Christians use this word all the time to refer to the spiritual reign or authority of God. But outside church circles it’s a pretty esoteric term.
Of course, there are actual kingdoms today, ruled by real monarchs, like the United Kingdom or the Kingdom of the Netherlands.
And there are fantastical kingdoms like Gondor, Mordor, and the other kingdoms of Middle Earth. Or the Seven Kingdoms from Game of Thrones.
And then there’s the more recent use of the term in popular culture to describe a close knit family, operating along its own rules and overseen by a patriarch or matriarch. I’m thinking of the MMA fighting Kulina family in the television series Kingdom, or the Cody crime family in Animal Kingdom. The Kulinas and the Codys write their own rules, defy the rest of society and never cross their ‘king’ or ‘queen’.
You could argue that Netflix’s juggernaut The Crown is the same. Of course, it depicts an actual monarch’s family, but it’s not dissimilar to Kingdom or Animal Kingdom (aside from all the fighting or the crime).
All that to say, a kingdom is seen as a somewhat anachronistic political establishment that has to fight hard to sustain itself from attack or from the eroding effects of cultural change.
What must people think when we Christians routinely refer to the kingdom of God?
In fact, what do we think it means?
Well, like The Crown or Animal Kingdom, it is about a family. God’s reign creates a people, an alternative society, one that swears fealty to the monarch and lives in allegiance to God and his commands. The people of God are a peculiar people (like the British royal family, I guess), a new society, operating under a different set of principles and practices.
In Dr King’s vision, the kingdom of God is a place where all people can share in the wealth of the earth, where poverty, hunger and homelessness will not be tolerated, and where racism and all forms of discrimination, bigotry and prejudice will be replaced by a spirit of sisterhood and brotherhood.
But unlike earthly kingdoms or fantastical ones, the kingdom of God is more than a tightknit community of followers, or an alternative political reality. God’s reign extends beyond the church. It is unfurling inexorably throughout history and around the world.
As much as I love the phrase the Beloved Community, it doesn’t fully describe everything encapsulated by the biblical phrases kingdom of God or kingdom of heaven.
And let’s face it, the kingdom is a big theme for Jesus. That term appears 126 times in the Gospels. so, it interests me that while Jesus spoke about the kingdom ALL the time, we seem to talk about it so rarely we don’t have colloquial ways of describing/explaining it.
Christians have updated their language to describe their beliefs and practices (churches are called communities; services are called gatherings; sermons are talks), but there’s no fresh word or a phrase that describes the kingdom of God that would make sense to non-Christians without conjuring old feudal images of monarchs and castles.
John Piper defines it this way: “The kingdom creates a realm, the kingdom creates a people, but the kingdom of God is not synonymous with its realm or its people… The basic meaning of the word kingdom in the Bible is God’s kingly rule — his reign, his action, his lordship, his sovereign governance.”
That suggests God is ruling his people, but also putting the world together again, or to use another Wright phrase, “setting things to rights.” Or as another thinker, Brian McLaren puts, the kingdom is the “ecosystem of God.” Whether I’d actually use this phrase or not, I’m unsure, but it gets at the interrelated and integrated aspects of God’s rule, which includes the redemption of sinful human beings, their reconciliation to God and each other, the renewal of the planet, the establishment of justice, and the presence of beauty.
The Hebrew term for something like this is ‘shalom’, but I suspect that word is even more confusing for the average person than kingdom is.
Recently, I asked my Facebook friends for their suggestions and got the commonwealth of God, the economy of God, the dream of God, God’s new reality, the way, and kin-dom.
As difficult as it is to describe, the kingdom of God is a realm of grace and favor, a zone, both cosmic and earthly, in which God’s authority, love and peace are the order of the day. The Bible describes this as having at least three dimensions:
- The reign of God is above and beyond history; it is a cosmic reality that God is on the throne ruling over creation. Our response to this aspect of the kingdom is to acknowledge the ultimate sovereignty of God. The kingdom, then, is God’s gift to be gratefully accepted. It is the ground of our Christian faith and life and we are to be a sign directing others to it.
- The reign of God has entered into history and is unfolding within time and space; the kingdom is here, now! It is a present fact and we participate in it as we give our allegiance to God and seek to do God’s will on earth. It is our task; we pray for it, and we work for it. We don’t extend God’s rule, but God uses us as his instruments in taking charge of the earth.
- The reign of God is seen fully at the end, or beyond the end, of history; we wait in hope for its coming, whether by gradual change or by an abrupt termination of earthly history. In this respect, the church should be a foretaste of the world which is to come.
There is one thing about which we can be sure, and that’s the centrality of Jesus to the kingdom. In fact, while Jesus talks a lot about the kingdom, the term itself doesn’t appear much in the rest of the New Testament. That’s because Paul, John and Peter write more about Jesus-the-king. “Jesus is lord (king)” is their preferred way of talking about the kingdom. They believed the whole story of Jesus — his birth, life, teaching, miracles, death and resurrection — tell us all we need to know about God’s kingdom.
It looks like love, justice, peace, joy, and hope.
It looks like the subversion of toxic religious leadership.
It looks like healing, wholeness and reconciliation.
It looks like freedom.
It looks like forgiveness and mercy.
It looks like preferential treatment for children, the poor and the disabled.
It looks like the end of all suffering.
Or as Tom Wright says, “It looks like Jesus weeping at the tomb of his friend. It looks like Jesus feasting with sinners. It looks like Jesus celebrating a last meal with his friends, and going off to the cross. That’s how God runs the world. It is a very different thing from being a ‘celestial CEO.’ In other words, God takes charge of the world by coming in person to the place where the world is in pain, and taking that pain upon himself.”