Kingdom of God (of Heaven), The

(he basileia ton ouranon; he basileia tou theou):


1. Place in the Gospels

2. "Kingdom of Heaven" and "Kingdom of God"

3. Relation to the Old Testament (Daniel, etc.)


1. Current Jewish Opinions

2. Relation of Jesus to Same

3. Growing Divergence and Contrast

4. Prophetic Character of the "Temptation"

5. Modern "Futuristic" Hypothesis (J. Weiss, Schweitzer)

6. Weakness of This View

7. Positive Conceptions of Jesus


1. Apostolic and Post-apostolic Age

2. Early Christian Centuries

3. Reformation Period

4. Later Ideas


1. Danger of Exaggeration

2. Elements of Living Power in Idea


The "kingdom of God" is one of the most remarkable ideas and phrases of all time, having begun to be used very near the beginnings of history and continuing in force down to the present day.

I. Meaning and Origin of the Term

See also the McClintock and Strong Biblical Cyclopedia.

1. Place in the Gospels:

Its use by Jesus is by far its most interesting aspect; for, in the Synoptists, at least, it is His watchword, or a comprehensive term for the whole of His teaching. Of this the ordinary reader of Scripture may hardly be aware, but it becomes evident and significant to the student. Thus, in Mt 4:23, the commencement of the ministry is described in these words, "And Jesus went about in all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, and preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing all manner of disease and all manner of sickness among the people"; and, somewhat later, in Lu 8:1, the expansion of His activity is described in the following terms, "And it came to pass soon afterwards, that he went about through cities and villages, preaching and bringing the good tidings of the kingdom of God, and with him the twelve." When the Twelve are sent forth by themselves, the purpose of their mission is, in Lu 9:2, given in these words, "And he sent them forth to preach the kingdom of God, and to heal the sick." In Mt 13:11, the parables, which formed so large and prominent a portion of His teaching, are denominated collectively "the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven"; and it will be remembered how many of these commence with the phrase, "The kingdom of heaven is like."

2. "Kingdom of Heaven" and "Kingdom of God":

In these quotations, and in others which might easily be adduced, it will be observed that the phrases "the kingdom," "the kingdom of God," "the kingdom of heaven" are used interchangeably. The last of the three, "the kingdom of heaven," is confined to the First Gospel, which does not, however, always make use of it; and it is not certain what may have been the reason for the substitution. The simplest explanation would be that heaven is a name for God, as, in the parable of the Prodigal Son, the penitent says, "I have sinned against heaven," and we ourselves might say, "Heaven forbid!" It is not, however, improbable that the true meaning has to be learned from two petitions of the Lord's Prayer, the one of which is epexegetic of the other, "Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven." Here the disciples are instructed to pray that the kingdom of God may come, but this is equivalent to the petition that the will of God may be done on earth; Jesus is, however, aware of a region in the universe where the will of God is at present being perfectly and universally done, and, for reasons not difficult to surmise, He elevates thither the minds and hearts of those who pray. The kingdom of heaven would thus be so entitled because it is already realized there, and is, through prayer and effort, to be transferred thence to this earth.

3. Relation to the Old Testament (Daniel, etc.):

Although, however, the phrase held this master position in the teaching of Jesus, it was not of His invention. It was employed before Him by John the Baptist, of whom we read, in Mt 3:1 f, "And in those days cometh John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of Judea, saying, Repent ye; for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." Indeed, the phrase is far older; for, on glancing toward the Old Testament, we come at once, in Da 2:44, to a passage where the young prophet, explaining to the monarch the image of gold, silver, iron and clay, which, in his dream, he had seen shattered by "a stone cut out without hands," interprets it as a succession of world-kingdoms, destined to be destroyed by "a kingdom of God," which shall last forever; and, in his famous vision of the "son of man" in Da 7:14, it is said, "There was given him dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, that all the peoples, 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."

These passages in Daniel form undoubtedly the proximate source of the phrase; yet the idea which it represents mounts far higher. From the first the Jewish state was governed by laws believed to be derived directly from heaven; and, when the people demanded a king, that they might be like other nations, they were reproached for desiring any king but God Himself. With this sublime conception the actual monarchy was only a compromise, the reigning monarch passing for Yahweh's representative on earth. In David, the man after God's own heart, the compromise was not unsatisfactory; in Solomon it was still tolerable; but in the majority of the kings of both Judah and Israel it was a dismal and disastrous failure. No wonder that the pious sighed and prayed that Yahweh might take to Himself His great power and reign, or that the prophets predicted the coming of a ruler who would be far nearer to God than the actual kings and of whose reign there would be no end. Even when the political kingdom perished and the people were carried away into Babylon, the intelligent and truly religious among them did not cease to cherish the old hope, and the very aspect of the worldpowers then and subsequently menacing them only widened their conceptions of what that kingdom must be which could overcome them all. The return from Babylon seemed a miraculous confirmation of their faith, and it looked as if the day long prayed for were about to dawn. Alas, it proved a day of small things. The era of the Maccabees was only a transitory gleam; in the person of Herod the Great a usurper occupied the throne; and the eagles of the Romans were hovering on the horizon. Still Messianic hopes flourished, and Messianic language filled the mouths of the people.

II. Its Use by Jesus--Contrast with Jewish Conceptions.

1. Current Jewish Opinions:

Schurer, in his History of the Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ (II, 11, 126 ff), has drawn up a kind of Messianic creed, in no fewer than eleven articles, which he believes was extensively diffused at this period. The Sadducees, indeed, had no participation in these dreams, as they would have called them, being absorbed in money-making and courtiership; but the Pharisees cherished them, and the Zealots received their name from the ardor with which they embraced them. The true custodians, however, of these conceptions were the Prosdechomenoi, as they have been called, from what is said of them in the New Testament, that they "waited for the kingdom of God." To this class belonged such men as Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea (Lu 23:51), but it is in the beginning of the Gospel of Luke that we are introduced to its most numerous representatives, in the groups surrounding the infant Baptist and the infant Saviour (Lu 2:25,38); and the truest and amplest expression of their sentiments must be sought in the inspired hymns which rose from them on this occasion. The center of their aspirations, as there depicted, is a kingdom of God--not, however, of worldly splendor and force, but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit; beginning in humility, and passing to exaltation only through the dark valley of contrition.

2. Relation of Jesus to Same:

Such was the circle in which both the Baptist and Jesus were reared and it was out of this atmosphere that the conception of the kingdom of God came into their minds. It has frequently been said that, in making use of this term, Jesus accommodated Himself to the opinions and language of His fellow-countrymen; and there is truth in this, because, in order to secure a footing on the solid earth of history, He had to connect His own activity with the world in which He found Himself. Yet the idea was native to His home and His race, and therefore to Himself; and it is not improbable that He may at first have been unaware of the wide difference between His own thoughts on the subject and those of His contemporaries.

3. Growing Divergence and Contrast:

When, however, He began, in the course of His ministry, to speak of the kingdom of God, it soon became manifest that by Him and by His contemporaries it was used in different senses; and this contrast went on increasing until there was a great gulf fixed between Him and them. The difference cannot better be expressed than by saying, as is done by B. Weiss, that He and they laid the accent on different halves of the phrase, they emphasizing "the kingdom" and He "of God." They were thinking of the expulsion of the Romans, of a Jewish king and court, and of a world-wide dominion going forth from Mt. Zion; He was thinking of righteousness, holiness and peace, of the doing of the will of God on earth as it is done in heaven. So earthly and fantastic were the expectations of the Jewish multitude that He had to escape from their hands when they tried to take Him by force and make Him a king. The authorities never acknowledged the pretensions of One who seemed to them a religious dreamer, and, as they clung to their own conceptions, they grew more and more bitter against One who was turning the most cherished hopes of a nation into ridicule, besides threatening to bring down on them the heavy hand of the Roman. And at last they settled the controversy between Him and them by nailing Him to a tree.

4. Prophetic Character of the "Temptation":

At one time Jesus had felt the glamor of the popular Messianic ideas, and at all times He must have been under temptation to accommodate His own ideas to the prejudices of those on whose favor His success seemed to be dependent. The struggle of His mind and will with such solicitations is embodied in what is called the Temptation in the Wilderness (Mt 4:1-11). There He was tempted to accept the dominion of the world at the price of compromise with evil; to be a bread-king, giving panem et circenes; and to curry favor with the multitude by some display, like springing from the pinnacle of the temple. The incidents of this scene look like representative samples of a long experience; but they are placed before the commencement of His public activity in order to show that He had already overcome them; and throughout His ministry He may be said to have been continually declaring, as He did in so many words at its close, that His kingdom was not of this world.

5. Modern "Futuristic" Hypothesis (J. Weiss, Schweitzer):

It is very strange that, in spite of this, He should be believed, even by Christian scholars, to have held a purely futuristic and apocalyptic view of the kingdom Himself. He was all the time expecting, it is said, that the heavens would open and the kingdom descend from heaven to earth, a pure and perfect work of God. This is exactly what was expected by the Jewish multitude, as is stated in Lu 19:11; and it is precisely what the authorities believed Him to be anticipating. The controversy between Him and them was as to whether Yahweh would intervene on His behalf or not; and, when no intervention took place, they believed they were justified in condemning Him. The premises being conceded, it is difficult to deny the force of their argument. If Jesus was all the time looking out for an appearance from heaven which never arrived, what better was He than a dreamer of the ghetto?

6. Weakness of This View:

It was by Johannes Weiss that this hypothesis was started in recent times; and it has been worked out by Schweitzer as the final issue of modern speculation on the life of Christ (see his The Quest of the Historical Jesus). But in opposition to it can be quoted not a few sayings of Jesus which indicate that, in His view, the kingdom of God had already begun and was making progress during His earthly ministry, and that it was destined to make progress not by catastrophic and apocalyptic interference with the course of Providence, but, as the grain grows--first the blade, then the ear, after that the full grain in the ear (Mr 4:26-29). Of such sayings the most remarkable is Lu 17:20 f, "And being asked by the Pharisees, when the kingdom of God cometh, he answered them and said, The kingdom of God cometh not with observation: neither shall they say, Lo, here! or, There! for lo, the kingdom of God is within you." "Observation," in this quotation, is an astronomical term, denoting exactly such a manifestation in the physical heavens as Jesus is assumed to have been looking for; so that He denies in so many words the expectation attributed to Him by those representatives of modern scholarship.

7. Positive Conceptions of Jesus:

In the nature of the case the kingdom must have been growing from stage to stage during His earthly ministry. He Himself was there, embodying the kingdom in His person; and the circle gathered around Him partook of the blessings of the kingdom. This circle might have grown large enough to be coextensive with the country; and, therefore, Jesus retained the consciousness of being the Messiah, and offered Himself in this character to His fellow-countrymen by the triumphal entry into Jerusalem. But the citizens of the kingdom had to enter it one by one, not in a body, as the Jews were expecting. Strait was the gate; it was the narrow gate of repentance. Jesus began by repeating the initial word of the teaching of His forerunner; and He had too much reason to continue repeating it, as the hypocrisy and worldliness of Pharisees and Sadducees called for denunciation from His lips. To the frailties of the publicans and sinners, on the contrary, He showed a strange mildness; but this was because He knew the way of bringing such sinners to His feet to confess their sins themselves. To the penitent He granted pardon, claiming that the Son of man had power on earth to forgive sins. Then followed the exposition of righteousness, of which the Sermon on the Mount is a perfect specimen. Yet it commences with another watchword--that of blessedness, the ingredients of which are set forth in all their comprehensiveness. In the same way, in other passages, He promises "rest" "peace" and the like; and again and again, where He might be expected to employ the term "kingdom of God," He substitutes "life" or "eternal life." Such were the blessings He had come into the world to bestow; and the most comprehensive designation for them all was "the kingdom of God."

It is true, there was always imperfection attaching to the kingdom as realized in His lifetime, because He Himself was not yet made perfect. Steadily, from the commencement of the last stage of His career, He began to speak of His own dying and rising again. To those nearest Him such language was at the time a total mystery; but the day came when His apostles were able to speak of His death and ascension as the crown and glory of His whole career. When His life seemed to be plunging over the precipice, its course was so diverted by the providence of God that, by dying, He became the Redeemer of mankind and, by missing the throne of the Jews, attained to that of the universe, becoming King of kings and Lord of lords.

III. The Idea in History.

1. Apostolic and Post-apostolic Age:

After the death of Jesus, there soon ensued the destruction of the Jewish state; and then Christianity went forth among the nations, where to have spoken of it as a kingdom of God would have unnecessarily provoked hostility and called forth the accusation of treason against the powers that be. Hence, it made use of other names and let "the kingdom of God" drop. This had commenced even in Holy Scripture, where, in the later books, there is a growing infrequency in the use of the term. This may be alleged as proof that Jesus was being forgotten; but it may only prove that Christianity was then too much alive to be trammeled with words and phrases, even those of the Master, being able at every stage to find new language to express its new experience.

2. Early Christian Centuries:

In the early Christian centuries, "the kingdom of God" was used to designate heaven itself, in which from the first the development of the kingdom was to issue; this, in fact, being not infrequently the meaning of the phrase even in the mouth of Jesus. The Alexandrian thinkers brought back the phrase to designate the rule of God in the conscience of men. Augustine's great work bears a title, De Civitate Dei, which is a translation of our phrase; and to him the kingdom of God was the church, while the world outside of the church was the kingdom of Satan. From the time of Charlemagne there were in the world, side by side, two powers, that of the emperor and that of the pope; and the history of the Middle Ages is the account of the conflict of these two for predominance, each pretending to struggle in the name of God. The approaching termination of this conflict may be seen in Wycliffe's great work De Dominio Divino, this title also being a translation of our phrase.

3. Reformation Period:

During the struggles of the Reformation the battles of the faith were fought out under other watchwords; and it was rather amongsuch sectaries as the Baptists, that names like Fifth Monarchy and Rule of the Saints betrayed recollection of the evangelic phraseology; but how near, then and subsequently, the expression of men's thoughts about authority in church and state came to the language of the Gospels could easily be demonstrated, for example, from the Confessions and Books of Discipline of the Scottish church.

4. Later Ideas:

The very phrase, "the kingdom of God," reappeared at the close of the Reformation period among the Pietists of Germany, who, as their multiplying benevolent and missionary activities overflowed the narrow boundaries of the church, as it was then understood, spoke of themselves as working for the kingdom of God, and found this more to their taste than working for the church. The vague and humanitarian aspirations of Rationalism sometimes assumed to themselves the same title; but it was by Ritschl and his followers that the phrase was brought back into the very heart of theology. In the system of Ritschl there are two poles--the love of God and the kingdom of God. The love of God enfolds within itself God's purpose for the world, to be realized in time; and this progressive realization is the kingdom of God. It fulfils itself especially in the faithful discharge of the duties of everyone's daily vocation and in the recognition that in the course of Providence all things are working together for good to them that love God.

IV. Place in Theology.

1. Danger of Exageration:

There are those to whom it appears self-evident that what was the leading phrase in the teaching of Jesus must always be the master-word in theology; while others think this to be a return from the spirit to the letter. Even Jesus, it may be claimed, had this phrase imposed upon Him quite as much as He chose it for Himself; and to impose it now on theology would be to entangle the movements of Christian thought with the cerements of the dead.

2. Elements of Living Power in Idea:

This is an interesting controversy, on both sides of which much might be said. But in the phrase "the kingdom of God" there are elements of living power which can never pass away. (1) It expresses the social Power inside of Christianity. A kingdom implies multitude and variety, and, though religion begins with the individual, it must aim at brotherhood, organization and expansion. (2) It expresses loyalty. However much kings and kingdoms may fail to touch the imagination in an age of the world when many countries have become or are becoming republican, the strength to conquer and to endure will always have to be derived from contact with personalities. God is the king of the kingdom of God, and the Son of God is His vicegerent; and without the love of God the Father and the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ no progress can be made with the Christianization of the world. (3) It keeps alive the truth, suggested by Jesus in the Lord's Prayer, that the doing of the will of God on earth is the one thing needful. This is the true end of all authority in both church and state, and behind all efforts thus directed there is at work the potency of heaven. (4) It reminds all generations of men that their true home and destiny is heaven. In not a few of our Lord's own sayings, as has been remarked, our phrase is obviously only a name for heaven; and, while His aim was that the kingdom should be established on earth, He always promised to those aiding in its establishment in this world that their efforts would be rewarded in the world to come. The constant recognition of a spiritual and eternal world is one of the unfailing marks of genuine Christianity.


See the works on New Testament Theology by Weiss, Beyschlag, Holtzmann, Feine, Schlatter, Weinel, Stevens, Sheldon; and on the Teaching of Jesus by Wendt, Dalman, Bruce; Candlish, The Kingdom of God; Robertson, Regnum Dei; Stalker, The Ethic of Jesus.

James Stalker

Bible Verses by Topic Nave's Bible Concordance McClintock and Strong Biblical Cyclopedia Online Bible KJV Dictionary

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