Did Jesus Really Usher in the Kingdom of God?

Jesus began his ministry with a bold proclamation:

The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel. (Mark 1:15 ESV)

While his gospel-shaped announcement mentions the coming of the kingdom, some people ask whether or not the kingdom did in fact come through the death and resurrection of Jesus. With a shrunken gospel of going to heaven upon death, some people are left asking, “Did Jesus really usher in the kingdom of God?”

My initial response is, “Well of course he did!”

But I do not want to come across as too dismissive. I understand for some evangelical Christians, the message of the kingdom of God has been buried under cultural layers and a misplaced understanding of the gospel. For some, Jesus came to die for our sins so that we could be forgiven and go to heaven when we die. For these Christians, everything else in the Christian life is somehow secondary to this primary goal of going to heaven upon death. A vision of the kingdom of God struggles to find room in the minds of those focused on heaven as the ultimate goal of Christian experience. A vision of the kingdom of God struggles to find room in the minds of those focused on heaven as the ultimate goal of Christian experience. Click To Tweet

Pleated Pants and Skinny Jeans

If these heavenly-minded Christians do allow the light of the kingdom into their understanding of the Christian life, the kingdom of God tends to get reduced to a subjective experience. These are the “pleated pants” Christians Scot McKnight describes in his book Kingdom Conspiracy. In contrast, the “skinny jeans” folks are those who equate the kingdom of God with acts of social justice, which is not altogether off base, but it shrinks the kingdom of God down to human activity in God’s good world.

The “pleated pants” crowd reduces the kingdom as well. But for them the already/not yet experience of the kingdom is in “redemptive moments, moments when God’s redemptive reign breaks in to save, to restore, to reconcile, to heal.” [1] These redemptive moments are a part of the kingdom of God—but this view misses the bigger picture. As McKnight and others have described, the kingdom of God is not a place as much as it is God’s power or authority through God’s people. The kingdom of God is the rule of God in Christ on the earth through the Church. The kingdom of God is the rule of God in Christ on the earth through the Church. Click To Tweet

So if Jesus did, in fact, inaugurate and launch the kingdom of God on earth, how do we know?

The clearest sign is in the kingdom-language used by the gospel writers. But understanding their language requires a brief look into the Jewish world in which they wrote.

The God of Israel is King of the World

Israel went through a season of earthly kings, which spilled over into a divided kingdom before Israel’s eventual exile in Babylon. Nevertheless, their God, whom they believed to be the one true living God, the creator God, was in fact the King of all nations.

Imagine the audacity of one small, seemingly insignificant people in the Mediterranean world making such an outlandish claim. Today when people in a North American context use the word “God,” the word is normally understood as the one God of creation, but this understanding is a modern one. In the ancient world, polytheism ruled the day. Each people group, each tribe had their gods.

The Hebrews believed not only in one God, but that this one God was King, not only of Israel, but King of all nations, peoples, tribes, and tongues. This theme is repeated throughout the Psalms.

The LORD is king forever and ever; the nations perish from his land.

For God is the King of all the earth; sing praises with a psalm.

May all kings fall down before him, all nations serve him.

Yet God my King is from of old, working salvation in the midst of the earth.

For the LORD is a great God, and a great King above all gods.

Kings of the earth and all peoples, princes and all rulers of the earth! Young men and maidens together, old men and children! Let them praise the name of the LORD, for his name alone is exalted; his majesty is above earth and heaven. [2]

The people of God living in the days of Jesus were longing for God to return as King. The Hebrew prophets pointed to a day when all the nations would come to Mount Zion to learn the ways of God. In that day the God of Israel would be honored as King.

Christ Means King

This promised day of God’s reign as king would come through the coming of Messiah, the child who would be born, the son who would be given.

Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. (Isaiah 9:7 ESV)

Messiah refers to a Jewish King, just as Pharaoh was an Egyptian King or, in more recent times, Czar was a Russian king. The word “messiah” in Greek is christos, which became anglicized into “Christ.”

In other words “Christ,” the title given to Jesus, means “king.”

Jesus came as the fulfillment of Israel’s hope, expectations, and prophecies. Jesus came as the embodiment of Israel’s God.

Peter declared, “You are the Christ, the son of the living God,” and those who believed in Jesus believed he was Israel’s Messiah ushering in the return of God’s presence to reign as king.

The gospel writers tell this very story. According to N.T. Wright, “All four gospels are telling the story of how God became king in and through this story of Jesus of Nazareth.” [3]

The Recurring Kingdom Signs in Jesus’ Passion

With this brief overview of the Jewish world of the gospel writers, we turn to see the kingdom-language of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, particularly in their passion narratives, as they describe Jesus as a king ushering in God’s kingdom.

The gospel writers repeat this message throughout the account of Jesus’ crucifixion: Jesus was King. When the soldiers mocked him on his way to the cross, Matthew places kingdom-language in the mouths of the mocking soldiers:

And twisting together a crown of thorns, they put it on his head and put a reed in his right hand. And kneeling before him, they mocked him, saying, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’ (Matthew 27:29 ESV)

As Jesus stands before Pilate in his trial, Pilate asked, “Are you the King of the Jews?” And he answered him, “You have said so.” Pilate asked the crowd, “Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?” As the conversation continues between Pilate and the crowd, Pilate again asks, “Then what shall I do with the man you call the King of the Jews?” (Mark 15:2,9, 12 ESV).

When Jesus was dying on the cross, the soldiers mocked him again saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” (Luke 23:37). All of the gospel writers included the most important sign pointing us to the kingdom of God coming into the earth through Jesus. It was the sign fixed above Jesus’ head on the cross: It read, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” (John 19:19 ESV) The most important sign pointing us to the kingdom of God coming into the earth through Jesus was the sign fixed above Jesus' head on the cross. Click To Tweet

Could the gospel writers be any more clear? Jesus died as Israel’s Messiah, the Jewish King. As I have written elsewhere, a crucified Messiah was a failed Messiah. If the cross was the end of the story then we could rightly assume that the kingdom vision of Jesus died when he died.

But the death of Jesus is not the end of the story.

We preach a gospel of a crucified, risen, and ascended Jesus. As we look back at the cross through the resurrection, we realize the kingdom of God came rushing into the earth through the death of the King of kings. God’s first sign of the presence of the kingdom was the resurrection of Jesus. The resurrection was God’s vindication that Jesus is King and the kingdom of God had come. The resurrection was God’s vindication that Jesus is King and the kingdom of God had come. Click To Tweet

[1] Scot McKnight, Kingdom Conspiracy (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2014), 15.
[2] Psalm 10:16; 47:7; 72:11-12; 95:3; 148:11-13
[3] N.T. Wright, How God Became King (New York: HarperOne, 2011), 174.

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