Kingdom of God, Kingdom of Heaven
KINGDOM OF GOD, OF HEAVEN (ἡ βασιλεία τοῦ Θεοῦ, τῶν οὐρανῶν). The sovereign activity of God as king in saving men and overcoming evil, and the new order which is thus established.
I. The kingship of God in OT teaching
Although the idea of the kingdom of God finds its main expression in the teaching of Jesus, it is a theme which is found throughout the Bible, and the teaching of Jesus can be understood only against the background of earlier thought. In the OT the actual word “kingdom” is infrequent; the basic notion is of the active rule of Yahweh as King over the whole world. This is developed in three ways.
II. The kingship of god in Jewish thought
During the period between the composition of the bulk of the OT and the coming of Jesus, Jewish thought about the character of God’s rule did not stand still, and it continued to develop for a long period afterward. One may trace its growth in the apocalyptic writings some of them dating from the 1st cent. b.c. and the 1st cent. a.d., and in the rabbinic writings, which are of a much later date but contain the teaching ascribed to rabbis of the same period. Many different influences affected Jewish thought at this time, and there were several different schools of thought, often with highly individual points of view, so that it is impossible to present a system of beliefs generally held by all Jews or even to give a fully coherent account of the various shades of opinion which were held and of their historical development. The sources available are scanty and often imperfectly preserved; they present such problems of dating and interpretation that scholars are by no means unanimous in the conclusions which they draw from the evidence.
A. The eternal sovereignty of God. As in the OT the concept of the eternal kingship of God over the world, established at creation, forms the background of Jewish theology. It is found in the apocalyptic writings (e.g. 1 Enoch 9:4.; 84:2f.; Pss Sol 2:33-36; 17:4; 1QSb 4:25f.), but is esp. prominent in the rabbinic lit. (SBK I, 172-178). God’s kingly power was regarded as being exercised primarily over Israel, the nation which recognized Him as its king in contrast to the pagan peoples of the world (Pss Sol 5:21f.; 17:51). Consequently it was the duty of the individual Jew to accept God’s rule over him, as Abraham had done (Jub 12:19). The phrase frequently used for this act is “to take upon oneself the yoke of God’s rule.” For all practical purposes this meant acceptance of His will as revealed in detail in the law of Moses. Since this law was expressed succinctly in the Shema, it could be said that to recite the Shema was to take the yoke upon oneself. The saying of Jesus, “Take my yoke upon you” (
B. The establishment of God’s future reign. The center of Jewish theological interest, however, lay not so much in the idea that God was now king, as in the expectation of His future activity, in setting up His rule visibly and powerfully among men. Within the gospels there is ample proof of the mood of expect-ancy which filled the people quite apart from any stimulus to their enthusiasm supplied by Jesus Himself. The raison d’etre of the apocalyptic writings was their claim to supply information on precisely this topic by reinterpreting the OT prophecies and assuring the people that they were about to be fulfilled (e.g. Pss Sol 17-18; As Moses 10; Sib Oracles 3:46-50, 767-771). The Qumran community is the most notable example of a group of Jews who based their behavior on the hope that God would soon come in kingly power to lead them to victory over their oppressors (1QM 6:6; 12:7; the interpretation of 1QSb
The form and content of this hope are greatly varied. In the earlier Ap. Lit. the expectation was of an earthly rule of God, centered on Jerusalem with a rebuilt temple, and involving the defeat and destruction of Israel’s enemies and judgment upon the ungodly. The righteous dead would be raised up to share in the bliss of the new age, and the people would live in peace and righteousness. They would be under the rule and protection of God. Sometimes He is thought of as ruling Himself directly over the people (1 Enoch 6-36; 91-104; As Moses 10; Jub), at other times the Messiah is His agent (1 Enoch 90; Test XII Pat; Sib Oracles 3:652-784; Pss Sol 17-18; 4 Ezra 7:28f.; 2 Baruch 39; Targum on
C. Kingdom of God and kingdom of heaven. In the Aram. Targums (paraphrases of the OT text) the phrase “the kingdom of God” was used to tr. OT expressions about God reigning. The way in which the phrase is used shows clearly that it expresses God’s activity in ruling rather than the area or realm over which He rules, although of course the latter meaning is not excluded. In the rabbinic lit. outside the Targums the phrase used was “the kingdom of heaven.” The two phrases are undoubtedly synonymous. The adoption of the latter was due to that same Jewish reverence for the name of God and consequent avoidance of uttering it which led to the substitution of “Lord” for the name “Yahweh” at the same time.
It is difficult to be certain which form of the phrase Jesus used. Mark, Luke and John use “the kingdom of God” in every case, but Matthew has the form “the kingdom of heaven” thirty-two times and “the kingdom of God” only four times (
The phrase “the age to come” (1 Enoch 71:15; Pirke Aboth 2:7; 4 Ezra and 2 Baruch passim) is rare in the gospels (
III. The kingship of God in the teaching of Jesus
A. The centrality of the theme. The word “kingdom” is found fifty-five times in Matthew, twenty times in Mark, forty-six times in Luke and five times in John. When allowance is made for the use of the word to refer to secular kingdoms and for parallel VSS of the same sayings of Jesus, the phrase “the kingdom of God” and equivalent expressions (e.g. “kingdom of heaven,” “his kingdom”) occurs about eighty times. The word “king” is used also of Jesus with considerable frequency but only rarely with reference to God (
B. The nature of God’s kingship
This way of putting the matter indicates that by the kingdom of God Jesus meant the kingly action of God at the end of the age rather than the present, eternal rule of God in heaven, for it would be strange to say that the latter was at hand. Certainly Jesus did speak of the eternal kingship of God (
What did Jesus mean by saying that the kingdom was “at hand”? The Gr. word ἤγγικεν may legitimately be tr. “is near” or “has arrived.” Did Jesus mean that at the time when He spoke the kingly action of God was about to take place or was already taking place? On purely linguistic grounds a decision is difficult, though the balance of probability favors the former interpretation. The problem must be solved by considering the whole teaching of Jesus.
The result of intense discussion during recent years has been to show that neither theory can stand on its own. Each can be defended only at the cost of explaining away, often by very dubious methods, the evidence for the other. The Weiss-Schweitzer theory paid a one-sided attention to the sayings about the future coming of the kingdom and ignored the sayings to which Dodd later drew attention. Dodd for his part was quite unconvincing in his attempts to interpret the future sayings in line with his view that the kingdom had already come. The most careful study of the evidence to date, that by W. G. Kümmel, has shown that Jesus spoke both of the presence and of the future coming of the kingdom.
Once this polarity or dualism has been recognized, the problem is to explain it. (a) R. Bultmann and his followers have stressed the primacy of the future elements in the teaching of Jesus, but have then reinterpreted His sayings in existential categories in such a manner that the concept of a real future coming of the kingdom has been effectively denied. (b) Kümmel’s own solution was to restrict the presence of the kingdom to its presence in Jesus; in His own person the future consummation already had come, but apart from His presence the kingdom is not present and its coming lies in the future. (c) Others, taking their cue from
It is prob. wasted labor to attempt to show that one aspect or the other of the coming of the kingdom had the greater significance for Jesus. Although the actual number of sayings referring explicitly to the future coming is greater, it remains true that the teaching about the presence of the kingdom was esp. distinctive of Jesus and contained new ideas about its nature. The truth is that the two aspects were not rigidly separated by Him. The future coming was near because God had begun to act; the present time was full of significance because God already was bringing His final gift of salvation to men.
2. The presence of the kingdom. It is necessary to examine more closely both aspects of Jesus’ message about the kingdom. The evidence in the gospels is fully consonant with the usage of the rabbinic lit. in that the phrase “the kingdom of God” refers primarily to the action of God who follows out His sovereign will toward mankind. This means that the kingdom of God never means an action undertaken by men or a realm which they set up. However noble may be the idea of laboring to establish the kingdom of God, the Biblical terminology is completely inconsistent with the language of modern liberal theology. The kingdom is a divine act, not a human accomplishment nor even the accomplishment of dedicated Christians.
At the same time, however, although the idea of action is primary, the word “kingdom” also means the realm set up by God and the benefits which are associated with it. Men may enter the kingdom (
The deeds of Jesus are, therefore, to be seen as signs of the coming and the presence of the kingdom. They are part of the message (cf.
In these various ways the “mystery” or secret of the kingdom is revealed (
From what has been said, it will be apparent that the message of the kingdom is a message of salvation rather than a message about God in Himself. Jesus said very little about God reigning or acting as king, and He associated the term “kingdom” much more with the blessings that it brought to men. He preferred to think of God not so much in terms of kingship as of fatherhood, and part of His message was the new filial relationship with God which men could enjoy in the kingdom (
The closest connection exists between the presence of the kingdom in the ministry of Jesus and its future consummation. If the presence of the kingdom is closely associated with the person of Jesus (see III B 4), its future coming is associated with the coming of the Son of man. It is true that the connection is not explicitly made in the texts, but it is impossible not to believe that the two events formed part of one single eschatological hope.
The question of the imminence of the future kingdom has been the subject of much discussion. Against the contention of many scholars that Jesus expected its arrivel immediately after His death, W. G. Kümmel has shown that He certainly envisaged an interval between His death and its arrival. During this time the disciples were to preach the Gospel to all the nations (
4. Jesus and the kingdom. How was Jesus Himself related to the kingdom? Was He simply the herald of its coming like John the Baptist, or was it more closely linked to His person?
Earlier discussion has shown that Jesus brought the kingdom of God to men by His teaching and His mighty deeds. The point to be emphasized now is that they were His words and deeds or those of men sent out by Him. It was through Him that God had chosen to work. He was conscious that a new era had begun: the kingdom was pushing its way forward among men and being proclaimed as good news (
Furthermore, although Jesus was extremely reticent on the matter in His public teaching, He knew Himself to be the One who perfectly fulfilled the roles of the Messiah and the Son of man. In other words, He was conscious of being the key figure associated with the coming of the kingdom (for the Son of man exercising kingly functions, see
Jesus did not directly link the coming of the kingdom with His death upon the cross. Already before His death, the kingdom of God was present. Nevertheless, the connection is there, and the cross is to be regarded as one of the key stages in the coming of the kingdom. It’s probable that the coming of the kingdom “with power” (
All this evidence shows that the kingdom is inextricably linked with Jesus Himself. One may well agree with Marcion, who said, “In the Gospel the kingdom of God is Christ Himself,” and with Origen who described Jesus as being “Himself the kingdom” (αὐτοβασιλεία). It must be carefully observed that, since the kingdom of God is primarily God’s action, it is not the person of Jesus in separation from His deeds which constitutes the presence of the kingdom but rather the activity of Jesus in coming into the world from God and in exercising God’s power in bringing salvation and judgment to men.
C. The response of men
1. Entry to the kingdom. The preaching of Jesus about the kingdom demanded a response from men. They were to repent and believe the good news (
Jesus also spoke of entering the kingdom in the future tense, in the same way as that in which He spoke of receiving eternal life or being saved or having a share in the age to come (
In laying down this way of entry into the kingdom, Jesus was denying entry to any Jews who thought that the kingdom rightfully belonged to them and failed to show the evidence of true discipleship and humble trust in God (
2. The ethics of the kingdom. To acknowledge the kingship of God implies the acceptance of the kind of behavior which He prescribes. It means submission to the concrete demands of the king (
Weiss and Schweitzer erred in thinking that this ethic of Jesus was teaching conditioned purely by the imminent approach of the end of the world, a set of stringent rules to be observed in a time of crisis but unsuitable for ordinary, everyday life. But it is not the nearness of a crisis which determines the content of Jesus’ ethic but rather the nearness of God; and what is demanded is not something that can be fulfilled only by men who are keyed up by the expectation of imminent crisis, but is rather the unchanging requirement of God from His people. The ethic comes with new force in the context of the preaching of the kingdom, and it is expressed more radically than was possible in the legal code of the Pentateuch, but it remains the same ethic as that which is found in the OT.
Once again one must beware of thinking that the ethic is a “condition” of entry to the kingdom, as if God were laying down certain qualities of character as the entrance requirements. Jesus’ message was the Gospel of grace, and the ethic expresses the response which men should make to the Gospel. It is the way of life for those who have already accepted the rule of God and experienced its blessings and who now look forward to the consummation of His rule.
3. The kingdom and the church. Although the word “church” was rare on Jesus’ lips, the idea of the church was certainly present in His teaching. The church is simply the company of those who accept the kingly rule of God and find themselves bound together by their common allegiance to God and His Son. During His ministry Jesus placed before men the need to commit themselves to Him in discipleship, and this group of disciples must be regarded as the church in embryo. Within this larger company the Twelve occupied a special place. To them, and in particular to Peter, Jesus entrusted the keys of the kingdom, i.e. the authority to preach the Gospel of the kingdom and to admit men to it (
The Church, therefore, is not to be identified with the kingdom. It is rather part of the manifestation of the kingdom in the world, for it is the company of those who accept the message of the kingdom, own Jesus as their Lord and Master, and act as His agents in continuing to proclaim the Gospel of the kingdom.
4. The kingdom and the world. Although the old tr. of
IV. The kingship of God in the Early Church
C. Other writers. The rest of the NT does not contribute much to the development of the theme. The Epistle to the Hebrews shares the common NT belief that Jesus now reigns as king, employing the language of
In the Epistle of James there is mention of the future blessings associated with the kingdom of God which are promised to the poor (
The First Epistle of Peter speaks once of believers as a royal priesthood, thus combining the thoughts of their privilege of reigning and their duty of service (
In the Early Church the concept of the kingdom of God was used, as in the teaching of Jesus, for the future triumphal reign of God. The Church expressed the present era of salvation in other ways, but it did not altogether give up Jesus’ manner of speaking about the presence of the kingdom, for it taught that He is now the exalted Lord and King to whom men must submit. At His Second Coming He will be displayed openly as king, and in the end God the Father will be seen to be all in all when the Son hands over sovereignty to Him. In this life believers share in the blessings of His reign, just as the disciples did during the earthly ministry of Jesus, and they look forward to the consummation of their hopes in the coming kingdom of God and of His Son. See Heaven.
Bibliography Note that in the above article questions regarding the authenticity of sayings attributed to Jesus in the gospels have not been discussed, not because they are unimportant, but because an adequate discussion would have seriously exceeded the limits of the article. The reader is, therefore, referred to the bibliography for such discussion.
J. Weiss, Jesus’ Proclamation of the Kingdom of God (1892; Eng. tr. 1971); G. Dalman, The Words of Jesus (Eng. tr., 1909); SBK I, 172-184; IV 2, 799-976; W. Bousset and H. Gressmann, Die Religion des Judentums im Späthellenistischen Zeitalter (1926, 4th ed. 1966); T. W. Manson, The Teaching of Jesus (1931, 2nd ed. 1935); C. H. Dodd, The Parables of the Kingdom (1935, 2nd ed., 1961); A. M. Hunter, The Work and Words of Jesus (1950); W. G. Kümmel, Promise and Fulfilment (Eng. tr., 1957); C. E. B. Cranfield, The Gospel according to St Mark (CGT) (1959, 2nd ed., 1963); H. Ridderbos, The Coming of the Kingdom (1962); G. Lundstrom, The Kingdom of God in the Teaching of Jesus (1963); N. Perrin, The Kingdom of God in the Teaching of Jesus (1963); Rediscovering the Teaching of Jesus (1967); R. Schnackenburg, God’s Rule and Kingdom (Eng. Tr., 1963); D. S. Russell, The Method and Message of Jewish Apocalyptic (1964); K. L. Schmidt (and others) in TDNT I (1964), 564-593; G. E. Ladd, Jesus and the Kingdom (1966); S. E. Johnson, The Theology of the Gospels (1966); H. Conzelmann, An Outline of the Theology of the New Testament (1969); R. H. Hiers, The Kingdom of God in the Synoptic Tradition (1970).