Why the kingdom of heaven still matters
This column was first published in Baptist Press following the release of The Kingdom According to Jesus.
The term “kingdom” has in many respects become archaic in 21st century lingo. Unless you’re talking taxonomy – the No. 1 context according to Google – or a theme park in Florida, the word “kingdom” conjures up images of ancient empires, epic quests and faded glory.
Even in the church, the most important – and perhaps least understood – kingdom of all is rooted in the ancient texts of Scripture: the kingdom of heaven, also called the kingdom of God, or, simply, the kingdom. Some find this an obsolete expression better suited to first-century believers than modern-day Christians navigating the Twitterverse.
But the kingdom of heaven is of exceptional relevance today, especially when we understand its meaning and explore its value.
Defined simply, the kingdom of heaven is God’s reign, or His authority to rule. The primary meaning of the Hebrew word malkuth and the Greek word basileia is the rank, authority and sovereignty exercised by a king, according to George Eldon Ladd in The Gospel of the Kingdom. Certainly, a kingdom needs territory and people, but God’s kingdom first and foremost is His authority to rule them all.
Yes, the kingdom still matters today. Here’s why:
It matters to Jesus. The kingdom of heaven is the primary focus of Jesus’ teaching. Matthew records no fewer than 13 of Jesus’ parables of the kingdom of heaven, in which He uses mustard seeds and bridesmaids to reveal the “mystery” of the kingdom (Matt. 13:11). The Jews are looking for a political and military Messiah based on their understanding of the Hebrew Scriptures, but they miss the prophecies that point to the Suffering Servant. Jesus’ parables make it clear that the kingdom must first come without fanfare in the Lamb of God who, through His death, burial and resurrection, will take away the sin of the world. The kingdom will come in power and great glory one day when Jesus returns as the Lion of the Tribe of Judah (see Rev. 19:11-16). The King of kings is still very much interested in His kingdom.
It matters to the church. The kingdom of heaven and the church are not the same, since Christ’s authority extends beyond New Testament believers. Yet the kingdom involves the church as God’s primary means of communicating and expanding His kingdom in this age. The apostle Paul preached the gospel of the kingdom, as the church is to do today so that many will enter in by faith. The kingdom is God’s conquest, through Jesus Christ, of His enemies: sin, Satan and death. This is the heart of the Gospel message the church is commissioned to proclaim.
It matters to Satan. In Matthew 12, Jesus confronts the religious leaders who accuse Him of casting out demons by Satan’s power. His response is revealing. “If I cast out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has come to you. How can someone enter a strong man’s house and steal his possessions unless he first ties up the strong man? Then he can rob his house” (Matt. 12:28-29). Satan is the prince of his own rogue kingdom, a kingdom of darkness and bondage. In the incarnation, Jesus invades Satan’s kingdom, binding the “strong man” and plundering his goods by transporting lost sinners from Satan’s kingdom into God’s kingdom. Satan is defeated. His time is short. And when the kingdom comes in fullness with the glorious appearing of Jesus, Satan will be cast into hell, which was created for him (Matt. 25:41).
It matters to creation. The apostle Paul writes that “the whole creation has been groaning together with labor pains until now” (Rom. 8:22). Since Adam’s fall, the creation has been under a curse. But the curse will be lifted (Rev. 22:3) when the kingdom comes in fullness, when this sinful and fallen world is purged of sin (2 Peter 3:10-13). The new heavens and earth will no longer bear the weight of sin. And the pinnacle of God’s creation – human beings – will be perfected with glorified bodies that are fit for eternal worship and service unto God.
It matters to you. In the end, you will spend eternity in one of two places: the kingdom, or outer darkness. Where you spend eternity is determined, not by some future balancing of the scales, but in how you answer the question today that Jesus asked in Matt. 16:15: “Who do you say that I am?” In the end, every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord (Phil. 2:10), but not everyone will enter the kingdom. Make no mistake: Many will be denied entrance. But they will go into outer darkness of their own choosing because, as the characters in Jesus’ parable of the 10 minas say, “We don’t want this man to rule over us” (Luke 19:14).
While man-made kingdoms come and go, the kingdom of heaven stands forever. It has Christ as King, believers as subjects, redemption as its mission, and the universe as its realm.