What is the kingdom of God? The short answer is: wherever Christ reigns.
There is a degree to which Christ reigns already on this earth. The kingdom of God is active and present within the hearts of those who follow Christ (Luke 17:21), and it comes on earth whenever God’s power overcomes darkness (Luke 11:20). Jesus says that the Kingdom is near those who have been healed of their diseases (Luke 10:9), and He tells His followers to pray that God’s kingdom would come and His will would be done on earth (Matt. 6:10). In terms of timeline, it seems that the kingdom of God came when Jesus came to earth (Luke 16:16). Or perhaps it came when Jesus was crucified for our sins (John 12:31-32). Or maybe when He was resurrected (Luke 22:18). Regardless, it seems clear from the gospels that Jesus brought the Kingdom with Him, and that it is actively present in this world.
The Gospels are equally clear, though, that the Kingdom will only come in its fullness when Christ comes back and reigns completely. In that sense, the Kingdom of God, though already here, has also not yet come. That phrase, “already, but not yet,” has often been used to describe the dual nature of God’s kingdom. There are many reasons that the Kingdom is not fully present, mainly because of God’s allowance of the continuation of sin and of man’s free will to choose who or what will rule him. While Jesus was on earth, He warned His followers that the kingdom would not fully appear “at once,” and urged them to use their resources to further it in any way they could while they waited for it to come fully (Luke 19:11-27). He also explained that the kingdom on earth is tied to the church (Matt. 16:18-19), which was a bold decision, since the hypocrisy and sins of the religious can actually serve to keep others out of the kingdom (Matt. 23:13). Also, Satan’s presence on earth undercuts the kingdom’s progress, and God’s injunction against making judgments about who is in and who is out keeps the kingdom from coming fully until Christ Himself comes to judge (Matt. 13: 24-30).
I don’t think that anything I’ve written so far is that controversial since almost everyone agrees, at least in theory, that God’s kingdom is “already, but not yet.” The controversy comes in when people start discussing where exactly on the spectrum God’s kingdom is between the “already” and the “not yet.” Some Christians, using Luke 17:21 (“the kingdom of God is within you”) view the kingdom as a completely spiritual entity that will not have any physical component until Christ returns. Others downplay heaven and say that Christians should be trying through their faith and actions to bring God’s kingdom physically to earth right now. The picture of what “God’s physical kingdom on earth” looks like varies from person to person, of course, but it usually involves the attempted eradication of poverty and injustice. Between those two extreme views of “already, but not yet,” lie a myriad of degrees of beliefs about the nature and presence of God’s kingdom on earth. These differences matter because what one believes about the kingdom determines how one interacts with the suffering around him. If he believes that the kingdom is purely spiritual and that it will never come physically before Christ comes back, then he is most likely less inclined to make real efforts toward ending physical suffering, instead focusing mainly the state of people’s souls. On the other hand, the degree to which one believes God’s kingdom can physically come on earth “as it is in heaven” corresponds with the degree to which that person will work to see it come. Those who fall on the “already” side of the spectrum also tend to be more optimistic about the power of their efforts, while the extreme “not yet’ers” tend to be pessimistic about the degree to which any real progress can be made on this earth.
The “already, but not yet” aspect of God’s kingdom is but one of its many quirky characteristics. Another odd feature of the kingdom is that it is upside down. If there is a “hierarchy” in God’s kingdom, it is almost the direct opposite of the natural hierarchy on earth. For example, in the Beatitudes, Jesus says that the poor in spirit, those who mourn, those who are meek, and those who are persecuted, are blessed. In Luke, he takes it a step further, showering blessings on those who are poor, hungry, weeping, and hated, and woes on the rich, well-fed, happy, and respected (Luke 6:20-26). When Mary finds out she is pregnant with the Christ, she sings a song that is decidedly unflattering to the rich (Luke 1:53). In another “upside down” moment, Jesus tells the ethnocentric Pharisees (not to dog the Pharisees; we are all naturally ethnocentric to a degree) that foreigners will enter the kingdom ahead of them (Matt. 8:11-12), and announces in a patriarchal society that the kingdom belongs to children (Matt. 18:1-5, Mark 10:13-16, Luke 18:16). And lest we miss all of that, Jesus repeatedly asserts that the last will be first (Matt. 19:30, Mark 9:35), capping it off with a parable that vividly demonstrates that concept in a seemingly unfair way (Matt. 20:1-16). Furthermore, Jesus declares that those who are great in His kingdom are the ones who make themselves servants and slaves to others (Matt. 20:25-28, Mark 10:41-45, Matt. 23:11-12).
Perhaps most notably, Jesus kicks off his earthly ministry with a reading from Isaiah, which declares that His main ministry priorities are the poor, the prisoners, the blind, and the oppressed (Luke 4:18-19).
So, my reading of the gospels tells me that God’s kingdom is quirky. It is “already, but not yet,” and it is “upside down.” But it is also powerful. My favorite description of the kingdom’s power comes not from Jesus, but from Paul, who declares that the “kingdom of God is not a matter of talk, but of power” (1 Cor. 4:20). For some reason, I tend to forget that simple fact. In my natural pessimism toward humanity, I forget that the kingdom of God is powerful enough to change and transform lives, including my own. Jesus compares its expansive power to crops that grow on their own, without the farmer even understanding how (Mark 4:26-29). He also compares it to a tiny seed that grows into a large tree, or a little yeast that works through a whole batch of dough (Matt. 13:31-33, Luke 13:18-21). We have to remember as citizens of God’s kingdom that we serve a powerful entity that is far beyond our understanding or control.
Even though this synopsis barely scratches the surface of the kingdom of God, it does address some fundamental questions of its nature. I have lots more to write about the high price of citizenship, as well as its benefits. The thing is, as much as I’ve studied the kingdom of God, I still have so many questions about how to live as a good citizen in it in my day to day life. I am certainly not a teacher on the kingdom of God; I am more like a really bad student who struggles to grasp a concept that is beyond her mental capabilities. That’s the main reason I am writing this blog. I want to put down what I actually know about the kingdom from reading the Bible, so that I can better figure out how to live in God’s kingdom in a practical, tangible way while on earth. I want to do this, not out of fear or a quaking desire to “be right with God,” but because I love God, and I am firmly convinced that my life has no other purpose but to serve Him and to give my life fully to Him.
I’m still learning how to do that…
So what about you? What do you think the kingdom of God is? How present is it on earth right now? How do you live in God’s kingdom in your day to day life?