By Robert Brow, posted on www.brow.on.ca, Kingston, Ontario, March 2005
What did Jesus’ mean when he spoke about the Kingdom of Heaven and the Kingdom of God? Rather than begin with the various references in the Gospels, it may help to approach this question from the account of early Christian preaching in the Book of Acts.
The book begins with the statement that during the forty days after his resurrection Jesus explained to his disciples "about the kingdom of God" (Acts 1:3). Obviously it was very important for the mission of the disciples that they should understand the principles of the Kingdom of God. And the Book of Acts ends by describing how during the two years that Paul was under house arrest in Rome he was "proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus the Messiah" (Acts 28:31). Evidently the Messiah is the King of the Kingdom of God. In this text we have translated the Greek word Christos as "the Messiah" as in the four Gospels and Acts 2:31, 36; 4:26; 8:5; 9:22, etc.).
Throughout the Book of Acts it seems that the early Christian preachers used the expression Kingdom of God as a shorthand expression for the work and world-wide activity of the Messiah. The word Messiah means the anointed King, and he was recognized as reigning among the nations both in the Psalms and the Old Testament prophets. Here are some relevant texts:
"David spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah" (2:31).
"Let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified" (2:36; 4:10, 26; 5:42).
"God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, that his Messiah would suffer" (3:18). This makes clear that the prophets knew that their reigning Messiah King would one day come among us and be crucified.
"Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah to them" (8:5).
"Saul became increasingly more powerful and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Messiah" (9:22). What they needed to grasp was that Jesus was the King of the Kingdom of God throughout their Old Testament.
"He ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus the Messiah" (10:48, Greek Christos).
"Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three sabbath days argued with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Messiah to suffer and to rise from the dead" (17:3. The texts Paul was quoting were from the Old Testament).
‘This is the Messiah, Jesus whom I am proclaiming to you" (17:3; 18:5, 28; 26:23).
"He lived there two whole years at his own expense and welcomed all who came to him, proclaiming the Kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus the Messiah" (28:30-31). Here again the Greek word is Christos, which should be translated the Messiah as elsewhere in the Gospels and Acts).
In the Old Testament the Messiah King was not spoken of as coming some day in the future, but as currently reigning among the nations. "O Lord our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth" (Psalm 8:9). And that was the King who took birth among us and was known as Jesus of Nazareth. So when Paul proclaimed the Kingdom of God he was teaching about the character and work of the Sovereign King of the Old Testament, who is continuing his reign throughout the world (see Psalm 5:2; 8:1).
Now we can try taking Jesus’ references to the Kingdom of Heaven in the Gospels as pointing to himself as the Sovereign King of the Old Testament. We will illustrate this from Matthew’s Gospel, where Jesus is seen explaining the principles and logic of his kind of reign.
The Sermon on the Mount can be seen as the Manifesto of his Kingdom. In his world-wide reign it is not the rich, and mighty, and impressive, who are honored. "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven" (Matthew 5:3). As in the Old Testament, "Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven" (Matthew 5:10, see Hebrews 11:36-38). The great in the Kingdom of Heaven are those who teach and practice the principles of the Messiah’s reign (5:19). And this involves turning the other cheek, going the second mile, loving enemies, and praying for persecutors (5:39-44).
The Lord’s prayer includes a petition that his way of ordering the Kingdom may be adopted among people everywhere (6:10). Rather than worrying about food and clothing, the servants of the Kingdom should know that their King is concerned for their well-being. "Strive first for the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will given to you as well" (6:33).
Both in the Old Testament and in our day the principles of his Kingdom are continuously misrepresented by false prophets and teachers. "Beware of false prophets who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravening wolves" (7:15). And sharing in the work of the Kingdom is not a matter of mouthing pious words. "Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven" (7:21).
The result of this kind of preaching was that some objected, and a division was inevitable. "Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace but a sword" (10:34). As opposed to those who wanted to present God’s will as a set of legalistic rules, Jesus explained that in his Kingdom humans can interpret rules flexibly with the good of humans in mind. Concerning the day of rest for example, "The Son of Man is lord of the sabbath" (12:8). As opposed to legalism his focus is on changing the human heart by the transforming work of the Holy Spirit. "For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks" (12:34).
Matthew’s Gospel has a whole chapter of parables each of which focuses on an aspect of how the Kingdom does its work in human lives. The Sower pictures ways in which people respond to a presentation of the Word (13:1-9, 18-23). The parable of the Weeds reminds us that among the true believers there will always be a mixture of those who have a quite different agenda in mind.
When the Word of the Kingdom is preached growth begins in an almost invisible insignificant way. "The Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed, the smallest of all the seeds, but when it is grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree" (13:31-32). But as spiritual growth occurs, it works like yeast permeating a whole city with its influence (13:33). In the parable of the unforgiving servant, we can see how faith begins with the assurance of forgiveness, but it must be followed by a willingness to forgive others (18:23).
Humans tend to assume that faith is a matter of education and qualifications, but it is the childlike enthusiastic faith of little children that is required. "It is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs" (19:14). And it is the rich and powerful who find it very difficult to share in the Kingdom of heaven (19:22-24). One reason for this is that those who work in Jesus’ Kingdom are like laborers in a vineyard who at the end of the day are paid the same wage (20:1-15). There are no first and second class citizens in his Kingdom.
The parables that Jesus told in Jerusalem in the last few days before his arrest and crucifixion explain how the Jewish religious establishment in Jerusalem had missed the heart and spirit of the Kingdom. They would be removed from their teaching responsibility. The work of making the Kingdom of God known was being transferred to people of other nations. "He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants" (21:41). The change had begun through the preaching Paul and other apostles, but it was finalized in the destruction of the temple in AD 70 when churches began mushrooming among all nations..
Jesus pictured the invitation to share in the Kingdom as a joyful wedding banquet. All sorts of people would now be invited in. They would all be dressed in a magnificent robe. The only reason for exclusion was insisting on one’s own righteousness instead of accepting the wedding garment that is freely offered (22:1-13). That is what the Pharisees objected to in Jesus’s ministry.
When Paul was converted, he resisted the legalism of the Pharisees. He now proclaimed the good news of transformation by the power of the Holy Spirit (see Galatians 3:1-5; 5:1). Foreseeing that the message of freedom by the Spirit would be rejected by the legalists, Jesus announced the final toppling of the Pharisee establishment in the generation of Jesus’s hearers (Matthew 23:1-36). That happened when Jerusalem fell and the temple was destroyed in AD 70.
The great commission at the end of the Gospel was to go among all nations, enrol by baptism any who were willing to learn, and then impart to them all that Jesus had taught about his Kingdom reign. "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples (learners, as set out in Go, Make Learners) of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you" (28:18-20). The reference to the Trinity reminds us that as the Son reigns by intervening among the nations, the Father loves and cares for each of his children, and the Holy Spirit does his work of transforming the human heart.
It seems clear therefore that the Kingdom of God, or the Kingdom of Heaven, was Jesus’ shorthand term for the way he has reigned in the past and will continue to reign till the end of time. Isaac Watts (1674-1748) gave us the right picture in the second verse of his hymn. "Blessings abound where’er he reigns. The pris’ner leaps to lose his chains; the weary find eternal rest, and all the sons of want are blest." Where the first verse begins "Jesus shall reign" it would be better to sing "Jesus reigns where’er the sun does his successive journeys run."
Hymns can easily give a wrong theological impression. Leighton George Hayne (1836-1883) is one of those who suggested that the reign of the Messiah would be some time in the future. "Thy kingdom come, O God, thy rule, O Christ begin." But Charles Wesley (1707-1788) got it right when he wrote "Rejoice, the Lord is King; your Lord and King adore."