WHAT IS THE KINGDOM OF GOD: PART ONE
Many within the Christian community limit their perspective of the establishment of the Kingdom of God by seeing it only in terms of it being a future event yet to occur. It is believed the Kingdom will be established at a yet future return of Christ. Its seat of government will be headquartered in Jerusalem where Christ will rule from a rebuilt temple, along with the resurrected saints. In embracing this view, the focus is on establishment of the Kingdom as a singular event yet to occur that will ultimately bring to an end sinful living and force people to live in compliance with God’s law.
A careful consideration of the Scriptures that discuss the Kingdom of God, (also referred to as the Kingdom of Heaven), will show the Kingdom was in the process of being established at the time Jesus walked on this earth. The Scriptures show the Kingdom has pronounced behavioral dynamics that pertain to how we live our lives as physical beings in this present world. The kingdom also has dynamics that pertain to life after death which we will address in part two of this series.
Let's take a fresh look at the Scriptures that relate to the Kingdom and let's see if we can get a better handle on what the Kingdom is all about.
The key to understanding the Scriptures, as is true of anything we read, is to read the statements of its writers in context. We should always be asking who, what, where and when. Who is being addressed and what meaning would it have for those being addressed. What is the time frame involved and what presuppositions should be taken into account. In most cases when Jesus and the apostles addressed the people of their time, it was with the intention of providing them with information that was relevant to them. Communication is for the purpose of conveying meaning to those to whom communication is directed.
The Kingdom of God was Near:
When John the Baptist appeared in the Judean desert and began his ministry, what did John preach? “Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is near” (Matthew 3:2). After John was put in prison and Christ began His ministry, what did Christ preach? “The time has come, The Kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news.” (Mark 1:15). These are rather straightforward statements.
The Greek word translated "near" in these two passages is engizo. This word appears 43 times in the NT narrative and is translated as near or at hand. For example, in Matthew 21:1, the word is used to describe being close to Jerusalem. In Matthew 26:45 this word is used to show that the crucifixion was about to take place. In Matthew 26:46 the same Greek word is used to show the immediacy of Christ’s betrayal. In Luke 22:1 the word is used to show the nearness of the Feast of Unleavened Bread. Over and over again in the NT, where we see this Greek word being used, we see by context it simply means something is about to take place.
Therefore, there is no contextual or linguistic reason to believe that this word means something else when found in association with statements about the timing of the Kingdom. Every Greek Lexicon I checked showed this word to mean something close at hand, something about to occur.
Both John and Jesus said that the Kingdom of God was near. Christ said that the time had come. Both John and Jesus admonished those they were addressing to repent in relation to the Kingdom being near. If the Kingdom was only to be something to appear thousands of years into the future, the admonition to repent because the Kingdom was imminent would have made no sense at all. They were being asked to repent in relation to the Kingdom being near.
In Matthew 10:5-7, Christ instructs His disciples to go to the lost sheep of Israel and preach this message: “The Kingdom of heaven is near.” If you would have been living 2000 years ago as one of the lost sheep of Israel, and someone came to your town and began telling you about the Kingdom of heaven being near, you would not have concluded that this Kingdom was not really near but was thousands of years off into the future.
Kingdom of Heaven = Kingdom of God:
Matthew uses the phrase “Kingdom of God” 4 times in his gospel and “Kingdom of Heaven” 33 times. Other than Matthew, no other Scriptural author uses the phrase “Kingdom of Heaven." Since it is believed Matthew wrote his Gospel primarily to the Jews, some commentators believe Matthew didn’t use the phrase “Kingdom of God” in deference to the Jews who shied away from using the name God. This being said, it is entirely possible that Matthew was simply associating the Kingdom of God with God’s heavenly residence. Matthew understood that the Kingdom’s seat of authority is in the heavenly realm where God resides and subsequently referred to the Kingdom as the Kingdom of heaven.
Matthew 7:21: "Not everyone who says to me, `Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.
That the Kingdom of Heaven and the Kingdom of God are one and the same is evidenced by the Gospel writers alluding to various same events as being associated with both the Kingdom of Heaven and the Kingdom of God.
Matthew 4:17: From that time on Jesus began to preach, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near."
Mark 1:14-15: After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. "The time has come," he said. "The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!"
Matthew 8:11-12: I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth."
Luke 13:28: There will be weeping there, and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but you yourselves thrown out.
Finally, it should be noted that Matthew himself makes it evident that the Kingdom of heaven and the Kingdom of God are one and the same when he quotes Jesus' statement about how difficult it is for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of heaven/God.
Matthew 19:23-24: Then Jesus said to his disciples, "I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God."
Dynamics of the Kingdom:
It’s interesting to note at this point that the Jews of Christ’s time were looking for a earthly kingdom to appear in their time and deliver them from their Roman oppressors. First century Judaism was very familiar with the writings of Daniel and other of the prophets. They understood from the writings of the prophets that the time had arrived for the Kingdom of God to be established. However, their understanding of the Kingdom was not what Christ was bringing to the table. Just like many Christians today, the Jews were looking for a earthly kingdom to bring order, peace and justice to an oppressed world. Yet when Christ appeared before Pilate, what did He say?
John 18:36: My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place.
The Greek for world is kosmos. Kosmos has broad application in the Greek language with the common thread being that the word refers to the physical realm. Jesus appears to be saying His Kingdom is not of this physical realm. What did Christ mean in saying His Kingdom is not of this world?
The good news of the Kingdom was a focal point of Christ’s message. Jesus gave more than a dozen parables explaining the nature of the Kingdom. Most of these parables picture the Kingdom as something one is to diligently seek after. It is seen as something so valuable that it is to be sought after at all costs. Some of these parables reveal the Kingdom to be a spreading and growing entity involving spiritual dynamics of how we behave before God and man. Some of these parables identify the Kingdom as having location and being the destination of the righteous. Apostle Paul was constantly teaching about the Kingdom in terms of behavioral dynamics but also provided reason to believe the Kingdom was something attained through resurrection from the dead or being transformed from mortal to immortal at the return of Christ.
Since the Kingdom is the focal point of the NT narrative, it is imperative we understand what the Kingdom is, when it came or comes and when/where/how we enter it. Jesus said His Kingdom was not of this world. If the Kingdom is not of this world, where or what is it? Jesus taught His followers that the time had arrived for the Kingdom to appear. Yet many Christians have historically believed and continue to believe the Kingdom has not yet appeared. Many believe that Christ, when speaking of the Kingdom, was alluding to the establishment of a future world ruling government headquartered in Jerusalem and established at a yet future return of Christ Jesus to this earth. Yet we find Jesus giving a very profound answer to a question presented to him by the Pharisees regarding the Kingdom.
Luke 17:20-21: Once, having been asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, "The kingdom of God does not come with your careful observation, nor will people say, `Here it is,' or `There it is,' because the kingdom of God is within you.
The Greek word translated “careful observation” appears only this once in the NT. The Greek lexicons define it as something that can be watched or observed with the eyes in a visible manner. Jesus is virtually saying the Kingdom is not something observed with the eyes in a visible manner.
"Within you” is translated from the Greek word entos. This word is used only one other time in the NT and that is in Matthew. 23:26 where Christ told the Pharisees to, “First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside will be clean.” The Greek word translated “inside” is the same word translated “within” in the Luke 17 passage. Some translators feel entos is better translated “among you” in the Luke 17 passage. It is argued that Jesus could not have been saying the Kingdom was within the unbelieving Pharisee's. It is believed Christ was referring to Himself as the King of the Kingdom being present with the Pharisee's He was addressing at the time. The New English Translation (NET) renders this passage as "in your midst" as does the RSV and NAS. However, most English translations render entos as "within you" as this is the common meaning as shown in various Greek lexicons.
Furthermore, if Luke wanted to say Jesus represented the Kingdom by He being in the midst of the Pharisee's, he would likely have used the Greek word mesos. This Greek word appears sixty-one times in the NT and is rendered "in the midst of" or "among" in every one of its occurrences. Luke uses this word fourteen times to indicate something or someone being in the midst or among something. On one occasion Luke quotes Jesus as saying:
Luke 22:27: For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among (Greek meso) you as one who serves.
In view of the above, it is reasonable to believe Luke would have used mesos in 17:21 if his intention was to show that Jesus was standing in the midst of the Pharisee's as the representative the Kingdom. It should be apparent that Jesus used an Aramaic word that Luke found to be best rendered in the Greek as entos and not meso. The fact Luke used entos instead of meso instructs us that Jesus was not referring to Himself as being in their midst as King of the Kingdom. Jesus appears to be referring to the Kingdom in and of itself. He refers to the Kingdom as being something that resides within a person.
So how should we understand what Christ was saying to the Pharisees? It must be remembered that Jesus is answering the question presented to Him as to when the Kingdom would come. Jesus said it is not something you physically see. It doesn't come with observation. Christ was obviously visible to the Pharisees. They could physically see and observe Him. This makes it highly unlikely Jesus is referring to Himself as representing the Kingdom by being in their midst. If we allow the common meaning of the Greek entos to apply in this passage, it would appear Jesus is saying the Kingdom is within you. In saying the Kingdom is within you, Jesus isn't necessarily using the word "you" to designate the unbelieving Pharisees. Jesus is using the word "you" in an editorial sense to say that people in general enter the Kingdom by repenting of their sins and coming to pursue the way of righteousness. A careful examination of what Jesus taught regarding the Kingdom reveals that this is what He was telling the Pharisees.
Matthew 21:28- 32: What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, `Son, go and work today in the vineyard.' "`I will not, he answered, but later he changed his mind and went.” Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, `I will, sir,' but he did not go. "Which of the two did what his father wanted?" "The first," they answered. Jesus said to them, "I tell you the truth, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.
Entering the Kingdom is associated with practicing the way of righteousness. The tax collectors and prostitutes are seen as repenting and pursuing righteousness and in so doing, they are entering the Kingdom. The religious leaders are seen as not repenting and therefore failing to enter the Kingdom.
Christ views first century repentant sinners as entering the Kingdom then and there. The phrase “are entering” is in the present active indicative tense in the Greek language. This signifies that it is something happening at the time. The time spoken of was two thousand years ago. People were entering the Kingdom two thousand years ago by repenting and turning to righteousness. Remember what John the Baptist and Jesus preached. “Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is near” (Matthew 3:2, 4:17) Jesus associated the Kingdom with righteousness.
Matthew 6:33: But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
Apostle Paul associated the Kingdom with the way of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit and also with power.
Romans 14:17: For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.
1 Corinthians 4:20: For the kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power.
We see the way of righteousness and entering the Kingdom as synonymous. Being in the Kingdom is all about how we behave. It is all about our conduct, our attitude, our way of living. It is all about doing the will of God. It is expressing dynamics of behavior associated with having the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is seen in Scripture as a Spirit of power. The Holy Spirit also involves being born again.
John 3:1-10: Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night and said, "Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him." In reply Jesus declared, "I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again." "How can a man be born when he is old?" Nicodemus asked. "Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother's womb to be born!" Jesus answered, "I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, `You must be born again.' The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.
In some Christian fellowships this passage is used to support the theological position that being born of the Spirit is to become a Spirit Being in order to enter the Kingdom of God. The term Spirit Being, however, is not mentioned or discussed in this passage. There is nothing here about becoming a Spirit Being. What is discussed is being born of the Spirit and it is discussed in reference to the experience being like the wind. Now the wind is invisible, isn’t it? Wind is moving air. You don't see wind. You only see the effect of wind. Jesus is virtually saying that being born of the Spirit is an invisible experience.
Other Scripture tells us that being born of the Spirit is a regeneration facilitated by the Spirit of God. While such regeneration is not something you visibly see, you do see the effect of such spiritual regeneration in how you now think and behave as opposed to how you used to think and behave. If God's Spirit is in you, others will see the effects of that Spirit in your behavior, no different than people see the effects of wind even though the wind itself is invisible. God’s Spirit is not physical. It is non-physical and therefore physically invisible. That’s why Jesus compared it to the invisible wind.
So what is the Kingdom? Is it a physical or is it a spiritual phenomenon? Is it a world ruling government that we enter through resurrection from the dead at a yet future return of Christ or was the Kingdom established in the first century and we enter it by committing our lives to Christ and being obedient to the will of God? Is it a present reality while also having dynamics of greater fulfillment in the future? Christ told the Pharisees that the Kingdom does not come visibly. You can’t physically see it. Christ told Nicodemus that you must be born of the Spirit to enter the Kingdom. Christ compared being born of the Spirit to the non-visible wind. Paul, in writing to the Corinthian church, said in I Corinthians 15 that flesh and blood can’t enter the Kingdom. Yet this same Paul told the flesh and blood Colossians that they were in the Kingdom.
Colossians 1:13-14: For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.
If flesh and blood cannot enter the Kingdom, how could these flesh and blood Colossians be brought into the Kingdom? The answer to that question involves our understanding of the relationship between being born again and entering the Kingdom of God. Christ made it very plain to Nicodemus that in order to enter the Kingdom, you must be born again and that being born again is a non-physical, spiritual experience. It’s an experience that involves the imperishable. Let's look at what Peter wrote:
1 Peter 1:23: For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God.
Peter is telling the readers of his letter that they have been born again. Jesus told Nicodemus that one must be born again to enter the Kingdom. Being born again is associated with entering the Kingdom. Apostle John associates being born of God with being implanted with seed from God. Peter and John appear to be saying that being born again involves being implanted with imperishable seed.
1John 3:9: No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God's seed remains in him; he cannot go on sinning, because he has been born of God.
Having Gods seed within us relates to having God’s Spirit residing in us. Having God’s Spirit is what facilitates our spiritual rebirth. Being born of God is associated with being born of the Spirit, as Christ pointed out to Nicodemus. Being born of the Spirit, which is the same as being born of God, is what enables us to refrain from sin. Refraining from sin leads to righteous behavior. Righteous behavior is what the Kingdom of God is all about. So you can see how being born again, the way of righteousness and being in the Kingdom are closely tied together.
We find Christ making a very interesting observation in Matthew 11:11-15:
Matthew 11:1-15: I tell you the truth: Among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing, and forceful men lay hold of it. For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John. And if you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come. He who has ears let him hear.
If the Kingdom of heaven began advancing from the days of John the Baptist, then the Kingdom is not some future ruling government but instead involves spiritual dynamics. The Scriptures clearly show the Kingdom of God began to be established in the first century and continues to advance to this very day. In Matthew 13:33, Christ likened the Kingdom to yeast that gradually works its way through dough until the entire dough is permeated. Jesus also had this to say about entering the Kingdom:
Matthew 23:13: Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut (present active imperative) the kingdom of heaven in men's faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying (present middle participle) to.
The Greek grammar here shows how what was occurring was occurring at the time Jesus was speaking. The religious leaders were preventing men from entering the Kingdom by their unwillingness to acknowledge who Christ was and what Christ was teaching as to the pathway for having a relationship with God. The religious leaders exercised great power and control over the people and people were afraid to think or behave in any way contrary to the teaching of the religious leaders. The NT Scriptures show people were afraid of being kicked our of the Synagogue for following Christ.
It is clear from the teachings of Christ that entering the kingdom is very much associated with living according to the two great commandments of love for God and love for your neighbor.
Mark 12:28-34: One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, "Of all the commandments, which is the most important?" "The most important one” answered Jesus, "is this: `Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.' The second is this: `Love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no commandment greater than these." "Well said, teacher," the man replied. "You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices." When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, "You are not far from the kingdom of God.
Again we see the Kingdom of God associated with the way of righteousness as defined by the law of love. Christ told the teacher he was close to the Kingdom when he expressed the understanding that to love God and man is what the Kingdom is all about. We also see the Kingdom of God associated with the working of the Spirit of God in relieving human suffering.
Matthew 12:28: But if I drive out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.
Like that of John the Baptist and Jesus, the ministry of Paul was focused on the Kingdom. When Paul was taken as a prisoner to Rome, he was allowed to live by himself with a soldier to guard him. While in Rome he initially addressed the Jewish leadership. What did he declare to them?
Acts 28:23: They arranged to meet Paul on a certain day, and came in even larger numbers to the place where he was staying. From morning till evening he explained and declared to them the kingdom of God and tried to convince them about Jesus from the Law of Moses and from the Prophets.
The Scriptures that follow this verse indicate that many of the Jews rejected Paul’s teaching about the Kingdom. The Jews had a paradigm about the Kingdom that they just could not let go. First century Judaism saw the promised Messiah as a conquering military leader who would restore the Davidic Kingdom to Israel and wipe out the Romans. They viewed the Kingdom as replacing Roman rule with their rule.
The Messiah that Paul was preaching was a crucified savior who taught a Kingdom that involved loving your enemies and doing good to them that hate you. Christ did not fit the paradigm of the Messiah the Jews were expecting.
Additional evidence for this is found in Acts 19:8. Here we find Paul in Ephesus and while there he “entered the synagogue and spoke boldly there for three months, arguing persuasively about the kingdom of God.” Again we find that teaching about the Kingdom of God was the focal point of Paul’s ministry. What was the response? Verse nine: “But some of them became obstinate; they refused to believe and publicly maligned the Way. So Paul left them. He took the disciples with him and had discussions daily in the lecture hall of Tyrannus.”
Here again we see a resistance to Paul’s preaching about the Kingdom of God. Why this reaction to what Paul was preaching? What was Paul teaching about the Kingdom of God that brought such a negative response? Paul was proclaiming that the Kingdom of God involved salvation through the death and resurrection of Jesus. The Jews found the idea of a crucified Messiah preposterous. Paul was also teaching that the pathway to the Kingdom was to follow the teaching of this crucified Messiah. He was teaching the Kingdom as an ethical system, something that Scripture reveals was being referred to in the first century as “the Way.” “The Way” involved repentance and forgiveness through the crucified and resurrected Christ and the pursuit of righteous living.
The Jews expected the Messiah to be a conquering military leader that would oust the Romans and reestablish the glories of the Davidic Kingdom. It is obvious from the reaction Paul received that he was not preaching this kind of Messiah or this kind of Kingdom. This is why his message was largely rejected by the Jewish community of the first century.
In Acts 20, we see Paul saying his goodbyes to the Ephesian Church elders. In verse 21 he tells them: “I have declared to both Jews and Greeks that they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus." In verse 25 he says: "Now I know that none of you among whom I have gone about preaching the kingdom will ever see me again.” Here again we see a synergism between repentance and faith in Christ and the preaching of the Kingdom.
Paul clearly shows that repentance and faith in Christ is what the Kingdom is all about. Repentance is all about a changed way of behaving before God and man. Faith in Christ is all about having our sins forgiven when we fall short of righteous behavior. Paul made it very clear the Kingdom of God relates to our conduct.
I Corinthians 6:9-11: Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.
Galatians 5:19-23: The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
Remember what Paul said to the Roman church. Romans14:17: “For the kingdom of God is righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” Paul is saying the same thing to the Corinthian and Galatian Church. The Kingdom of God involves living a Spirit filled way of life. It involves righteous living. It involves having been born of the Spirit and therefore having the power to live pleasingly before God. It involves having our sins forgiven and being reconciled to God.
What about Scriptures that appear to indicate the Kingdom is more than spiritual dynamics involving salvation through Christ and the practice of righteous behavior? There are a number of Scriptures that indicate the Kingdom has location in the heavenly realm and involves a different dimension of life after physical death. There are statements made by Christ and the apostles that appear to indicate the Kingdom is something that is inherited and such inheritance would be realized when Christ returned. We need to also ask why many of the Jews of Jesus day vehemently opposed the Gospel message and instead were looking for a physical kingdom to be established. In Part Two of this Three Part series I will address these issues.