By Harris Franklin Rall
No word stands out in Jesus' teaching like the phrase "the kingdom of God." He began his teaching with the word which John had used before him, "The kingdom of God is at hand." He bade his disciples proclaim this when he sent them forth. This was the good news, the gospel, with which he stirred men's hearts. Around this thought his parables center, and it is just as prominent in the 'teaching of the last days as at first. What did Jesus mean by it?
What Is The Kingdom?
The Rule of God.—The word "kingdom" may have one of two meanings, either the rule of the monarch, or the realm over which he reigns. The latter is the more common meaning, but the former is the meaning of Jesus. By the kingdom of God he meant the rule of God. "Thy kingdom come" and "thy will be done" have for him the same meaning. In most cases the gospel passages gain a richer and fresher meaning if we read "the rule" or "the kingship of God" in place of the words, "the kingdom of God."
The Vision and the Faith.—It was a glorious vision that stood before the soul of Jesus. He lived, as do we, in a world full of evil, which no one felt so keenly as he. Sickness and suffering were on every hand. There were poverty and sorrow. Israel was under the hard bondage of Rome. Above all there was the evil in the hearts of men—their fears and lusts, their selfishness and greed, their blindness and hardness. But beyond all this Jesus saw another day. The rule of God was to come. It was all a part of Jesus' faith in God. Other men saw the power of evil; Jesus saw the power of God. It was God that filled his soul, it was God's presence that he knew in all things, and God's might stood for him behind and above all things. He knew that God's rule was coming, and the horror of the cross itself could not move him from that faith. In the strength and joy of that conviction he moves through life, and with its burning message he kindles the hearts of men.
Jesus and the Jews.—Now, the Jews had their kingdom hope also. They too expected the overturn of the powers that were then ruling and the triumph of Jehovah. But when we look more closely we see that by the triumph of Jehovah they meant the triumph of Israel, to whom other nations should bring their tribute. Such dreams have no place with Jesus. He is alike unconcerned about the fall of Rome and the glory of Israel. One thing only fills his soul, and that is God. God is to fill this world's life and to rule it. Righteousness and good will, joy and peace—these are to prevail in the earth. His eyes are not upon Israel alone, but upon all men. From the east and the west and the north and the south he sees them coming to enter the Kingdom from which Israel indeed was shuting herself out by her disobedience.
Kingdom of God and Kingdom of Heaven.—Even the ordinary reader will note that Matthew's Gospel uses the phrase "kingdom of heaven," and the other Gospels "kingdom of God." The former phrase occurs in Matthew thirty-three times, while only five times does he speak of the kingdom of God. On the other hand, "kingdom of heaven" is never used in the other Gospels. It is quite evident that the two phrases refer to the same thing, and a comparison of parallel passages in the Gospels confirms this. Which was the original form with Jesus? That is impossible for us to tell, but probably the phrase "kingdom of God." Had the original phrase been "kingdom of heaven," it could hardly have disappeared from the rest of the apostolic writings. How, then, did the form "kingdom of heaven" come in? That is probably to be explained by the prevalent Jewish reverence which had become almost a superstitious fear, and which kept them from using the name of Jehovah or God, substituting such words as Heaven, or Holy One. So they said "kingdom of heaven" instead of "kingdom of God."
The Kingdom As A Good
The Supreme Good.—The kingdom of God, Jesus declares, is the highest good that can come to man. It was the one great hope that filled his own heart. This coming rule was to include every good that men could wish for. To his hearers he compared it with a great treasure which a man found hidden in a field. No wonder that this man 6old all that he had so that he might buy the field and possess the treasure. It was like the pearl discovered by a buyer of precious stones, such a pearl as he had dreamed of but had never seen. No wonder that he sold gladly all his lesser treasures that he might gain this prize. With such words Jesus tried to make men feel the wonder of the hope and the blessing of the promised gift.
God's Rule as Man's Good.—Just how God's kingship is to bring every blessing Jesus does not describe. There were many Jewish writings in that day which told of the coming reign, and they were filled with pictures of enemies overthrown, Israel triumphant, and the saints enjoying marvelous wealth of harvest and almost endless days of life. These things Jesus does not portray. The rule of God means far more than such earthly gifts. On the other hand, the rule of God meant for him something ■very different from what it means to many to-day. The prayer, "Thy will be done," suggests to most men a burden or a hard demand. With Jesus it is absolutely different because his thought of God is different. His God is pure mercy and good will. The rule of such a God, his triumph in the world, can mean nothing but the highest good of men. Seek this Kingdom, he calls out to men, and everything else will come with it (Matthew 6. 33). "The kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world" is Jesus' phrase to describe the glorious reward of the faithful (Matthew 25. 34).
What Is This Good?
The Overthrow of Evil.—What, then, is this great good which the rule of God brings? First of all, the overthrow of evil, not of sin alone but of every power of evil and of all suffering. Jesus saw the beginning of this in his own work. That appears in his challenge to the Pharisees: "If I by the finger of God cast out demons, then is the kingdom of God come upon you" (Luke 11. 20). And so he rejoices when the disciples come back telling of their healings: "I beheld Satan fallen as lightning from heaven" (Luke 10. 18). The overthrow of evil was the mark of the coming rule.
Forgiveness.—More important as a gift of the Kingdom was the forgiveness of sin. The more spiritual Jews had looked forward to this, that the Messiah was "to give knowledge of salvation unto his people In the remission of their sins" (Luke 1. 77). Not the healing of the body but the overthrow of sin was the chief concern of Jesus. His chief task and his deepest joy was the work of reconciling men to God. He sees that meaning in his death, as he speaks to his disciples of "my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many unto remission of sins." And Luke reports how he declared to his disciples that "repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name unto all the nations" (Luke 24. 47).
God as the Supreme Gift.—The real gift of the Kingdom is God himself. That is why forgiveness has the first place in the Christian message. So long as there is sin, there is separation from God. Forgiveness is no mere wiping out of past scores; it is the breaking down of the barrier between God and man. It is opening the door by which man comes to God, by which God can give himself to man. That has been God's purpose through the ages —to give himself to men. When his rule is fully come, then men shall know God and God shall be the life of men. Then the gift to the pure in heart shall be fully attained, "they shall see God" (Matthew 5. 8). And here we see how different is Jesus' idea of God's rule. The Kingdom does not mean with Jesus a throne and outward power, but rather this personal fellowship with God.
The Kingdom As Life
The Kingdom Means Life.—From all this it would appear that the rule of God meant in one word the life of men, not mere existence, but the richest, fullest life as God had planned this for them. Just this was the thought of Jesus, for he uses interchangeably these two phrases, "the kingdom of God" and "life." Narrow is "the way that leadeth unto life," he says in one place, and immediately thereafter speaks of entering into "the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 7. 14, 21). The rich young ruler asks what he is to do to inherit eternal life. When he leaves, Jesus speaks of the rich man's difficulty in entering into the Kingdom, and then a little later speaks again of eternal life (Mark 10. 17, 23, 30).
Eternal Life in the Fourth Gospel.—The Gospel of John has dropped almost altogether this phrase that had so large a place in Jesus' teaching. There are only two passages in which the Kingdom is directly referred to. Nicodemus is told that a man must be born anew in order to see the kingdom of God (John 3. 3-5). And before Pilate Jesus declares, "My kingdom is not of this world" (John 18. 36). Where the synoptists are continually speaking of "the Kingdom," the fourth Gospel uses the phrase "eternal life" (John 3. 15; 4. 36; 5. 24, 39; 6. 40, 54, 68; 10. 28; 12. 25; 17. 2, 3). All this is in line with the general character of this Gospel, which tends to spiritualize the teaching of Jesus and to give the message of Jesus in the forms of thought of the writer. And yet, from what has just been pointed out, there is no radical departure here from the thought of Jesus as seen in the first Gospels. What John does is to set forth one special aspect, the inner aspect, of the message of the Kingdom. The Kingdom means life.
The Kingdom As A Gift
God's Gift.—The Kingdom is God's gift to men. "Fear not, little flock; for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom" (Luke 12. 32). What man's task is we are to see later. Here we must note the fact that the message of hope which Jesus brought did not rest upon any thought of man's progress or man's goodness or even man's devotion to a cause. His hope was built upon God. The Kingdom was his Father's gift. Because he believed in such a God, mighty as well as merciful, God of heaven and earth, but also Father of men, he believed that the Kingdom was coming, and called on men to believe and rejoice on all occasions.
Directions For Study
Read the Scripture references: Matthew 13. 44-46; 6. 10; 5. 8; Luke 1. 77; 24. 47; Matthew 26. 28; 7. 14, 21; Mark 10. 17, 23, 30; Luke 12. 29-32.
Take the phrase "rule of God" and substitute It for the words "kingdom of God," looking up as many passages as you have time. In some places it will not apply.
If possible, read what is said about the Jewish expectation of the Kingdom in Chapter II of the author's Life of Jesus. Recall what we learned as to Jesus' teaching about God. How far does his doctrine of the Kingdom flow from this?
When we pray, "Thy will be done," do we feel that we are yielding something, or accepting something hard? .Why does Jesus think of the rule of God as the highest good of men?
Compare Jesus' teaching about the Kingdom as a good with Paul's declaration that the kingdom of God is "righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit." How do they differ?