Lois Tverberg reflects on what Jesus meant when he spoke about the kingdom
Jesus spent more of his ministry talking about the kingdom than anything else. Yet to many, his sayings are difficult to grasp. Insight from Jesus’ Jewish setting greatly clarifies our understanding and sheds important light on our calling today.
You may have noticed two different phrases are used in the Gospels. In Mark and Luke, Jesus teaches on the “kingdom of God”. But in Matthew’s Gospel, which was primarily written for a Jewish audience, Jesus is quoted as speaking about the “kingdom of heaven”. This is because, for thousands of years, and even up until the present, Jews have shown reverence for God by not pronouncing his name. Often another word or phrase is substituted, such as “heaven”, “the Name”, or “the mighty one”.
We see this in Jesus’ parable about the prodigal son, where the son says to his father: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight,” (Luke 15:21, NKJV). Here, the word “heaven” is a substitution for God’s name. When Matthew uses the “kingdom of heaven”, he’s preserving Jesus’ original Jewish idiom. In contrast, Mark and Luke use “kingdom of God” to explain to Gentile readers that “heaven” is actually a reference to God.
The actual words that came out of Jesus’ mouth were probably Malchut shemayim (mahl-KUT shuh-MAH-eem), which was a phrase used in rabbinic teaching. The word malchut is related to the word melekh, which means ‘king’. Malchut is associated with the actions of a king – his reign and authority, and anyone under his authority. Shemayim is Hebrew for ‘heavens’. A simple way of translating it would be ‘God’s reign’, ‘how God reigns’ or ‘those God reigns over’.
THE COMING OF THE KINGDOM
The primary idea of the phrase “kingdom of heaven” is to refer to God’s reign over the lives of people who enthrone him as king. You might think that, by default, God would be king over all of creation. The biblical assumption, however, is that after the fall of Adam and the flood, humankind abandoned God as its king. Most of the world does not know or obey God, but the scriptures promise that one day: “The Lord will be king over the whole earth. On that day there will be one Lord, and his name the only name.” (Zechariah 14:9).
The debate in Jesus’ day was when and how God would re-establish his kingdom over the world. It was thought that when the Messiah came, he would wage a huge war and defeat God’s enemies. Then he’d receive great acclaim and be enthroned by God to rule the world. The kingdom of God would therefore arrive all at once with great pomp and glory. But Jesus disagreed: “Once, on being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, ‘The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is in your midst.’” (Luke 17:20-21).
Jesus meant that a person is brought into the kingdom of God when the person repents and decides to accept God as his king. It is something that happens in a person’s heart, not a political movement or visible display of God’s power.
Later, rabbis said something similar. For thousands of years, Jews have daily repeated Deuteronomy 6:5: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength” each morning and evening. The rabbis commented that when a person does this, he “receives upon himself the kingdom of heaven” (Mishnah, Berachot 2). In essence, the person has put God on the throne over his life and submitted to his reign.
JESUS, THE KING, HAS ARRIVED, AND HE IS ESTABLISHING HIS KINGDOM AS PEOPLE REPENT AND FOLLOW
THE GOOD NEWS
One of the reasons Jesus preaches about the kingdom of God is to proclaim the fact that he is the anointed king (Messiah) and this is his kingdom. The “gospel of the kingdom of God” (Mark 1:14, NKJV) is that when Jesus, the Son of God, arrived on earth, God’s reign arrived with him. Jesus tells his disciples to go out and heal the sick and say that the “kingdom of heaven has come near.” (Matthew 10:7). What he meant was that God’s redemptive reign was arriving as God miraculously took control over human brokenness to bring healing. We are now getting a glimpse of its dawning reality.
The take-home message is that Jesus, the king, has arrived, and he is establishing his kingdom as people repent and follow him. Jesus consistently describes the kingdom in terms of gradual expansion, like a mustard seed (Mark 4:30-32) or a little bit of yeast that grows and grows (Luke 13:20-21). He is describing a community of believers that starts small and then grows as people from all nations join. This will culminate when every knee bows and every tongue confesses that Jesus is the Christ, God’s anointed king (Philippians 2:11).
GOD’S REIGN HERE AND NOW
Note that the primary understanding of the kingdom of heaven is God’s reign over people in this world. Often we equate it with heaven itself. This leads us to think that Jesus was always talking about heaven, when he was actually talking about God’s work on earth here and now. It suggests that God cares little about our daily lives, and that he only cares about getting us into heaven.
Reading Jesus’ words about the kingdom in terms of what God is doing on earth sheds light on our calling. Consider this classic line from the Lord’s Prayer: “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” (Matthew 6:10).
Many assume that “your kingdom come” means “we are waiting for you to return”. It is interpreted as a plea for Christ to come back quickly. However, the two phrases “your kingdom come” and “your will be done, on earth” are supposed to be synonymous. They are saying: “May all the peoples of the earth enthrone you as king! May everyone on earth know you and do your will!” Certainly we are joyously awaiting Christ’s return. But this is really a plea for God to use us to spread the gospel and expand God’s loving, redemptive reign on earth.