An occasional series on doctrinal issues today
The kingdom of God (1)
by James M. Renihan
‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’. With these words, John the Baptist preached to the nation of Israel, preparing the way for Messiah.
atthew tells us in the next chapter of his Gospel that Jesus went forth proclaiming the identical message: ‘Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’ (4:17). Again in Matthew 10:7, Jesus sends out the twelve with the self-same message: ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand’.
The Synoptic Gospels are permeated with teaching about the kingdom of God. It was a central theme in the earthly ministry of Jesus.
In the interval between his resurrection and ascension, our Saviour spent forty days with his disciples, ‘speaking of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God’ (Acts 1:3).
The great commission
The words of the great commission point to this same truth — Christ declared, ‘All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth’. Peter, preaching on the day of Pentecost, pursues the theme — Jesus, having been raised up, has been ‘exalted to the right hand of God’.
He continues, ‘Let all the house of Israel assuredly know that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ’ (2:36). This is the language of the kingdom of God.
When persecution arose in Jerusalem, scattering the disciples, Philip went down to Samaria and ‘preached the things concerning the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ’.
As Paul returned to several newly-planted churches to strengthen and encourage them, Luke gives us a one-sentence summary of the Apostle’s message to those young assemblies: ‘we must through many tribulations enter the kingdom of God’ (14:22).
Coming to Ephesus, Paul ‘went into the synagogue and spoke boldly for three months, reasoning and persuading concerning the things of the kingdom of God’ (19:8).
When Paul says his final farewell to the Ephesian elders, he reminds them that his preaching has been about ‘the kingdom of God’ (Acts 20:25). At the end of Acts, Luke portrays Paul at Rome, expounding and testifying to Jews — and anyone else who would hear him — about the kingdom of God (Acts 28:23,31).
The idea of the kingdom of God is deeply entwined with the gospel itself. It was the message proclaimed by John and Jesus and his disciples, and continued to be the theme of the apostles throughout the New Testament era.
The kingdom of God, therefore, is central to the message of the Scriptures. Its language is woven into the fabric of both the Old and New Testaments. Every time we read of God as the Great King; of the Lordship of Christ; of divine sovereignty, authority and dominion; of command and obedience; of worship and honour; we are hearing the language of the kingdom.
We cannot reduce the notion of God’s kingship simply to the occurrences of the Greek word basilea and related words, or of the Hebrew term malak and its derivatives. This topic is one of the pivotal themes of the whole Bible.
What the kingdom of God is
What is the kingdom of God? The idea is so pervasive in Scripture that it is very difficult to be comprehensive. It must be asserted that the kingdom of God is not a place — though we usually think of kingdoms in geographic terms.
It is better understood in terms of the dynamic reign of God. Geerhardus Vos identified three strands which he called its essence: (1) the supremacy of God in the sphere of saving power; (2) the sphere of righteousness; and (3) the state of blessedness.
Paul says, ‘The kingdom of God is … in power’ (1 Corinthians 4:20). The Sermon on the Mount is, in many ways, an explication of the righteousness of the kingdom, evident even in the blessedness promised in the Beatitudes.
The kingdom of God is the sphere in which he reigns — the place where his sovereignty and dominion express themselves. This must include, variously, the entire cosmos, the true church, and heaven — but it embraces additional, more subtle concepts.
For example, when the Pharisees came to Christ and asked when the kingdom was to come, he could tell his hearers that the kingdom of God was already with them.
Imagine how confused they must have been when he said, ‘The kingdom of God does not come with observation; nor will they say, “See here!” or “See there!” For indeed, the kingdom of God is in your midst’.
The ministry of Christ
The kingdom, therefore, was present in the ministry of Christ — his teaching, his acts of compassion, his miracles.
Isn’t this what Jesus meant when, in the synagogue in Nazareth, he read from Isaiah: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he has sent me to heal the broken-hearted, to preach liberty to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to preach the acceptable year of the Lord’ (Luke 4:18-19)?
He was describing the acts of the reign of God — proof that he had come on a divine mission — that he was the unique Son who fulfils the words of Scripture. The Pharisees were confused, because they did not expect this kind of kingdom.
It is interesting to note that when the kingdom is preached it is often associated with verbs of motion — such as enter, seek, cast out, suffer violence, come upon, gather out, and come (translating three different Greek verbs). The metaphorical language of a physical kingdom helps us to conceptualise the relationship humans have to God’s reign.
I said that the message proclaimed by John the Baptist and Jesus was the same, but there is an important difference in perspective between them. John preached as the forerunner —the last sentinel of the night, as it were, proclaiming the dawn of a new day.
By contrast, Jesus was himself the light — he brought the day into existence. Was the kingdom present in John’s ministry? Certainly, but only in anticipation. John was glad to point to the greater one — great David’s greater son — who was in himself the embodiment of the reign of God.
What the kingdom is not
One of the most helpful ways of defining something is by negation — showing what something is not. The word of God does this in several places.
We are told that the kingdom of God is ‘not of this world’ (John 18:36). Jesus’ own teaching on the kingdom was terribly misunderstood by his religious opponents, precisely because they interpreted it in terrestrial terms.
His reign is heavenly. Its origin and existence are divine and supernatural.
Secondly, the kingdom of God is ‘not in word, but in power’ (1 Corinthians 4:20). Paul did not merely have some fine-sounding religious words — puffs of air audible to those who listen.
When he came to the Corinthians he could demonstrate to them the true spiritual power of the kingdom (1 Corinthians 2:1-5).
Thirdly, the kingdom of God is ‘not meat and drink, but righteousness, and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit’ (Romans 14:17). Paul wants this understood — the passing things of this life, such as food (which is to be consumed to the glory of God, 1 Corinthians 10:31) do not make up the substance of the kingdom.
When Christians divide over such matters, when they cause others to stumble, they have misunderstood the very nature of the kingdom.
Righteousness, peace and joy
True believers possess ‘the righteousness which is from God by faith’ (Philippians 3:9) and the conformity to God’s law that flows from it. They know peace — the wholeness and wellness that attend the presence of God. They have joy in the Holy Spirit — the only demeanour appropriate for those who have been cleansed and adopted into the family of God.
These things belong together, and are of the very essence of the kingdom. Listen to Hebrews 1:8-9: ‘To the Son he says, “Your throne, O God, is forever and ever. A sceptre of righteousness is the sceptre of your kingdom. You have loved righteousness and hated lawlessness. Therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness more than your companions’.
The Son of God sits on an eternal throne, with righteousness in his hand. Because he himself has loved righteousness — because he has made it the object of his affection — he knows joy beyond his companions. Truly, holiness is happiness.