The Synoptic Interpretation of the Christ Event: “The Kingdom of God”
. . . Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, and saying, The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe the gospel. — Mark 1:14,15.
In the three Synoptic Gospels the expression "kingdom of God" (or "kingdom of heaven")1 is used scores of times. It is Jesus' favorite expression to designate His work and the significance of His mission.
We need to make several observations regarding the significance of this expression:
1. The concept is thoroughly Jewish and Old Testamental.
. . . for all His repeated mention of the Kingdom of God, Jesus never once paused to define it. Nor did any hearer ever interrupt Him to ask, "Master, what do these words 'Kingdom of God,' which you use so often, mean?" On the contrary, Jesus used the term as if assured it would be understood, and indeed it was. The Kingdom of God lay within the vocabulary of every Jew. It was something they understood and longed for desperately. — John Bright, The kingdom of God, pp.17,18.
The Jewish hope of the coming kingdom of God was a growing concept throughout the Old Testament. If ever there was any thought that the kingdom of Judah, especially under the reign of David and Solomon, was the fulfillment of Israel's hope, that thought was soon shattered by the kingdom's sinful decadence. When it was wiped off the map by the Babylonians, the Jews still clung to the prophetic promise that there would be a new king to sit on David's throne. But expectations for a restored kingdom did not materialize in the return from the Babylonian exile.
As we saw earlier, the Jewish expectation of the kingdom received its most definite expression in Daniel. There it is symbolized by a stone which smites the metallic image, grinds it to chaff, and becomes the kingdom of God, which stands forever (Dan. 2:44). The announcement of Jesus about the arrival of the kingdom, therefore, would certainly awaken among His hearers memories of the stone of Daniel 2. In words clearly reminiscent of Daniel, Jesus spoke of Himself, saying, ". . . whosoever shall fall on this stone shall be broken: but on whomsoever it shall fall, it will grind him to powder." Matt. 21:44.
Furthermore, the Synoptics repeatedly recall how Jesus referred to Himself as "the Son of man." This reminds us of the passage in Daniel 7: "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. And there was given Him dominion, and glory, and a kingdom . . . " vv. 13, 14. At His trial we hear the high priest demanding of Jesus, "Art Thou the Christ (the Messiah), the Son of the Blessed?" And Jesus replies, "I am: and ye shall see the Son of man sitting on the right hand of power and coming in the clouds of heaven." Mark 14:61, 62. There is no mistaking what Jesus meant. His accusers instantly recognized His allusion to Daniel's prophecy of the Messianic kingdom.
All this proves that the Old Testament expectations of the coming kingdom find their fulfillment in Jesus. Therefore we must understand the expression "kingdom of God" in the light of this Old Testament background.
2. The expression "kingdom of God," being Old Testamental, is thoroughly eschatological (definition: referring to the end of the age or time). The Old Testament depicts this age as ending in a divine visitation, "the day of Yahweh," or as Daniel 7 describes it, a day of judgment wherein God ushers in His kingdom. This would mean a visitation of punishment on the adversaries of God's people and a visitation of redemption and salvation for God's people.
Here we should be careful to continue thinking in Old Testamental rather than Grecian categories. Old Testament expectations of salvation have a robust, earthly realism about them. Salvation is not a flight from the realm of the material, the body, and from the sphere of the created order. It is rather the redemption of the created order, where man lives as a servant under God and as a ruler over all of God's gifts. The kingdom of God is an anticipated order where the whole man would be restored to life. The kingdom would therefore end the life of this age and usher in the life of the age to come.
3. The thing that was startlingly new about the message of Jesus was His announcement that this kingdom of the future age had now appeared in history. His words did not merely mean that the kingdom was imminent, but that it actually was present in His Person and work. As He stood among men, He declared, ". . . the kingdom of God is among you." Luke 17:21.2 The miracles and mighty works of Jesus were not a mere means of demonstrating His Messiahship (for the false Christs show off their works to prove their claims), but they appeared because the presence of the age to come had broken into history. Here was God's new Adam, who was master of the whole created order because He Himself was subject to God in all things. No wonder the preaching of Jesus was an electrifying announcement. His claims that the hour for the fulfillment of all eschatological expectations had arrived in Him were matched only by the infinite nature of His Person and work.
4. The announcement of the kingdom was a joyous announcement. Jesus called it "the gospel [good news] of the kingdom." It was a matter of such joy that He refused any the right to make His disciples fast while He was with them. His visitation was a time of celebration. Jesus was no doleful character. Crowds, children, publicans and sinners sought out His company. His name was at the head of many party invitation lists.
Jesus frequently used the common illustration of a feast or banquet to describe the eschatological consummation of the Kingdom of God. The divine joy over the salvation of one lost is described in terms of feasting, merry-making, and dancing (Luke 15:23, 25).... In His own view, His frequent eating and drinking with tax collectors and sinners was itself a foretaste of the fellowship of the consummated Kingdom of God. — George Eldon Ladd, The Pattern of New Testament Truth, p.41.
Those being invited to the kingdom of God must be invited as to a joyous feast. Jesus made it clear by his own actions that the gospel must not be presented in pompous ecclesiastical moroseness, but with transparent enthusiasm. He was always full of boundless optimism, telling His disciples that He must move on and spread the glad news of the kingdom to other cities. Preaching that is without infectious, joyous enthusiasm is not preaching the gospel.
5. Yet the preaching of the kingdom is no lighthearted, frothy enthusiasm. It is an invitation of solemn urgency too. Jesus presented the message of the kingdom as a matter of desperate importance. It is so crucial that it would be better to mutilate one's self and enter maimed than not to enter this kingdom at all. The response of man must be commensurate with the greatness of the invitation. One must be willing to forsake all — houses, lands, kindred and life itself — in order to press into this kingdom. Pride must be abandoned, and the subjects become as humble as little children.
Behind the invitation to salvation in this kingdom is the somber warning of what it means to be left out. It means weeping and gnashing of teeth. Men must repent or perish (Luke 13:3). The Jews were not to imagine that salvation on God's eschatological day would come to the children of Abraham as a matter of course. The note of warning in the prophets, especially Amos, was revived, telling the chosen people that the day of Yahweh would come as a day of wrath upon all sinners, Jews included.
6. Most kingdoms are established by the birth pangs of conquest, hardship, pain and suffering. The kingdom of God is no exception. It was established solely by the bitter suffering and death of God's suffering Servant according to the prophecy of Isaiah. This was the real mystery of the kingdom that took all by surprise. This is what the disciples found so hard to comprehend and the Jews in general found so objectionable. The idea of a suffering Messiah was unthinkable.
Yet the Synoptic portrayal of the cross — the passion of the King in the birth pangs of the kingdom — is the high point of the arrival of the kingdom narrative. About one-third of the total presentation of the Christ event is devoted to the scenes of Christ's passion. Little is said in interpretation of this awe-inspiring sacrifice. That is left to the Epistles of the New Testament. Christ simply said that He must first suffer and then enter into His glory in order that forgiveness of sins might be preached in His name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem (Luke 24:47).
7. The phrase "kingdom of God" primarily means the reign or rule of God. The reason for the evil of this present age is that man has revolted from the rule of God and therefore the whole created order is in revolt against man. To enter the kingdom of God means that man must cast away his sinful pride and submit to the rule of God. Life and true freedom are found only in subjection to the Lordship of Jesus Christ.
Many people have the perverted notion (certainly not obtained from the Bible) that the gospel somehow frees man to some sort of autonomous freedom where he may now dispense with such "legalistic" things as rules, codes or external authorities. The gospel is wrongly used to perpetuate man's sinful independence as if it were within him to direct his steps. But as Jesus story of the prodigal son illustrates, true freedom is found in subjection to rightful authority. The kingdom message is a call to discipleship, to radical obedience in view of the dawning of the end-time age in the Christ event. "Ye are my friends," said Jesus, "if ye do whatsoever I command you." John 15:14.
How men can get the idea that the gospel releases them from obligation to all external authority is a mystery — the mystery of lawlessness indeed! Fellowship in God's kingdom, which is embraced in the now by faith, means submission to the absolute authority of God's commandments and submission to the relative authority of the church, the state, parents, and all institutions which are a reflection of the eternal principle of divine authority. To refuse to submit to the abuse of authority is one thing, but to refuse to recognize the principle of authority is rebellion against the kingdom of God. This is an age when the church needs to stop compromising with the spirit of antinomian permissiveness and unflinchingly call men to repent and submit to the authority of God's rule. To preach anything less is not to preach the kingdom of God.
1 Both expressions obviously mean the same thing (see Matt. 19:23, 24)
2 "Among you" is the preferred reading of Luke 17:21.