The concept of the kingdom of God is elusive. From the beginning of Christianity, the greatest minds have been baffled by it. Theologians have equated it variously with heaven, the church, Israel, Christendom, democracy, socialism, communism, an ethical ideal, an inward spiritual experience, Christ’s millennial reign, and the eternal state. No wonder there is so much confusion!
In more recent times, New Testament scholars have taken a renewed interest in the kingdom of God. Their inquiries have advanced our knowledge of the subject, but we have many more avenues to explore and questions to ask and answer.
For more than a decade, learning about the kingdom of God has been my all-consuming passion. In the course of my study, I have spent an inordinate amount of time reading the major scholarly and popular books and journal articles about it. I have enjoyed countless discussions and debates about the kingdom, and I’ve written about it, lectured on it, and taught courses about it. In my opinion, nothing is of more importance than correctly understanding the kingdom. It is the overarching theme of the entire Bible, a thread that runs throughout it, and the great umbrella under which all other subjects are subsumed.
My goal is to introduce you to the kingdom of God in the hope that you too will become captivated by it. If I succeed, you will never be the same. Are you ready to embark on the adventure of a lifetime?
The journey begins in a garden (Genesis 1–2) and ends in paradise (Revelation 21–22). Along the way, we will meet many interesting characters and discover great treasures. Be forewarned, however—the trip is not for the faint of heart. We will encounter various obstacles, but the road signs are plentiful, and our maps are reliable. If we take our time to navigate carefully, we can reach our destination. If we succeed, our knowledge of the kingdom of God will be crisp and clear. Best of all, we will discover how to tap into the kingdom’s riches and enjoy them here and now.
Why Understanding the Kingdom Is Important
The gospel is essential to Christianity. The apostle Paul called it “the power of God to salvation” (Romans 1:16). But what is the gospel? We know the word means “good news,” but good news about what? And what about the phrase “to salvation”—what does it connote? Does it refer to going to heaven? Escaping hell? Having our sins forgiven? Gaining eternal life? Being declared righteous by faith? Inviting Jesus into our hearts?
These familiar and popular answers do not adequately define either “good news” or “salvation.” They are peripheral at best. At its core, the gospel is about the kingdom of God. The Gospel of Mark opens, “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ.” A few verses later, it is described as “the gospel of the kingdom of God” (verse 14). There are not two gospels. There is only one. The good news of Jesus Christ and the good news of the kingdom are the same. Unfortunately, Jesus is often preached without reference to the kingdom. But apart from the kingdom, there is no gospel, and there is no salvation.
“Wait a second,” you might protest. “When I got saved, I never heard anything about the kingdom of God. I simply asked Jesus to be my Savior!”
I understand your concern. I had a similar experience, but like so many others, I was misguided. During my senior year at the University of Baltimore, a psychology professor shared his testimony with our class, concluding with the words, “You’re a sinner. You need to be saved. Pray and invite Jesus into your heart.”
That night as my head lay on the pillow, I heeded the advice. I said, “Jesus, forgive me of my sins and come into my heart.” I don’t know what I expected—heavenly choirs, shafts of moonbeams, great floods of emotion and tears—but whatever it was, it did not happen. The next night, I repeated the process. During the next three years, I prayed more than a thousand times but with no tangible results. I eventually entered seminary, hoping to find answers to my spiritual unrest. Despite the new environment, I continued following my destructive patterns of life without any ability to change.
I was not angry with God, but I was disappointed and disillusioned. Why had God not answered my prayers? Why did salvation seem to elude me?
I know I am not alone. Maybe you have been there and done that, and you haven’t noticed a significant change either. Possibly you took the four steps found in many salvation booklets, traced the Roman Road to salvation, or repeated the sinner’s prayer but without assurance of salvation or evidence of spiritual growth. Untold thousands have prayed the prayer, walked the aisle, or responded in some way to a gospel invitation without effectual results. Life goes on as before.
In my case, salvation didn’t take hold because my professor, although well intentioned, had a defective grasp of the gospel. He presented a truncated gospel that had little resemblance to the good news that Jesus and the apostles preached. Therefore it lacked the power to save. No wonder I was confused!
A faulty understanding of the gospel is the first pothole that stands in the way of our quest for the kingdom. To overcome this obstacle, let’s turn to the Scriptures for a correct definition of the gospel.
A New Paradigm
As a professor of evangelism, I must provide my students with a clear and precise definition of the gospel. Unless we comprehend the true nature of the gospel, how can we expect to communicate it effectively?
If the goal of the gospel is simply to get people into heaven, as many believe, what is its relevance to daily life? Most people who hear the gospel will not die for years, so they will have little incentive to respond immediately. If the gospel has little or no relevance for the here and now, the logic for evangelism is weakened. It would be like me trying to sell you a front-row seat to a New York Yankees game for a date yet to be determined by the ball club sometime between now and 2080! You would not be likely to purchase a ticket. It may be a good deal, but where’s the urgency? Waiting would seem to be more prudent.
Professor William Abraham explains that there must be a logic for evangelism.1 The gospel must have relevance for the present and not only for the distant future. According to New Testament accounts, the imminent arrival of God’s kingdom (and not the promise of going to heaven) was the thrust of Jesus’s gospel sermons. It provided the rationale for evangelism. The words “gospel” and “kingdom” are so interconnected that the New Testament writers use the umbrella terms “kingdom of God” or “kingdom of heaven” 20 times to describe the good news of salvation.
When the message that Jesus and the apostles preached is compared to most contemporary gospel messages, the difference is like night and day. In many ways, the messages are complete opposites of each other. One emphasizes a future salvation, but the other invites people to enter the kingdom of God now. According to one, you have to wait to experience the blessings of the kingdom, but according to the other, the benefits of the kingdom are available for you to enjoy this moment while you are alive and well on planet earth.
A discovery of the kingdom of God and its relevance for today will revolutionize your life! Join me for a short jaunt through the New Testament. Get ready to be surprised by what lies ahead—the kingdom of God will leap off each page. By the end of this chapter, you are likely to be asking yourself, “How have I missed this all these years?”
R. Alan Streett, Heaven on Earth: Experiencing the Kingdom of God in the Here and Now (Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 2013).
We have just released a new Bible Study on the topic Heaven on Earth
These lessons are available on Amazon, as well as a part of Good Questions Have Groups Talking Subscription Service. Like Netflix for Bible Lessons, one low subscription gives you access to all our lessons–thousands of them. For a medium-sized church, lessons are as little as $10 per teacher per year.
Each lesson consists of 20 or so ready-to-use questions that get groups talking. Answers are provided in the form of quotes from respected authors such as John Piper, Max Lucado and Beth Moore.
These lessons will save you time as well as provide deep insights from some of the great writers and thinkers from today and generations past. I also include quotes from the same commentaries that your pastor uses in sermon preparation.
Ultimately, the goal is to create conversations that change lives.