The heart of Jesus' teachings centers around the theme of the kingdom of God. This expression is found in sixty-one separate sayings in the Synoptic Gospels. Counting parallels to these passages, the expression occurs over eighty-five times. It also occurs twice in John (3:3, 5). It is found in such key places as the preaching of John the Baptist, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near" ( Matt 3:2 ); Jesus' earliest announcement, "The time has come The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!" ( Mark 1:15 ; cf. Matt 4:17 ; Luke 4:42-43 );the prayer Jesus taught his disciples, "your kingdom come" ( Matt 6:10 ); in the Beatitudes, "for theirs is the kingdom of heaven" ( Matthew 5:3 Matthew 5:10 ); at the Last Supper, "I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it anew in the kingdom of God" ( Mark 14:25 ); and in many of Jesus' parables ( Matthew 13:24 Matthew 13:44 Matthew 13:45 Matthew 13:47 ; Mark 4:26 Mark 4:30 ; Luke19:11 ).
It was once popular in certain circles to argue that the expressions "kingdom of God" and "kingdom of heaven" referred to two different realities. It is now clear, however, that they are synonyms. This is evident for several reasons. For one, the two expressions are used in the same sayings of Jesus, but where Matthew uses"kingdom of heaven, " Mark or Luke or both use "kingdom of God."Second, Matthew himself uses these two expressions interchangeably in 19:23-24, "itis hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God." Finally, we know that "heaven" was frequently used as a circumlocution for "God" by devout Jews. Due to respect for the third commandment ("You shall not misuse the name of the Lordyour God" [ Exod 20:7 ]), pious Jews used various circumlocutions for the sacred name of God (YHWH) in order to avoid the danger of breaking this commandment. One such circumlocution was the term"heaven." This is seen in the expression "kingdom of heaven" but also in such passages as Luke 15:18, 21 ("Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you") and Mark 11:30.
Various Interpretations Despite the centrality of this expression in Jesus' teachings, there has been a great deal of debate over the years as to exactly what Jesus meant by it. One reason for this is that neither Jesus nor the Evangelists ever defined exactly what they meant by this expression. They simply assumed that their hearers/readers would understand.
The Political Kingdom. According to this view Jesus sought to establish a Davidic-like kingdom in Jerusalem. This kingdom was political in nature and sought to free Israel from the Romans. Jesus was in essence a political revolutionary who sought to arm his disciples ( Luke22:35-38 ), entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday as a king ( Mark 11:11 ),challenged the political establishment by cleansing the temple ( Mark 11:15-18 ),urged people to rebel by not paying their taxes ( Mark 12:13-17 ;is reread to teach the opposite of its present meaning ), enlisted zealots as disciples ( Mark 3:18 ), used the taking up of the cross (which was a symbol of zealot sacrifice for enlisting disciples Mark 8:34 ), and was crucified as a political rebel ( Mark 15:26 ) between two other rebels ( Mark15:27 ).
This interpretation has found few supporters over the years, but it is continually raised. It is an impossible view, however, for the evidence against it is overwhelming. The presence of a tax collector among the disciples is impossible to explain if Jesus were a revolutionary, for tax collectors were seen as collaborators with the Romans and hated by zealots. Such teachings as Matthew 5:9 ("Blessed are the peacemakers"); 38-42 ("If someone [a Roman soldier] forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles"); 43-47 ("Love your enemies"); Matthew 26:52 ("all who draw the sword will die by the sword"); Mark 12:13-17 ("Give to Caesar what isCaesar's") simply do not permit such an interpretation. To claim that all such sayings in the Gospels are inauthentic or to reconstruct their supposed original form in a radical way is to manipulate the evidence to sustain a thesis, rather than to allow the evidence to determine the thesis.
The "Liberal" or Spiritual Kingdom. During the height of theological liberalism the kingdom of God was understood as God's rule in the human heart. One of the favorite passages used to support this was Luke 17:20-21, "the kingdom of God is within you." Any eschatological thoughts associated with this expression were seen as unrefined, primitive, Jewish apocalyptic thinking that Jesus never outgrew and that was only the "husk" and not the "kernel" of his teachings. Or they we reinterpreted as symbols of the inner rule of God in the heart. The kingdom of God was God's spiritual reign in the life of the believer that resulted in an inner moral ethic. This ethic focused on Jesus' teachings concerning the universal Fatherhood of God, the infinite value of the human soul, and the love commandment.
Liberal theology, which was built upon a belief in continual evolutionary progress and the ultimate goodness of humanity, was dealt a mortal blow with the coming of World War I, and the subsequent years have done nothing to revive its naive optimism in humanity. This, along with the rediscovery of the eschatological element in the teachings of Jesus, brought about the demise of this interpretation. Like the liberal interpretation of the nineteenth century, modern attempts to eliminate the eschatological dimensions of Jesus' teachings by seeing them as symbols to which the present reader gives his or her own meaning, are also impossible to accept. One simply cannot eliminate the eschatological dimension of Jesus' teachings. The biblical evidence will not permit it.
The "Consistent" or Future Kingdom. At the turn of the nineteenth century the eschatological dimension of Jesus' teachings was rediscovered. It became evident that Jesus was not a nineteenth-century liberal but a first-century Jew. As a result it was clear that Jesus must have thought to a great extent like a first-centuryJew. Since the kingdom of God was seen by most Jews in Jesus' day as a future, supernatural kingdom that would bring history to a close, it was logical to think that Jesus thought similarly. Jesus' sayings concerning the kingdom of God would have been understood by his audience as referring to such a kingdom, and since Jesus made no radical attempt to correct such thinking, we must understand his teachings on the kingdom of God as eschatological.
According to this view Jesus taught that the kingdom of God, which would bring history to its end, was future. Yet this event lay not in the far distant future. On the contrary, it was very near. It had not yet arrived, but it was to appear momentarily. Signs and powers of the kingdom were already at work, and prefigurements of its glory were already present. As a result Jesus taught along with announcement of the kingdom of God's nearness an "interim ethic" for this brief in-between period of history. Soon the Son of Man would come, the final judgment would take place, and world history as we know it would cease. During this in-between period believers were to live a heroic ethic. They were to avoid divorce, refrain from marriage, love their enemies, turn the other cheek, not retaliate, give to whoever had a need.
It is clear that this interpretation takes seriously the future dimension of Jesus' sayings concerning the kingdom of God. On the other hand, it ignored another kind of saying found in the Gospels, which involves the announcement that the kingdom has already in some way come. These sayings involving the arrival of the kingdom of God were usually seen as inauthentic and later creations of the church by advocates of this view.
The "Realized" or Present Kingdom. In response to the former view, which arose in Germany, there arose in England an opposing view. According to this view Jesus did announce the coming of the awaited kingdom. However, he did not announce that it was coming in the near future. On the contrary, he announced that it had already arrived. Now in Jesus' ministry the kingdom of God had already come. There was therefore no need to look for something in the future. The Son of Man had already come, and he had brought with him the kingdom. Nothing is still awaited. In its entirety the kingdom of God was realized in the coming of Jesus.
This view, like the "consistent" view, has the benefit of taking seriously certain biblical data. There is no doubt, as we shall see, that there are in the Gospels sayings of Jesus that announce that the kingdom has come. They do not announce simply that it is near. They announce that it is here. It is evident that these last two views, unless modified in some way, contradict one another. Yet both offer convincing biblical evidence in support of their views. (This cannot be said of the first two views.) Like the"consistent" view, this view also tends to see the biblical data that contradicted it as being inauthentic. Only in this instance it was the sayings that spoke of the kingdom of God being future that were inauthentic.
The Biblical Evidence It is evident that there is biblical evidence to support both the "consistent" and "realized" views. In certain passages, for example, it is clear that the kingdom of God is future. In the Lord's prayer we pray"Your kingdom come" ( Luke 11:2 ), and the kingdom must as a result be future. Jesus' saying that "Not everyone who says to meLord, Lord, ' will enter the kingdom of God" must also refer to a future event, for he continues "Many will say to me on that day" ( Matt 7:21-23 ).Jesus' institution of the Last Supper also looks forward to "that day when I [Jesus] drink it anew in the kingdom of God" ( Mark 14:25 ). Other passages associate the coming of the kingdom of God with the final judgment ( Matt 5:19-20 ; 8:11-12 ; 25:31-46 ; Luke 13:22-30 ).It cannot be denied therefore that there are numerous passages in the Gospels that indicate that Jesus understood the kingdom of God to be still future.
In other passages, however, it is equally clear that the kingdom of God is already present. Jesus told his hearers "if I drive out demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has come to you" ( Luke 11:20 ; cf. Matt 12:28 ). In four of the other instances where the same verb "has come" (ephthasen) is used in the New Testament it clearly means "has arrived, " is "now present" ( Rom9:31 ; 2 Col10:14 ; Php 3:16 ; 1 Thess 2:16 ).In the other instance where it is future, however, the tense is future (phthasomen, 1 Thess 4:15 ).Elsewhere Jesus declared that his coming marked the end of the old era when he said"The Law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John. Since that time, the good news of the kingdom of God is being preached" ( Luke 16:16 ). Here two distinct periods of history are distinguished. The former is referred to as the period of the Law and the prophets. The second is the period of the kingdom of God. John the Baptist is seen as a bridge who both brings the "old" to its conclusion and announces the breaking in of the "new." This "new" thing, which cannot be mixed with the old ( Mr 2:21-22 ),which gathers the outcasts ( Matt 11:4-6 ) and the lost tribes of Israel ( Mark 3:13-19 ; Matt 19:28 ), which manifests signs and marvels ( Matt 13:16-17 ),which inaugurates a new covenant ( 1 Cor 11:25 ), is nothing other than the arrival of the kingdom of God. Jesus also announced that now already the long-awaited messianic banquet had begun ( Luke 14:15-24 ).The kingdom of God was now in their presence ( Luke 17:20-21 "among" is a better translation than "within" ).
How should one deal with this apparently contradictory data? Should we decide the issue by majority vote? If so, the "future" interpretation would win over the"present" one, because there are more examples in its support in the Gospels. Yet rather than claim that one group of these sayings is "authentic" whereas the other is not, we should first analyze carefully exactly what the word "kingdom"means. Perhaps this will provide the key for understanding what Jesus meant by the"kingdom of God." How is the term "kingdom" to be understood? Should it be understood statically as denoting a realm or place? If this is correct and"kingdom" refers to a territory or piece of real estate, then it is evident that the kingdom of God cannot have arrived. There has been no geographical or cosmic changes that have taken place in the coming of Jesus. The planet remains today essentially as it was in the time of Christ. No new territory exists. No place on this planet can be designated "the kingdom of God." On the other hand, should we understand the term dynamically as referring to the rule or reign of a king?
Both in the Old Testament and in the New Testament the term "kingdom" (malkut[tWk.l;m] and[Alexandreuv"]basileia [basileiva])is understood as dynamic in nature and refers primarily to the rule or reign of a king. It is seldom used in a static sense to refer to a territory. As a result, in the vast majority of instances it would be better to translate the expression "kingdom of God" as the "rule of God." That Jesus understood it this way is evident from such passages as Luke 19:12 ("A man of noble birth went to a distant country to have himself appointed king, " literally "to receive a kingdom [basileia]";cf. also v. 15); Matthew 6:33 ("seek first his kingdom"); and Mark 10:15 ("receive the kingdom of God like a little child").
Understood as the "reign of God" it is possible for Jesus to announce that in fulfillment of the Old Testament promises the reign of God has arrived. In Jesus' coming Satan has been defeated ( Luke 10:18 ; 11:20-22 ), the outcasts of Israel are being gathered as predicted ( Mark 2:15-16 ; Luke 14:15-24 ),the Old Testament promises are fulfilled ( Luke 10:23-24 ),the resurrection of the dead has begun ( 1 Cor 15:20 ), anew covenant has been inaugurated ( 1 Cor 11:25 ), the promised Spirit has come as the prophets foretold ( Mark 1:8 ). Indeed the kingdom is "already now" realized in history.
However, the consummation of the "already now" still lies in the future. The coming of the Son of Man, the final resurrection, faith turning to sight, are "not yet." The kingdom of God is both now and not yet. Thus the kingdom of God is"realized" and present in one sense, and yet "consistent" and future in another. This is not a contradiction, but simply the nature of the kingdom. The kingdom has come in fulfillment of the Old Testament promises. A new covenant has been established. But its final manifestation and consummation lie in the future. Until then we are to be good and faithful servants ( Luke 19:11-27 ).
Implications If the kingdom is both already now and not yet, the believer must be on guard against the danger of emphasizing one aspect of the kingdom at the expense of the other. A one-sided emphasis on the "already now, " which emphasizes miracles, healing, victory over sin, and gifts God has given his church, and ignores the"not yet" may lead to an optimistic triumphalism that will result in disillusionment. Jesus' teachings concerning the tribulation (s) that lay ahead (Mark 13;Matt. 24-25; Luke 21) warn against such optimism. The symbol of discipleship Jesus gave to his disciples is that of bearing a cross! The crown awaits the consummation. The enjoyment of the firstfruits of the kingdom must be tempered by the fact that we still live by fait hand not sight. We still long for the perishable to become clothed with the imperishable, the mortal with immortality ( 1 Cor 15:53 ). In the meantime we are called to endure to the end.
On the other hand, a one-sided emphasis on the not yet may lead to defeatism and despair in this life and a neglect of the joy and victory over sin and death in theSpirit's having already come. The "gates of Hades" ( Matt 16:18 ) shall not overcome the church! Even in this life because the kingdom has come, we can be"transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory" ( 2 Cor 3:18 ). The now and the not yet must be held in tension. Believers can rejoice in having passed from death into life and in the abiding presence of the Spirit of God. But the victories in the present life, are also accompanied with all too many defeats.
Believers are thus encouraged both by the victories of the already now and the defeats of the not yet. The former having provided a taste of the glory which is to be revealed ( 1 Peter 5:1 ) causes us to long all the more for the not yet. Similarly, because of the experience of defeat, sorrow, and in seeing the corruption of the world around us, we also long all the more for the not yet that awaits. Thus Christians continue to look longingly toward the blessed hope ( Titus 2:13 ),when the Son of Man will return and bring the kingdom to its consummation. Having tasted of the firstfruits that are already realized, the believer prays all the more earnestly"your kingdom come" ( Matt 6:10 ) and "Maranatha" ( 1Cor 16:22 ; cf. Rev22:20 ).
Robert H. Stein
See also Jesus Christ
Bibliography D. C. Allison, Jr., The End of the Ages Has Come; G. R.Beasley-Murray, Jesus and the Kingdom of God; B. Chilton and J. I. H. McDonald, Jesus and the Ethics of the Kingdom; O. Cullman, Christ and Time; R. H. Hiers, The Kingdom of God in the Synoptic Tradition; W. G. K mel, Promise and Fulfillment;G. E. Ladd, Jesus and the Kingdom; G. Lundstrm, The Kingdom of God in the Teaching of Jesus; N. Perrin, The Kingdom of God in the Teaching of Jesus; R. Schnackenburg, God's Rule and Kingdom; R. H. Stein, The Method and Message of Jesus' Teachings; W. Willis, ed., The Kingdom of God in 20th-Century Interpretation.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Kingdom of God
'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".