The Gospel of the Kingdom:
What Is the Kingdom of God?
by Gerald R. Thompson*
It’s all about the kingdom, folks. What is? The Bible. The purpose for mankind. Good vs. evil. All prophecy. Existence. Yes, even Jesus. Everything. Including the Gospel.
Before the creation of mankind, there was the kingdom of God. Before the serpent, original sin and the fall. Before there was atonement, forgiveness, or even the need for them. And when this earth is burned up, the heavens melted away, and both are replaced with a new creation, there will still be the kingdom of God. When redemption is complete, sin and death are no more, and we dwell with God forever, there will still be the kingdom. The kingdom is, was, and forever shall be. Amen.
And while you may accept that as a general principle which might possibly be true is some abstract sense, there is more. Everything which has happened since creation, everything which now exists, and all that will eventually happen, are all about the kingdom of God. The creation, the entrance of sin, the flood, the nation of Israel, the incarnation, death and resurrection of Christ, the founding of the Church, and everything that will happen in the end times, are all about the kingdom, as well.
Therefore, to think correctly about any of these things, we must begin to think about them in terms of the kingdom of God. Not as a secondary consideration or an afterthought, nor as one of many additional perspectives. But as the primary driver of understanding, without which our knowledge is seriously deficient. This necessarily includes our view and understanding of the Gospel.
For example, what is the purpose of mankind? That people should do the will of God as expressed in God’s laws, that is, the laws of nature (His will imbued in the physical universe) and the laws of nature’s God (His verbal laws as revealed in the Bible). Do you want to glorify God? Do His will. Do you want to love God? Keep His commandments. Do you want to enjoy Him forever? Become a citizen of the kingdom of God.
What was the effect of the Fall? It made people outcasts from the kingdom of God, a denizen of the dominions of the kingdom of God (i.e., a resident within God’s territorial jurisdiction), but not a citizen. Citizenship can only be regained by the means provided by God grace for salvation, not on the basis of anyone’s works or merit.
What the battle between Good and Evil? It is a battle for the throne and dominion of planet earth and all its inhabitants. God’s kingdom has a competitor, the Devil’s kingdom, which seeks to usurp God’s kingdom and dethrone Him. God will eventually defeat the Devil’s kingdom and banish its members forever. Who is the Antichrist? He will be the human leader of the Devil’s kingdom.
Why did God set apart the nation of Israel? Ancient Israel was the first incarnation, or manifestation, of the kingdom of God on earth.
Why was Jesus sent to earth? He was sent the first time to inaugurate the first phase of the kingdom of Christ, that is, the spiritual aspects of His kingdom. He will return to inaugurate the second phase of the kingdom of Christ, the physical incarnation of His kingdom.
What is the role of the Church? The role of the Church is to be the body of fellowship of the citizens of heaven while they are on earth. That role will transform when Christ returns, from a body of fellowship to the governing of the Gentile nations during the Millennium. Until then, the Church is to prepare its members for their tasks in the physical kingdom of Christ.
What is the purpose of biblical prophecy? Prophecy has three functions: 1) to announce God’s plans for His kingdom, the nation of Israel; 2) to announce the initial appearance of the Messiah as Priest, to inaugurate the spiritual phase of his kingdom; 3) to announce the return of the Messiah as King, to inaugurate the physical phase of his kingdom; and 4) to describe the events occurring in connection with the transition to the eternal kingdom of God.
Why did God give us the Bible, the holy scriptures? To reveal His laws for all mankind, and similarly reveal his holy principles of good government. To reveal His plans for the kingdom of God, its progression throughout history and its culmination in eternity. To reveal prophecy, to reveal the Messiah (the ultimate Priest-King), and to reveal how people can participate to the fullest extent in God’s plans.
What is the Gospel? The Gospel has two primary purposes: 1) to announce the means which God has provided for regaining citizenship in the kingdom of God; and 2) to give people understanding and hope that the wicked and oppressive governments of the world ruled by men will one day be eradicated and replaced by an everlasting kingdom of peace, righteousness and prosperity ruled by God Himself.
Please join me as we consider scriptures regarding the kingdom of God, and what they mean for the Church and the Gospel. In particular, we will see that the Church, rather than being the culmination of the plan of God, is merely an interim phase in the progression of God’s kingdom. Not only that, but the Church will be repurposed for its next task when the Church age ends. Prepare to have your eyes opened.
It is no stretch to say that the message of the gospel and the good news of the kingdom of God are inextricably intertwined. Which is to say, you really cannot separate them from each other. But that does not make them equal.
1. Jesus Proclaimed the Gospel of the Kingdom. Scripture indicates some fourteen times Jesus and the early disciples proclaimed the gospel of the kingdom. For instance,
“And Jesus went throughout all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction.” (Mat. 9:35). “Soon afterward he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. And the twelve were with him.” (Lk. 8:1).
In Lk. 16:16, Jesus said, “The Law and the Prophets were until John; since then the good news of the kingdom of God is preached.” The disciples also were instructed by Jesus to proclaim, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Mat. 10:7). But perhaps most telling are these statements by Jesus:
“I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God [i.e., the gospel of the kingdom] to the other towns as well; for I was sent for this purpose.” (Lk. 4:43). Jesus answered, “You say that I am a King. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world.” (Jn. 18:37).
In Luke, Jesus indicated that the gospel of the kingdom was not merely an ancillary part of His overall message, but the core of His message. It was the very reason He was preaching. In John, it is obvious Jesus knew exactly who He was, and exactly what His job was. Namely, to launch the first phase of the kingdom of God on earth – the spiritual only phase. The very essence of Jesus was the kingdom of God.
Even in the book of Acts, after the death and resurrection of Christ, the disciples were still preaching the gospel of the kingdom. Thus, Acts 8:12 tells us that Philip “preached good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ.” And in Acts 28:31, even Paul was said to be “proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ.”
In Mat. 24:13-14, when Jesus spoke of the end times (specifically, the Tribulation period), he said, “But the one who endures to the end will be saved. And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.” Since the Tribulation hasn’t happened yet, maybe – just maybe – this gospel of the kingdom will become increasingly important as we get closer to the end times.
We will consider what the content of the gospel of the kingdom looks like later on. Right now, I just want you to understand the kingdom message is at the very core of the gospel.
2. Jesus Taught in Parables Regarding the Kingdom. Further confirmation of this can be seen by the fact that Jesus was always talking in parables, and those parables were most often kingdom parables. Typically, Jesus would start a parable by saying, the kingdom of God (or heaven) is like, or the kingdom of heaven may be compared to …. There are over a dozen such parables in Matthew alone, and another half-dozen in Luke.
All these things Jesus said to the crowds in parables; indeed, he said nothing to them without a parable. This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet: “I will open My mouth in parables; I will utter what has been hidden from the foundation of the world.” (Mat. 13:34-35, quoting Ps. 78:2).
Then the King will say to those on his right, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” (Mat. 25:34).
What do these texts indicate, except that the typical parable (kept secret from the foundation of the world), usually taken to be about salvation, or knowing God, in actuality reveals an aspect of the kingdom of God. “The kingdom of heaven is like ” Further, both the kingdom itself, and the fact Jesus would speak in kingdom parables, were ordained before the foundation of the world. Would it be too much to conclude that Jesus was destined from before the foundation of the world to reveal the nature of that kingdom in parables?
Which is why Jesus did not just say, heaven is like, or God is like. Jesus was intentionally interjecting a governmental component in statements of spiritual principles. When Jesus talked about the kingdom of God or heaven, I suggest what He really meant was the government of heaven, or God’s government, and that’s the way we should start thinking about Jesus’ message.
So when we, in an attempt to be spiritual, read Jesus’ parables as if He merely said heaven is like, or God is like, we actually denude the Gospel of its full meaning. By making Jesus’ teaching less governmental, we make it less the Gospel. The Gospel is by nature a governmental message. It’s about darn time the Church got back in line with scripture and started embracing this truth.
I know some of you are going to assume I’m referring to politics in the sense of candidates for office and political parties, or perhaps you have images in your mind about dirty dealings in back rooms – but that’s not what I mean. Instead, I mean that we have to start thinking about the kingdom of God as an actual government.
3. The Great Commission Couples the Gospel with the Kingdom. The Great Commission is to the same effect as the parables of Jesus. “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” (Mat. 28:19-20).
The Great Commission couples “make disciples of all nations” together with teaching the world all of Christ’s commands (that is, all of God’s kingdom laws). This is a package deal – you cannot separate these components. So why is it that the modern Church does only the first of these, and ignores the second altogether? For shame, for shame. Now as to what the content of those universal laws of the kingdom are, see my essay on The Great Commission and God’s Law.
In similar fashion, the Beatitudes (Mat. 5:2-12) refer to the kingdom three times (if you include the meek inheriting the earth, which refers to the Millennial kingdom). Even the Lord’s prayer (Mat. 6:9-13) includes a key reference to the earthly, physical kingdom of Christ (“Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”) So the Great Commission is not exceptional in this regard. All of Jesus’ key instructions to believers link the gospel and the kingdom of God together.
You have probably been taught that the gospel is the method for producing salvation, and salvation is the ultimate goal of both Christianity and the Church. However, God’s ultimate plan for mankind is to physically manifest the kingdom of God on earth, and then transition that kingdom into eternity. Let me suggest a way to reorient your thinking.
Original sin means we start life with no citizenship in God’s kingdom. Salvation means that we regain citizenship in God’s kingdom, though full possession of the kingdom is deferred until Christ returns. Evangelism is merely the process by which people are recruited to become citizens in God’s kingdom. And once we become citizens, we have jobs to do for the kingdom, both now and when Christ returns. And when I say jobs, I’m not talking about more evangelism.
So rather than being the culmination of Christianity and the Church, salvation is only the beginning. When we get to the kingdom, we will not be resting on our laurels, or playing harps and singing praise songs all day and night. Salvation is only a means, not an end, which ultimately serves the purpose of bringing the kingdom of God to earth. Salvation is only the first phase of bringing the kingdom of God to earth, where citizenship is secured but not possessed. Actual possession of the kingdom will not occur until the second phase, when Christ returns to set up His kingdom physically.
Here’s the bottom line: The kingdom of God isn’t merely an aspect or feature of the Gospel; the Gospel is merely an aspect of the kingdom of God. As between the two, the Gospel is lesser and the kingdom is greater. So which should we talk about more often in church, the lesser or the greater? Do we only look back to the cross, or do we mainly look forward to the kingdom?
Thus, for the sake of recruiting the citizens of the kingdom of God, Jesus came the first time. And for the sake of establishing the kingdom of God on earth, He will come a second time. This is the appropriate biblical context of the gospel.
So far, we have used the term kingdom of God rather loosely. It’s time we define which kingdom? Kingdom language is used throughout the scriptures. However, there are three phrases, kingdom of God, kingdom of heaven, and kingdom of Christ (or a close variant), used exclusively in the New Testament. This has led some people to make two erroneous conclusions: 1) that all three phrases are equivalent; and 2) one or more of these phrases refer to the universal Church (i.e., the body of Christ).
This second error – that the kingdom of God and the Church are the same, I will examine in the section The Church is Not the Kingdom of God.
As to the first conclusion, obviously the kingdoms of God, heaven and Christ are all related, since Christ is God, and God rules the heavens. It is a question of manifestation, or the extent to which the kingdoms are made visible and take physical form, that distinguishes the terms. And this has to do mainly with the seat of government, as I will explain below.
God is by nature an invisible spirit. (Col. 1:15; 1 Tim. 1:17). And since God Himself has no beginning or end, His kingdom will necessarily be from everlasting to everlasting, and it is likely that His kingdom will always have an invisible component. Thus, scripture is clear that God’s kingdom has no beginning. “Your throne is established from of old; you are from everlasting.” (Ps. 93:2).
Similarly, scripture is clear that the kingdom of God has no end. “How great are his signs, how mighty his wonders! His kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and his dominion endures from generation to generation.” (Dan. 4:3).
The Three Physical Kingdoms of God
What else can we know about what this everlasting kingdom of God looks like?
The Lord has established his throne in the heavens, and his kingdom rules over all. Bless the Lord, O you his angels, you mighty ones who do his word, obeying the voice of his word! Bless the Lord, all his hosts, his ministers, who do his will! Bless the Lord, all his works, in all places of his dominion. (Ps. 103:19-22).
Thus, the kingdom of God in heaven has elements in common with just about any other kingdom: a King (i.e., a sovereign), a throne or seat of government, a dominion or territory, subjects and citizens, and ministers (i.e., government agents). For convenience, I will refer to the kingdom of God in heaven as the kingdom of heaven.
The kingdom of heaven has a particular significance in the New Testament period (the Church age), in that this is when the kingdom of God is manifest only spiritually, and not in any physical form. This is because both the King, and the seat of government, are absent from the earth at this time. The kingdom of heaven is distinguished from when the kingdom of God has been or will be physically manifested. I will discuss the kingdom of heaven in more detail when we look at The Root & Graft.
There are three instances when the kingdom of God will be made manifest in the physical realm. And these instances, by definition, though still part of the kingdom of God, are not part of the kingdom of heaven, because they are not in heaven. These are: 1) the kingdom of ancient Israel; 2) the millennial kingdom of Christ; and 3) the eternal kingdom of the New Jerusalem on the new earth.
Yes, I know people often regard this last instance as being in heaven, but in fact the new earth will be a physical place, the New Jerusalem will be a physical city, and the people there will have new physical bodies (though immortal). Whether this eternal state is purely physical, or both physical and “heavenly” (i.e., spiritual), is not necessary for us to decide. To avoid confusion, I will refer to this final eternal kingdom as “eternity” and not as heaven.
Therefore, I view the periods of history before Israel (from creation until the Exodus), and from the deportation of Israel to Babylon up through the end of the Church Age, as times when the kingdom of God has not been manifest. Certainly, the kingdom of God, being from everlasting to everlasting, has existed at all these times. However, God at those times has ruled from His throne in heaven directly, and not through any earthly agents. This is the period we are in now.
Which is to say, God remains invisible, and there is no earthly seat of God’s government or physical dominion of His kingdom marked out, at present. God reigns, but not so that we can see or touch the kingdom. In this essay, I will address only those three instances when the kingdom of God can be seen and touched.
The millennial period is what I believe scripture refers to as the kingdom of Christ. Or, kingdom of Christ and God (Eph. 5:5), kingdom of his beloved Son (Col. 1:13), kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ (1 Pet. 1:11), and kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ (Rev. 11:15). This is also the most likely meaning of “the coming kingdom of our father David” as used in Mk. 11:10, since Christ is the Son of David. Whenever I use kingdom of Christ, I mean to refer to the Millennial period.
Ancient Israel as the Kingdom of God
You may not have thought of ancient Israel as a manifestation of the kingdom of God, but there are two arguments supporting this conclusion. First, ancient Israel shared the key elements of the kingdom of God I mentioned earlier. Second, it is a necessary conclusion of the Root & Graft, discussed next.
Israel’s dominion was the Promised Land, its citizens were the Israelites, its subjects were non-Jews living in the land, and its ministers were primarily the priests, but also the local judges. These kingdom elements remained constant throughout the period from Sinai until the deportation. By local judges, I refer to the men appointed as per Exo. 18:25-26, and not the national judges from Moses on down to Samuel.
The key difference between ancient Israel and all other nations in history, as kingdoms, is that in Israel God was king. (1 Sam. 8:7). He ruled directly as king from Moses until Samuel. Thereafter, God retained the exclusive right to choose Israel’s kings, which after king Saul were David and his male descendants. And David and his heirs were the representative of God on earth. (2 Chr. 6:5-6; Ps 89:3-4). Although, I believe it is correct to say that God remained the king of Israel during the entire period of the kings.
That’s because the ark of the covenant was present in Israel during both the period of the judges and the kings. The space at the center of the top of the ark was the Mercy Seat – representing the very presence of God. (Exo. 25:21-22). So even though there was a separate throne for David and his descendants, yet even while those kings ruled over Israel, God maintained a throne for Himself in Israel at the same time. The Mercy Seat functioned as the seat of government in ancient Israel, as far as the kingdom of God was concerned.
Isn’t it curious then, that both the throne of David and the Mercy Seat of God disappeared from Israel at the same time, i.e., when Israel was deported to Babylon? Thus, we may say the kingdom of God was no longer manifest in ancient Israel after that time. So Israel was the kingdom of God from the Exodus (1500 B.C. or thereabouts) until the Babylonian deportation in 606 B.C.
Since ancient Israel was a kingdom, and God was sovereign over the nation in a unique way, a way in which He has not been sovereign over any other nation, Israel was the first manifestation of the kingdom of God on earth. Scripture confirms:
“And now you think to withstand the kingdom of the Lord in the hand of the sons of David, because you are a great multitude and have with you the golden calves that Jeroboam made you for gods.” (2 Chr. 13:8).
One of the major purposes of the Millennial period is to restore Israel as a reactivated kingdom, and to install Christ on the throne of David as its king, not merely in a spiritual sense, but physically on earth. The throne of David will become the new Mercy Seat of God, because God’s presence (that is, Jesus Himself) will be manifest there. Thus, if the restored Israel will be a kingdom of God on earth, it makes sense that the original Israel was also a kingdom of God on earth.
The Root & Graft and the Kingdom of Heaven
Now let’s expand on our discussion of the kingdom of heaven.
Now I am speaking to you Gentiles. … For if [the Jews’] rejection means the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance mean but life from the dead? If the dough offered as firstfruits is holy, so is the whole lump, and if the root is holy, so are the branches. But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, although a wild olive shoot, were grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing root of the olive tree, do not be arrogant toward the branches. If you are, remember it is not you who support the root, but the root that supports you. Then you will say, “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.” That is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast through faith. So do not become proud, but stand in awe. For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you. … And even they, if they do not continue in their unbelief, will be grafted in, for God has the power to graft them in again. For if you were cut from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and grafted, contrary to nature, into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these, the natural branches, be grafted back into their own olive tree. (Rom. 11:13-24).
Here Paul uses the analogy of an olive tree to explain the relationship between believing Jews and Gentiles as far as God is concerned. And the key question is, “What is the olive tree?” We know the answer cannot be the nation of Israel.
First, the context here, by the language used, concerns reconciliation, faith and belief. But the nation of Israel is not by its nature a faith community – it is an extended family tree of the biological descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. A person does not become a member of national Israel by faith, but by ancestry. This is notwithstanding Rom. 2:28-29, which speaks of spiritual Jews, or spiritual descendants of Abraham, as opposed to biological Jews.
Second, it would for this reason be improper to speak of any biological Jews being broken branches with respect to the olive tree on the basis of unbelief, if the tree is national Israel. National Israel has nothing to do with faith or belief, so unbelief has no effect on a person’s status as a biological Jew. Thus, if the tree is Israel, the analogy of a broken branch simply does not work. The brokenness being spoken of is spiritual, not physical. Therefore the olive tree must by spiritual, not physical.
Third, if the olive tree is national Israel, then when Christians are grafted onto the tree, it would make them biological Jews, because Israel is a biological entity. This of course cannot be true. For this reason, the Church and Israel can never possibly “merge.” One is a community of faith, the other is a group of biological descendants. They are apples and oranges to each other.
It is clear that the olive tree remains fully an olive tree whether or not the natural branches (Jews) are broken off or re-grafted. It is also clear that the grafting of Christians does not change the nature of the tree. And because Christians are not a natural part of the olive tree, the tree cannot be the Church either. So what do we call the something to which believing Jews and Christians both belong?
Traditionally, the answer has been to regard the olive tree as the broad scope of the people of God, or the elect. I suggest the olive tree is actually the kingdom of heaven, that is, the spiritual side of the kingdom of God. Because Christians (or the Church) have no part in a physical kingdom of God until Christ returns. And the Church, unlike national Israel, is a faith-based (i.e., spiritual) community. At present, the kingdom of God is spiritual only, being between ancient Israel and the Millennium.
Thus, ancient Israel is in a spiritual sense the root of the kingdom – but only as to believing Jews, not all biological Jews. Which means that in spite of anything you might have heard, the Church and the kingdom of heaven are not the same thing, because the kingdom of heaven includes the Old Testament saints, and the Church does not. Isn’t that exactly what the root and graft describes? O.T. and N.T. saints both belonging to the same olive tree of God?