The reign of God was at the center of Jesus’ proclamation but it was never clearly defined in the gospels. For most Christians, the image of the kingdom is rather vague. There is still no consensus among Christians and scholars about what was in Jesus’ mind when he spoke of God’s reign.
Over the centuries a variety of interpretations of what Jesus meant by the kingdom of God has been put forth. We’ll briefly examine six of the most common:
- an inner spiritual experience
- the church
- a new state
- a separate society
- a new world
an inner spiritual experience
Many Christians understand the kingdom of God to mean the rule of God in people’s hearts. Biblical scholars generally agree that the term kingdom of God indicates the dynamic rule or reign of God. The kingdom of God occurs when persons are ruled by God. The kingdom is present whenever women and men submit themselves to God’s reign in their life. Luther saw the kingdom as a spiritual reality in the midst of the world.
Even though this understanding places the kingdom in the here and now, it suggests that the kingdom is primarily an inward experience of the head and the heart. It implies an individual rather than corporate dimension. God’s kingdom is present in the lives of men and women who have committed themselves to God’s direction. But it is wrong to place all the emphasis on the rule of God as a part of an individual relationship between each of us and God.
Kingdom by its very nature implies a collective order. A kingdom in a literal sense implies that a king rules over a group of people. It suggests that there are social standards and policies for the conduct of collective life in that kingdom. Donald Kraybill in The Upside-Down Kingdom states “The kingdom is not present through a series of hot lines from the King to each individual subject.”
In the past, Luke 17:21 has been translated to read, “The kingdom of God is within you.” More recently it has been translated to read, “The kingdom of God is in your midst’” or “The kingdom of God is among you.” Those are two very different concepts leading to two very different understandings—one individual, one corporate.
One author has suggested that the term kingdom of God implies a conjunction of religion and politics. And politics is that thing that happens whenever a group of people get together.
The kingdom of God is a vision of people whose lives are changed dramatically to a new way of living and relating to one another. Therefore, it involves both a personal transformation and a social transformation. But what are these new social relationships, and how do they differ from the world around us?
This was Saint Augustine’s position. Many theologians through the ages thought that the kingdom of God was the organized society we call the church. Even in our own day, 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.
The French writer Alfred Loisy said, “Jesus proclaimed the kingdom of God, and what came was the Church.” He meant this in a positive way, but he clearly recognized that there was a difference between the two.
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 that crosses all denominations, one cannot avoid the fact that the church is manifested in human social institutions, with offices, hierarchies, a history, divisions, prescribed sets of beliefs, rituals, etc. Jesus was pretty clear that the kingdom has no place for hierarchies, titles, and exclusionary practices.
Finally, the checkered history of the church, including religious warfare, schisms, intolerance, torture, burning, and all other manner of hatred and evil, may suggest that this institution is not the kingdom that Jesus envisioned.
Many Christians probably believe that this is the proper understanding of the kingdom of God. The term in Matthew’s gospel, the kingdom of heaven often causes confusion and leads to this misconception.
The kingdom of heaven is not a term used by Jesus, but rather is a secondary form created by the author of Matthew’s gospel. That phrase is another way to say the kingdom of God without mentioning God. As God’s dwelling place, heaven is a symbol that stands for God.
The first-century author of Matthew’s gospel wrote to a predominantly Jewish-Christian audience. He modified the term that Jesus used because of the Jewish aversion to speaking the name of God. Pious Jews did this so as not break the third commandment (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.
In the first century the term heaven did not have the same connotation that we give it today. The term heaven simply meant the sky. A more accurate translation of the term in Matthew’s gospel would actually be the kingdom of the heavens, or the kingdom of the sky.
The first-century pre-modern worldview conceived of the sky as the dwelling place of the gods. The concept of heaven as a place where the righteous went after death, was not yet developed. Jews believed that when people died, they went to a place under the earth called sheol, both good and bad alike.
The popular interpretation that the kingdom of God is synonymous with heaven, a future reward at the end of life, is at odds with the vision expressed by Jesus. Jesus never spoke of heaven. On a couple of occasions he responded to questions about the resurrection of the dead. But first-century Jews looked for an earthly physical resurrection, not a heavenly spiritual one. Jesus was not concerned about life after death in heaven. He was concerned about a transformed life right here on earth.
The kingdom of God according to Jesus is based on an understanding that the kingdom is here and now, not there and then. God will prevail in this world. “Your new order come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” was the prayer of Jesus’ followers.
a new state
The dictionary definition of the word kingdom is “a state or territory ruled by a king.”
Many of Jesus’ contemporaries were looking to restore the old state of Israel. They wanted to return to the glory of the kingdom under David and Solomon. They were looking for a new state that God would set up and rule himself. In the process the people expected God would finally crush the empire of Rome.
If Jesus was talking about a new state with himself as the head, then he would have seen himself as the agent of a new political dynasty. But Jesus clearly rejected that messianic role.
Jesus does not validate any earthly state or nation, in spite of what Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell may think. States are ruled over by men and women, not by God. God’s kingdom cuts across all national boundaries.
Moreover, kingdom values are often directly in opposition to national values. “My kingdom is not of this world,” Jesus said. This is not to be understood to say that the kingdom is otherworldly, or heavenly. Walter Wink argues that the Greek word kosmos really means system, not world. Jesus’ statement means that the kingdom of God is based on a different set of values than the present system of politics, economics and social relationships. Furthermore, Jesus consistently rejects the use of political force, power or coercion in the kingdom. A new state would simply replace the old authoritarianism with a new one.
a separate society
Some people believe the kingdom of God will be 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. (Calvin’s Geneva is an example of this viewpoint, as are numerous utopian societies that flourished in America in the 18th and 19th centuries.)
But the kingdom of God is not geographically or socially isolated from the center of society. The kingdom is not a plea for social avoidance or withdrawal. The kingdom of God is found squarely in the middle of social evil, injustice, domination and exploitation. As Donald Kraybill points out, “Kingdom action does not take place outside of the societal ballpark. It’s a different game played in the middle of the old ballpark. Kingdom players follow different rules and listen to a different coach.”
a new world
There are some who believe that the kingdom is a reference to a new earth. In this scenario, this world ends, replaced by a new one. It is often associated with the earthly return that Jesus is reported to have promised to his followers when he ascended to heaven. Many Christians believe that at the second coming of Jesus the kingdom of God will come in its fullness.
But this interpretation does not fit with the words of Jesus that imply that the kingdom is very near or already here in our midst.
“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 in the midst of you.” (Luke 17:21)
New Testament references to the kingdom as a “new world,” or a “new creation” may also be understood as the inauguration of a “new age” or “new order” within this world. The kingdom is a new age breaking into the present one.
The Church is mired in apocalyptic imagery. According to the apocalyptic view, God will destroy this world and replace it with a new one.
By the time the gospels of Matthew, Luke and John were written (after 80 CE), Christians were experiencing persecution in the Pharisee-led synagogues. After the destruction of the temple by Roman troops in 70 CE, the priests and Levites had no further sacred function. The lay Pharisees became the leaders of Judaism and began to establish an orthodoxy to guide them in the future. Christian Jews were now seen, not as a harmless sect, but as heretics who were a danger to the traditional faith. They were told to leave the synagogues.
In a period of persecution, apocalyptic thinking flourishes. Christians began to look for Jesus’ immanent return to vindicate them within the Jewish community. Those who had looked for a messiah to throw out the Romans and take back the throne of Israel needed Jesus to play that role. By clearly rejecting the role of conqueror, Jesus failed as messiah the first time around. He would rule the second time according to the apocalyptics. Strangely, it is not the kingdom of God they look for, but the kingdom of Jesus. Images of war and violence are always part of the apocalyptic view. Eventually apocalyptic myths influenced the gospel writers to put apocalyptic words into the mouth of Jesus.
But the most authentic words of Jesus that we have—the parables—suggest something quite different. God’s new order will come in the midst of 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 mustard sown in a cultivated garden will transform it as the mustard plant, an unruly and uncontrollable weed, takes over. A small amount of yeast or leaven placed in a large amount of bread dough with transform the dough causing it to rise and change from within. Once started, neither mustard or leaven can be controlled.
getting to the heart of the kingdom
According to Jesus, none of these traditional interpretations fits his proclamation. In fact, most are an attempt to domesticate the vision of Jesus, to control it. But the vision of Jesus refuses to be controlled.
One thing, however, is certain. The kingdom of God has none of the usual characteristics of an earthly kingdom. In the kingdom all earthly values are reversed. The first shall be last and the last shall be first. The greatest people in the kingdom shall be servants. The kingdom particularly belongs to the poor, the hungry, and the mourning. The rich will find it almost impossible to enter.
The kingdom is something of great value, yet it is hidden and must be searched for. The kingdom is something that cannot be seen, yet its effects are plainly visible. To enter the kingdom, in fact to even see the kingdom, one must experience a complete reversal, a reorientation, a rebirth. So just what is the kingdom of God as preached by Jesus of Nazareth?
the kingdom as a vision
The kingdom of God was the metaphor Jesus used to describe his vision of the way things were meant to be. A vision is a realistic, credible, attractive future for an individual, group, or organization.
Vision always deals with the future. Indeed, vision is where tomorrow begins, for it expresses what you and others who share the vision will be working hard to create. Since most people don’t take the time to think systematically about the future, those who do—and who base their strategies and actions on their visions—have inordinate power to shape the future. Why else would such great historical figures as Moses, Plato, Jesus, and Karl Marx have had such enormous influence on succeeding generations?
As one writer explains: “Themselves under the influence of that which they envisioned, they transformed the nonexistent into the existent, and shattered the reality of their own time with their imaginary images of the future. Thus the open future already operates in the present, shaping itself in advance through these image makers and their images—and they, conversely, focus and enclose the future in advance, for good or ill.”
A vision is only an idea or image of a more desirable future for the organization, but the right vision is an idea so energizing that it in effect jump-starts the future by calling forth the skills, talents, and resources to make it happen.
Many theologians have failed to see the kingdom of God as a vision. 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, the group works together to make it a reality. Jesus chose to take the long awaited dream of God’s new society, and by acting on it, make it a vision that would lead to the transformation of the world.
A vision is like a seed that is planted in the hearts and minds of people. When it takes root and is nourished it can grow to accomplish astounding results. Jesus used this imagery with the kingdom of God. It is like a mustard seed, a tiny herb seed about the size of a grain of sand. Someday it will be very big.
The kingdom as preached by Jesus was an alternative understanding of God’s new action in the world. The rule of God that Jesus described in words and images was the action that God was already taking in the world to restore God’s intention for humanity from the very beginning of creation. Rather than the restoration of political and religious power through external action, Jesus painted a vision of God changing the world from within through the creation of a new community bonded together through new social relationships. Jesus described what would happen when God finally broke through the hearts and minds of people to transform their actions and relationships into a new community based on love and compassion. Jesus proclaimed that the kingdom had already arrived and could be clearly seen and entered into if a person underwent a radical transformation.