“The kingdom” is a big theme for Jesus. In the ESV translation, “kingdom” is mentioned 126 times in the Gospels. But then “kingdom” is mentioned only 34 times in the rest of the New Testament, prompting Christopher from the UK to write in. “Hi, Pastor John! Thank you very much for your excellent APJ podcast. I’m amazed you can put so much effort into such complex and difficult questions for complete strangers, like me! My question for you is this: The gospel of Matthew alone is full of references to the coming ‘kingdom’ (55 of them). But from Acts and into the epistles, there seems to be very little mention of ‘the kingdom.’ So what is this ‘kingdom of God’? Is it the church or something bigger?”
I hear two crucial questions: (1) What is the kingdom of God? (2) Why does it get so much prominent, explicit focus in the teachings of Jesus but far less prominent, explicit focus in the letters of the New Testament? Let me say a word about each of those questions.
Rule and Reign
I think the most important thing I could say about the kingdom of God that would help people make sense out of all the uses is that the basic meaning of the word kingdom in the Bible is God’s reign — R-E-I-G-N — not realm or people. The kingdom creates a realm, the kingdom creates a people, but the kingdom of God is not synonymous with its realm or its people.
“God decided the kingdom of God would be most gloriously revealed in a crucified and risen king.”
For example, consider Psalms 103:19: “The Lord has established his throne in the heavens, and his kingdom rules over all.” You can hear the basic meaning of the word kingdom as rule. It doesn’t mean that his kingdom rules over his realm; it means that God’s reign or rule governs all things.
He sits as king on his throne of the universe, and his kingly rule — his kingdom and his reign — governs all things. The basic meaning of the word kingdom in the Bible is God’s kingly rule — his reign, his action, his lordship, his sovereign governance.
Since God’s purpose for the world is to save a people for himself and renew the world for that people, his kingly rule implies a saving and a redeeming activity on their behalf. This is why the coming of the kingdom in the New Testament is called good news.
In and through Jesus, God, the king, is coming in a way — a new way — into the world to establish his saving rule. First, in the hearts of his people and in their relationships by triumphing over sin, Satan, and death. Then by the exercise of his reign, gathering a people for himself in congregations that live as citizens of a new allegiance of the kingdom — not of this world. Then Christ comes a second time and completes the reign by establishing a new heavens and a new earth.
Already, but Not Yet
The picture you get in the Gospels as Jesus unfolds the teachings of the kingdom is that it is both present and it is still future. In fact, this is what he means when he says that the mystery of the kingdom is here — presence without consummation.
For example, you can hear the future dimension of the kingdom in the Lord’s Prayer: “Your kingdom come” (Matthew 6:10). We should pray that every day. Bring the kingdom, Lord. It’s not here the way we want it to be. Bring your kingdom. Bring your reign fully in people’s lives, in my life, in the world.
“The lordship of the crucified and risen Christ should receive the emphasis today.”
In Luke 19:11, Jesus proceeded to tell a parable because he was near Jerusalem, but the people supposed that the kingdom of God was to appear immediately. But Jesus knew it was not coming immediately. The kingdom of God is not going to appear immediately, and yet repeatedly, Jesus says, “The kingdom is at hand. Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.”
In fact, he is more explicit than that in Luke 11:20: “If it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.” Even more explicitly, Luke 17:21 says, “Behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you.”
How can the kingdom of God be both not yet present and already present? He says, “Pray for it. It’s coming. It’s not yet here. It’s not going to be immediate, and yet already, it’s present in your midst, upon you, at hand.” How can he say all that?
The answer is, the kingdom of God is God’s reign — his sovereign action in the world to redeem and deliver a people and then at a future time finish it and renew his people and the universe completely.
Trading the Throne for a Cross
If we ask why the term “kingdom of God” or “kingdom of heaven” is prominent and explicit in the teachings of Jesus but much less so in the epistles (which is true), what should we say?
My suggestion is this: during the lifetime of Jesus, he was walking a very fine line between making himself known as the Son of God and the actual presence of the king himself, on the one hand, and concealing himself from being taken and made to be an earthly king on the other hand (like they wanted to do in John 6).
They were ready to come and make him king. You recall how Jesus repeatedly told people not to tell others about what they had seen (Mathew 17:9; Mark 7:36). That’s because there would be such a widespread misunderstanding about the nature of his kingship that a political revolt might happen as people try to sweep him on to the throne like in John 6.
No, he came to be crucified. That’s why he came. He came to die, not to be put on a throne yet. He would only be king through crucifixion and resurrection. The disciples could scarcely comprehend that.
The Risen One Is Lord
After the resurrection, it could be seen now with crystal clarity what the disciples couldn’t fathom during his lifetime. Namely, the kingdom of God would be most gloriously revealed in a crucified and risen king. Therefore, the shift that happens in no way diminishes the importance of what was taught about the kingdom during the lifetime of Jesus. But it does shift. It does put the overwhelming emphasis now on the king himself as the crucified, risen Lord of the universe.
“‘Jesus is Lord’ is almost synonymous in the epistles with ‘the king has come.’”
The new emphasis, which is more explicit in the epistles, declares, “Jesus is Lord.” In fact, if you would have pressed me, I’d say “the kingdom has come” is almost synonymous with “Jesus is Lord.” Or to say it the other way round, “Jesus is Lord” is almost synonymous in the epistles with the kingdom — the reign — “the king has come.”
It’s not just that he has come, he will come. I think we probably do well today to keep this in mind whenever we start to foreground the kingdom of God. Let’s make sure that our teaching has the flavor of the apostolic application of the reign of Jesus in the churches and in the world. It is the lordship of the crucified and risen Christ that should receive the emphasis today.