His Focus on the Kingdom of God
Before we consider some specific aspects of how Jesus changed the world, it is important for us to notice that the general way he did so was by establishing and growing the kingdom of God.
The Old Testament gives some important background for this emphasis. In several passages God had said he was going to intervene and deliver his people, bringing righteousness, peace, and joy. He sometimes described his plan for bringing about better days as setting up a kingdom (Daniel 2:44-45). He said he would accomplish this through a specially chosen leader, variously called Ruler, Servant, Son of Man, Prince, or Anointed One. In the first century, most Jews were looking for God to do these things, and by that time it was common for them to use the language of Kingdom and Messiah to describe them (Mark 15:43; Luke 17:20; Acts 1:6; Matthew 2:4; Mark 12:35).
So when Jesus began his ministry by “proclaiming the good news of God” that, “The time has come” and “The kingdom of God is at hand,” it would have resonated with the Jews. Even though they had many distorted ideas and expectations about both the kingdom and the Messiah, nevertheless they were expecting them and would have connected with Jesus’ words. Jesus tended to avoid the term Messiah, though he did use and accept it occasionally. On the other hand, he referred to the kingdom quite often. There are about 120 references to the word in the Gospels and about 100 of these are Jesus referring specifically to the kingdom of God. Scholars generally agree that the kingdom of God was the leading theme of Jesus’ message. (Matthew’s frequent description of it as the kingdom “of heaven” means the same thing.)
According to Scripture the good news Jesus announced was that the kingdom of God was close at hand (Matthew 4:17; Mark 1:15). It would have been wonderful news indeed to hear that God was about to fulfill his promises to establish his kingdom and bring about better days of salvation, fear of the Lord, and the Holy Spirit. With God serving as King among humankind, things would be much better. Later it would become clear that God would reign through his Anointed One, Jesus.
In addition to his basic announcement that the kingdom of God was about to be established, Jesus also taught much about the nature and way of life in the kingdom. In light of the Jews’ many distorted ideas about it, it is no wonder that much of his teaching was directed to clarifying its true nature. Many parables begin with, “the kingdom of heaven is like ….” Jesus said the reign of God was like agriculture, seeds growing slowly, steadily, and imperceptibly. It would start as small as a mustard seed but grow to ginormous proportions. The kingdom would penetrate and influence the world like leaven being worked into a lump of dough. There is work to be done in his kingdom, for sure, and God has entrusted resources and abilities to his servants so they can do this work. Humility is vital in God’s kingdom—the greatest is the one who takes on the humble status of a child. His followers are servants, not lords. Each servant owes God a vastly greater debt than any other servant owes them, so subjects of the King are to forgive their fellow-subjects from their hearts. Jesus also taught the extreme value of being ruled by God, saying it was like finding an unmatched pearl or treasure in a field.
We noted in a previous post that Jesus practiced what he preached. It is not surprising, then, that he not only talked about the kingdom but also demonstrated its truth and power. In one dramatic and significant event, Jesus healed a demon-possessed man who was blind and mute. The Pharisees couldn’t deny the remarkable deed, but they questioned the source by which he accomplished it, saying it was by the prince of demons. Jesus explained the unreasonableness of their accusation and then stated plainly what was really happening: “If it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you” (Matthew 12:22-28). Jesus’ ability to subdue demons and expel them from people was a powerful demonstration of the truth and presence of God’s reign through him. He went on to explain that what was really happening was that he was binding up (limiting the power) the strong man (Satan) so that he could plunder his goods (deliver the people Satan had taken possession of)(v. 29). Though it still remained for the kingdom to come with the power of the promised Spirit on the day of Pentecost (Mark 9:1; Acts 1:8), the kingdom was inaugurated during Jesus’ ministry.
Jesus’ death and resurrection were also vital to the establishment of the kingdom. He announced in advance that these things would happen and afterward explained, “Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” (Luke 24:26). Don’t miss the fact that glory is characteristic of kings and kingdoms (Matthew 4:8; 6:29; 1 Thessalonians 2:12; 1 Timothy 1:17; 1 Peter 4:11). In John, the events at the end of Jesus’ life are often described in terms of his glorification (7:39; 12:16, 23, 31; 17:1). So too, Hebrews says Jesus was “crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death” (2:9). It is because of Jesus’ humility, suffering and death that “God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name” (Philippians 2:5-11). The early proclaimers, too, announced that God had glorified Jesus and exalted him to his own right hand (Acts 3:13; 5:31). Jesus’ death and resurrection were paramount in showing his true identity as Lord and Christ (cf. Acts 2:36). The kingdom of God was clearly important to Jesus during his ministry, but his death and resurrection are also key components in establishing his kingship.
Sometimes we see the importance of the kingdom in Jesus’ teaching but then miss its continuing significance today, perhaps because the word is much common in the Gospels than elsewhere in the New Testament. Yet it is important to notice the statement that Jesus’ teaching to his apostles during his last forty days on earth was “about the kingdom of God” (Acts 1:3). That tells us that the kingdom was not only a vital part of how Jesus changed the world, it continues to be vital to how his followers are to change it too.
Jesus’ first followers got the message. They continued to proclaim the good news of the kingdom (Acts 8:12; 19:8; 20:25; 28:23, 31). Notice that some of these passages associate the kingdom closely with “Jesus” (28:23), “the name of Jesus Christ” (8:12), or “the Lord Jesus Christ” (28:31). Don’t forget that “Christ” means “anointed one” and has special reference to a king (1 Samuel 10:1; 15:1, 17). In other words, by preaching Jesus as the Christ (Acts 5:42; ), they were preaching the kingdom of God!
So the kingdom was God’s plan for restoring humanity and was a major focus of Jesus’ ministry, death, and resurrection. The first Christians likewise grasped and continued to proclaim the good news of God’s kingdom. It is imperative that we, too, understand the kingdom clearly and proclaim it fittingly.
If you would like to test your own grasp of the kingdom, put yourself into the account of Luke 9:59-60 and hear Jesus saying to you, “But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” How would you respond to this? How would you go about it? What would you actually say when you had the opportunity? Try to actually formulate an answer out loud. It will test your grasp of the kingdom and perhaps motivate you to explore it more. (For more on the kingdom, see the series of blogs that begin here).