Chapter 3: What Is the Kingdom of God?

Understanding the Kingdom of God
by Georgia Harkness

Chapter 3: What Is the Kingdom of God?

At the end of the previous chapter the reader was promised a statement of what the author believes about the nature of the kingdom of God. There are two ways to arrive at such a position. One of them is through form criticism -- a textual and literary analysis of the sources of the relevant biblical passages. This procedure over the past fifty years and more has rendered great service in a better understanding of the New Testament. Yet at the crucial point of Jesus’ own understanding of the kingdom, there is still no agreement among competent scholars. Each of the positions previously outlined has plausibility if one attaches primary importance to one set of factors and gives little or no emphasis to others. This is evident from the fact that we have found values and shortcomings in each of the views of the kingdom which have been examined.

The other approach is to formulate, in as inclusive a manner as possible, a composite impression. This must be tested to see if it has adequate foundations. Such testing will require careful examination, not only of the known facts which support or oppose it, but of the intuitive, emotional, and rational considerations which have shaped this composite impression. Without claiming a completely scientific detachment, one forms a hypothesis and then proceeds to verify it. This verification is both by the objective historical and literary evidence and by the "reasons of the heart" which form so large a part of human existence and of Christian faith and experience in particular.

This is the type of procedure we shall now attempt to follow. Of course, it has its dangers. We noted that one of the criticisms directed against Schweitzer was that he formulated his position at the beginning of his studies and then regarded as authentic only the biblical passages which supported it. But this is not limited to Schweitzer. To a degree, all scholars do this because complete objectivity in any judgment is impossible. Yet if one knows that he is doing it and knows why he does it, the dangers of arbitrary choice based on wishful thinking or one’s personal point of view may be somewhat eliminated.

1. A composite view

Such a composite understanding of the kingdom of God needs to be viewed on two levels. First, there are elements in it which are commonly recognized, though perhaps too seldom made specific, and on which there is little disagreement. Thus far we have dealt mainly with differences of opinion in order to make clear the dilemmas about its nature and forestall an oversimplification. Yet this should not obscure the fact that there are things to say about the kingdom which Christians who have given it any serious thought would seldom dispute. To be sure, these shade off quickly into differences of interpretation and application. Yet it is important and basic that there are some points of general agreement, for they form the foundation on which the other more diversified structures of opinion are erected.

In stating the composite view that this author regards as the most tenable, I will begin with convictions rooted in these general agreements. From that point it will be necessary to deal with the more disputed matters, and I shall then attempt to state where I stand on them and the reasons why.

First, the kingdom means the sovereign, righteous rule of God. It is a rule in which power and goodness, judgment and mercy are combined. Though the term arose when the nations were monarchies, and it had a more realistic symbolism then than now, it connotes power exercised, not in arbitrary dictatorial authority, but in loving concern. Jesus’ understanding of God was of one whose power is supreme over all he has created, but whose love for every person is that of a father.

Second, this sovereign rule of God must be accepted by us in faithful, grateful obedience. There is no real kingdom without subjects. The kingdom is not destroyed by men’s disobedience, for God still rules in judgment. Yet the summons to seek first his kingdom and his righteousness certainly entails human obedience. Without it, apathy breeds anarchy as the will of God is flouted.

Third, the goal of the kingdom is directed toward a redeemed society of persons. A redeemed society in this sense is not identical with a reconstructed social order, though this may well be one of the demands of seeking God’s kingdom and his righteousness in obedience to the love commandments. A redeemed society is one in which salvation is sought and found, not as one individual alone, but in an over-expanding community of individuals. This is basic to the relation of the kingdom to the church, but the goal extends far beyond the boundaries of the visible church.

Fourth, the kingdom meets opposition at every point, and this opposition is latent even in our most meritorious actions. In short, no consideration of the kingdom should minimize the power of evil. The opposition may be thought of as coming from the devil, or from the demonic powers of history, or from mankind’s ever-present sin, ignorance, apathy, and error. The "principalities and powers" confront God’s power. God is never conquered by these forces, but what we believe to be his purposes are delayed or frustrated by them.

Fifth, the kingdom as God’s rule is present but points forward. "Thy kingdom come." Though we may detect the evidences of its presence now, its consummation lies in the future. Whether this future is conceived as eternal life for the individual, or a new heaven and a new earth for mankind, or as the conquest of evil in or beyond human history, the trajectory is toward the future, the eschaton. A view of the kingdom of God need not be apocalyptic, but it is always in some sense eschatological.

To sum up, the kingdom of God is our ultimate challenge and our ultimate hope. Thus, it is not surprising that Jesus found in it his central message. It remains for us to discover, to declare, and to live by all that is good and true in what the term implies. 1

Further convictions, more controversial, which I have arrived at in my own thinking may now be stated. I do not write as an advanced biblical scholar, but as one who has wrestled with the theological aspects of the question over a considerable span of years, and these are my conclusions.

In the thought of Jesus, there was a blend of the prophetic and apocalyptic elements inherited from his Jewish culture. He stood at the juncture of traditions from a long past, and as a thoughtful and concerned man of his times he could hardly fail to be familiar with and influenced by them. This is not to deny his uniqueness, of which I shall say more later. But we shall not get anywhere in trying to understand Jesus unless we are willing to see him as a man who stood within the course of history. This is the more crucial because any adequate understanding of the incarnation, which is basic to Christian faith, regards Jesus as both divine and human. Docetism, the denial of the humanity of Jesus on the claim that he only appeared to be human, was the first heresy with which the early church had to grapple, and it persistently lifts its head even today. Yet if Jesus were God and not man at all, there was no ground for the author of the fourth Gospel to say, "And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth" (John 1:14), or for the church to build its faith upon this foundation throughout the centuries.

What we believe about the Jesus of history -- about whom the Gospels tell much, though we wish we knew even more -- will give the setting not only for the Christ of faith, but for a judgment about his central message of the kingdom. Whatever more Jesus was as God’s Son and chosen agent of redemption and revelation, he was subject not only to historical and cultural influences but to elements of human finitude.

I believe that the prophetic and apocalyptic influences from the Hebrew scriptures and his inherited and surrounding culture were never fully amalgamated in the thought of Jesus. He probably felt no need, as our scholarly studies must, to sort out each strain and neatly balance them against each other. He did not try to keep them in separate categories or, on the other hand, to blend them with no rough places showing. There was wisdom from his fathers in all of the sacred writings! In short, Jesus did not feel it to be his vocation to engage in textual criticism or to be a systematic theologian, however important these enterprises may be as we study him.

Both the prophetic and the apocalyptic elements were absorbed into the mind and heart of Jesus. He also had a deep respect for the law which had had such a central place in the thought of his Jewish fathers. It was no casual word when he said, "Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them", (Matt. 5:17). What he desired with all his being was that all these inherited notes should be put on a deep, personal, God-centered basis.

So, in Jesus prophecy, apocalypse and law were transformed by the illuminating and overwhelming sense of God’s utter sovereignty and his own call as God’s servant to proclaim both the judgment and the saving love of God. What mattered to Jesus was his mission to speak to men in their sin and call them to repentance, to set before them the mercy and goodness of God, to heal men’s sickness of body and soul through the power of God, to call all who would listen to love God supremely and their fellow men as their own selves.

This message Jesus put in the familiar framework of the kingdom of God. He did not try to define the nature of the kingdom. What he did was to declare the urgency and hope of the kingdom, and set forth vividly in memorable affirmations and parables the conditions of entrance into it and the obligations of obedience within it. With such deep convictions gripping his soul, so all-important to him that he was ready to die for them, it is unlikely that he ever thought much about logical consistency. To demand this of him is to try to make of him something that he never felt to be his calling.

Both the prophetic and the apocalyptic notes were mingled in Jesus’ messages of the kingdom, not as a simple carry-over from the past, but with a God-centered and love-and-justice-centered note which his own unique sense of relationship to God put into them. If we look at the composite whole of Jesus’ message and ministry as those who loved him told and retold it until it came to be written in the form we have, the prophetic element predominates over the apocalyptic; yet it does not eliminate it. The more fantastic embellishments and harrowing threats connected with the last days can be attributed to imperfect reporting, not so much on the basis of textual criticism in which consensus is still lacking, but because they do not sound like Jesus. I do not go so far as to say with Frederick Grant that no sane man could have said them,2 but I believe Jesus lived too close to God and knew too well the love of the Father for all his human children to have said them. Yet we do not need to reject all the apocalyptic passages, or deny that Jesus expected a speedy end of the world which did not occur. What Jesus thought of his own relation to the long-expected Messiah is a question to which there is no clear and unambiguous answer. But from the frequency with which he calls himself the Son of man, he may have used this term, not solely as referring to his own humanity, as at some points seems its natural interpretation, but with the apocalyptic connotation it has in Daniel 7:13-14 and in the intertestamental Book of Enoch.3

Does it shatter our faith in Jesus to think that he may have been mistaken as to the imminent end of the world and the events that would surround it’? Why should it? Doubtless those scholars are on safe ground who tell us that some of these passages were probably originally spoken by Jesus as predictions of his own death and resurrection. But even without this explanation, do we need to attribute to him omniscience and complete foreknowledge of the future? He probably did not know that the Western Hemisphere existed. He could not foresee what was going to be happening in the twentieth century. From Luke 19:41-44 we gather that he did expect destruction to fall upon his people because they knew not "the things that make for peace," but there is no likelihood that he knew just when or how this would happen as it did in A.D. 70. There is no indication that he foresaw the world’s chronology being dated twenty centuries later from the supposed year of his birth.

We fall into docetism if we doubt that Jesus had human limitations. We know that he became weary and hungry and upon occasion experienced anger or grief. Then why doubt that there were some things about the future that he took over from the expectations rife in his time rather than from divine foreknowledge? In fact, in the apocalypse in Mark 13, he both declares the imminence of the consummation and his own ignorance of its exact time. "Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away before all these things take place" (Mark 13:30). Yet in a following verse he says, "But of that day or that hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father" (Mark 13:32).

It is for such considerations as these that I find no serious problem in discovering both prophetic and apocalyptic passages in the words of the Gospels attributed to Jesus. I do not believe that we have an exact record of what he did or said. Form criticism and the extensive biblical studies of the twentieth century have demonstrated that the Gospels are books of witness to the good news of Christ rather than exact and infallible historical accounts. Yet the portrait of Jesus still shines through them, sufficient for our Christian faith and life. The more we live with the light of the world which is the reason for the Gospels, the more clearly we are able to glean from them the urgency and hope of the message of the kingdom of God.

So, though I believe that the primary note in Jesus, understanding of the kingdom was the rule of God with a moral and spiritual message of the judgment, yet the loving kindness of God and of God’s call to faithful obedience in all things, I do not believe that this prophetic note makes it necessary to reject wholly the apocalyptic. While Jesus seems to have accepted its particular terminology and some of its concepts familiar in his day, his apocalypticism is different. As in everything else, he gave illumination and fresh meaning to whatever he dealt with. His vision of the future is never in the mood of pessimism. It does not court the spectacular. Evil is not in command of creation. His call to trustful waiting and watchfulness suggests no renunciation of human effort. His apocalypticism is suffused with the spirit of God and given a moral character, as was everything he touched. The Son of man shall come in his glory -- all the angels with him -- and will sit on his glorious throne with all the nations gathered before him. Then the King will say to some, "Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world" (Matt. 25:34). But it is the righteous who will hear this word, and the determining factor in the judgment is what men have done to their hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, imprisoned brothers. The King’s great word is not a magisterial edict but a word that gives the true basis of kinship, "Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me" (Matt. 25:40. See also 25:31-46). In this great parable of the last judgment there is a striking combination of apocalyptic thought with the prophetic. The keynote of the ministry and message of Jesus is summed up in another great passage, this time from his beloved Isaiah which he selected to read in the synagogue on the inaugural day of his ministry:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,

because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives

and recovering of sight to the blind,

to set at liberty those who are oppressed,

to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.

(Luke 4:18-19. Isa. 61:1-2).

Putting these considerations together, we find in the message of Jesus the foundations of what was outlined more formally at the beginning of this section as the essential notes about which there is large agreement among Christians. The kingdom means the righteous rule of God -- a rule in which God is both King and Father. Therefore it is one in which God is above and beyond us in utter holiness, yet he is with us and within us in never-failing love. A philosopher might have something to say about the transcendence and the immanence of God, but Jesus was not concerned with philosophical terminology. The kingdom is both present with us, and it is coming. Yet it comes not by observation, and no man knows the hour of its coming. It comes gradually, like a mustard seed’s growth into a mighty tree. It comes suddenly like a thief in the night and is to be anticipated with watchfulness, like a long-expected bridal procession. The kingdom is no solitary matter -- it comes in a community which is the family of God. Its coming is a task set before us, to be prayed for, to be worked for, to be sought with the eagerness with which one sells all that he has in order to buy a treasure hidden in a field or a pearl of great price. Jesus did not say that it is our job to build the kingdom. Rather, it is our part to be the good ground in which the seed of the Sower can grow and bring forth much fruit.

Paradoxes? Yes, but not inconsistencies, unless we try to make of Jesus the strict logician that he never essayed to be. They are demonstrated in Christian experience as compatible. In his day the common people heard him gladly because he demonstrated in himself the reality of the kingdom by the warmth of his sympathy and the depth of his insight. In a blend of fidelity to Jesus as the Christ and to the kingdom which was his central message, the church has been able to find both a challenge to action and its ultimate hope.

Conference reports, adopted after much effort to say what all can agree to and hence subject to being considerably watered down, are often rather dull reading. One of the great experiences of my life was being a delegate to the Madras Conference of the International Missionary Council in 1938 and serving on two of its committees for drafting reports. The matter of the nature of the kingdom was then a very live issue, much more so than in recent years. By God’s grace, it was with a solemn sense of having reached agreement where it seemed impossible that the committee finally came up with the following statement, and I quote it because I have not since seen a better one. I recall that it was E. Stanley Jones who gave it its final form.

The Kingdom of God is both present and future; both a growth and a final consummation by God. It is our task and our hope -- our task which we face with the power of Christ; our hope that the last word will be spoken by God and that that last word will be victory. The Kingdom means both acceptance and action, a gift and a task. We work for it and we wait for it.4

2. Some differentiations of meaning

In the brief statement just quoted, and in most situations where the term the kingdom of God is under consideration, it is used in a number of different senses. These are related but not identical, and the amalgamation is usually made without consciousness of the difference. Such a distinction may or may not be needed, depending on the context. But before going further we had better attempt it. The five points listed earlier in the chapter may now be stated as three.

In the first sense, the kingdom of God means the eternal, ultimate sovereignty of God. In this sense kingship would be a more accurate term. This presupposes that God is not only the creator but the ruler of all he has made, and he remains so in spite of any thwarting of his will. As one of our familiar hymns puts it:

This is my Father’s world,

O let me ne’er forget

That though the wrong seems oft so strong,

God is the ruler yet.

When we conclude the Lord’s Prayer with the words, "For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory," we affirm this divine kingship and our trust in God’s ultimate authority and sovereignty.

A second meaning of the term is the rule of God among men insofar as this sovereignty is accepted and God’s will is done. Although God is eternally king of the universe, including that very important part of it which is humanity, he has given us the freedom to reject this authority and follow our own disobedient desires. The kingdom is present wherever God’s will is accepted and obeyed, and we may enter the kingdom wherever we are by giving him our loyalty. Since this is far from universal, we pray, "Thy kingdom come; thy will be done on earth."

A third meaning of the kingdom is the complete and final establishment of God’s rule in the age to come, a final consummation in which God’s will is fully done. This could come about by a long process of change, a gradual movement toward a fuller personal loyalty and a more Christian society on earth. The more common biblical understanding of it, however, is of a day of the Lord and a final judgment whereby only the righteous will receive a place in God’s eternal kingdom, though there are hints also of an ultimate cosmic redemption through Christ.5

To sum up the relation of each of these concepts to human history, the first places the kingdom of God above history; the second within it; the third at the end, or beyond the end, of history. In regard to our own relation to it, there are corresponding differences. In the first sense, we are called to acknowledge the ultimate sovereignty of God. The kingdom, then, is God’s gift to be gratefully accepted; it is the ground of our Christian faith and life. In the second sense, the kingdom is a present fact and we participate in it as we give our allegiance to God and seek to do his will on earth. It is our task; we pray for it, and we work for it. In the third sense, we wait in hope for its coming, whether by gradual change or by an abrupt termination of earthly history. When it comes, it will signal God’s victory over human sin -- a victory over all the evil that besets the human spirit, and in the assurance of this victory we find hope.

I believe that Jesus thought of the meaning of the kingdom in all these senses, though with no sharp differentiation among them. The biblical records lend support to all these meanings. As I assess my own understanding of the kingdom, I find myself accepting all three, except for some serious questions about an apocalyptic end of history.

The reader may ask at this point, "What are these questions?’’ The current widely held belief in an apocalyptic second coming will be given more attention later, but the grounds for questioning it may here be indicated.

In the first place, if the biblical passages affirming the ascension and coming again of Jesus through the clouds are to be taken literally, this runs counter to all we know of astronomy and the space world. This was not a problem for Christians of the first century; it must be for us. We no longer believe that heaven is somewhere up in the sky, and such passages must be demythologized.

As will become more evident in the next chapter, such assumptions were widely current in Jewish eschatology and hence in the currents of opinion within which Jesus lived. So was the idea of Satan as a rival power to God, this being taken over from Persian dualism during the exile. The existence of evil in the world cannot be questioned; the existence of a personal devil and an eternal hell of fire for unbelievers may be.

A third caveat lies in the fact that expectancy of a speedy divine intervention to sweep aside the world’s evil tends toward unconcern and inactivity regarding human effort to correct these evils. Much emphasis is placed upon personal salvation to escape divine judgment, and less on making this a better place for all to live in.

An important consideration lies in the fact that the apocalyptic point of view represents only one side of the teaching of Jesus. It has little to say of the conditions of entrance into the kingdom or life within it as these are found elsewhere in the sayings of Jesus, especially in the parables. Thus an emphasis on the second coming as commonly held can lead to bypassing the human situation in major social issues. This is not to charge the exponents of this position with lack of love for other persons, for they often demonstrate a sense of urgency not only to win others to Christ but to be very helpful in immediate personal situations. Yet the same sense of urgency can have, and needs to have, broader foundations.

Finally, much current apocalypticism is drawn from the book of Revelation. This is great poetic drama full of profound meaning in cryptic symbolism, but not written as a chart or charter for our time.

3. A reexamination of the spectrum

With this survey of variant views in the meaning of the kingdom of God as a base of procedure, let us review the types of eschatology that were outlined in the preceding chapter. We shall take them up in the sequence of the previous section.

Weiss and Schweitzer took the third or apocalyptic meaning of the kingdom of God as normative. This led them to assert not only that Jesus expected the imminent and catastrophic end of the world and God’s establishment of a new order through his divine messenger, the Son of man, but also that this was the only way in which Jesus conceived the kingdom of God. The absoluteness of Jesus’ moral demands were then to be understood as an interim ethic before the great cataclysm. They were right in their appreciation of the apocalyptic passages as being in some measure spoken by Jesus. What they failed to do was to give sufficient emphasis to the prophetic teachings and moral commands of Jesus as requisite for the human obligations of the kingdom. Schweitzer in his service to humanity at Lambarene recognized and demonstrated response to these obligations.

The liberal and social gospel theologians chose the second meaning. The kingdom then becomes moral and ethical obedience to God’s call within the total sweep of personal and social living, with special emphasis on the human responsibility to correct the evils of an unjust and unloving society. The kingdom of God then becomes the acceptance of the rule of God in the present, with the hope that this may increase through human effort. This was an enormously important emphasis, and I believe it to be not only a much needed but a valid one. Nevertheless, human pride being what it is, some exponents of this prophetic social gospel seemed to lay more stress on the human builders than on the activity of God in the process. Furthermore, a legitimate and needed emphasis on Christian hope got tangled up in a secular evolutionary optimism.

When we come to the ‘’realized eschatology’’ of C. H. Dodd, we find its chief grounding in the first meaning of the kingdom. Dodd’s position, as I understand it, is that Jesus used the phrase "kingdom of God" chiefly in the sense of the eternal, righteous, sovereignty of God and believed that he had been called to manifest this kingdom both supremely and uniquely in his own life and works. Jesus, then, was not announcing a future event when he used the apocalyptic imagery, but symbolized by it the coming of the kingdom in himself. This gives an important emphasis to the fact that there would be no kingdom at all apart from the eternal rulership of God, and no Christian understanding of the kingdom, with its challenge and hope, apart from Christ. It is doubtful that "realized eschatology" is a good name for this point of view, for it suggests that the end of history has already come and minimizes the futuristic element in the thought of Jesus.

The position of Rudolf Bultmann does not fit so readily into any of these three meanings of the kingdom, for his position has elements of all of them. Bultmann’s emphasis on existential decision has the eternal and righteous God demanding this decision; it has the critical need of human response, though in a personal rather than social action framework; it has the apocalyptic passages not to be taken literally but as reinforcing the urgency of decision. Yet Bultmann’s view that the Gospels almost wholly reflect the thought of the early church shunts us away from forming a judgment of what Jesus himself thought about the kingdom.

In this survey of what I believe the kingdom to be, I have spoken frequently of the effect of the heritage and culture of Jesus upon his thought. To state a composite view, it was not possible to linger at each point to elaborate the nature of this influence. Furthermore, the greatest agreement among scholars is found at the point of their unanimity that the Gospels are colored by the kerygma -- the preaching and witnessing message of the early church. Thus, we need to look backward from Jesus to his heritage to understand how he came to think as he did about the kingdom of God, and forward from his crucifixion and resurrection to observe how the church dealt with his message. These two large issues will be our next undertaking.


1. These points of general agreement are presented, though slightly differently, in chapter 5, "The Kingdom of God," in my earlier book, Our Christian Hope (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1964).

2. Grant, The Gospel of the Kingdom, pp. 63, 67, 153, 156.

3. See S. E. Johnson in The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, vol. R-Z (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1962), pp. 413-16 for an extensive and detailed presentation of the use of the term "Son of man" in the Old Testament, in the Synoptic Gospels, and in John. What emerges from this study is that Jesus in the Synoptics appears to use the term in three senses: in reference to his own earthly mission, as the transcendent one as in Enoch but without definite self-designation; and as the latter referring to himself. In John’s Gospel the most distinctive contribution is that the pre-existent Son of man, who has come down from heaven and given life to the world, will ascend again.

4. The World Mission of the Church (London and New York: International Missionary Council, 1939), p. 106.

5. In outlining the three principal meanings attached to the term "kingdom of God,’ I am heavily indebted to John Knox for his Christ the Lord: The Meaning of Jesus in the Early Church (Chicago: Willett, Clark and Co., 1945), pp. 24-30.