph. 2:8-9) and become a part of the kingdom.
In John 3:3, Jesus told Nicodemus that he must be born again in order to see the kingdom. And in Matthew 18:3 and Mark 10:15, Jesus said that we must become like little children in order to enter the kingdom. Little children who cannot earn their parent’s love, and who implicitly trust their parents to take care of them. This is reflecting a dependence on God, a child-like faith.
The Nature of the Kingdom of God
The Kingdom Is A Spiritual One
It was common for the Jews in Jesus’ day to look for a coming Messiah who would establish an earthly kingdom. But that is not the kind of kingdom that Jesus was proclaiming. In John 18:36, Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.” He was not looking to establish an earthly kingdom. Instead, his kingdom was from another place; it was spiritual, not earthly.
Paul, in 1 Corinthians 15:50, told the church “that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.” The kingdom belongs to those with resurrection bodies. Hebrews 12:28, announcing “a kingdom that cannot be shaken“, and 2 Peter 1:11, referring to the “eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ“, also shed some light on the kingdom. That it is eternal and unshakable also indicates that it is not of this world.
Christ Rules Over the Kingdom
As mentioned above, the Jews were looking forward to a Messiah who would sit on David’s throne, ruling the nations. A rule that would be unending. While their understanding of this kingdom was one like David’s original kingdom, the New Testament paints a different picture.
In Gabriel’s announcement to Mary in Luke 1:32-33, he stated that Jesus would rule on David’s throne forever. Jesus was the promised Messiah who would sit on David’s throne. But it was not an earthly throne. At least not one in this present age. Some look forward to Jesus’ return as the time that he would take up his rule. But he is already ruling over his kingdom.
In John 18:36, Jesus told Pilate that his “kingdom is not of this world.” But Jesus does have a kingdom, where he sits enthroned as king; the Kingdom of Heaven. In 1 Corinthians 15:24, Paul, looked ahead to the end “when [Jesus] hands over the kingdom to God the Father.” Jesus is ruling now. But in the end, he delivers the kingdom to the Father so that God may be all in all (1 Cor. 15:28).
Finally, in 2 Peter 1:11, he looks forward to our welcome into “the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” The kingdom belongs to our Lord and Savior, Jesus. Many, if not most, of the Old Testament prophecies that look forward to the re-establishment of a kingdom for Israel, are likely actually looking forward to the kingdom that Christ has established and that exists now. A kingdom, not of ethnic Jews, but of all believers in the Lord Jesus.
The Kingdom is Unending
The Kingdom of God is unlike any kingdom this world has ever known. Not only is it a spiritual kingdom, but it is also an eternal kingdom. It will never end but will endure throughout the ages. Peter, in 2 Peter 1:11, told us that we can look forward to a “rich welcome into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” The kingdom we are looking forward to is eternal.
In Luke 1:32-33, Gabriel told Mary that the child she would carry would be the Son of the Highest and that he would reign over David’s throne forever. The kingdom that Christ rules over is unending; enduring throughout the remainder of eternity. And, in Hebrews 12:28, we are told that “we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken.” The kingdom will never fail. Nothing that might ever occur can shake it, or cause it to fall. It is an eternal kingdom.
The Kingdom and Parables
The subject of the vast majority of Jesus’ parables was the Kingdom of Heaven. And many, although not all, of these parables, start off with “The Kingdom of Heaven is like . . . “. Each of these parables has something to say to us about the kingdom.
The parable of the soils (Matt. 13:1-23) tells us how people receive the news of the kingdom. The parable of the weeds (Matt. 13:24-30; 36-42) expresses that the children of the kingdom will dwell with the children of the devil until the end. Parables of the mustard seed and yeast (Matt. 13:31-33) talk about the growth of the kingdom. The hidden treasure and the pearl (Matt. 13:44-46) reflect on the value of the kingdom.
The parable of 10 virgins (Matt. 25:1-13) expresses the need to always be ready. The parable of the talents (Matt. 25:14-30) emphasizes the importance of how we live and the future consequences of that life. And the parable of the sheep and goats (Matt. 25:31-46) also reflects on the importance of how we live and treat others.
These are just a few of the many parables that Jesus taught. Each of them had some little nugget of information about the kingdom. And each of them is well worth studying in order to gain insight into this kingdom that already is, but has not yet reached fulfillment.
What is the Kingdom of God?
In a broad sense, the Kingdom of God is the rule of God over all of his creation. He is the sovereign Lord and works out all things according to his plan and purpose (Eph. 1:11). There is nothing in all of creation that operates independently of him. Not only did he create all that is, but he also sustains it (Col. 1:17).
In a narrower sense, it is the rule of God, or Christ, in the hearts of his people; the redeemed. And it is in this sense that most of the New Testament seems focused on. The gospel is the good news of the kingdom. And all who submit to the rule of God in their heart are saved and a part of his kingdom.
The kingdom has a present reality now. And all who belong to Christ are a part of that kingdom. But there is another sense in which we look forward to the kingdom. We see through a glass darkly now, but then we will see and experience it much more clearly and fully. That coming actualization of the kingdom is the home we have as believers.
Questions to Consider
- What is the Kingdom of God? What is it like?
- Is it a present-day reality, a future reality, or a combination of the two?
- How do you understand your place within the Kingdom? What part do you play now? And eternally?
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