I have very little experience of kingdoms. So when I pray the Lord’s Prayer and arrive at the line “Thy Kingdom come,” I have few points of reference — apart from the United Kingdom of Great Britain and the Magical Kingdom of Walt Disney World.
But in Jesus’ time, people were immersed in kingdom culture. They understood all too well the kingdoms of Herod and Caesar. Under these kingdoms, “subjects” were dominated by the powerful elite. In the empirical kingdom, the rich got richer and the poor got poorer. Jesus opposed the kingdoms of his day by eating with tax collectors, washing the feet of his disciples, breaking bread and distributing it equitably, making sure that there were more than enough loaves and fish to go around.
These days, Christians have more versions of God’s Kingdom than Henry the Eighth had wives.
Some see the Kingdom as a future state initiated by the second coming of Christ — a time in which the world order will screech to a halt and God’s realm will swoop in. Others define the Kingdom as heaven — the place they’ll literally go when they die.
In contrast, socially minded Christians view the Kingdom as having the potential to be a present, earthly reality. According to this perspective, the Kingdom becomes ever-more apparent as the faithful create a just society. In the parable of the mustard seed, Jesus asks, “What is the Kingdom of God like? What shall I compare it to? It is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his garden. It grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air perched in its branches” (Luke 13:18-19).
Then, there is the spiritualist understanding, which frames the Kingdom as a private state of heart, as well as the ecclesial understanding, which equates the Kingdom to the work of the church.
American biblical scholar Marcus Borg states that the tendency to equate the Kingdom with heaven is a misinterpretation of the Gospel of Matthew, which refers to the Kingdom of heaven rather than the Kingdom of God. “As a devout and pious Jew, [Matthew] avoids using the word God out of reverence whenever possible. But when Matthew writes about the Kingdom of heaven, he means the Kingdom of God,” Borg said in a 2002 sermon. “When the afterlife is emphasized, our attention gets focused on the next world, whereas I think being a Christian is primarily about transformation this side of death.”
The Bible supports both the present and futurist interpretations of Kingdom: “The Kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed, nor will they say, ‘Lo, here it is’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the Kingdom of God is in the midst of you” (Luke 17:20-21); or “Therefore, my brothers, be all the more eager to make your calling and election sure. For if you do these things, you will never fail and you will receive a rich welcome into the eternal Kingdom of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 1:10-11).
Despite the prevalence of Kingdom language, some churchgoers would prefer to erase the term from the biblical lexicon. Concerns about the imperialistic and patriarchal connotations have led some to replace the word “Kingdom” with “Kin-dom,” or to refer to it as the “realm of the righteous.”
Personally, I like the word “Kingdom” so long as it’s placed in context. When I pray “Thy Kingdom come,” I pray for God’s spirit to reign, to rule my life, to eradicate the empires of our world. For me, the Kingdom refers both to a realm and to a time in which justice is restored, people live in right relationship and everyone gets their daily bread. As a Christ-follower, I work toward establishing God’s Kingdom “on earth as it is in heaven” now.
The definition of “Kingdom” is as difficult to pin down as the nature of God. Maybe that’s a good thing. I’m thankful for the plethora of interpretations. God’s Kingdom is social, political, spiritual, ecclesiastical, this-worldly and otherworldly. Why would we ever want to choose between biblical jewels?
Rev. Trisha Elliott is serving in ministry at Carleton Memorial United in Ottawa.
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