(2009 – 9)
Knowing that our main pursuit in life is to “set our hearts on” and “strive first” for the kingdom of God (Matthew 5:33; Luke 12:29-31), we now need to ask a second major question on these issues: “What is the kingdom of God?” What did Jesus mean by this expression, and what does it mean to us today? If we get this right, and have the attitude of seeking the kingdom always, we will have solved, in principle, the overarching question of existence: “Why and how do we live life and provide for our basic needs?” A proper understanding of Jesus’ words, received with a heart to obey, will do us more good than a thousand sermons from the most gifted preacher in the world!
Many reams of paper and gallons of ink have been used over the years to try to explain the meaning of the phrase “the kingdom of God.” Whatever else has been accomplished, this huge effort demonstrates that Christians everywhere and always have recognized the importance of the words. Whatever else we may say about the kingdom,, we know that it is the most important thing in life to pursue. We are to strive first for it—above all else.
The Meaning of the Kingdom
It is always essential when trying to discover the meaning of any phrase or word in the Bible to look at its context, both immediate and broad. In the Gospel of Luke the word kingdom (basileia) is used 46 times. A meditative reading of these texts, as well as the many dozens of other locations of basileia throughout the New Testament is one of the most profitable exercises a Christian (or even a non-Christian) may experience. “Kingdom” is one of the most frequent and important words from the lips of Jesus, although the word is also found often in the book of Acts, the epistles, and the book of Revelation.
Most simply stated, the kingdom of God is the reign or rule of God. Ever since the creation, God has reigned as King, and his reign will never end. He is not a tyrant king, however, but is benevolent, merciful, loving, righteous, just and holy. We may even say that before the creation the kingdom of God has always existed as the harmonious trinity of Father, Son and Spirit. The characteristics of the King are the characteristics of the kingdom. Because God wanted to share his love and populate his created realm with living beings, some of whom would be able to make free moral choices, he created angelic beings, animals, and human beings. With the creation of angels and humans God allowed for ideas and actions opposed to his pure and perfect reign. Even after sin defiled God’s creation, God still reigned—and always will—over his domain: earth, the heavens and all things.
Clarifying the Concept
Many Christians think erroneously of God’s kingdom as a place rather than a realm. They often think of it as the place we go when we die, or the kingly government of Jesus over the earth from his throne in Jerusalem. There are reasons why these ideas have developed during the course of Christian history, and they contain some valuable insights. But the kingdom of God is a much broader concept than usually realized. N. T. Wright says that “God’s kingdom” in the preaching of Jesus “refers not to postmortem destiny, not to our escape from this world into another one, but to God’s sovereign rule coming ‘on earth as it is in heaven’” ["Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection and the Mission of the Church" (New York: Harper Collins, 2008), p. 18]. Wright goes on to consider the prayer, “Thy kingdom come, on earth as in heaven.” He states,
“That remains one of the most powerful and revolutionary sentences we can ever say. As I see it, the prayer was powerfully answered at the first Easter and will finally be answered fully when heaven and earth are joined in the New Jerusalem. Easter was when Hope in person surprised the whole world by coming forward from the future into the present. The ultimate future hope remains a surprise, partly because we don’t know when it will arrive and partly because at present we have only images and metaphors for it, leaving us to guess that the reality will be far greater, and more surprising, still” [Wright, p. 29].
Wright’s words help us to see the kingdom as already here on earth but not yet fully realized. It is possible to think of the kingdom as always existing within the Godhead, yet from the beginning of the human race prophesied and anticipated as something fuller, more tangible, than God’s rule over humanity in general.
Anticipating and Experiencing the Kingdom
During the thousands of years before the coming of Christ, God’s people were looking for the coming of the kingdom. The early chapters of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke reveal how this heightened sense of anticipation culminated in the birth of Jesus—the King of Kings. Jesus came preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and announced that “the kingdom of God is among you.” Jesus embodied the kingdom—the peace, justice, righteousness, joy and hope within the Godhead—and radiated the qualities of the kingdom himself to the people he taught, fed, healed, and forgave.
Everything about Jesus revealed the kingdom. As Wright indicated, however, the inauguration of the kingdom through the new people of God—the new sphere and agency of God’s rule on earth—did not occur until the first Easter Sunday. From the first Easter until now the kingdom of God has been coming more and more to earth as it is in heaven. This is the kingdom of God we are to strive for and seek to extend as we live here on earth. This is the kingdom that is now here, and the universal gift from God for all the earth. It is, of course, vital to pursue our coming rest with God upon death, as we await our bodily resurrection, and it is important to envision and hope for the coming of the New Heavens and the New Earth (the kingdom of God in its full realization). But neither of these is the kingdom of God we are to be striving for now in the sense of Luke 12:31 and Matthew 6:33.
One key to what Jesus meant by his kingdom is in Matthew 6:33 itself: “Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness.” A major aspect of the kingdom is God’s righteousness. The apostle Paul instructs us so helpfully on this point. “For the kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. The one who thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and has human approval” (Romans 14:17-18).
The kingdom we are urged by Jesus to seek—to strive after above everything else—is a close daily walk with God, an attitude of generosity and kindness, a heart quick to repent and confess and a desire for holiness in thought, word and deed. It is also a zeal for justice, reconciliation, righteousness and the good news of salvation and wholeness to spread throughout the earth, engendering lives filled with love, joy and peace flowing from the life of God within.
This sounds like an impossibly high standard, and it is—if we strive after such a life and spirit by our own energy. But by the power of the indwelling Spirit of God we can live such a life, one day at a time, one minute at a time. God does not require of us what he does not enable us to do. In fact, in our classic text from Luke 12, in which he assures us that our Father knows our needs for the daily provisions for life, and in which he urges us to strive for his kingdom, he assures us that as we do so, “these things will be given to you as well.” Then he gives us those remarkable words of comfort and hope, with which I close. “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”