Jesus broke into the history of humanity and began His ministry by declaring, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15). In fact, this statement represents the axis of His entire ministry.
The phrase kingdom of God appears more than seventy times in the New Testament. If we add its equivalent kingdom of heaven, it is repeated approximately one hundred times. Most of them appear as sayings of Jesus. Many of the parables were told to illustrate the kingdom of God, beginning with “The kingdom of heaven is like.” Jesus frequently used the phrase in opposition to the kingdoms of this world.
The concept of the kingdom of God establishes the core of Christ’s message. It is interesting to see that generally the evangelical church, from a theological point of view, defines itself as Christ centered. This is not an error, since Christ is the “heart” of the Holy Scriptures. But we must recognize that Christ spoke much more of the kingdom of God than of Himself. Even when He spoke of Himself, He also spoke in terms of the kingdom.
In the longest sermon of Jesus recorded in the Bible, the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus climbed the mountain, as Moses ascended Sinai. But Jesus also spoke from the mount, as God did with Moses. There Jesus quoted this concept of the kingdom several times and established the Beatitudes as the new criteria for the new reality of the kingdom of God.
In addition to Jesus, John the Baptist affirmed that we human beings were not going to the kingdom. Rather, the kingdom of God comes to us. Human beings are “dead” in sins, unable to take any initiative and save themselves. Paul affirms, “Even when we were dead in trespasses, [God] made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved)” (Ephesians 2:5). The arrival of the kingdom was not by human action but by divine — God’s initiative. In fact, Christ teaches us in the Lord’s Prayer that we must pray for the kingdom of God to continue coming to this world, to truly transform the reality of misery in which humanity lives (Matthew 6:9-13).
The pastoral work of the church, among other things, is directly proportional to the vision of the kingdom of God. If the vision is only eschatological or futuristic (as I believe it once was), then the pastoral work is limited, with the belief that nothing can change until Christ comes. It is true that the kingdom of God has not been fully established. If this were the case, the world would be different. But it is also true that the kingdom of God has a dimension that is present, here and now. God has already visited us through His Son Jesus Christ, who inaugurated His kingdom among us. Right now that kingdom is a reality in all those whose lives have been transformed because they have accepted Christ as their Lord and King.
The Pharisees questioned Christ about when the kingdom of God would come. Jesus’ answer: “The kingdom of God does not come with observation; nor will they say, ‘See here!’ or ‘See there!’ For indeed, the kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:20, 21).
It is interesting to see that the last verb in Jesus’ response is in the present tense: “The kingdom of God is within you” — that is, here and now.
When Jesus met with Pontius Pilate, governor of the province of Judea and representative of the Roman kingdom, He focused on the kingdom of God. The Pharisees accused Jesus of declaring that He was king. Unsure about what they said of Jesus, Pilate asked Him directly, “Are You the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:33, 36).
The expression “My kingdom is not of this world” must be understood in the sense that the kingdom of God does not resemble or arise from the kingdoms of this world in any way. Earthly kingdoms arise from the love of power, while the kingdom of God arises from the power of love. In Paul’s words, the kingdom of God is “righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Romans 14:17). In contrast, the kingdoms of the world are characterized by injustice, violence, corruption, and many more evils that overwhelm human beings.
A kingdom response
In the Gospel of Mark, when Jesus announced the arrival of the kingdom, He demanded a response from the listeners: “Repent, and believe in the Gospel” (1:15). You cannot be a citizen of the kingdom of God and be a member of other dark kingdoms. Jesus also affirmed, “He who is not with Me is against Me, and he who does not gather with Me scatters” (Luke 11:23). Furthermore, Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force” (Matthew 11:12). Doing nothing about the arrival of the kingdom is a negative response in itself, and those who fail to respond will face consequences.
Church and kingdom
After what has been said so far, the question arises, “What role does the church play in respect to the kingdom of God?”
To answer this, we must understand that the church lives in a double reality. On one hand is the kingdom of God and on the other, the increasingly sinful world it lives in. The answer requires a clear understanding and arrangement of the trilogy: kingdom, church, world.
Interestingly, the definition of church (from the Greek word ekklesia) means “called-out assembly or congregation.” The members are called to leave the world and are summoned to remain outside it. This is spiritually significant. As Christians, we are called to forsake the sin that defines the world, and we are called to live the remainder of our lives set apart from that sinful activity. It is not about literally leaving the world, because we have no other world we can go to, nor is that God’s desire. Rather, it is about spiritually leaving the world, as Jesus asked His Father: “I do not pray that You should take them out of the world, but that You should keep them from the evil one” (John 17:15).
While it is true that the church is not the kingdom of God, it is also true that she is a different community than the worldly community that bears witness to the kingdom of God and participates in it. Conversion to Christ and the Holy Spirit, who dwells in believers, makes them new creatures with a new conscience, new purposes, and a new lifestyle, where the practice of sin is no longer the rule.
The believer, saved by the grace of God, still lives within their human nature, which naturally tends to sin. This reality is known as the paradox of now, but not yet. The believer is already forgiven of sins and saved from condemnation, but not yet fully transformed. Paul explains it better: “For I delight in the law of God according to the inward man. But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members” (Romans 7:22, 23).
This paradox will end when Christ comes and we are transformed from our human nature to His divine nature. John affirms that one day when Jesus is revealed, we will be like Him, “for we shall see Him as He is” (1 John 3:2).
The church is called to be the light of the world and the salt of the earth. This means that the church is the sign that the kingdom of God has arrived and that it spreads like leaven in the dough until it permeates everything. The church is responsible for infusing society with the gospel of the kingdom. It is then about having less presence of the world in the church and more presence of the church in the world.