The time is fulfilled, the kingdom is at hand. (Mark 1:15)
The kingdom of God has come upon you. (Luke 11:20)
The kingdom of God is among you. (Luke 17:21)
The kingdom of God is spread out upon the earth, and men do not see it. (Gospel of Thomas 11)
At the heart of the gospel of Jesus is the kingdom of God. This one phrase sums up the entire ministry of Jesus and his whole life’s work. Jesus spoke in Aramaic and the New Testament was written in Greek. The expression kingdom of God—basileia tou theou (bas-il-EH-ah too THEH-oo) in Greek and malkutha d’elaha (mal-KOOTH-ah dehl-ah-HAH) in Aramaic—points to the ruling activity of God over human social relationships.
As we read the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, we see that every thought and saying of Jesus was directed and subordinated to one single thing: the realization of the reign of God’s love, compassion, justice, and peace within human society. Although Jesus spoke of the kingdom of God frequently, he never clearly defined it. Instead, he spoke of it in parables, comparing something familiar (mustard seed, leaven, lost coins, a man who sowed a field) with something unfamiliar.
Then he said, “What is the kingdom of God like? And to what shall I compare it?” (Luke 13:18)
Therefore, we must always test any proposed definition or meaning of the kingdom against the parables. Over the centuries, a variety of interpretations of what Jesus meant by the kingdom of God have been put forth. We will briefly examine six of the most common explanations: the reign of God as 1) heaven, 2) an inner spiritual experience, 3) the church, 4) a separate society, 5) a new state, and 6) a new world.
1) Many Christians probably believe that heaven is the proper understanding of the kingdom of God. The term in Matthew’s gospel, the kingdom of heaven often causes massive confusion and leads to this distorted misconception. The kingdom of heaven is not a term that was used by Jesus, but rather is a secondary form created by the author of Matthew’s gospel as another way to proclaim the kingdom of God without specifically mentioning the word God. As God’s dwelling place, heaven is a symbol that can stand for God. The author of Matthew’s gospel wrote to a predominantly Jewish-Christian audience. He modified the term kingdom of God because of the Jewish aversion to speaking the name of God. Pious Jews did this to avoid breaking the commandment that prohibits taking God’s name in vain, even if unwittingly. So for Matthew’s community the kingdom of heaven had the same meaning as the kingdom of God. But today, it causes confusion and misleads many as to Jesus’ meaning and intent.
2) Many Christians understand the kingdom of God to mean an inner spiritual experience—the rule of God in people’s hearts. But it is wrong to place all the emphasis solely on an individual relationship with God. Kingdom by its very nature implies a collective order—a monarch ruling over a group of subjects. In the past, Jesus’ words in Luke 17:21 have been frequently translated to read, “The kingdom of God is within you.” More recently the Greek word entos (en-TOS)—which can mean either within or among—has been translated to read, “the kingdom of God is in your midst” or “the kingdom of God is among you.” Within implies an individualistic and private realm, while the newer translations reveal the corporate and public nature of a kingdom.
3) Christian preachers often speak as if the kingdom is just another word for the church. This interpretation at least has a corporate dimension—a group of people who recognize the rule of God in their hearts. But as much as we try to talk of the “one holy and apostolic church” and the “holy catholic church” as a universal body of believers, one cannot avoid the fact that the church is manifested in a wide variety of human social institutions with offices, hierarchies, a history, divisions, prescribed sets of beliefs, rituals, etc. Jesus was pretty clear that the kingdom of God has no place for hierarchies, titles, and exclusionary practices. The checkered history of the church—including religious warfare and crusades, approval of slavery, intolerance of other faiths, religious schisms, torture and burning of heretics, and many other acts of hatred and violence—suggests that this institution is not the kingdom that Jesus envisioned. In spite of credal claims, it is not a very holy institution. If the kingdom of God is in any way like the church, it is in the context of a faithful community, but not as an institution.
4) Some people believe that the kingdom of God will be a separate society—an earthly utopia created by men and women based on the ethical principles of Jesus. Throughout history, they have created social experiments based on the teachings of Jesus. This often leads to groups of people who withdraw from “evil” society and create alternative communities in which they legislate kingdom values as community laws. But the kingdom of God is not geographically or socially isolated from the center of society. The kingdom is not a demand for social avoidance or withdrawal. The kingdom of God is found squarely in the middle of social evil, injustice, domination, and exploitation.
5) Many of Jesus’ contemporaries were looking to establish a new state—to restore the ancient kingdom of Israel as an independent nation, free from Roman control. They wanted to return to the idealized glory of the kingdom under David and Solomon. They were waiting for God to act through an anointed king—a messiah. But Jesus clearly rejected the messianic role of a military conqueror and king. The mission and message of Jesus does not validate any earthly state or nation. God’s kingdom and ruling style cut across all national boundaries. The governing style of God stands in opposition to the domination systems of nation states, especially to their unjust favoritism toward the wealthy and the use of violence to support the status quo.
6) There are some who believe that the kingdom of God is a reference to a new world based on the metaphoric imagery in the book of Revelation of a new heaven and a new earth. In this apocalyptic scenario, this world will end, replaced by a new one. This interpretation is often associated with the earthly return of Jesus at some future date. Many Christians believe that at the second coming of Jesus, the kingdom of God will come in its fullness. But Jesus suggested something quite different—the kingdom is very near or already here in our midst, not a part of some distant future.
Any New Testament references to the coming of a new world, or a new creation may also be understood as the inauguration of a new age or new order within our contemporary world. God’s new order as conceived by Jesus is a new age breaking into the present one. Change will come not from replacement but by transformation. Jesus’ parables of the mustard seed and the leaven illustrate his vision. Tiny seeds of the mustard plant sown in a cultivated garden will transform it as this unruly and uncontrollable weed takes over. A small amount of yeast or leaven placed in a large amount of bread dough will transform the dough, causing it to rise and change from within. Once started, neither mustard seed nor leaven can be controlled.
If we read the gospels closely, none of the traditional interpretations—heaven, an inner spiritual experience, the church, a separate society, a new state, or a new world— fit with the visionary images in the proclamation of Jesus. In fact, most are an attempt to domesticate the vision of Jesus—to control it, to water it down, to render it harmless. But in spite of the best efforts of the church, the vision of Jesus for humanity’s future—like the mustard seed—refuses to be controlled.
The kingdom of God as preached by Jesus is a vision of a profound transformation of human beings and human institutions—social, political, economic, and religious—to a form that expresses the character and nature of a God of love. It combines elements of personal and social transformation in the spiritual and political realms.
According to Jesus, God’s new order is something of great value, yet it is often hidden from view by the overwhelming presence of injustice and violence, and must be uncovered or recovered. It is something that has been lost and must be found again. It is something we have long believed is impossible, but must now struggle and hope for again. The kingdom is something that cannot be seen in and by itself, yet its effects are plainly visible. To enter the kingdom, in fact to even see the kingdom, one must experience a dramatic change—a reorientation, a new way of thinking and seeing, a kind of metaphoric rebirth.
The kingdom of God that Jesus described in metaphors and stories was the action of a social-political movement inspired by the God of love to restore what Jesus believed to be God’s intention for humanity from the very moment of creation. Rather than the Jewish dream for restoration of political and religious power through external divine action, Jesus painted a vision of God changing the world from within through the creation of a new community bonded together in new egalitarian social relationships. Jesus described what would happen when love finally broke through the hearts and minds of people to transform their actions and relationships into a society based on compassion, generosity, and equality. Jesus proclaimed that the kingdom had already arrived and could be clearly seen and entered into if a person underwent a radical transformation of the beliefs and values that conventional wisdom of power and success has implanted in their hearts.
The kingdom of God was the metaphor Jesus used to describe his vision of the way things were meant to be in human society—how things could be dramatically different within us and among us—and to understand Jesus you have to understand the nature and power of a vision. Visions always deal with the future. Indeed, a vision is where tomorrow begins, for it expresses what those who share the vision are working hard to create. The power of a vision is that while it describes the future state to be achieved, it begins to immediately shape the present. A community or organization doesn’t wait for a vision to magically happen, they work together to make it a reality. Jesus chose to take the long awaited dream of a just and compassionate society, and by articulating and acting on it, made it a vision that would lead to the transformation of the world. When people embrace a vision of the future, they begin to live it out in the present.
But the reality is that the final consummation of the vision may never come about completely in human history. And it may never come about, as many imagine, at the end of human history. We have no indication that the vision of Jesus will ever be fulfilled. But the dream is that it could be fulfilled through the power of transforming love, compassion, and nonviolence and it is worth struggling to achieve. The reality is that if no one acts upon a vision, it only remains a dream. The proclamation of the reign of God by Jesus is a call to action. The vision of God’s new order is an invitation to a journey. The destination is hoped for, but not assured. If we choose to follow Jesus, and contribute to making the kingdom of God a reality, we are called to spend our lives in the pursuit of this vision.
But the kingdom of God is more than the vision. It also includes the people inspired by the vision who work at the margins of society to transform it through small daily actions. Kingdom people lead radically transformed lives that stand in contrast and opposition to the unjust society that surrounds them. Their actions comprise a conspiracy to subvert and disturb the normalcy of the domination system by persistently prodding the powers and principalities toward social transformation.
The kingdom of God is thus a VISION, a PEOPLE, and a CONSPIRACY. My modern metaphor for the kingdom of God is A CONSPIRACY OF LOVE.
Jesus called people to follow him in a way of living. He did not require his followers to accept a catalog of religious beliefs or adopt a set of spiritual practices. Rather, he offered them a new way to live their daily lives. As a result, the earliest members of the Jesus movement were known simply as followers of the Way. They represented not just any way, but a way of life dedicated to selfless love in the midst of a selfish, unjust, and violent world. The way of Jesus puts love for others ahead of one’s own ego-centricity, resulting in a lifestyle of compassion toward those in need that sets one apart from societal norms of self-interest, self-concern, and selfishness. The way of Jesus is simply the way of love toward others in the world.
It is time to change our lives and begin transforming our communities at a fundamental level. It is time to save our corner of the world from the reigning spirit of indifference, greed, exclusion, and violence. It is time to assist in the birth of a better world that our hearts know is possible.
The decisive time has arrived, for the conspiracy of love is rising up to challenge the unjust systems of the world. Change your whole way of thinking and living, and risk everything for this radical message of hope. (My paraphrase of Mark 1:14–15)
(For a more in-depth discussion of the kingdom of God, read A Conspiracy of Love, by Kurt Struckmeyer)