The language we use affects the understandings we hold. I have recently been thinking about a prime example, the language of “king” and “kingdom” especially as used in the phrases “kingdom of God” and “kingdom of heaven.”

Most of us have a particular picture in our minds when we hear the word, “kingdom.”

  • A kingdom is controlled by a “king,” a male human being.
  • A king lives in a palace and sits on a throne representing his governing power.
  • That power is exercised over a territory, usually thought of as a piece of land marked by borders that separate it from other land.
  • The king exercises total control over this territory; his word is the law which is to be obeyed.
  • It is expected that all people within the territory will be loyal to and obey the law given by the king.
  • This law is enforced through the power of life and death itself. Those who are loyal and obey the king receive land and liberty to gain an income and provide the essentials of life for their families. Those who are disloyal or break the laws are punished and have some life essentials taken away, eventually leading to death.
  • The human male ruler uses military force (police, an army, etc.) to enforce his rule within the borders and also protect against invaders from beyond its borders.
  • At the same time, the king invokes a spiritual power or a god to reinforce his power and make that power legitimate.

The Jewish people typically had this kind of picture in their mind when they thought about the coming Messiah. “Messiah” means “anointed one” and was a code name for a powerful king anointed by God. Furthermore, they had a particular king in mind, King David, who represented the pinnacle of Israel’s political power in the world. Surely, they thought, the Messiah (Anointed King) would defeat all other nations and rule a vast territory from the capital city of Jerusalem. God would empower the Messiah king to do this. All people would bow down and obey the king as he enforced the Word of God, the Torah.

Yet, Jesus’ notion of the Kingdom of God was different than what most of Judaism of his day was expecting. Jesus sometimes used different language than what was expected. Sometimes, he took language that people thought they understood, but gave it new meaning. Jesus gave the word that is translated “kingdom” a much more dynamic meaning. Indeed, the original Greek word, basileia, behind our English word, “Kingdom,” went well beyond the common picture of a throne room in Jerusalem.

In Luke 17:20-21, we read,

Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.” (NRSV)

Jesus says, in effect, “Don’t look for God’s kingdom in the concrete symbols of a single male holding power from a royal palace in the capital city.” Jesus was not even saying, “I’m the King; do what I say.” To do so at that point would have been almost comical, for Jesus certainly had none of the outward trappings of a kingdom.

It is only in hindsight that the early church could affirm that when Jesus said, “the kingdom of God is among you” he was referring to the ministry of proclamation, teaching, and healing that the Heavenly Father was doing through him. There was the dynamic of the Kingdom of God.

It is probably more accurate to translate the Greek word, basileia, as the “Rule” of God or the “Reign” of God, or the “Dominion” of God. The concept is one of exercising God’s authority. It also means that the “territory” in which God’s authority is exercised is wherever God is present. The New Testament affirms that this presence was shown most fully in Jesus himself, both in his earthly, bodily ministry and then later through the Holy Spirit at work in the spiritual body of Christ, the church.

When we talk about church in this context, we are once again talking about a concept that goes far beyond a building with four walls and a steeple presided over by a professional clergy person and a worship band. All of that has its place, but that is not the essence of the church. The church is supposed to be the “you” in Jesus’ statement, “… the kingdom of God is among you.” The church is to live out the suffering servant love for “the least of these” that Jesus taught and then modeled on the cross. All of that means that while the Kingdom (or Reign) of God is not the same as the church, it is the power dynamic that operates most fully in the church.

We need to revise our pictures and maybe even our language. The “Kingdom” of God only happens insofar as the church becomes a Spirit-infused group of people that acknowledges God’s Dominion and lives according to its spiritual dynamic. As Jesus says, “…the kingdom of God is among you.” Will we become, ever more fully, that “you”?