On Monday, I began to consider the “location” of the kingdom of God. My first point was:
1. The kingdom of God is not what we call heaven.
God’s reign surely encompasses what we call heaven. But when Jesus speaks of the kingdom of God, he is not talking simply about life with God after death. Indeed, the kingdom of God touches earth as well as heaven.
This brings us to a second, common misunderstanding of the kingdom of God. Once again, I’ll put up a negative statement and then defend it with evidence from the Gospels:
2. The kingdom is not merely in our hearts.
I cannot tell you how many times in the last twenty years I’ve heard people locate the kingdom of God in human hearts. Christians do it, and so do many New Agers. Their credo comes from something Jesus himself said: “The kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:21). But they missed Jesus’ own meaning by a mile.
Yes, to be sure, God’s reign touches human hearts. When people live under the rule of God, their inner beings are healed, transformed, and renewed. But the kingdom of God is not limited to some kind of internal, subjective experience. Yes, I know Jesus is quoted as saying that “the kingdom of God is within you,” but this verse is usually wrenched way out of context. Let’s return to the passage from which this line comes:
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 entos hymon” (Luke 17:20-21).
I’ve left the original Greek untranslated for a moment so we can see the context of this phrase without prejudging its meaning. Jesus is speaking, not to his faithful disciples, but to a group of Pharisees. They expected the kingdom of God to come with great signs, most obviously the beginnings of a successful revolt against Rome. But Jesus says their expectations are misguided. In fact, the kingdom of God is entos hymon. Given what Jesus says about the hearts of the Pharisees elsewhere – that are “full of greed and self-indulgence” and “all kinds of filth” (Matt 23:25, 27) – it’s unlikely that Jesus is telling the Pharisees to look within their own hearts to find the kingdom. Rather, he is saying to them: The kingdom of God is right here, in your midst. The Greek phrase entos hymon can mean “among you,” as it does in this instance. If the Pharisees want to find the kingdom, Jesus says, they should look, not into their own sinful hearts, but right in front of their eyes, at Jesus himself, at his words and works.
So, though God’s reign embraces and transforms human hearts, it is not limited to some sort of interior experience. The kingdom of God impacts actions, thoughts, relationships, families, institutions, and governments. In the end, it will touch everything on earth, when God’s will is fully done on earth “as it is in heaven.” Yet this expansive kingdom has begun on earth in a most unexpected and unnoticed way – rather like a mustard seed – in the ministry of Jesus.
If the kingdom of God is neither up in heaven nor limited to human hearts, but is something we ought to experience in all aspects of our earthly life, this points to another question: When is it coming? Did Jesus envision the kingdom of God as present reality? Or was it rather something that was coming in the future? In my next post I’ll begin to deal with the question: When is the kingdom of God coming?