What is the Kingdom of God?
‘Kingdom’ is a political word. In an election campaign, all of the political parties set out their party platforms. Some parties release them bit by bit, others set them out all at once. The hope is that, in the midst of all the noise, thoughtful voters will actually examine the party platforms and asked themselves ‘How does this compare with my vision for the future of Canada? Which manifesto can I most readily commit myself to?’
Mark tells us that Jesus ‘came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near’ (vv.14-15). This was Jesus’ manifesto, if you like, drawn straight from the pages of the Old Testament. In the Old Testament scriptures there are a number of words and phrases that cluster around the same theme – words and phrases like ‘the day of the Lord’, ‘shalom’, ‘the year of Jubilee’ and so on. All these words and phrases spell out the idea that the world as we see it is not the world as God intended it, but that the time is coming when God is going to act to restore his original plan.
This is spelled out poetically in Isaiah 2:2-4:
In days to come
the mountain of the LORD’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised above the hills;
all the nations shall stream to it.
Many peoples shall come and say,
‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways,
and that we may walk in his paths.
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.
Isaiah sees the nations and races of the earth coming to God for instruction, and committing themselves to living by God’s ways, the ways of peace and justice. Other Old Testament passages add other aspects of this. The poor, the widow, the orphan will be cared for. Land and wealth will be shared fairly so that everyone has enough and no one has too much. Life will be characterised by wholeness, harmony, and peace.
This, you see, is what the people in Jesus’ day meant by the phrase ‘the Kingdom of God’. They certainly didn’t see God’s Kingdom as some sort of ethereal afterlife in which we all stroll through fields of green forever. They expected to see it fulfilled as an earthly reality, in real time and space. And now Jesus arrives and makes this startling announcement: ‘The Kingdom of God has cone near’. The Gospels make it clear that the reason the Kingdom is near because Jesus is near, and Jesus is the King. His arrival is a challenge to people to make their choice: are they for or against God’s manifesto for the future, which Jesus represents?
It’s in this context that the call to follow Jesus is given. It’s a personal decision, but it has huge social and political implications. The Kingdom of God is about fairness, equity, and justice – what does that mean for the way we Christians live, in a world where over a billion people live on less than a dollar a day? The kingdom of God is about peace and reconciliation – what does that mean for the way we Christians live, in a culture shot through with violence, a culture which assumes that problems can be solved by acts of violence, on the international level and on the level of the latest action movie? The Kingdom of God is about accepting God’s instruction for living – what does that mean for the way we Christians live, in a culture where everyone claims the right to construct their own rules of right and wrong? These are only a few of the social and political implications of choosing to be a part of the Kingdom of God.
So this is what the Kingdom of God is all about. So how do we become citizens of the Kingdom of God. The Gospels make it clear that everyone has to make their mind up about this: do I want to be in the Kingdom, or out of it? Will I participate willingly, or not? What does that decision involve? This scripture passage outlines four things. In verse 15 Jesus says, “Repent, and believe in the good news”, and in verse 17 he says, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people”.
First, we’re called to repent. This word is not about feeling guilty or even feeling sorry for our sins. Rather, it’s about doing things differently. It’s about making a radical change of direction. We realise that we’re heading the wrong way, and so we make a 180° turn.
What are the things we’re called to do differently? Things contrary to Jesus’ teaching, of course – but here again, we need to resist the temptation to see this in purely personal terms. Of course it means turning away from dishonesty, or lust, or greed. But there’s another dimension to it as well, that we must not leave out.
Josephus was a high-ranking Jew who became an important official in the latter part of the first century A.D. His policy was to collaborate with the Romans, and thus to try to achieve a better life for his own people. He tells the story in his memoirs of how he went to meet with a group of insurrectionists who were plotting rebellion against the empire. He says, “I challenged them to repent and believe in me” – almost exactly the phrase Jesus uses here! But in Josephus’ context, it obviously doesn’t mean turning away from purely private sins – it means repenting of violent rebellion and embracing a different way, the way Josephus represented.
In Jesus’ day there were a number of competing strategies for bringing in the kingdom of God – all the way from armed rebellion on the one hand to rolling over and playing dead on the other. When Jesus challenged the people of Galilee to repent, he wasn’t only calling individuals to leave their private sins and embrace his vision for private morality. He was also calling the nation to abandon the vision of bringing in the kingdom by violence, and believe in a new strategy, which he was going to teach them. And for us today, Jesus challenges us to abandon ways of setting the world to rights that run contrary to his teachings, and to embrace his vision of a different way.
And this leads to the second thing; we’re called to repent, and also to believe in the good news – which is defined earlier in the passage as ‘the good news of the kingdom’. The good news of the kingdom seems like such a risky way of changing the world; military force or political power often seem so much more reliable. But God chose a different strategy – the strategy of coming among us as a human being, showing us the way by his life and teaching, giving himself on the Cross for the sin of the whole world, and then demonstrating by the resurrection that evil will not have the last word. The good news of the Kingdom is about the transformation of the world one heart at a time, as humans become followers of Jesus and begin to live by his vision in their private and public lives.
And that brings us to the third thing; we’re called to follow Jesus. What sort of people can spread the kingdom of God? The answer is obvious: people like Jesus! And so Jesus called people to become his disciples – his apprentices, if you like. Apprentices of Jesus listen to his teaching, watch his way of living, learn from him, and imitate the good things they see.
Jesus’ call still goes out to people today – the call to follow him and become his apprentices. Jesus is busy changing the world one life at a time. The curriculum is the gospels, the Sermon on the Mount, the commandments to love God and love your neighbour, and so on. Each day, we apprentices pray for guidance and strength to apply the teaching and example of Jesus to our daily lives.
This isn’t just a sweet romantic ideal; it leads to concrete actions. Many years ago when I was a student, a friend and I were walking down Bloor Street in Toronto comparing notes about our summers. I mentioned in passing that my watch had cratered over the summer; without hesitation he took his own watch off and gave it to me. ‘”I’ve got two”, he said, “and after all, Jesus did say that if we had two coats and our brother had none, we were to share what we had”. Now I ask you, what would that principle mean for those of us who have two houses in a world where many are homeless? Or two cars? Or two guitars? (I think there are currently four in my house!) Often the answers are difficult, but as Christians, we absolutely must struggle with these questions.
So we’re called to repent, believe in the good news, and follow Jesus. Finally, we’re called to fish for people. All of us are here today because someone ‘fished’ for us. In my case, it was my parents, and especially my Dad who challenged me to give my life to Jesus when I was thirteen. As a result of other people’s fishing, you and I became apprentices of Jesus. Now we apprentices are called to do our own bit of fishing – that is, to invite others to become Jesus’ apprentices too.
Note what Jesus says here. It seems that fishing for people isn’t an optional extra for those who like that sort of thing, or for those who happen to be bubbly extroverts. The one thing leads inevitably to the other: Jesus says, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for people’. To make new disciples for Jesus is an integral part of the package of being a follower of Jesus. If you take this element out of the package, you’ve made Christian discipleship something completely different.
Members of Alcoholics Anonymous understand this principle. The Twelve Steps of AA are a comprehensive program for personal transformation. But step twelve, the final step in the process, says ‘having experienced a spiritual awakening as a result of these steps, we then tried to take this message to others’. This isn’t optional – it’s an integral part of the program. Wise members of AA know that if they don’t do this, they become inward looking and self-absorbed – which is the first step to going back to drinking. And Christians who refuse to follow Jesus in his work of making new apprentices also short-circuit their own growth as his disciples.
The good news that Jesus announced is that God has refused to accept the ruin of his world by the forces of evil. God has worked decisively in Jesus to defeat evil, and the day will come when that defeat will be absolute and complete. The kingdom of God is at hand. All people are invited to be part of that kingdom, by repenting, believing the good news, learning to follow Jesus and to make new disciples for him.