When he speaks of the kingdom of God, Jesus simultaneously captures our greatest dreams and summarizes the drama of salvation history. The idea of God’s own kingdom is evocative: the ideal society, utopia, paradise. A kingdom in which all citizens will be wealthy, healthy, and happy. A community in which all people will love each other, where no one has ever heard about injustice, conflict, class warfare, racism, discrimination, or loneliness.
Political campaigns frequently promise to deliver, if not the perfect society, then at least a much better society than what we are currently suffering under. To see these promises fulfilled, we are told, we need to elect the right leadership the next time we are going to the polls.
When we want to understand what Jesus has in mind when he talks about the kingdom of God, it is helpful to begin with the vision of a perfect society. To experience the kingdom of God, we also need the right leader. In his kingdom, all citizens will enjoy the ultimate form of well-being.
Unfortunately, the English term “kingdom” is partly misleading, as it directs our thoughts to a piece of real estate, a territory such as the kingdom of Norway or the United Kingdom. The Old Testament background for the term points to a different idea; namely, the dynamic concept of a kingly rule. Perhaps surprisingly, the Old Testament has precious little to say about the kingdom of God; the term only occurs twice (1 Chron 28:5; 2 Chron 13:8). But the Old Testament has a lot to say about God ruling as king:
The Lord has established his throne in heaven,
and his kingdom rules over all. (Ps 103:10)
In most cases, therefore, the translation “the kingly rule of God” would be more adequate than the one we find in most Bibles, “the kingdom of God.” God is the creator of heaven and earth, and he is the rightful king of the universe.
The tragedy is that his subjects have rebelled against him and no longer respect his authority. Salvation history is, therefore, the story of God’s military campaign to defeat these enemies and to restore his rule throughout his creation.
The great paradigm of God’s battle against his enemy is his confrontation with Pharaoh, who was oppressing God’s people in Egypt. In the song of Moses, God’s victory is portrayed as a military triumph:
The Lord is a warrior;
the Lord is his name.
Pharaoh’s chariots and his army he has hurled into the sea.
The best of Pharaoh’s officers are drowned in the Red Sea.
The deep waters have covered them;
they sank to the depths like a stone.
Your right hand, Lord, was majestic in power.
Your right hand, Lord, shattered the enemy. (Exod 15:3–6)
The Old Testament contains many promises that God will decisively intervene in earthly matters. He will defeat the forces that stand against him and reestablish his rule. In that day, the world will become the paradise God created it to be: no more injustice, no more conflict, no more wars, no more sin.
The most detailed description of that day is found in chapters 24–27 of the prophet Isaiah. God’s triumph will be complete, because “in that day the Lord will punish the powers in the heavens above and the kings on the earth below” (24:21).
The joy to follow is like the most elaborate party the prophet is able to imagine:
On this mountain the Lord Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples,
a banquet of aged wine—the best of meats and the finest of wines. (25:6)
The coming of Jesus is the fulfillment of all these prophecies. He is the embodiment of the divine warrior. He forces his enemies into submission and reestablishes God’s rule on earth. He ushers in the new age of joy and celebration.
The New Testament reveals, more clearly than the Old, that the ultimate enemy is not the pharaoh of Egypt, the emperor of Rome, or any of the rulers on earth. The real power that animates all these rulers, and all humans who have rebelled against God, is a spiritual army, spearheaded by the prince of demons (Eph 2:2), also known as the devil.
When Jesus confronts these powers, his superiority is so overwhelming that no real battle ensues. Jesus silences the demons with a simple rebuke. His mere presence is enough to make them flee (Mark 1:23–26).
In Luke 11:22, he explains what has happened:
But if I drive out demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.
The account of Jesus’s temptation by the devil gives us a clearer picture of the nature of his victory (Matt 4:1–11). If Jesus had performed the spectacular miracles that Satan dared him to do, he could have had a much easier path to being acclaimed as the Messiah. In short, he could have had all the glory that the devil dangled before him and entered into his glory without having to go the way of the cross. But then he would have been a satanic messiah.
Jesus’s victory is seen in the fact that he spurned the way that led directly into glory and chose instead the road that took him to the cross. He explained his choice to the disciples on the way to Emmaus: “Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” (Luke 24:26).
In this way, he demonstrated that the kingly rule of God is not established through the use of physical force or political means. Jesus triumphs through apparent defeat, and he brings his kingly rule by means of sacrifice.
The new creation
Nevertheless, Jesus’s ministry represents God’s decisive intervention in the world. His enemies have been defeated. His kingly rule is restored. The age of salvation, the good society, is here.
With his actions, Jesus demonstrated that he had indeed brought the new creation, that the promised new age had arrived. As he explained when he reassured John the Baptist:
The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. (Luke 7:22)
Jesus’s words echo at least three prophecies from Isaiah (26:19; 35:5; 61:1), subtly affirming that he had fulfilled the promises regarding God’s day of salvation.
Rule over sin
Because the enemy that has been defeated is a spiritual power, it should not be perceived as an enemy that threatens us from the outside. Especially from the Pauline letters, we understand that this enemy resides within us all.
Scholars have long debated whether Paul’s puzzling portrait of human sinfulness in Romans 7 refers to a psychological weakness or to a demonic power. In favor of the latter speaks the many ways in which sin is personified. It entered the world (5:12); it ruled (5:21; 6:12, 14); it is a slave-master (6:6, 14, 16, 17, 18, 20, 22; 7:14) and pays wages (6:23); like a military leader, it seizes an opportunity (7:8, 11); it was dead, but came to life (7:8b-9); it works death (7:13); and it dwells in a person (7:17, 20).
The best way to understand Paul is to see psychology and spiritual influence as two complementary ways of understanding humanity. Sin is a deeply personal flaw and simultaneously a demonic force.
The good news is that this force has been defeated:
But where sin increased, grace increased all the more, so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Rom 5:20b–12)
This is Paul’s way of proclaiming the good news of the kingly rule of God: The rule of sin has been broken, and the rule of grace has been established instead!
Where is the kingdom?
Experience tells us a different story, however. Sin and injustice are still in the world, even in the life of the most pious Christian. Where is this victory of which Jesus and the apostle speak? If we don’t see it in our own life, we certainly don’t see it in the society in which we live.
Many Christians tend to think of the kingdom of God as a future entity. When Jesus comes again, then he will establish the kingdom of God. In the meantime, all we can do is to wait for it and pray for its arrival.
The future manifestation of the kingdom is an important element of New Testament theology. John paints a beautiful picture of it in the book of Revelation, and Jesus himself teaches us to pray: “Your kingdom come” (Matt 6:10).
At the same time, Jesus leaves no doubt that the kingdom is already here (Luke 11:22). This paradox, which is often referred to as the “already and not yet” of Christian eschatology, should be understood in light of another somewhat cryptic saying of Jesus, found in Luke 17:21.
Jesus addresses the Pharisees, who queried when the kingdom of God would come, and he explained that the “coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed” (Luke 17:20). Instead, “the kingdom of God is in your midst” (Luke 17:21).
This verse, which is sometimes translated “the kingdom of God is inside you,” has often been taken to mean that the kingdom is in our hearts. It is a purely internal entity.
That cannot be what Jesus meant, however, as he spoke these words to the Pharisees, who are portrayed in the Gospels as a group that refused to accept Jesus. If Jesus had spoken to the disciples, it would have been possible to understand him to say that the kingdom was to be found inside them, but not when he spoke to the Pharisees.
His point must have been that the kingdom was present in his own person. He was in the midst of the Pharisees, and, because of that, the kingdom was in their midst.
In other words, where Jesus is, there is the kingly rule of God. There is the new creation, the gift of healing, the age of salvation, the defeat of evil, victory over sin.
That is what we see in the New Testament. Jesus brings all the gifts of God in his own person. He does not ask people to wait for thousands of years for him to return with his gifts.
He heals the sick, he give sight to the blind, he casts out the demons, and he brings the joy of salvation, which is why his followers do not fast, because the bridegroom is with them and the party has started (Mark 2:19). His ministry is continued in the church, through his disciples, who are sent out to do the same works as he did (Matt 10:1), even greater works than he (John 14:12).
Who will enter?
Because God’s kingly rule will be fully manifested in the future, it may also be perceived as a territory into which someone enters. The exigency of several parables is precisely the urgency of entering the kingdom. Not everyone will be allowed, and many will be denied or even cast out (Luke 13:24–30; Matt 22:11–14).
Above all, those who enter have one thing in common: they are utterly dependent upon the mercy of the host. Their chief characteristic is captured in Jesus’s first Beatitude: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 5:3). To be poor in spirit may be paraphrased as to be a beggar in one’s relationship with God.
Those who are blessed are those who have no credentials, nothing to show to God except an outstretched hand begging to be filled by his gifts. The good news of the kingdom is that their prayers are answered. Not only are they allowed to enter the kingdom, but the kingdom actually belongs to them.
Therefore, the kingly rule of God continues to manifest itself in the same paradoxical manner as it did when Jesus won his decisive victory over the devil by dying on the cross (Col 2:15). It appears as defeat, but, in this apparent defeat, the victory of God is hidden in plain sight. Jesus’s disciples look like losers, but by following their master on the way of love, sacrifice, and forgiveness, they continue to manifest his victory over evil.
- How to Use the Bible for Assurance of Salvation
- Defiled Defined: What “Defiled” Means in the Old Testament
- What’s the Fear of the Lord Really? And Why Does it Matter?
Resources for further study
Living in the Kingdom of God: A Biblical Theology for the Life of the Church
Regular price: $24.99
Christology in the Synoptic Gospels: God or God’s Servant
Regular price: $18.99
Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ
Regular price: $17.99
The Kingdom of God (Theology in Community)
Regular price: $17.99
Classic Studies on the Kingdom of God and Kingdom of Heaven (15 vols.)
Regular price: $81.99
The Message of the Kingdom of God (The Bible Speaks Today Themes)
Regular price: $8.99