When you hear the word kingdom, what do you think? Children usually imagine Disneyland, while older minds turn to medieval castles and knights at round tables. So it can be confusing when we’re reading the Gospels and Jesus keeps saying things like, “The kingdom of God is at hand” (Mark 1:15). What does He mean?
It’s an important word to wrap our mind (and heart) around. Jesus talks about the kingdom more than just about any other subject. (The term occurs over 100 times in the Gospels alone.) And He defines the gospel, or good news, as “the good news of the kingdom” (Matt. 4:23 NIV). If we want to know what Jesus means, the best place to start is the Old Testament, which forms the backdrop for His teaching.
The Reign of God
The Hebrew Scriptures describe God as a mighty King sitting upon His heavenly throne, feet resting on the earth. And the psalmist proclaims, “Sing praises to God, sing praises; sing praises to our King, sing praises. For God is the King of all the earth … God reigns over the nations, God sits on His holy throne” (Psalm 47:6-8).
God governs all creation, yes, but He created humanity to share in this task: “Let Us make man in Our image,” God declares, “and let them rule” over all the earth (Gen. 1:26). From the very beginning of the biblical story, we’re called to co-reign with God as a way of reflecting His dominion into the world. This image-bearing commission is not just for emperors, but for male and female, rich and poor, slave and free.
Of course, as we know, we made a royal mess of things. Our revolt against God has unleashed death and destruction and separated us from the life we were made to enjoy with Him. I’d cite a verse here, but it’s pretty much the entire story of the Old Testament. Time and again image-bearers became idol-makers, choosing rebellion instead of God’s rule. God’s purpose was to re-establish His rule in the world through a chosen people—namely, Israel—and when this was messed up too, God stepped onto the scene in Christ, essentially saying, “I’ll take care of this Myself.” Jesus arrived to inaugurate the redemptive kingdom of God.
Our revolt against God has unleashed death and destruction and separated us from the life we were made to enjoy with Him.
So here’s a first helpful insight: When we think of “kingdom,” we tend to think of a static place, a geographic territory or plot of land. But in the Bible, it refers more to a dynamic rule, or reign, of a king. This is true of both the Hebrew term (malkuth) and the Greek one (basileia). In most every instance, these could just as easily be translated “rule of God” as “kingdom of God.”
We’ve rebelled against God’s reign, which has left our world in a shambles. But Christ has come to re-establish the kingdom—and that is really good news!
So what does this kingdom look like? Can you give me a picture?
I’m glad you asked, because Jesus’ favorite way to teach about the kingdom is with parables. He doesn’t so much say, “The kingdom of God is,” followed by a dictionary definition but, rather, “The kingdom of God is like,” followed by a story or word picture. Jesus is telling us, When God sets up shop and is in charge, here’s how things roll.
Jesus arrived to inaugurate the redemptive kingdom of God.
Some parables emphasize how the kingdom grows from small and humble beginnings, like a mustard seed that grows into a tree or yeast that spreads throughout a batch of dough (Luke 13:18-21). Others emphasize the great value of the kingdom. It’s something worth giving everything for—like discovering treasure hidden in a field or coming upon a pearl of great price (Matt. 13:44-46). The Parable of the Sower in Mark 4:1-20 emphasizes the different responses people have to the kingdom: Are we soft and open to the rule of God in our life, or hardened and unwilling to receive it?
Jesus’ teachings reveal that God’s kingdom is a place of surprise and reversal, where the last become first and the first become last, where the proud are humbled and the humble exalted, and where God cares about not only your outward behavior but also the condition of your heart (Matt. 5).
Sometimes people talk about “building” God’s kingdom, but it’s interesting: Jesus never asks us to build it, but rather to receive it (Mark 10:15). God’s rule over the earth is already happening, but are we willing to repent, or turn, from trying to be lord of our own life? Are we willing to bend our knee to God’s rule, to submit ourselves to His authority and be shaped by His desire and purpose for us? When we do, we discover God’s is an “upside-down kingdom,” where power is used not to dominate others but to lay down our life in service to them. Where, in dying to ourselves and living unto God, we find that we truly live (Matt. 16:25; Matt. 20:25-28).
Now and Not Yet
God’s kingdom is both now and not yet, present among us today and also a hope on the horizon, something for which we must eagerly wait. How is this possible? Since God is still being patient with human rebellion, there is a “not yet” to the kingdom, with things far from the way they’re supposed to be. But in Christ the kingdom has also come “now.” And when we bend ourselves to the presence of Jesus, we can experience His power invading our life and breaking through us, His people, into the world.
God’s kingdom is present today and also a hope on the horizon, something for which we must eagerly wait.
Jesus went about preaching the kingdom, healing the sick, and casting out demons. This is a picture of the King at work, driving out the enemy and reclaiming lives in His land. Jesus says, “If I drive out demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has come to you” (Luke 11:20 NIV). It’s always here, Jesus tells us, and we see it every time the King victoriously claims patches of redemption in the battlefield of our world. This victory can be as simple as someone giving his or her life in obedience to Jesus, or as jaw-dropping as someone rising from the dead—which really, when you think about it, are the same thing.
Jesus taught His followers to pray, “Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10). This implies there’s still work to be done, a gap between the way things are and the way they someday will be. However, we won’t experience the fullness of the kingdom until the dead are raised and creation is flooded with the presence of God, saturated in the life-giving power of the King.
Jesus has inaugurated the kingdom, and though we’ve been rebels, He offers us a chance to become citizens in His redemptive reign. Through His death and resurrection, He’s reclaimed the world for God and opened up the way for us to get in on the action. We’re invited to become agents of His kingdom—we who are transformed by His earthshaking power when we say yes to Jesus as King.
Illustration by Adam Cruft