In recent years Christians have become increasingly familiar with the phrase “kingdom of God”, but because its definition is rarely articulated, we do not always know what it means. Many equate “the kingdom of God” with an ethereal heaven for disembodied souls in the afterlife, building earthly utopias, or the expansion of the Church. Recently, “kingdom” has become a trendy adjective to indicate anything “truly” Christian: kingdom community, kingdom persons, kingdom culture, etc. 1 But when a word is used without a clear and common consent of terminology, it loses its semantic value and leads to confusion.
The use and misuse of “the kingdom of God” means that we need to rearticulate the phrase if it is to carry any real meaning. In this short article, we will ask: what did the kingdom of God mean when Jesus said it, who were the primary recipients of His message, what is the nature of the kingdom of the Triune God, and what are some implications for us today?
The Kingdom of God in the First Century
“After John the Baptist had been taken into custody, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe the gospel’” (Mk. 1:14-15).2The kingdom of God was the central motif of Jesus’ mission (Lk. 4:43). When Jesus preached the kingdom of God, He was not introducing a new concept that had to be explained in first century Palestine. Rather, Jesus was evoking the burning expectations of Israel.
For a Jew in the first century, the kingdom of God meant the restoration of the shekinah glory3, the return from exile, and the defeat of Israel’s national enemies.4 But Jesus scandalously redefined these expectations. When Israel was taken into exile and Solomon’s temple destroyed, the dwelling of God’s shekinah glory was displaced from the Holy of Holies. The promise of the coming kingdom meant the restoration of the glorious presence. But when the second Temple was built, the shekinah glory never came. Jesus asserted that Herod’s construction was redundant, affirming that His own body was the true temple (Mt. 12:5; 26:61). The shekinah glory tabernacled among us (Jn. 1:14) and continues to inhabit the earth through God’s people (17:22), moving towards the consummation of filling the earth as the waters cover the sea (Rev. 21:23; Hab. 2:14).
Israel was exiled as a sign of judgment for her iniquity. In the first century, only a remnant of Israel had returned to Palestine while most remained in Diaspora.5 Even those who had returned to Palestine were painfully aware of their exile because the Roman soldiers were patrolling the streets. The prophets had prophesied that the return from exile (the real or new exodus) would come through the renewal of the heart, the internalization of the Torah and the forgiveness of sins (Jer. 31:31-34; Ezek. 36:24-33). Therefore, when Jesus says “your sins are forgiven” and brings sinners into fellowship, it is another way of saying “you have returned from exile.” When Jesus summoned people to repentance and offered forgiveness of sins, He was inaugurating the kingdom of God (N.T. Wright, JVG, 269-72).
Jews believed that the coming of the kingdom of God meant the ousting of Israel’s national enemies. The Promised Land was being ruled by the Romans, who kept Israel in bondage to feed its empire. The battle cry for exiled and subjugated Israel was “there is no king but Yahweh” (N.T. Wright, NTPG, 302). However, Yahweh’s kingdom was not made manifest through the ousting of Rome, but rather through the defeat of humanity’s real enemies: namely, sin, Satan and death. Jesus said, “If I by the finger of God cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you” (Lk. 11:20). This indicates that Israel’s God is becoming king and that the enemies – sin, Satan and death – that have held Israel captive, are being cast down. The kingdom of God denotes the coming of Israel’s God in person and power, and this, through forgiveness, deliverance and resurrection, is happening now. He will do again what He did in the exodus: come and dwell in the midst of His people. The kingdom is the fulfillment of Israel’s destiny. Israel’s God becomes king through Jesus’ work, life, death and resurrection. The people of God are summoned to follow Jesus as king. “How lovely on the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who announces peace…who announces salvation, and says to Zion, ‘Your God is king’” (Is. 52:7)
The Recipients of the Kingdom of God
The message of the kingdom of God was proclaimed to the poor because the poor suffer the most from exile. In the absence of God’s reign, they are most vulnerable to subjugation by worldly powers; they endure the greatest loss when marginalized or cast out of fellowship; and they are the first to bear the effects of sin and death. That is why the Magi did not find the king in Herod’s palace but among poor shepherds; that is why the shekinah went out to the outcast and touched the untouchable in the person of the King; and that is why death is crushed through the King’s death and resurrection. Jesus’ welcome of the poor and outcast was a sign that the real return from exile – the new age, the resurrection – was coming into being in the present time (Is. 35:1-10) (N.T. Wright, JVG, 255).
Jesus affirms that the poor are blessed because theirs is the kingdom of God (Lk. 6:20). The poor are given the inheritance of the King. They are made princes and princesses because the kingdom belongs to them. The kingdom is at hand and the primary point of its entry is among the poor:6 sick are healed, demons are cast out, lame are made to walk, deaf are restored to hearing, and Good News is preached to the poor (Lk. 7:22; Is. 61:1-4). God did in the middle of time through Jesus what the Jews expected He would do through Israel at the end of time (N.T. Wright, What St. Paul Really Said, 36).
In Mark’s gospel, the word for “people” or “multitude” that follow Jesus is ochlos, which denotes sinners, the excluded, the impoverished, and the disinherited. This is the preferred audience of the message of the kingdom. Jesus calls the people to the way of the cross (8:34), teaches them (7:14), has compassion for them (6:34), heals them (1:34), and identifies with them (3:34). The ochlos is the primary addressee of Jesus’ gospel, and the kingdom is revealed among them.
Jesus also says that the kingdom of God belongs to the children (Mt. 19:14). He takes the first and makes them last, and He takes those that cannot compete and makes them greatest in the kingdom (18:1-3). Sometimes we refer to the “upside-down kingdom”, since Jesus subverts the ways of the world, but really nothing is more right-side-up than the kingdom of God.
The kingdom of God is a gift; it is not imposed. We are invited to ask for it: Let Your kingdom come and Your will be done! (Lk. 11:2). In the Lord’s Prayer, we release our rule and our will and ask the Father to give us His. Lesslie Newbigin calls this an open secret. The kingdom is a secret revealed as a mystery through weakness, but it is open in that it is to be proclaimed to all (The Open Secret, 35-37).In Luke’s gospel, the invitation to the kingdom is made, but those bidden do not come. The master reacts by inviting the poor, the maimed and the blind (14:15-24). The King’s banquet table is made for fellowship with the poor. Those that are crushed by the worldly empires are particularly enthused by the promise of the coming kingdom, but those with vested interests in worldly empires, like the excuse-filled invitees, are not open to God’s reign or His will being done. The invitation is also a demand: all are invited to leave everything, to follow Him and to receive the Kingdom of God (Lk. 12:32).
In John’s gospel, the kingdom of God is synonymous with life. Jesus says, “But a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (Jn. 3:3). The kingdom of God is a totally new reality represented as new life and as the true way of being human. All opposing kingdoms mean death – especially for the poor – and their beneficiaries cannot see or enter into this new reality. The only way to see, taste and experience eternal life in God’s kingdom is by receiving new birth from God’s life-giving Spirit.
The Kingdom of the Triune God
The kingdom of life is the kingdom of the Trinity. This is where the analogies between worldly kingdoms and God’s kingdom reach their breaking point. The kingdom of the Triune God confers a reciprocal loving relationship, not hierarchical power. The kingdom of the Trinity offers liberation, not domination. The kingdom of the Father, Son and Spirit is where justice and peace kiss (Ps. 85:10) and where all things are renewed (Rev. 21:5).
The kingdom of the Triune God ushers in the reign of love. God is lover, beloved, and love. The kingdom of the Trinity is not revealed as power but as love (I Jn. 4:8); His power is exercised only through His love. The Father loves us so He gives His Son. The Son loves the Father so He gives His life up. In the New Testament, Jesus is not Lord by virtue of His sovereignty, His power, or His rights as Creator over His creation; He is Lord by virtue of His incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection. Jesus says, “No one takes My life from Me, but I lay it down on my own initiative” (Jn. 10:17-18). Here power means surrender. The power of powerlessness is depicted on the cross labeled “King of the Jews”: nail-pierced hands outstretched and a brow crowned with thorns. Christ reigns from a tree. Powerlessness takes the place of power. In John’s Revelation, we see the slain lamb on the throne (Rev. 5:6). Worthy is the Powerless to receive all power (5:12).
Empires of this world divide and conquer; any resulting freedom is the luxury of the minority at the expense of the majority. The rule of the Triune God is translated as freedom for all. The Trinity reigns by creating community. St. Paul says, “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Cor. 3:17). In God’s kingdom, lordship means liberation, not domination. Through our obedient submission, God’s reign liberates us.
The consummation of the kingdom of God is the New Creation, which is already taking place. “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17). That ‘already’ signals that which will be in full. The fulfillment of the kingdom of God is where the kingdom of this world becomes the kingdom of the Triune God (Rev. 11:15), where heaven and earth are renewed (21:1), and where humanity comes home and is filled with the shekinah which radiates from throne of God (22:3-4). The Spirit and the bride say to the Bridegroom, “Come! On earth as it is in heaven!”
The Kingdom of God Today
“Yahweh has established His throne in the heavens and His kingdom rules over all” (Ps. 103:19). Christ is Lord and He challenges and ultimately defeats any other claim to His rule. The kingdom is manifested where Christ’s rule is accepted. It is revealed in the remnant through which God has worked and is working. It was Elijah during Jezebel’s reign (I Kng. 19:18), David’s ragamuffin band under Saul (I Sam. 22:1, 2), Daniel and the three Hebrew boys exiled in Babylon (Dan. 3:12), Jesus and His disciples (Lk. 6:12ff.), and small, often hidden, pockets of faithful today in what we call the church.
The kingdom of God is not equated with the church, nor is the expansion of the church equated with the building of the kingdom. The church is not the custodian or possessor of the kingdom. The kingdom of God is not contained by the church but presses it beyond its frontiers (Jurgen Moltmann, Jesus Christ for Today’s World, 22). “The meaning of the church does not reside in what it is but in what it is moving towards. It is the reign of God which the church hopes for, bears witness to and proclaims (Hans Kung, The Church, 96). The mission of the church is not the globalization of the church or the extension of a denomination’s programs. These agendas are submitted to the mission of the kingdom, which is to return humanity from exile and to fill the earth with the glory of the Triune God (Is. 6:3).
The Kingdom is not simply God’s own activity but His activity worked out through His people. Therefore, “we are receiving an unshakeable kingdom” as God’s gift and God’s initiative (Heb. 12:28), but we are also “seeking first the kingdom of God and His justice/righteousness” (Mt. 6:33). Seeking entails surrendering our allegiance to the King and to His justice. In our surrender, God doesn’t make us His subjects, but active participants in His kingdom. God calls us co-heirs with Christ (Rm. 8:17), destines us to reign with Him (2 Tim. 2:12), and sets us on thrones in heavenly places (Eph. 2:6). The church is made a kingdom of priests (Rev. 1:6; I Pet. 2:9). Through participation, we co-labor with the King in establishing His kingdom.
In service of God’s reign, the church “is the supreme manifestation of the kingdom in any generation” (Dewi Hughes, God of the Poor, 76). But the church only serves the kingdom when she serves and identifies with the recipients of the kingdom, that is to say, with the poor. The people of God drop their nets, leave all, and follow Jesus in declaring the kingdom of God to the poor. It is only to the church of the poor that the King will say to her: “Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (Mt. 25:31ff.)
We do not, however, need to wait until the Last Judgment to know where we stand in the kingdom, for Christians are socialized into the culture of God’s reign. Dr. Samuel Kamaleson has taught us that in the kingdom of God, culture means values. He describes five non-values of the kingdom: pride (enthroning the self), prestige (elevating status), parochialism (finding corporate identity through exclusion), possessions (consumerism and prizing things more than persons), and passion of the flesh (gratification of oneself at the cost of another). This does not mean that the kingdom of God is a moral code (Rom. 14:17), or that these are private values chosen by individual whim (Lesslie Newbigin, A Word in Season, 196).7 The values of the kingdom follow the historical life of Jesus, reflect His purposes, and clash with all opposing values. “The coming of the kingdom stands in combative relation to the anti-kingdom. They are not merely mutually exclusive, but fight against one another” (Jon Sobrino, Jesus the Liberator, 126).
On the cross, Jesus confronts, challenges and triumphs over all contesting powers. On the cross Jesus disarms and unmasks the powers and principalities (Col. 2:14-15).8That means that the kingdom of God confronts political, economic and religious powers.
The kingdom of God is political.9 Throughout history the church used the “kingdom of God” to justify its political power and reign. More recently, the church has aligned with political ideologies to bring its version of the kingdom of God.”10 But this sinful misuse should not justify the church’s retreat from the political sphere. Though modernity tells us to keep ‘religion’ private and to not meddle in public affairs, Scripture tells us that Christ is Lord and will put everything under His rule. When the early church said that Jesus was Lord, they said literally that Jesus is Caesar, which was a defiant affront to the imperial cult and which resulted in persecution and martyrdom (Acts 17:7). That is why Paul said, “No one can say that Jesus is Caesar but by the Spirit of God” (I Cor 12:3). It is only by the Spirit that the church can courageously challenge political powers and call them to accountability before the cross of Christ. The people of the Crucified God offer their ultimate allegiance to Christ’s rule, meaning that they represent a subversive force to any other claim to power.
Likewise, the kingdom of God contests economic powers: the god of Mammon. In Revelation, John describes the economy of Babylon (18:9-13). At the top of Babylon’s system of values is gold; at the bottom is humanity. The kingdoms of the world are built on the backs of the downtrodden; their wealth is financed by the souls of mankind. In the economy of the kingdom of God, humanity is on top and gold on the bottom. In the New Creation, the streets are paved with gold. That is to say that gold equals dirt and asphalt and takes its proper place under humanity’s feet (21:21). Though it is dangerous and risky, the church must call worldly economic powers to submit to the lordship of Christ.
The kingdom of God also clls religious powers to account.11 Religions challenge God’s reign by claiming exclusive access to God, by holding the “keys of knowledge” about God, and by controlling forgiveness. Religious power is used to subjugate people to their control (Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination, 83). Jesus condemned the Pharisees and priests for “tying up heavy loads and laying them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are unwilling to move them with so much as a finger” (Mt. 23:4-25). The church must denounce any religious justification for the use of power and resist the temptation to employ religious power.
Amidst sin, death, exile and distance from God, we see signs of the defeat of humanity’s enemies, the glorious presence of God, and just fellowship. The kingdom of the Triune God is breaking in. It is like a treasure buried in a field (Mt. 13:19): in a field of inhumanity, a woman, dying in her own blood and excrement on the train station floor, is embraced and held. It is like leaven (13:33): a multi-colored dragonfly dances over the open sewers leading to a slum. It is of a child (19:14): dozens of smiling children, forgetting their malnutrition and nakedness, skirt around, grab fingers or pant-legs and lead us forward. It is the welcome of the prostitutes (21:31): in the dark, worn brothel rooms, door after door opens, not to service usual clients, but to receive God’s radiating, pure love and other options for life. It is the pearl of great price (13:46): moving from the wealthy American suburbs to a hidden third-world slum to share in sufferings, to discover beatitude blessing and to live out the gospel among the poor. The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed (13:31): though the world is broken, impoverished and in despair, an insignificant seed of hope and compassion falls to the ground; slowly and secretly it forces its way deep through the soil and grows up into the greatest of trees in which all will find life.
1. See popular works like Experiencing Godby Henry T. Blackaby and The Jesus I Never Knew by Philip Yancey as well as the Lausanne papers.
2. ‘Kingdom of God’ is synonymous with the Matthean ‘kingdom of heaven’. In this article, I also use the synonyms ‘reign of God’ and ‘rule of God’. See N.T. Wright’s Jesus and the Victory of God, 203.
3. Shekinah, rooted in the word ‘tabernacle’, is the descent and indwelling of God’s presence in space and time at a particular place and era in history (Jurgen Moltmann, The Spirit of Life, 47; Gustavo Gutierrez, The God of Life, 75).
4. In this section, I am following N.T. Wright’s The New Testament and the People of God (NTPG) and Jesus and the Victory of God (JVG).
5. The dispersed Jews living outside Israel.
6. The theological ‘ultimate’ is the kingdom of God, and the ‘primacy’ is the liberation of the poor. This does not reduce the whole of the kingdom of God to the liberation of the poor, rather it sees the whole of the kingdom of God from the point of view of the poor (Jon Sobrino, Jesus the Liberator, 122).
7. See Alisdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue.
8. “It is not that structures can sin…but structures demonstrate and actualize the power of sin and, in this sense, make people sin and make it supremely difficult for them to lead the lives that belong to them as children of God” (Jon Sobrino, Jesus the Liberator, 123). See also Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers.
9. See John Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus.
10. The church in the USA has often aligned itself with conservative political parties and lobbies and has recently lent itself to the rise of religious nationalism. For a concise description of the church’s workings with American politics and its link to dispensationalists, see Mark Noll’s The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind.
11. In The Prophetic Imagination, Walter Brueggemann speaks of the “royal consciousness” that exploited the poor by the “economics of affluence” (I Kngs. 4:20-23), the “politics of oppression” (I Kngs. 5:13-18, 9:15-22), and the “religion of immanence (I Kngs. 8:12-13).