As fall begins, many parishes will resume their Bible study groups, and many of those groups will grapple with the term “Kingdom of God.” It’s one of the central ideas of Christianity, and one the Jesus himself preached on most frequently. We tend to presume that this concept is universally understood, but it’s a complex idea.
The phrase “Kingdom of God” appears more than 100 times in the New Testament, and only once in the Old. In Matthew’s Gospel the phrase is usually rendered “Kingdom of Heaven.” Since Matthew’s Gospel was written for a Jewish audience, “Kingdom of Heaven” may have been more acceptable to those sensitive to the writing or speaking God’s name directly.
To contemporary Christians, the Kingdom of God may seem to mean simply heaven, where God reigns in eternity. This eschatological understanding isn’t entirely wrong, but isn’t complete either. In the Gospels, Jesus says that the Kingdom of God is within us (Luke 17:20-21), is approached through understanding ( Mark 12:34), is accepted like a child (Mark 10:15), is entered through a spiritual rebirth ( John 3:5), and is entered through the doing of God’s will ( Matthew 7:21). So although it’s connected to the reign of God in eternity, it’s also a present reality.
The parables of Jesus would lead us to conclude that the Kingdom of God is a process, or a growing reality. It is neither completely present now, nor is it entirely in the future. The coming of God’s Kingdom is entirely God’s doing, Despite the words of the popular hymn “City of God,” we don’t build it, God does. We are called to cooperate with its coming by establishing justice and living lives that reflect God’s love.
Many of the teachings of Jesus, including the Beatitudes, indicate that the Kingdom is the place (or perhaps the time) where all injustice is ended, and the great reversal of the haves and the have-nots, the last and the first, will be completed, and evil will finally and forever be defeated. This will be the consequence of God’s final judgment. Jesus taught that the Kingdom of God was begun by his coming to us.
We live today in the in-between time; between Christ’s incarnation, and the final establishment of God’s reign at the end of time. Something to think about, the next time you pray “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven.”