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Jesus Christ often mentioned the Kingdom of God, but there is a lot of confusion about what the Kingdom of God actually is. Some think it's heaven, while others say it's here on earth. Some think it's a feeling of brotherhood among Christian believers or the Church itself. Others deem it to be apocalyptic.
Jesus spoke of the Kingdom of God in several parables (Matthew 13:44-46), and it was the subject of the gospel—or good news— Jesus preached (Mark 1:14-15). In Matthew 6:33 He instructed, "...seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness.…" and we are also taught to pray: "Your kingdom come" (Matthew 6:10).
So just what is the Kingdom of God—and where is it and does it exist now?
One source of confusion lies in the term "kingdom of heaven," repeatedly found in the Gospel of Matthew. Some have taken these references as an indication that we go to heaven when we die. (Our study guide What Happens After Death? addresses this erroneous belief.) Parallel passages in Mark and Luke use the phrase "kingdom of God.” Matthew was writing mainly to a Jewish audience, among whom it was common to avoid directly saying God's name out of reverence. Thus Matthew substituted the phrase "kingdom of heaven" instead of "kingdom of God."
Many Jews of the first century, including Joseph of Arimathea, were "waiting for the kingdom of God" (Mark 15:43). Some thought the Kingdom of God would come in the form of the overthrow of their Roman rulers and the establishment of an independent Israelite kingdom restored by a Messiah sent by God.
A popular rabbinic interpretation sees the Kingdom of God in a more personal sense, taking it to mean accepting God as one's King. Many believe the "Kingdom of God" principally refers to a personal submission to God as Sovereign today, and they view the Church—the collective body of true Christian believers—as the Kingdom, and therefore conclude that the Kingdom of God has already come.
Although Christians acknowledge God as the sovereign over all creation, Scripture looks forward to a time when God's rule is universally accepted, which is not the case today. Prior to man's creation, a great rebellion against God by a third of the angelic host took place under the leadership of an archangel known as Satan (Isaiah 14 and Ezekiel 28). Satan and his demons were cast down to the earth (Luke 10:18; Revelation 12:4), and now hold sway over the earth because Adam and Eve gave into Satan's temptation in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3).
Satan deceives the whole world (Revelation 12:9) by spiritually "broadcasting" his wrong moods and attitudes (Ephesians 2:2). Jesus called him "the ruler of this world" (John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11), and the Apostle Paul later called him "the god of this age" (2 Corinthians 4:4). God allows this so humanity will learn the consequences of choosing the wrong way, although He still maintains the ultimate rule over His creation (Psalms 29:10; 89:9; Job 38:8,11) intervening, at times, to direct the course of nations according to His prophesied plan (see Daniel 2:20-21; 4:17, 32, 34-37).
Many prophecies tell of a future King, of the line of King David, known as the Messiah or Christ who will eventually rule the world (Isaiah 9:6-7). The archangel Gabriel announced to Mary: "He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Highest; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David. And He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end" (Luke 1:32-33). This is clearly speaking of a real throne and a real kingdom.
The awesome transformation the world will experience when Satan has been removed and Jesus Christ is the world's ruling King is described in some detail. God's Word will go out from Jerusalem to the rest of the nations, as people seek to be taught by God (Jeremiah 3:17; Isaiah 2:2-4). The nature of animals will be changed (Isaiah 11:6-9), and human beings will live peacefully together as a result of the earth being "full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea" (verse 9). Barren wastelands and deserts will be transformed to become like Eden (Isaiah 35:1-2, 7; 51:3), and agriculture will be productive (Amos 9:13). People will be healed—both physically and spiritually—the blind will see, the deaf will hear, the lame will leap, the mute will speak (Isaiah 35:5-6).
Some see all of this as merely figurative of a better world as a result of the spread of the Christian faith, but that is denying the sense of many passages. There may be some figurative or spiritualized applications, but that's with the understanding that the main thrust is quite literal. We are also told the Messiah will share His rule over the earth with His followers, who at His return are either resurrected or transformed to immortality (1 Corinthians 15:50-53; 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17). The book of Revelation shows the saints, Christ's followers, will reign with Him in the age to come as kings and priests (20:4,6) and that "they shall reign on the earth" (5:10), not in heaven. The reference to the Kingdom here does not merely mean accepting the reign of God in one's heart at present (see also Luke 22:16, 18; 19:11-27; 21:31).
The Kingdom of God is a central and unifying theme of all Scripture. We see it in God's role as King over all creation, in His rule in our personal lives now and primarily later in the reign of Christ becoming established to lead all nations into God's ways. This is the way Jesus' apostles understood His message and, as He was about to ascend into heaven, their last question to Him was, "Lord, will You at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?" (Acts 1:6). When Jesus answered them He did not contradict their conception of the Kingdom of God, He just told them it wasn't for them to know the timing, which was under the Father's authority (verse 7).
Christians must submit to the rule of the Kingdom in their lives today, otherwise we will not enter it in the future. Jesus said: "... whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will by no means enter it" (Mark 10:15). As we daily pray to God, "Your kingdom come" (Matthew 6:10), we are effectively cheering on the establishment of the Kingdom of God over all nations, as well as asking that its rule begin with us right here and now.
The Good News Magazine (Sep-Oct 2012)