The kingdom of God was the central message of Jesus’ teaching. His ministry began with the cry, “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1.35). This theme resonated deeply with a dispossessed Jewish people under the cruel thumb of the Roman Empire. As NT Wright states:
Jesus was addressing a Jewish world in which ‘kingdom of God’, ‘reign of God’, the notion that only God must be king, was one of the most exciting and dangerous slogans. People had died in recent memory because of this slogan and the attempt to put it into practice … that is, to work for the holy revolution against the western imperial power, whatever it cost. (Paul: In Fresh Perspective, 157-8)
Of course, Jesus had other plans than political uprising. His use of the language of the kingdom of God fulfilled the longings of the Jewish people in a way so subversive and creative that we in our present day are not in a position to fully appreciate. The Zealots, planning armed revolt against the Roman world power to reestablish a Jewish kingdom, would not understand Jesus’ sayings that the kingdom would only come as they “turn … the other cheek,” “hand over [their] coat,” and “go with [the Romans] two miles” (Matthew 6.39-41).
But neither would the Pharisees, who held that the kingdom would come only to the morally pure and legalistically righteous, understand Jesus’ confrontational statement: “I tell you the truth, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you” (Matthew 21.32). It must have seemed like nonsense at best—at worst, that he was “demon-possessed” (John 8.48).
His word to the Sadducees, those dirty conspirators and Yes-men of the Empire, was no more encouraging: “David calls [the Messiah] Lord” (Luke 20.44). Now, this takes a bit more explaining, but the Greek word for Lord used in the Old Testament (kurios) was used by pagans to refer to Caesar (NT Wright, Paul, 71). Jesus is here making the claim that Caesar is a false emperor, and that the true empire can only be established by the Messiah—Jesus himself, a peasant-Rabbi, demands the allegiance of all humanity. As Brian McLaren states:
This kingdom throws down a direct challenge to the supremacy of the empire of Caesar centered in Rome, for in the kingdom of God, the ultimate authority is not Caesar but rather the Creator. (The Secret Message of Jesus, 17)
Longing for this kingdom, the sort of political rule in which God reigned fully and directly, was the motivating hope of the early Christian community. Living under the persecution of an all-powerful, pervasive Empire, they lived under the promise that “here we do not have an enduring city [e.g. Rome], but we are looking for the city that is to come [the new Jerusalem]” (Hebrews 13.14). Of course, this expectation diminished when Christians, under the rule of Constantine, came to be the Empire.
Largely forgotten for over 1500 years, the theme of the coming kingdom of God has reemerged as Christians have lost their privileged, imperial status in the West. The rise of secularism and the American Empire, which seeks its own kingdom—a pax Americana, some would say—over against the rule of Christ, have rediscovered reflection on the kingdom of God. Intentional Christian communities, especially those that work in the “abandoned places of Empire,” have renewed their longing for a time and place when Christ will reign.
The kingdom has not yet come, though there are whisperings of the Spirit that intimate its presence even now. Thus, we live patiently, not despairing, but with a great expectation despite the cruel rule of the Empire. For “we must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14.22):
Longing becomes obsession when we behave as if our salvation depends on us ushering in the kingdom of God here and now. There is a desperation that undermines the gospel when we behave as if participation in the kingdom of God is our path to heaven rather than a foretaste of heaven …. Communities of the new monasticism must structure their common life in such a way that enables members to experience their longing for the kingdom rightly. (Schools for Conversion: 12 Marks of a New Monasticism, 103, 106)
So we exist in this tension, receiving the gift of God’s reign in whatever limited capacity it is given to us, ever being drawn by the Spirit toward the day when the “loud voices in heaven” will proclaim: “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Caesar and of his Messiah, and he will reign for ever and ever” (Revelation 11.15). With this foretaste giving life to our active patience, we work and pray: “Your kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6.10).