The Kingdom of God
by Matthew Elton
“Do not worry then, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear for clothing?’ For the Gentiles eagerly seek all these things; for your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” -Matthew 6:31-33
What is the kingdom of God? Jesus talked about the kingdom of God more than anything else. He never specifically defined it. His mostly Jewish audience would have already understood what it is from the Old Testament. Unfortunately, many Christians today do not understand the kingdom of God even though it is the central theme of Christ’s teaching. If we are to seek it first, we must understand what it is, using scripture as our guide.
The Importance of the Kingdom
From the day he began his ministry until he ascended into heaven, Jesus preached this message everywhere: “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand” (Matthew 4:17). Jesus highly valued the kingdom of God and compared it to a treasure in a field or a pearl of great value that a person would sacrifice everything to obtain (Matthew 13).
Christ’s view of the kingdom of God was deeply eschatological in nature. In places like Matthew 24, Luke 21, and Mark 13, Jesus went into detail about the end of the present age and the beginning of a new, messianic age in which the messiah (meaning “anointed king”) would overthrow the governments of the world and rule as the king over the entire world forever. Almost all of Christ’s parables deal directly with this vision of a final judgement that is coming soon to the earth (see Matthew 25:1-13, Matthew 22:1-14, Matthew 25:14-30, Matthew 20:1-16).
The Prophets Envisioned the Kingdom
“I kept looking in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven One like a Son of Man was coming, And He came up to the Ancient of Days and was presented before Him. And to Him was given dominion, glory and a kingdom, that all the peoples, nations and men of every language might serve Him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion which will not pass away; and His kingdom is one Which will not be destroyed.” -Daniel 7:13-14
Identifying himself as the messiah whom Daniel had prophesied about, Jesus took upon himself the title “Son of Man.” In a verse often quoted at Christmas, Isaiah also prophesied about the messiah receiving a kingdom and power: “For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us; and the government will rest on His shoulders” (Isaiah 9:6a).
The prophets foresaw a coming messianic age in which the messiah would rule over the whole world and establish peace on the earth: “And He will judge between the nations, and will render decisions for many peoples; and they will hammer their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not lift up sword against nation, and never again will they learn war” (Isaiah 2:4, see also Isaiah 60:18).
In this messianic age, there will even be peace in the animal kingdom – “And the wolf will dwell with the lamb, and the leopard will lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little boy will lead them” (Isaiah 11:6).
Knowledge of God will fill the earth (Jeremiah 31:34, Habakkuk 2:14) and rather than the sun, God himself will be the light of the world (Isaiah 60:19).
Everything Wrong Made Right
We see all of this fulfilled in Revelation 21-22, which is a vision of the age to come – what it will look like when the messiah rules the world. Comparing Revelation 21-22 (the very end of the Bible) to Genesis 1-2 (the very beginning of the Bible), the parallels are amazing. What God originally intended the beginning is what he gets in the end.
In the beginning, God created the earth “very good” (Genesis 1:31). Prior to sin, there was no death, disease, crying, or pain. God dwelled on the earth with man, walking and talking with man in the garden (Genesis 3:8). It was only after they sinned that Adam and Eve hid from God and felt ashamed. Sin caused a separation between God and man. Because of sin, the earth was cursed (Genesis 3:18). This curse affected the whole world and brought about thorns and thistles infesting the ground, disease infecting the world, and unrest in the animal kingdom.
But there’s good news: God has not given up on the earth! He is a God of restoration who has a plan to make what is wrong right. We see in Revelation 21-22 that in the end, God will get what he wanted in the beginning. Sin will be no more, and man’s relationship with God will be fully restored. God will once again dwell on the earth with man – “Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He will dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be among them” (Revelation 21:3b).
The tree of life will be restored (Revelation 22:2) and “there will no longer be any curse” (Revelation 22:3a). In fact, there will be “there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:4b).
The kingdom of God can be summed up in this one simple sentence: Everything wrong with the world made right!
God’s Covenants with Abraham and Isaac
“Now the LORD said to Abram, ‘Go forth from your country, and from your relatives and from your father’s house, to the land which I will show you; and I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great; and so you shall be a blessing; and I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse. And in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.” -Genesis 12:1-3
The story of the kingdom of God begins with Abraham. God called Abraham (originally named Abram) to leave the land in which he was living and travel to the land of Canaan, which God promised to give to Abraham and his descendants forever. From Abraham would come a kingdom that would last forever.
“The Lord said to Abram, after Lot had separated from him, ‘Raise your eyes now, and look from the place where you are, northward and southward and eastward and westward; for all the land that you see I will give to you and to your offspring forever.’” -Genesis 13:14-15
God later extended the territory to include all the land of Cannan.
“And I will give to you, and to your offspring after you, the land where you are now an alien, all the land of Canaan, for a perpetual holding; and I will be their God.”-Genesis 17:8
God’s covenant with Abraham was renewed with Isaac, the son whom God had promised to miraculously give to Abraham in his old age.
“The LORD appeared to him and said, “Do not go down to Egypt; stay in the land of which I shall tell you. Sojourn in this land and I will be with you and bless you, for to you and to your descendants I will give all these lands, and I will establish the oath which I swore to your father Abraham. I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven, and will give your descendants all these lands; and by your descendants all the nations of the earth shall be blessed; because Abraham obeyed Me and kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes and My laws.”
God’s Covenant With Moses
Isaac’s son Jacob (later renamed Israel) became the father of twelve sons from whom came the twelve tribes of Israel and the “Israelites”. But there were some bumps in the road. The rest of Genesis explains how the Israelites ended up in Egypt rather than Canaan, the land that had been promised to them. In the next book, Exodus, God calls Moses to free the Israelites from slavery in Egypt and lead them to the promised land.
God made a covenant with Moses. If the Israelites kept the commandments, they would possess the land forever and be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation:
“Now then, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is Mine; and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” -Exodus 19:5-6a
God’s Covenant With David
The Israelites entered the land and took possession of it. Their first king, Saul, eventually turned away from God. But their next king, David, was “a man after God’s own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14, Acts 13:22). God made a covenant with King David in which he promised that one of David’s descendants would reign as the king over the whole world for all eternity!
“I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever.” -2 Samuel 7:12-13
In Jeremiah 33, God tied this promise to the sun and the moon – as long as the sun and moon continue to rise, this promise can never be broken.
“Thus says the LORD, ‘If My covenant for day and night stand not, and the fixed patterns of heaven and earth I have not established, then I would reject the descendants of Jacob and David My servant, not taking from his descendants rulers over the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. But I will restore their fortunes and will have mercy on them.’” -Jeremiah 33:25-26
Bumps in the Road
The Israelites eagerly awaited the promised king who would rule forever. But once again, there were bumps in the road. Israel became divided into a northern kingdom (Israel) and a southern kingdom (Judah). Then, the divided Israel faced serious threats from foreign nations.
First, the Assyrians invaded and conquered the northern kingdom of Israel, which accounted for ten out of the twelve tribes. Then, the Babylonians invaded Judah and took the remaining two tribes into exile in Babylon. At this point, the Temple lay in ruins and the Israelites no longer possessed any of the land.
But God was faithful. In a verse frequently quoted out of context, God promised that the Babylonian captivity would only last for 70 years, and after that, the Israelites would return to the land:
“For thus says the LORD, ‘When seventy years have been completed for Babylon, I will visit you and fulfill My good word to you, to bring you back to this place. For I know the plans that I have for you,’ declares the LORD, ‘plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope.’” – Jeremiah 29:10-11
Sure enough, the Persians conquered Babylon and allowed the Israelites to return to the land of Canaan. But it was a still a rocky road. Under Alexander the Great, the Greek Empire conquered Israel and occupied the land. Under the leadership of Judas Maccabeus, Israel was briefly re-established during the Maccabean Revolt, which is commemorated every year in the celebration of Hanukah. But it didn’t last, and the land eventually fell to the Roman Empire.
The Messiah They Didn’t Expect
At the time of Christ, the land of Israel was under military occupation by the Romans. The Romans were polytheists with no respect for the one true God. Roman soldiers could force Jews into slavery by making them to carry gear for up to one mile.
It is in this historical context – a context of oppression and despair – that the Christmas story takes place. The Jews eagerly awaited the fulfillment of God’s promise to David – the soon coming king who would overthrow the Roman Empire and rule the world forever. This is why Matthew and Luke both open their gospels with long genealogies. They may seem boring to us, but they are actually incredibly exciting because they prove that Jesus is both a descendant of Abraham and a descendant of David, and therefore eligible to fulfill the prophecies.
Jesus identified himself as the Son of Man whom Daniel had prophesied about, but his approach to establishing the kingdom of God was totally opposite of what most people expected. The Jewish zealots were expecting a military leader like Judas Maccabeus who would liberate Israel by military force. Jesus, on the other hand, taught nonviolence: “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44). Rather than fighting the Roman soldier who could force you to carry his gear for a mile, Jesus said to carry it for two miles (Matthew 5:41) and if a soldier slaps you on the cheek, “turn the other to him also!” (Matthew 5:39).
The Jews expected the kingdom to be established by military force, but Jesus said: “do not resist an evil person” (Matthew 5:39) and “all those who take up the sword shall perish by the sword” (Matthew 26:52).
Most shockingly of all, Jesus was crucified. To the Jews of that day, it seemed totally unimaginable that the promised king who was supposed to rule the world forever would be executed on a stake. But this had all been prophesied (e.g. Isaiah 53) and was part of God’s plan. Understandably, it was a hard truth to accept. Thus, Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1:23, “we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews”.
Sin had to be atoned for so that all people – including non-Jews – could enter the covenant promises that God made to Abraham, Moses, and David. Paul declares in Romans 9-11 that, like wild branches grafted onto an olive tree, we too are now counted as descendants of Abraham through our faith in Jesus Christ. This means that all of the promises God made about the kingdom now apply to us! The kingdom promises are received not through ancestry or ritual (e.g. circumcision) but through faith and love.
“For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.” -Galatians 5:6 (ESV)
The Kingdom Lifestyle
The ethics of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7, see also Luke 6) make absolutely no sense, unless you view them in light of the kingdom of God as a soon coming reality.
For Jesus, it was okay to suffer injustice in this present age because he foresaw a soon coming kingdom in which everything about the present world would be flipped upside down. “The last shall be first, and the first last” (Matthew 20:16).
In the present world, it is the rich, the powerful, the popular, and the happy who everyone considers blessed. But in the coming kingdom, the poor, the lowly, the despised, the weeping and mourning, the humble, those hungering and thirsting for justice – these are the ones who are blessed (Matthew 5, Luke 6)!
Jesus began his public teaching with the radical words: “Blessed are the poor… blessed are those who weep… blessed are you when men hate you” (Luke 6:21-22). He foresaw a coming kingdom in which the poor, hungry, and persecuted would receive blessing, but the rich would be “sent away empty” (Luke 1:53).
The ethics of Jesus are directly tied to this vision of the kingdom of God. He will judge his followers on whether they helped the poor and needy: “to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me” (see Matthew 25:31-46).
For Jesus, the kingdom of God flips the world upside down. “If anyone wants to be first, he shall be last of all and servant of all” (Mark 9:35b). “Whoever wishes to be first among you shall be slave of all” (Mark 10:44).
Count the Cost: The Good News of a Challenging Gospel
The kingdom of God is everything wrong with the world made right. It is good news, but it is also incredibly challenging. It’s good news because there will be no more death, pain, sin, or evil when the kingdom comes. It’s challenging because seeking the kingdom means denying one’s self, taking up one’s cross, and following Christ. This is not a decision to be taken lightly. Jesus warned us to count the cost before we even begin to follow him.
“Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple. For which one of you, when he wants to build a tower, does not first sit down and calculate the cost to see if he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who observe it begin to ridicule him, saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’ Or what king, when he sets out to meet another king in battle, will not first sit down and consider whether he is strong enough with ten thousand men to encounter the one coming against him with twenty thousand? Or else, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace. So then, none of you can be My disciple who does not give up all his own possessions.” -Luke 14:27-33
There are many false gospels in the world. We must always stay focused on the true gospel that Jesus preached: “Repent for the kingdom of God is at hand” (Matthew 4:17). Jesus was not introducing a new idea when he preached the gospel. He preached the same gospel that the Old Testament prophets preached when they foretold of an everlasting Kingdom that will be established on the earth with justice, peace, and righteousness forever.
In a world filled with war and terrorism, we have the hope that a king is coming who will establish peace on the earth forever (Isaiah 2:4). In a world filled with death and sorrow, we have the hope that a king is coming who will throw death into the lake of fire and destroy death and sorrow forever (Revelation 20). We share this message with others through words that tell them about the kingdom of God, and through actions that show people what the kingdom will be like by meeting real needs in the world with the love of Christ. “Let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action” (1 John 3:18b).
As ambassadors for Christ (2 Corinthians 5:20) and citizens of heaven (Philippians 3:20) we represent the kingdom to the world by being peacemakers and demonstrating the radically sacrificial love that Jesus demonstrated – we love enemies, turn the other cheek, and forgive the unforgivable (Matthew 5-7). This kind of lifestyle is considered radical in the present day world, but it will be commonplace when the kingdom of God comes. By living it out, we represent the kingdom on the earth until it is fully established in the future and all evil is eliminated.
The kingdom message is both good news, and a serious challenge. It is good news because it promises everything wrong with the world will be made right. It is challenging because it demands repentance and obedience to Christ. In the same way that Jesus warned people to repent before the kingdom comes (Matthew 4:17), we should also preach repentance, “speaking the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15).
The kingdom message is the gospel. The word “gospel” means “good news”. The gospel message is the message that the kingdom of God is coming, that Jesus – the king of the kingdom – is coming back to rule the world. It’s the hope that anchors our souls (Hebrews 6:19) so we can endure the challenges of this present evil age and shine as lights in a dark world (Philippians 2:15).