There are few concepts more central to the preaching of Jesus than the Kingdom of God. Sadly, however, this concept does not receive an equal amount of attention from Jesus’s interpreters. The concept of the Kingdom of God is used so frequently in the Synoptic Gospels that it can be hard to get a grip on what all it is supposed to mean. The relationship between the Church and the Kingdom is also prone to misunderstanding. Are they different? Or are they the same thing?
The following article discusses the uses of the phrase “Kingdom of God” in the Synoptic Gospels and then summarizes the general character of that Kingdom and its relationship to the Church.
The Kingdom of God (or the Kingdom of Heaven) is never mentioned explicitly in the Old Testament. There are references, however, to God’s malekût (royal power, dominion). Thus, the “Kingdom of God” is not a phrase specifically mentioned, but as a concept it is implied in several places. For example, Psalm 103:19 and Daniel 4:3 both make mention of “His kingdom” referring to God. Wisdom of Solomon in the Apocrypha contains a reference to the “Kingdom of God” (cf. Wisd. 10:10).
In the New Testament, the phrase “Kingdom of God” occurs only a few times outside of the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). Matthew tends to use the phrase “Kingdom of the Heavens” rather than “Kingdom of God” in his gospel (although see Matt. 12:28; 19:24; 21:31; 21:43; see also references to “the kingdom of their/my Father,” 13:43; 26:29). It seems that Matthew, in a Jewish practice, avoids saying “God” when he can (a frequent Jewish practice even today). Thus, Jesus probably spoke exclusively of “The Kingdom of God,” but Matthew changes the phrasing to make his gospel more palatable for a Jewish audience.
The phrase “Kingdom of God” (or its equivalent in Matthew) occurs in a variety of settings in the ministry and teachings of Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels. The different uses of the phrase can be categorized under two headings: immanence and distance.
At the beginning of Jesus’s ministry as recorded in Mark’s gospel, the resounding theme of Jesus’s preaching is the coming of the Kingdom of God . Jesus says “the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near, repent, and believe in the good news” (Mark 1:15 NRSV; see also Matt. 3:2; Luke 21:31). The Kingdom was so close that Jesus said he will not “drink again from the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes” (Luke 22:18; Mark 14:25). The casting out of demons is also a sign of the immanence of the Kingdom (Matt. 12:29; Mark 3:27; Luke 11:18, 21).
Jesus even says at one point, “Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see that the kingdom of God has come with power” (Mark 9:1; Matt. 16:28; Luke 9:27). Immediately after this statement though, in all three of the Synoptics, there is a temporal reference. In Matthew (17:1) and Mark (9:2) the reference is “six days later” and in Luke it is “eight days later” (9:28). The event that happens 6-8 days later is the transfiguration. Surely the transfiguration is a taste of the fulness of the Kingdom still to come in the future and not the whole of the coming of the Kingdom. Perhaps, the emphasis is on “power.”
Though the Kingdom can be entered its fullness only in the future (Matt. 25:34), the decision to enter it and the corresponding costs of that decision are made in the present (Matt. 5:30; 7:24-27; 10:17-22, 37; 13: 44-46; 18:8-9; 19:12; Mark 9:43-48;Luke 9:62; 14:28-32).
The Synoptics also record Jesus speaking of the Kingdom as a reality that is not yet here, but still to come in the future. For example, Jesus speaks in all three Synoptics about the summer being near because the fig tree is in leaf and by analogy that the events his disciples were experiencing were signs that God’s rule was soon to break into the world, but had not quite done so yet (Matt. 24:32-33; Mark 13:28-29; Luke 21:29-31).
Many of Jesus’s parables have this theme that the Kingdom of God will break into the current world unexpectedly in the near future: the sudden coming of the flood (Matt. 24:37-39; Luke 17:26-27), the surprise of a burglar in one’s house (Matt. 24:43-44; Luke 12:39-40), servants surprised at the coming of their master (Matt. 24:45-5; Luke 12:42-46), and the coming of the groom (Matt. 25:1-13).
The Kingdom is frequently spoken of as something one can “enter” (Matt. 5:20; 7:21; 18:3; 19:23-24; 223:13; John 3:5). That entering though is something which, in the fullest sense, lies in the future (Matt. 25:34).
The Nature of the Kingdom
Five things about the nature of the Kingdom as presented in the preaching of Jesus in the Synoptics should be noted here.
- The Kingdom is absolutely the mysterious work of God. It is something to be awaited while God causes its arrival, as described in the parables of the mustard seed (Matt. 13:31-32; Mark 4:30-32), the leaven (Matt. 13:33), and the seed growing secretly (Mark 4:26-29).
- The Kingdom is depicted as cosmic catastrophe which correlates with the appearance of the Son of Man (Luke 17:26; Mark 13:26; 14:62).
- The Kingdom will be, in some sense, taken from Israel and given to the Gentiles (Matt. 21:43). This image is developed by talk about casting the sons of the kingdom (i.e. Israel) into outer darkness (Matt. 8:12). The twelve as symbolic representatives of Israel though are promised that they will be judges and rulers in the coming Kingdom of God (Matt. 19:28; Mark 10:35-34).
- The Kingdom is a gift from God (Luke 12:32; 22:29). It can be received only like a child (Mark 10:15; Matt. 18:3; John 3:3).
- The Kingdom is completely transcendent and supernatural. It comes from God alone. Its consequences can only come from God: sustenance for the hungry and comfort for the sad (Matt. 5:3-10; Luke 6:20-23), invitation of the beggars and homeless to a sumptuous feast (Matt. 22:1-10), loving reception of a wayward son (Luke 15:11-32), and generous pay for a short day of work (Matt. 20:1-15).
The Church and the Kingdom
The Church is NOT the same thing as the Kingdom of God. I grew up being taught that the Church was the Kingdom. In my denomination (Churches of Christ) some even instruct others to remove the line “Your kingdom come…” from the Lord’s Prayer because they believe the Kingdom already came in the founding of the Church on the day of Pentecost in Acts 2. How dare we remove a line from the prayer our Lord taught us to pray to fit our own ideological assumptions!
The Church and the Kingdom of God are never equated in the New Testament. The earliest missionaries and preachers did not proclaim the Church, but the Kingdom. For example, Phillip proclaimed the good news of “the Kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ” (Acts 8:12). Paul proclaimed the Kingdom of God as the subject of his preaching (Acts 19:8; 28:23).
So what is the relationship between the Kingdom and the Church?
- The Kingdom creates the Church. The parable of the net (Matt. 13:47-50) shows that the Kingdom draws a community of people together from all sorts of different backgrounds.
- The Church witnesses to the Kingdom. The Church proclaims and demonstrates the values of the Kingdom (Matt. 5-7).
- The Church is the instrument of the Kingdom. Through the Holy Spirit, the Church is used to bring about the Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven (cf. Matt. 6:10). Indeed, “the Kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:20-21 NIV 1984).
- The Church functions as a protector and a gatekeeper for the kingdom (Matt. 16:19).
The Church is a gathering of people who are submitted to the reign of God and who enjoy the blessings that come from that submission while they await the coming day of Lord when the Kingdom will be established on earth as it is in heaven.
This article has observed the usage of the specific phrase “Kingdom of God” (and its equivalent in Matthew) in the Synoptic tradition. There is much more that can and should be said about the theme of Kingdom Theology in the Gospels and all of the New Testament. For example, this article did not explore the meaning and significance of the title “Christ” for Jesus which means “anointed one” and is a reference to being anointed as King. This article also did not explore the usage of the phrase “Kingdom of God” outside of the Synoptic Gospels. These theological explorations will have to be the topic of a future blog post.
In summary, it seems that the Kingdom is both an immediate present reality and a distant future reality. Various aspects of the Kingdom have already come in the person and work of Christ, but more is still yet to come with his return, final judgment and the New Heavens and New Earth. Also, the Church and the Kingdom are not the same thing, but closely related as the Kingdom creates and sustains the Church and the Church lives into and preaches the Kingdom.
- A blog post I found detailing the difference between the Church and the Kingdom. Read here. [I can not vouch for anything else on this site. I haven’t read anything else on this site. I just found this article and thought it was helpful.]
- For the academic, the entry on Basileus in the New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology and Exegesis is particularly helpful.