When Jesus started his earthly ministry, he began by “proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom” (Matt. 4:23). Yet nowhere in the Gospels do we see Jesus giving a clear definition of the kingdom. The reason is simple: Jesus didn’t have to define what the kingdom meant, because his hearers were well-schooled in the Old Testament. The puzzle for them was trying to work out how the coming of Jesus fitted into their Old Testament expectations. That is why Jesus later said, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old” (Matt. 13:52). The kingdom of God, or the kingdom of heaven as it is called in Matthew’s account, is something that is both old and new. It is a concept as old as creation itself, yet with the coming of Christ it had arrived on earth in a totally new way. In this article, we will explore the ancient roots of the kingdom of God and consider how it is renewed and accomplished in the person and work of Jesus Christ.
The kingdom of God originates in the very act of creation. The Lord is king over all that He has created, which means that He reigns over everything in the universe around us. He rules over the stars of heaven and the planets, a rule that is reflected in the subordinate rule that the sun and the moon exercise in turn over the day and the night, the seasons and the years. He rules over the earth and all of its creatures, a rule reflected in the mandate given to Adam and Eve to govern the lower created order, filling and subduing it to the glory of the Great King, in whose image they were made. In the garden of Eden, they were required to submit to the Law of the Great King and not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. That first manifestation of God’s rule was a time of “righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit,” which Paul characterizes as the essence of the kingdom of God in Romans 14:17. Yet when Adam and Eve sinned, all of that was lost. The reign of God over creation was challenged by an act of rebellion: righteousness was replaced by unrighteousness, and the result was that the harmonious relationship of peace and joy between the king and His people was broken.
However, God was determined to re-establish His gracious reign over mankind. For that reason, He called Abraham out of his pagan roots and promised to give him a land in which to live. At the time of the exodus, He brought Abraham’s descendants out of Egypt and declared that they would belong to Him in a special way: Israel would be His kingdom of priests, His holy nation (Ex. 19:5–6). The Lord would be their heavenly shepherd and would provide earthly shepherds for them, kings who would rule them wisely (Deut. 17:15). The Lord would exercise His sovereign dominion over the whole world with righteousness and justice for the sake of His own people, Israel (Ps. 99).
Sin challenged the Lord’s reign over Israel, just as it had earlier challenged His reign over creation. God’s chosen people rebelled against Him and broke the covenant, seeking other masters in His place. The kings whom God had raised up to lead the people in righteousness instead led them astray, setting up idols for them to worship. As a result, instead of righteousness, peace, and joy, Israel experienced the curses of the covenant, culminating in exile from the land of promise. The Great King departed from the temple, the place of His earthly residence in Jerusalem, leaving it undefended against its enemies (Ezek. 9–10).
Human sin could never have the last word, however. Even as Israel and Judah were being carried away into exile, the prophets announced the certainty of a future new beginning, a new kingdom that would be founded on a new covenant (Jer. 31:31–33). The days were coming when God would bring into being a new heavens and a new earth (Isa. 65:17), a new creation that would mean a return to Eden-like peace and prosperity (Isa. 11:6–9). The Lord would once again bring His people up from a foreign land in a new exodus, and out of the dry bones of the past He would form a new Israel (Ezek. 37). This new people would be led by a new king after God’s own heart (Ezek. 34:23–24) and would even include the Gentiles in its number (Isa. 2:2–4; 56:6–7).
Yet this new beginning for God’s kingdom would not be immediate or instantaneous. Even after the return from exile, the people found themselves living in a day of small things, trying to survive in the absence of their king (Zech. 4:10). They were warned through the prophet Daniel that the end of the world was not yet nigh – there would be a long, hard road to travel before the reign of the Lord and of His saints would begin. The coming kingdom to end all kingdoms would only arrive after an extended and trying period of history (Dan. 8). The years of the exile were but a small part of the era of trials and tribulations, which would extend not merely for seventy years but seventy times seven years (Dan. 9:24; compare Matt. 18:22). The kingdom of God would start as a tiny pebble that would then grow into a world-dominating mountain (Dan. 2:34–35). Yet in the end, no matter what the human or spiritual opposition arrayed against it, the kingdom of God would assuredly triumph.
When Jesus arrived preaching the kingdom of God, He was speaking against the backdrop of these Old Testament expectations. He proclaimed the arrival of God’s rule on earth in a new and concrete way: God Himself had come to dwell among men to bring to fruition His eternal goal of having a people for Himself. His coming would bring in righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit (Luke 4:18–19). God’s kingdom had appeared through the coming of a new Israel, Jesus Himself. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus’ genealogy declares Him to be the new Israel, the descendant of Abraham, the son of David, the child of the exile (Matt. 1:2–16). Like Israel, Jesus went down into Egypt as a child and was brought safely out from there (Matt. 2:13–15). He passed through the waters of baptism and spent forty days and nights in the wilderness, paralleling Israel’s own experience (Matt. 3–4), before ascending the mountain to give His people the Law (Matt. 5). Yet where Israel failed in the wilderness, Jesus faithfully obeyed. Jesus had come to fulfill the Law that had crushed Israel (Matt. 5:17). Through His death and resurrection, Jesus accomplished a new exodus for His people, bringing them out of bondage to sin and death (Luke 9:31). In Him, the new people of God – uniting together Jews, Samaritans, and Gentiles – became a reality (John 4; Eph. 2:11–22). In Christ, righteousness, peace, and joy in God’s presence were once more open to humanity.
Yet while the kingdom of God came to earth in the person of Jesus more than two millennia ago, its final consummation remains our future hope. That is why Jesus taught His disciples to pray for the coming of the kingdom (Matt. 6:10) and to wait expectantly for it, even if it were long in coming (Matt. 25). God’s reign has begun, bringing with it peace and joy for His people, but we have not yet seen the new heavens and the new earth of which the prophets spoke. In a profound sense, with the coming of Christ, and especially with His death and resurrection, the kingdom of this world has already become the kingdom of our God and of His Christ (Rev. 11:15). However, we have not yet arrived at the new Jerusalem, which itself encompasses a new Eden, drawing all of human history to a cosmic completion. Though we cannot yet see it, the end of the story is sure. The stone has struck the feet of clay of the power structures of this age and begun their final fragmentation into dust (Dan. 2:34–35). For all their glory and proud posturing, the writing is on the wall concerning the kings and empires of this world – their demise is sure. The kingdom of God is the only kingdom that lasts forever.
In the meantime, we await the return of our king from heaven with vibrant hope. He will come again to bring in the fullness of righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit that are the promised fruits of His rule. He will reign from sea to sea, over men and women from every tribe and tongue and people and language. The decisive battle has already been fought, and the victory has been made manifest in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. In Jesus, the kingdom of God has come to earth, and His reign will endure forever.