Our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount is not a “three points and a poem” sermon. In fact, in the course of this single sermon, Jesus touches on more than twenty topics. All of these topics are worthy of our attention, but here our concern is with only one of these topics, namely the Lord’s instructions regarding prayer. To be more precise, our concern here is with one petition found within the Lord’s Prayer. When our Lord taught us the way in which we should address our heavenly Father, he taught us to pray: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10). Many of us have prayed these words for years, but how many of us know what Jesus meant by these words?
In order to understand this petition of the Lord’s Prayer, it is necessary to understand something of the biblical concept of the “kingdom of God.” Pious Jews at the time of Christ were waiting for the kingdom of God to come (see Mark 15:43), but what gave rise to this hope? The first chapters of Genesis make it clear that God’s plan from the beginning has been to establish His kingdom on earth. Tragically, when the first man and woman listened to the words of the serpent, Satan became a usurper and established a reign of sin on earth (see John 12:31; 14:30; 2 Cor. 4:4). God, however, was not surprised by any of this, and He did not abandon His original plan. The remainder of Scripture is the history of God’s work of restoring that which had been corrupted by sin. It is the history of redemption.
Many generations after Adam, God promised Abraham that through him all nations of the earth would be blessed and that from him kings would come (Gen. 12:1–3; 17:6), indicating that His redemptive purpose continued to include His plan to establish a kingdom. Over four hundred years later, when God brought Israel out of the land of Egypt he designated them a “kingdom of priests” (Ex. 19:6). Israel was to be a manifestation of God’s kingdom on one small parcel of earth. The nation was to be a type of His eschatological reign over all the earth. Before Israel entered the promised land of Canaan, Moses told the people that after they entered the land, they would set a king over themselves that God would choose (Deut. 17:14–20). Following the conquest under Joshua, and a lengthy period of decline under a series of judges (ca. 1400–1050 bc), the people of Israel did set Saul over themselves as a king. Saul, however, was disobedient to God, so God replaced him with David
(1 Sam. 16).
After David was anointed king over all Israel (2 Sam. 5:3–4), he conquered the city of Jerusalem, and brought the ark of the covenant into the city. When God had given David rest from all of his enemies, David expressed his desire to build a “house” for God, a permanent temple instead of the tabernacle (2 Sam. 7:1–3). God’s response to David is found in 2 Samuel 7:4–16. Here God promised that He would build David a “house” and establish the kingdom of David’s offspring forever. God’s plan to establish His kingdom on earth reached a new stage with the establishment of this perpetual covenant with David and with David’s offspring.
When the monarchy of Israel began to decline, the Davidic covenant became the center around which the prophets would build their messages of hope for the future. They looked forward to the coming of a new Davidic king, a Messiah, who would establish a righteous kingdom (for example, Isa.9:6–7; 11:1–10; Dan. 7:13–14). They anticipated the coming of God to rule over his people (for example, Isa. 35:4; 40:9–10; Zech. 14:5). In one significant passage, Isaiah looks forward to the coming rule of God in the following words: “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness, who publishes salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns’” (52:7).
When John the Baptist and Jesus came preaching “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 3:2; 4:17), they were speaking of something for which pious Jews had been waiting in anticipation for centuries. When Jesus went throughout the land proclaiming the “gospel of the kingdom,” He was bringing the “good news” of the advent of God’s reign that Isaiah had anticipated (Matt. 4:23; 9:35).
So when Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, teaches His disciples to pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” there is a lot of Old Testament background to this concept. The kingdom of God was something the Jews were expecting. During the time of Jesus, Jews even concluded their synagogue services with a prayer (the Kaddish) that is strikingly similar to this section of the Lord’s Prayer: “Exalted and hallowed be his great name in the world which he created according to his will. May he let his kingdom rule in your lifetime and in your days and in the lifetime of the whole house of Israel, speedily and soon. Praised be his great name from eternity to eternity. And to this say: Amen.”
Those who read the Lord’s Prayer petition concerning the kingdom within the context of the entire book of Matthew will notice something striking. In some passages, the kingdom is spoken of as something imminent. Both John and Jesus declare that “the kingdom of God is at hand” (3:2; 4:17). The Greek word translated “at hand” means “has come near.” Elsewhere, Jesus speaks of the kingdom as an already present reality: “But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you” (12:28). Yet, in his instructions regarding prayer, Jesus teaches His disciples to pray that the kingdom of God will come in a way that it has not yet come (6:10). The phrase, “your kingdom come” is parallel to the phrase “your will be done.” In fact, both of these phrases, as well as the phrase “hallowed be your name” have the exact same construction in the Greek text underlying our English translations. There is a connection between the three petitions. Part of what it means for God’s kingdom to come is for His name to be hallowed and His will to be done on earth as it is done in heaven. This is not a reality yet, so the prayer anticipates a future state of affairs. How are all of these various ways of looking at the kingdom to be reconciled?
We can understand the New Testament teaching regarding the kingdom more clearly when we grasp the fact that for the New Testament authors, the term “kingdom” (Greek: basileia) refers most often to the royal reign of God rather than to the specific territory over which He rules. It is also important to realize that for the New Testament authors, the coming of the kingdom, or reign of God, does not occur at a single moment in time. Instead, the coming of the kingdom involves a series of events that occur over a period of time. When Jesus declares that the kingdom of God has come and yet that it is coming, He is saying that the prophesied last act in the drama of redemption has begun but that it has not yet reached its conclusion. In other words, Jesus is saying that we are now in the midst of the last act.
The kingdom has already come with the coming of Jesus. He has already been given all authority in heaven and earth. But we are still to pray, “Your kingdom come.” Why? Because on earth, there are still those who do not submit to His rule. When we pray, “Your kingdom come,” we are praying for the continued extension of God’s reign on earth. We are praying for God to convert the hearts of His enemies, bringing them to confess Jesus as Lord. We are praying that He puts those who refuse to submit beneath His feet (Ps. 110). We are praying for the coming of the day when all evil, all sin, and all rebellion against God is finally eradicated.
We must also understand, however, that when we pray for God’s kingdom to come and for his will to be done on earth as it is in heaven, that this begins with each one of us. We must ask ourselves if we are hallowing God’s name. We must ask ourselves if we are doing God’s will. As Christians, we are those who claim to have already submitted to the lordship of Christ. We are already citizens of His kingdom, and He is already our King. But are we faithful subjects? Or are we rebellious? If we are to pray in the way our Lord instructed, we must be those who live in the way our Lord instructed.