“Kingdom of God, Kingdom of Heaven” by Jonathan T. Pennington

Today in Western civilization the idea of being ruled by king or queen is seen as irrelevant at best or tyrannical at worst. Yet the kingdom of God is one of the most prevalent themes in the whole Bible. The teaching that God is the king or lord over all of creation weaves together both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament in a unifying refrain. In the Hebrew Bible God is regularly described as the king over all the world (Ps 22:8; 1Chr 29:11) and particularly over the people of Israel (Exod 19:6; Ps 114:2). The Jewish people looked forward to a time when a descendant of their great king, David, would reestablish Israel’s place in the world (2Sam 7:12-13). In the New Testament, the gospels make clear that the main emphasis in Jesus’s teachings was the kingdom of God (Matt 4:17, Matt 4:23; Mark 1:15; Luke 4:43) and that Jesus himself is the true Son of David and therefore the king (Matt 1:1; Matt 9:27; Matt 21:9; cf. 2Sam 7:12-13).

What does the idea of the kingdom of God have to do with life and society in the modern world?

In modern civilization we have little experience with kings and queens except as figureheads. In the few countries that still have a royal family exercising authority this often results in great inequity of wealth and opportunity and the oppression of sundry people. Even in democratic societies today, suspicion shrouds any leader who exercises great power. Therefore, the notion of God ruling as king over all of creation is typically understood only in abstract, spiritual ways that have little effect on modern life.

 

However, the biblical idea of the kingdom of God is not abstract, oppressive, or irrelevant. Rather, the message of God’s kingdom is that God promises to bring his liberating and life-giving reign from heaven to earth. God will do this through a messiah, one anointed as a ruler with absolute power, not an elected official. The purpose of this ruler, however, is not to oppress or concentrate power upon himself but rather to be the conduit of blessing, peace, and justice in the world. The New Testament teaches that Christians must personify the kingdom realities of care for the poor and needy (Matt 25:35; Jas 1:27), forgiveness and reconciliation (Matt 18:21-35; Eph 4:1-6), and bringing life and light to all nations (Matt 5:13-16). The people of God are called to exemplify now the kingdom that is yet to come, a time and place when there is no distinction or inequity between ethnicities, genders, or positions in society (Gal 3:28). In so doing Christians reflect the eternal kingdom of heaven and impact life on earth today.

Why did Jesus sometimes say the kingdom of God is already here and at other times say that it won’t come until he returns at the end of the world?

Through many parables and other teachings Jesus describes the kingdom as present already. The kingdom is said to be like a seed sown in people’s hearts (Mark 4:3-20) and like a treasure that can be found hidden in a field or a great pearl purchased in a market (Matt 13:44-46). When a thief crucified next to Jesus asks him to receive him into his kingdom Jesus responds that on that day he will enter into paradise (Luke 23:42-43). Most directly, when Jesus is asked when the kingdom of God will come he states the kingdom is not something that can be directly observed because “the kingdom of God is among/within you” (Luke 17:20-21).

 

At the same time, many of Jesus’s sayings about the kingdom indicate that it is not yet present but will come when God finally sets right the world. According to the New Testament, this coming kingdom coincides with Jesus’s return from heaven to earth as the glorified Son of Man. Jesus speaks of a future time of judgment when those who have done the will of God will enter into the kingdom and eternal life (Matt 7:21-23), when he will sit as ruler separating the good and the bad like sheep and goats (Matt 25:31-46). In the Lord’s Prayer (Matt 6:9-13) and during the last supper (Mark 14:25) Jesus teaches his disciples to look forward to the future when the kingdom will finally come.

 

The solution to this seeming incongruity is to understand that the kingdom of God is not primarily a physical place but rather the state of God’s sovereign rule and authority. God’s kingdom is present now and forever because he rightly rules over his own creation. Also, there is a time and place to come when God will fully establish his reign in vanquishing evil and bringing justice and peace. Jesus speaks of both of these realities because the reign of God may be described as both “already and not yet,” or “now with more to come.” At the same time, there is a mystery in all of this, and Jesus teaches that not everyone can understand or accept his teachings about the kingdom (Mark 4:11; Matt 19:11).

Jonathan T. Pennington, "“Kingdom of God, Kingdom of Heaven”", n.p. [cited 10 Dec 2018]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.org/en/places/main-articles/kingdom-of-god-kingdom-of-heaven

Contributors

pennington-jonathan

Jonathan T. Pennington
Associate Professor of New Testament and Director of Research Doctoral Studies, Southern Seminary

Jonathan T. Pennington (PhD, University of St. Andrews, Scotland) is Associate Professor of New Testament and Director of Research Doctoral Studies at Southern Seminary in Louisville, KY. He is the author of many works on the gospels including Heaven and Earth in Gospel of Matthew (Brill, 2007), Reading the Gospels Wisely (Baker Academic, 2012), and The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing (Baker Academic, 2017).

The Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Heaven are terms that refer to God’s rulership over creation.

Did you know…?

  • The Gospel of Matthew is the only biblical book that talks about the “kingdom of heaven” (thirty-two times) while the rest of the Bible refers to “the kingdom of God.”
  • Matthew’s “kingdom of heaven” is the same thing as the “kingdom of God” but emphasizes the contrast between God’s heavenly kingdom versus human earthly kingdoms.
  • The Gospel of John sometimes refers to the kingdom of God but prefers to speak about “eternal life” which is an overlapping idea in Jewish understanding.
  • The idea of Jesus as a wise teacher is an important part of the argument that he is the king because of the ancient belief that a great king must also be a great sage.
  • Christianity in the West has tended to emphasize Jesus as suffering savior while Eastern Christianity generally highlights Jesus as emperor or king.

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

The set of Biblical books shared by Jews and Christians. A more neutral alternative to "Old Testament."

A collection of first-century Jewish and early Christian writings that, along with the Old Testament, makes up the Christian Bible.

A description for Jesus locating him in the direct, royal lineage of the ancient Israelite king David.

related to an oppressive power

Ps 22:8

8“Commit your cause to the Lord; let him deliver—
let him rescue the one in whom he delights!”

1Chr 29:11

11Yours, O Lord, are the greatness, the power, the glory, the victory, and the majesty; for all that is in the heavens and on the earth is yours; yours is the k ... View more

Exod 19:6

6but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the Israelites.”

Ps 114:2

2Judah became God's sanctuary,
Israel his dominion.

2Sam 7:12-13

12When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will e ... View more

Matt 4:17

17From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

Matt 4:23

Jesus Ministers to Crowds of People
23Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every ... View more

Mark 1:15

15and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

Luke 4:43

43But he said to them, “I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other cities also; for I was sent for this purpose.”

Matt 1:1

The Genealogy of Jesus the Messiah
1An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.

Matt 9:27

Jesus Heals Two Blind Men
27As Jesus went on from there, two blind men followed him, crying loudly, “Have mercy on us, Son of David!”

Matt 21:9

9The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting,
“Hosanna to the Son of David!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Hosanna ... View more

2Sam 7:12-13

12When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will e ... View more

Matt 25:35

35for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me,

Jas 1:27

27Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the wo ... View more

Matt 18:21-35

Forgiveness
21Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?”22Jes ... View more

Eph 4:1-6

Unity in the Body of Christ
1I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called,2with all humilit ... View more

Matt 5:13-16

Salt and Light
13“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is th ... View more

Gal 3:28

28There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

Mark 4:3-20

3“Listen! A sower went out to sow.4And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and the birds came and ate it up.5Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did ... View more

Matt 13:44-46

Three Parables
44“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and b ... View more

Luke 23:42-43

42Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”43He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Luke 17:20-21

The Coming of the Kingdom
20Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, “The kingdom of God is not coming with th ... View more

Matt 7:21-23

Concerning Self-Deception
21“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in hea ... View more

Matt 25:31-46

The Judgment of the Nations
31“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory.32All the nation ... View more

Matt 6:9-13

9“Pray then in this way:
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.10Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.11Give us this day our ... View more

Mark 14:25

25Truly I tell you, I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.”

Mark 4:11

11And he said to them, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables;

Matt 19:11

11But he said to them, “Not everyone can accept this teaching, but only those to whom it is given.

A gospel is an account that describes the life of Jesus of Nazareth.

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