At the center of Christianity stands the historical figure of Jesus, a Jewish teacher from the first century CE. He taught about God’s love, the evils of this world, the power of forgiveness, and how to show compassion toward others. But more than any other topic, he talked about one thing over and over: the kingdom of God.1
In fact, the historical document that scholars believe is the oldest collection of his teachings records Jesus’ very first public words as these: “The time has come . . . The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”2
What did Jesus mean by “the kingdom of God”? Few modern people live in a kingdom under the rule of a king today. Was Jesus referring to a physical nation with boundaries, laws, and a monarchy? What does any of that have to do with God?
Obviously, the kingdom of God was significant to Jesus or he wouldn’t have mentioned it so frequently. Therefore, if we want to understand Jesus and his teaching, we first need to answer a simple question: What is the kingdom of God?
Many of us live in democratic nation-states. But nation-states are a modern notion that has only been around for several hundred years. Even more recent is the idea of a democracy with elected representatives and, in US President Abraham Lincoln’s famous words, a “government of the people, by the people, for the people.”3 But in ancient times, monarchies and kingdoms were the norm.
Take Egypt for example. The king of ancient Egypt was called the pharaoh. He ruled with an iron fist over the people of the Nile River Delta and its surrounding areas. The pharaoh enacted laws, collected taxes, ruled the military, and governed the everyday workings of life and culture. Pharaohs were all-powerful rulers who often ascended the throne through dynasties (fathers passing the rule to their sons) or violent means. Historians refer to their rule over people and places as kingdoms. Names have even been given to certain reigns: the Old Kingdom, the Middle Kingdom, and the New Kingdom.4
Ancient history is replete with other examples, such as Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Carthage, Kush, and what is now China—to name just a few. Even the tribes of ancient Israel eventually established a kingdom.
Historical documents record that in roughly 1000 BCE, the Israelites asked one of their leading prophets—Samuel—to help them choose and anoint a king. He warned the people that replacing God as their king with a human king was dangerous. Samuel believed that, in accordance with the pattern of all other kingdoms around them, a human king would oppress the people and they would eventually beg for relief.5 After all, that is what usually happens with kings. In the words of Lord Acton, “Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely.”6
Yet the Israelites wanted a king and a kingdom, and that’s what they got for hundreds of years. Ultimately, the kingdoms of Israel and Judah (there was a split due to a power struggle) were defeated and conquered. The Hebrew people became subjects of Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece, and eventually the Roman Empire. In Jesus’ day, Roman soldiers and government officials ruled the Jewish people. The Jews hoped for the day when they could throw off the Roman yoke of oppression and reestablish the kingdom of Israel.
Stories about the Kingdom
In light of this background, it should not surprise us that Jesus began teaching about the coming kingdom of God. Understandably, many Jews believed he was referring to the political situation with Rome. A number of Jews during this time made similar announcements and even declared themselves to be messiahs (anointed ones sent by God to reestablish the kingdom of Israel).7
But Jesus talked about the kingdom of God, not of Israel. He used stories and comparisons to describe what he meant. The kingdom of God would grow slowly like a woman methodically mixing yeast into flour, eventually making bread dough.8 The kingdom of God should be pursued like a treasure that one finds in a field or a rare pearl that a merchant acquires.9 The kingdom of God will be like a wedding feast for anyone—not just Israelites—to attend.10 The kingdom of God is like a king who forgives the debts of his servants and expects those servants then to forgive the debts of others.11 The kingdom of God is like a master who left his servants in charge of his affairs until the day he returns to see if they have been faithful to his wishes.12
In all of these illustrations, Jesus seemed to be saying that God’s kingdom would be quite different from the earthly kingdoms they had experienced. Granted, some of these stories are a bit mysterious. In fact, if you feel like a lot of the above statements don’t make sense, you’re not alone. Many of Jesus’ early followers didn’t understand what he was saying, either.
But Jesus’ actions added another layer to his teachings. He not only spoke about the kingdom, he demonstrated how “the kingdom of God has come near.”13 He healed the sick, showed compassion on outcasts, challenged the injustice of religious leaders, and even prayed for the forgiveness of those who crucified him.14 Through his actions, Jesus seemed to be expressing what it looks like to live in God’s kingdom.
Putting It Together
After Jesus’ death and resurrection, his followers began to understand more clearly. Jesus was introducing to them a new way of life in a new kind of kingdom—one ruled not by a brutal tyrant with an iron fist of oppression but by God. This kingdom would restore the world to the way it was meant to be: people living in peace, justice, and harmony. The kingdom of God would bring reconciliation, healing, and wholeness.
Of course, some will not submit to this kingdom. None of us like the word “submit.” We all want, in our human nature, to be free and independent. We want to live our lives however we choose, no matter the consequences. We’re unsure about the idea of submitting to anyone’s rule—even God’s.
But those who welcome God’s kingdom—first in their hearts, then in their actions, and ultimately in their allegiance—look forward to a day when this spiritual reality will become a physical reality. Living as a citizen in God’s kingdom comes with a grand promise. After all, in many of his stories, Jesus referred to the day when he would return and call this kingdom to order.15
Christian writings say that when this day comes, the fullness of the kingdom of God will be brought to the world: “God’s dwelling place [will be] among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things [will have] passed away.”16
Until then, the kingdom will work its way into the world in part through Jesus’ followers. The kingdom of God is two-fold. It is first the beginning of God’s rule and reign today in the hearts and lives of those who choose to submit to him. It is also the ultimate rule and reign of God over the world when he returns in the person of Jesus, redeeming the earth and restoring mankind.17
- The word “kingdom” appears 125 times in the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—most of the time from Jesus’ lips.
- The Holy Bible, New International Version © 2011, Mark 1:15.
- See Abraham Lincoln, “Gettysburg Address,” (speech, dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery, Gettysburg, PA, November 19, 1863). Available at Great American Documents, http://www.greatamericandocuments.com/speeches/lincoln-gettysburg.html.
- For more details, see Ian Shaw, The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).
- See The Holy Bible, 1 Samuel 8:1–20.
- Christopher Shea, “Why Power Corrupts,” Smithsonian Magazine, October 2012, http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/why-power-corrupts-37165345/?no-ist.
- See N. T. Wright, Simply Jesus: A New Vision of Who He Was, What He Did, and Why It Matters (New York: Harper Collins, 2011), 105–117.
- See The Holy Bible, Matthew 13:33.
- Ibid., Matthew 13:44–45.
- Ibid., Matthew 22:1–14.
- Ibid., Matthew 18:23–35.
- Ibid., Matthew 25:14–30.
- Ibid., Mark 1:15.
- The books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John narrate many of Jesus’ actions, culminating in his death and resurrection.
- See, for example, The Holy Bible, Matthew 25:1–46 and Luke 12:35–48.
- The Holy Bible, Revelation 21:3–4.
- Ibid., Revelation 21:5.
- Photo Credit: Javier Marquez / Stocksy.com.