loren Eric Swanson: A Primer on the Kingdom

Saturday, July 02, 2005

A Primer on the Kingdom

Last summer I did a study on "the kingdom" simply because I found myself talking more about the kingdom of God but really understanding little about it. So I just printed out all 170+ references in the New Testament and began reading them every day for a month. The following is the fruit of my inquiry.

A Primer on the Kingdom

To understand the “kingdom of God” we have to go back to the prophetic book of Daniel. During the time of Daniel, the Jews had been conquered by the Babylonians and dragged off to Babylon. The Babylonian captivity (605 B.C.) “marks the beginning of the times of the Gentiles (Luke 21:24), the prophetic period when Jerusalem is under Gentile control.”[1] The time of the Gentiles ends when the Messiah returns. Babylon’s king, Nebuchadnezzar had a perplexing dream about “an enormous, dazzling statue, awesome in appearance” (Daniel 2:31), and where the king’s soothsaying “magicians, enchanters, sorcerers and astrologers” (Daniel 2:2), in trying to interpret the dream, could only fumble around and stare at their shoes, Daniel steps forward, not only with the interpretation of the dream, but recalling the details of the very dream itself. The four metals of the statue symbolize coming empires that would influence and rule the world—Babylon, Media-Persia, Greece and finally the Roman Empire. Daniel ends his interpretation with the hope of the coming kingdom of God—“In the time of those kings, the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed, nor will it be left to another people. It will crush all those kingdoms and bring them to an end, but it will itself endure forever” (Daniel 2:44).
Later Daniel has a dream of four beasts, again representing four kingdoms that dominate the earth. His dream ends with “one like a son of man, coming in the clouds of heaven [who was] given authority, glory and sovereign power; all peoples, nations and men of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed” (Daniel 7:14). His dream ends with the hope that “the saints of the Most High will receive the kingdom and will possess it forever—yes, for ever and ever” (Daniel 7:18). “Then the sovereignty, power and greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven will be handed over to the saints, the people of the Most High. His kingdom will be an everlasting kingdom, and all rulers will worship and obey him” (Daniel 7:28). The stage is set for the coming kingdom.

The birth of Jesus
By the time Jesus was born Israel had been chafing and languishing under foreign control for over six hundred years. By the time B.C. turned the page to A.D. the Babylonians had been supplanted by the Media-Persians who were in turn conquered by Greece who succumbed to the power of Rome. The Romans were the kingdom de jour. Every Jew, who understood history and the Scriptures, knew that the next kingdom on the horizon was God’s kingdom as prophesied by Daniel and the air was thick with anticipation. The births of John the Baptist and Jesus had been foreshadowed with prophecies and speculations that pointed to a coming king. John would do the lead blocking as the one who would go before Jesus who would “rescue [them] from the hand of [their] enemies” (Luke 1:74). The angel Gabriel visited Mary and told her, “You will…give birth to a son, and …he will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end” (Luke 1:31-33). Jesus was the coming king! Shortly after the birth of Jesus, the Magi from the east came in search of the “king of the Jews” (Matthew 2:1,2) and they were not disappointed. Their gifts and homage were proof that they believed they found the king. When the baby Jesus was dedicated in the temple the 84-year old prophetess, Anna, got fired up as she “spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Israel” (Luke 2:26-38). Many reflected the anticipation of Joseph of Arimathea who twice is described as one who was “waiting for the Kingdom of God” (Luke 23:53, Mark 15:43).

Centrality of the “kingdom message”
Matthew records John the Baptist’s first public words—“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near” and with anticipation, the crowds from Jerusalem and Judea, responded by confessing their sins and being baptized in the Jordan (Matthew 3:4-11). If the king was coming, they wanted to be ready. After Jesus was baptized by John and returned from his desert temptation, he found himself in his hometown of Nazareth (Luke 4:14-30). When the scroll of Isaiah was handed to him, he found Isaiah 61—“The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.” This verse and the verses that followed fleshed out his “great commission.” Isaiah 61:1-6 depicts the gospel being preached through proclamation (“proclaim”) and demonstration (“bind up the brokenhearted,” “to comfort those who mourn,” “provide for those who grieve,” etc). The kingdom becomes a place of beauty, not ashes, gladness not mourning, praise and not despair (v.3). The transformed people—referred to as “oaks of righteousness,” are those who “rebuild, renew, and restore the city.”
As Jesus began his ministry, the words of his first public sermon were, the same message as his older cousin’s—“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near” (Matthew 3:2, Mark 1:15). Jesus was announcing the coming kingdom. What shape that kingdom would take would unfold through his actions and teachings over the next three years. But wherever he went he spoke to people about the kingdom—“I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns also, because that is why I was sent” (Luke 4:43). “Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness” (Matthew 9:35). (See also Luke 4:43, 8:1, 9:11) The first petition that Jesus taught his disciples to pray pertains to the kingdom and is found in Matthew 6:10—“…your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
His message was not confined to his own preaching. When he sent out his disciples (Matthew 10:7, Luke 10:9), he instructed them, “As you go, preach this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven is near’”—the same message he and John had been preaching. In the book of Acts (1:3), in his post-resurrection appearances “He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God.” The central teaching of Phillip (Acts 8:12) was “the good news of the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ…” Similarly the apostle Paul preached the kingdom of God. When Paul was arrested in Thessalonica his accusers underscored the central message of his teaching—“These men who have caused trouble all over the world have now come here…they are all saying there is another king, one called Jesus” (Acts 17:7). When Paul came to Ephesus for three months he spoke out boldly, “arguing persuasively about the kingdom of God” (Acts 19:8). For two years he set up shop in the School of Tyrannus where he taught about the King and the kingdom (Acts 19:9). In Paul’s farewell address to these same Ephesians he says, “Now I know that none of you among whom I have gone about preaching the kingdom will ever see me again” (Acts 20:25). The closing curtain on the book of Acts finds Paul under house arrest welcoming all who came to see him “and without hindrance he preached the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 28:31 [see also 28:23]). In Paul’s writing he refers to the kingdom no less than sixteen times.

A kingdom must have a king
But make no mistake about it, people polarized around believing or not believing Jesus was the king. The bookend passages of Jesus’ earthly life centered around his kingship. He was king in the manger (Matthew 2:1,2), he was king before Pilate—“You are right in saying I am a king. In fact, for this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world…” (John 18:37[i]) and even king on the cross, it was the thief that recognized his kingship by being asked to be remembered when Jesus entered his kingdom that Friday afternoon (Luke 23:42).

What is the kingdom of God?
The kingdom of God is any place over which God has operative dominion. Although “[t]he earth is the Lord's, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it” (Psalm 24:1) the kingdom of God extends only to those sections of geography or chambers in the hearts of people where God is honored as sovereign and his values are operative. The kingdom of God has a king. His name is Jesus—Matthew 2:1-12, John 18:37. To preach the kingdom is to tell people about the King and the type of things he values in his kingdom and the world he wants to establish. Isaiah 65:17-25 gives a picture of what community life is like when God’s reign is fully operative in the renewed community.
There is joy—v.19
There is absence of weeping and crying (v.19)
There is no infant mortality (v.20)
People live out their full lives (v.20)
People will build houses and live in them (v.21, 22)
People will sow and reap (v.21, 22)
There is fulfilling work (v.22)
There is confidence that their children will face a better life (v.23)
People will experience the blessing of God (v.23)
People will have intergenerational family support (v.23)
There will be rapid answers to prayer (v.24)
There will be an absence of violence (v.25)
So any place where there is sorrow, weeping, infant mortality, premature death, etc. is actually an affront to the kingdom of God. This also helps explain the actions and miracles of Jesus. When people were hungry, it was an affront to the kingdom, so he fed them. When people were sick or paralyzed that also was an affront to the kingdom so he healed them. When people died prematurely, that was an affront to the kingdom also so Jesus raised them from the dead. Through his miracles he was presenting attractive illustrations of what the kingdom of God is like. When Jesus sent his disciples out to minister, they too were to preach the kingdom and do the same things Jesus did to show people what the kingdom of God is like (Matthew 10:7,8, Luke 9:2).

The kingdom of God is multifaceted and at times paradoxical
The kingdom is both future—“your kingdom come” (Matthew 6:10) and present—“Since the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing” (Matthew 11:12)
Internal—“The kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:21) and external—“I will not drink af the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it anew in the kingdom of God” (Mark 14:25).
The kingdom is something we possess—“he…brought us into the kingdom of the son he loves (Colossians 1:13) yet something we will inherit—“Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe” (Hebrews 12:28), “…flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Corinthians 15:50).
The kingdom is not something to be observed—“My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But no my kingdom is from another place” (John 18:36) “The kingdom of God does not come with your careful observation” (Luke 17:20) and something that can be observationally anticipated—“Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that the kingdom of God is near” (Luke 21:31)
The kingdom is a place where we dwell—“He has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves” (Colossians 1:13) and a place where we are going—“You will receive a rich welcome into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 1:11). “The Lord…will bring me safely to his heavenly kingdom” (2 Timothy 4:18). “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world” (Matthew 25:34
The kingdom of God is not about eating and drinking—“For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Romans 14:17) but there is feasting in the kingdom of heaven—“I tell you, I will not drink it anew with you in my Father’s kingdom” (Matthew 26:29). “People will come from east and west and north and south, and will take their places at the feast in the kingdom of God” (Luke 13:29).
The kingdom of God is a place for believers but will also have, for a limited time, have a number of unbelievers present (Matthew 8:12, 13:31ff, 13:47ff).

The kingdom is not realized in its fullness until Revelation 11:14 when the final transformation occurs—“The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he will reign for ever and ever.”

Parables about the kingdom of God
When Jesus preached about the kingdom of God he frequently used parables to reveal the differing facets of the kingdom. Each parable, in itself is incomplete in describing the workings of the kingdom but taken together, they provide a good picture of principles of how the kingdom operates. The kingdom of God is like:
A man who sowed good seeds in his field--Matthew 13:24
A mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field—Matthew 13:31
Yeast that a woman took and mixed into a large amount of flour until it worked all through the dough—Matthew 13:33
Treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field—Matthew 13:44
A merchant looking for fine pearls—Matthew 13:45
A king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants—Matthew 18:33
A landowner who went out early in the morning to hire men to work in his vineyard—Matthew 20:1
A king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son—Matthew 22:2
Ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom—Matthew 25:1
A man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his property to them—Matthew 25:14
A man scatters seed on the ground. Night and day whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he doesn’t know how. All by itself the soil produces grain—Mark 4:26,27

Teachings and values of the kingdom
The kingdom of God is a place where worldly values are turned upside down
Children are valued and held in high esteem—Matthew 18:2, 19:4, Mark 10:14
The poor are blessed—Luke 6:20, James 2:5
Those persecuted for righteousness are blessed—Matthew 10:9
Servanthood is valued over power--Matthew 20:21ff
The wealthy have a hard time entering in--most likely because of the humility and servanthood that is required (Matthew 18:24,25)
We love our enemies, do good to those who hate us, bless those who cures us and pray for those who mistreat us (Luke 6:27,28)
It’s a life filled with faith and free from worry (Matthew 6:25-34)
It’s a life of giving (Matthew 6:1-4)
It’s a life of prayer (Matthew 5-14, 7:7-12)
It’s a life of fasting (Matthew 5:16-18)
It’s a life of love (Matthew 5:43-48)
It’s a life of forgiveness (Matthew 6:14, Matthew 18:23ff)
It’s a life where marriage is honored (Matthew 5:27-35)
It’s a life of reconciliation (Matthew 5:21-26)
It’s a life of good deeds (Matthew 5:16)
It’s a life of honesty (Matthew 5:33-37

What is kingdom work?
First, in the broadest sense, any time we are involved in making this world more reflective of the place that God will ultimately make it in the coming kingdom, we are involved in kingdom work. So, because the kingdom is a place of beauty, cleaning a park or painting a mural that covers graffiti can, in the very broadest of terms, be considered “kingdom work.” Isaiah 61:4 talks of transformed people who “will rebuild the ancient ruins and restore the places long devastated; they will renew the ruined cities that have been devastated for generations.” So if we are involved in rebuilding, restoring and renewing the city, this too can be considered kingdom work. When we are involved in correcting and making right any of the social ills, injustices or wrongs of this world, because they are an affront to the character of God, we are involved in kingdom work. Any time we are involved in healing the sick, preventing illness or building a hospital…this too is kingdom work. Anytime we are caring for children as Jesus did, this too is kingdom work. The peacemakers of the world and those who work towards forgiveness and reconciliation are involved in kingdom work. With this view of the kingdom a second implication is the possibility of involving many more people in “kingdom work” than would be involved in what we would normally refer to as “direct ministry” of evangelism and discipleship. We can affirm acts of kindness and mercy, done in the name of Jesus as “kingdom work.”
As this point it is important to affirm that kingdom work does not in any way, shape or form, merit our entrance into the eternal kingdom. Jesus gives this ultimate disclaimer when he says,

“Not everyone who says to me, Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles”’ then I will tell them plainly, ‘ I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’” Matthew 7:21-23

How do we enter the kingdom?
There are four verses where Jesus gives the requirements for entrance into the kingdom—each affirming the simple faith that is required. In John 3, in his discourse with Nicodemus, Jesus told him, “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit… I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born again” (John 3:3-5). To the multitudes Jesus said, “Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and teachers of the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20). In the Scriptures, righteousness is something that is imparted to us and never merited (Romans 3,4). Jesus told the disciples, “” tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you willnever enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3). Child-like faith, a new birth and imputed righteousness is what brings us into the kingdom. So, any time we are involved in introducing others to the King and teaching others about the kingdom we are involved in kingdom work. Paul referred to his companions who shared in this labor as his “fellow workers for the kingdom of God” (Colossians 4:11).

The kingdom without a king and a king without a kingdom
As we move forward in our work of the kingdom we need to keep in mind that the kingdom always includes a king. Historically the church (God’s workforce for expanding the kingdom) has drifted to one side of the pendulum or the other—trying to bring the king to people without helping to bring the kingdom or bring the kingdom to people while failing to tell them about the king. Both are less than Christian. The kingdom, by definition includes the King and this King has a kingdom. To be kingdom Christians, we must be about both.

Implications for the church
“Kingdom” is mentioned 121 times in the gospels. “Church” is mentioned three times. Have we settled for too little in thinking about what God has for us? It’s about the size of the kingdom, not just the size of the church. If we are kingdom Christians we can truly rejoice anytime the kingdom is expanding, whether it results in our particular church growing or not. The kingdom is not the exclusive property of the church. We are to seek first (in priority and importance) his kingdom (Matthew 6:33). We are called to be the church and to build the kingdom
[1] Unger’s Bible Handbook, Merrill F. Unger, Moody Pres, Chicago, 1967, p. 383
[i] Jesus claim to be King, see also John 19:12, Luke 23:2


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