The Kingdom of God in the preaching of the Lord Jesus
Brian Clatworthy, Newton Abbot, Devon, England [SEE PROFILE BELOW]
The expression ‘the Kingdom of God’ occupies an important place in the preaching of the Lord Jesus. Following the arrest and subsequent imprisonment of John the Baptist, see Matt. 4. 17; Mark 1. 14, Jesus immediately enters Galilee proclaiming the good news of God which He equates with the imminent realization of the Kingdom of God, Mark 1. 15. I take the meaning of the two expressions ‘Kingdom of God’ and ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ in the synoptic accounts to be identical,1 and therefore throughout this paper the former term is used consistently.2 Whilst there are those who see a distinction between these expressions,3 I see it as a literary device (in the case of Matthew) to avoid offending Jews. The use of periphrasis is quite common in both the Old and the New Testament.4
The ministry of John the Baptist was to call the nation of Israel to repentance, Matt. 3. 2. John expected them to respond to his message of judgement, Luke 3. 9, 17, by the public demonstration of baptism. The experience of baptism was wide in the society of his day but usually it was linked with those Gentiles who converted to Judaism. There were certain holiness movements who practised baptism, e.g., the Qumran community, but John’s baptism was a preparation for repentance. It focused upon a once and for all life-changing act, preparing the individual for the coming King, Matt. 11. 12-13. The background to John’s baptism may well be found in Old Testament texts such as Isaiah chapter 1 verse 16 and Jeremiah chapter 4 verse 14. The Lord Jesus submitted Himself to John’s baptism in a representative capacity thus providing a seamless link between the old ordinance and that which His disciples would later practice in His Name, Acts 19. 5, and that of the triune God, Matt. 28. 19.
The Lord Jesus not only begins His ministry with the Kingdom of God message but it resonates throughout the whole of His teaching. At no time, however, did He define or explain what He meant by the expression, ‘the Kingdom of God’. This, therefore, suggests that the hearers of the message were used to the phrase and had a common understanding of its meaning. F. F. BRUCE suggests,5 that when the Lord’s hearers heard Him speak of the Kingdom of God, they would naturally think of the divine order, which according to the visions in the book of Daniel, would supersede a succession of pagan world-empires and in which rule would be exercised by the ‘saints of the Most High’, Dan. 7. 18, 27. In this article we attempt to discover whether this was the significance of this expression for the people of His day.6
Although the phrase, ‘Kingdom of God’ does not appear in the Old Testament, God’s kingship is very much a feature of it and highlighted the special relationship that existed between God and Israel, Exod. 15. 18; 19. 6, 11,7. As JOHN BRIGHT,8 points out’, ‘covenant was Israel‘s acceptance of the over-lordship of Yahweh. And it is just here that the notion of the rule of God over His people, the Kingdom of God, so central to the thought of both Testaments had its start’. Israel was to be uniquely a theocracy on earth under the kingship of God and even when she rejected this arrangement and moved to a tribal monarchy, 1 Sam. 8. 7, God was still regarded as reigning on high, Isa. 6. 5. The Psalter is sated with references to God as King and His ultimate enthronement, see, for example, Ps. 10. 16; 24. 7-10. God was viewed as the great Creator and therefore had the right to reign over all creation, Ps. 93. 1-2, and the nation of Israel in particular. God’s reign was not just, however, for the present time but had eschatological significance for Israel.
The Old Testament prophets often referred to the judgement of Israel and contiguous nations in their own day, Amos chapters 1 and 2, but also preached the final judgement of God in the history of the world, Dan. 7. 14; Zech. 14. 9. During the intertestament period this intervention of God in the world was primarily understood in nationalistic terms of the restoration of Israel to its former glory and the overthrow of the yoke of foreign domination. This was the central theme of apocalyptic literature of the time. In synagogue worship throughout Israel and in the dispersion, prayers would include such requests as, ‘Restore our judges as in former times and our counsellors as in the beginning; and reign over us, Thou alone . . . and may the insolent kingdom be quickly uprooted, in our days’.9 Rabbinical writings at the time include a quote from Rabbi Aboth where he regarded the feast of the ‘Age to Come’ as a synonym for the Kingdom of God.10
So, in the light of the Old Testament background, there would have been tremendous interest in Jesus’ preaching of the Kingdom of God both from a nationalistic and eschatological point of view. Others before the Lord Jesus had suggested a new order was about to be ushered in but their efforts had come to naught. For example, Judas the Galilean tried to raise a revolt against Rome on the pretext that it was wrong to pay tribute thus accepting overlords rather than the rule of God.11
When the Lord Jesus stated that, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand’, Mark 1. 15, some of His hearers may well have linked this proclamation to the imminent fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy of Daniel chapter 7 verse 22. At first blush, the Lord Jesus seemed to be giving support to the nationalistic view that Israel would soon be liberated from foreign oppression and restored through the Kingdom of God.
A closer examination of the expression, ‘is at hand’ suggests that the Lord’s real intention was not to confirm that the Kingdom of God was being ushered in at that precise moment in time but that His ministry was a foretaste of the future kingdom. Perhaps the best way to understand this dynamic tension is to think of the kingdom as being in the process of being realized or inaugurated by or through His ministry. The future kingdom had pervaded the present time. If then the Kingdom of God was now, but not yet present - yet future, there was a certain mystery about this King’s dominion, Mark 4. 11. A mystery that the Lord Jesus was prepared to share with all those who ‘had ears to hear’, Matt. 13. 43.
Whilst the Greek noun for ‘kingdom’ is restricted when linked by the addition, tou theou, the idea of the kingdom is not to be understood in spatial or geographical terms. It is not so much a territorial claim but rather the rule or reign of God as King in the affairs of men. The Lord Jesus came preaching a message construed by the Jews of His day in a religious and nationalistic context. Yet, the substance of His teaching held out a very different prospect.
The manifestation of the Kingdom of God would undoubtedly bring about a better tomorrow for the poor and the outcasts of society and there are those who interpret His teaching simply in political and socio-economic terms. When the Lord entered the synagogue in Nazareth, Luke 4. 16 -19, and read from the scroll containing the words of the prophet Isaiah, Isa. 61. 1-2, He applied those verses to His own ministry. Those present may well have interpreted His words as meaning that there would be imminent relief for the poor. But are we to take the words of Isaiah literally? What is of interest is that in the narrative, the English translators have replaced the word ‘meek’ in the original Hebrew text with the word ‘poor’. The same Hebrew word is used of Moses in Numbers chapter 12 where he is described as the meekest, not poorest, man in the entire world.12 In other words, the Lord’s reference to the poor in this context should be understood in terms of poverty of spirit rather than in terms of economic distress. Similarly, the other conditions mentioned by Isaiah relate to those who would find in the preaching of the Lord Jesus the answer to spiritual wretchedness. The Kingdom of God would not be established through force of arms but through the grace of God in the hearts of men by a revolution of spirit.
The Lord Jesus sets out His manifesto for the Kingdom of God in what is popularly entitled the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew chapters 5 to 7. Here He indicates the norms and principles of the kingdom which are expressed in a collection of statements known as the Beatitudes. The same Greek word is used in the Septuagint (LXX) to translate the Hebrew word ‘blessed’, especially in the book of Psalms, e.g., Ps. 1. 1. WIGRAM writes that psalms which commenced with the word ‘blessed’ were called ‘Asherite psalms’ by the Jews because Leah, one of the wives of Jacob was so happy at the birth of her maid’s second son that she called him Asher (literally, happy’), Gen. 30. 13. In Hebrew thought the word ‘blessed’ denoted not only the idea of happiness but of a true state of well being.13
The eight Beatitudes in Matthew’s Gospel, Matt. 5. 3-10, provide us with the basic conditions for entry into the Kingdom of God as well as indicating the sort of people who would share in the kingdom. CARSON suggests that the kind of blessing referred to in this passage is not arbitrary in any of the eight Beatitudes and the blessing promised in each one grows naturally (or rather, super-naturally), out of the character described.14 The shared expression ‘for theirs is the kingdom of God’, in the first and eighth Beatitude is a literary device known as an inclusio and confirms that the kingdom is the subject throughout the discourse.
What then are the conditions that the Lord Jesus lays down for entry into this kingdom? Time will not permit to examine each of the Beatitudes in detail but let us consider two of them. The first Beatitude, Matt. 5. 3, states that it is only the poor in spirit who can inherit the kingdom. Prior to this statement, the Lord Jesus had refused to countenance a material kingdom when confronted by various temptations, Matt. 4. 1-11. It would therefore be incongruous if in the context of the Lord’s later statement in Matthew chapter 5 verse 3, regarding the ‘poor in spirit’ it is interpreted as those who are materially deprived. The Lord Jesus later confirmed before Pilate that His kingdom was not of this world, John 18. 36, so our interpretation of this first Beatitude must recognize this fundamental difference of emphasis. The prophet Isaiah provides us with a similar approach to that of Lord here in the first Beatitude. God is pleased to associate Himself with those who are of a humble and contrite disposition. Thus, the kingdom is associated with a person’s attitude to God, Isa. 57. 15; Matt. 21. 31, and clearly consists of those who have been born again, John 3. 3, 5.
According to the penultimate Beatitude, Matt. 5. 9, the heirs of the kingdom are peacemakers. God’s reign is characterized by peace and salvation, Isa. 52. 7. When Lord Jesus sent out His disciples to preach the nearness of the kingdom, Matt. 10. 5-13, He gave them an assurance that they would be received as sons of peace. To a Jew being a son meant taking on the character of something or someone. So peace characterizes the existence of the sons of the Kingdom of God.
In addition to the Beatitudes, the Lord also proclaimed the Kingdom of God through parables. The word ‘parable’ comes from a Greek word which literally means a comparison or an analogy. At its basic level the parable was a metaphor or simile which was usually drawn from nature or life in general. It was a common technique employed by Jewish rabbis who taught and illustrated by way of parables. There are instances of the use of parables in the Old Testament, see, for example, 2 Sam. 12. 1; Ezek. 1. 7, so this form of communication was not out of place or unprecedented. The Lord outlined His reasons for using parables to teach kingdom truth in Mark chapter 4 verses 11-12. It had duality of purpose in that it revealed and concealed the mystery of the kingdom of God. Those who were prepared to dig deeper into the parable would ultimately find the secrets of the kingdom. These parables confirm that God’s rule would be universal in its comprehensiveness and would be the climax of divine purpose.
What of the kingdom and the church? Clearly, they are not the same, but the church is part of the Kingdom of God. Every member of the church is a member of the kingdom, but not vice versa.15
When will the kingdom come? The kingdom will come when God’s will is done on earth as it is currently done in heaven, Matt. 6. 10. The whole of Lord’s ministry was centered upon this objective.
- Compare, for example, Matthew 4. 17 with Mark 1. 14; or Matthew 19. 23 with Mark 10. 23.
- As DONALD CARSON indicates, ‘There are enough parallels among the Synoptics to imply that “Kingdom of God” and “Kingdom of Heaven” denote the same thing; the connotative distinction is less certain’, Expositor’s Commentary on Matthew, 1995. DONALD GUTHRIE points out that the use of the expression ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ is paralleled in rabbinical literature and seems to have been used out of reverence for the name of God, which was considered to be too sacred to mention. In his view also, it is certain that no distinction may be drawn between the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Heaven, The Teaching of the New Testament, page 61.
- J. N. DARBY, for instance, claimed that the phrase ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ referred to the rule of heaven and describes the current age of the church where the Lord Jesus sits on the Father’s throne in power unseen. He will not occupy His own throne and rule on earth until the second coming. According to DARBY, until that event occurs, the church is in a position of weakness, unable to purify the world, The Dispensation of the Kingdom of Heaven – Matt XIII in the Christian Witness, (1834), 125-35.
- For example, see Daniel 4. 26; Luke 15. 18; and Hebrews 1. 3.
- Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free, (1980) 56.
- Cit op, DONALD GUTHRIE states that the teaching of Lord Jesus came to people who would in no sense be unfamiliar with the terms He used. It is the form of His teaching and the context in which He placed it that must engage our attention.
- But whilst God is specifically King over Israel, He is also King of all nations, see Dan. 4. 17, 32.
- A History of Israel.
- Extracts from Benedictions 11 and 12 of the Palestinian Recension.
- The Jewish Wars (JOSEPHUS) 133. Note how skilfully the Lord Jesus dealt with this issue in Matthew 22. 15-22.
- This text is often used to support Liberation Theology but clearly it is untenable and is more about personal interpretation rather than exegesis.
- MOULTON and MILLIGAN.
- The Sermon on the Mount - An Exposition of Matthew chapters 5-7 by D. A. CARSON.
- See Matthew 16 where Peter is given the keys of the kingdom but the church is identified as something quite distinct.
AUTHOR PROFILE: He is an elder and active member of a pioneer assembly work in Newton Abbott. For many years he has been welcomed as a ministering brother in the south of England and has written a number of articles for the magazine. He is married and has two children.