This always baffles me. At the heart of Jesus’ teaching is the proclamation of the coming kingdom of God: ‘Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel”’ (Mk. 1:14–15). The origins of the theme are to be found far back in the Old Testament, and it echoes loudly through the rest of the New Testament, reaching a sonorous climax in the later chapters of the book of Revelation. It is what the Bible is about.
And yet it seems to me—just an impression—that most church people have only a very hazy and confused idea of what this passionately proclaimed thing was all about. Something to do with heaven? Something to do with human progress? Social justice? New creation? People doing what God wants them to do?
So to clear up the haziness and confusion once and for all, here are seven things you need to know about the New Testament concept of the kingdom of God.
1. The kingdom of God was a political concept
Because modernity has driven a wedge between the religious and the secular spheres of life, Christians today operate mostly with an over-spiritualised notion of the kingdom of God. In the Bible, however, a “kingdom” is what it says it is—a political entity or form of governance. The kingdom of God had to do with the active rule of God over a people in the midst of other nations and how that worked out in history. The word for it is “theocracy”—rule by or on behalf of God. As often happens in international politics, that rule was contested. The coming of the kingdom of God, therefore, was God getting his own way on the political stage in the period envisaged by the New Testament. That brings us to the second point.
2. The kingdom of God was expected to come soon
The proclamation about the kingdom of God directly addressed the political situation that prevailed in the first century as seen from the perspective of Israel. Jesus was quite clear: the kingdom of God was at hand, not remote; the climax would come within a generation. When Paul contemplated the difficult circumstances faced by the churches, he felt bound to reassure them that the situation would not last long. Jesus would come as Lord, in the foreseeable future, to deliver them from the wrath of God, defeat their enemies, and reward them for their faithfulness under persecution (Phil. 3:20-21; 1 Thess. 1:9-10; 4:17; 5:1-11; 2 Thess. 1:5-10; 2:1-12). The writer of the book of Revelation tied the triumphant establishment of God’s kingdom to the overthrow of the violent, corrupt, blasphemous Roman régime. When the kingdom of God would come was of central importance to the belief. If we are still expecting the kingdom of God to come two thousand years later, then something has gone badly wrong either with biblical prophecy or with biblical interpretation.
3. The kingdom of God would come in two stages
What the coming of the kingdom of God meant, therefore, was that the God of Israel would begin to rule the nations as seen from the perspective of first century Israel. “Arise, O God, judge the earth”, the Psalmist cried; “for you shall inherit all the nations!” (Ps. 82:8). YHWH would give his king the nations to rule with a rod of iron (Ps. 2:7-9). He would seat his king at his right hand to rule in the midst of his enemies until they had been made his footstool (Ps. 110:1-2). Paul quotes Isaiah: “The root of Jesse will come, even he who arises to rule the Gentiles; in him will the Gentiles hope” (Rom. 15:12, quoting Is. 11:10). Notice that: the principal hope of the nations is not for a personal saviour but for a just ruler. Sovereignty over the nations would be taken from the oppressive empire and given to “the people of the saints of the Most High” (Dan. 7:26-27). A glance at the cross-references will show how crucial these political “kingdom” texts were for explaining the significance of Jesus’ death and resurrection.
But before the God of Israel could judge the nations, he was bound—as a matter of theological integrity—to judge his own people, because in many respects, although they possessed “the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises” (Rom. 9:4), they were no better than the nations. “Is God unrighteous to inflict wrath on us Jews?” Paul asks. Not at all! “For then how could God judge the world?” (Rom. 3:5–6; cf. 3:19). God had to put his own house in order first.
So before there would be wrath against the Greek, there would be wrath against the Jew, which is the story that we get in the Synoptic Gospels. John the Baptist berated the Pharisees and Sadducees: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (Matt. 3:7). Jesus became convinced that Jerusalem would reject this final appeal to repent and give the owner of the vineyard the fruit of righteousness and would be destroyed (cf. Matt. 23:32-39).
There were, therefore, two political horizons to the coming of the kingdom of God, both clearly visible from the viewpoint of first century Jews: the judgment and re-formation of Israel and the judgment and annexation of the Greek-Roman world. The first was the horizon that mattered to Jesus. The second was the horizon that mattered, with increasing intensity, to the apostles and churches in the pagan world.
4. The coming of the kingdom of God was vouchsafed by the death, resurrection and exaltation of Jesus
So the eschatological vision was that YHWH would judge his own people, then establish his righteous rule over the nations in place of the worthless pagan gods, with his own people serving as priests, within the foreseeable historical horizons of the New Testament. The resurrection was seen as divine endorsement of Jesus—a descendant of David, as it happened—as the king who would receive authority, as the “Lord” seated at the right hand of God, to bring about the eschatological transformation (cf. Rom. 1:3-4). But the end—or ends—wouldn’t happen immediately. It would take time.
5. “Now and not yet” is not particularly helpful
From the perspective of the New Testament the two stage coming of the kingdom of God was firmly in the future. Historical events don’t happen until they happen. But there were two important respects in which the future events were being anticipated in the circumstances of the early church.
First, Jesus was already seated at the right hand of God, waiting for his enemies to be subjugated (the hostile leadership in Jerusalem, the persecutors of his followers throughout the empire, the blasphemous imperial régime, not to mention the unseen powers behind them), waiting for the moment of his parousia.
Secondly, the churches already embodied in their communal existence the political, social, religious and ethical reality of the age to come. Living by the Spirit rather than by the Jewish Law, Jewish and Gentile believers together, as one body, worshipped the one true living God and confessed as “Lord”, in the place of the quasi-divine Caesar, Jesus who had been raised from the dead. It wasn’t easy, but they demonstrated in advance what would eventually become a reality for the nations of the empire.
No one in the New Testament, however, felt the need to devise a clever “now-and-not-yet” apologetic to account for the delay. It was really just a matter of waiting (cf. 2 Pet. 3:1-13).
6. The kingdom of God was something that God would do eventually
The New Testament church did not think that it was somehow working with God to help bring in his kingdom. The prophetic narrative had nothing to do with the church changing society. The most that the church did was, in its life and proclamation, to point forward to what God was going to do. God would judge his people. God would judge Rome.
7. The kingdom of God was not new creation
When you put it in these terms, it’s pretty clear that when Jesus and his followers spoke about the kingdom of God, they were not speaking about a final remaking of heaven and earth. The coming of the kingdom of God was the renewal of a regional political-religious order, not of the cosmos.
We can illustrate the point from Isaiah. The gods of the nations are worthless idols; the God of Israel is the true God who “sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers”, to whom “the nations are like a drop from a bucket, and are accounted as the dust on the scales” (Is. 40:15, 22). That’s the cosmic God. But then the “gospel” goes out that this creator God is about to intervene as king in the political affairs of his people to put things right for his people—and in the process make a profound impact on the idol-worshipping, hostile, uncooperative nations:
How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness, who publishes salvation, who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.” The voice of your watchmen—they lift up their voice; together they sing for joy; for eye to eye they see the return of the LORD to Zion. Break forth together into singing, you waste places of Jerusalem, for the LORD has comforted his people; he has redeemed Jerusalem. The LORD has bared his holy arm before the eyes of all the nations, and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God. (Is. 52:7–10)
In order to expand its vision the modern church has tended to allow the two concepts to merge—and you can understand why when “kingdom” had become another word for heaven, a remote transcendent reality that was of no use until you died. Talking about the kingdom in cosmic and creational terms has at least allowed the church to bring social and environmental concerns into its mission.
But working backwards from our flawed eschatologies to the texts is a poor way to do interpretation. To understand the New Testament concept of the kingdom of God we have to begin—and arguably end—with the political outlook of first century Israel, waiting to hear good news.