In the opening of Mark’s Gospel, after his baptism and temptation, Jesus announces that the kingdom of God is at hand. The way in which the author narrates this proclamation as Jesus’ first words in the story suggests that Jesus’ central message throughout his life was about the kingdom of God.
Indeed, all four Gospels depict Jesus’ chief teaching to be the coming of God’s kingdom into the world. Everything Jesus said, whether through parables or through ethical teachings, related to his understanding of God’s kingdom. Moreover, the various miracles that Jesus performed were signs that the kingdom of God was near.
Because the coming kingdom of God was Jesus’ focal message, those who choose to follow him in discipleship should seek to understand what he meant by the phrase the kingdom of God. To answer this question, it might be helpful first to dismiss assumptions we might have about the character of God’s kingdom. In other words, these are the understandings we commonly have about the kingdom, but they do not always agree with Jesus’ teachings.
First, the kingdom of God is not a spiritual realm. It is spiritual in that it comes from God, but it is not heaven, as we might often think, and getting to some place called heaven is not the purpose of following Christ.
Second, the kingdom of God is not primarily about personal spirituality. God’s coming kingdom does transform us personally, and in our Christian living we live as individuals who are in a personal relationship to God, but the kingdom of God cannot be reduced merely to personal spirituality.
What we need to understand about the meaning of the phrase, as Jesus used it, is that the term itself is politically charged. Jesus did not randomly pick this metaphor; he chose it as a challenge to the Roman imperial power that carried out injustice. Understood from this perspective, we might say that Jesus was calling people to join an alternative empire, the Empire of God, over which God ruled and in which there was an alternative way of living in community.
When Jesus called people to follow him, he was calling them to choose to which kingdom they would give their allegiance. He called them to repent from living according to worldly, egocentric values that lead to exclusion and injustice, and to embrace a new sacrificial ethic unveiled in Jesus himself.
This was the significance of confessing Jesus as Lord in the Roman Empire. Such a confession in the Roman world signified that one was no longer giving loyalty to Caesar or to the Roman system of domination, oppression, violence and injustice. Confession of Jesus as Lord was an act of insubordination against the so-called supremacy of the world’s strongest power and an embrace of the call of Jesus to take up the cross and follow him. Joining the Jesus movement meant standing in opposition to worldly powers that carried out oppression, violence, and injustice against the so-called expendables of society.
Yet, the alternative kingdom Jesus was bringing into the world could not, in reality, face up to the power of Rome. Jesus and his followers were never significant challengers of Rome’s military power, and Christians in the empire remained outsiders for centuries, and were, at various points, persecuted by the Roman authorities. In fact, joining the Jesus movement could quite possibly lead a person to death.
From a worldly perspective, then, this Jesus movement and Jesus’ message about God’s kingdom would be seen as an inevitable failure. After all, was not the movement’s leader put to death on a Roman cross? So how does the rule of God, said to be so powerful, continue to come into the world? Where is God’s power to be found in the world? God’s kingdom comes into the world through followers of Jesus who offer to the world a different way of living and relating to others, particularly the marginalized.
In future columns I will discuss descriptive characteristics of God’s kingdom and prescriptive actions we are to live as participants of God’s rule. These actions often run in opposition to the way the world system would have us live and they are at the heart of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. Indeed, these characteristics are the fundamental reason Christianity spread in its infancy, despite Roman opposition, and they continue to serve as the force that brings the kingdom of God to the world.
Drew Smith, an ordained Baptist minister, is director of international programs at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, Ark. He blogs at Wilderness Preacher.
Assistant Director of the Honors College at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, Arkansas.