In the body of our Lord’s teaching as recorded in the Gospels the references to the kingdom of God occupy a prominent place. According to the common testimony of the Synoptical Gospels Jesus opened his public ministry in Galilee with the announcement, that the kingdom was at hand, Matt. 4:17; Mark 1:15; Luke 4:43. In the last mentioned passage he even declares that the main purpose of his mission consists in the preaching of the good tidings of the kingdom of God. And not only does the conception thus stand significantly at the beginning of our Lord’s work, it reappears at the culminating points of his teaching, as in the beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount and in the kingdom-parables. Its importance will best be felt by considering that the coming of the kingdom is the great event which Jesus connects with his appearance and activity, and that consequently in his teaching, which was so closely dependent on his working, this event must also have a corresponding prominence.
If this be true from Jesus’ own standpoint, it is no less true from the standpoint of his disciples. In their life likewise the kingdom of God forms the supreme object of pursuit, and therefore of necessity the theme about which before all other things they need careful instruction. Again, the work of those whom Jesus trained as his special helpers in preaching related chiefly to this same subject, for he speaks of them as scribes made disciples to the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 13:52). Better than by mere statistics showing the explicit references to the kingdom in our Lord’s discourses can we along the above lines be led to appreciate how large a place the subject of our investigation must have had in his thought.
The Kingdom in John
It might be objected to all this, that in the version which the Fourth Gospel gives of Jesus’ teaching, the idea of the kingdom plays a very subordinate role, indeed occurs only twice altogether, viz., John 3:3, 5; 18:36. But this is a feature explainable from the peculiarity of John’s Gospel in general. Here the person of Jesus as the Son of God stands in the foreground, and the whole compass of his work is represented as given in and resulting from his person. Salvation according to the discourses preserved in this Gospel is made up of those primal elements into which the being of Christ can be resolved, such as light, life, grace, truth. What the Savior does is the outcome of what he is. In the Synoptists on the other hand the work of Jesus is made central and all-important, and especially during the earlier stages of his ministry his person and personal relation to this work are only so much referred to as the circumstances of the discourse make absolutely necessary.
After all, however, this amounts only to a different mode of viewing the same things; there is no contradiction involved as to their inner essence. In a significant saying uttered even before the beginning of his great Galilean ministry our Lord himself has affirmed the identity of the kingdom with at least one of the conceptions that dominate his teaching according to John, viz., that of life. To Nicodemus he speaks of the mysterious birth of water and the Spirit as the only entrance into the kingdom of God. Now, inasmuch as birth is that process by which one enters into life, and since in the immediately following context life is silently substituted for the kingdom, it is plain that these two are practically equivalent, just as the sphere of truth and the kingdom are equivalent in the other passage, John 18:36. With this accords the fact that in the Synoptical teaching the reverse may occasionally be observed, viz., that life is used interchangeably with the kingdom, cf. Mark 10:17, 23 with vs. 23.
While thus recognizing that the kingdom of God has an importance in our Lord’s teaching second to that of no other subject, we should not go to the extreme into which some writers have fallen, of finding in it the only theme on which Jesus actually taught, which would imply that all other topics dealt with in his discourses were to his mind but so many corollaries or subdivisions of this one great truth. The modern attempts to make the kingdom of God the organizing center of a theological system have here exerted a misleading influence upon the interpretation of Jesus’ teaching. From the fact that the proximate object of his saving work was the realization of the kingdom, the wrong inference has been drawn, that this must have been also the highest category under which he viewed the truth. It is plain that the one does not follow from the other. Salvation, with all it contains, flows from the nature [of God] and subserves the glory of God, and we can clearly perceive that Jesus was accustomed consciously to refer it to this divine source and to subordinate it to this God-centered purpose, cf. John 17:4. He usually spoke not of “the kingdom” absolutely, but of “the kingdom of God” and “the kingdom of heaven,” and these names themselves indicate that the place of God in the order of things which they describe is the all-important thing to his mind.
It is only with great artificiality that the various component elements of our Lord’s teaching can be subsumed under the one head of the kingdom. If any deduction and systematizing are to be attempted, logic and the indications which we have of our Lord’s habit of thought on this point alike require, that not his teaching on the kingdom but that on God shall be given the highest place. The relation observable in the discourses of the Fourth Gospel between the person of Christ and salvation, is also the relation which we may conceive to exist between God and the kingdom. Because God is what he is, the kingdom bears the character and embodies the principles which as a matter of fact belong to it. Even so, however, we should avoid the modern mistake of endeavoring to derive the idea of the kingdom from the conception of the divine fatherhood alone. This derivation expresses an important truth recognized by Jesus himself, when he calls the kingdom a fatherly gift to the disciples (Luke 12:32). But it represents only one side of the truth, for in the kingdom other attributes of God besides his fatherhood find expression. The doctrine of God in its entire fullness alone is capable of furnishing that broader basis on which the structure of his teaching on the kingdom can be built in agreement with Jesus’ own mind.
On the other hand, it cannot be denied that in many respects the idea of the kingdom acted in our Lord’s thought and teaching as a crystallizing point around which several other elements of truth naturally gathered and grouped themselves in harmonious combination.
- That the idea of the church, where it emerges in his teaching, is a direct outgrowth of the development of his doctrine of the kingdom, will appear in the sequel.
- But not only this, also the consummation of the world and the final state of glory were evidently viewed by him in no other light than as the crowning fulfillment of the kingdom-idea.
- Still further what he taught about righteousness was most closely interlinked in his mind with the truth about the nature of the kingdom.
- The same may safely be affirmed with reference to the love and grace of God.
- The great categories of subjective religion, faith and repentance and regeneration, obviously had their place in his thought as answering to certain aspects of the kingdom.
- Even a subject apparently so remote from the kingdom-idea, in our usual understanding of it, as that of miracles in reality derived for Jesus from the latter the larger part of its meaning.
- Finally, the kingdom stood in our Lord’s mind for a very definite conception concerning the historical relation of his own work and the new order of things introduced by it to the Old Testament.
All this can here be stated in general only; our task in the sequel will be to work it out in detail. But what has been said is sufficient to show that there is scarcely an important subject in the rich repertoire of our Lord’s teaching with which our study of his disclosures concerning the kingdom of God will not bring us into contact.