The Kingdom of God is central to the message of Jesus (Christ) of Nazareth. The idea that God is king of the world is a concept that every ancient nation utilized for its propaganda purposes, and the Jewish people were no exception. However, the precise expression is not used at all in the Jewish scriptures but is found only in the deuterocanonical book of Wisdom and the New Testament. Divine kingship is found in a few books of the Bible: Psalms, the latter half of Isaiah, Daniel, Exodus 15. The idea is closely knit with the idea of God’s intervention to bring history to an end and to inaugurate a new age of direct divine rule. It is in this context that the idea meshes with the themes of apocalyptic literature. The literature between the Old Testament and the New Testament, called the Pseudepigrapha, more often give attention to the existence of God’s kingdom, though it is not a prominent theme in the literature of Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Jesus uses the term uniquely both in its precise expression and in its general meaning. In its usage prior to Jesus it almost always means something that is going to happen in the future. But in the New Testament Jesus also means that it is already present, a concept that theologians call “realized eschatology.” Most often, Jesus intends the Kingdom of God to be a future event (“may your kingdom come”), but there are times in his speeches when he means that the kingdom has partially arrived in the exercise of his preaching and miracles. One notable line from the Gospels suggests this new dimension: “The kingdom is in your midst.” By this he does not mean that the kingdom is an interior and mystical state; this would be a form of Gnosticism that is simply not present in the Gospels. Rather, he means that the kingdom manifests itself through the actions of faith. God, in effect, is taking control, and the kingdom is present.
Realized eschatology is most commonly found in the last and most theological Gospel of John. Here the term Kingdom of God is less often used, but the effects of the kingdom are experienced in this present time and space. When Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life,” he collapses all of time and creation into himself. His very presence is the sign that the kingdom has come, and his ongoing presence abides in those who believe, such as the church. Questions arise about the realized eschatology of the Gospel of John because it is debated how authentically it represents the historical life and teaching of Jesus. In order to understand Jesus in any of the Gospels it would be better to translate the Kingdom of God as the reign of God: The stress is thereby on the power of God to act, more than on a physical, spatial, or political dimension. It is activated through faith and manifested through divine interventions in space and time, phenomena that are called miracles. The kingdom is thus present in part but is mainly imagined as future oriented. The future orientation of the term led the way for later Christians to speak more and more of heaven as the Kingdom of God. Later fathers of the church such as Eusebius thought that the Kingdom of God was a political idea that was fulfilled in the reign of Emperor Constantine the Great. The emperor then became the king over state and church, an idea that later was called Caesaropapacy. This idea took hold in the Byzantine Empire, the Holy Roman Empire, the Russian “Third Rome,” and among the military religious orders of the crusades.
- Keel, O. The Symbolism of the Biblical World. New York: Seabury Press, 1978;
- Meier, J. P. A Marginal Jew. New York: Doubleday, 2001;
- Viviano, B. T. The Kingdom of God in History. Wilmington, DE: M. Glazier, 1988.