Friday, May 24, 2013

The Kingdom of God

Jesus and the Pharisees
Being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, he answered them, "The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed, nor will they say, 'Look, here it is!' or 'There!' for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you" (Luke 17:20-21). 

What do the Pharisees mean when they say, "The kingdom of God"? The Pharisees of Jesus' day are descendants of the Jewish religious leaders who led Israel during the time of the Macabean revolt (Harrison, Bromiley, & Henry, 1990). After the Israelites were taken into captivity by the Babylonians, the Persians, led by Cyrus the Great, conquered Babylon. Cyrus allowed the captive Israelites to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple. Cyrus, and other Persian rulers, demonstrated an attitude of tolerance toward the Jews where religion was concerned. In 332 BC Alexander the Great took Judea from the Persians. Alexander was building a vast empire for himself which incorporated diverse lands, peoples, cultures, and languages. He attempted to unite his empire through what was later called "hellenization" (Alexander the Great). Alexander encouraged the spread of the Greek language and culture throughout his empire, "Hellenizing" them (the word for Greece in the Greek language is 'Hellas'). He did not, however, forcefully oppose the practice of Judaism. 

When Alexander died, his empire was divided up among four of his generals. The general Ptolemy ruled over Israel and Egypt. He continued Alexander's policy of hellenization. In 198 BC descendants of another of Alexander's generals, Seleucus, took control of Judea from the Ptolemys (Seleucid Empire). 

The Seleucid Empire, which ruled over Israel during the first century BC, oppressed the Jews and attempted to suppress their religious practices. When the Seleucid ruler Antiochus IV Epiphanies built a statue of the Greek god Zeus in the court of the temple in Jerusalem, and desecrated the temple by sacrificing a pig on the altar, faithful Jews rose against the Seleucids in revolt. The faithful Jews, lead first by a priest named Mattathias, followed by his son Judas Maccabeus, waged guerrilla warfare against their Hellenized countrymen who submitted to the Seleucid command to worship pagan gods, and against the Seleucid armies themselves. They won their independence from Seleucid rule and established an independent kingdom in 142 BC. The descendants of Mattathias, known as the Hasmonaeans, ruled the independent Israel until it was lost to the Roman general Pompey in 63 BC (Maccabean Revolt) (Engelbrecht, 2009). 

Throughout their captivity in Babylon, their return to the land and subjugation by Persia, Alexander the Great, Ptolemy, and the Seleucids, the Jews developed a nationalistic school of religious thought. From the beginning of Roman rule in 63 BC the Jews sought independence. The Pharisees were a Jewish sect that emerged in Israel during the time of Hasmonean rule. They were characterized as master interpreters of the oral traditions of the rabbis. Though they were relatively few in number, they were trusted by the masses (Packer & Tenney, 1980). In contrast to other Jewish sects of the day who espoused Greek ideas, such as the Sadducees who adopted the ideas of the Greek philosopher Epicurus, the Pharisees maintained a rigorous separation from the Hellenistic culture and fastidiously observed the Mosaic Law and the traditions of the earlier teachers (Packer & Tenney, 1980). They longed for the day when the oppressive yoke of the Romans would be cast off by the great champion of the Jews who would establish a kingdom like David's that would last forever - the Messiah (Harrison, Bromiley, & Henry, 1990). This political messiah who would establish a worldly, political kingdom was what the Pharisees were looking forward to[1]. When the Pharisees ask Jesus about when the kingdom of God would come, this is the kind of kingdom they meant. Even Jesus' own disciples were looking for a worldly kingdom to be established, as evidenced by their question to the risen Christ just prior to his ascension[2]

What does Jesus mean when he says that the kingdom of God is "in the midst of you"? He means something quite different than the earthly kingdom envisioned by the Pharisees, and some modern-day Christians, when he talks about the kingdom of God. Indeed, he says this quite plainly when he is on trial before Pontius Pilate. When asked by Pilate if he is a king, Jesus tells him that he is, but that his kingdom is not of this world[3]. Pilate's concern was the same as that of the Jewish leaders. Pilate was worried that, with Jesus, he was dealing with another revolutionary attempting to gain a following in order to throw off the Roman yoke through political upheaval. The Jewish leaders used this idea of Jesus as a revolutionary, since he calls himself a king, to leverage Pilate to give Jesus a death sentence. They remind Pilate, in a veiled threat, that they have no king but Ceaser and, if he sets Jesus free, Pilate would not be Caesar's friend[4]. This manipulation by the Pharisees puts Pilate between a rock and a hard place, as “former” friends of Caesar generally had a poor life expectancy, and makes his mind up for him. The kingdom Jesus speaks of, however, is not a matter of territory; it is in their midst. 

The kingdom of God can be discussed in different ways. Certainly God rules over the entire universe as Supreme King. In that way, God’s Kingdom is territorial. It encompasses everything, everywhere. People have also used the phrase “kingdom come” to describe the time after the resurrection, when God rules without opposition (Engelbrecht, 2009). At this time Scripture tells us that God will create a new heaven and a new earth, where resurrected believers will live, free from sin, death, and the devil, under God’s reign without opposition. This kingdom is not abstract, but will be established physically when Jesus returns in judgment. In the context of Luke 18:20-21, however, Jesus is speaking of God’s Kingdom as something intangible. He says, speaking to the Pharisees and his disciples, that the Kingdom of God is “in the midst of you”. This can also be translated as “within you” (as does the KJV Bible), or “within your grasp” (Engelbrecht, 2009). 

To speak of a kingdom is not simply to speak of a sovereign’s realm, but the reign of that sovereign. Thus, most completely understood, the Kingdom of God is God’s ruling (his reign) as sovereign over the whole universe, all believers on earth, and all the saints and angels in heaven. Martin Luther called these three aspects of God’s reign 1) the kingdom of power[5], 2) the kingdom of grace[6], and 3) the kingdom of glory[7] (Luther, 1991). John the Baptist called people to repent and be baptized. Jesus, after his baptism by John, also called people to repentance. His message, however, is slightly different than John’s message. Jesus proclaims, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel[8].” John was looking forward to the coming king and establishment of the kingdom[9]. Jesus announces at the beginning of his ministry that the kingdom is now established. The king, and therefore the kingdom, is at hand. That is, they are here with Jesus’ words, and in the hearts of his subjects, all those who believe. The kingdom of God’s reign was literally among them, in their midst, within their grasp. Jesus makes plain that his baptism was a coronation of sorts when he teaches in the synagogue shortly thereafter: 

And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read. And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:16-21). 

Jesus announced to his stunned hearers that he was the Messiah, the king who was to come. He was now present among them, to bring good news and everlasting joy to the redeemed of Israel (Engelbrecht, 2009). The kingdom he came to establish, however, would not be of the same type that they had grown to expect during all those years of waiting. 

St. Paul understands the nature of the Kingdom of God rightly. In his letter to the Romans he instructs the believers there in matters of contention regarding eating unclean foods and observing holy days. St. Paul tells the Roman Christians that they are free to eat or not to eat; to observe or not to observe. They should not, however, engage in behaviors that cause their fellow believers to stumble in the faith. These tangible things and man-made observances do not constitute God’s kingdom, so they (and we also) should not let them harm God’s reign among them. 

For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. By what you eat, do not destroy the one for whom Christ died. So do not let what you regard as good be spoken of as evil. For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. Whoever thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men. So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding (Romans 14:15-19). 

Writing to the Colossians, St. Paul says that Christians have been rescued by Jesus from the kingdom of darkness and have been brought into his kingdom of light. The mark of our citizenship in God’s kingdom is not something physical, but rather redemption and the forgiveness of sins won for us by Christ on the cross. 

He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins (Colossians 1:13-14). 

St. Paul emphasizes that the aspect of God’s kingdom which is most important, the thing we enter into when he brings us into his kingdom through his means of grace, is justification. Through spiritual means – repentance and faith – we have access to the benefits of citizenship in God’s kingdom. 

Jesus, who had been baptized by John the Baptist, anointed by the Holy Spirit, and confirmed by the voice of God the Father, proclaims that the kingdom of God is at hand, and that he is its anointed sovereign. Jesus’ baptism is a royal coronation, of sorts. At his second coming, Jesus tells us that all things will be new again; the old heaven and earth will have passed away and been replaced by the new. Creation will be restored to its perfect condition, and sin, death, and the devil will disappear forever. In this way Christ will establish a kingdom which includes the world, newly restored[10]

Kretzmann explains the Kingdom of God in this way: 

To attempt to fix its definite position, its limits, its boundaries in the world by the application of the senses, by sight is foolish; for the kingdom of God is within, in the hearts of the believers. He that accepts the mercy of the King of grace is a member of the Kingdom of Grace, but by faith only, which is in the heart and cannot be seen by human beings. And all external signs of the presence of the Kingdom and its power in the hearts of the believers are not infallible, since these same signs may be feigned by such as are hypocrites (Kretzmann, 1921). 

Just as Jesus’ mission at his first coming was to redeem mankind, his primary mission at his second coming, however, will be to judge mankind, not to set up an earthly government: 

The one who rejects me and does not receive my words has a judge; the word that I have spoken will judge him on the last day…For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil. (John 12:48; 2 Corinthians 5:10). 

The author of Hebrews writes: 

And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him (Hebrews 9:27-28). 

All Christian denominations may not agree on an interpretation of God’s word concerning exactly how he will establish – or has established – his kingdom, or how and when Christ will return. As Christians, however, we must always discuss these issues beginning from a position of love for our brothers and sisters in Christ, and loving concern for those who are not yet citizens of heaven[11] with us. We must remember that what binds the body of Christ, that is, the church, is not when Christ is coming, or how, but that he is coming. And that, if one is to appear before God to give account, as every man will, he needs to acknowledge his sin, repent, and cling to Christ before that day, if he hopes to stand. 

This is what we can all agree on concerning the end: Christ will return visibly and with great glory on the Last Day[12]. Christ will return to judge the world[13]. Christ will return on a specific day known only to God alone[14]. Before Christ returns, there will be increasing turmoil and distress for the church and the world[15]

Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. Do not be led away by diverse and strange teachings, for it is good for the heart to be strengthened by grace, not by foods, which have not benefited those devoted to them. We have an altar from which those who serve the tent have no right to eat. For the bodies of those animals whose blood is brought into the holy places by the high priest as a sacrifice for sin are burned outside the camp. So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood. Therefore let us go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured. For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come. Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name. Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God (Hebrews 13:8-16). 

The return of Christ is a source of hope and joy for the Christian[16]; we are citizens of the kingdom of God by grace, through faith in Christ. Here, in this world corrupted by sin – Satan’s kingdom – we have no lasting city; we seek the city that is to come[17].


Alexander the Great. (n.d.). Retrieved May 23, 2013, from Wikipedia:

Engelbrecht, R. E. (Ed.). (2009). The Lutheran Study Bible. Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House.

Harrison, E. F., Bromiley, G. W., & Henry, C. F. (Eds.). (1990). Wycliffe Dictionary of Theology. Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc. 

Kretzmann, P. E. (1921). Popular Commentary of the Bible (Vol. 1). St. Louis, MO, USA: Concordia Publishing House. 

Luther, M. (1991). Kleine Katechismus, English. (C. P. House, Trans.) Saint Louis, Missouri, USA: Concordia Publishing House. 

Maccabean Revolt. (n.d.). Retrieved May 23, 2013, from Wikipedia: 

Packer, J. I., & Tenney, M. C. (Eds.). (1980). Illustrated Manners and Customs of the Bible. Nashville, TN, USA: Thomas Nelson Publishers. 

Seleucid Empire. (n.d.). Retrieved May 23, 2013, from Wikipedia:

End Notes

[1] Their messianic hope finds expression in the Psalms of Solomon (cs. 50 B.C), which contrasts the pious (Pharisees) with sinners, denounces the Hasmonaeans and hails Pompey as God’s deliverer. The pharisaic Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs (ca. 120 B.C.) portrays Messiah binding Beliar, executing judgment and establishing new Jerusalem (Harrison, Bromiley, & Henry, 1990).
[2] Acts 1:6 
[3] John 18:36
[4] John 19:15; John 19:12
[5] Psalm 103:19 
[6] John 3:5
[7] 2 Timothy 4:18
[8] Mark 1:15
[9] Acts 19:4
[10] Matthew 19:28-30; Revelation 21:1
[11] Ephesians 2:19; Philippians 3:20
[12] Matthew 24:27; Luke 21:27; Acts 1:11; 2 Peter 3:10; Revelation 1:7
[13] Matthew 25:31-32
[14] Matthew 24:44; Mark 13:32; Acts 17:31
[15] Matthew 24:7, 22; 1 Timothy 4:1
[16] Luke 21:28; Hebrews 9:28; Titus 2:13; Revelation 22:20 
[17] Hebrews 13:14