The Kingdom of God
The primary message of Jesus of Nazareth was the kingdom of God. It lies right at the heart of what his life and his message were about, according to the gospels. As his public ministry was launched he said, “The time has come. The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” Many of the stories he told were introduced with these words: “The kingdom of God is like . . . .”
Those words undoubtedly got the attention of his listeners. Most of the Jewish sects were eagerly awaiting the kingdom of God, though they were conceiving of it in very different ways. They anticipated the day when God would break in, defeat the hated Romans, and restore the land to his people.
The framework for this teaching goes back to the Old Testament, of course. There we learn that God is the King of the universe.
For the Lord Most High is awesome,
the great King over all the earth. . . .
God is the King of all the earth;
sing to him a psalm of praise.
(Psalm 47:2, 7)
For the Lord is the great God,
the great King above all gods.
In his hand are the depths of the earth,
and the mountain peaks belong to him.
The sea is his, for he made it,
and his hands formed the dry land.
Come, let us bow down in worship,
let us kneel before the Lord our Maker.
The Lord has established his throne in heaven,
and his kingdom rules over all.
This God who created everything is the King of kings. No wonder so many of the prophetic visions anticipate a day when his rule will extend throughout the world. (See, e.g., Isaiah 11:6-9; Micah 4:1-4; Isaiah 65:17-25; and Daniel 7:13-14.)
What hope! A day is coming when the wolf and lamb will feed together, when infants will not die, when weeping and crying will be heard no more. The Shalom of God in its fulness!
Then John the Baptist comes announcing the nearness of the kingdom (Matthew 3:2 – “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”). And Jesus builds his teaching around that conviction.
The kingdom, we learn, isn’t what many of the Jews thought. It isn’t a political kingdom (John 18:36). Rather, it is the dynamic presence of God in Jesus Christ. “Kingdom” refers to the rule of God, to his sovereign reign in this world.
And in Jesus this kingdom was (is) present. He healed the sick, saved the lost, gave sight to the blind, and invited the poor. The reign of God was breaking in. The future had arrived to reverse the curse and to set the world right as God had intended it through the life and ministry of Jesus.
His stories and teaching pointed to a very different kind of kingdom than most of the Jews expected — a kingdom that was inverted, where the poor are blessed, the sinners are received, the dead are made alive, and the last will be first.
They shouldn’t look for armies and thrones and political borders, he told them. “The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is in your midst” (Luke 17:21).
He came reversing the curse and taking the world back to the way God intended in creation. That’s the kingdom, or rule of God. So he taught his disciples to live with the perspective of the kingdom. That’s what the Sermon on the Mount is: living in light of the inbreaking reign of God. Living in harmony with God and with others and with the world God created and blessed.
He taught them (and us) to pray: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” It’s been widely recognized that these are parallel requests. He’s praying for the kingdom to come — or in other words, for God’s will to be done in this realm called earth just as it is in God’s realm called heaven. We’re praying for the rule of God to come more and more and, in essence, we’re reporting for duty to be a part of this. We’re offering our lives in confession, repentence, faith, and mission.
Some have thought we should no longer pray the Lord’s Prayer because the church has been established. But to reduce the dynamic concept of kingdom to the church is a serious mistake. The church enters the kingdom of God; the church receives the kingdom of God; and the church announces the kingdom of God. But the church doesn’t exhaust the kingdom of God! So we continue praying as Jesus taught us for the kingdom to come, for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. As long as there is evidence of the curse, as long as the wolf and lamb aren’t feeding together, as long as infants are still dying, as long as there is weeping and crying, as long as there is war, as long as there is hatred, bitterness, and resentment — it’s still safe to pray this prayer.
The future reign of God has broken in through the presence of Jesus. And yet . . . it hasn’t arrived in its fullness. We are living “between the times” — between the incarnation/death/resurrection of Jesus and the coming consummation that we await.
Paul’s writings carry that important tension concerning the rule of God. Sometimes when he refers to the kingdom he’s talking about a present reality (Romans 14:17; 1 Corinthians 4:20), while at other times he’s referring to a future hope (1 Thessalonians 2:12; 2 Thessalonians 1:5; 1 Corinthians 15:24, 50).
Meanwhile, we continue to yield our lives to the reign of God. We seek to be used by him as lights in the world. We wait, hope, long, groan, pray, and work. We keep one eye on the task before us, knowing that the reign of God is present in Jesus Christ, and we keep one eye peeled for the future act of God when the dead will be raised, all tears will be wiped away, and God himself will be in our midst (Revelation 21-22).
Finally, these words from William Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas’s book Lord Teach Us: The Lord’s Prayer & the Christian Life:
The kingdom of God that is coming, here, not here, present, not fully present, is a banquet, a great party thrown for outsiders who, before Jesus, had no place in the promises of God to Israel. By an amazing act of generosity, Jesus has made possible a party to which even Gentiles like us have been invited. The kingdom of God is a party to which all of the good people refused the invitation so the host went out and invited all of the bad people. The kingdom of God is a party for a bunch of people with whom we wouldn’t be caught dead spending a Saturday night, had we not also been invited.
This is one of the reasons why being in the church can be a real pain, considering the sort of reprobates Jesus has invited to the party, the party that is called kingdom of God.
We are able to live hopefully in a fallen-yet-being-redeemed world because of the One who has taught us to pray “this way.” As Christians, to us has been given the grace to know that we live between the times, having seen the fullness of God in Jesus Christ, yet also knowing that all the world is not yet fulfilled as God’s world. That tension, stretched as we are between what is ours now in Christ and that which is yet promised, is our role as God’s people. We, you and I, are living, breathing evidence that God has not abandoned the world. We are able continually and fervently to pray that God’s kingdom come because we know that God’s will has been done. We are able to be honest about all the ways in which this world is not the kingdom of God in its fullness and to hope for more because we know that God’s will has yet to be done, God’s kingdom has yet to come. We are able to live without despair in the world’s present situation because, even in us, God has claimed a bit of enemy territory, has wrestled something from the forces of evil and death. That reclaimed, renovated territory is us.