One of the most important themes of Jesus’ ministry is the theme of “kingdom.” Matthew uses the phrase, “kingdom of heaven,” while Mark and Luke prefer the term, “kingdom of God.” Almost everything Jesus taught revolved around the idea of the kingdom, but many of us really don’t understand the significance of Jesus’ “kingdom” teaching. Here are some things that might help us understand what Jesus means when he teaches about the kingdom of God.
The Promise of a Kingdom
The Hebrew prophets, who lived long before Jesus, promised that a special kind of kingdom would one day be set up on the earth. Daniel said (2:44-45),
The God of heaven will set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed, nor shall the kingdom be left to another people. It shall break in pieces all these kingdoms and bring them to an end, and it shall stand forever.
Other prophets, like Micah (see chapter 4), said it would be a kingdom made up of a remnant of the tribes of Israel, as well as people from every nation on the earth. God would gather up all the afflicted people of the earth, like a shepherd gathers his sheep, and rule over them.
Isaiah said (11:3-5) of the King whom God would anoint to reign over this kingdom,
He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide disputes by what his ears hear, but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; and he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. Righteousness shall be the belt of his waist, and faithfulness the belt of his loins.
This God-anointed king would bring about a never-ending era of peace and prosperity to all the people over whom he reigned. These were the sorts of promises God had made to his people about the coming kingdom:
- Enthrone a perfect shepherd to do God’s will
- Gather up the dispersed tribes of Israel
- Bring an end to the kingdoms that were filled with violence and injustice
- Welcome people of every foreign nation into the kingdom
- Usher in a final and never-ending era of peace and prosperity
This is what it meant to expect the Messiah (God’s anointed King). This is what it meant to look for the “kingdom of God” or “kingdom of heaven.”
The False Expectations
Sadly, we often tend to think Jesus’ contemporaries had completely misguided ideas about the kingdom and the Messiah. The truth is, the Jews of Jesus’ were right about what God was going to bring about, they were just wrong about how he would bring it about. The Jews thought the anointed King would establish God’s reign in the same way Rome’s generals established Caesar’s reign all over the earth. The kingdom of Rome reigned over the earth because Caesar killed and conquered everyone who stood opposed to him.
This is the way every kingdom seemed to be set up and established, why would God’s kingdom be any different? They expected God would appoint a strong Jewish leader, who would lead faithful and zealous Jews on a military campaign, overthrowing the forces of Rome and establishing Jerusalem as the new center of the world.
There would be peace and prosperity on the earth because all of the evil and wicked people would be put to death by the sword of the Messiah. The whole world would follow the Law of Moses and worship YHWH, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
The Teachings of Jesus the King
When Jesus came announcing the kingdom of God that the prophets had foretold, people were anxious to hear his take on the kingdom. Jesus primarily taught about the kingdom in parables and these parables must be read in the context of the Jewish hopes and expectations. Consider the parables in Matthew 13, where Jesus taught the following ideas:
- Sower – You must have the right sort of heart to be able to receive the teaching about the kingdom and remain faithful to the King for the long journey ahead.
- Weeds – The age of the Messiah will begin even while the age of evil still continues, with sons of the evil one and sons of the kingdom growing side by side in the world until the end of the age.
- Leaven and Mustard Seed – The kingdom isn’t going to come about all of a sudden, but will start slowly and grow gradually until it fills the whole earth.
- Treasure and Pearl – The kingdom is worth searching for and selling everything in order to possess.
But perhaps the most helpful parable is one I have often overlooked. Jesus said at the end of this section of parables, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old” (Matthew 13:52). I think what Jesus means is that if someone is going to understand the kingdom of heaven, they will have to combine the old treasures (the promises of the prophets) with the new treasures (the things he was revealing and disclosing to them).
Unfortunately, I think many of us today tend to be good about bringing out what is “new,” but often ignore what is “old.”
The Kingdom of God
Jesus has, is, and will bring the kingdom about which the prophets spoke. He didn’t set up this kingdom by killing others, but by allowing himself to be killed; and he told his followers if they wanted to be part of this kingdom, they would have to accept the same sort of fate, taking up their cross and following him.
This kingdom was established not by war or violence, the way other kingdoms are established, but through meekness and self-giving love. It is a kingdom that started like a tiny mustard seed, has been growing for 2,000 years, and will eventually take over the entire earth. The meek, as Jesus said, will one day inherit the earth (Matthew 5:5).
Someday evil will be completely vanquished. The angels will be sent to gather out of the kingdom all of the evil-doers to face judgment. All that will be left will be the sons and daughters of the kingdom, left to enjoy the reign and rule of God forever and ever, and “shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father” (Matthew 13:43).
I love you and God loves you,