Some think it's heaven. Others say it's here on earth. Some think it's a feeling of brotherhood among Christian believers or the Church itself. Others deem it wholly apocalyptic. What is this Kingdom of which Jesus Christ spoke so often?
Many prophecies speak of the awesome transformation the world will experience.
It's remarkable that among the 2 billion people in the world identified as Christian, few give much if any thought to the concept of the Kingdom of God—and that fewer still have even a remote clue as to what it actually is. Remarkable because according to the founder of the Christian faith, Jesus Christ, it's supposed to be priority number one for every Christian. As He said, "Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness" (Matthew 6:33).
Jesus spoke of the Kingdom in one instructive parable after another, explaining that nothing is of greater worth and importance (see Matthew 13:44-45). This Kingdom was the subject of the gospel—or good news—that Jesus preached (Mark 1:14-15).
In His outline on how to pray, He taught that we should express this fervent desire to God: "Your kingdom come" (Matthew 6:10, emphasis added throughout).
So just what is the Kingdom of God—and where is it? Does it exist now? Or is it yet future? And why is it so important?
Heaven or end-time hope?
One source of confusion lies in the term "kingdom of heaven," as found repeatedly in the Gospel of Matthew. Some have taken this as a reference to going to heaven at death—a common yet erroneous misunderstanding (read free Bible study aid booklet What Happens After Death? )
Parallel passages in Mark and Luke use the phrase "kingdom of God." So the terms are synonymous. Matthew was writing mainly to a Jewish audience, among whom it was common to avoid directly saying God's name out of reverence. Thus Matthew substituted the phrase "kingdom of heaven" instead of "kingdom of God"—heaven simply being where God is.
The biblical prophets referred to the kingship of God as well as His rule over both heaven and earth—and to His eventual reign over all nations of the earth. Many Jews of the first century were, as Joseph of Arimathea, "waiting for the kingdom of God" (Mark 15:43)—that is, expecting it to come in the future.
Many Jews were then looking for a military overthrow of their Roman rulers and the establishment of an independent Israelite kingdom restored under a Messiah sent by God. As they viewed Bible prophecy, this earthly kingdom would subdue all enemies at the end of the present age and reign supreme in a glorious age to come. To some this was synonymous with the time of divine judgment and the resurrection of the dead.
Inner acceptance and the Church?
However, some began to focus on the Kingdom in a more personal sense, rabbinic interpretation eventually taking it to mean accepting God as one's King. This and certain statements of Jesus, such as one often translated "the kingdom of God is within you" (Luke 17:21), has led many to conclude that Jesus' use of the phrase "Kingdom of God" principally refers to inner acceptance of and personal submission to God as Sovereign today.
This notion has further led many to view the Church—the collective body of true Christian believers—as the Kingdom. From this point of view, the Kingdom of God has already come. And as more and more become part of the Church and accept the rule of God in their lives, so the thinking goes, the Kingdom of God is advanced on the earth.
Many have gone further in proclaiming it the Church's responsibility to take over the present world and set up biblical government throughout it as the Kingdom of God. Some have even advocated military conquest, while others envision takeover through the political process. These ideas are antithetical to Jesus' teachings about the Kingdom.
Yet we should realize that, as we will examine more clearly, Jesus did speak of the Kingdom of God as a real government to come in a future age—although He also made clear that it was more than that.
Definition and the King of all creation
In seeking to define the Kingdom of God, it makes sense to start with the definition of the word kingdom. The term refers either to the reign or rule of a monarch or to the sphere of his rule—the realm.
In both cases, there are four elements:
1. the ruler himself
2. the realm over which the monarch rules
3. subjects within the realm
4. a system of laws and government under which the kingdom is administered. So the terminology "Kingdom of God" must refer essentially to the governance or government of God.
By this definition, the Kingdom exists now, as the Creator God is sovereign over all creation, with all subject to Him by law. "The Lord reigns," the Psalms proclaim (93:1; 96:10; 97:1; 99:1). However, Scripture also looks forward to a time when God's rule is universally accepted, which is not the case today.
The present ruler of this world
Prior to man's creation, a great rebellion against God by a third of the angelic host took place under the leadership of an archangel now known as Satan, a name that means Adversary (compare Isaiah 14; Ezekiel 28). Satan was cast down to the earth along with His cohorts, now known as demons (see Luke 10:18; Revelation 12:4). And they now hold sway over the earth.
Our first human parents chose to give in to Satan's temptation in the Garden of Eden to sin against God (Genesis 3). From that time on, human civilization has been under the mis rule of Satan and his demons.
Scripture tells us that Satan deceives the whole world (Revelation 12:9) and spiritually "broadcasts" his wrong moods and attitudes to a receptive humanity (see Ephesians 2:2). Jesus called him "the ruler of this world" (John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11) and acknowledged that he has a "kingdom" (see Matthew 12:26; Luke 11:18). The apostle Paul later called him "the god of this age" (2 Corinthians 4:4).
Thus, the present world is effectively the kingdom of Satan. Yet God has allowed this so that people will learn the lessons about choosing the wrong way to live and what it means to be cut off from Him.
God maintains ultimate rule over His creation (see Psalm 29:10; 89:9; Job 38:8, 11). And at times He intervenes to ultimately direct the course of nations according to His prophesied plan (see Daniel 2:20-21; 4:17, 32, 34-37). But most of what happens in individual and national affairs—and especially within the human heart, which is "desperately wicked" (Jeremiah 17:9)—is due to the powerful influence of the devil.
God the King of Israel
From the time of Moses until the establishment of the monarchy under King Saul, God Himself ruled the people through a system of judges and priests. The judge and prophet Samuel described that time to the Israelites as a period "when the Lord your God was your king" (1 Samuel 12:12). So the nation of Israel was in a certain sense the Kingdom of God on earth at that time.
But the hearts of the people were still greatly influenced by the king of this world, Satan the devil. And they rejected God's direct rulership in favor of a human monarch like other nations around them (1 Samuel 8:7).
Still, the human king was to represent God and even "sat on the throne of the Lord" (1 Chronicles 29:23). Yet most of the Israelite kings were wicked rulers—and even the more righteous ones failed to fully obey and properly represent God.
A great part of the lesson of ancient Israel and its monarchy was that even if a nation has God's laws and actual presence among it and its leaders, this is not remotely sufficient to lead people into the utopia mankind longs for. Miraculous change must take place in the human heart. And the enemy of God and man must be removed from the picture.
Rest assured, that day is coming. God's plan all along was to establish His Kingdom over all nations—but with a changed heart of the leadership and people to set a righteous example for the rest of the world.
The Messiah or Christ to reign on David's throne
Many prophecies foretold a future King, of the line of Israel's King David, known as the Messiah or Christ who would lead and govern the world.
As Isaiah the prophet wrote: "For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given; and the government will be upon His shoulder. And His name will be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of His government and peace there will be no end, upon the throne of David and over His kingdom, to order it and establish it with judgment and justice from that time forward, even forever" (Isaiah 9:6-7).
Likewise, the archangel Gabriel announced to Mary just prior to Jesus' conception: "He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Highest; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David. And He will reign over the house of Jacob [Israel] forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end" (Luke 1:32-33).
This is clearly speaking of a real throne, a real dynasty, a real kingdom—the Israelite Kingdom of God becoming the ruling Kingdom over the entire world.
When the Roman governor Pontius Pilate asked Jesus during His trial if He were a king, Jesus responded: "You say rightly that I am a king. For this cause I was born, and for this cause I have come into the world" (John 18:37). Jesus was not speaking of some sentimental symbolic leading of people. As many passages proclaim, He was referring to a complete overhaul of the world order by extending His rule over all nations!
Human kingdoms will cease with God's Kingdom
In ancient times, Israel often fell under domination by gentile kingdoms under the rule of Satan. Yet prophecy foretold that a succession of great gentile empires would be followed by another kingdom from God.
As recorded in Daniel 2, God gave the Babylonian emperor Nebuchadnezzar a vivid dream of a great humanlike image composed of a succession of metals from head to toe. It was struck at the bottom by a stone, which smashed the image to dust and grew into a great mountain filling the whole earth (verses 31-36).
The different parts represented a succession of four great kingdoms through history. The first was specified to be Nebuchadnezzar's Babylonian kingdom, while the others would follow in order—the Medo-Persian Empire, the Greco-Macedonian Empire and then the Roman Empire. The latter would continue on in some form to the end of the age, experiencing a resurgence then under a group of 10 kings. The same succession is presented under a vision Daniel had of four beasts in Daniel 7.
What should be clear is that these prophecies are speaking of literal, earthly kingdoms. Then a fifth kingdom appears. We see it in Daniel 2 in the stone growing to fill the earth. Note the interpretation God gives: "And in the days of these kings [the 10 making up the final revival of the Roman Empire] the God of heaven will set up a kingdom which shall never be destroyed; and the kingdom shall not be left to other people [as the former ones were]; it shall break in pieces and consume all these kingdoms, and it shall stand forever" (verse 44).
This fifth kingdom that increases to fill the earth is the Kingdom of God—and it is a very real kingdom that will take the place of former earthly kingdoms. This is confirmed in Daniel 7, which shows the dominions of the previous kingdoms taken away and given to "One like the Son of Man [the Messiah] . . . To Him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve Him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and His kingdom the one which shall not be destroyed" (verses 13-14).
This is speaking of Jesus the Messiah coming from heaven to take over the world. This is wonderful good news—the only hope for a world rushing headlong toward destruction!
The transformed world of the age to come
The reign of the world's present king, Satan, will then be over. He will be banished for a thousand years (Revelation 20:1-3), a period often called the Millennium (this simply being the word for a 1,000-year period).
Many prophecies speak of the awesome transformation the world will experience when Satan has been removed and Jesus Christ is at last the world's ruling King.
Jerusalem will be the planet's capital—then called "The Throne of the Lord" (Jeremiah 3:17). God's law and Word will go out from there to the rest of the nations, as people seek to be taught by God (Isaiah 2:2-3). They will no longer be at war, for all will learn to live in peace with one another (verse 4).
Even the nature of animals will be changed so that there will be no hurting or destroying throughout this future godly realm (Isaiah 11:6-9). This also represents human beings dwelling peacefully together—as it is a result of the earth being "full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea" (verse 9).
Barren wastelands and deserts will be transformed to become like Eden (Isaiah 35:1-2, 7; 51:3). And agriculture will become immensely productive (Amos 9:13). People will be healed—both physically and spiritually. The blind will see, the deaf will hear, the lame will leap, the mute will speak (Isaiah 35:5-6).
Some see all of this as merely figurative of a better world under the spread of the Christian faith. But that is denying the plain sense of many passages. There may be some figurative or spiritualized applications of some of these passages, but that's with the understanding that their main thrust is quite literal.
Christ's followers to reign with Him
It is also incredible to learn that the Messiah will share His rule over the earth with His followers from this age—who at His return are either resurrected or transformed to be given immortality (1 Corinthians 15:50-53; 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17).
As the prophecy of Daniel 7 states of the fifth kingdom following the four gentile empires of this age: "Then the kingdom and dominion, and the greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven, shall be given to the people, the saints [people set apart] of the Most High. His kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and all dominions shall serve and obey Him" (verse 27).
The book of Revelation further shows that the saints, Christ's followers from this age, will reign with Him in the age to come as kings and priests (20:4, 6) and that "they shall reign on the earth" (5:10, ESV)—again, not in heaven.
Jesus Himself spoke of this future reward to His disciples, stating, "I assure you that when the world is made new and the Son of Man sits upon his glorious throne, you who have been my followers will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel" (Matthew 19:28, New Living Translation).
And note this parallel description: "I bestow upon you a kingdom, just as My Father bestowed one upon Me, that you may eat and drink at My table in My kingdom, and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel" (Luke 22:29-30).
This passage is very instructive, for it identifies the Kingdom of God with an actual government to be set up in the future—and being "in" the Kingdom with that time. Clearly, the reference to the Kingdom here did not merely mean accepting the reign of God in one's heart at present (see also Luke 22:16, 18; 19:11-27; 21:31—and be sure to read the Questions and Answers).
A vital message that matters deeply
The Kingdom of God is a central and unifying theme of all Scripture. We see it in God's role as King over all creation and as the King of Israel. We see it in His rule in our personal lives now and later in Christ coming to rule all nations in a wonderful age to come. We see it in the changed level of existence we must experience to reign forever with God in His divine family and in the perpetual increase of God's government and peace throughout time and eternity.
All of these elements are important to understand. Some Christian believers focus only on future aspects of God's Kingdom, so that any thought of its present reality is ignored or denied. Usually, though, the problem is just the opposite. People focus on present rule, claiming the Kingdom is here now, and give little thought to the future coming of the Kingdom—maybe not even knowing anything about it. Yet the future aspect is the principal conception in the Bible.
What Jesus meant by the Kingdom of God is primarily the reign of God becoming established over all people to lead all nations into God's ways and future divine glory too.
This is the way Jesus' apostles still understood His message even after His post-resurrection appearances and instruction. As He was about to ascend into heaven, their last question to Him was, "Lord, will You at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?" (Acts 1:6).
This is how they understood His Kingdom message, and He did not contradict their conception—He only told them that it wasn't for them to know the timing, which was in the Father's authority (verse 7).
So why is a future conception of the Kingdom so important? Why should we care? The fact is, our lives must be guided by a goal—a vision of the future. Without a guiding vision or revelation from God, we will spiral away from God and ultimately perish (Proverbs 29:18).
As Paul said, "If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most pitiable" (1 Corinthians 15:19). And we will have no motivation to strive to follow Him (compare verses 30-34). The truth is, all we do is for the future God will bring, or it is all for nothing.
Yet understanding the present sense of the Kingdom of God is also vital. For to attain to the foretold future, we must connect with and submit to the rule of the Kingdom today.
Accepting the Kingdom now
We cannot enter the Kingdom now (again, see the Questions and Answers -- Question: I've read from your articles that Jesus Christ will return to establish the Kingdom of God on earth... ), but we can receive it in the sense of accepting it and humbly submitting to it. And we must—otherwise we will not enter it in the future. Note what Jesus said: "Assuredly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will by no means enter it" (Mark 10:15). We must receive it—accept it—right now to enter it later. And we must do so with childlike trust and humility.
Right now we can have the laws of the Kingdom written in our hearts, and we can have the King of the Kingdom live in our hearts to help us obey those laws (Hebrews 8:10; Galatians 2:20).
We can live the future today—the future age breaking into our lives now, just as it did when Christ came teaching and performing miracles 2,000 years ago. The Bible describes those who are converted with God's Holy Spirit as those who "have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come" (Hebrews 6:5).
As we pray to God daily, "Your kingdom come" (Matthew 6:10), we are effectively cheering on its establishment over all nations. But we are also asking that its rule begin with us right here and now. For if we truly desire the future God proclaims, we will begin living by its terms today.
Continuing, "Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven," we recognize that God's Kingdom now rules in heaven, where the angels carry out His will in perfect obedience. And we ask that this be so on earth as well—among all, of course, but starting with us.
And finally, seeking first God's Kingdom (Matthew 6:33) means to make all that it stands for our very reason for being. And indeed, it truly is the reason we exist!