If we had been able to walk with Jesus during those three and a half years of his ministry on earth we would have been deeply familiar with conversation about the kingdom. If you tried to systematize Jesus teachings, one thing would be extremely obvious and that is that a huge proportion of the things that Jesus taught centered on the kingdom of God or kingdom of heaven. There isn’t any doubt that these were not referring to two different kingdoms but were two ways of referring to the kingdom. A huge part of that topic, if you tried to divide it up, would be on efforts to correct mistaken assumptions about the kingdom to which Jesus referred.
It is true of all of us that when we hear any word used we immediately assume that the word is being used in the way we’ve heard or learned down to that moment. For the average Jew walking around Jerusalem and its surrounding cities the mental image of kingdom would rush in either to the glory days of David’s Kingdom or to the horrible times they were now facing as part of the Roman kingdom or Empire. Certainly when they interpreted the messages of Jesus about the coming kingdom they pictured it as being like David’s kingdom and a time of power over others and a powerful relationship with God. In many ways it was true that David was only the visible king over this kingdom and the true king was Yahweh the God of Israel.
So when Jesus came talking about kingdom in statements like, “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” it was mind boggling. It was simply an effort to fit a square peg into a round hole and it didn’t work very well. He was trying hard to reframe their thinking and give them an entirely different point of view. But think about it for a moment. How well has it worked for you when an effort is made to totally reframe the way you think of some word or concept? Think of it in terms of the word “Family”. What scenes come to your mind when that word is introduced? For me it is a mother and dad, an elderly grandparent living with us for a time and several children in the home and each of them having responsibilities they are to carry out so the family operates smoothly. It is quite certain that most fifteen to twenty-five year olds today would have a different image. A large proportion of them have grown up in a home with a single mother and absentee father, with two to three children who spend a great deal of their time with each other, watching television, or playing video games. They are used to a mom who must be away from them much of the time to be on the job to provide for the family and their responsibilities are more likely to be taking care of things at home while mom is away at work. So if I as the preacher have a sermon on family next week, I’m immediately challenged by the fact that my mental image of family is very different from well over half the people who will hear the sermon. That is exactly the situation Jesus faced in the first century. He was working to reframe their mental image of kingdom and to frame the mental image people like us who would be reading it hundreds and thousands years later.
Notice a few of Jesus uses of the word to see what your understanding might should become. “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” “Repent for the kingdom is near.” “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these things will be added to you.” “The kingdom does not come with observation. The kingdom is among you.” “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were my servants would fight.” “Unless you are born again you cannot enter the kingdom of God.” “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast a woman hid in three measures of meal.” The kingdom is like a man looking for good pearls who found one pearl of great value.”
Imagine not having any preconceived ideas of kingdom and reading these concepts. What would your picture be of the kingdom of God? What would you think when Jesus gave you a model for use in prayer that had as a basic request, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
I suspect that if we had been privileged to walk with Jesus day after day and listen to his stories and hear him teach and answer questions that people raised we would slowly have begun to get a new mental image. We would have started to think of the kingdom as the reign of Christ as king in our lives. We would have stopped thinking of some military power with a physical event involving conquering other nations. In spite of the fact that many wish to tell us that the kingdom is just another way of speaking of the church and the two words are interchangeable I suspect that we would have doubted that almost from the start and would realize soon it doesn’t work. Just try replacing the word kingdom with church in the different verses quoted above and see how it fits.
If kingdom means the reign of Christ in us then what does that really mean to us? We will pursue that thought in coming articles.