How would you describe what the kingdom of God is like? What do the people you know say about it? Scripture shows that it is really easy to misunderstand the nature of God’s kingship.
We’ve noticed that Jesus began his ministry with an announcement that God’s kingdom was at hand and then later, through his powerful deeds, he demonstrated that the kingdom had indeed come. But what is the nature of that kingdom?
Frankly, I’m a little surprised that Jesus would even use the word kingdom, much less emphasize as he did. True, the word kingdom is used in a few of the prophecies to describe the better days God promised to bring about. Yes, by the first century Jews regularly referred to the intervention of God they longed for as “kingdom” (Mark 15:43). So the idea of a kingdom was definitely accurate, and it certainly would have resonated with Jesus’ audience. Still, I’m somewhat surprised that it is the word Jesus chose and emphasized to describe God’s work through him, because the Jews had also developed many wrong ideas about its nature.
You may be familiar with the view of the Zealots, that God was going to intervene to overthrow the pagan, Roman intruders into the holy land, and therefore violence and force were appropriate to the kingdom (Acts 5:33-37; cf. John 6:15). The Pharisees, on the other hand, believed a meticulous keeping of the Law, plus their own “fence” around the Law, would create a pure people so that God might usher in the kingdom. Different still, the Essences had withdrawn from society and were simply waiting for the final battle between good and evil.
None of these views of the kingdom was correct. Instead, each of them simply viewed the kingdom in a way that matched the particular beliefs their own group already held. Interestingly, people today seem to do the same thing, sometimes even holding the very same ideas first century Jews had—justifying violence against the opposition, meticulous and legalistic obedience to Scripture and tradition, and withdrawing from society at large. It is really easy to misunderstand the nature of God’s kingship.
So, What Did Jesus Say (WDJS)? In addition to announcing the coming of God’s kingdom, considered previously, he also said much to clarify its true nature. Many of the approximately 120 references to “kingdom” in the Gospels are a matter of Jesus explaining what it is really like. This is in contrast to the many distorted ideas people had.
Far from violence, legalism, or withdrawal, the reign of God is more like agriculture, with its life-giving seeds producing steady growth toward a final consummation. Instead of forcing our own way, Jesus taught that having God as our king leads to humbling ourselves, forfeiting our status and adopting the attitude of servants. Instead of taking vengeance, those ruled by God recognize that they have offended him much more and also been forgiven much more than any other servant has offended them, and so they forgive one another. Nor is the kingdom about legalistic obedience or withdrawing from society. Rather, there is work to be done, and those who come under God’s kingship work hard, like laborers in a field, using the various abilities that he has entrusted to them. Our king has a special concern for the least and the last, and so the work of his servants includes serving and helping them, but also always with a watchful eye for the day of their Lord’s return. Plus, the subjects of the king recognize the immense value of the kingdom, and so they joyfully sacrifice everything they have in order to be ruled by God. They seek his kingdom and righteousness as top priority and offer him their absolute fealty. In short, God’s kingdom is about humility, service, and loyal obedience to him as king.
As to his own identity and role, Jesus emphasized showing people who he was, but he did also say some things about his identity. He tended to avoid overtly royal titles such as “Christ” or “Messiah,” though he accepted these occasionally. Instead, his favorite way of referring to himself was “Son of Man.” This title is used in Daniel 7:13-14 to describe a glorious ruler who was to come but is also an Aramaic way of saying simply “man” (cf. Psalm 8:4). It is a unique and appropriate way of communicating both his divine specialness and also his rapport with human beings.
Jesus also referred to himself as a servant, identifying with the Suffering Servant mentioned in Isaiah (42:1-4; Matthew 11:15-21; Mark 10:43-45; John 13:1-17). In this connection, he said he was going to suffer and die but then also rise from the dead. It is significant that he began to teach this suffering servant aspect of his ministry immediately after his disciples recognized that he was the Christ (Mark 8:27-33). Just as his kingdom had a different nature than most people expected, so his kingship was different than most people anticipated. At the time, his disciples could not understand this intriguing and apparently incongruent combination of suffering and glory, and this also proved to be a stumbling block to many non-Christians later on. Frankly, many modern day disciples still have a hard time properly combining glory and suffering, both conceptually and practically. But that, too, is an important part of WJDS about the kingdom.
Jesus said much more, of course, but based on this summary, how well would you say you understand the nature of his kingdom? More importantly, does your way of life indicate that you grasp what the King said about it? How should we live this week based on WJDS about the kingdom of God?