If you were to take all of Jesus' sermons and teachings together and study them for a particular style or 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. Jesus spent much of His time talking about the coming, the preparation for, the nature of and the make up of the kingdom.
It seems Matthew used the term kingdom of heaven because Jews had been trained to think in terms of heaven as a spiritual dimension. Mark uses the term kingdom of God because his Gentile readers could more easily identify with this idea since they had no concept 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 the basic reason for this book - to become more familiar with the kingdom by understanding some of Jesus' major teachings on the subject. Before we begin, however, let us take a look at some "Kingdom" history and background in order to put these teachings into context.
Development of the King and Kingdom Ideas Found in the Old Testament
The book of Genesis tells us that society was originally 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. There were no human rulers 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: the husband was to have authority over his wife. However, no authority for society in general was yet established. After the flood (Genesis 9) God gave to society the authority to police itself and execute justice for crimes (life for a life, Genesis 9:6) in order to provide order in a new and sinful world. The first human ruler who appeared at this point in time was self-appointed.
In Genesis 10:10 we read that Nimrod formed and reigned over his own kingdom, and was probably the instigator in building the Tower of Babel. This is the first instance 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. The sinful world, after the flood, had gotten to the point that it rejected God's rule and began to appoint themselves as rulers and kings.
After the great flood during Noah's time and 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 the 12 tribes descended from Jacob we see 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 theocratic rule (God ruled them directly through the prophets, judges and the Law of Moses).
Once settled in the promised land and while still carrying on military campaigns against border enemies, a movement began to have a man serve as king over the people of Israel. This was against God's will but He nevertheless 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:
- Saul went mad and died in disgrace.
- David was a great king but disobeyed God with terrible sins and consequences.
- Solomon built the temple but became unfaithful and led the nation into idolatry.
- The kingdom was divided after Solomon's death.
- The Northern Kingdom was totally destroyed because of its idolatry (approx. 700BC).
- The Southern Kingdom was also destroyed and carried off into exile for the same reason but was allowed to return to Jerusalem and rebuild after 70 years of exile (approx. 600BC).
- Only a small portion of the Southern Kingdom remained under the rule of the Roman Empire 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. This is because God does not reveal a concept that people have no way of relating to or understanding. This gradual development of knowledge is called progressive revelation. Progressive revelation takes place when God slowly reveals a concept, one piece at a time, over many years, through different writers. The kingdom of God was such an idea that was revealed slowly to mankind through progressive revelation.
We know that human kings were subject to God and feared Him (Genesis 20:1-7). For example, 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 judgement and finally give in when God destroys 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. We see that God chooses and establishes kings. I Samuel 8:5-7 says that although God permitted it, He recognized that the people had chosen a human king instead of remaining with Him as their king. This is the first reference to God as a king, and later on there will be a mention that He has a kingdom as well. It took a long time before the idea that God as king with a kingdom was introduced into the Jewish mindset.
Man as Divine King
At that time there also 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 resisted Moses seeing him as an equal descendant of the gods and simply a rival to be defeated.
The Greeks revived this idea for Western civilization with Alexander the Great, and from there this concept was borrowed by the Romans. Augustus Caesar (63BC-14AD) 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 was seen as defiance and eventually brought about the persecution of the church.
The idea of the divine human king did not survive in the West 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. David describes God in this role in Psalms 47:2-3; 101:1.
The earliest direct reference in Judaism to the title king being used for God is in the 8thcentury by Isaiah the prophet (Isaiah 6:5). By this time, in the Jewish mind, the idea that God was the king who ruled over all kings was firmly fixed (1,200 years from Abraham to Isaiah).
From this point the ideas of the divine king taking on a human form and dwelling among men, inviting them into His divine kingdom will be processed by several other 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's reign). This leader would rule from Jerusalem. He would purify the nation, save it from its enemies and have sovereignty over all the nations.
It was this kind of prophesy (a Redeemer and Savior to come in the future) that stirred the hopes of the nation.
These prophets filled out the description of the "one to come" spoken of before but not well pictured. Daniel picked up and developed this image 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 kingdom (spiritual in nature and greater than the previous four). Daniel, however, adds two important ideas to the ones already mentioned:
- The Messiah would be a divine king, not just a human ruler.
- He would rule not only by Himself but with his people. These people would 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 set the stage for the last two prophets to speak about the kingdom of God:
1. 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 him and 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. One idea that had not yet been developed, and caused some confusion for John and the people concerning the kingdom, was that the king and kingdom were two different things. They also believed that there would be great political change when He came.
2. 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 want to see Him as the king to come, but when the political changes don't happen they 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 kingdom is not earthly but spiritual in nature.
- He explains that the divine king is at the center of the kingdom, not above the kingdom like human kings.
- 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.
His parables on the kingdom, which we will study, describe the nature and tension between the present condition of the kingdom and its future consummation when He returns.
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.
Catholic thought formed by Augustine (4thcentury) 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 ruling different parts of this Kingdom. This is why Popes and Cardinals dress like kings or royalty. For Roman Catholics, the hierarchy of the kingdom was stressed.
Protestants – Reformers. The Reformation leaders emphasized the spiritual aspects of the kingdom (Luke 17:20, "Kingdom is coming with signs not to be observed"). The kingdom was not manifested in strict hierarchy as Catholics saw it, but in the work of the Holy Spirit among the believers. The transformation of lives is the sign for believers. Charismatics carry this idea to extreme; tongues and miracles become the sign for a true believer.
Those who espouse what has been called the "Social Gospel" see the kingdom displayed as the presence of God making the world a better place to live.
My task in this book will be to examine the parables of Jesus about the kingdom and try to see it as He explained it. We begin with Jesus at the center; add the church in His image; complete the picture with the end of the world where the kingdom (only described in parables) will manifest itself in complete fullness. Complete fullness will be God, Christ, the Holy Spirit, the church, angels and the spiritual world completely integrated forever.
Hopefully, our study of the Kingdom parables will help us understand the difference between where we are now (the present state of the kingdom) and where we will be in the future (the final consummated state of the kingdom).