According to the synoptic gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke, Jesus Christ often uses the phrase “the kingdom of God” or, as in Matthew, the equivalent expression “the kingdom of heaven.” The kingdom is best thought of not as a physical location but rather as the experience of an era in which a new relationship with God, based on the new saving activity of God in Jesus, is made possible (1).
At the heart of this teaching is the restoration of the perfect rule of God that was lost through the sin to emerge in the Garden of Eden. According to Donald Hagner, “It is a dynamic rather than a static concept. It is the experience of the saving sovereignty of God, not only at the personal level but also the cosmic, and with decidedly eschatological connotations” (2).
The reality the kingdom speaks of is connected to the promises of the Old Testament although the phrase “kingdom of God” itself is not found there. However, the idea of the rule or reign of God is common in the Old Testament. On one hand, God has always remained the ruler of all creation. On the other, Yahweh is often identified as “king” (e.g., Pss. 10:16; 29:10; Isa. 6:5; 33:22; 43:15; Jer. 10:7–8; Zeph. 3:15; cf. Ps. 22:28). there are references to the “kingdom” ruled by Yahweh (1 Chron. 28:5; 29:11; 2 Chron. 13:8; Pss. 103:19; 145:11–13; Dan. 4:3, 34; 6:26; 7:14).
Although Yahweh is held to presently rule as king, the Old Testament also holds to the idea of Yahweh’s future reign as king (Isa. 24:23; Zech. 14:9). During his reign, God’s enemies will be destroyed and there will be a universal shalom (“peace” in the sense of ultimate well-being in every regard) and universal obedience to his will. The restoration of God’s rule increasingly became an eschatological hope that stood in contrast with present human experience. We read in Daniel 7:13-14 that “one like a son of man” will come and to whom “was given dominion and glory and kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed” (7:14). In Daniel 2:44, we read that “The God of heaven will set up a kingdom which shall never be destroyed.” It was believed by the Jews that the present age of frustration will give way to a golden age of blessing and fulfillment.
Understanding the meaning behind the Kingdom of God is crucial to properly understand Jesus’ teaching. We find the Kingdom of God teaching to be central to Jesus’ ministry; according to Hagner,
“The expression “kingdom of God” occurs fourteen times in Mark, thirty-one times in Luke, and the equivalent “kingdom of heaven” thirty-two times in Matthew (who also has “kingdom of God” 4x). By contrast, in the remainder of the NT the phrase is relatively infrequent (6x in Acts; 2x in John; 12x in the entire Pauline corpus)… In the Synoptic tradition the expression occurs in some sixty separate logia of Jesus. Virtually all that Jesus says and does is related to the idea of the kingdom. The dawning of the kingdom of God serves well as the integrating key to the Jesus of the Synoptic Gospels, including his words and his deeds…” (3).
In all four gospels, John the Baptist is the one to announce the imminence of the Kingdom of God. All three Synoptics associate John with the prophecy in Malachi 3:1: “Behold, I send my messenger to prepare the way before me.” Mark adds Isaiah 40:3 which alludes to salvation and apocalyptic fulfillment: “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight” (1:3).
Luke continues by quoting apocalyptic words from Isaiah 40:4-5: “Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways shall be made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God” (3:5-6). In Matthew’s gospel we find that John’s message is one of fulfillment, “In those days came John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of Judea, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’” (3:1). Matthew says that Jesus came preaching exactly the same message (4:17). John also becomes an important turning point between promise and fulfillment: “For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John” (Matt. 11:13); “The law and the prophets were until John; since then the good news of the kingdom of God is preached” (Luke 16:16).
The Kingdom of God is, as noted, central to Jesus’ teaching and ministry. In Mark we are told that “after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel’” (1:14-15). The Gospel of Luke makes the Kingdom of God a central teaching of Jesus; Jesus claims he “must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns as well; for I was sent for this purpose” (4:43). The Kingdom of God is demonstrated in Jesus’ works as in the case of casting out demons: “if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you” (Luke 11:20; cf. Matt. 12:28). When Jesus instructs his disciples to heal the sick, they are to say “The kingdom of God has come near to you” (Luke 10:9; cf. Matt. 10:7).
Further, despite Jesus teaching that the kingdom is present and dawning in his ministry, he also teaches his disciples to pray for the future coming of the kingdom (Matt. 6:10). The Kingdom of God is thus both present and future. It is a present reality in Jesus’ ministry but also remains a future reality. The old, fallen era continues to exist despite the dawning of the new era. This is further illustrated in Jesus referring to events that will take place in the future ( Mark 13; Matt. 24-25; Luke 21) and speaking of his return (Mark 8:38; 13:26; 14:62; Matt. 24:30; Luke 17:24). The Kingdom of God in Jesus’ ministry is not overwhelming. It is like a tiny mustard seed that will eventually become a tree (Matt. 13:31-32) and a small pearl of immense value (Matt. 13:45). Jesus seems to see the kingdom as imminent but also a future reality that will arrive with power. He expected the kingdom to arrive in a short time (Mark 9:1).
The Kingdom of God is not what the disciples expected; they expected a place to sit on either side of Jesus in glory (Mark 10:35-40; Matt. 20:20-23). Rather, seeking the kingdom can cause suffering and even death (Mark 8:34-35; cf. Matt. 16:24-25; Luke 9:23-24).
1. Hagner, Donald. 2012. The New Testament: A Historical and Theological Introduction. Baker Books. p. 141 (Scribd ebook format)
2. Hagner, Donald. 2012. Ibid. p. 141 (Scribd ebook format)
3. Hagner, Donald. 2012. Ibid. p. 144 (Scribd ebook format)