What Is the Kingdom of God?
For anyone who has been a Christian for even a small amount of the time the question “What is the kingdom of God?” may seem strange. Christians talk about the kingdom all the time: we engage in “kingdom activities” and “kingdom building;” we try to focus our lives on the kingdom and pray that God’s kingdom would come; in short, “kingdom” is probably one of the most commonly used words in the vocabulary of believers.
But if you were asked to define what the kingdom of God is, could you do it? In one sentence could you tell a co-worker or neighbor what Christians mean when they talk about “the kingdom”?
Despite how much we talk about the kingdom, perhaps actually defining it is a bit harder than we initially think. In a short series of posts we are going to exam the biblical teaching on the kingdom of God to see what it is and what our place is in it.
The exact phrase “kingdom of God” itself does not show up in the Old Testament, although we will see that the Old Testament is extremely important in helping us understand what the kingdom is. We first encounter this phrase in the preaching of John the Baptist. In Matthew 3:1-3 we read this:
In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.’”
John’s preaching consisted primarily in two things: calling people to repent of their sins, and in announcing that the kingdom of God was “at hand.”
When Jesus begins His own ministry in Galilee, He too begins by preaching about the kingdom of God. The first record we have of His preaching consists of a single sentence: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt 4:17b).
If we want to know what the kingdom of God is, we can find no better place to begin our inquiry than in Jesus’ own preaching. When we read what Jesus says in Matt 4:17, however, we are immediately confronted with a challenge: Jesus (just like John before Him) does not define the kingdom of God for us. Why not? The answer is obvious: His audience already knew what He meant. Jesus defining the kingdom for them would be like a preacher in America today spending 20 minutes in a sermon telling his audience what America is. There would be virtually no one hearing the sermon who would need that kind of information.
It is the same with John and Jesus. They simply announce that the kingdom of God is “at hand” because they know that their audience knows what they are talking about. We will see in future posts that those to whom John and Jesus preached also had some very serious misunderstandings about the nature of the kingdom of God, but they did at least know that there was such a thing, and that it was a very important biblical idea.
Prior to encountering Jesus’ preaching, where would His audience have learned about the kingdom of God? We must remember that Jesus is preaching to Israelites. The answer, then, must be that they had a basic idea of the kingdom of God from the Old Testament. I mentioned earlier that the Old Testament does not use the actual phrase “kingdom of God.” Nonetheless, the fact that God is king is very important throughout the Old Testament. For this reason, Old Testament teaching on this theme is absolutely vital for making sense of what John and Jesus mean when they announce that “the kingdom of God is at hand.” We will therefore examine Old Testament teaching on God as king in the next post.
- What is the Kingdom of God?
- The Kingdom of God in the Old Testament: Kingship and Creation
- The Kingdom of God in the Old Testament: From Abraham to Israel
- The Kingdom of God in the Old Testament: The Prophetic Hope
Dr. Ben C. Dunson is professor of New Testament at Reformation Bible College.