The Bible’s teaching about The Kingdom of God is hard for us to understand and apply today for two reasons:
(1) We who live in a democratic society have a hard time understanding what it’s like to live in a kingdom (unless we binge watch Masterpiece Theater). We have some modern examples of kingdoms, but they are either harshly autocratic (e.g. North Korea) or are symbolic memories of past days of kingdom glory (e.g. United Kingdom). Over the course of human history, there have been a number of examples of democracies or republics that have operated for a while under representative leadership by the people themselves: such as the classical Greek city-states and the Roman Republic.* However, over the 4,000 years of recorded human history, the dominant form of human government by far, revolves around an authoritarian autonomous leader (King, Emperor, Sheik, Dictator) who rules with top-down control and little opportunity for bottom-up individual, personal input. So, most people in human history have lived under a king. But people in modern nations that are trying to maintain a democracy, where each citizen has a voice, have a hard time getting their minds around the concept of “kingdom.”
(2) The Bible gives a complex message about what a kingdom is and how its citizens live. First, we have the Old Testament description of Israel’s history, where having their own king is presented as a major goal of Israel’s journey of faith, with the period of the reign of David and Solomon being seen as the high point, the ultimate ideal. This was followed by a time of moral and political chaos, leading to military defeat and captivity. Israel has been without a king ever since, over 2,500 years. When Jesus started talking about the Kingdom of God, their eyes lit up. Is this the time when Messiah will restore the kingdom to Israel? However, Jesus talked about the Kingdom in a way that confused them: in various contexts, he spoke of the Kingdom of God as part of a coming future on earth, as part of a new order that will break into human history and begin eternal existence, as having come into the world through his presence, as being “in you” or as being “among you.” What was he getting at?
Without getting into all the elaborate theories that have been raised, ranging from the Kingdom of God being the Institutional Church to all the bizarre end-time prophecies about how the Kingdom will come in the future, I have two things to suggest to modern Bible readers that may be helpful:
The Kingdom of God is not focused on a place, but a Person. This was true when the idea was first formulated in the Old Testament. It’s the Kingdom of God, not of some realm or territory. The Land was (and still is) important to the Jewish people, but he still wants to relate to them as his human offspring, whether or not they occupy the Land. When Jesus came, his followers began to see him as the rightful king on the throne of his heavenly Father. One of the ironic put-downs the Roman governor added as he went to the cross was a crown of thorns. Actually, the Hebrew word behind “kingdom” emphasizes the king’s personal authority to rule, rather than the domain or territory. The bottom line is, he has the authority to rule us top-down, with absolute, even ruthless, authority.
The Kingdom of God is voluntary and consensual. That’s the real surprise. Though God, the King, has absolute authority, he doesn’t exercise it. He doesn’t force us to be part of it. He invites us in, and the only credentials we need to present are repentance and faith. And the Kingdom life we enter into is described by Jesus and the Apostle Paul:
If God clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you — you of little faith? Therefore, do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?” . . . Indeed, your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you as well. (Matthew 6:30-32)
The Kingdom of God is not food or drink, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. The one who thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and has human approval. (Romans 14: 17-19)
Sounds like a Welfare State to me. No wonder part of the Lord’s Prayer, which Jesus taught his disciples, is:
Your Kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven. (Matthew 6:10)
This Kingdom of God is not fear and threat and impending doom, but “righteousness and peace and joy.” I can deal with that!
– Pastor George Van Alstine
*It’s interesting that both these European experiences of representative government were immediately followed by their glory days of authoritarian power, in the case of Greece, Alexander the Great; in the case of Rome, Julius Caesar