Why Don't People Understand the Kingdom of God?

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Why Don't People Understand the Kingdom of God?

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About one billion people profess Christianity. Christianity traces its origin and its beliefs to the teachings of Jesus Christ, who lived almost 2,000 years ago.

Yet it is a paradox that many of the adherents to Christianity are not aware of Jesus’ central teaching. As a result, it is rarely proclaimed.

The heart and core of Jesus Christ’s message was that the Kingdom of God would be established on earth. This theme is to be found throughout the four Gospels. As historian Michael Grant puts it, “every thought and saying of Jesus was directed and subordinated to one single thing …, the realization of the Kingdom of God upon the earth,” and “this one phrase [Kingdom of God] sums up his whole ministry and his whole life’s work” ( Jesus: An Historian’s Review of the Gospels, 1995, pp. 10-11).

Yet, as Grant puts it, modern Christianity “prefers to dwell on quite different aspects of his career and instruction” (ibid., p. 29).

The Disciples Proclaimed the Kingdom

So why do we hear so little about the Kingdom of God—as proclaimed in the Bible—in modern Christianity?

The disciples of Jesus obviously understood His message. References to the Kingdom of God—or the Kingdom of Heaven, as the Gospel of Matthew usually refers to it—appear many times in their writings. Matthew alone contains 37 references. Together the four Gospels specifically mention God’s Kingdom 86 times in addition to other, oblique, references to it. The remainder of the New Testament, from Acts through Revelation, mentions God’s Kingdom many times.

The disciples recognized with crystal clarity that, when Jesus spoke of the Kingdom of God, He spoke in terms of a real government—a structured, organized entity with the very authority of God behind it. Certain rulers who heard Christ’s message recognized the political implications and viewed His words as a threat to their own power. This became a factor in Christ’s eventual crucifixion (Luke 23:2 Luke 23:2And they began to accuse him, saying, We found this fellow perverting the nation, and forbidding to give tribute to Caesar, saying that he himself is Christ a King.
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; John 19:12 John 19:12And from thereafter Pilate sought to release him: but the Jews cried out, saying, If you let this man go, you are not Caesar’s friend: whoever makes himself a king speaks against Caesar.
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).

To Jesus and His disciples, the term Kingdom of God meant a government that would be established on earth. They anticipated that its arrival would amount to nothing less than a sweeping, overwhelming change in the world order.

In teaching the message of this Kingdom, Jesus was simply extending the central theme of the Old Testament. The Hebrew prophets had earlier stressed the reality of this Kingdom. Referring to the Bible, John Bright wrote: “Had we to give that book a title, we might with justice call it ‘The Book of the Coming Kingdom of God.’ That is, indeed, its central theme everywhere. Old Testament and New Testament thus stand together as the two acts of a single drama” ( The Kingdom of God, 1981, p. 197).

The Millennium

Over time, historians began referring to this kingdom to come as the Millennium. This is because in Revelation 20 the apostle John wrote that the saints would reign with Christ for 1,000 years: “And I saw thrones, and they sat on them, and judgment was committed to them … And they lived and reigned with Christ for a thousand years” (Revelation 20:4 Revelation 20:4And I saw thrones, and they sat on them, and judgment was given to them: and I saw the souls of them that were beheaded for the witness of Jesus, and for the word of God, and which had not worshipped the beast, neither his image, neither had received his mark on their foreheads, or in their hands; and they lived and reigned with Christ a thousand years.
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).

The word millennium is a derivation of the Latin words mille for “thousand” and annum for “year.” Most reference works address the Kingdom of God teaching under the category of “Millennium.”

Be aware, however, that the Millennium and the Kingdom of God aren’t synonymous, although they overlap. According to the Bible, the millennial reign of Christ will initiate God’s rule on earth, but His Kingdom will extend past the Millennium into eternity (Daniel 7:13-14 Daniel 7:13-14 13 I saw in the night visions, and, behold, one like the Son of man came with the clouds of heaven, and came to the Ancient of days, and they brought him near before him. 14 And there was given him dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, that all people, nations, and languages, should serve him: his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom that which shall not be destroyed.
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).

A Central Teaching Changed

Belief in a literal Millennium continued for several centuries after the apostles. “This view was widely held in the Early Church and was expounded by the Church fathers Papias, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, and Tertullian” ( Collier’s Encyclopedia, 1993, “Millennium”).

Later church leaders put a different interpretation on the Bible’s millennial teachings. They differed from the teachings of Jesus and His apostles in that they said it should not be understood literally, that the concept was only an allegory. The third-century theologian Origen was the first person on record to promote the allegorical explanation.

A later theologian, Augustine (354-430), who originally believed in a literal 1,000-year reign of Christ, altered the teaching even more. He “identified the Church with the Kingdom of God and maintained that the millennial age had already come” (ibid.). He “advanced the theory that the millennium had actually begun with Christ’s nativity” ( New Catholic Encyclopedia, 1967, “Millenarianism”).

Since Christianity by then was accepted as the religion of the Roman Empire, Augustine taught that the church in this present world is the Kingdom of God, and “the thousand years stand for all the years of the Christian era.” Augustine stated this idea in The City of God, Book 20, Chapter 7. The church then “officially adopted Augustine’s view that the biblical descriptions of the millennium were allegorical” ( Encyclopedia Americana, 1998, “Millennium”).

This teaching, however, cannot be reconciled with the many Bible prophecies of the Kingdom of God. The Bible shows that when the Kingdom comes the returning Christ will take His place as divine ruler of the earth (Revelation 11:15 Revelation 11:15And the seventh angel sounded; and there were great voices in heaven, saying, The kingdoms of this world are become the kingdoms of our Lord, and of his Christ; and he shall reign for ever and ever.
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Jesus said He would come “in His glory” and “sit on the throne of His glory.” He said he would then judge the nations according to their treatment of their fellowman (Matthew 25:31-46 Matthew 25:31-46 31 When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit on the throne of his glory: 32 And before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divides his sheep from the goats: 33 And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left. 34 Then shall the King say to them on his right hand, Come, you blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: 35 For I was an hungered, and you gave me meat: I was thirsty, and you gave me drink: I was a stranger, and you took me in: 36 Naked, and you clothed me: I was sick, and you visited me: I was in prison, and you came to me. 37 Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we you an hungered, and fed you? or thirsty, and gave you drink? 38 When saw we you a stranger, and took you in? or naked, and clothed you? 39 Or when saw we you sick, or in prison, and came to you? 40 And the King shall answer and say to them, Truly I say to you, Inasmuch as you have done it to one of the least of these my brothers, you have done it to me. 41 Then shall he say also to them on the left hand, Depart from me, you cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels: 42 For I was an hungered, and you gave me no meat: I was thirsty, and you gave me no drink: 43 I was a stranger, and you took me not in: naked, and you clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and you visited me not. 44 Then shall they also answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we you an hungered, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister to you? 45 Then shall he answer them, saying, Truly I say to you, Inasmuch as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me. 46 And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal.
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). Obviously this has not happened yet.

The Hebrew prophets showed that the arrival of God’s Kingdom on earth would bring worldwide peace, physical abundance and divine righteousness (Isaiah 2:4 Isaiah 2:4And he shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.
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; Amos 9:13 Amos 9:13Behold, the days come, said the LORD, that the plowman shall overtake the reaper, and the treader of grapes him that sows seed; and the mountains shall drop sweet wine, and all the hills shall melt.
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). In contrast, history shows that the “Christian era” Augustine equated with God’s Kingdom is usually a time of violence, war, starvation and widespread lawlessness.

A hallmark of the age of the church is its persecution and slaughter of professing Christians by others who also claimed Christianity. As historian William Manchester described it: “No one has calculated how many sixteenth-century Christians slaughtered other Christians in the name of Christ, but the gore began to thicken early” ( A World Lit Only by Fire, 1992, p. 178).

A Literal Monarchy?

Disputes over the Kingdom of God concept have enlivened religious discussions for centuries. The issue has not been what the Bible says. Scholars and theologians know that the teaching of the Kingdom of God is in the Bible. The issue of debate has been what does the Bible mean when it speaks of the Kingdom. The majority of theologians have lost faith in the Bible as it is written.

How should we view the prophesied millennial rule of Christ and the saints? Should we take it literally or allegorically? Even some who disagree with a literal Millennium admit that the Bible describes a literal kingdom: “The figurative interpretation … cannot be made exegetically good even in its most plausible applications … This remarkable paragraph in John’s Apocalypse [Revelation] speaks of a real millennial reign of Christ on earth together with certain of His saints …” ( International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Vol. III, 1986, “Millennium”).

The return of Christ to reign over the earth in a literal kingdom is a plain teaching of the Bible. Generally speaking, those who hold a strong belief in the divine inspiration of the Bible believe that Jesus Christ will literally return and reign on earth. The Scriptures also teach that Christians experience a foretaste of the world to come (Hebrews 6:5 Hebrews 6:5And have tasted the good word of God, and the powers of the world to come,
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) and are the advance emissaries of the Kingdom of God. They are “ambassadors for Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:20 2 Corinthians 5:20Now then we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us: we pray you in Christ’s stead, be you reconciled to God.
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A Later Concept

Over the last few centuries a new definition of the Kingdom of God has surfaced. This idea does not deny the teaching outright but applies to it a twist of reasoning. This new view began in Europe. “In the 1700s, European intellectuals revamped the millennium-old system for discerning truth: instead of grounding all knowledge in biblical revelation, they tried to build on the foundation of human reason” ( Christian History, issue No. 55, p. 20).

Theologians who adopted this approach became known as the liberal school. What did they conclude about the Kingdom of God? They came to believe that “Western civilization was establishing Christ’s earthly rule” (ibid., p. 24).

This secular kind of theology is rooted in the idea that human nature is improving. This view, however, is contradicted by both the Bible and secular history. Man’s many wars and atrocities—especially those in this bloodstained 20th century—challenge this view.

Further, the Bible offers not the slightest hint that human power and ingenuity could ever establish a righteous world. On the contrary, it shows that man’s misrule will bring the human race to the verge of extinction (Matthew 24:21-22 Matthew 24:21-22 21 For then shall be great tribulation, such as was not since the beginning of the world to this time, no, nor ever shall be. 22 And except those days should be shortened, there should no flesh be saved: but for the elect’s sake those days shall be shortened.
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Even though its members learned that they should set good examples of Christian living, the New Testament church received no commission whatsoever to politically reform the present world’s society. Abuses in the Roman Empire of that day were many. Yet “the early church had no hope of reforming the state or of bringing it into conformity to the Kingdom of God” (Bright, p. 235). Instead, church members heard from their leaders that they should hope and pray for God’s Kingdom to come. The New Testament closes with a plea for this very thing: “Even so, come, Lord Jesus!” (Revelation 22:20 Revelation 22:20He which testifies these things said, Surely I come quickly. Amen. Even so, come, Lord Jesus.
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Why Did Mankind Stop Believing?

The early Church believed that Christ would return to rule over the nations. Christians proclaimed this message faithfully. They believed it completely. They prayed for it fervently. It was on their minds always. At one point during Christ’s ministry, the apostles asked Him, “Tell us, when will these things be? And what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?” (Matthew 24:3 Matthew 24:3And as he sat on the mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying, Tell us, when shall these things be? and what shall be the sign of your coming, and of the end of the world?
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After Christ’s death and resurrection, and just before His ascension to heaven, they again wanted to know, “Lord, will You at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6 Acts 1:6When they therefore were come together, they asked of him, saying, Lord, will you at this time restore again the kingdom to Israel?
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). Jesus told them it was not God’s intent that they should know exactly when this would happen. He told them they should concern themselves with proclaiming His message to the world (Acts 1:7-8 Acts 1:7-8 7 And he said to them, It is not for you to know the times or the seasons, which the Father has put in his own power. 8 But you shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come on you: and you shall be witnesses to me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and to the uttermost part of the earth.
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Their response from that day was to preach the message of His Kingdom. They crisscrossed the Roman Empire in the process. As they did so, they held firmly to the belief that Christ would return soon to establish God’s Kingdom. Late in his life the apostle Peter believed the end was imminent. He wrote that “the end of all things is at hand” (1 Peter 4:7 1 Peter 4:7But the end of all things is at hand: be you therefore sober, and watch to prayer.
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). And John wrote, “Little children, it is the last hour …” (1 John 2:18 1 John 2:18Little children, it is the last time: and as you have heard that antichrist shall come, even now are there many antichrists; whereby we know that it is the last time.
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). Paul’s early letters (1 and 2 Thessalonians) show that he also believed that God’s Kingdom would arrive during his lifetime.

Do Not Grow Weary

The prophets of the Old Testament, under God’s inspiration, envisioned the everlasting Kingdom of God (Isaiah 9:7 Isaiah 9:7Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end, on the throne of David, and on his kingdom, to order it, and to establish it with judgment and with justice from now on even for ever. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will perform this.
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; Psalms 145:13 Psalms 145:13Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and your dominion endures throughout all generations.
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; Daniel 7:27 Daniel 7:27And the kingdom and dominion, and the greatness of the kingdom under the whole heaven, shall be given to the people of the saints of the most High, whose kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and all dominions shall serve and obey him.
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). Jesus Christ confirmed it, saying, “… It is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32 Luke 12:32Fear not, little flock; for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.
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). Peter, who had expected to see the Kingdom while he lived, wrote before he died that “an entrance will be supplied to you abundantly into the everlasting kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 1:11 2 Peter 1:11For so an entrance shall be ministered to you abundantly into the everlasting kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
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Though Peter did not live to see God’s Kingdom, he did not lose heart. Christians must continue to believe in the sure promise of the Kingdom. We must faithfully serve God while we wait for it.

The belief and hope that the return of Christ is near has intrigued Bible readers from the apostles’ time to our own. With many people through the centuries anticipating the early arrival of their Lord, some lost heart when it didn’t occur when they expected. Some gave up in disappointment. The epistle to the Hebrews, written several decades after Christ’s ascension to heaven, exhorts Christians to continue to believe and not lose confidence in Christ’s return (Hebrews 10:35 Hebrews 10:35Cast not away therefore your confidence, which has great recompense of reward.
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). It reminds them of a statement from the Hebrew prophet Habakkuk: “For yet a little while, and He who is coming will come and will not tarry” (Hebrews 10:37 Hebrews 10:37For yet a little while, and he that shall come will come, and will not tarry.
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; Habakkuk 2:3 Habakkuk 2:3For the vision is yet for an appointed time, but at the end it shall speak, and not lie: though it tarry, wait for it; because it will surely come, it will not tarry.
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).

The epistle to the Hebrews did not promise that Christ would return by a particular time. It does, however, assure Christians that He will surely come, and they must continue to believe. The quote from Habakkuk is most appropriate. The prophet Habakkuk lived in the nation of Judah six centuries before the Christian era, in a time of societal disintegration. Because of the sins of the nation, God was about to allow the people of Judah to be overrun by the mighty empire of Babylon.

Habakkuk despaired at the thought of this. He knew that God had chosen his nation centuries earlier to accomplish a special mission. He didn’t understand, in light of this, why God would allow catastrophe to occur to Judah. God assured Habakkuk that He would accomplish His purpose with Judah but that it would be at a later time. God also told the prophet that he must wait for the time of God’s choosing to bring it to pass. God reminded Habakkuk that “the just shall live by his faith” (Habakkuk 2:4 Habakkuk 2:4Behold, his soul which is lifted up is not upright in him: but the just shall live by his faith.
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Hebrews 10:38 Hebrews 10:38Now the just shall live by faith: but if any man draw back, my soul shall have no pleasure in him.
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quotes from Habakkuk 2:4 Habakkuk 2:4Behold, his soul which is lifted up is not upright in him: but the just shall live by his faith.
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. The lesson is that God’s timetable may differ from man’s. God does not allow man to foresee the chronological details of His plan of salvation, but the outcome is certain. God will do what He has promised. This was the crucial lesson for Christians in the early decades of the Church, and it remains a essential lesson for the people of God in every age. We must retain our faith in the Kingdom of God. God will do what He has promised. He will send Jesus Christ, who will return to earth in triumph.

The Eternal Kingdom

The prophets of the Old Testament, under God’s inspiration, envisioned His everlasting kingdom (Isaiah 9:7 Isaiah 9:7Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end, on the throne of David, and on his kingdom, to order it, and to establish it with judgment and with justice from now on even for ever. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will perform this.
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; Psalms 145:13 Psalms 145:13Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and your dominion endures throughout all generations.
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; Daniel 7:27 Daniel 7:27And the kingdom and dominion, and the greatness of the kingdom under the whole heaven, shall be given to the people of the saints of the most High, whose kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and all dominions shall serve and obey him.
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). Jesus Christ confirmed its longevity, adding that “it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32 Luke 12:32Fear not, little flock; for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.
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). Peter, who had expected to see God’s Kingdom while he lived, wrote before he died that “an entrance will be supplied to you abundantly into the everlasting kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 1:11 2 Peter 1:11For so an entrance shall be ministered to you abundantly into the everlasting kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
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).

Life brings many disappointments and trials, testing our faith in God’s promises. In the parable of the sower, in Matthew 13, Jesus identified three areas of temptation His people would encounter: the work of the devil, the temptation to covet material possessions, and personal trials.

A Christian confronts all of these at times. All tempt us and distract us from what should be our primary focus in life—to “seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness” (Matthew 6:33 Matthew 6:33But seek you first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added to you.
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The apostle Paul exhorted converts of his time saying, “We must through many tribulations enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22 Acts 14:22Confirming the souls of the disciples, and exhorting them to continue in the faith, and that we must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God.
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). Those who remain faithful will look beyond their distresses and put their confidence in God. These are they who will inherit God’s Kingdom .