This is my first graduate level paper… I think it’s about the same as my other papers, but I haven’t had time to write blog posts because I’ve been writing stuff like this. I hope you enjoy it! Ask yourself, “What do I think Jesus meant by ‘the kingdom of God’?”
The kingdom of God (KoG) is one of the few major biblical themes that literally spans from the beginning of the book to the end. It is in Genesis 1 and 2 that we see God creating a kingdom on earth to rule, and it is in Revelation 21 and 22 that we see the New Heaven, New Earth, and New Jerusalem become the ultimate, perfect kingdom that God will one day rule from within, walking amongst his people once more. But in the Gospels Jesus is seen preaching, “the gospel [good news] of the kingdom of God,” “the kingdom of heaven is like…” and “repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”The questions that then spring to mind are similar to the following: Was Jesus preaching about a different kingdom of God than the one that spans the full bible? Is there a difference between “the kingdom of heaven” and “the kingdom of God”? If the “kingdom of heaven” was at hand then, is it still? Has “the kingdom of heaven” been established? What is the nature or substance of “the kingdom of God”, literal, spiritual, figurative, or all? Unfortunately, not all of the questions can be answered conclusively, and there isn’t space to give them all a worthy treatment. Instead, this paper will focus only on scratching the surface of the question, “What is the kingdom of God”? The main goal will be to define the concept. First, the basic components of any kingdom will be defined, then the concept of the KoG in the Bible as a whole, and then in Matthew in particular.
COMPONENTS OF A KINGDOM
Two definitions may be helpful in gaining a robust understanding of a kingdom: “The territory or country subject to a king; the area over which a king’s rule extends; a realm,” and, “An organized community having a king as its head; a monarchical state or government.” In a purely secular sense then, a kingdom is merely a place and people that a king rules. If this is true, the only components necessary for “a kingdom” to exist are (1) a king, (2) a people, (3) and a land. These will be the requirements placed on the biblical text to determine if the KoG is in view in a particular passage.
Many would agree largely with these components of a kingdom, but raise issue with the inclusion of “a land” as necessary for the KoG. They would argue from the outset that the phrase has been so widely used to refer to a spiritual reality made up of spiritual beings, Christians in particular, that it is merely understood that God’s kingdom doesn’t need physical land. Some would even argue that Jesus’s own use of the phrase “does not so much refer to a ‘concept’ as evoke a vision of God’s activity in the world.” In their view, the KoG is merely a rhetorical device used to indicate that God doing something. Others would more directly say that the KoG is God’s activity in the world through the Church and that “the divine Christ, while still in the flesh, had given the keys of the Kingdom to St. Peter and his successors.” I do not make any such concessions and will strive to show that since the conception of a KoG in the Bible, there has always been a piece of land in view as well.
These components are also the bare-bones and do not take into account the changing forms and methods God may apply or use in his kingdom. These changes will be seen as a biblical theology of the Kingdom of God is constructed. This is, however, the minimum. Without the presence of a discernible king, people, and land, in a passage, “the Kingdom of God” should not be discussed in that passage, unless the word “kingdom” is already there.
THE KINGDOM OF GOD IN ALL BIBLICAL TEXTS
It should be noted from the outset that the actual possessive phrase “kingdom of God” is based on the Greek ἣ βασίλεία τοῦ θεοῦ (or τῶν οὑρανῶν), but its Hebrew equivalent שמים מלכות is not translated in this direct and possessive way. That being said, Jesus’s use of the phrase “the kingdom of God” must always be regarded as slightly unique. No English translation renders the phrase in this way in the Old Testament. There are, however, many references to a “kingdom” that by context can be linked with either Jesus’s KoG or simply a kingdom that is ruled by God, whether or not it should be considered to be the same kingdom Jesus proclaimed remains to be seen.
Creation Through Abraham
Few direct mentions of a “kingdom” can be found in Genesis 1-12. However, the concept of a kingdom as king, people, and land is established early in the book. In Genesis 1 and 2, God is seen as the king, the ruler, of the land he is seen creating and of the people he puts in that land. He exercises authority over those people not only by creating them, but also by giving them a rule of law to follow. “The Lord God commanded the man saying, ‘From any tree of the garden you may eat freely; but from the tree of the knowledge of Good and evil you shall not eat,’” is the first instance of a law being created. From the very beginning, God, the garden, and humans were the components of the KoG.
The method of this first KoG in scripture could be termed “mediated rule.” God, as the supreme ruler, the king, gave some of his ruling responsibilities to the humans he created. Man was instructed to “fill the earth and subdue it.” Mankind was God’s intermediate subordinate partner charged with caring for His creation and for creating more men. However, this particular method of rule was disrupted when man broke God’s law. Satan usurped man’s role as the mediator and took charge over the kingdoms of the world. This fact is seen in Satan’s offer to Jesus in the wilderness temptations. God still remained king in the heavens, and is still sovereign over what happens on earth, but his initial mediated kingdom on earth was disrupted. Satan’s stolen rule is a backdrop throughout scripture.
The KoG can be seen in the Noahic Covenant. Again, God gave mankind a law to uphold: “be fruitful and multiply,” and, “Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed.” These commands were given, showing God’s authority over man, just as the land was coming back into view after being completely covered by water. A renewed land meant renewed rules and a renewed kingdom of God.
Abraham Through Moses
The KoG can next be most clearly seen in God’s promises to Abraham. From that point in time onward, the KoG would be administered on the earth through one family, Abraham’s descendants. One might call this a limited and mediated kingdom. Now the land in question was not all of the earth, but it was a specific plot of land. In ratifying His covenant, God said to Abram, “To your descendants I have given this land, from the river of Egypt as far as the great river, the river Euphrates.” God’s kingdom, to be indirectly ruled by Him through a particular man’s descendants was to be established on a particular piece of land in Palestine. This promise for a kingdom from God to Abram still has not been kept.
God goes on to say in a later interaction with Abraham, “I will give to you and your descendants after you, the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God.” Never has a descendant of Abraham possessed a piece of land that connected one river to the other and even if they had, they also lost it at some point, because Abraham’s descendants don’t currently own all of that land. It must be kept eternally for this promise to be kept. This is a remarkably tall order to fulfill, one that only God can fulfill. This particular form of the KoG has yet to be physically seen, only verbally promised by God. This reality feeds into Jesus’s message of the KoG.
God reiterates His promise to a series of descendants, thus narrowing the field of possible mediators of His kingdom. In particular, his reiteration to Jacob is telling. He repeats the promises for descendants and to have possession of the land and then he says, “I will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” God says flat out that he will do what he promised to do. This is very important to remember when discussing the KoG. A particular form of kingdom was promised by God, and hasn’t yet been kept.
Moses Through Jesus
Other reiterations of nearly the same promise are given to such men as Judah, David, and Solomon. David’s reiteration narrows the field of possible mediators only to his descendants. Other affirmations of that promise for a kingdom were made through people like Isaiah, Hannah, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Daniel, Zachariah, and so on. But the KoG had already taken another change in form and methodology during the life of Moses.
In Moses’s time, God’s rule over humanity takes on a national and systematically religious component. Until this point, God’s mediators talked directly to Him. The only hint of a priesthood that could be seen was that of Melchizedek, about whom many would use a christophany to explain, though the arguments are shaky at best. But in giving the Mosaic Law to Moses, God makes the conditional statement that “if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is Mine; and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” Two important revelations come from this. (1) God emphasizes his total ownership of the whole earth. Even though Satan has usurped the mediated kingdom of earth, God still chooses to step in and establish other mediations and forms of his kingdom. Satan’s usurpation has not removed God’s ultimate authority over either heaven or earth. (2) God delineates a new form of His kingdom on earth in the nation of Israel and the priestly system. The role of king and the role of chief mediator between God and man has now been split. That isn’t to say that the king of Israel would not communicate with God, but it is to say that God has in essence created a kingdom within a kingdom: His overarching kingship of all earth and Israel, and the national kingdom of Israel, whose king is a human and who answers to God. The priests are the manifestation of the former, the king of Israel, the latter. We now have both “the kingdom of Israel” and “the kingdom of God” somehow mysteriously linked, but distinct. The promised Messiah would have rights to both kingdoms.
This delineation can be seen in all the rest of the historic and prophetic literature. Peppered through the Old Testament are clear references to earthly temporal Israel with a human king, and references to a heavenly infinite Kingdom, somehow linked to Israel, but with God as King. This distinction becomes clearer at the end of the period of the Judges when Saul is anointed king of Israel. God continues to interact with both prophets and kings, mediating his kingdom on earth in a way never before seen. Understanding these two types of kingdoms that are in effect is essential to understanding Jesus’s references to the KoG.
This idea can be somewhat attributed to the work of Martin Luther. His “Two Kingdom Theory” was the contrast between the devil’s worldly kingdom and God’s spiritual kingdom, where God ultimately ruled both. I admit both of these types of kingdoms, but add to it the monarchy of Israel as a third kingdom. The devil’s worldly kingdom is a backdrop that is present from Genesis 3 onward. The important kingdom to note in the prophets and historical books is the temporal earthly kingdom of Israel, ultimately ruled by God, but mediated by a descendant of David.
Jesus Through The New Heavens and New Earth
Since Matthew’s gospel most extensively treats the KoG and it will be covered in more depth in the next section, the gospels will be skipped for now, in favor of looking at Acts onward.
The KoG becomes one of the central points of Paul’s preaching on both his missionary journeys and in his epistles. However, not much clarity about what he means by the KoG can be ascertained. He uses the term in a very nondescript way, one that disallows the reader from determining its definition simply from the context in which it is used. Paul talks about the KoG as if his readers already know what it is, and so does not give much description of what he means by the phrase itself. The majority of his references come in the form, “you will or will not inherit the KoG,” or “he was preaching about the KoG.” One important note can be gleaned from this: the gospel of the KoG did not stop at the ascension. Clearly, some point about the KoG is for the church-age believer. The question is, “What point?”
THE KINGDOM OF GOD/HEAVEN IN MATTHEW
There is some debate as to whether Matthew refers to the kingdom of heaven synonymously with the kingdom of God. No such debate should exist since Jesus himself, in Matthew’s Gospel, uses the terms interchangeably. I will follow his example and view the phrases interchangeably as well.
When Jesus arrives on the scene, the two types of kingdoms associated with Israel are evident, and yet the locals in the culture had a hard time distinguishing between the two. The common denominator of Israel’s involvement caused some confusion. John the Baptist did some work to clear up this confusion and clarify who was welcome in the KoG: not just descendants of Abraham, not even all descendants of Abraham, but those who repented of their sins. Through John’s preaching Matthew makes it clear that the kingdom of heaven is a reference to the higher-up and greater kingdom that belongs to God, which is linked to Israel through the priesthood, but not limited to Israel. In this kingdom, the land in view is both Israel and the earth, the people in view are those who repent, and the king in view is Jesus, the God-Man. This the Millennial kingdom of Revelation 20. This is the kingdom whose gospel is preached throughout the first half of Matthew. What gospel, or good news, is there about the kingdom? That it is at hand. Jesus goes to great lengths to preach this good news and, in the Sermon on the Mount, to instruct about whom this kingdom is for.
The message about the KoG shifts in chapter 12. Jesus, in dealing with the hard hearts of the Pharisees, has had enough. When the Pharisees claim that Jesus came from Satan, he puts to rest the argument. He makes it clear that he is not here by the power of Satan, but by the power of God, and he has been showing his power over Satan, who still had claim to kingship on earth from back in Genesis 3. It becomes clear that Jesus’s message of the kingdom is no longer good news to all, but only to a select few. In chapter 13 the new message is, “To you [disciples] it has been granted to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them (the crowds) it has not been granted.”
Jesus limits the field once more. Not only must you repent, you must be His disciple to understand the KoG. The vast majority of Jesus’s preaching on the KoG after this shift takes the form of parables, or stories with slightly cryptic meanings. Only those close to Jesus will understand and make it to the KoG. Through these lessons, mostly in chapters 13, 18, and 19, we learn what “the kingdom of heaven is like,” and that the KoG will be a place for servants to lead. This shift from offering the kingdom, to reserving the kingdom for others is clearest in Matthew 21:43 when Jesus says that the KoG will be taken away from the religious leaders and given to people who bear the fruit of it, echoing John’s message at the beginning of the gospel.
The last mention of the KoG in Matthew is when Jesus is speaking about future events. He says that “this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all the nations and then the end will come.” He is likely referring to the church’s preaching of the KoG. As we have seen, Paul and others in the early church preached such a message.
What point of the KoG is for the church-age believer then? The point that it’s coming. The gospel of the kingdom has not changed. As earlier, the components of the gospel of the kingdom are that it is, once again, at hand to those who will repent and follow Jesus. Christ’s second coming will see this kingdom finally fully realized. The Son of Man will come on the clouds and establish his kingdom on earth. He will gather his elect people, on the land of the earth, and He Himself will rule as king. This kingdom is the KoG Jesus preached about: the one that is coming. In that kingdom, all the previous mediations, Satan, mankind, and Israel will be subsumed into the direct rule of God incarnate. This is what makes Jesus such a powerful king. He has authority to mediate by being fully man, he has authority over Satan by never falling to temptation, he has authority over Israel by being descendant from David and Abraham,and He has ultimate authority to rule by being the son of God.
The KoG is an essential doctrine in the life of the Christian, since it was one of Jesus’s most prominent teachings. Jesus’s KoG is the ultimate fulfillment and realization of the kingdom established on earth at the beginning which was mediated through Adam. Jesus’s KoG, as all kingdoms, will have a land, a people and a king. While God’s kingdom has changed shape and form, the essential components of the kingdom have remained constant. Jesus’s promise of the KoG is open to anyone who will repent of their sin and follow Him. A hearty amen can be heard on this point from Christians all around the world. We pray as Jesus taught us to, “thy Kingdom come!”
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 Dennis Duling, “The Kingdom of God in the Teaching of Jesus,” Word & World 2, no 2 (Spr 1982): 118, accessed September 24, 2015, http://web.b.ebscohost.com/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?sid=dea4fe11-4434-4ae5-b52c-a8d19ed1109f%40sessionmgr113&vid=2&hid=118.