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The Kingdom of God

Christopher D Marshall

At a time when the world needs the Christian community more than ever to live up to its God-given vocation in the world, many in the church seem to have, quite literally, lost the plot.

The kingdom of God is the key to everything Jesus said and did. Without some understanding of the term it is impossible to make proper sense of the gospel narratives and to answer the imperative question: How do we do God's will on earth as it is done in Heaven?

few years ago a woman came to talk to me about a conflict that was threatening to tear her church apart. The dispute centred on whether the bread used in the Communion service should be leavened bread or unleavened. Some in the congregation were claiming that, because the Lord's Supper emerged from the Jewish Passover where unleavened bread was used, and because leaven is used in Scripture as a symbol of sin,1 it is sinful to use ordinary bread in Communion!

I was able to reassure the woman that, as far as I was aware, God didn't much care what kind of bread we used. But after she left my office I found myself troubled over what this incident revealed about the current state of the church.

At a time when the world needs the Christian community more than ever to live up to its God-given vocation in the world, many in the church seem to have, quite literally, lost the plot. They have forgotten, if ever they knew, what the Christian story is really all about and what the church's role in this ongoing story is, and they fill the void with trifling disputes and petty distractions.

But, as J├╝rgen Moltmann points out:

The church is not there for its own sake. It is there for the sake of 'Jesus' concern'. All the church's interests -- its continuation in its existing form, the extension of its influence -- must be subordinated to the interests of the kingdom of God. If the spirit and the institutions of the church are in line with God's kingdom, then the church is Christ's church. If they run counter to God's kingdom, the church loses its right to exist and becomes a superfluous religious society.2

The leaven my visitor's congregation ought to have been preoccupied with is the leaven of God's kingdom.3 "Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness", Jesus instructed his followers, and all the rest will follow.4

There can be little doubt that Jesus himself was utterly preoccupied with God's kingdom. On this New Testament scholarship has been agreed for a very long time.5 The phrase is constantly on his lips.

There are around 60 different sayings in the gospel tradition in which Jesus uses the term. His whole mission centred on the happy announcement that "the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near".6 The kingdom of God is the key to everything Jesus said and did. Without some understanding of the term, then, it is impossible to make proper sense of the gospel narratives.

What did Jesus mean?

Although he used the phrase 'kingdom of God' dozens of times, Jesus never defined precisely what he meant by it. There were perhaps two reasons for this. On the one hand, Jesus could assume his hearers already knew what he was talking about. The notion of God's kingship pervades the Jewish Scriptures and was the presupposition of all Jewish theology.

On the other hand, Jesus intended his entire ministry to give content to what he meant by the term. The kingdom of God was not one idea among many in his theological lexicon; it was the master-theme from which all else flowed, and which everything he said and did illuminated.

Put differently, Jesus took a familiar concept in Palestinian Judaism and infused it, through his own teaching and praxis, with fresh meaning, or at least with a distinctive set of implications. It is not really possible, therefore, to capture the richness of meaning of the kingdom of God in a simple definition. To do justice to the concept we need to appreciate both its standard biblical-Jewish connotations and the particularities of Jesus' use of it.

An activity, not an abstraction

The first thing to note is that the word 'kingdom' in biblical and Jewish tradition has a dynamic rather than a static sense. It denotes an activity more than a territory, a power more than a place. God's kingdom is not a piece of real estate; it is God's activity of ruling. It is God exercising royal power, God functioning as a king. Accordingly the term 'kingdom of God' is perhaps better translated as the reign or rule or kingship or government of God.

Jesus shared this dynamic understanding. That is why he spoke of the kingdom of God 'coming upon' or 'arriving' or 'appearing'. That is why he could appeal to his miracles, especially his exorcisms, as evidence of God's kingdom in action.7 The kingdom of God was not, for Jesus, simply a theological proposition.8 It was a divine energy at work in him to overthrow the kingdom of darkness and set its captives free, to feed the hungry, to heal the sick and raise the dead.

When Jesus spoke of 'entering' God's kingdom he meant entering the sphere of God's power. To 'see' or 'receive' the kingdom is to be receptive to God's redeeming power. To 'inherit' the kingdom is to be a beneficiary of the future triumph of God's transforming power. The kingdom of God, then, is God's power at work to put right what is wrong in the world, and so to accomplish God's will on earth as it is in heaven.

An awaited event to confirm present faith

Scripture speaks of God's kingly activity in two distinct senses.9 On the one hand, throughout the Old Testament there is a repeated affirmation that God's kingdom already exists in fact. As the one true God and the creator of all that exists, God alone "is a great king over all the earth".10 He is also the only true king of Israel, which is a unique theocracy within the family of nations.11 In both cases, God's kingdom is even now a present reality.

But it is a contested reality. According to the biblical story, a major rebellion is underway. Satan has risen in opposition to God's rule; humanity has fallen under the sway of evil powers; even creation itself seems out of control. Despite the reality of God's kingly rule, all is not well in the realm. Sin, sickness, death and disease seem to deny the fact that God is in charge.

For this reason, as well as affirming the present kingship of God, the Old Testament also speaks, on the other hand, of the coming of God's kingdom. It looks forward to a final day when God will exert his ruling power to defeat evil, to regather Israel and restore her sovereignty, to heal creation of its distortions and end the tyranny of sin, sickness and death. The coming of the kingdom is the coming of God in person to bring all reality back under his loving lordship, so that the earth is once more filled with the knowledge of God as the waters cover the sea.12

It is this future dimension of God's kingship that Jesus directly evokes when he commences his ministry by declaring "the time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God has come near".13 The time of waiting is up! The time for the manifestation of God's final rule has at last arrived. Future hope is becoming present experience, in and through the activity of Jesus himself.

Jesus' total ministry was concerned with demonstrating the fulfilment of this biblical hope. His exorcisms were proof that Satan had been bound and his house was being plundered.14 His healings were testimony to Isaiah's prophecy that God's coming reign would enable the blind to see, the deaf to hear and the lame to walk.15

His feeding miracles anticipated the end of famine.16 His calming of storms and walking on water reasserted God's rule over the natural order.17 His parables were coded invitations for people to discover the kingdom in unexpected places and make it their own.18

His eating with tax collectors and sinners enacted the end of religious prejudice and showed that God was now drawing all people into a new relationship of intimacy with himself.19 Through the person and activity of Jesus, the long awaited act of God to reclaim the world for himself was underway.

The beginning of the end

But biblical hope was not to be fulfilled in one fell swoop. God's eschatological reign was bursting in, but not in its totality. Yes, Jesus healed many sick people, but sickness and death were not ended forever. He even raised the dead, but they all died again. He fed the multitudes, but hunger and famine were not abolished.

He spoke of setting the oppressed free, but the Romans remained in control. He sought to reunite Israel around himself, but he was accused of blasphemy and repudiated by his own leaders. He announced God's peace, but suffered a violent end. How on earth then could he claim that God's awaited kingdom had dawned?

Because it had dawned, though only in a partial way. Jesus came to inaugurate God's end-time rule, to make a beginning, to establish a bridgehead for the future, to set a process in motion that would eventually result in a transformed creation . . . but not just yet. This is probably what Jesus meant by the "mystery of the kingdom".20 God's kingdom was already here, making an enormous difference in the lives of those who could recognise it. But it was not yet here in all its apocalyptic splendour.21 The fullness of that reality must await Jesus' death, resurrection, and future return in glory to complete what he has begun.

This 'already . . . not yet' dynamic made agricultural metaphors a particularly appropriate way for Jesus to speak of the kingdom. Just as a seed is the present form of a future crop, so Jesus' ministry is the present manifestation of God's future triumph. Just as a tiny seed looks insignificant to the human eye but is in fact charged with life-giving potential, so Jesus' embodiment of the kingdom seemed unimpressive on the outside but was in fact the beginning of cosmic redemption.

Just as a planted seed is hidden from sight while it grows and changes, so God's kingdom is invisible to the naked eye but powerfully at work behind the scenes. Only those with "eyes to see and ears to hear" can discern its presence,22 and when they do, things must change.

An indicative and an imperative

According to Mark 1:15, Jesus' message of the kingdom consisted of two parts -- a declaration and a demand, an indicative (a statement of fact) and an imperative (a summons to response).

Fundamentally Jesus' proclamation was an announcement of something that God was doing. God was taking the initiative. God was drawing near to his people in a fresh way, satisfying their yearnings for his intervention to liberate them from their bondage to evil, both spiritual and material.

That's why Jesus calls his message a 'gospel'. It is joyous good news about God's arrival on earth to set his people free. "The time is fulfilled, God's saving power is here!"

But the indicative of God's saving action brings with it an ethical imperative. Unless people respond to God's action, unless they "repent and have faith in the gospel", unless they are prepared to change the way they live and place all their confidence in God's action, they will miss out on the marvel of what is happening. They will not only fail to benefit from it; they will fail even to comprehend it.

The only way to understand what is taking place is to respond wholeheartedly to what understanding one already has, however limited. Only then -- only when one is committed to action -- does further insight follow.

he kind of response the kingdom requires is nothing if not radical. It involves, as the parables of the hidden treasure and pearl of great price suggest,23 a total disinvestment in the world as it is and a reinvestment of all that we are and all that we have in God's work of transforming the world.

It means changing our allegiances, priorities, values, ambitions, relationships, politics and practices. It requires living now in a manner that is consistent with what life will be like when God's rule is complete and, at last, "God's will is done on earth as it is in heaven".

It is a response called discipleship -- but that's another article!