Jesus went into Galilee proclaiming the good news (euaggelion) of God. “The time has come,” he said. “The Kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!” (mark 7:74–75).
Understanding the full significance of Mark’s opening sentence prepares the reader for his following description of Jesus’s announcement about the imminent arrival of a kingdom. Curiously, however, King Jesus does not claim to inaugurate his own kingdom; instead, he announces the arrival of God’s kingdom. Heeding Jesus’s call to first repent and then to believe that what he says about the kingdom is true, which requires a distinctive attitude toward Jesus himself, is a prerequisite for entering into this kingdom when it arrives.
What kind of kingdom, then, is this? We do not normally think of kingdoms as being portable, as “coming” or “arriving.” Kingdoms are typically stationary, though their borders may expand or contract. Kings are the ones who move about, coming and going.
As the sovereign Creator who spoke the universe into existence, Israel’s God was always understood to be the king of all creation. As the Creator, Yahweh never stopped ruling over all things, making the cosmos God’s kingdom. The psalmists frequently remind us of this fact:
The LORD reigns, he is robed in majesty; the LORD is robed in majesty and is armed with strength. The world is firmly established; it cannot be moved. Your throne was established long ago; you are from all eternity (psalm 93:1–2).
The Old Testament never uses the phrase “kingdom of God”; it prefers to describe the various ways in which “God reigns” as Creator-King over the universe. Wherever God reigns, there is God’s kingdom. Since God reigns over everything and everyone, God’s kingdom is everywhere, including everyone-even encompassing those who do not recognize him.
But our Creator-King is also the covenant-making God who forged a unique relationship with the people of Israel. Thus there are two different, yet related, dimensions of God’s kingship operating simultaneously. While Yahweh reigns over all humanity, whether they recognize it or not, only Israel is blessed with the unique relationship that focuses God’s kingship specifically on their guidance, blessing, and protection. Recall God’s introduction to the Sinai Covenant:
Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (exodus 19:5–6).
Israel’s never fully succeeded in becoming the holy, priestly kingdom God had wanted on this earth. Eventually, a new expectation emerged in which God one day would finally accomplish for himself what Israel could never do. In the unspecified future, Israel would be restored to perfect covenant faithfulness, and through them God would rule over all the nations of the earth, finally unifying the two different dimensions of God’s reign as Creator-King and as Covenant-Maker.
Daniel 7 expresses this future hope for God’s kingdom on earth in Daniel’s vision of the heavenly Son of man entering into God’s presence:
In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all peoples, nations and men of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed ( 7:13–14).
In Daniel’s vision, God’s kingdom is the last in a sequence of earthly empires that have been represented by four grotesque hybrids of savage beasts (daniel 7:3–12). Significantly, this bestial pattern is broken by the final, divine kingdom, which is represented by a human being, one who is interpreted as being the representative of all God’s righteous people (daniel 7:18, 22, 27). The message
is clear. Human empires are constructed and maintained by savagery and violence. Only God can establish and then reign over a humane kingdom founded on the power of universal righteousness, justice, and mercy that will never end.
Similarly, the prophet Isaiah anticipated a restored Israel delivered from exile and beautifully reestablished on Mount Zion as a beacon of holiness and righteousness to the entire world.
How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news [euaggelizomenou], who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings [euggelizomenos], who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, “Your God reigns!” (isaiah 52:7)
Isaiah’s gospel announcement that “your God reigns” is the Old Testament equivalent of Jesus’s preaching the good news that the kingdom of God has come near. Such passages as these would be loudly and harmoniously resonating in the background (or even in the foreground) for any first-century Palestinian audience, stirring up a chorus of anticipation every time Jesus spoke about the imminent activity of God’s reign on earth. No wonder Mark tells us that the “news about Qesus] spread quickly” (mark 1:28), and, at least initially, “the people came to him from everywhere” (mark 1:45). Jesus was announcing the arrival of God’s long-anticipated redemptive reign, the saving sovereignty of the Lord Almighty revealed here and now in living color as God actually showed up to rescue his people and to set the world straight:
Jesus’s earthly ministry is God the Father’s invasion of history as the royal Liberator, the gracious, Spirit-empowered Savior intervening to rescue his people from the power of sin, oppression, and injustice, restoring them to a right covenantal relationship, as Yahweh establishes his universal, redemptive reign on earth.
But Jesus also embarked on a radical redefinition of this kingdom and what its establishment would look like, cutting it free from many traditional assumptions. Of course, the most prominent point of redefinition involved the necessity of a suffering, dying Messiah who is enthroned on a cross, who reigns now through the community of followers who accept the necessity of their own suffering as an essential component of their commitment to follow Jesus. More immediately in Mark’s unfolding drama, Jesus’s initial collection of parables explores a variety of unexpected kingdom twists (mark 4:1–34).
Most significantly, God’s kingdom does not come with overwhelming, irresistible force, knocking people off their feet and sweeping them irretrievably into its iron net; nor is the kingdom’s arrival self-evident-just the opposite. The kingdom’s appearance easily goes unnoticed because God’s reign begins within individual human hearts, where it seeks out the fertilizer of faith. This is why Jesus’s kingdom parables focus on such traits as individual seeds with idiosyncratic growth rates, various types of soils making different contributions to the end product, differing responses to the kingdom message, the tininess of the gospel seeds, the kingdom’s minuscule beginnings, and the fact that initial responses develop in fits and starts and sometimes fail to reach completion. All of these observations highlight the personal nature of God’s redemptive reign over individual lives.
The redemptive reign of God does not grow in the abstract by gaining control over systems, organizations, collectives, cultures, political parties, or governments. The saving sovereignty of God’s reign on earth expands as more and more individuals surrender themselves to the lordship of Jesus and trust in his proclamation of good news. These acts of personal surrender to Jesus and his message enlarge the membership-the citizenship of God’s kingdom-which is the only means of kingdom growth described anywhere in the Gospels. The kingdom expands as individuals surrender themselves to God’s saving sovereignty. Jesus’s disciples become the new citizens of God’s coming kingdom.
Jesus’s diverse farming/husbandry metaphors also highlight how irrelevant human activity is to the growth of God’s kingdom. Nowhere in the Gospels does human effort contribute anything whatsoever to the kingdom’s advancement, development, or success. The kingdom of God is just that-God’s. It is a matter of God’s reign coming to God’s people in God’s way at the moment of God’s choosing. Jesus says: “Night and day, whether [the farmer] sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. All by itself the soil produces grain” (4:27–28). Jesus’s point is clear: while the planter sleeps, the kingdom grows all by itself. God’s saving sovereignty expands through the spiritual dynamic at work between the gospel of Jesus Christ (the seed) and the individual recipient (the soil). Each new confessing, repentant, forgiven, renewed, and trusting sinner whose life is redirected by following after Jesus is evidence of the kingdom’s borders expanding step by individual step, one person at a time through the saving sovereignty of our God.