Note: This is the first of what may become a series of posts on basic Christian doctrine.
I was visiting with my mother today, and as is her wont, she asked me an off-the-cuff theological question: what is the kingdom of God. Those of you who know me realize that I think this is a huge theme in the Bible, especially the gospels, but her question made me realize that I spend far more time talking about its importance and centrality than actually defining what it is. So, without further ado, here’s as simple an explanation as I can give to an enormous (and controversial) topic.
The easiest place to start is with the word kingdom itself. The English here can be misleading, because when we hear the word “kingdom” we immediately think about a place. However, in greek, the word for kingdom is a verbal noun. That is, it is a noun derived from the Greek verb “to rule” or “to reign.” Thus we could accurately translate “the kingdom of God” as “the reign of God.” I realize I just made one of my least-favorite ploys and went for the greek, but this is one of those times I really think it clarifies a lot for us. The kingdom of God is all that over which God rules and reigns.
To preempt the first question people tend to ask here: yes, in one sense God rules over everything. However, thanks to our rebellion, this rule is exercised in spite of us and our disobedience, rather than through us and our obedience. God has always been King over His creation, but rather than being his servants, the agents through which his blessings and peace come, we have set ourselves up as his enemies. It is a change in this status which Jesus in the Gospels arrives to address.
Jesus establishes the kingdom in three concrete ways. First, He himself begins to enact it in His ministry – bringing peace, helping the oppressed, healing the sick, opposing Satan by casting out demons. Second, He restores us to our right place in God’s kingdom. He dies in order to deal with our sin and guilt and reconcile us to God, and he raises to new life so that we can live new lives as God’s servants rather than His enemies. Third, and most dramatically, in His resurrection and ascension to sit at the Father’s right hand, He sits as King over us as His people, and He sends the Holy Spirit to enact this reign through us.
I realize that’s a lot to soak in, but I also want to point out how this definition helps us understand the various ways the kingdom is discussed. It is already here because Jesus has done the definitive and final work of establishing it. It is growing, becoming more present, because as we truly live as God’s people and carry out His will, His rule will become more and more clear. However, there is a sense in which it is also still future. Jesus will return and finally realize this kingdom by ruling on earth, where we will live as His people. His enemies and the sins of all people will be destroyed, and His rule will be as clear on earth as it is in heaven.
This is the heart of the Lord’s Prayer, when we pray “Your kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” We are really saying the same thing in two different ways. When we live together as God’s people, when we enact His goals of peace and blessing in the world around us, when we repent of our sin and are made a part of His people, we are doing God’s will. At the same time, we are being His kingdom. This is the end of Christ’s work, and it should be the end of ours as well.