If you were to take all of Jesus' sermons and teachings together and study them for a particular style or central theme you would learn that the central theme in His preaching, especially as recorded by Matthew, Mark and Luke, was the idea of the kingdom of God or the kingdom of heaven (He talked about this the most). He spent much time talking about the coming, the preparation for, the nature of and the makeup of the kingdom.
It seems that Matthew used the term kingdom of heaven because the Jews had been trained to think in terms of heaven as a spiritual dimension. Mark uses the term kingdom of God because his Gentile audience could more easily identify with this (they had no idea of heaven).
Jesus used the word kingdom throughout His ministry, and 13 of His 43 parables begin with the words, "The kingdom of heaven is like…" Obviously if Jesus gave so much importance to the subject of the kingdom and our involvement in it, we should be familiar with His teachings on it.
This is why I have included the teaching/doctrine of the kingdom as one of the seven major doctrines of the Bible that explains our faith. We do not have the time to explore all 13 parables that describe the kingdom (for a more complete study on this topic see the video series or book entitled "Kingdom Parables" on the BibleTalk.tv website), but we can review how the doctrine of the kingdom developed over time.
Development of the King and Kingdom: Ideas in the Old Testament
In the beginning society was designed to co-exist in peace with extended families, sharing the limitless resources of a perfectly balanced creation, all under the loving care and presence of God: Genesis. There were no human rules of any kind. The only present authority was God and His Word.
With the advent of sin, a new level of authority was instituted within the family structure in that the husband was to have authority over his wife; but no authority in society yet. After the flood (Genesis 9) God gave society the authority to police itself and execute justice for crimes (a life for a life, Genesis 9:6) in order to provide order in a new sinful world.
The first human ruler was self-appointed. In Genesis 10:10, Nimrod forms and reigns over his own kingdom and was probably the main instigator in building the Tower of Babel. This is the first instance recorded in the Bible of a human king and kingdom.
The word king is translated from a root word in the Greek which means ruler; and the word kingdom comes from a variation of that word which refers to the geographical area over which that ruler rules.
So the sinful world after the flood had gotten to the point that it had thrown off God's rule and presence, and began to appoint themselves as rulers and kings.
With the selection of Abraham to begin forming a new people who belonged to God, there was a return to family rule with God as guide and protector. As the nation of Israel formed from the 12 tribes descended from Jacob we noted that contrary to pagan nations, the Jews still maintained the tribal leaders as the highest form of authority under the direction of God's influence and presence in their lives. Although they came into contact with pagan kings, the Jews remained without a king for over two centuries after they entered the Promise Land. Up until this time they lived under a theocratic rule; in other words, God was their king and He guided them through the prophets, judges and the Law of Moses.
Once settled in their promised land, and while carrying on military campaigns against border enemies, a movement began to select one person to serve as king over the people of Israel. This was against God's will, but nevertheless He permitted the people a change in system and warned them that they would regret it.
The Bible records the sad experience that the Jews had with earthly kings beginning with the first:
- Saul went mad, died in disgrace.
- David was a great king but disobeyed God with terrible sins.
- Solomon built the temple but became unfaithful, leading the nation into idolatry.
- The kingdom was divided into two (North and South) after Solomon's death.
- The Northern Kingdom was totally destroyed for idolatry and evil kings.
- The Southern Kingdom was also destroyed and carried off into exile for the same reason, but allowed to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the city and the temple after 70 years.
- Only a small portion of the Southern Kingdom remained under the rule of Rome when Jesus was born to Mary.
God's Relationship with the Kings
The idea that God is a king or has a kingdom is not apparent in the early portions of the Bible. The image of God's relationship and position with earthly kings and His own stature as king as well as the entire idea of a spiritual kingdom is developed very slowly by the different writers of the Old Testament.
God cannot reveal a concept that people have no way of relating to or understanding. This gradual development of an idea is referred to as progressive revelation. This is where God slowly reveals a concept one step at a time over many years through different writers. His kingship and kingdom are two ideas revealed slowly to mankind.
We know that human kings were subject to God and feared Him (Genesis 20:1-7): Abimelech, King of Shur feared God's wrath when he unknowingly took Abraham's wife into his harem. We also see the Pharaoh resist God's judgment and finally give in when God destroyed the first born in Egypt prior to the Jews being released from captivity.
However, the direct relationship between God and a king begins with Saul, the first king of Israel. In this relationship we see that God chooses and establishes kings. I Samuel 8:5-7 says that although God permits it, He recognizes that the people have chosen a human king instead of remaining with Him as their king. This is the first hint of God as king. Later on there will be a mention that He has a kingdom as well.
The idea that God was a king with a kingdom was introduced into the Jewish mindset over a long period of time.
Man as Divine King
Aside from the concept that God was a king with a kingdom, there existed the idea that a human could be a divine ruler of sorts. The Egyptians may have been the first to combine the idea that the king was a descendant or product of the gods and therefore divine (sun kings). This may have been why Pharaoh was so stubborn seeing Moses as some other descendant of the gods and thus a rival to be defeated.
The Greeks revived this idea for western civilization with Alexander the Great and then the Romans took it over. Augustus Caesar (63 BC-14 AD) saw his role and person as an incarnation of the gods and thus began emperor worship throughout the empire. When Christians confessed Jesus as Lord (Divine King), this raised up a possible challenge to the Roman order and led to the subsequent persecution of Christianity along with other illegal religions of the era.
The idea of the divine human king did not survive after Rome fell but continued in the East (Shinto, Japan).
In the Jewish world we see the idea of God ruling as a divine king in heavenly places long before the empires of Greece and Rome were formed. David describes God in this rule in Psalms 47:2-3; 101:1.
The earliest direct reference to the title king being used for God is in the 8th century before Christ, by Isaiah the prophet.
1 In the year of King Uzziah's death I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, lofty and exalted, with the train of His robe filling the temple. 2 Seraphim stood above Him, each having six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. 3 And one called out to another and said, "Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord of hosts
The whole earth is full of His glory."
4 And the foundations of the thresholds trembled at the voice of him who called out, while the temple was filling with smoke. 5 Then I said,
"Woe is me, for I am ruined!
Because I am a man of unclean lips,
And I live among a people of unclean lips;
For my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts."
- Isaiah 6:1-5
By this time in the Jewish mind, the idea that God is the king who rules over all kings is firmly fixed. (1200 years from Abraham to Isaiah.)
The New Testament idea of the divine king taking on a human form and dwelling among men and inviting them into His divine kingdom will be processed by several prophets over another eight centuries.
The King and the Kingdom in the New Testament
After Isaiah, the prophets Zechariah and Obadiah began to describe the Messiah as a charismatic ruler (king) who would appear and renew the golden period of Jewish history (Solomon). This leader would rule from Jerusalem, he would purify the nation, he would save it from its enemies, he would have sovereignty over all the nations.
It was this kind of prophecy that stirred the hopes of the nation for a redeemer and savior to come in the future. These prophets filled out the description of the "one to come" spoken of before but not well pictured.
Daniel picks up and develops this image even further in Daniel 7 by giving an exact historical time when this person would come. In Daniel 7 he describes the rise and fall of four world kingdoms and then the establishment of a fifth and final kingdom. Daniel, however, adds two important ideas to the ones already mentioned:
- The Messiah is a divine king, not just a human ruler.
- He will rule not only by Himself, but will rule with His people who will constitute a divine kingdom.
The concept of the Messiah as divine king ushering in a special kingdom to rule over all other kingdoms was finally expressed in its fullness by Daniel.
This sets the stage for the last two prophets to speak about the kingdom of God:
John the Baptist
When John comes along, the people are anticipating a king who will purify, save and exalt the Jewish nation over its enemies. John's initial preaching falls in line with their expectations: repent and be baptized to purify yourselves and be ready for the kingdom is coming. The people responded to this recognizable message. John also announced the divine aspect of the kingdom by speaking of the Holy Spirit and how the One to come would baptize the people with Him.
The idea that the king and the kingdom were two different things, and that there would be great political change when he came, caused confusion for both John and the people.
Jesus the Messiah
When Jesus finally arrives, He follows John's preaching about the kingdom but He tells them that the kingdom has arrived. The deduction is that if the kingdom has arrived, then the king (Messiah) is here too. At first, with His miracles and teachings, the people see Him as the king they have imagined coming, but when the political changes do not happen they begin to reject Him and are confused.
Jesus is the one who develops fully the concept of the kingdom only partially described throughout history by the different prophets:
- He explains that the divine king is at the center of the kingdom (not like human kings who are above).
- He explains that the kingdom is not earthly (political), but spiritual in nature.
- He tells them that the kingdom is made up of the king and those who are united to Him by faith, not culture.
- He explains that the kingdom has a:
- Past – prophesied and hoped for.
- Present – Jesus manifests its king and provides an earthly dimension for it: the church.
- Future – at the end of the world all aspects of the kingdom (earthly/ heavenly) will merge into one.
This is where His 13 parables on the kingdom fit in, through them Jesus describes the nature and tension between the present condition of the kingdom and its future consummation when He returns.
The Kingdom Theology in Post New Testament Times
A lot of what we think about the kingdom of God today is based on various theological ideas that were developed after the New Testament was written.
Roman Catholicism – Augustine
Catholic thought, formed by Augustine (4th century), was that the kingdom and the church were exactly the same thing. They saw the kingdom as a spiritual monarchy where the Pope was ordained as head of the church and the church ruled as a kingdom with lesser officials ruling its different parts. This explains why Popes and Cardinals dress like kings or royalty. For Roman Catholics the hierarchy of the kingdom was the feature most stressed in their teaching.
Protestants – Reformers
The Protestant reformers emphasized the spiritual aspects of the kingdom (Luke 17:20, "…The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed"). The kingdom, they taught, was not manifested in a strict hierarchy like the Catholics believed, but in the work of the Holy Spirit among the believers. The transformation of lives was the sign of true believers who inhabit the kingdom. Charismatics carried this idea to the extreme with the display of various "gifts" and ability to "prophesy" as the mark of those who belonged in the kingdom.
The "Social Gospel" proponents see the kingdom as God's presence in men making the world a better place. The current Pope, Francis, with his teachings about the poor, the environment, the evils of capitalism, etc. is very much a believer of this image of the kingdom whose role is to make this world a better place.
Of course the task of Christians is to understand and experience the kingdom as Jesus saw and explained it, a more accurate biblical view of the kingdom teaches that:
- Jesus is at the center of the kingdom. It begins and ends with Him.
- The church is its expression here in the physical realm. This is explained in Jesus' parables and Sermon on the Mount.
- The complete fullness of the kingdom will be achieved when Jesus returns to glorify the church/kingdom.
- The kingdom will be fully integrated when God, Christ, the Holy Spirit, the church, the angels and the spiritual world will be united into one unit forever at the end of the world.
The study of the kingdom involves understanding the difference between where we are and how we function now (in the present state of the kingdom of heaven/God here on earth), and where and how we will be when the kingdom is fully realized in the future, when Jesus returns. This is why we study the Sermon on the Mount and Jesus' parables about the kingdom: that is where the information is!
This leads us to the last of the seven major doctrines: doctrine of the second coming, which we will look at in the next chapter.