Throughout the Gospels, Jesus makes constant reference to the “Kingdom of God”, but what, exactly, is meant by “Kingdom of God” and when, where and how will it be revealed?
In order to answer these fundamental questions, it is necessary to explore the idea of kingdom and to ask ourselves what the word implied when used by Jesus over two thousand years ago. The Jewish people were, at the time of Christ, anticipating the arrival of a chosen-one, a “Messiah”, who would free them from the bondage of the Roman regime and ‘restore the kingdom of Israel’. Even the Apostles, after Jesus’ resurrection asked Him if the time had come to “restore the kingdom to Israel” – Acts 1:6. It would seem that for the Jews (and the Apostles) the “Kingdom of God” was synonymous with the ‘kingdom of Israel’. Yet if we look at the first book of Samuel, we learn that God never imposed a kingdom upon Israel but reluctantly granted it after “the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah, saying unto him: ‘you are old, and your sons do not walk in your ways; therefore, appoint a king to lead us, such as all other nations have’” (1 Samuel 8:4-5). Until then, the prophets and Judges had governed the people, not with elevated status but as their equals. For the Israelites, however, this was not sufficient, they wanted a king “such as all other nations have”. That sentence “such as all other nations have” is very important, because it suggests that their desire for a king was based on mimetic envy: the Israelites wanted to possess what their neighbouring kingdoms possessed. The peoples’ request deeply saddened Samuel, but the Lord God said to him “it is not you whom they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king” (1 Samuel 8:7). Until that time, God had reigned over the ‘kingdom of Israel’, through the prophet Samuel: it was a kingdom without a palace or court, in which all were equal in dignity and standing. We can, therefore, say with certainty that the “Kingdom of God” of which Jesus spoke and the ‘kingdom of Israel’ were not the same. Worldly kingdoms (and I here use the word ‘kingdom’ in its’ widest context to describe all organized structures of power) were, and still are, preoccupied with wealth, status and power. To understand their make-up, let us use the analogy of a pyramid: at the top is the ‘king’, one in whom is invested an enormous degree of power, moving down from the top are others of lesser power whose aim is to ascend, by whatever means necessary, to the coveted position at the top. The base of the pyramid is composed of the least important who hold together the entire structure, but who cannot be heard or seen because of their lowly position. The “Kingdom of God”, therefore, is not a worldly structure and Jesus verified this when he said, “it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God” – (Mark 10:25). Wealth, power, and status are an impediment to Gods’ Kingdom.
Some have suggested that the Church is the “Kingdom of God” but this would be impossible since the Church is too involved with the world, having as it does the same ‘pyramid system’ of governance. Like other worldly ‘kingdoms’, the church boasts wealth, status, and power: all of which would preclude it from being associated with the “Kingdom of God”. While it is the Churches responsibility to ‘proclaim’ the “Kingdom of God”, it is also its’ duty to ‘give way’ to the “Kingdom”, into which it will be eventually subsumed. The Church, like every individual Christian is called to ‘give’ of itself in exactly the same manner that Christ ‘gave’ of Himself. For so long as worldly desires exist within the Church, the “Kingdom of God” cannot be accomplished.
Having considered what the “Kingdom of God” is not, let us now examine what the “Kingdom of God” is. To understand the “Kingdom”, let us turn to the Gospel of Saint John, chapter 13, where Jesus, just before His passion, washes the Apostles feet. This single act conveys more information about the “Kingdom” than any other passage in the Gospels: it is an act of deep humility that signifies the ‘breaking down’ of barriers between master and servant, between rich and poor, between strong and weak, and between the powerful and the lowly. Jesus makes it quite clear to the Apostles: “If I, then, the Lord and Master, have washed your feet, you should wash each other’s feet. I have given you an example so that you may copy what I have done to you” – (John 18:14-15). The “Kingdom of God” may only be perceived as a commonwealth of peoples, of equal dignity, value, and respect, united to God and one-another through love: selfless love that does not seek to eradicate diversity but accepts and encourages it as something that heightens the value of unity. Furthermore the “Kingdom of God” is already here, amongst us – (Matthew 12:28: Luke 10:9; 11:20; 17:21). It is present in the hearts of those who accepted the teachings of Christ, in sincerity: it is present in the humble, the meek, and the lowly: it is present wherever there are acts of kindness perpetrated without any thought of reward. For evidence of this, let us look to the Gospel of Mark: when asked by the scribe what the greatest commandment is, Jesus answered “to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind and to love your neighbour as yourself”. When the scribe concurred, by saying, “this is far more important than sacrifice or holocaust”, Jesus, seeing how enlightened he was, replied: “you are not far from the Kingdom of God” – (Mark 12:28-34). By understanding the primacy of Love within society, the scribe had moved a step closer to embracing that attitude of mind, and life, which would bring him into the “Kingdom of God”. At this stage, it is well worth considering that God will reign, not from some distant, inaccessible, palace, but within the heart of man.
Of course, the “Kingdom of God” has not yet been perfected, nor is it likely that it can be perfected in this world. Once the Kingdom is perfected then God will be fully manifested in all his holiness, which, at present, is seen only by faith in a world that presents an ambiguous face – Cf. 1 Corinthians 13:12. Conversely, when Jesus speaks about “coming again in glory, with a host of angels” – (Matthew 25:31), He is likely referring to that point at which He will be fully acknowledged as the revelation and fullness of God – “the Word made flesh”. At what point or in what way that will transpire, we do not know – Cf. Matthew 24:42. What we can be certain of is that having been “lifted up from the earth”, Jesus shall indeed “draw all thing to[Himself]” and this will be achieved when the “Kingdom of God” has been truly perfected.
Our conclusion can only be that the “Kingdom of God” is not and cannot be like anything we have heretofore known. It is a Kingdom far beyond human understanding: a Kingdom where there will be no need for a king or government, no need for priests or prophets, because Jesus Christ will be all and in all. It is a Kingdom where the only law is Love. When the “Kingdom of God” is consummated, then the hearts of all men will be filled with the holy Love of God. I am not speaking, here, of heaven or of the rewards that await the righteous. On the contrary, I am speaking of the “Kingdom” that, while already present, has yet to be fulfilled. Christian hope encourages us to believe that the “Kingdoms” full realization will be the entelechy of the cosmos, that is, the perfecting of all things, past, present and future in an ever-widening context. (Cf. Principles of Christian Theology, Macquarrie, p.330)
As Christians, we are invited to be a part of the “Kingdom of God”. It is not an imposed regime where our participation is mandatory. The offer is made by God and we, as human beings with free will, can decide to accept or decline the offer. Some have already accepted the offer to be a part of Gods’ “Kingdom” and live their lives in accordance with His Sons’ teaching: theirs is a way of simplicity, faith, and abiding love for all humanity. Others have ‘publicly’ accepted the offer but, in their hearts, have refused to embrace Jesus’ Way of enlightenment and remain attached to their worldly kingdoms, which continue to afford them wealth, power, and status. Others, still, have rejected the offer outright, their reasons being multiple and variable.
There is, of course, a price to paid for being a part of Gods’ “Kingdom”. It often means isolation and/or condemnation from those who do not realize just what is required. The “Kingdom of God” is not of this world (Cf. John 18:36) and neither are those who belong to that “Kingdom”. Jesus warned His disciples, “Because you do not belong to the world, because my choice withdrew you from the world, therefore the world hates you” – (John 15:19). Sometimes, particularly in the anti-Christian climate of secular society, it is often easy to ignore, or even deny, our Christian Faith rather than face the taunts and suspicions of unbelievers. The saddest part of this is that the ‘unbeliever’ is often one who masks him/herself behind Christianity: to the world he/she is the pillar of the Church, but in secret his/her heart and tongue betray those who remain true to Christ. Despite the troubles that our Faith may bring, we must remain true to ourselves and to Our Lord, in whom we put our trust. We must continue to preach the “Kingdom of God”, not so much in words but by actions: actions that show the world we have adopted the teachings of Jesus. We must show our love and concern for all, without exception, and we must treat everyone as an equal, never being proud, but adopting an approach of sincere humility. Above all we must hold dear to our hearts the greatest Commandment of all, to Love our God with all our heart, soul, strength and mind: and to love our neighbour as ourselves. Let us allow Love to be our guide – love of God and love of Man – and surely, it will lead us safely into the “Kingdom of God”.