Synoptic Teachings: The Kingdom of God

(The major portion of each Gospel). source

The Kingdom of God
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  a. The “Kingdom of God,” also Referred to as the “Kingdom of Heaven.”  * 

Little disagreement among scholars of all theological traditions would result if we said the logical place to begin, and indeed the central theme in the teaching of Jesus as presented in the synoptics, involves the kingdom of God (sometimes also referred to as the kingdom of heaven).  These expressions appear 104 times by my count in the synoptic gospels.  They appear only 5 times (and then only in 3 verses and then only in 2 contexts) in the gospel of John, 7 times in Acts, 13 in Paul, 3 in Hebrews, 1 in James, 1 in Peter and 6 in the book of Revelation.

What is the kingdom of God?  The Greek term is basileia, no doubt translating a concept already known in Hebrew and Aramaic.  The Hebrew equivalent is malcouth, for example.  It can and has been translated as God’s reign or rule or power or even dominion.  That is to say, it is unlike the use of the word kingdom in English.  We use it today in expressions to describe modern sociopolitical divisions: we can speak of the kingdom of Jordan (the country to the east of the Jordan River in the Middle East) or the kingdom of Syria (to the north of Israel).  But in the ancient Greek and Hebrew, and particularly in the concept of speaking of God or heaven, kingdom was much more a power than a place.  It was more a reign rather than a realm.  We might therefore speak of it today more as God’s kingship or His kingly rule.


What do Jesus and the gospel writers have to say about this kingdom that appears so often, more often than any other individual theme, in the synoptic gospels.  There is a complex mixture of statements which, at first glance, appear to affirm both that the kingdom is present or has arrived with the teaching and ministry of Jesus and that the kingdom remains future, to arrive only with Christ’s second coming.  Not surprisingly, different schools of thought have developed among scholars over the past centuries.

There is what has often been called the futurist or consistent eschatological school of thought.  This is associated classically at the turn of the 19th to the 20th century with that great theologian, organist and medical missionary, Albert Schweitzer.  It was to focus almost exclusively on the future dimension of the kingdom, but to see the heart of Jesus’ teaching as announcing that the future was so imminent or near or at hand that it would be breaking into human history in all its fullness – perhaps even during Jesus’ lifetime.  And if not during that period of time, as events to the crucifixion drew near made plain it would not, then at the very latest within the generation of many of Jesus’ first followers.  Schweitzer’s famous, but sad, conclusion, therefore, was that Jesus turned out to be mistaken.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is a school of thought that has been known as present or realized eschatology or interpretation of the kingdom.  This focuses so much attention on the present arrival of the kingdom in Jesus’ ministry and teaching, in his death and resurrection, that it can appear to leave little or no room for some supernatural apocalyptic intervention of God in Christ at what has popularly come to be known as the second coming.  The prominent English scholar C.H.Dodd in the middle of the 20th century is particularly well known for tirelessly promoting this perspective.

As scholarship progressed, it became increasingly clear that it was not a matter of pitting present against future, but of affirming both at the same time.  Joachim Jeremias, in the 1940s and for 30 years beyond that, wrote prolifically about eschatology in the process of being realized.  The American Evangelical, George Eldon Ladd (for many years a professor at Fuller Seminary until his death in 1982), popularized this for the English speaking world.  The slogan that the kingdom is “already but not yet”, both present and future, or inaugurated (to borrow a term claimed by Werner Georg Kümmell in Germany) is the perspective that dominates scholarly understanding of the gospels today.

  i. John the Baptist & kingdom of heaven  * 

But what do the texts say in detail? How is this perspective defended? In fact, the synoptics begin talking about the kingdom and related concepts already with that famous forerunner of Jesus, John the Baptist. Matthew 3:2 and 4:17, Matthew’s headlines first over John’s ministry and then over Jesus’ ministry, use the identical words in his original Greek. The message of each of these men was: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Matthew, as the most Jewish Christian of the gospels, regularly, though not exclusively, uses the euphemism kingdom of heaven rather than kingdom of God. He probably does this to avoid overusing the divine name, which was seen as uniquely sacred.

John the Baptist, of course, was a prophet, at least as he styled himself and as many people came to accept him. This suggests that the prophecy, which many Jews believed had come to an end for a temporary period of time with the last of the Old Testament writing prophets Malachi, was now being renewed. Intertestamental Jewish religion had increasingly focused on obedience to the law (or Torah) and to wisdom or proverbial type of literature for guidance for daily living. But there was also an important body of intertestamental Jewish thought that did continue to hold out apocalyptic hope for God’s prophets reappearing and ushering in the messianic age and bringing a liberator for God’s people. John is the first in over 400 years to emerge claiming to be bringing the fulfillment of those very hopes.

He therefore calls on all of Israel to repent and to symbolize and testify to that repentance through baptism in water. Immersion in pools of ritual purification characterized priestly washing rituals. Also, at the monastic community at Qumran on the shores of the Dead Sea there were daily ritual washings of the group of Jewish Essenes that populated that site. And indeed, it is possible that Jewish proselytes (that is, Gentiles converting to Judaism) were already being immersed in water as an initiation rite. Nevertheless, John is the first to insist that all Israel must demonstrate their repentance and symbolize it in this fashion.

Indeed, he does so even as he predicts the coming of one who would do more than merely baptize in water, but baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. This is a reference to both the cleansing and purging effects of the Spirit in those who responded with repentance, but in judgment for those who rejected the Spirit’s overtures. The repentance that John spoke so centrally of is based on the Greek metanoia or the verb metanoeo. This undoubtedly reflects the underlying Hebrew concept so often behind that Greek term in the Greek Old Testament, the Septuagint, the verb shub. This means much more than a change of mind, the standard Greek meaning of the term. It means a change of behavior, turning around – likening the moral transformation of the individual to 180 degree about-face in one’s travel.

John also predicted that there would be one he called the coming one, ho erchomenos in Greek, who would perform this additional two-part baptism. Although that term seems innocuous enough in English, Psalm 118:26 and 40:7, already at Qumran, were understood in a messianic sense where they spoke of one who was to come. And so John may well have intended this meaning with this title for the one who will turn out to be Jesus of Nazareth.

Not long after John’s ministry of baptism is under way, Jesus bursts on the scene as well. He identifies and puts His stamp of approval of John’s message and ministry by submitting to baptism Himself – even though Matthew, particularly in his account, makes it clear that He does not need to repent of personal sin. But He could well be identifying with the sins of His nation and of His people.

  ii. Jesus’ Message of the Kingdom of God  * 

This brings us to consider Jesus’ message of the kingdom of God in considerably greater detail than our brief overview of John’s.  Israel indeed, in the first century, was very much aware of what could be called its corporate plight.  Individual Jews no doubt had varying degrees of awareness and willingness to repent of personal sin.  But what was an inescapable reality for first century life, even in Israel, to say nothing of the Diaspora (the other countries into which Jews had historically been dispersed), was that they were not living as free people in an independent nation, fully able to govern themselves and implement and live according to their God-given laws.  Rome was the great power who dominated the ancient Mediterranean world and occupied Israel, as well as much of Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and beyond.  Jews in the first and second centuries BC increasingly longed for a Messiah, a deliverer, a savior.  While there was diversity of expectation and hope, the dominant model that emerged was hope for one who, as a literal descendant of King David, would like David be a military ruler and an earthly king and lead the Jewish troops in battle and deliver them from Roman occupation and oppression.

One important way of conceiving of Jesus’ message about the kingdom is to recognize that, in countless ways, He stressed that it was not deliverance from Rome that was the most crucial issue.  Rather deliverance from the realm of sin and the domain of Satan was crucial, whether or not they lived in a free piece of geography.  Following N.T.Wright’s very influential book, Jesus and the Victory of God, we can speak of Jesus’ message of the kingdom boiled down to one short sentence as His announcement that the exile or the occupation or the enslavement was indeed over.  But it was not as many were hoping.  It was not because Rome was about to be vanquished, but because He was God’s representative to deal with sin and with the devil.

So, what are some of the most crucial texts in the synoptic gospels with respect to the kingdom?  We have time to canvas only a small handful.  But the ones we have chosen are those that scholars have regularly turned to as among the most central and telling in helping us to come to grips with this concept.

Mark 1:15, the Marcan parallel to Matthew 4:17 to which we have already alluded says: “The time has come,” Jesus said, “the kingdom of God has come near.  Repent and believe the good news.”  As the headline over Jesus’ ministry in the oldest of the four gospels, in perhaps the form that is closest to the most literal translation of Jesus’ original Aramaic words, we see a verb in the Greek ēyyiken (from the verb eyyizō) in the perfect tense: “has come near”, “has drawn near”.  It does not quite seem to affirm the full arrival of the kingdom at this point.  And indeed, since this is at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry rather than after His death and resurrection, even the fully realized eschatological approach would acknowledge that there is more to come.  But the dominant sense of this text is that a new era is dawning in human history.  This is not by standards that would call the attention of people thinking as historians of world civilizations.  Rather it is from God’s perspective in His history of redeeming humanity.

Matthew 12:28 and parallels in Mark and Luke expand on this present sense of the kingdom.  Jesus is casting out demons and some among the Jewish leadership have charged that He drives them out by demonic powers themselves.  His reply, beginning in Matthew 12:25 declares: “Every kingdom divided against itself will be ruined and every city or household divided against itself will not stand.  If Satan drives out Satan, he is divided against himself.  How then can his kingdom stand?  And if I drive out demons by Beelzebul [another name for Satan], by whom do your people drive them out?  So then they will be your judges.”  In other words, He refutes the claim that He is casting out demons by demonic power.

But then verse 28 argues the converse, “But if it is by the Spirit of God that I drive out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.”  Here we have the comparatively rare verb ephthasen, the aorist or simple past tense of the verb phthanō.  It is almost impossible, despite Schweitzer’s attempts, to see this as merely imminent, very soon to come in the future.  It is almost impossible to avoid some present tense sense, particularly in the context of Jesus’ response to His miracle-working ministry.  This is not looking ahead even to just the crucifixion and resurrection a year or two down the road.  Rather, this is saying that these new supernatural signs and wonders – My miracles and particularly My vanquishing of Satan in exorcisms – are a sign that the messianic age is now in these very events beginning to arrive.  But if the messianic age (the age of God’s kingly reign is here), then the Messiah must be here.  The unstated implication is that He is that Messiah.

Or again, we may consider in the gospel of Luke 17:20-21.  “Once, having been asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied: ‘The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say “Here it is” or “There it is, because the kingdom of God is in your midst’.”  This is not to deny what we have just seen: namely, Jesus’ claim namely that outward, visible signs such as miracles are pointers to the arrival of the kingdom.  But rather, this is a reminder that the kingdom is not to be localized to one particular place or territory or national entity.  The kingdom of God is present with them wherever Jesus was present with them.

Some translations render the Greek here entos humōn as “within you” which would lead Jesus to have said: “Because the kingdom of God is within you”.  But this seems much less likely, since His audience is a group of Pharisees who are typically Jesus’ opponents rather than His followers in the gospels.  Jesus would not have affirmed that the kingdom had already taken up residence inside these Pharisees, as He might have if He were addressing His disciples.  Rather, it is an affirmation that, with the presence of Jesus, God’s kingly reign is present as well.

Finally, we may take a look at a very puzzling and hard to translate text in Matthew 11:12.  It too has a parallel in Luke.  Jesus, speaking to the crowds about John the Baptist after John was imprisoned, declares: “From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been subjected to violence and violent people have been raiding it.”  It is possible to translate the first reference to violence in this text in a more positive sense: “the kingdom of God has been forcefully advancing” – so forcefully it seems to be a violent disruption on earth.  But more likely, both of these words from the Greek root biaz, leading to the verb biazomai and the noun biastēs (to suffer violence and a violent person respectively), it is more likely that both of these occurrences reflect the negative perspective of the translation I have just read.

The more important observation, however, is that, beginning already with John according to the headline over his ministry that we already discussed back in Matthew 3:2, the kingdom was sufficiently present that it could be rejected.  This sometimes even happened violently: John has now been imprisoned; Jesus will, in not too many more days or periods of time, be crucified.  Therefore, God’s new kingly power must be on earth so as to generate this visible reaction which has not been present in the immediate past to any of God’s spokespeople the way it now is.  In some senses the kingdom was present.  It had arrived in the ministry of Jesus.

  b. The God of the Kingdom  * 

So what?  If we reflect on the topic for a moment of what has been called the God of the kingdom, we note that characteristic and dominant and to a certain degree distinctive of the synoptic gospels is the description of Jesus’ own form of addressing God.  He calls Him “Father”.  And the one place where His Aramaic language is preserved in Greek transliteration (“Abba” in Mark 14 when Jesus prays in that amazingly intimate and poignant scene in the Garden of Gethsemane), discloses a term that could almost be translated in English as “daddy”.  This is a term of dear intimacy for God as Father relatively unparalleled in other previous Jewish literature.

This by no means excludes the focus on God’s holiness that we find in no less than the Lord’s Prayer: “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed it be Thy name”.  But it is a holy, transcendent God who may be intimately addressed because of His deep love for His people.  Jesus is not coming, as the kingdom is coming, to reveal a new God.  This is still Yahweh, the Lord God of Israel.  And Yahweh’s love has been present from the beginning of creation and even before.  But the way in which it is being clearly and visibly demonstrated in the ministry and teaching, and culminating in the death and resurrection of Jesus, is now ratcheting that love up to another level in terms of the extent of its disclosure to humankind.  This creates a deep mystery.

  c. Jesus Uses Parables to Illustrate that the Mystery of the Kingdom* 

Indeed, one of the expressions that comes particularly from Jesus’ teaching in parables (a very dominant and characteristic form of teaching consistently about God’s kingdom) is that to you the secrets or the mystery of the kingdom have been revealed (see Matthew 13:11 and Mark 4:1). What is this mystery that is portrayed, particularly prominent in Jesus’ parables about seeds and planting and their growth (particularly in Mark 4 and Matthew 13 and Luke 8)? George Ladd would appear to have gotten it exactly right when he describes this mystery as the fact that the kingdom has arrived, but not with irresistible force. It has arrived in seed-form. It may seem as small as a mustard seed or as hidden as leaven in a loaf of bread, but over time it will grow to a surprising size.

Not all can accept this redefinition of God’s kingly power and relegation of the arrival of the messianic era to two periods of time with a period of growth in between. And so, particularly in Mark 4:11-12 and parallels, Jesus goes on to say: “Not only to you have the secrets of the kingdom been given, but not to those outside.” And then, quoting a passage from Isaiah 6, He speaks of how some will hear, but not really hear or understand. Some will see but not really see or perceive – lest they turn again and be forgiven. It is almost as if to say that God was initiating and choosing some to respond properly and others not to. But in the context of Isaiah 6, what was originally a prophecy against the wickedness of Israel centuries earlier, it is clear that this is God’s response to prolonged willful disobedience of some of His people. And it is not an irrevocable response, because Isaiah 6 ends with a promise of a holy stump (a portion of the tree) from which the plant could again sprout left in the land, when proper repentance would come. But Jesus’ appropriation of this Isaianic text, at the very least, explains the growing polarization of response to His kingdom teaching and ministry.

  f. Relationship between the “Kingdom” and the “Church”  * 

Today, many people use the term kingdom as if it were interchangeable with the word church, but it is much, much bigger. This brings us to the question of the relationship between the kingdom and the church. Some have argued that: “Jesus preached the kingdom, the Jews rejected it, so the church was God’s plan B.” Or they argue that Jesus preached the kingdom and His later followers misinterpreted or deliberately changed His teaching to be about the church. But, in fact, the Greek word (appearing three times in two verses in Matthew 16 and 18), ekklesia, is simply the Septuagint’s translation of the Hebrew qahal. And indeed, in secular Greek this also was a common term, as it was in these Old Testament contexts, for an assembly (in this case, the assembly of God’s people).

The church as the elaborate institution that it began to evolve into beginning already in the second century is most admittedly not in view in the synoptic gospels, or arguably anywhere in the New Testament. But that Jesus expected a community of His followers, who regularly gathered together for distinctive purposes just as the children of Israel had done (in the tabernacle, in the temple and eventually in synagogues), seems beyond reasonable doubt.

Matthew 16:18-19 promises that Peter will be the leader of that group, the rock on which the church is built. And we need not reinterpret that most straightforward understanding of the text in light of those who later supplemented this simple concept with far more elaborate definitions not found in Scripture. The book of Acts in its first twelve chapters describes Peter as the leader of the initial apostolic band. That may well be the sum total of the fulfillment of Jesus’ prophecy here. What Jesus predicts will be permanent is, not Peter’s leadership or that of any of his successors, but rather that the gates of hell will not prevail against His church (the sum total of Jesus’ disciples now and in the future) and that what they loose on earth or bind on earth will have been loosed or bound in heaven (see Matthew 18 where this promise is extended to all of the disciples when they announce the forgiveness or the lack thereof due to lack of genuine repentance of those who either accept or reject the gospel). They are, as it were, opening the doors to entrance into God’s kingdom.

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The Ethics of the Kingdom of God


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