THE MESSAGE OF JESUS
The Gospel of the Kingdom
In this article, we look at what the Gospel means, how it shaped Jesus’ Message in the first century and the implications for us today.
[Summary opens in a pop-up lightbox]
What is the Gospel?
What is the Gospel? What is the Good News?
We use the word frequently and widely. Yet, when you ask people what they think the word means, you get a wide range of answers—most of which revolve around getting saved and going to heaven.
Getting saved. And going to heaven.
Yes, salvation and heaven are incredible, indescribable blessings. However, they do not constitute the Gospel message.
In fact, when we conflate them with the Gospel, we miss the vital bit in between—the part that the Gospel actually addresses: God’s purpose for creation, and its central theme, our role as custodians of the earth.
THE GOSPEL ADDRESSES
Take a moment to consider the implications.
If getting saved and going to heaven is all that matters…
- Why bother trying to relieve poverty and injustice? Just leave it to secular charities to fret over.
- Why worry about looking after the earth? Let Greenpeace sweat over it.
- Why trust for godly change in politics, business, education and the arts? Who cares if the point is just salvation and heaven?
- And perhaps a more theologically disturbing question: Why doesn’t God miraculously reveal Himself to everyone like He did to Saul on the Damascus road and whip us all to heaven at the same time?
- Why bother with this dusty planet at all?
Christendom has largely conflated the Gospel with getting saved and going to heaven. In so doing, we’ve retreated from all of society’s mind-moulding, value-shaping spheres of influence.
One obvious example is the great learning institutions of our day, the universities. Many of them started as Christ-centred institutions with the sole objective of teaching God’s ways and preparing students to reveal the glory of God. For instance, Harvard’s original motto was Christo et Ecclesiae, “For Christ and Church”. Today, while the founding statements of many universities declare these noble objectives, they’re largely atheistic institutions, antagonistic towards the Christian faith.
Whether it’s education or business, politics or science, or any other shaping sphere of society, by and large, we’ve retreated into the four walls of the sanctuary.
By conflating salvation and heaven with the Gospel, we’ve botched our God-given mandate.
To quote Jesus, we’ve put our “lamp … under the basket” (Matthew 5:15) … and we’ve blamed the devil for turning out the lights.
The Gospel According to Jesus
So, what is the Gospel? What is the Good News?
Now after John was put in prison, Jesus came to Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel’.”
(Mark 1:14, 15, italics added)
According to Jesus, the Gospel is the Kingdom of God.
Yes, the Good News is the Kingdom of God.
And notice these two phrases:
The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand.”
(Mark 1:15, italics added)
“The time is fulfilled” reminds us that the Kingdom of God is not a new vision. Rather, it’s the fulfilment of an ancient theme, the original mandate given in creation itself. In other words, the Gospel is a re-newed vision of God’s original dominion mandate.
The phrase, “is at hand” informs us that this ancient vision, presented now in a new way, has come to fruition. It has started with immediate effect.
An Ancient Theme
The Kingdom of God was a new retelling of an ancient decree. While this primeval mandate echoed down the line of time, resonating most notably through the Abrahamic Covenant, the Mosaic Covenant and King David’s Reign, its original form remains the most profound.
Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”
So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.
Then God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”
(Genesis 1:26-28, italics added)
This was God’s original intent for His created order, His vision for humanity.
Not only did God create the natural world, but He also defined the nature of good and evil, the framework for a world of harmony.
In His authority (His definition of good and evil), His image-bearers were entrusted with a dominion mandate, to rule and reign in the power of His love.
In a nutshell, humanity’s purpose is to resemble God and represent Him.
And as His representatives, we are the custodians of God’s creation.
Yes, God gave us, His children, dominion over the earth.
That’s our destiny. That’s our mandate.
And we needed reminding.
Throughout the Scriptures, God repacked the original intent in different contextual downloads. From the Abrahamic Covenant in Genesis 12, to the Mosaic Covenant in the Exodus story, to the Davidic Covenant and the reign of King David, God downloaded a fresh message into time and space to reconnect His people to the original intent.
Even in John’s Revelation, many of his pictures of the final victory resonate with God’s original intent, making it clear: God’s original purpose is His eternal purpose.
For example, John sees the host of heaven celebrating Jesus’ triumph: “[They] fell down before the Lamb … they sang a new song, saying, ‘You are worthy … for You were slain, and have redeemed us to God by Your blood out of every tribe and tongue and people and nation, and have made us kings and priests to our God; and we shall reign on the earth’.” (Revelation 5:8-10). The words resonate loudly with God’s dominion mandate.
In other words, God contextualised His original purpose at various times to help His people grasp the Genesis-mandate in their generation. The writer to the Hebrews said it this way: “God, who at various times and in various ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets, has in these last days spoken to us by His Son” (Hebrews 1:1, 2).
Think about all the words in the Bible that begin with the prefix “re”, which means “to go back”. Revive, restore, redeem, repent, regenerate, renew, refresh, refine, reconcile, rebuild, repair and resurrect. They all refer to God taking us and His creation back to something original.
The Gospel, the Good News, is that God’s original plan is restored in Christ.
In Jesus, the Model Human, God defines the nature of good and evil once and for all. In following Jesus, we align ourselves with this definition, submitting to His authority.
And in this authority, we’re called to rule and reign in the power of God’s love.
Thus, the Gospel of the Kingdom repackaged God’s original purpose for humanity. And Jesus used this phrase to reconnect His first-century audience to God’s ancient intent.
The King has come to reconcile us to the Father and in this reunion, we are repositioned as custodians of the created world and recommissioned in our God-given role as stewards of the earth.
That’s amazingly good news.
For the created world. And for all humanity.
With Immediate Effect
Not only had an ancient theme come to fruition. It started with immediate effect.
The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand.”
(Mark 1:15, italics added)
The verb “is at hand” means “has come” or “is here” and spoke of the inauguration of God’s reign.
The Gospel is not principally concerned with the up there but the down here. The Good News is not primarily focused on the hereafter but the here and now.
Down here on earth. Now.
John the Baptiser expressed the same urgency. When he arrived on the scene, he declared, “Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2). Likewise, when Jesus sent out both the Twelve (Matthew 10:7) and the Seventy (Luke 10:9), He urged them to proclaim the Kingdom of God with the same sense of immediacy.
Here. Now. On earth.
The good news is not just that the King has come to establish His Kingdom on the earth by restoring us to the Father and recommissioning us in our roles as custodians of the earth. The good news is that this all starts with immediate effect.
Yes, this certainly includes salvation. Personal salvation is, however, the starting point, not the end goal. Jesus revealed that He is both the “Door” (John 10:7) and the “Way” (John 14:16). We must grasp both realities. We cannot enjoy forgiveness without finding grace in Jesus the Door, but we cannot understand our dominion destiny without following Jesus the Way. It’s too easy to make our bed at the Door waiting for heaven when the adventure lies in following the Way of the King.
Now. Here. On earth.
I remember when, as a young overzealous Christian, it dawned on me that I was missing the point. To use the Ephesians 6:11-17 metaphor, I had the “helmet of salvation” firmly donned, but I was neglecting to wear the “whole armour of God” (Ephesians 6:11, 17). Fixated on getting people saved and the promise of the afterlife, like a spiritual streaker, I was scaring away those I was trying to serve. So heavenly minded, I was no earthly good.
Slowly, and with a lot of help from others, I realised that the Good News wasn’t the gospel of salvation or the gospel of heaven or the gospel of the church.
The Good News is the Kingdom of God.
Here. On earth. With immediate effect.
Yes, this includes heaven. While heaven is an incredible blessing, remember that Jesus taught us to pray,
Our Father … Your Kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
(Matthew 6:9, 10, italics added)
The goal is not to fixate on heaven, but to use the promise of heaven—the harmony, beauty, peace and justice conveyed by it—to fuel and inform our mandate here on earth.
So, what is the Gospel in broad strokes?
The King has come to establish His Kingdom on earth, to align earth to the harmony and order of heaven, and to do it through the redeemed, reunited to Father God and recommissioned as custodians of the created world.
Take a deep breath.
And ponder on this mouthful of good news. #mindblown
Okay, before we drill down into the meaning of the Gospel of the Kingdom and consider its implications, let’s get a sense of the gravity of this phrase.
Just how central was this focus on the Kingdom of God in the ministry of Jesus?
Kingdom in the Ministry of Jesus
Okay, let’s take stock of the centrality of the Kingdom in the life and teachings of Jesus.
Jesus used the word “kingdom” over 120 times. It was His most frequent expression.
In comparison, He mentioned the word ekklesia, which is translated as “church”, just twice.
Think about that for a moment. Christendom today is largely defined by the word “church” and the “Kingdom of God” is often merely one of many topics we discuss in “church world”. To put a finer point on this, we’ve settled for a church-shaped kingdom.
However, Jesus did not proclaim the Gospel of the church. He proclaimed the Gospel of the Kingdom. It’s the King and His Kingdom that ought to serve as the lens through which we view a Kingdom-shaped church … and everything else for that matter.
All this goes to show just how central the focus on the Gospel of the Kingdom was in the ministry of Jesus. Simply put, the Gospel of the Kingdom is the Message of Jesus.
Now, let’s get to grips with the meaning and implications of His message.
Unpacking the Gospel
The word “gospel” (Greek: evangelion) was a political word used by the Roman Caesars. It was used of Augustus Caesar, to capture his dream of a utopian society, declaring that his reign would bring favour upon the world and its inhabitants. Of course, Rome’s citizens—many of whom were slaves—knew what to expect: another bout of tyranny was on its way.
Think about it. Jesus chose to use these highly charged political words to announce His arrival. Read them again with this in mind:
The Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.”
As we’ll see in a moment, the call to “repent and believe” in this context was not just a call to turn from personal sin and embrace the Saviour; it was, in fact, a call to defect from the corrupt Empire (and complicit religion) and embrace a new King.
Firstly, note that this was a loaded political phrase, not the dry, dusty and even archaic phrase we might hear today. To first-century ears, it was sizzling hot. It was dangerous. Provocative. Dangerously provocative.
It’s hard to overstate this point.
The prevailing backdrop, the framing narrative, of Jesus’ day was the all-conquering, all-consuming, all-powerful Roman Empire and its oppressive domination enforced through the profession of obligation and fear, Caesar is Lord.
Put it this way: if you lived in Jesus’ day, your life revolved entirely around the Roman Empire. It was wholly defined by it. For the Jews, even their proud, robust religious system was bent and twisted by it. (We’ll look into this below in Responding to the Gospel.)
By using this explosive political language, Jesus declared His arrival as King and offered a new framing narrative—an otherworldly backdrop at direct odds with the formidable Empire and a religious system co-opted by it.
A Transcendent Message
Although the message resonated with ancient intent, it sounded new, even transcendent.
Jesus used this explosive phrase to catch the imagination of His audience but then filled the phrase with a vision at complete odds with the cruel Empire and corrupt religion that defined and oppressed them.
The Gospel of the Kingdom message was raw and fresh and otherworldly in two brilliant ways.
- On the one hand, Jesus envisioned a higher way of thinking, living and being that trumped the Empire and superseded allegiance to Caesar … while still maintaining an exemplary above-reproach attitude towards secular and civil authority.
It was simply ingenious.
Jesus’ followers defined themselves as citizens of a higher realm and served society from this higher moral code. However, they did so not with a haughty and high-and-mighty attitude, but with humility grounded in sacrificial servanthood. They advocated for society’s marginalised and contended for change yet remained model citizens of society, impeccable and unimpeachable.
As model citizens, they turned the Empire upside down.
- On the other hand, Jesus turned the tables on compromised, complicit self-serving religion by demonstrating a people-serving, love-based faith that expanded the boundaries of family love to deliberately include one’s neighbour, the stranger and even those perceived as enemies.
It was simply revolutionary.
Jesus’ followers renounced lifeless religion to fall in love with their God and with one another, but they ensured their love was outwardly focused, specifically contending for justice for the poor and marginalised of society. They exposed religion’s prejudice and hypocrisy with selfless, substantial love. They showed that, for all its good intentions, religion cannot make better humans or build a better world.
As model humans, they flipped religion on its head.
Thus, the Message of Jesus was as upstream and counter-cultural as you could get. It was engagingly transcendent.
And sadly, we need to hear this message again.
If we’re honest, it’s hard to argue with the claim that too much of the church today has, by and large, become enslaved to the corruption of Empire building and religion making once again.
I can only look at the fault in my own heart. And in this regard, I realised I had a lot more in common with Nicodemus than I could ever have imagined.
You know the story.
When this Pharisee arrived in the dark and private hours of the morning to soften up the “competition” with flattery, he was in for a rude awakening.
Jesus cut through the facade and said,
Unless one is born again, he cannot see the Kingdom of God.”
Today we use the word “born again” incorrectly as an adjective to define a “real Christian”. Jesus used this metaphor of childbirth to say to this so-called expert of religion, “You don’t know anything. You’ll need to go back to the beginning and re-learn all you know if you’re going to even begin to grasp the Kingdom of God”.
Like Nicodemus, I realised I had a lot of unlearning to do if I was going to fully grasp the Gospel of the Kingdom of God.
The Kingdom’s Context: God’s Nature
With all the Kingdom talk, why didn’t Jesus’ followers take up arms and stage a violent revolt against Rome or the religious establishment?
Of course, this nearly happened on a few occasions when His followers were still coming to terms with His message (John 6:1-15; 18:10,11; Luke 9:54-56) and Jesus was quick to squash any hint of a militaristic response.
Along with these on-the-spot interventions, Jesus’ revelation of the nature of God forever established the nature of the Kingdom of God.
In fact, as we’ve already stated, Jesus’ purpose for coming was to reveal God’s Father-heart and restore us to the Father, and in so doing, recommission us as sons and daughters to steward the created world on His behalf.
A Kingdom anchored in the Father-heart of God fosters values such as the sanctity of the individual, forgiveness, loving one’s enemies, peacemaking, unity-seeking, community-building and sacrificial servanthood.
The Kingdom of God is about restoring, building, healing and serving.
What of ruling and reigning?
Ruling and reigning begins by first governing over the self-seeking tendencies in our own hearts. The theme of self-rule was already well established in the Old Testament. For instance, the wisdom writer lauded the one who rules his own spirit as mightier than the conquering warlord who takes a city (Proverbs 16:32). In contrast, the one who had no self-rule was likened to a broken city without walls, vulnerable to wild animals and conquering warlords (Proverbs 25:28).
As we learn self-rule, to this degree we serve and support others better, increasingly free from the insecure people-pleasing or attention-seeking impulses that so often motivate us. What’s more, through genuine care and relationship building, trust forms a bridge over which we’re invited to coach and mentor others, helping them grow in the lessons of self-rule.
Thus, ruling and reigning is not “over” others. Yes, it’s “over” our own self-centred agendas and the limitations we put on ourselves. Sometimes it’s “between” or “with” others, as when a relational conflict requires mediating (Matthew 18:15-18; 1 Corinthians 6:5). In one sense, we might say it’s “over” or “against” the demonic forces that resist God’s will. However, ruling and reigning is never “over” other human beings.
Learning self-rule and helping us to do the same is only possible to the degree we find our identity and security in the loving Father-heart of God.
It’s worth pointing out that the original Genesis account of the dominion mandate was likewise contextualised in parenthood and family (Genesis 1:26-28; 2:8-25).
Adam and Eve were not enthroned as King and Queen to rule over the entire world and lord it over others. As archetypal parents, they were responsible for raising a family and stewarding the garden entrusted to them. In turn, their children would raise their own families, tending gardens of their own. For the first image-bearers, this was a literal garden. For us, “garden” serves as a metaphor for one’s sphere of influence.
It seems obvious that God intended multiplying families to populate the earth, each stewarding a sphere of influence placed in their trust. In other words, God intended humanity to steward the created world through the values of parenthood and family.
Jesus’ Message envisioned precisely the same. Importantly, that’s exactly how His followers interpreted and implemented the Gospel in their day. Spiritual parenthood and spiritual family were the building blocks of the grassroots movement of the first century that turned religion and the Empire “upside down”—to quote the flabbergasted mob in Thessalonica (Acts 17:1-6).
The Way of the Kingdom
When the Pharisees asked Jesus “when the Kingdom of God would come” (Luke 17:20), they were seeking a political deliverer, an all-conquering warrior-king who would leave in his wake the destruction of the Roman Empire. The Pharisees’ question, in the face of the brutal injustices of their Roman oppressors, was a question hovering in the minds of every Jewish worshipper of Jehovah.
Even Jesus’ best disciples got their lines crossed in this regard. You may recall that James and John at one point wanted to call fire down from heaven to consume the Samaritans who rejected them (Luke 9:51-56). Jesus rebuked them, “You don’t know what manner of spirit you are of. For the Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives but to save them.” (Luke 9:55, 56). His stinging reprimand made it plain that the way of His Kingdom was distinctively different from the ways of the world.
In answer to the Pharisees’ question about “when the Kingdom of God would come” (Luke 17:20), Jesus replied:
The kingdom of God does not come with observation; nor will they say, ‘See here!’ or ‘See there!’ For indeed, the kingdom of God is within you.”
The phrase “the kingdom of God is within you” is a little obscure and may best be understood as the “kingdom of God is in your midst”. Either way, Jesus was making the point that the Kingdom of God is not an external political revolution but an internal revolution of the heart. Centred on a relationship with the Father, the Kingdom of God involves inside-out transformation, not outside-in coercion.
Inside Out Transformation
This leads to a vital implication. Sin is not first in a system or a structure or a regime … sin is first in the heart. Yes, a selfish, lawless heart foments corrupt systems and structures, but sin is a heart issue. Thus, the answer lies neither in a “sanctified” system nor an “anointed” structure. The solution lies in a redeemed heart, where the King is King, and in an intimate relationship with the Father.
The solutions to the problems in society are not found, for example, in a Christian government. The solutions lie in more Christ-followers in government. Yes, we need to pray for our government and pray for more followers of Jesus to have influence in government, and all facets of society for that matter: in education, business, politics, science, sports, arts and the media. However, the Kingdom of God cannot be imposed or forced; this is not the way of the Kingdom. The Kingdom of God is not established by external, imposed force, but by internal, convicting love.
The kingdom of darkness and the kingdoms of this world operate on external, imposed force, attempting to exploit, tempt, bribe, manipulate, deceive, bully, cajole and push. However, external force has never brought anything but obligation, bondage and ultimately, defiance and rebellion. External, imposed force can never achieve the one thing God desires: love. External power can force defiant obedience, but only love can woo a response of love.
When we demand that God intervene with a little more force when it comes to injustice, we would do well to remember that God is smarter than us; to truly love righteousness is to allow it to grow, not to force it … to give space for love to respond to love even at the risk of rejection.
Nothing exemplifies the way of the Kingdom more than the cross. The King’s victory was secured through sacrifice. His triumph won through servanthood. His power revealed through humility.
Paradoxical. Illogical to the human mind. Upside down. Inside out.
The Message of Jesus transforms individuals from the inside out. Likewise, the Kingdom of God transforms society like yeast that leavens the whole meal (Matthew 13:33) and like a small seed that grows into a large tree, providing refuge to the birds of the air (Matthew 13:31, 32).
The Virtues of the Kingdom
Paul defined the nature of the Kingdom in his letter to the believers in Rome.
The kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.”
In other words, the Kingdom of God is not about outward rules or ritual performance—“eating and drinking”—but the life-giving virtues of “righteousness, peace and joy” made possible by the indwelling Holy Spirit.
Following Jesus, we enjoy:
- “righteousness”—a sense of right (just), ordered relationships with Father God and others.
- “peace”—a sense of wholesomeness: personal wellbeing and communal harmony.
- “joy”—a sense of inner delight and a shared gladness with others.
In stark contrast, the enslaving systems of the Empire and Religion trap individuals in shame, anxiety and depression, and communities in injustice, disharmony and despair.
Responding to the Gospel
How do we respond to the Gospel of the Kingdom?
While this is a complex question requiring comprehensive answers, some of which we will attempt to address during this series, it is important to first understand the wrong reactions and then highlight Jesus’ immediate call to action.
Year Zero Reactions
While the big picture of Jesus’ day was the oppressive Empire, what is sometimes overlooked is the degree to which the Jewish people—obviously, the people to whom Jesus primarily aimed His ministry (Matthew 15:24)—were completely entrenched within this crippling framing narrative. If we fail to understand the implications of this, we’ll struggle to grasp the urgency and intent of Jesus’ call to action.
Despite how holy and separate the Jews sought to remain (and their stubborn resistance to the Empire’s oppressive regime was admirable), they reacted in four different ways to the framing reference of their day. Think of these four reactions as defining systems of thought (belief) and practice (lifestyle). There’s no doubt that most of these groups believed they were acting in response to revelation from God.
Some sought to escape it. The fatalistic Essenes offered the confused Jew the chance to bury their head in the sand. Literally. Withdrawing into the wilderness, they sought to flee the oppression.
Some sought to confront it. The Zealots offered the fanatical Jew an outlet of militant aggression. Calling for repentance from complacency, they sought liberty through aggressive resistance; leaning on the stories of the Old Testament’s military heroes.
In a similar spirit of confrontation; however, using a different tactic, some sought to resist it. The Pharisees also preached repentance, but called for a return to meticulous piety, believing that only scrupulous religion would deliver God’s people. “If we’re just holy enough, God will deliver us!”
Finally, some sought to coexist with the Empire. The Sadducees and Herodians offered the compromising Jew an alliance with the Empire. Despite their differences with each other, both the Sadducees and Herodians bought into the basic line: “If you can’t beat them, join them”—or at least, try to coexist with the “big picture” in ways that benefit you.
Therefore, despite their attempts to remain a people set apart, all these systemic reactions to the Empire’s dominant narrative served only to reinforce the centrality of Caesar, exacerbating the overriding societal injustices, and perpetrating the political and religious oppression of the time. In other words, these responses (no doubt, perceived by the Essenes, Zealots and Pharisees as revelation received from God) kept the Jewish people enslaved to Caesar—some profiting from the Empire, most exploited by it, all bound and dependent on it.
Think about that for a moment.
Tragically, for all their bravado and bluster, these defining reactions only existed because they’d accepted (and were thus, aligned to) Caesar’s Empire. They were, in fact, cogs in Rome’s societal machine. Like self-cannibalising fungi, they sprouted in the soiled, septic shadow cast by Caesar. Think Neo stuck in the Matrix—a movie that remains a startling metaphor for us.
When the Caesars proclaimed their gospel of the kingdom, declaring that their reign would bring favour upon the world, the citizens and slaves of Rome, both Gentile and Jew, were assured of one thing: those rightly aligned to Caesar, and assiduously paying the required dues, would remain beneficiaries of the Empire. The rest would remain subject to successive bouts of the tyrannical ruler’s oppressive and capricious reign. The juggernaut of the Empire would charge forward relentlessly and thus, these defining responses would continue to propagate its toxic values. Despite their utter devotion to Jehovah, and abhorrence of Caesar, the corruption of the Empire sprouted in every corner of the Jewish nation. They paid homage to God but lived lives defined by Caesar. (This last sentence is distressingly poignant.)
Jesus’ Call to Action
Into this inexorable darkness, this inescapable, festering brew of injustice and oppression, Jesus arrived with a radical, otherworldly message. He proclaimed His Gospel of the Kingdom, a message that wasn’t another reactionary response defined by (or against) the Empire. As we’ve seen, His message was a call to a wholly different way of thinking and living, one that trumped the entire narrative of the Empire, one that superseded the dominant reference point of Caesar. Jesus is Lord.
Our immediate two-fold response to the Gospel is captured in Jesus’ opening declaration:
The Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.”
Repent and believe.
Now before you nod your head and say, “Check. Got that mastered already!” it’s critical to grasp these words in the context of the Gospel of the Kingdom.
While repentance certainly includes renouncing personal sin, Jesus was calling His audience to completely overhaul their Empire-framed thinking, to renounce their dependence on Caesar, to defect from the Empire and complicit religion, and to rethink everything in light of His Kingship.
In other words, we are to repent—not just from personal sin—but from Empire-riddled thinking and living. Repentance is far more than the confession of sin; it is a commitment to unlearning the ways of Caesar and re-learning the ways of the King.
Consider the first New Testament message Jesus did not preach.
In Acts 2, we get the first public message after Jesus’ ascension. It’s a good passage to highlight because it shows us how the disciples interpreted Jesus’ message.
After Peter told a crowd baffled by the happenings on the Day of Pentecost that they had crucified the promised Messiah (Acts 2:14-36), the convicted audience asked, “what shall we do?” (v. 37).
Peter’s first response was, “Repent…” (Acts 2:38). And then he expanded on what he meant:
And with many other words he testified and exhorted them, saying, ‘Be saved from this perverse generation’.”
(Acts 2:40, italics added)
He wasn’t only calling them to confess their personal sin. He was calling on them to defect from the corrupt societal systems of their day—both religious and secular. Yes, this involves renouncing our personal transgressions, but it involves far more.
It is a clarion call to an extensive and drastic overhaul of life and being, where we not only abandon our self-centred agendas, but we also reject every system that enriches and feeds our self-seeking appetites. Only by defecting from the corrupt systems of religion and Empire that pander to our self-interests (and then insidiously enslave us), can we truly entrust ourselves to our Father and His transcendent Kingdom.
We look at what represents our Caesar and Empire today in The Societal Machine, and we unpack the implications of repentance later in this series, too.
While repentance turns one away from the Empire and dependence on Caesar, faith plugs one into God and His Kingdom purpose.
We’ve got the faith thing waxed, right?
Yes, we’ve been taught how to trust God, and to ask Him for things, our “daily bread” (Matthew 6:11). But what if, while we’ve perfected our prayers around asking for things, He’s been waiting for us to ask Him for the perspective and power to liberate the planet? To answer a prayer we actually have faith to believe: “Your Kingdom come. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10).
What I mean is this: maybe for all our bluster, our faith has been too small. Too civilised. Too tame, even. What if this generation of believers began to believe, truly believe? Not merely for their needs to be met (which, of course, is a valid starting point) … but believed, with mountain-moving faith, for the restoration of creation and the transformation of society, and then backed up this belief with exploits that actively worked towards making this a reality?
When Jesus spoke of mountain-moving faith (Matthew 17:20), He may well have had Rome in mind, for Rome was famously built on the seven hills. Whether this was the intent or not, Jesus’ followers moved the mountains of opposition of their day, tackling the societal dysfunction and injustice of an Empire that oppressed all under its domain.
Again, we’ll explore what this might mean for us later in this series.
In simple yet profound terms then, “repent” and “believe” were the starting points in Jesus’ day, and they are the beginning points today. Without first defecting from our society’s framing narrative and believing God’s ancient intent for the planet, we’ll continue to settle for same old, same old religion.
The Executive of the King
The Kingdom project is not an individual enterprise. There are no solo players in the Kingdom.
Jesus Himself modelled the way of community and team. Aside from the twelve disciples, He walked with the seventy and enjoyed the close association of a number of others, too. In fact, He left behind a nucleus of 120 believers awaiting the explosive launch of the Kingdom project on the Day of Pentecost.
What do the following names have in common?
Barnabus, Priscilla, Aquila, Sopater, Phoebe, Aristarchus, Secundus, Euodia, Syntyche, Titus, Gaius, Timothy, Lydia, Tychicus, Epaphroditus, Silas, Junia, Luke and Trophimus.
They’re some of the names of the people Paul walked with in his Kingdom adventure.
The New Testament is packed with metaphors that convey the importance of the communal nature of the Kingdom of God: family, army, building and body, to name a few.
Think about it. A child without a family is an orphan. A soldier without an army is AWOL. A brick without a building is rubble. And an arm without a body is, well, morbid and disgusting!
The word that captures the communal nature and intent of the Kingdom project most profoundly is the Greek term ekklesia (ecclesia is the Latin version).
Jesus used the word only twice but both times were significant. The first time, Jesus used it in the context of Kingdom authority (Matthew 16:1-20) and the second time, He used it in the context of mediating relational conflict—an act of governance (Matthew 18:15-19).
While the term ekklesia meant simply “to call out” and thus spoke of the “the called-out ones” or the “selected ones”, it was not a religious word in Jesus’ day. It was, in fact, another political word that referred to those chosen from the general populace to serve as a civil body or an executive arm. In ancient Greece (from as early as 621 BC), the ekklesia was a group of selected individuals who would assemble regularly to deliberate and decide on matters of civil policy.
In other words, the term spoke of an executive body whose function was to govern.
Sadly, over time, the function of governing was conflated with the format of gathering, and the word translated in English as “church” became synonymous with a religious meeting on a certain day of the week or the building in which those meetings took place. So, if we read the word “church” and think of a meeting, or worse a building, we miss the intent of the word.
While there’s everything right with believers gathering in His name for worship and fellowship, conflating ekklesia with a meeting or a building robs us of understanding our Kingdom identity and role.
In contrast, Jesus nested the term ekklesia, a political term, in the context of the Kingdom of God. He anchored it on the foundation of God’s Father-heart and directly contrasted it with religion.
It’s this term that speaks to our collective mandate as the redeemed, an executive body through whom He advances His Kingdom.
While the word “church” in the Epistles was used to refer to the redeemed in three different dimensions—Church Universal, Church Local and Church Communal, as we outline in Ekklesia in the Epistles)—the gist of the word speaks of God’s governing body.
Or as we might say today, the Cabinet of the King.
In all three dimensions, ekklesia implies a function of governance, not a format of gathering.
Together, as One Body, as local believers in a region, city or town, and as a Kingdom community of faith, we’re to advance the Kingdom of God in our collective sphere of influence, knowing our Christ-centred relationships, Christ-filled expressions of community and Christ-motivated good works serve as a witness of the “pillar and foundation of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15 c. Colossians 2:2, 3).
Yes, believers meet often and in various ways (and formats), but meetings don’t define or restrict the ekklesia. Our meetings are an overflow of who we are: the King’s Executive Body; in love with God and one another, and demonstrating His love to the world.
The Triune Kingdom:
Charity, Accountability & Generosity
Like a three-legged stool, every true kingdom has three legs upon which it rests in balance:
A Relationship Base
Without a relationship base, a sense of legacy and charity, a kingdom deteriorates into tyranny. If a ruler feels no responsibility to leave an inheritance for his family and his people, his rule will become excessive and exploitative, and will last only one generation, ending typically in revolt.
The Message of Jesus restored us to the Father and out of this love life with the Godhead, love is the defining principle of all relationships. We’re called to expand the boundaries of family love to include our neighbours, strangers and even those we perceive as our enemies. A true kingdom multiplies on a base of charity.
An Authority Base
Without an authority base, a sense of order and accountability, a kingdom reverts to anarchy. If a ruler has no genuine governmental clout, he becomes a figurehead without teeth, able only to watch lawlessness spread and with it, his kingdom burn.
The Message of Jesus consistently addressed authority—not just confronting the abuse and misuse of authority but cogently advocating for the proper use of authority. Understanding that all authority stems from God, we’re called to serve in humility and with compassion wherever God entrusts us with responsibility. A true kingdom flourishes on a base of accountability.
An Economic Base
Without an economic base, a sense of stewardship and generosity, a kingdom suffers poverty. If a ruler has no economic resource, even a strong authority and relationship base will deliver little in terms of promise and potential; the kingdom merely exists, clutching at what could be.
Centred on the Father’s heart, the Message of Jesus conveyed the audacious generosity and abundance of God. We’re called to steward the earth, demonstrating God’s abundance in a spirit of big-heartedness and open-handedness. A true kingdom prospers on a base of generosity.
Biblical Synonyms for Kingdom
Is the Phrase Still Relevant Today?
Given that the Kingdom of God was a poignantly relevant phrase for the first century, is it still relevant today?
That’s a good question.
One may argue that it’s antiquated at best and its sole benefit lies in properly understanding the phrase in its first century context to grasp how we can apply it in our context.
There’s certainly value in finding and using adequate contemporary synonyms that help us connect God’s original intent with our context. We’d be in good company. Some of the writers of the New Testament did just this, as they sought fresh ways of capturing the Gospel. We’ll look at some of these phrases in a moment.
That said, with the re-emergence of nationalism and the revival of nefarious power-grabbing ideologies in our world today, the word kingdom may be as relevant as ever.
Certainly, we’ll continue to use the phrase through these articles as we seek to grasp the urgency and power of Jesus’ Message.
John and Paul’s Writings
In their writings, both John and Paul used Kingdom terminology less frequently than the Synoptic Gospels. This was probably a way of connecting different audiences to the Message of Jesus. It may also have served to avoid provoking conflict as Jesus’ Message spread across the Roman Empire.
In the political cauldron of this time—leading up to and after the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70—espousing another Kingdom would certainly have escalated persecution from the insecure, tyrannical rulers of the Roman Empire.
John’s Phrases: Life and Eternal Life
John chose to use the word “life” and specifically the phrase “eternal life”—a synonymous expression for the Kingdom of God already established by the time John wrote his Gospel (Mark 10:17-31, c. vv. 17 and 23). He used the phrase “eternal life” fifteen times while he only used the phrase “Kingdom of God” six times.
For example, John begins his Gospel with the words: “In Him was life, and the life was the light of men” (John 1:4). John then refers to “life … abundantly” (John 10:10) and speaks of “eternal life”. Clearly, the implication is that Jesus has ushered in a new way of living.
However, the phrase, “eternal life” has added to a misunderstanding of the Kingdom of God. The English phrase “eternal life” tends to sound “up there” or “after death” relegating what God intended now in “this life” to the “next life”. This is exactly the opposite of what John intended!
We often make the whole point about getting through our time on earth so we can gain entrance into heaven. However, John’s Gospel reveals Christ as the Son of God who invades our existence now with Divine Life. The phrase “eternal life” in Greek (aionios) literally means, “age life” and refers to a quality of life centred on the Source of Life.
Jesus defined “eternal life” in His prayer to the Father:
And this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.”
(John 17:3, italics added)
What is eternal life?
Eternal life is to know God, intimately, personally, experientially now … right now in an ever-deepening and enriching relationship. Eternal life means that our existence is invaded by the Divine Life of God now and that we are forever rearranged as we now find our correct orbit around the King.
Eternal life has nothing to do with going to heaven. It is a life lived large for God now because it revolves around Him and Him alone. The fact that our love relationship with the Father transcends this life is a deduction we make based on God’s nature. It’s not the primary intent of the phrase.
Paul’s Phrase: In Christ
Paul used the term “in Christ”. It is well-documented that this was his most popular phrase, one used throughout his writings. However, the fact that it is a synonym for the Kingdom of God is often overlooked.
In Christ, we are delivered from the tyranny of the devil’s domain (kingdom) and “transferred into the Kingdom of the Son of His love” (Colossians 1:13). Luke summed up Paul’s entire ministry with the words: “preaching the Kingdom of God and teaching the things which concern the Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 28:31).
In his heart-wrenching final moments with the Ephesian leaders, Paul summarised his own ministry with the words: “I have gone preaching the Kingdom of God” (Acts 20:25). Yet he tactfully used the word “Kingdom” a mere fourteen times in all his writings, preferring to use the phrase “in Christ” ubiquitously to encapsulate his message.
It is “in Christ” that our identity as sons and daughters of the Father is secured. From this place of security, we enjoy the awesome privileges of our Kingdom inheritance and are empowered to carry out our sober Kingdom responsibilities. Re-reading Paul’s letters with the understanding that “in Christ” refers to our new identity as sons and daughters in the Kingdom of God brings further revelatory light to God’s Kingdom purposes.
Isaiah’s Phrase: Government
Let’s look at one Old Testament synonym that may help us see the Kingdom with fresh eyes.
Isaiah was a prophet without equal. He was certainly a heavy-weight prophet in the Old Testament and spoke more directly to Jesus Christ than any other Old Testament writer, earning him the title, the “Messianic prophet”. His descriptions of Jesus are mind-blowing considering that he recorded his prophecies nearly 700 years before Jesus arrived on earth.
Isaiah described the coming of the Christ with these words:
For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given; and the government will be upon His shoulder. And His name will be called Wonderful, Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of His government and peace there will be no end.”
(Isaiah 9: 6, 7, italics mine)
This passage gives us a synonym for the kingdom in the word government.
The Kingdom of God is the Government of God—where the King is … King; where His rule (authority to govern) and reign (acts of government) are established.
Thus, the “Kingdom of God” refers to God’s absolute right to govern His creation and His character (loving, just and wise) to do so for our highest good.
Matthew’s Phrase: The Kingdom of Heaven
While Matthew’s phrase, the Kingdom of heaven, was helpful in his day, it isn’t the case today.
It cannot be stressed enough how overly heaven-focused Christendom became during the dark ages, a misdirection that continues today.
For this reason, Matthew’s use of the phrase “the kingdom of heaven” is often mistakenly thought of as “the kingdom in heaven”, as though Jesus’ message is largely relegated to the afterlife (or the age to come).
Firstly, the phrase “kingdom of heaven” is a synonym for “Kingdom of God”, as indicated by Matthew 19:23, 24.
Secondly, Matthew was the only Biblical author to use the phrase and he did so because his primary audience was Jewish.
The Jews, of course, considered it irreverent to use the name of God too frequently. Respecting these sensitivities, Matthew used the phrase “of heaven” instead “of God”. In fact, of the fifty times that Matthew refers to the Kingdom, he used the phrase “of heaven” thirty two times and the phrase “of God” only five times. In the remaining references, he used the singular word “Kingdom” or the “Father’s Kingdom” or the Kingdom of “the Son of Man”.
In other words, the phrase the “Kingdom of heaven” refers to the “Kingdom of God”. And as such, it is largely concerned with this life not the afterlife. Without this understanding, we mistakenly make our focus on going to heaven when God’s actual intent is to bring His Kingdom to earth!
The Now and Yet-to-Come Kingdom
A lot of confusion around the subject of the Kingdom hinges around its “now” and “yet-to-come” aspects. Some defer much of Jesus’ message to the age to come. Others fail to understand the promise of the age to come and slip into triumphalism. Let’s look at the importance of grasping the tension between the “now” and “yet-to-come” Kingdom.
Jesus began His public ministry declaring, “Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17). He proclaimed something immediate, something that was changing in the “now”. The Jewish people certainly anticipated something to immediately transpire although their expectations of what Jesus intended were misplaced. Jesus never once squelched their excitement; He did consistently correct their interpretations.
Although Jesus ushered in something immediate—climaxing in His death, resurrection and ascension—He also implied something was “yet-to-come” in His return.
In His coming, Jesus will consummate His victory, pull down the curtain on this age and usher in the age to come. The apostles clearly grasped this reality and taught the people to live with an earnest expectation of His return, when He would “judge the living and the dead at His appearing and His Kingdom” (2 Timothy 4:1).
In other words, through the cross—His death, resurrection and ascension—the Kingdom has come “now”. The devil is defeated and his authority is broken; his power now lies solely in deception and accusation. It is the church’s role now—in this age—to oppose him and enforce the Kingdom’s victory in growing measure until Jesus’ return.
When Jesus returns, He will close this present age and begin the age that is to come, an age of fulfilment. Thus, there is something of the Kingdom not yet realised in this age, something that is “yet-to-come”.
We have the privilege and responsibility to usher in the age to come. To put it bluntly, we have a job to do, and Jesus is coming when we’ve completed it.
The question is, what does God require of us now in this present age as we earnestly long for the age to come? Put another way, what constitutes the job done?
The debate around “now” and “yet-to-come” therefore hinges primarily around what one believes God requires us to do in this age versus what only God can do in His return.
At one end of the spectrum, some conclude that we can do very little but wait for Christ’s return to rescue us from all the doom and gloom. Playing it safe, this view implies that the point is simply to hold out in the face of increasingly desperate forces of darkness: “We shouldn’t be too optimistic, bearing in mind a massive falling away precedes the end”.
This tendency to suspend living and wait for the rapture certainly characterized much of the Western church in the late 1900s. At the end of every decade, predictions that the Lord was returning caused many to “pack their bags,” so to speak, for the end. It resulted in a confused army. With a sword in one hand and a suitcase in the other, do we fight or fly? Joking aside, the confusion has fed fear and paranoia.
Others, in uneasy partnership with this side of the spectrum, deafened to the numerous “cry wolf” predictions of the last millennium, don’t actually anticipate His return at all. For many, the return of Christ is no longer a reality and, well, we need to maximise life right now you know! Caught up in the spirit of this age, they’re spoilt for choice and afraid to miss out on something.
Yet at the other end of the spectrum—and in direct contrast to the escapist and compromising responses—others believe we complete the entire assignment. We’ll fix up the whole mess before Jesus returns. “In God’s grace, we can be extravagantly optimistic! Christ will return for a glorious Bride who has finished her mission; the falling away only serves to purify and empower true believers for greater fruitfulness.”
Think for a moment which side of the spectrum you find your heart drawn to?
Yes, this other end of the spectrum has been pushed over the edge into extreme schools of triumphalism, whose arrogance and avarice betray them. And while falling off the deep end is something we’d do well to avoid, think about which end of the spectrum is more consistent with our Kingdom vision.
The first is entirely defeatist and doesn’t hold any water. In fact, it undermines the first coming of Christ. To expect Jesus’ second coming to achieve what He, in fact, has accomplished in His first coming is a tragic misunderstanding and under-appreciation of what He has done.
God’s unfailing commitment to intervene “in history” is seen throughout the Scriptures. Is it therefore not more consistent with the story so far for God to empower a victorious church to fulfil His mandate, appropriating His victory, “in history” as part of His Story? To view the church for which Jesus returns as a defeated Bride, who only fulfils her redemption potential “beyond history”—in the age to come—seems entirely inconsistent with the nature and plan of God.
I think we ought to aim at the other side, knowing that should Jesus return sooner in the process than we have in mind, we’ll be caught busy with our Father’s business (Luke 19:13; 2:39). Isn’t this exactly the attitude Jesus imparted to us (Matthew 25:14-30; Luke 19:11-27)?
Yes, there may well be several places to camp between these two ends of the “what can be accomplished?” spectrum. However, why aim for less than the job done?
And yes, let’s be honest, even with the very best, most noble human effort on our part, the Kingdom mandate is completely and utterly impossible. However, I think we’ll be amazed at what God intends to do through us as we give ourselves extravagantly and outrageously to that which is humanly unachievable. God does seem to delight in doing the impossible through His people.
However, the core issue is soberly within our scope of responsibility: Jesus made it clear that when He comes, the one thing He will be looking for is faith (Luke 18:8). Not heads filled with knowledge, but faith translated into action. Not activity for the sake of activity, but faithful and fruitful use of what He has put in our hands (Matthew 25:14-30; Luke 19:11-27).
Whatever your take on this is; whenever it is that Jesus returns, we ought to be full of faith and hard at work. When Jesus chooses to interrupt us in His coming is His prerogative; that He finds us obedient to what He told us to do is ours (Matthew 24:36-51).
As we wait for “that Day,” there is work to do in “this day.”
Any vision that keeps us moving towards God’s expressed intentions for an earth filled with His Kingdom glory is worth it.