What is the kingdom of God? The standard evangelical view is that it is the aggregated rule of God in the hearts of believers in advance of (“now and not yet”) a glorious future kingdom, usually confused either with heaven or the new creation. The main alternative these days would be the “progressive” idea that God is behind social justice developments and expects the church to get with the action—or with the activism.
Neither perspective gives a good account of the New Testament data, but the particular question I want to address here is whether Jesus taught (and his followers believed) that his kingdom was not of this world and therefore was not temporal but spiritual in nature, a matter not of history but of a transcendent eternity.
Jesus was a Jew of the late second temple period
Jesus lived and died a Jew of the late second temple period. If we approach the matter historically rather than theologically, we should assume that he shared the presuppositions and outlook of other prophetically-minded or apocalyptically-minded Jews of the time, unless it can clearly be demonstrated otherwise. The onus should be on those who argue for a spiritual kingdom to show that he and his followers broke in such a radical dualistic fashion from Jewish thought. Pointing to the odd, apparently anomalous verse is not enough, though we’ll take a few into consideration. The counter-argument needs to be coherent and systemic.
Some would not taste death
The Jesus of the Synoptic Gospels expected the coming of the Son of Man and of the kingdom of God to happen with devastating effect within a generation—not within a few days or a few weeks, not within several millennia. If he was not talking in some way about the very worldly event of the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, then we have a real problem defending the truthfulness of his predictions.
But surely, someone may object, Jesus expected the failed earthly kingdom centred on the temple, as the heart of the Jewish political-religious establishment, to be replaced by an internalised “kingdom” of the heart?
I don’t think so. He certainly expected righteousness to be internalised (”You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean”: Matt. 23:26), but internalised in a renewed Israel. The condition of participation in the covenant community after judgment against Israel within a generation was not faith alone or some other spiritual attribute that any person could exhibit, whether Jew or Gentile. The condition for participation was being a Jew who had faith, etc., with all that that entailed theologically and historically.
What changed was that the derelict vineyard of Israel came under a new management, faithful to Jesus as Christ and Lord. In Jesus’ kingdom the disciples would sit on twelve thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel (Lk. 22:30), the last in Israel would be the first, and so on.
Gentiles, no doubt, would come and celebrate the renewal of Israel and even change their ways in response to it, but the Old Testament eschatological paradigm of a transformed people bearing coherent corporate witness in the midst of the nations is never abandoned in the New Testament. As we have seen recently, it is still firmly in place at the end of the book of Revelation.
The kingdom of God is within you?
One saying that is often understood in a spiritualising sense is Luke 17:20-21: “The kingdom of God is not coming in ways that can be observed, nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you’” (Lk. 17:20–21). If we take the last part out of context, we could easily think that Jesus is telling the Pharisees that the kingdom of God is all about attitudes of the heart rather than external activity.
The saying is problematic in all sorts of ways, but it at least needs to be read in the context of Luke’s version of the apocalyptic discourse. It is Jesus’ answer to the Pharisees’ question about when the kingdom of God would come—not what sort of thing it was. The kingdom of God would be manifested in a crisis that would befall Israel in the manner of the flood or the destruction of Sodom (Lk. 17:22-37).
I rather think that Jesus means that the transformative dynamic is already present in these controversial “days of the Son of Man” (Lk. 17:22)—in the thankfulness of the Samaritan leper, in the faithful persistence of the disciples, in their hope of being vindicated, in the penitence of the tax collector, in the child-like trust of those who followed him, in the self-impoverishment of the wealthy (Lk. 17:11-19; 18:1-30). All this was already happening in the midst of the Pharisees as a sign, in history, that God was bringing about régime change, bringing down the mighty in Israel from their thrones and exalting those of humble estate (Lk. 1:52).
So what does Jesus mean when he says that his kingdom is not of this world?
In the early first century it appeared to many Jews that God was not in control of Israel’s political-religious existence. Caesar was firmly in charge, and imperial power had been delegated to various corrupt governors and kings (1). So the hope naturally arose among pious Jews of various political-religious stripes that sometime soon YHWH would intervene to rectify this theologically intolerable state of affairs.
In the modern era, in response to the collapse of western Christendom, a Christian understanding of things has arisen whereby the “kings of the earth” have been allowed to manage the secular or political sphere and the kingdom of God and his anointed Son has been confined to a private spiritual-religious sphere that barely impinges upon the real world (2). This theological innovation is then read back into such passages as John’s account of the interrogation of Jesus by Pilate.
In fact, the New Testament maintains the integrity of the Jewish model. Government of the people of God is not divided between the secular and the sacred, the historical and the spiritual, the temporal and the eternal (3). The hope is the same—that Caesar and the kings of the earth will be overthrown and Israel will be ruled by YHWH and his anointed Son.
So to Jesus and Pilate….
It is not legal for the Jews to put Jesus to death, so they hand him over to Pilate. Pilate goes in and questions Jesus (Jn. 18:33-38). “Are you the king of the Jews?” Jesus avoids a straight answer. “Am I a Jew?” Pilate asks. “Your own nation and the chief priests have delivered you over to me. What have you done?” (Jn. 18:35). Jesus replies that his kingdom is not from this world, otherwise his followers would have fought to prevent him being handed over to the Jews.
This is John’s parallel universe, and we should not expect it to synchronise smoothly with the Synoptic traditions—expect grating of gears and seizing up of parts. But still, what is at issue between Jesus and Pilate is not that they exercise their respective authorities in two different types of kingdom, one temporal, the other spiritual. It is that authority over what happens in the world derives ultimately with God: “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above” (Jn. 19:11). In fact, John clearly wants his readers to think that Jesus’ followers affirmed him “king of the Jews” in opposition to Caesar, not in a safely demarcated spiritual sphere alongside Caesar (Jn. 19:12-15). Thomas’ confession, “My Lord and my God,” may have had a sharply anti-imperial ring to it (Jn. 20:28).
The kingdom of God had to do with the government of God’s people in the midst of the nations. How would it come about? Not by acts of violence. How would it be prevented? Not by crucifixion.
They sought the city that was to come
At the end of Revelation John twice sees the holy city, new Jerusalem, descending out of heaven from God (Rev. 21:2, 9-10). On the first occasion, the city descends to become part of a new creation in which there is no more suffering and death. But then John is carried by the angel of judgment against Rome to a large mountain to see this descending city close up, and it becomes a city in the midst of hurting nations, and sin is still present in the world. This city is the replacement for pagan imperial Rome, which will be found no more (Rev. 18:21). It is a new polis for the ancient world, not a prostitute corrupting the nations of the oikoumenē, but the bride of the Lamb, a source of light and healing for the nations.
When the writer to the Hebrews says that “here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come,” he means that these Jewish believers in Jesus have nowhere on earth that currently provides a viable citizenship for them. They are effectively stateless. They are alienated from Jerusalem, if it is still standing. They have no wish to be citizens of a decadent Roman world that is passing away. So for now their lot is persecution and pariah status—like Jesus, they suffer outside the gate (Heb. 13:13-14). But they are confident that things will change. The earth and heavens will be shaken again by the voice of God (Heb. 12:26). A new “city” will come, a new Jerusalem, a whole new political-religious order, and they will finally be at home, a place where they belong, and they will be at rest.
They were waiting for a new heavens and a new earth
Peter’s readers are to exercise the virtues listed in 2 Peter 1:5-7 because “in this way there will be richly provided for you an entrance into the age-enduring (aiōnion) kingdom of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ” (2 Pet. 1:11). The kingdom is not something that they have now; they will enter it in the future; and it will last throughout the age or ages to come. They hold to the prophetic word from the Old Testament “until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts” (2 Pet. 1:19-21). The reference is to the words heard at the transfiguration: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matt. 17:5). Behind this is the description of the Spirit-filled servant of YHWH who will bring justice to the nations, etc., culminating in the declaration: “Behold, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare…” (Is. 42:1-9).
The coming kingdom, therefore, is understood to be the Isaianic new things that God would do in the world through his vindicated servant Jesus.
The language that Peter uses to describe the advent of the new things is violently apocalyptic: “the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed…. the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn!” (2 Pet. 3:10, 12). Out of this conflagration will emerge the “new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (2 Pet. 3:13).
But again, this is simply Isaiah’s vision of a restored people in the midst of the nations, transposed into a somewhat intensified, discordant prophetic key:
Lift up your eyes to the heavens, and look at the earth beneath; for the heavens vanish like smoke, the earth will wear out like a garment, and they who dwell in it will die in like manner; but my salvation will be forever, and my righteousness will never be dismayed. (Is. 51:6)
For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in that which I create; for behold, I create Jerusalem to be a joy, and her people to be a gladness. (Is. 65:17–18)
Peter is not thinking—any more than Isaiah was—of a fully transcendent state of affairs beyond history, for which we must always be waiting. He is thinking of a dramatically new political-religious order in history, in the wake of decisive judgment on the enemies of Israel’s God, which would come to pass within a plausible time frame—the kingdom of the one who was pre-emptively glorified as the beloved Son on the mount of transfiguration.
It’s what happened. Peter got it right.
Different means to more or less the same end
Many first century Jews believed that YHWH would intervene, defeat the pagan occupying power, reform Israel’s political and religious systems, restore the Davidic monarchy, establish Jerusalem as a great regional power, the centre of a righteous monotheistic empire, and even ultimately renew heaven and earth—or something along those lines. I think that the early Jewish believers in Jesus broadly shared that belief but with certain critical exceptions having to do with how it would be achieved.
1. They believed that the authority to judge and rule over a reformed people of God had been given to a man who had suffered the humiliation of death on a Roman cross, who was now seated at the right hand of God. Jesus was conceived not as a “spiritual” king but as a worldly king, who happened to rule not from the earthly Jerusalem but from a new Jerusalem, so to speak, in heaven.
2. The key Old Testament texts for understanding the kingdom of YHWH and his anointed Son are Psalms 2 and 110, which offer considerable resistance to a spiritualising interpretation of kingdom in the New Testament. When the “kings of the earth” plot against the Lord and his anointed, YHWH “begets” his Son and gives him the nations as an inheritance (Ps. 2:1-9). YHWH establishes Israel’s king at his right hand to rule until his enemies have been defeated. “The Lord is at your right hand; he will shatter kings on the day of his wrath. He will execute judgment among the nations” (Ps. 110:5–6). The political dimension to this kingship cannot simply be brushed aside.
3. Romans 15:8-12 seems to me an excellent summary of Paul’s gospel of the kingdom (cf. Acts 28:23, 31): through Jesus YHWH demonstrated his faithfulness to Israel; therefore, the Gentiles praise the God of Israel; therefore, the Gentiles are beginning consciously to hope that they too will one day be ruled by the righteous God of Israel, through his anointed Son at his right hand.
4. This was a heavenly or spiritual kingdom, therefore, only in the sense that it was exercised from heaven. Its scope and purpose doesn’t change: to safeguard the integrity of the community on earth which embodied the sovereignty of the living God among the nations.
5. The reform of second temple Judaism would not be a return to faithful Law observance but would be expressed through a new covenant in the Spirit. The Law would be written on people’s hearts, but it would no less entail concrete patterns of behaviour, a way of life, a new polity, a new citizenship.
6. The new political-religious order would be brought about neither through conventional political-military means nor through direct divine action, but through faithful, steadfast, Christ-like witness, in the face of severe opposition, to the coming régime change.
7. The priestly service of the people of God among the nations would no longer take the form of sacrifice and prayer in the temple. It would be embodied in the dispersed life of the whole community. The churches as churches—men and women, young and old, slave and free, Jews and Greeks, etc.—mediated and taught the reality of the one true, living God to a culture in transition. They were empowered to do so by the Spirit of God dwelling indiscriminately in them, but this did not mean that the rule of Israel’s crucified messiah had become a matter of the spirit or soul only.
8. For fifteen hundred years or so this kingdom reality was embodied in the political-religious structures of European Christendom. If enough people internalised the kingdom of God, sooner or later it was bound to reach a tipping and become public reality—emperors and kings would convert, basilicas would be built, bishops would be given state functions, cultures would be overhauled, and so on.