When Jesus announced the coming of the kingdom of God, he was announcing a revolution. Jesus saw himself as the messenger chosen by God to deliver the good news of God’s powerful new activity in the world. God’s kingdom was coming to replace the authority of all earthly kingdoms. And it was beginning immediately.
To the people of first-century Palestine, the phrase kingdom of God created an image of the way the world would be if God, not Caesar, sat on the throne. The kingdom of God was Jesus’ way of talking about God’s powerful presence with humanity and God’s dream for our future. The kingdom is God’s work to restore the world to the way it was intended at creation. It refers to God’s active rule in the world—God’s new reign, God’s new government, God’s new social and economic order.
Jesus announced that the day had finally come when God would act to take charge of the earth. The coming of the kingdom is the coming of divine liberation from all oppressive earthly systems.
As such, this announcement was seen as a threat by the ruling powers in Palestine, including the Jewish Sanhedrin and the Roman Procurator, Pontius Pilate. Roman authorities quickly executed Jesus for sedition against the state.
The revolution that Jesus announced was a challenge to all powers, both then and now. But the kingdom of God does not come through violent revolution. It is not the replacement of one ruling group with another ruling group. It is a revolution far greater and deeper.
the kingdom of Satan
Jesus saw that behind all earthly kingdoms is a greater kingdom—the kingdom of Satan. This is expressed in the temptation story that preceded his ministry.
“Then taking him to a high mountain, the devil showed Jesus in an instant all the empires of the domination system. And the devil said to him, `I will give you the power and glory of these kingdoms; for it is mine, and I can give it to anyone I want.” (Q8 / Luke 4:6)
Matthew, Mark and Luke suggest that all earthly kingdoms and governments—dictatorships and democracies, socialist and capitalist—are under the power of Satan. They embody the politics, economics and social structures of Satan’s order, which Walter Wink has termed the “domination system.”
The domination system is at the root of most human societies. It is characterized by power and wealth concentrated in the hands of an elite minority, by male domination over women, by legal and religious institutions that support, condone and legitimize the system, and by the use of violence to enforce it. This was certainly the situation Jesus encountered in first-century Palestine.
To Jesus, the kingdom of God was in conflict with the prevailing domination system of his day. The situation went far deeper than his contemporaries realized. Most first-century Jews were looking for the overthrow of Roman authority and the restoration of the Davidic kingdom in Israel. They wanted a messiah who would lead and win the battle. Jesus had something more fundamental and profound on his mind.
God’s new order
To Jesus, the good news of the kingdom of God was the decisive action God was taking to defeat the kingdom of Satan—the domination system itself. Jesus saw himself as the one who was called to announce the beginning of God’s new order—a domination-free order for human life. As the new order began, he could see the old order falling. “He said to them [his disciples], `I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightening.’” (Luke 10:18)
God’s kingdom would bring an end to domination, violence, injustice and poverty—all signs of Satan’s kingdom. Those who would benefit most would be those who suffer most under the domination system: the poor and the marginalized—social outcasts, women and children. Thus Jesus proclaims good news to the poor—“for theirs is the kingdom of God.”
Those who benefit most from the domination system, the powerful and the wealthy, will find it difficult to enter God’s kingdom, because they will be called to voluntarily give up their wealth and share it with the poor. The wealthy are wedded to the old order because it provides them with obvious benefits, including a sense of security, success and well-being.
The new economic order of God’s kingdom is not based on personal accumulation of wealth, but on gracious generosity, sharing and sufficiency. Jesus taught us to pray only for what we need for tomorrow: “Grant us the food we need for each day.”
God’s new order began with Jesus. It exists side by side with the old order of Satan. Someday God’s new order will fill the earth. Until that day, we are called to live out God’s new order—of equality, humility, servanthood, compassion, forgiveness, nonviolence, and sharing—in the midst of the old. Doing that, however, puts us into conflict with the kingdom of Satan. Because the values of the domination system—the pursuit of power, prestige, wealth, and exclusive community—are the dominant values of any society, followers of Jesus will always find themselves counter-cultural.
from self to others
The values of Satan’s kingdom are most clearly identified with the values of “self”—self-interest, self-concern, self-centeredness, selfishness. A focus on the self often leads to alienation, isolation and separation from communion with others and with God. The values of the kingdom of God are most clearly identified with concern for the other—compassion, service, and sharing. Dietrich Bonhoeffer characterized Jesus, our model, as “the man for others.”
God’s kingdom is not established by domination, coercion or violence. It is open to all and is offered as an invitation. But it relies on a profound change of heart and a radical change of life to enter.
Entrance requires a change in priorities—from self-interest (What will I eat? What will I drink? What will I wear?)—to a compassionate interest about the least in society (What will they eat? What will they drink? What will they wear?). The kingdom involves feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the imprisoned, caring for the sick, accepting the unacceptable.
a radical transformation
The kingdom of God is the realization of a fundamental utopia of the human heart. For Jesus, God’s reign is both a realization of all our authentically human hopes and dreams and much more than we have ever dreamed of or hoped for. The kingdom of God is a vision of a radical transformation of human beings and human institutions (social, political, economic and religious) to a form that will express the character and nature of God. It is a belief that the rule of God in human lives and institutions will transform the social structures of hierarchy, domination and inequity to structures of equality.
It is the total transformation of this world, free from all that alienates human beings, free from unnecessary suffering, sin, divisions, and the fearful power of death. The divine activity of the kingdom of God is focused on the needs and the desires of the people.
The kingdom of God is a movement, a gathering of people who have decided to follow Jesus. It is a community of people who are committed to the new values of the new order. These are people who listen to the words of Jesus and act on them. Jesus referred to this community as his true family.
The kingdom of God is not great and mighty. Most of the time it appears hidden from view. It is found in action. It involves simple everyday acts of compassion, acceptance, forgiveness and service. Every act that weakens the domination system, strengthens the kingdom of God. Through small actions by many people the world will be transformed.
“Reshape your lives, for the kingdom of God is confronting you!”