Why Don't People Understand the Kingdom of God?

The Kingdom of God was a central part of Jesus Christ's message and thus a major theme of the Bible. So why is it so rarely understood, and why isn't it commonly taught today?

About one billion people profess Christianity. Christianity traces its origin and its beliefs to the teachings of Jesus Christ, who lived almost 2,000 years ago.

Yet it is a paradox that many of the adherents to Christianity are not aware of Jesus' central teaching. As a result, it is rarely proclaimed.

The heart and core of Jesus Christ's message was that the Kingdom of God would be established on earth. This theme is to be found throughout the four Gospels. As historian Michael Grant puts it, "every thought and saying of Jesus was directed and subordinated to one single thing ..., the realization of the Kingdom of God upon the earth," and "this one phrase [Kingdom of God] sums up his whole ministry and his whole life's work" ( Jesus: An Historian's Review of the Gospels, 1995, pp. 10-11).

Yet, as Grant puts it, modern Christianity "prefers to dwell on quite different aspects of his career and instruction" (ibid., p. 29).

The Disciples Proclaimed the Kingdom

So why do we hear so little about the Kingdom of God—as proclaimed in the Bible—in modern Christianity?

The disciples of Jesus obviously understood His message. References to the Kingdom of God—or the Kingdom of Heaven, as the Gospel of Matthew usually refers to it—appear many times in their writings. Matthew alone contains 37 references. Together the four Gospels specifically mention God's Kingdom 86 times in addition to other, oblique, references to it. The remainder of the New Testament, from Acts through Revelation, mentions God's Kingdom many times.

The disciples recognized with crystal clarity that, when Jesus spoke of the Kingdom of God, He spoke in terms of a real government—a structured, organized entity with the very authority of God behind it. Certain rulers who heard Christ's message recognized the political implications and viewed His words as a threat to their own power. This became a factor in Christ's eventual crucifixion (Luke 23:2; John 19:12).

To Jesus and His disciples, the term Kingdom of God meant a government that would be established on earth. They anticipated that its arrival would amount to nothing less than a sweeping, overwhelming change in the world order.

In teaching the message of this Kingdom, Jesus was simply extending the central theme of the Old Testament. The Hebrew prophets had earlier stressed the reality of this Kingdom. Referring to the Bible, John Bright wrote: "Had we to give that book a title, we might with justice call it 'The Book of the Coming Kingdom of God.' That is, indeed, its central theme everywhere. Old Testament and New Testament thus stand together as the two acts of a single drama" ( The Kingdom of God, 1981, p. 197).

The Millennium

Over time, historians began referring to this kingdom to come as the Millennium. This is because in Revelation 20 the apostle John wrote that the saints would reign with Christ for 1,000 years: "And I saw thrones, and they sat on them, and judgment was committed to them ... And they lived and reigned with Christ for a thousand years" (Revelation 20:4).

The word millennium is a derivation of the Latin words mille for "thousand" and annum for "year." Most reference works address the Kingdom of God teaching under the category of "Millennium."

Be aware, however, that the Millennium and the Kingdom of God aren't synonymous, although they overlap. According to the Bible, the millennial reign of Christ will initiate God's rule on earth, but His Kingdom will extend past the Millennium into eternity (Daniel 7:13-14).

A Central Teaching Changed

Belief in a literal Millennium continued for several centuries after the apostles. "This view was widely held in the Early Church and was expounded by the Church fathers Papias, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, and Tertullian" ( Collier's Encyclopedia, 1993, "Millennium").

Later church leaders put a different interpretation on the Bible's millennial teachings. They differed from the teachings of Jesus and His apostles in that they said it should not be understood literally, that the concept was only an allegory. The third-century theologian Origen was the first person on record to promote the allegorical explanation.

A later theologian, Augustine (354-430), who originally believed in a literal 1,000-year reign of Christ, altered the teaching even more. He "identified the Church with the Kingdom of God and maintained that the millennial age had already come" (ibid.). He "advanced the theory that the millennium had actually begun with Christ's nativity" ( New Catholic Encyclopedia, 1967, "Millenarianism").

Since Christianity by then was accepted as the religion of the Roman Empire, Augustine taught that the church in this present world is the Kingdom of God, and "the thousand years stand for all the years of the Christian era." Augustine stated this idea in The City of God, Book 20, Chapter 7. The church then "officially adopted Augustine's view that the biblical descriptions of the millennium were allegorical" ( Encyclopedia Americana, 1998, "Millennium").

This teaching, however, cannot be reconciled with the many Bible prophecies of the Kingdom of God. The Bible shows that when the Kingdom comes the returning Christ will take His place as divine ruler of the earth (Revelation 11:15).

Jesus said He would come "in His glory" and "sit on the throne of His glory." He said he would then judge the nations according to their treatment of their fellowman (Matthew 25:31-46). Obviously this has not happened yet.

The Hebrew prophets showed that the arrival of God's Kingdom on earth would bring worldwide peace, physical abundance and divine righteousness (Isaiah 2:4; Amos 9:13). In contrast, history shows that the "Christian era" Augustine equated with God's Kingdom is usually a time of violence, war, starvation and widespread lawlessness.

A hallmark of the age of the church is its persecution and slaughter of professing Christians by others who also claimed Christianity. As historian William Manchester described it: "No one has calculated how many sixteenth-century Christians slaughtered other Christians in the name of Christ, but the gore began to thicken early" ( A World Lit Only by Fire, 1992, p. 178).

A Literal Monarchy?

Disputes over the Kingdom of God concept have enlivened religious discussions for centuries. The issue has not been what the Bible says. Scholars and theologians know that the teaching of the Kingdom of God is in the Bible. The issue of debate has been what does the Bible mean when it speaks of the Kingdom. The majority of theologians have lost faith in the Bible as it is written.

How should we view the prophesied millennial rule of Christ and the saints? Should we take it literally or allegorically? Even some who disagree with a literal Millennium admit that the Bible describes a literal kingdom: "The figurative interpretation ... cannot be made exegetically good even in its most plausible applications ... This remarkable paragraph in John's Apocalypse [Revelation] speaks of a real millennial reign of Christ on earth together with certain of His saints ..." ( International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Vol. III, 1986, "Millennium").

The return of Christ to reign over the earth in a literal kingdom is a plain teaching of the Bible. Generally speaking, those who hold a strong belief in the divine inspiration of the Bible believe that Jesus Christ will literally return and reign on earth. The Scriptures also teach that Christians experience a foretaste of the world to come (Hebrews 6:5) and are the advance emissaries of the Kingdom of God. They are "ambassadors for Christ" (2 Corinthians 5:20).

A Later Concept

Over the last few centuries a new definition of the Kingdom of God has surfaced. This idea does not deny the teaching outright but applies to it a twist of reasoning. This new view began in Europe. "In the 1700s, European intellectuals revamped the millennium-old system for discerning truth: instead of grounding all knowledge in biblical revelation, they tried to build on the foundation of human reason" ( Christian History, issue No. 55, p. 20).

Theologians who adopted this approach became known as the liberal school. What did they conclude about the Kingdom of God? They came to believe that "Western civilization was establishing Christ's earthly rule" (ibid., p. 24).

This secular kind of theology is rooted in the idea that human nature is improving. This view, however, is contradicted by both the Bible and secular history. Man's many wars and atrocities—especially those in this bloodstained 20th century—challenge this view.

Further, the Bible offers not the slightest hint that human power and ingenuity could ever establish a righteous world. On the contrary, it shows that man's misrule will bring the human race to the verge of extinction (Matthew 24:21-22).

Even though its members learned that they should set good examples of Christian living, the New Testament church received no commission whatsoever to politically reform the present world's society. Abuses in the Roman Empire of that day were many. Yet "the early church had no hope of reforming the state or of bringing it into conformity to the Kingdom of God" (Bright, p. 235). Instead, church members heard from their leaders that they should hope and pray for God's Kingdom to come. The New Testament closes with a plea for this very thing: "Even so, come, Lord Jesus!" (Revelation 22:20).

Why Did Mankind Stop Believing?

The early Church believed that Christ would return to rule over the nations. Christians proclaimed this message faithfully. They believed it completely. They prayed for it fervently. It was on their minds always. At one point during Christ's ministry, the apostles asked Him, "Tell us, when will these things be? And what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?" (Matthew 24:3).

After Christ's death and resurrection, and just before His ascension to heaven, they again wanted to know, "Lord, will You at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?" (Acts 1:6). Jesus told them it was not God's intent that they should know exactly when this would happen. He told them they should concern themselves with proclaiming His message to the world (verses 7-8).

Their response from that day was to preach the message of His Kingdom. They crisscrossed the Roman Empire in the process. As they did so, they held firmly to the belief that Christ would return soon to establish God's Kingdom. Late in his life the apostle Peter believed the end was imminent. He wrote that "the end of all things is at hand" (1 Peter 4:7). And John wrote, "Little children, it is the last hour ..." (1 John 2:18). Paul's early letters (1 and 2 Thessalonians) show that he also believed that God's Kingdom would arrive during his lifetime.

Do Not Grow Weary

The prophets of the Old Testament, under God's inspiration, envisioned the everlasting Kingdom of God (Isaiah 9:7; Psalm 145:13; Daniel 7:27). Jesus Christ confirmed it, saying, "... It is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom" (Luke 12:32). Peter, who had expected to see the Kingdom while he lived, wrote before he died that "an entrance will be supplied to you abundantly into the everlasting kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ" (2 Peter 1:11).

Though Peter did not live to see God's Kingdom, he did not lose heart. Christians must continue to believe in the sure promise of the Kingdom. We must faithfully serve God while we wait for it.

The belief and hope that the return of Christ is near has intrigued Bible readers from the apostles' time to our own. With many people through the centuries anticipating the early arrival of their Lord, some lost heart when it didn't occur when they expected. Some gave up in disappointment. The epistle to the Hebrews, written several decades after Christ's ascension to heaven, exhorts Christians to continue to believe and not lose confidence in Christ's return (Hebrews 10:35). It reminds them of a statement from the Hebrew prophet Habakkuk: "For yet a little while, and He who is coming will come and will not tarry" (verse 37; Habakkuk 2:3).

The epistle to the Hebrews did not promise that Christ would return by a particular time. It does, however, assure Christians that He will surely come, and they must continue to believe. The quote from Habakkuk is most appropriate. The prophet Habakkuk lived in the nation of Judah six centuries before the Christian era, in a time of societal disintegration. Because of the sins of the nation, God was about to allow the people of Judah to be overrun by the mighty empire of Babylon.

Habakkuk despaired at the thought of this. He knew that God had chosen his nation centuries earlier to accomplish a special mission. He didn't understand, in light of this, why God would allow catastrophe to occur to Judah. God assured Habakkuk that He would accomplish His purpose with Judah but that it would be at a later time. God also told the prophet that he must wait for the time of God's choosing to bring it to pass. God reminded Habakkuk that "the just shall live by his faith" (Habakkuk 2:4).

Hebrews 10:38 quotes from Habakkuk 2:4. The lesson is that God's timetable may differ from man's. God does not allow man to foresee the chronological details of His plan of salvation, but the outcome is certain. God will do what He has promised. This was the crucial lesson for Christians in the early decades of the Church, and it remains a essential lesson for the people of God in every age. We must retain our faith in the Kingdom of God. God will do what He has promised. He will send Jesus Christ, who will return to earth in triumph.

The Eternal Kingdom

The prophets of the Old Testament, under God's inspiration, envisioned His everlasting kingdom (Isaiah 9:7; Psalms 145:13; Daniel 7:27). Jesus Christ confirmed its longevity, adding that "it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom" (Luke 12:32). Peter, who had expected to see God's Kingdom while he lived, wrote before he died that "an entrance will be supplied to you abundantly into the everlasting kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ" (2 Peter 1:11).

Life brings many disappointments and trials, testing our faith in God's promises. In the parable of the sower, in Matthew 13, Jesus identified three areas of temptation His people would encounter: the work of the devil, the temptation to covet material possessions, and personal trials.

A Christian confronts all of these at times. All tempt us and distract us from what should be our primary focus in life—to "seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness" (Matthew 6:33).

The apostle Paul exhorted converts of his time saying, "We must through many tribulations enter the kingdom of God" (Acts 14:22). Those who remain faithful will look beyond their distresses and put their confidence in God. These are they who will inherit God's Kingdom .

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