Jesus—His Life and Message: The Kingdom of God (Part 1)
June 30, 2015
by Peter Amsterdam
Jesus—His Life and Message: The Kingdom of God (Part 1)
(You can read about the intent for and overview of this series in this introductory article.)
The central theme of Jesus’ teaching throughout the Synoptic Gospels was the “kingdom of God.” Within these three Gospels, there are 76 distinct kingdom sayings and another 27 which are shared among the three.1 The Gospel of John speaks of the kingdom five times. Since the kingdom was a focal point of Jesus’ teaching and is found in key points within the Gospels, such as in the Lord’s prayer,2 the Sermon on the Mount,3 the Last Supper,4 and in numerous parables,5 understanding what Jesus meant when He spoke about the kingdom is important. However, Jesus didn’t give an exact definition of what He meant when He spoke about the kingdom; rather He conveyed its meaning mostly through short sayings, parables, actions, and symbols.
There are a multitude of commentaries and books on the topic, and while for the most part authors generally agree on the basics, there are differences on some points. While I can’t present a comprehensive explanation within the brief space of this article and the next two, I will present what seems to me to be the general consensus of what is understood as the meaning of the kingdom of God within Jesus’ teaching, based on the material I’ve studied.
We’ll start by looking at individual aspects of Jesus’ teaching (in subsections), each of which factors in to the overall understanding of the kingdom. Then I will tie these different points together, aiming to paint an overall picture of what Jesus meant when He spoke of the kingdom of God.
While the phrase “kingdom of God” is not found in the Old Testament, the concept of God’s kingdom, His kingship, is present in numerous Old Testament verses, such as:
The Lord sits enthroned over the flood; the Lord sits enthroned as king forever.6 My eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!7 Your throne, O God, is forever and ever. The scepter of your kingdom is a scepter of uprightness.8 Give attention to the sound of my cry, my King and my God, for to you do I pray.9 For the kingdom is the Lord’s and He rules over the nations.10
Throughout the centuries the Hebrew/Jewish people saw God—referred to in the Hebrew as YHWH—as a king, both in a universal sense of ruling over all the earth11 and specifically as their king, with themselves as His people. God called the ancient nation of Israel in a special way to live under His rule and to acknowledge His kingship—His reign and His commandments.
Unfortunately, Israel didn’t generally live in the manner God laid out in His commandments. In time, they demanded to be ruled by an earthly king. God said, they have rejected me from being king over them.14 While there were some good kings, David being the best, over time the people and their kings moved further from obedience to God. Because of this, the prophets sent by God began to speak of the need for renewal of heart:
I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.15
Scripture spoke of one who would come, who would sit on the throne of David, who was understood to be the coming Messiah:
For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore.16
In Jesus’ day, this Messiah was long anticipated. The general understanding regarding the Messiah was connected to the hope and expectation of deliverance or salvation from the foreign occupation the Jews had been under after their return from exile in Babylon. For centuries they had been under the rule of the Greeks, Ptolemies, and Seleucids. Then, after 100 years of self-rule, they fell under the rule of Rome. They longed for the time when they would no longer be ruled by foreigners, but would once again be ruled by God in His kingdom. They looked forward to the promised Messiah delivering them from foreign rule and setting up the kingdom of Israel—which they considered the kingdom of God—once again.
Thus there was excitement when people heard of a man who was doing miracles and speaking of the kingdom of God. Perhaps the time had come for the deliverance of the nation of Israel, freedom from the foreigners, and the setting up of the physical national kingdom that they had been waiting for. However, Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom went beyond the expectation of a political or geographical entity. Instead, He in essence redefined and replaced the Jewish expectations regarding the kingdom.
Kingdom of God or heaven?
In the New Testament, Mark and Luke only use the phrase “kingdom of God” in their Gospels, while Matthew calls it the “kingdom of heaven” 31 times and “kingdom of God” only five times. The Gospel of Matthew was written with a Jewish audience in mind, so he used “heaven” as a replacement word for God (YHWH), as the Jewish people avoided using the proper name of God in order to avoid mistakenly using His name in vain, which was prohibited in the Law.
You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.17
The two phrases—kingdom of God and kingdom of heaven—are interchangeable and mean the same thing within the Gospels.
Present or future?
When Jesus spoke of the kingdom, sometimes He said that the kingdom had arrived and at other times spoke of it as yet to come at the end of the age/world. One author explains that the Old Testament time period was the preparation for the kingdom; Jesus’ ministry, death, and resurrection was the kingdom’s establishment; and the final judgment will be the completion.18
Following are verses which speak of God’s kingdom being initiated by Jesus’ ministry, its entering this world through Him.
If it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.19
Jesus states that His casting out demons is proof that the kingdom has arrived. The Greek word translated here as “come upon” is translated elsewhere in the New Testament as “has arrived,” meaning that it is already now present.20
The Law and the Prophets were until John; since then the good news of the kingdom of God is preached.21
Here, two periods of time are being spoken of: the first, the period of the Law and Prophets, which lasts until John the Baptist. The second began with John announcing the coming of Jesus. While John belongs to the first period, his ministry inaugurated the second period, so in a sense he bridges both periods. With John’s ministry and the coming of Jesus, the time of the kingdom of God has begun.22
Being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, he answered them, “The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed, nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you.”23
Jesus points out that not only is the kingdom not something physical, but that it is presently in their midst.
While these verses speak of the kingdom being present, the following verses put it in the future:
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’”24
In this case, “on that day” is speaking of a future time.
Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.’25
Truly, I say to you, I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.26
Other sayings and parables that speak of the kingdom also set it in the future.27 So is the kingdom something that was present in Jesus’ day (and continues to be present today), or is it only a future kingdom which arrives at the time of judgment? In order to answer that question, it helps to understand the meaning of the word kingdom.
The Greek word translated as kingdom in the Gospels is basileia. It corresponds to the Hebrew word malkut used for kingdom in the Old Testament. Basileia has two meanings: (1) “a king’s royal power, reign, dominion, or authority” and (2) “the territory or people over whom a king reigns.” The first meaning is what corresponds to the Gospel’s usage of the kingdom of God. Jesus’ reference to the kingdom is not seen as something spatial, like a territory, but rather as referring to the authority or power of the king, his right to rule. This concept can be seen in the following:
He said therefore, “A nobleman went into a far country to receive for himself a kingdom and then return.”28
Other translations render this as to receive for himself authority to be king;29 to have himself appointed king.30 The idea is similar to how Herod the Great received his authority as king—his basileia, his royal power—when he was in Rome, and then returned to Israel to rule.
While basileia is sometimes used to refer to a spatial kingdom or territory, within the Gospels it’s almost always understood as speaking of reign, royal power, or authority:
Heal the sick in it and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God [God’s authority and power] has come near to you.’31
Nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God [reign or authority] is in the midst of you.32
Present and future
When the kingdom is seen as the dynamic reign of God, it can be understood to be both a present reality initiated through the ministry of Jesus as well as a future manifestation which will be perfect and complete.
The kingdom of God has arrived and is present in the coming of Jesus. It has come in fulfillment of the Old Testament promises even though the consummation of the kingdom lies still in the future. This twofold aspect of the kingdom is the “secret of the kingdom of God” (Mark 4:11). The kingdom has not come as most people in the time of Jesus expected; that is, in its fullness. It has come only in part. Its fullness awaits the consummation when the Son of Man returns to judge the world. This tension between the now and the not yet provides the key for understanding the teaching of Jesus concerning the kingdom of God.33
Jesus’ teachings of the kingdom as a present reality with a final fulfillment signified a redefinition of Jewish expectations for the Messiah, as an earthly savior who would deliver the people from foreign oppression and set up a national kingdom.Jesus’ mission wasn’t to defeat the evil of the foreign oppressors, as they anticipated the long-awaited Messiah would do. For Him, the ultimate enemy wasn’t Rome—it was Satan. The presence of the reign or power of God was manifest in the authority with which Jesus overcame the evil works of Satan. He specifically points out that the power He has over Satan and his works is a manifestation of the kingdom’s present reality.
If it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. When a strong man, fully armed, guards his own palace, his goods are safe; but when one stronger than he attacks him and overcomes him, he takes away his armor in which he trusted and divides his spoil.34
Jesus points out that by casting out demons He is overcoming the true evil, Satan. He is the stronger one who has attacked Satan, taken away his armor, and has overcome, defeated, and plundered his goods.35
Another example is of Jesus healing a woman who had had a disabling spirit for eighteen years. She was bent over and could not fully straighten herself. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said to her, “Woman, you are freed from your disability.” And he laid his hands on her, and immediately she was made straight, and she glorified God.36 In response to the ruler of the synagogue’s objection against Jesus healing on the Sabbath, Jesus responded: Ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the Sabbath day?37 In His healings, Jesus was plundering Satan’s house.
When the 70 disciples (72 in some translations) whom Jesus had sent to go into the towns and places where He was about to go38 returned saying, Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name! Jesus responded with, I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven.39 Jesus’ power, as seen in His and the disciples’ healings and exorcisms, was one of the means by which He defeated Satan and showed that the kingdom of God was present.
Darrell Bock explains:
Jesus’ ministry means that Satan already is defeated. The arriving of the kingdom’s presence in power is evident. Although the kingdom ultimately includes a much more comprehensive exercise of power, as the future kingdom sayings show, it is operative now in the work of deliverance that Jesus’ miracles reflect … What emerges is that the kingdom ultimately is about God’s work to redeem humanity according to his promise. The kingdom is God’s ultimate response to the grip that Satan has on a needy humanity … The miracles per se are not the point, but rather, they serve as evidence for and as an illustration of a far more comprehensive deliverance that one day will extend across the entire creation. That is in part why the preaching about the kingdom also was called “good news.” 40
Jesus proclaimed the good news that God’s royal power, reign, and authority—His kingdom—was now intervening in history through Jesus’ ministry.
(Continued in part two)
Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
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Bock, Darrell L. Jesus According to Scripture. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002.
Bock, Darrell L. Luke Volume 1: 1:1–9:50. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1994.
Bock, Darrell L. Luke Volume 2: 9:51–24:53. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1996.
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Brown, Raymond E. The Death of the Messiah. 2 vols. New York: Doubleday, 1994.
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1 Joel B. Green and Scot McKnight, Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, 425.
2 Matthew 6:10.
3 Matthew 5:3, 10, 19, 20; 6:10, 33; 7:21.
4 Mark 14:25.
5 Mark 4:26, 30; Matthew 13:24, 33, 44, 45, 47; Luke 19:11, etc.
6 Psalm 29:10.
7 Isaiah 6:5.
8 Psalm 45:6.
9 Psalm 5:2.
10Psalm 22:28 NAU.
11 The LORD has established his throne in the heavens, and his kingdom rules over all (Psalm 103:19).
12 Isaiah 43:15.
13 Deuteronomy 33:5.
14 1 Samuel 8:7.
15 Ezekiel 36:25–27.
16 Isaiah 9:6–7.
17 Deuteronomy 5:11.
18 Williams, Renewal Theology, 290.
19 Luke 11:20.
20 Stein, The Method and Message of Jesus’ Teachings, 70.
21 Luke 16:16.
22 Stein, The Method and Message of Jesus’ Teachings, 70–71.
23 Luke 17:20–21.
24 Matthew 7:21–23.
25 Matthew 25:34.
26 Mark 14:25.
27 Matthew 8:11–12; 5:18–20; 13:24–30, 47–50.
28 Luke 19:12.
31 Luke 10:9.
32 Luke 17:21.
33 Stein, The Method and Message of Jesus’ Teachings, 78.
34 Luke 11:20–22.
35 See Matthew 12:28–29.
36 Luke 13:11–13.
37 Luke 13:16.
38 Luke 10:1.
39 Luke 10:17–18.
40 Bock, Jesus According to Scripture, 577–78.