What was Jesus’ primary message? Was it heaven, resurrection and eternal life? Was it his own divinity? Was it the development of a private spiritual relationship between the individual and God? Clearly not.
The dominant theme in the gospels and the center of Jesus’ proclamation was the reign or kingdom of God. This one phrase sums up his whole ministry and his whole life’s work. Every thought and saying of Jesus was directed and subordinated to one single thing: the realization of the reign of God upon the earth.
basileia tou theou
The language of the New Testament writers was Greek. The Greek word which we have translated into English as kingdom is basileia. Jesus, however, spoke in Aramaic, a Semitic language similar to Hebrew. Jesus would have used the Aramaic word malkuth. Both basileia and malkuth share the same meaning: kingship, kingly rule, reign, or sovereignty. The expression kingdom of God (basileia tou theou in Greek and malkuta dismayya in Aramaic) points to the ruling activity of God over God’s people and over the world God has made.
The phrase kingdom of God occurs nearly a hundred times in the synoptic gospels. There are four references in Matthew (the variation kingdom of heaven is used another thirty-four times), fourteen in Mark, twenty-two in Luke, and two in John.
Outside of the gospels, the term is not very common in the New Testament. The expression is used six times in Acts, eight times in Paul’s letters, and once in Revelation.
In the Old Testament, the phrase does not occur at all. The concept of God as the true king of Israel was prevalent, but the phrase as uttered by Jesus was not.
the reign of God
Biblical scholars generally agree that the familiar term kingdom of God indicates the rule or reign of God. Some would limit it specifically to the activity of ruling. In other words they would suggest that Jesus was talking about what we might call the kingship of God, rather than God’s kingdom. Yet this definition does not fully comprehend the constituency of the kingdom. It’s not just God, but God’s people that are part of the kingdom. Focusing solely on God’s ruling activity can lead to a spiritual misinterpretation of what Jesus proclaimed.
a radical mutation
Although the concept of the rule of God over God’s people had a long history in the Old Testament, it underwent “a radical mutation on the lips of Jesus.”
The kingdom of God as preached by Jesus is a vision of a radical transformation of human beings and human institutions (social, political, economic and religious) to a form that expresses the character and nature of God. The kingdom is manifest when God rules in the hearts of God’s people. But what characterizes the message of Jesus is that the kingdom is also manifest in the social relationships of God’s people. The kingdom of God takes place through a group of persons whose hearts and relationships are in subordination to the reign of God.
Jesus described the kingdom of God in words and actions for all to hear and see. His weapons were humor, healing and hope. He brought attention to the kingdom of God through radical public actions, through peaceful but powerful demonstrations.
present and future
What made Jesus so unique was his conviction that the reign of God had already started happening. The fundamental message of Jesus’ proclamation was the day of God’s reign had now dawned. The things that many prophets and righteous people had long desired to see and hear were now present before the eyes and ears of all. God’s reign is here, Jesus announced. Or at least it is so near at hand that signs of its activity are clearly visible. The signs of God’s rule were present in the words and deeds of Jesus himself. Jesus’ healing and eating with sinners were signs that God’s reign had arrived.
In general terms, Jesus proclaimed as “good news” that God was setting about the task of putting straight the evil plight into which the world had fallen, and that God was beginning to bring to fulfillment his original intention in the creation.
Theologians debate over whether the reign of God exists in the present or in the future. If the reign of God is understood as a vision that Jesus articulated for the people of his time, then we can begin to understand how it is both present and future, because that is how a vision operates. When people embrace a vision, they begin to live it out.
Also, the reign of God must always be understood as both personal and social. Everything that Jesus says about the reign is true in both dimensions. Any attempt to see it as one or the other is an incomplete understanding of the kingdom.
The kingdom of God must also be understood as both spiritual and political. It cannot be seen as just a spiritual kingdom that has both individual and social dimensions, it must also be seen as having a political (including economic) implications for both individuals and their communities. The kingdom of God is a political metaphor and symbol. In Jesus’ preaching and actions the kingdom clearly includes the social-economic-political substance of human relations as willed by God.
Yet the church has rarely understood the true nature of the kingdom of God as proclaimed by Jesus.
(See also my blog post, “The Kingdom of God: an Introduction“)