The term ‘kingdom of God’ crops up frequently in conversations about mission and ministry (see, for example, the recent use in Martyn Percy’s discussion of bishops), but it is not always very clear what the term means, or what relation it bears to Jesus’ use of the term in the gospels. It seems to me to be rather important to look carefully at the meaning of the term before we hitch it to our own agendas for a theology of ministry.
The first thing to note about the phrase is that it is presented by Jesus (and by John in Matthew 3.2) as the fulfilment of expectation. Its meaning cannot therefore be detached from OT and intertestamental expectation of God’s reign, even if Jesus’ teaching significantly reinterprets such expectations. The phrase ‘kingdom of God’ does not occur in this form in the OT, but the theme of God’s kingship runs like a thread through it, from the dominion God has over creation which he then delegates to humans made in his image, through his rule over his people in contrast to Pharoah’s control in the Exodus, to the theme of theocracy in the debate about whether Israel needs a king (1 Sam 8.6). A number of psalms express God’s sovereignty, and some include extravagant expositions of God as king:
For the Lord Most High is awesome, the great King over all the earth… Sing praises to God, sing praises…For God is the King of all the earth; sing to him a psalm of praise. God reigns over the nations; God is seated on his holy throne. (Ps 47)
The climax of this understanding comes in the second-century text of Daniel. In the first (story) cycle, the stone that rolls down from the mountain and destroys the statue signifies a kingdom set up by God which ‘will crush all those kingdoms and bring them to an end, but it will itself endure forever’ (Dan 2.44). In the second (vision) cycle, the corresponding episode describes the everlasting kingdom given by the Ancient of Days to the ‘one like of Son of man’.
Out of all this, two things are worth noting. The first is that, whatever the distinctive features of the realm over which God reigns (and they are many), this cannot be separated from actual recognition of God himself as king. The ‘kingdom of God’ is not a set of ideas or features; it is the exercise by God of his authority. The second is that, particularly in Daniel, it is clear that the kingdom of God is something that God enacts, and not something the human action brings about. (This is especially clear when contrasted with the themes and idea of the contemporaneous Books of Maccabees.) Both these things persist into the NT discussion of the kingdom of God.
In Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom, it consistently comes with judgement and decision. In the Synoptic gospels, the start of his preaching is summarised as ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe!’ It has often been claimed that ‘repentance’ here (metanoeo) has a sense of ‘changing one’s mind’ or ‘thinking again’. But this meaning had fallen from use by the first century, and the term should be understood in its LXX sense as the equivalent of the Hebrew shuv, meaning ‘turn [from your sins]’. This is hardly surprising, since the anticipation of God’s advent as king in the OT is, within one part of the prophetic tradition, described as ‘the great and terrible Day of the Lord‘, a day which will bring deliverance, but which will also bring judgement to his people, and so is distinctly ambiguous (see, for example, Mal 4.5).
It is very clear that Jesus reconfigures this sense of judgement, most notably omitting the references to judgement in Is 61.1–2 when citing it in his ‘Nazareth Manifesto’ in Luke 4.18f, and the inversion of power structures that the kingdom brings (see Luke 1.51) means that judgement will not come in the way that is expected or necessarily on those expected. But John’s ministry in Matt 3 and Luke 3 expresses this judgment very clearly, and Jesus repeatedly refers to the division that his message brings, both in the present (Matt 10.34) and in the eschatological future (‘wailing and gnashing of teeth’, Matt 8.12, 13.42, 13.50, 22.13, 24.51, 25.30, the separation of sheep from goats in Matt 25.31f). John’s gospel makes this equally clear; he mostly deploys the language of the ‘life of the age [to come]’ (poorly translated as ‘eternal life’ in most ETs) in place of language of the kingdom, but just as the future life has broken into the present in the ministry of Jesus, so therefore has the future judgement come with it. So, though Jesus has come to offer life, and judgement is deferred, paradoxically that judgement is pulled forward into the present in the form of people’s response to Jesus’ offer (‘those who do not believe are condemned already…’ John 3.18).
It is often noted that Jesus exercises his ministry of healing and deliverance freely, and that there often appears to be an absence of comment on repentance in the narratives by those who benefit. But it is not possible to conclude from this that such ‘kingdom’ ministry has no connection with faith and commitment for at least three reasons. First, it would be odd to expect the gospel writers to record Jesus’ teaching that accompanied every miracle; if so, then the gospels would be a lot longer! Secondly, whilst healings and deliverance are key elements of the kingdom, and point to the presence of God, it would be odd to reduce the kingdom of God to these alone, given the range of teaching and exposition throughout the gospels on the nature of the kingdom. Thirdly, Jesus talks sufficiently often of repentance and decision to discourage us from detaching this from his ministry. When questioned about his radical approach to table fellowship, Jesus responds that he has come ‘not to call righteous, but sinners’ (Matt 9.13, Mark 2.17), the labelling of his fellow diners as ‘sinners’ is hardly a flattering affirmation, and does not suggest an acceptance of them ‘just as they are’ without involving a call to change. Luke helps us by clarifying this for his (most likely non-Jewish readership) by adding ‘…to repentance’ (Luke 5.32) in case we were unsure. And it is Luke who also clarifies the consensus of the gospels that (rather awkwardly for post-Holocaust theology) the destruction of the temple is seen as an expression of judgement on those who did not recognise in Jesus the presence of God as king (Luke 19.44).
The question of division and decision in relation to the kingdom are in large part related to the theme of cosmic conflict: in proclaiming the presence of the kingdom of God, Jesus is announcing the displacement and overthrow of all other pretensions to imperial power, whether political, social or spiritual. This is seen in the question about loyalty to Caesar (Mark 12.16 and pars), perhaps the most pressing political question of the day, but also in Jesus’ consistent practice of restoring those who have been marginalised to their communities (Mark 1.44, 5.19 ‘Go home to your friends…’). Yet this is located within the spiritual conflict between Jesus and Satan, not just in his temptations in the desert, but in both his acts of deliverance (‘Have you come to destroy us?’ Mark 1.24) and his physical healings. The woman crippled for 18 years has been ‘in bound by Satan’ and should be ‘released’ by healing on the Sabbath (Luke 13.17). This is not to mythologise illness as Satanic possession, but to put all that damages and destroys human life in the theological category of that which is opposed to God’s will and which must therefore be done away with in the restoration of God’s rule over his world.
The connection between the kingdom, cosmic conflict, and the ministry of the Spirit is made clear in Luke 11.20 = Matt 12.28: ‘If, by the finger/Spirit of God I drive out demons, then the kingdom of God has come amongst you.’ We might have expected Luke (rather than Matthew) to focus on the Spirit, but Luke’s wording points us back to Exodus 8.19, where it is the ‘finger of God’ which overthrows the power of the Egyptian magicians and so leads to the liberation of God’s people from the oppressive rival kingship of Pharaoh. (There are also possible allusions to the writing of the Ten Words in Ex 31.18, and even the writing on the wall in Dan 5.5).
The finger of God therefore prefigures “the mighty hand and outstretched arm” of God, who delivers his people through “his Holy Spirit”. The Holy Spirit therefore is the power that binds Satan. Jesus is the Moses who heralds the New Covenant-based Kingdom of God, which arrived at Pentecost by the Holy Spirit.
This connection is also made in Jesus’ teaching the disciples as he sends them on ‘mission’: they are to cure the sick, drive out demons, and declare ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you’ (Luke 10.9, Matt 10.7–8)—oh, and declare the judgement of Sodom and Gomorrah on any who reject them.
This in turn means that the kingdom of God cannot be detached from Jesus and his ministry, recognition of who he is as God’s anointed ruler, and his death on the cross. John again makes this explicit in a different register of language when he records Jesus as saying ‘Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out’ (John 12.31). (John here is talking about ‘the world’ as humanity opposed to God which hates both him and his followers; elsewhere he talks of ‘the world’ as humanity loved by God for whom Jesus dies.) But this connection is also present throughout the Synoptics. Matthew’s genealogy, structured around the number 14 which is the numerical value of the name of king David, emphasises Jesus’ identity as Davidic king from the outset, and on Palm Sunday Jesus is welcomed as the bringer of the kingdom of David (Synoptics) or, more unambiguously, as the king who bring the kingdom (John). These connections are made explicit in Jesus’ saying in Matt 16.28 = Mark 9.1 = Luke 9.27. The kingdom will come ‘in power’ (Mark), in the lifetime of those present, which will be when the ‘Son of Man’ comes in his kingdom (Matthew). This is not the failed expectation of the imminent end of the world, but the proper theological understanding of Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension. All three Synoptics follow this saying with the account of the Transfiguration, a proleptic (ahead of time) revelation of Jesus’ true identity which the disciples are to keep to themselves until after the resurrection.
The compelling invitation to ‘repent and believe‘ in the kingdom of God is therefore neither the command to sign up to a doctrinal charter (on the one hand), not some general emotional sense of trust (on the other), but an invitation to recognise that God is uniquely at work in the ministry of Jesus and, ultimately, to acknowledge Jesus as the king of the kingdom that is coming. If the kingdom is God’s, and Jesus is its king, and the work of the Spirit brings this kingdom amongst us, then we have here a nascent Trinitarianism—or at least the theological data of which only the doctrine of the Trinity can make sense.
A complete account of the kingdom of God in the teaching of Jesus would need to explore the numerous parables in which the kingdom is often something organic that cannot fail to grow, even though it has small or apparently insignificant beginnings, as well as the idea of the kingdom as a place to be entered, something that can ‘come near’, or a treasured possession to be obtained at great price. The reason for focussing on the issues above is that they seem to be an integral part of Jesus teaching and practice—and yet almost total absent from readings of the kingdom as a social programme detached from questions of commitment and discipleship, such as that expressed by Simon Kershaw of Thinking Anglicans. (Simon has, by the day, done some excellent work over the years developing online liturgical resources, including generating and annual electronic lectionary calendar.) I think Simon is right in many of his observations about what are the social and practical implications of the kingdom of God, and what living faithfully in the kingdom implies practically. But, rather astonishingly, he then manages to leave God himself out of this kingdom:
What about God? Everyone must come to their own conclusions on that, and about the literal existence of God, because God’s kingdom — the place where the rules are love and peace, forgiveness and reconciliation and social justice for all — is a concept that exists whether you believe in God or not. Just as the arrival of the Magi in the Christmas story indicates that this baby is significant to Jews and non-Jews, so too he, and the kingdom he announced, are significant to believers and non-believers.
This seems to me to hollow out the kingdom as we find it in Jesus and the gospels, and leave a social action shell without a centre. I am genuinely puzzled as to what reading strategy of the New Testament can leave you with such a picture—what kind of hermeneutic can possibly lead to this conclusion. For James Byron (who often interacts with this blog), this is the heart of Christian faith—love expressed as social action without the need for religion per se:
This, for me, is the heart of Christianity: not debating the existence of a theistic god; but the radical social and interpersonal transformation of the Kingdom
He goes on to express this as a welcome demythologisation:
I separate this from the mythic cloak in the Gospels; and, indeed, Jesus’ own belief in an imminent end of history. We can work towards the Kingdom regardless.
Yet even Bultmann (who introduced the idea of demythologisation) still saw what was left as an existential decision to live in authentic response to God himself; this approach appears to go further by even removing this. It is not so much a demythologisation, but a detheologisation, where humanism is the only measure of truth.
We might want to claim that the essence of grass is its greeness; it is hard to imagine grass without it being green, and we might even want to say that unless it is green, it is not grass. (Don’t bother writing to me about other colours of grass: I am sure you get my point!). But it would be folly to suggest that whatever is green must therefore be grass. In the same way, the kingdom of God has love at its heart, since the king of the kingdom confirmed that love of God and love of neighbour were the supreme commands. But to suggest that, wherever love is expressed (even in our poor, failed understandings of what love is) is the sum total of the presence of God is to make the same basic mistake.
If we need language for our positive engagement with the world beyond the boundaries of discipleship and faith, then we find it in the phrase ‘the common good’. But to try and use the language of the kingdom of God for a general social programme is to ignore almost all the key elements of the kingdom in Jesus’ teaching and, in the ultimate irony, actually remove from the kingdom the one who introduced us to it in the first place.
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