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.
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What is the Gospel?
What is the Gospel? What is the Good News?
It goes without saying that this is an important question.
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 people saved and going to heaven.
Certainly, salvation and heaven are incredible, indescribable blessings. However, they do not define the Gospel.
Not only do they not define the Gospel, when we conflate them with the Gospel, we default on our God-given mandate, we fudge our purpose and settle for a false finish line.
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 more theologically disturbing questions: 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 people saved and going to heaven for decades. 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, the universities of our day. 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 their founding statements declare these objectives, they’re largely atheistic institutions and antagonistic towards the Christian faith.
By and large, we’ve receded into the four walls of the sanctuary. 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)
According to Jesus, the Gospel is the Kingdom of God.
Yes, the Good News is the Kingdom of God.
The good news is that the King has come to establish His Kingdom on the earth.
Yes, this certainly includes salvation. Jesus said that unless we’re born again, we cannot even begin to grasp what the Kingdom entails (John 3:3).
However, personal salvation is 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, I was like a spiritual streaker: I was scaring off 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.
What is the Gospel? In broad strokes?
The King has come to establish His Kingdom on the earth.
Yes, this includes heaven. While heaven is an incredible blessing, Jesus taught us to pray, “Your Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:9). 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.
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 Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles?
Kingdom in the New Testament
Let’s take stock…
- “Kingdom” is the word Jesus used most frequently. He used it over 120 times. In comparison, He mentioned the word ekklesia, which is translated “church”, just twice. Of the 40 parables Jesus taught, He devoted 19 to explicitly explain the Kingdom. That’s nearly 50% specifically devoted to unpacking the Kingdom. Of course, many of the other parables also allude to aspects of the Kingdom.
- The prophet John understood the heart of God. As forerunner to Christ, the first words out of his mouth were, “Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:1, 2).
- Not only was the Gospel of the Kingdom Jesus’ first public message (Matthew 4:17; Mark 1:15), He explicitly defined it as His purpose. Luke records that Jesus’ agenda was not dictated by people’s demands; instead, He aligned Himself to the Kingdom mandate, saying: “I must preach the Kingdom of God … because for this purpose I have been sent” (Luke 4:43).
- When Jesus commissioned the twelve disciples, He made their orders noticeably clear: “preach, saying, ‘The Kingdom of heaven is at hand’” (Matthew 10:7). The same is true when He sent out the seventy (Luke 10:9).
- When Jesus taught us to pray, He taught us to pray, “Our Father … Your Kingdom come. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:9,10). Our prayers are to align with God’s heart and will for the earth.
- Jesus taught us to make His Kingdom our primary pursuit. His exact words were emphatic: “seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness” (Matthew 6:33).
- When Jesus alluded to the end times, His focus was the Kingdom of God. So many misinterpret Matthew 24 and set their end-times clock by things like “wars and rumours of wars” and other global affairs.
Yet Jesus said, “See that you are not troubled; for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet” (Matthew 24:6). The end is not yet? Yes, He continued to explain that these things—including “famines … earthquakes” and other worldwide disasters (v. 7)—were only “the beginning of sorrows” (v. 8).
So, what should we set our end-times clock to? What should our focus be? Jesus declared with crystal clarity: “And this gospel of the Kingdom will be preached in all the world as a witness to all the nations, and then the end will come” (Matthew 24:14).
Notice that Jesus did not refer to the ‘gospel of salvation’ or the ‘gospel of the church.’ He declared that the “gospel of the Kingdom will be preached … as a witness.” Yes, we need the miracle and blessing of salvation to enter the Kingdom. Yes, the church is the means or body He uses to establish His Kingdom. But—our mandate is to preach and demonstrate the Kingdom-rule of God. Yes, demonstrate. Jesus did not say the Kingdom of God must be preached as a word or message to all the nations, but “as a witness to all the nations”. He did not call us to evangelise the nations, but to disciple the nations (Matthew 28:18-20).
- The Book of Acts records the growth and expansion of the early church. The entire account is a deliberate summary of the Kingdom of God. Luke begins his account by referring to the Kingdom of God (Acts 1:1-3) and concludes his marvellous account by referring to the Kingdom of God (Acts 28:23-31). Whenever the need arose to describe the work of the early church, the phrase “preaching the Kingdom of God” is used (Acts 20:25; see also Acts 8:12, 19:8).
All this goes to show just how central the focus on the Gospel of the Kingdom was in the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles. Simply put, the Gospel of the Kingdom captured the Message of Jesus.
Now that we’ve underscored how central the Gospel of the Kingdom was to the message and ministry of Jesus, let’s get to grips with what it means.
Unpacking the Gospel of the Kingdom
The word “gospel” (Greek: evangelion) was a political word used by the Roman Caesars. When Augustus Caesar, for example, ascended to the throne, he presented his “gospel of the kingdom”— his dream of a utopian society—declaring that his reign would bring favour upon the world and its inhabitants. Of course, his citizens—many of them slaves—were forced to applause even though they knew another bout of tyranny was on its way.
Jesus used these highly charged political words to announce His arrival: “The Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15).
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 dominant backdrop, the framing narrative, of Jesus’ day was the all-conquering, all-consuming, all-powerful Roman Empire and its oppressive domination captured in the (coerced) allegiant profession, Caesar is Lord.
Let’s 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.
Now, the word “kingdom” referred to a king’s domain [king + domain = kingdom]; the domain in which he ruled and reigned. The Greek word for “kingdom” (basileia)—used of the Roman Caesar’s kingdom—meant, “to rule and to reign”. To rule referred to the authority the Caesar wielded, and to reign referred to his act of ruling as sovereign of his domain.
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 seemingly formidable Empire and a religious system co-opted by it.
A New Message
In a sense, the message was new, even transcendent.
It 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 ingenious.
Jesus’ followers defined themselves as citizens of a higher realm and served society from this higher moral code (not haughty and high-and-mighty, but with humility grounded in sacrificial servanthood). They remained model citizens of society, impeccable and unimpeachable.
- 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.
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.
This was as upstream and counter cultural as you get. It was engagingly transcendent.
An Ancient Intent
However, at its core, the Message of Jesus was as ancient as creation itself.
Let me explain.
When God created humanity, men and women in His image and likeness, He entrusted them with a dominion mandate.
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.
God created humanity as custodians of the earth.
In harmony with God, with one another and with creation itself, humanity was entrusted as stewards to rule and reign on His behalf.
Said another way: 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 through 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 that God’s original purpose is His eternal purpose. For example,
[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, italics added)
In other words, God contextualised His original purpose at various times to help His people reconnect the original intent to 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 Father God taking us and His creation back to something original.
God’s Original Purpose
Jesus used the Gospel of the Kingdom to reconnect His first century audience to God’s original intent.
Firstly, cutting through lifeless religion, Jesus reintroduced us to God by re-revealing His Father’s heart.
Secondly, in revealing the Father, Jesus restored all of creation back to God’s heart.
In this way, the Gospel of the Kingdom captured God’s original purpose for humanity.
You may recall, we defined the Gospel earlier in broad strokes as,
The King has come to establish His Kingdom on the earth.
Drilling down into God’s original purpose, we might define it as,
The King has come to reconcile us to the Father and in this reunion, restore us to our God-given stewardship as custodians of this earth.
In other words, the King seeks to establish His Kingdom on earth through us, the redeemed.
So, let’s take a moment to properly unpack the Message of Jesus.
Jesus first and foremost restored us back into relationship with the Father. And in this love reunion, Jesus restored all of creation back to God’s heart. In this glorious reunion, we are restored to our God-given destiny as custodians of the earth.
That’s the Gospel, the two dimensions of Jesus’ purpose…
- We are reunited with Father God.
- As His sons and daughters, we are recommissioned as custodians of creation.
The Context of the Kingdom: God’s Fatherhood
Grasping these two sides of Jesus’ message is critical and it’s the reason Jesus’ followers didn’t turn Kingdom talk into a militaristic response or violent revolt.
A Kingdom anchored in the Father-heart of God fosters values such as the sanctity of the individual, forgiveness, loving your enemies, peacemaking, unity-seeking, community-building and sacrificial servanthood.
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 the archetypal parents, they were responsible for raising a family, stewarding the garden entrusted to them, who would in turn raise families of their own, tending gardens of their own.
It seems obvious that God intended multiplying families to populate the earth, each stewarding a “garden” 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.
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, “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 relationship with the Father, the Kingdom of God involves inside-out transformation, not outside-in coercion.
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. Of course, a sinful, 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 achieved 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 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 us inside out and the Kingdom 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).
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 a 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 confession of sin; it is a commitment to unlearning the ways of Caesar and re-learning the ways of the King.
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.
However, 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” (John 3:3).
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.
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
How did God intend for us to assume our role as custodians of creation? Asked another way, through whom did Jesus intend His Kingdom to manifest on earth?
The answer is found in one term: ekklesia.
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).
The Greek word (ekklesia) simply means “to call out” and referred to “the called-out ones” or the “selected ones”.
It was not a religious word in Jesus’ day. It was, in fact, a political word referring to those called out of the general populace to serve as a civil body or an executive arm.
The word 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 in the context of the Kingdom of God, envisioning His people as an executive body through whom He advances His Kingdom.
The Three Legs of the Kingdom
As we wrap up this article, we touch on three crucial ideas that we’ll further unpack through the King & His Kingdom series.
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 responsibility, a kingdom deteriorates into tyranny. If a ruler feels no responsibility to leave an inheritance for his family, his rule will become excessive and exploitative, and will last only one generation and usually ends 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.
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.
An Economic Base
Without an economic base, a sense of generosity and stewardship, 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 demonstrate God’s abundance in a spirit 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 for now in “this life” into 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 the Greek literally means, “age life” and refers to a quality of life—both right now and forever—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 getting 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. In fact, the Greek word (aionios) translated “eternal” is an unfortunate translation; it does not mean time without end.
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 expected something to immediately transpire although their assumptions of what Jesus intended were misplaced. Jesus never once squelched their expectations; 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, pulling down the curtain on this age and beginning 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 has been defeated and his authority is broken; his power now lies in deception and accusation. It is the church’s role now—in this age—to oppose him and enforce the Kingdom’s victory in a growing measure until Jesus’ return.
When Jesus returns, He will close this present age and begin the age that is to come. Thus, there is a fulfilment of the Kingdom that is “yet-to-come”. We have the privilege and responsibility to usher in the age to come as we contend and enforce His victory in this present age. Until “that Day” we will fight in “this day”.
The New Testament does not use the phrase, “the return of Christ.” Rather it refers to His “coming” (see 1 Corinthians 15:23); a word (Greek: parousia) used to describe the official arrival of a king, whose arrival would be permanent and have a lasting impact. It was never used of Christ’s first coming; it was reserved to describe His second coming in which He would consummate His victory.
The core question to be answered in understanding this “now” versus “yet-to-come” tension is:
What does God require of us now in this present age as we earnestly long for the age to come?
This is a question of utmost importance.
We easily adopt one of two wrong stances to the return of Christ—and often vacillate between the two. On the one hand, we suspend living now and wait for the rapture. On the other hand, we actually don’t anticipate His return any time soon and, well, get on with life. Deafened to the numerous “cry wolf” predictions of the last millennium, this attitude characterises the church in this century. The return of Christ is no longer a reality to most and well, we need to maximise life right now you know! We’re spoilt for choice and we’re afraid we may miss out on something.
The tragedy of the first response—suspend living now and wait for the rapture—not only numbed people to the reality of His return but meant the church gave up her influence in many of the mind-moulding arenas of the world. Certainly, there is renewed conviction among God’s people to re-establish His Presence (influence) in these vital spheres again. However, we cannot do this without a renewed, true and holy conviction of what it means to “look for and hasten the coming of the day of God” (2 Peter 3:12). In fact, this holy conviction is the motivation we need to see a fresh invasion of the Kingdom into every sphere of society.
Do we long for His return? Do we view all we do in light of that great Day? Do we “look for and hasten the coming of the day of God” as Peter urged us to (2 Peter 3:12)? Do we appreciate the beauty of this earth knowing that nothing will ever truly satisfy us now; everything serves only as a foretaste of glory divine? Do we participate in the Lord’s Supper with a heart racing with expectation at what the vision of the Marriage Supper of the Lamb inspires?
This is so very important for two reasons:
- It is as we advance His Kingdom in every neighbour, nation and niche of society that we hasten His return.
- It is only with our eyes fixed on His return that we maintain a purity of heart and motive, knowing we are to give an account to Him for our stewardship.
Consider Peter’s words carefully. He not only urged us to “look for”—anticipate, expect—Jesus’ return, He told us to “hasten the coming of the day of God” (2 Peter 3:12). We are to do what we can to actually bring it pass! We are to live in such a way as to cooperate with God’s unfolding plan in this present age, “then the end will come” (Matthew 24:14).
This is the answer to a piece of the puzzle that eluded me for a long time. The early church lived in expectation of Christ’s soon return. He did not come that soon … 2,000+ years on and we are still here.
Were they deceived? The apostolic writers exhorted the early church to live large for God in anticipation of His second coming? Were they also deceived … or worse, were they being manipulative? Did they use this teaching to compel the early church to a certain quality of life when they knew it was not going to happen? The answer is, No! They were not deceived or manipulative. In fact, they understood something we need to rediscover.
The early church lived with a sense of destiny and responsibility; they lived believing that they could be the generation that Jesus would return for. They gave themselves in such a way as to be the Bride who would wow Jesus’ heart that He might say, “Father, she’s ready! I’m going!”
Every generation should live with this hope and responsibility. Peter said Jesus was “being held back”—the literal meaning of “whom heaven must receive”—“until the times of restoration of all things” (Acts 3:21). Jesus will return when His bride is ready … when she is fully prepared … and we are to live lives “in holy conduct and godliness, looking for and hastening the coming of the day of God” (2 Peter 3:11, 12).
Paul explained that all of “creation waits for the revealing of the sons of God” and “groans and labours with birth pangs together until now” (Romans 8:19, 22). The created world longs for the order of God and cries out in anticipation of that Day when Christ will establish His order, consummating His Kingdom. As we enter this travail—playing our role in ushering in Christ’s return—we know that He will work all things together for our good and His purpose (Romans 8:26-28).
Of all the areas of application in which we tend to use this wonderful promise in Romans 8:28, let us not forget the context in which it is Biblically given; that it, divine encouragement to enlarge us to usher in the return of Christ and the age to come!
As we keep our eyes fixed on His return, we serve with purity of heart and motive. Both the parables of the “talents” (Matthew 25:14-30) and “minas” (Luke 19:11-27) teach us this important lesson: we are stewards, doing our Father’s business (Luke 19:13), for one reason; He is coming back and will ask us to give account. As we fulfil our dominion mandate, we can look forward to His words, “Well done, good and faithful servant … Enter the joy of your lord” (Matthew 25:21).
Kingdom Now Implications
As we “look for and hasten” Christ’s return, we advance His Kingdom in this age knowing our time now is used by God to prepare us for the age to come. Paul taught Timothy: “bodily exercise profits a little, but godliness is profitable for all things, having the promise of the life that now is and of that which is to come” (1 Timothy 4:8).
In fact, our time in this age can be seen as training for reigning in the next age; when we, as God’s kingdom of priests, “reign on [the new] earth … forever and ever” (Revelation 5:10; 22:5).
Thus, we are to learn how to govern now; how to steward all that God gives us in the light of eternity. And as Jesus’ parables so clearly teach (Matthew 25:14-30; Luke 19:11-27), how we learn to govern now will determine the rewards we receive and the substance of what we govern in the age to come.
We are to govern NOW…
Over our own spirit, soul and body (1 Corinthians 6:20; 1 Corinthians 9:24-27).
Before we can govern anything else God requires that we learn to rule over our own mind, our own emotions, our own will and our own body. He requires that we learn to govern what our minds dwell on, what our eyes see, what our ears hear, what our emotions are given to and what our will is submitted to. The wisdom writer taught: “he who rules his own spirit is mightier than he who takes a city” (Proverbs 16:32). Wow! Think about the impact these words had on ancient ears. Who were the mighty? Who were the heroes of their day? The warlords who commanded vast armies in conquest captured the imaginations and folklore of the ordinary man. Yet in God’s eyes, the ordinary man who rules his own spirit is mightier than they.
To stress this point, the wise sage again stated: “Whoever has no rule over his own spirit is like a city broken down without walls” (Proverbs 25:28). Again, putting this into its ancient context draws the clout out of this statement. In times of old, a city without walls was victim to invading enemies and vulnerable to ravaging wild animals. He who cannot govern his own spirit, soul and body is vulnerable to the destructive intentions of the devil and the corrupting influences of the world system … and cannot be entrusted with Kingdom rule.
In our God-given influence: relationships and resources (1 Timothy 3:1, 5; 2 Corinthians 10:12-17).
Once we have learnt to govern our own spirit, soul and body, God requires that we learn to govern the “sphere of influence” He has given us: the sum total of all our relationships, resources and responsibilities. Every one of us has a sphere of influence as unique to us as our finger-print. Although Adam was entrusted with a global dominion mandate, God then placed him in a garden and required that he learn to govern this specific, unique sphere of influence: “Adam … tend the garden and keep the devil out!”
No matter how small or big we may consider our sphere of influence to be—“one,” “two” or “five” talents to use the language of the parable (Matthew 25:15)—this is our God-given stewardship. He will ask us to give account for how we have looked after our marriage, our family, our business, our neighbourhood … and how we use our money. Jesus explicitly taught that the way we use our money is a means He uses to gauge whether we can be trusted with authority (Luke 16:11). And the enlarging of our sphere of influence is His responsibility; being faithful with it is ours.
In a day in which everyone seems to know their rights, we—as God’s children—must be clear about our responsibilities. God is not going to ask us whether we knew our rights; He is going to ask us to give account for how responsible we were with the influence—our relationships and resources—He gave us.
As a community of faith (1 Corinthians 6:1-5; Hebrews 13:17).
As we learn to govern ourselves and then our sphere of influence, God desires to entrust us with responsibility in our community of faith. When the church at Corinth failed to govern their personal disputes as a family, instead airing their dirty washing in public, Paul rebuked them. He was livid and barked: “Do you not know that we shall judge angels? How much more, things that pertain to this life? … Is it so that there is not a wise man among you, not even one, who will be able to judge between his brethren?” (1 Corinthians 6:3, 5). Wow! What a mouth-full!
Paul was saying that in the age to come we will govern angels. While we can only imagine what this means, he did not choose to amplify this thought, his point is clear: since God intends to re-entrust us with His dominion mandate in the age to come, we had better learn how to govern over “things that pertain to this life”.
The way we deal with interpersonal conflict and the way we, as a community of faith, govern over disputes and mediate conflict resolution is key to our training for reigning in the next age. When believers avoid resolving conflict and working through relational challenges, instead opting to transfer their membership to the church down the road, they flunk the test and default in preparation for the age to come. Jesus gave us explicit instructions concerning conflict resolution for this very reason (see for example, Matthew 5:23-26; 18:15-20). Ignorance is not an excuse.
Leadership in our communities of faith is not a position of prestige or place from which we lord it over others. Neither is leadership in the church the equivalent of being on the board of our sports club. Leadership in the church is a matter of spiritual parenthood; serving God’s people, enabling them to live under His loving Lordship and ensuring they walk in the light and resolve conflicts which are an inevitable part of life (Matthew 20:25-28; Galatians 6:1-5; 1 Timothy 3:1-7).
The privilege and responsibility of leadership in the church must be rediscovered and is one of the principle means through which God trains us for reigning in the age to come. In fact, the Bible teaches that there is a specific reward, “the crown of glory,” for those who serve as elders (1 Peter 5:1-4).
Against the devil and demonic power (Ephesians 6:10-18; James 4:7).
From the integrity of governing ourselves, our sphere of influence and our communities of faith, God entrusts us with authority to enforce the Kingdom of light over the kingdom of darkness. Yes, our authority lies in Jesus Name, secured in His shed blood; however, consistent and sustained victory in this age lies not in the volume in which we can shout the Name of Jesus but in how much of the nature of Christ is manifest in our lives (Romans 13:12, 14; 2 Corinthians 10:1).
The legions of darkness tremble not at our words but at the Presence of Christ within us that energizes those words. Like the seven sons of Sceva, we love the thought of power over darkness but fail to see that our clout lies in a life devoted to our Conquering King; a life in which His righteousness has vanquished our fallen nature (see Acts 19:13-16).