If we consider ourselves Christians, it would make sense that we would seek to follow Christ. That means more than just performing the right rituals and ceremonies. It means trying to live like Christ and also sharing the same message that Christ shared. But what was that message?
We are told in the New Testament the Jesus preached the gospel. But what is the gospel? We often think of the gospel as being about believing that Jesus died on the cross so we can go to heaven. But you have a hard time finding that exact definition in the Bible. Plus, that message would not have made sense coming from Jesus before he died.
Thankfully we are not left in the dark about the nature of the gospel that Jesus preached. The gospel was and is about the coming of the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God is the central message of Jesus. If you took out of Matthew, Mark and Luke everything connected with the Kingdom, you would have very little left over.
But that only creates a new question. What is the Kingdom of God? Is it heaven? Yes and no. The Kingdom of God includes heaven but is not limited to it. Think of this portion of the Lord’s Prayer. “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Jesus teaches us to pray that the Kingdom would come to earth. It is not something we are to shelve for some day after we die. But what is the Kingdom? The passage from Luke gives us some helpful information. But before that, we need some general background.
What is a Kingdom?
Before looking at what the Kingdom is, we need to look at what a kingdom is. There are three basic elements for a true kingdom.
The first is to have a king. A kingdom just doesn’t make sense without a king. This is why during the Russian revolution, they killed not only the Tsar but his entire family as well. They wanted to make sure that the monarchy was over permanently and as long as someone from the royal line was still alive, there was always the possibility that it could be restored. This is exactly what happened in England. King Charles I was executed but ten years later, his son became King Charles II. A kingdom requires a king.
The second part is that a kingdom requires people, specifically in the role of subjects. Imagine that I discovered through some DNA testing that I had some royal blood. On this discovery, I declared myself to be king. Not king of Canada or even St. Catharines, just king. That would mean absolutely nothing. I could heap up all the titles I wanted and it would not matter as long as I had no subjects.
The third part is that the kingdom requires some authority that results in obedience. There are many examples in history of people who claimed kingship and perhaps even had the right to it. There was also a defined group of people over whom they were claiming to be king. But there was no recognized authority and the people ignored the wishes of the king. This is why we have coronations. A coronation is not just a time to see if the crown fits, it is like a marriage ceremony, in which the king and the people are joined together. the king pledges to care for the people and the people pledge to serve the king.
One example can be found in one of my favourite books, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. I won’t summarize the entire story but one of the major characters is Strider. He is a rough looking ranger. But under his rugged exterior, he is actually Aragorn, heir to the thrown of Gondor. So we have a person who has the right to be a king and we have a city that is rightfully his. But there is a point in the story, in the volume titled Return of the King, when the city actually recognizes him as king, and they agree to stand with him as he fights the forces of evil.
What is the Kingdom of God?
With that framework in mind, we are going to take a look at the Kingdom of God. Jesus’ teaching is a response to a question by the Pharisees. When they asked when the Kingdom of God would come, they had something very specific in mind. To them the Kingdom of God meant the expulsion of the Romans and a sovereign state of Israel with a God-chosen Jewish leader providing military security. Jesus uses this as a teaching moment.
The Kingdom of God was not something that could be so easily defined. You couldn’t point to the retreating Romans or a Jewish government and say, “There it is.”
Jesus told them “the Kingdom of God is within you.” Some translations say “among you.” I don’t want to argue either interpretation but rather focus on the “is.” The Kingdom is. Not the Kingdom will be. The Kingdom is present. But then Jesus goes on to teach how the Kingdom is a future, something accompanied by the coming of the Son of Man. The coming of the Son of Man is the return of Jesus. So is the Kingdom present or future? The answer is yes. The Kingdom has appeared with the first appearance of Jesus and will be fulfilled in his second coming. But let’s return to how we defined a kingdom.
A kingdom requires a king. Who is the king? The king is God, that’s why it is called the Kingdom of God. Israel in the Old Testament was meant to be a theocracy, that is a nation under the rule of God. They demanded human leadership and that began their downfall. The Kingdom of God has its starting place with acknowledgement of God as king of all creation.
That first part is straight forward but what about the people? Who are the people of the Kingdom of God? Some people have suggested that any time good people do good things, that is the Kingdom of God. While working for justice is according to Kingdom principles, it is not the Kingdom of God. A person in France could do something according the wishes of the Queen of England, but that would not make that French person her subject. The subjects of the king are actually those who belong to the church. By belonging to the church, I don’t mean they hold official membership with a local congregation or who attend services regularly. The true church are all those who are followers of Jesus. People who take their faith seriously and who are not just going through the motions.
But we have already seen that we need more than a king and a people. We need some sort of authority that connects the two. That is where Jesus comes in. Jesus’ ministry, death and resurrection produce the authority that results in obedience. God revealed himself in Jesus Christ and because of that we have a reason act like subjects of God. This means that we live in obedience to our king. Some Christians are uncomfortable with that because of the doctrine of salvation by faith alone. But I’m not talking about salvation, I’m talking about what Kingdom life looks like. The Kingdom of God is not like our relationship in Canada to the British monarchy. The Kingdom of God is a real kingdom with a real king and we are meant to actually obey our king. This doesn’t mean that God kicks us out of his family when we make mistakes. Rather we are to take our role as subjects of the king very seriously.
The Kingdom of God was central to the actions and preaching of Jesus Christ. Somehow, Kingdom thinking has drifted to the margins of Christian thought and practice. We need to reclaim Kingdom thinking. I understand that may be difficult because we value our freedom. However, we are not free when we reject our king. If we are not serving God, we are serving someone else. As Bob Dylan once said, “You gotta serve somebody.” We need to trust that God who is the true king is the one who look after us and love us. The Kingdom started with the coming of Jesus and it is continually growing, looking forward to the return of Jesus when the Kingdom comes in its fullness.