Kingdom of God

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KINGDOM OF GOD . Among the central concepts of the great religions, that of the kingdom of God may be the most hopeful, for while it recognizes the reality of death and injustice, it affirms that a just and living transcendent reality is entering history and transforming it. This article discusses the concept of the kingdom of God in postbiblical Judaism, the New Testament, and the history of the Christian church, together with its antecedents in the ancient Near East, Israel, and Greece.

Divine Kingship in the Ancient Near East, Israel, and Greece

Although the notion of divine kingship is defined in human political terms, it is not a mere projection of human kingship onto a divine realm. Rather, the successive phrases in which this notion occurs show that divine kingship was understood as transcending and rejecting human kingship.

"King of the gods"

This phrase implies sovereignty over the created order. In a pantheon, one god can emerge as supreme (1) through political shifts, as does, for example, Enlil, the tutelary god of Sumerian Nippur, who becomes "lord, god, king the judge of the universe" (J. B. Pritchard, ed., Ancient Near Eastern Texts relating to the Old Testament, 3d ed. with supp., Princeton, 1969, p. 575); (2) through syncretism in favor of a solar deity such as Shamash (Pritchard, p. 387) or the Egyptian deity Amun-Re, who is the chief, lord, and father of the gods as well as creator of life (Pritchard, pp. 365366); or (3) through the acclamation of one god as king by the others for his victory over the powers of chaos. This final form of acquiring sovereignty springs from a widespread mythical pattern illustrated in the texts of four ancient societies.


The creation epic Enuma elish, recited at the spring New Year festival, describes the victory of Marduk over the sea monster Tiamat, from whose body Marduk creates heaven and earth. Even before the contest the other gods proclaim, "We have granted you kingship [sharruta ] over the universe entire" (4.14), and "Marduk is king!" (4.28). After the battle, the gods ratify these proclamations and give Marduk the chief of his fifty Sumerian titles, "king of the gods of heaven and the underworld" (5.112).

Ugarit (modern Ras Shamra, Syria)

Although the god El is routinely addressed as king in this literature (Pritchard, pp. 133 and 140), Baal is elevated to kingship after his victory over Yam, "Prince Sea." The craftsman-god tells Baal, "Now you will cut off your adversary, you will take your eternal kingship [mlk 'lmk ], your everlasting dominion" (Pritchard, p. 131); and goddesses tell El, "Baal is our king [mlkn ], our judge, and there is none above him" (Pritchard, pp. 133 and 138).


In the Homeric poems, Zeus is called the "father of gods and men" and is once called the "highest and best of the gods" (Odyssey 19.303). In Hesiod's Theogony (700 bce?), Zeus leads the Olympian gods in battle against the Titans, who include Chaos (v. 700) and the dragon Typhoeus. Hesiod recounts that after the battle, "the blessed gods, at the urging of Earth [Gaia], requested far-seeing Zeus to reign and rule over them" (i. e., as basileus and anax, vv. 881885). It is from this victory over the Titans that Zeus acquires the title "king of the gods" (v. 886). Similarly, in Pindar's Seventh Olympian Ode (464 bce), Zeus is called "great king of the gods" (v. 34).


In the face of Israel's ostensible monotheism, a group of other gods, called benei Elim (lit., "sons of gods"), is also acknowledged. These gods, however, are not like the one God (who in this context always has the name whose consonants are YHVH, conventionally transcribed "Yahveh," Ps. 89:58); they must ascribe glory to him (Ps. 29:1), for it was Yahveh who crushed the sea-monster of chaos, Rahab (Ps. 89:10), or Leviathan (Ps. 74:1314). And in Psalms 95:3, Yahveh is given the same title that Pindar gives Zeus, "a great king above all gods."

"Yahveh is king"

This phrase implies sovereignty over the people of Israel. In the historical books of Israel, the kingship of Yahveh is cited solely to refute the claims of human kings (1 Sm. 8:7, 12:2; cf. Jgs. 8:23). The concept is most fully developed in the Book of Psalms, the dating of which is problematic; however, Isaiah's vision of Yahveh as king (Is. 6:5) shows that this was a living belief in 742 bce. In a compact group of Psalms, Yahveh is called "king" (melekh ) or is made the subject of the corresponding verb malakh (Ps. 93:1, 96:10, 97:1, 99:1). These Psalms display a unique cluster of motifs associated with Yahveh's kingship: (1) his theophany in lightning or earthquake over Lebanon (Ps. 29) and elsewhere (Ps. 97, 99); (2) his supremacy over other gods who bow down to him or are reduced to "idols" (Ps. 29, 9597, 47:2 in some texts); (3) his entrance into his holy place (Ps. 24) or ascent to his throne (Ps. 47; cf. Ps. 93, 97); (4) his act of creation (Ps. 24, 95, 96), portrayed as a conquest of great waters (Ps. 29, 33), where the personified elements sing a new song (Ps. 96, 98) and the floods, now beneficent, "clap their hands" (Ps. 98:8); (5) his sovereignty over other nations or over all the earth (Ps. 47, 96, 98); and (6) his future coming to judge the earth (Ps. 96, 98) as he has previously come to Israel (Ps. 99:4).

Sigmund Mowinckel, in his Psalmenstudien (2 vols., Oslo, 19211924), searching for a liturgical occasion for these psalms in the Temple, boldly hypothesized a festival of Yahveh's enthronement, a Thronbesteigungsfest, which he assigned to the autumn feast of Tabernacles (Sukkot) on the basis of 1 Kings 8:2 (cf. Zec. 14:16). This theory, much developed by Scandinavian and British scholars, assumed that the king dramatically enacted the role of Yahveh in conquering chaos and the nations, in the god's enthronement, and, perhaps, even in a mock death, resurrection, and sacred marriage. But Roland de Vaux, in his Ancient Israel (vol. 2, New York, 1965, pp. 502506), finds no evidence for such a festival. And while the theme of Yahveh's entrance to the holy place or ascent to his throne suggests a Temple liturgy, Psalms 132:8 suggests that the god was represented in this liturgy by the ark rather than by the king.

As the contrast between these affirmations of divine kingship and Israel's state of exile (587/6538 bce) became too great, the concept is split up between present and future. In the present, God's kingship is individualized and he becomes "my king" (Ps. 5:3ff.); in an indefinite future, Yahveh as king will regather dispersed Israel (Ez. 20:33) and reign in Jerusalem (Is. 24:23, Mi. 4:7; cf. Is. 52:710).

"Kingship from heaven"

This Babylonian phrase introduces various concepts of the divine sovereignty in the state. Hammurabi in the prologue to his laws (c. 1700 bce) tells how Anu established for Marduk an "enduring sovereignty" over the world. At first, the Babylonian myth Etana states, "the people had not set up a king"; but later "kingship descended from heaven" (Pritchard, p. 114). Although the concept of kingship as bestowed from the divine realm served to legitimate the state in Mesopotamia, in Zoroastrianism it provided an alternative to the state. One of the aspects of Ahura Mazdā is Khshathra, who combines the ideas of divine and human "kingship." In Yasna 44.7, kingship is presented as his creation along with Ārmaiti ("piety"); Yasna 33.10 speaks of "kingship and justice [asha ]" in parallel just as Matthew 6:33 does in the New Testament. But the prophetic Zoroastrian sense of kingship is co-opted for political ends by Darius, who begins his Behistun inscription (520 bce), "I am Darius, the Great King, King of Kings Ahura Mazdā bestowed the kingship upon me" (cited in Roland G. Kent's Old Persian: Grammar, Texts, Lexicon, 2d ed., New Haven, 1953, p. 119).

There are hints of such a semi-autonomous kingship in Stoicism, as in Epictetus's notion of the "kingship" (basileia ) of the philosopher (Arrian, Epictetus 3.22.76). But the principal inheritor in the West of the concept of a quasi-independent divine kingship was later biblical Judaism. Psalms 22.28 affirms that "kingship [melukhah] belongs to Yahveh." The editor who wrote 1 Chronicles 28:5 replaced the kingship (mamlekhet ) of David and Solomon, which he found in his source, 1 Kings 9:5, by substituting the divine malkhut. Echoing an Ugaritic theme, Psalms 145:1113 proclaims, "thy kingship is a kingship of all the ages." This theme is developed in Daniel: "The God of heaven will set up an everlasting kingdom" (Dn. 2:44; cf. Dn. 4:3), which is to be handed over to one who is "like a son of man" (Dn. 7:14ff.) or to "the people of the saints of the Most High" (Dn. 7:27).

Among the Covenanters of Qumran it was believed that the "covenant of the kingship" (berit malkhut ) over God's people was given to David and his descendants for ever (Edmund Lohse, Die Texte aus Qumran, Munich, 1964, p. 247). The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha sometimes ascribe the kingship to a Messiah (which may, however, be a Christian interpolation); for example, the Syriac Apocalypse of Baruch affirms that the "anointed one" will sit "in eternal peace on the throne of his kingship" (73:1).

"King of kings"

This phrase indicates first human, then divine, sovereignty over earthly kingships. It was first applied to human rulers annexing vassal kingships. It was standard among Old Persian royal inscriptions (cf. Ezra 7:12), and it is ascribed to the Babylonian king Nebuchadrezzar by Ezekiel 26:7 and Daniel 2:37 (but not by cuneiform sources). The Romans knew it as a Parthian title. Plutarch writes that Pompey refused the title to the Parthian king (Pompey 38.2) and that Antony called his sons by Cleopatra "kings of kings" (Antony 54.4).

In Stoicism and the Judeo-Christian tradition, this title is transferred to the God who rules over all human kingship. Cleanthes, in his Hymn to Zeus (270 bce), names the abstract god of Stoicism "Zeus" and calls him "highest king"; a later Stoic gave him the Persian title "great king of kings" (Dio Chrysostom 2.75). Yahveh is called "God of gods and Lord of lords" in Deuteronomy 10:17conceivably a late enough text to be under Babylonian-Persian influence. Once in Greek Judaism God appears as "king of kings" (2 Maccabees 13:4). Rabbi ʿAqavyaʾ (c. 60 ce) expanded the title to underline God's claim over the highest of earthly monarchies, teaching that humans are to give account "before the King of the kings of kings" (Mishna Avot 3.1). These usages are combined in Revelation 19:16 and 17:14 where the victorious Christ is proclaimed "King of kings and Lord of lords." The title became the rallying point for simple Christians to reject the divine status of the Roman emperor; thus the African martyr Speratus (180 ce) before a Roman proconsul confessed "my Lord, the Emperor of kings and of all peoples" (dominum meum, imperatorem regum et omnium gentium; text in Herbert Musurillo, The Acts of the Christian Martyrs, Oxford, 1972, no. 6).

"Kingship of heaven"

In the rabbinic tradition this phrase expresses an understanding of the universal sovereignty of God, future and/or eternal. The rabbis saw Exodus 15:18 ("Yahveh will reign for ever and ever") as the recognition that established God's kingship on earth (Exodus Rabbah 23.1). As the sovereignty assigned to the God of Israel grew, his name was replaced by the term heaven. The obligation to recite the Shema' twice daily is called "taking on the yoke of the kingship of heaven [ʿol malkhut shamayim ]" (Mishna Berakhoth 2.2); Rabbi ʿAqivaʾ ben Yosef did so during his execution under Hadrian (135 ce, Babylonian Talmud Bera-khot 61b). Eventually the recognition of the divine sovereignty by Jews alone seemed to the rabbis insufficient: Thus the great universalistic prayer ʿAlenu of Roʾsh ha-Shanah has the petition that all the inhabitants of the world "should accept the yoke of thy kingdom; and do thou reign over them speedily and forever; for the kingship is thine, and forever wilt thou reign in glory."

One set of rabbinic texts partially identifies the divine kingship with Israel's political autonomy. Rabbi Ayyvu (c. 320 ce) said: "Formerly the kingship was vested in Israel, but when they sinned it was taken from them and given to the other nations. But tomorrow when Israel repents, God will take it from the idolaters, and the kingship shall be to the Lord" (Esther Rabbah ). The fortunes of Israel are seen by the rabbis as coloring universal history: Thus the Midrash on Psalm 99 states, "As long as the children of Israel are in exile, the kingship of heaven is not at peace and the nations of the earth dwell unperturbed."

Another set of texts portrays the coming sovereignty of God as wholly universal. In the Mekhiltaʾ de-Rabbi Yishmaʿeʾl (Jacob Z. Lauterbach, trans., 3 vols., Philadelphia, 1933, vol. 2, p. 159) one reads: "At the time when idolatry shall be uprooted and the Place [Maqom, 'God'] shall be recognized throughout the world as the One, then will his kingship be established for the age of the ages of ages." The Aramaic Targums, which regularly translate "The Lord will reign" as "The kingship [malkhut ] will be revealed" (e.g., Is. 24:23; Ex. 15:18), twice attribute the kingship to the Messiah: The Targum on Micah 4:78 states that "to you, O Messiah of Israel, hidden because of the sins of the congregation of Zion, the kingship is to come," and the Targum on Isaiah 53:10 affirms that God's people, after being purified from sin, "shall look upon the kingship of their Messiah."

The Kingdom of God in the Words of Jesus

"The kingdom [basileia ] of God" is the sole general phrase expressing the object of Jesus' proclamation. (In Matthew it mostly appears as "kingdom of heaven," probably as an artificial restoration of the rabbinic usage.) His affirmations about this kingdom are the unifying thread on which all his other sayings are strung.

Jesus' contemporaries shared with the rabbinic tradition at least a political coloration of the concept: Thus Acts 1:6 represents disciples asking the risen Jesus, "Will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?" But the gospel narratives that presuppose Jesus' most characteristic ideas already in the minds of others, such as John the Baptist (Mt. 3:2), Joseph of Arimathea (Mk. 15:43), the Pharisees (Lk. 17:20), or the disciples (Mt. 18:1, Lk. 14:15), are unsupported by the rabbinic texts and are probably the work of the evangelists.

In the sayings of Jesus, the "kingdom of God" replaces the state of affairs that he calls "this generation"; for they are given exactly parallel introductions. Over against the obdurate "men of this generation" (Lk. 7:3134), the kingdom of God grows from its tiny hidden beginnings like a man's mustard seed or a woman's leaven (Lk. 13:1821). Into the present "faithless" and "adulterous" generation (Mk. 9:19, Mt. 12:29) there has broken a new historical reality. Four types of sayings each illustrate one dimension of Jesus' vision: (1) the kingdom as subject of verbs of coming; (2) the kingdom as object of verbs of entering; (3) the kingdom as object of search or struggle; (4) "in the kingdom of God" in the context of a banquet. (But the extended parables of Matthew are mostly omitted here, because their introduction "The kingdom of heaven is like " seems editorial rather than organic.)

"The Kingdom of God is at hand"

Here is implied a preliminary but decisive victory over injustice and death. In the first group of sayings, the kingdom of God is presented as a quasi-autonomous reality whose arrival is being announced. In Mark 1:15 the expression "The kingdom of God is at hand" is placed, perhaps editorially, as a motto or summary over Jesus' entire work.

The Lord's Prayer

This prayer contains the petitions "Hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come" (Lk. 11:2, Mt. 6:9). They echo the Qaddish, the oldest Aramaic part of the synagogue liturgy: "Magnified and sanctified be his great name in the world which he created according to his will. And may he establish his kingdom [yamlikh malkhuteh ] during your life and during your days and during the life of the house of Israel, even speedily and at a near time." The Qaddish plainly includes a covert petition for the political independence of Israel. And both texts by implication are asking for an end to those crimes against persons that are described in the Hebrew Bible as a "profanation" of God's name: debt-slavery and prostitution (Amos 2:68), enslavement (Jer. 34:1416), and murder (Lev. 18:21).

Victory over dark powers

In Luke 11:20 Jesus proclaims, "But if I by the finger of God cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you." What is asked for in the Lord's Prayer is here announced as already operative. Jesus instructed his missionaries to "heal those who are sick and say to them, 'The kingdom of God has drawn near you'" (Lk. 10:9). Proofs that the kingdom has broken into history are the healing of sickness, often of psychosomatic types of sickness, and victory over the destructive social forces called "demons," such as Legion, so named as a sign of military oppression (Mk. 5:9), and Mammon (Lk. 16:13). God's "finger" is the creative force by which the heavens were made (Ps. 8:3), oppressors overthrown (Ex. 8:19), and the Law given (Ex. 31:18). No less a power, Jesus implies, could do what has already been done through him; hence God's sovereignty has already broken into history.

"To enter the kingdom of God"

A second group of sayings defines the condition for entering the kingdom: becoming like the poor. Jesus expresses the condition negatively: "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God" (Mk. 10:25). He also expresses it positively: "Allow the children to come to me and do not forbid them, for of such is the kingdom of God" (Mk. 10:1415; cf. Mt. 18:1314, Jn. 3:35). With far-reaching irony he says, "The tax collectors and harlots enter the kingdom of God before you" (Mt. 21:31). The kingdom of God is further reserved for the handicapped (Mk. 9:47), the persecuted (Mt. 5:10), and those in tribulation (Acts 14:22). The rabbinic background for these sayings is the concept of "the coming age" (ha-ʿolam ha-baʾ ): "Master, teach us the paths of life so that through them we may win the life of the coming age" (B.T., Ber. 28b).

The link among these groups is a deep structure of Jesus' thought underlying Luke's "Sermon on the Plain." The beatitude "Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God" (Lk. 6:20) shows that possession of the kingdom is the coming reward for the poor, hungry, and mourning. The saying "Love your enemies and your reward will be great" (Lk. 6:35) shows that the characteristic of this ideal poor is love of enemies, that is, nonretaliation to evil. Hence Gerd Theissen (Sociology of Early Palestinian Christianity, John Bowden, trans., Philadelphia, 1978, p. 99) concludes: "The best description of the functional outline of the Jesus movement for overcoming social tensions is an interpretation of it as a contribution towards containing and overcoming aggression." Later, Jesus' criterion is reformulated with increasing degrees of legalism: To enter the kingdom of God one must keep two great commandments (Mk. 12:34); show persistence (Lk. 9:62); do the will of God (Mt. 7:21); serve the Christ hidden in the poor (Mt. 25:34); have a higher righteousness (Mt. 5:20); and avoid certain listed sins (1 Cor. 6:910, Gal. 5:21).

The kingdom of God as object of search or struggle

A third group of sayings defines the kingdom of God as the highest object of desire. Although certain forces "lock up the kingdom of heaven" (Mt. 23:13), the reader is told "seek first God's kingdom and all these shall be added to you" (Lk. 21:31; cf. Mt. 6:33). The kingdom is symbolized by the "treasure hidden in a field" and the "pearl of great price" (Mt. 13:4446). But the nature of the "mystery of the kingdom of God" is left unexplained at Mark 4:11; and Paul only vaguely suggests with the expression "fellow workers for the kingdom of God" (Col. 4:11) the modern idea that the kingdom can be promoted by human energy.

"In the kingdom of God"

This phrase in a fourth group of sayings is always used in connection with a banquet at the end of time. When Jesus affirms, "I shall no more drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God" (Mk. 14:25), he implies that the kingdom can only come in through his suffering. The greatest and least in the kingdom are paradoxically reversed (Mt. 5:19, 18:4; Lk. 7:28 and Mt. 11:11) as in the parable of the banquet (Mt. 22:214, Lk. 14:1624). The final event will be inaugurated by the apostles: To them Jesus says, "I bequeath you as my Father bequeathed me a kingdom, that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel" (Lk. 22:2930; cf. Mt. 19:28).

At the inauguration of the banquet, Jesus says, there will be a final division of humanity "when you see Abraham and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but you yourselves cast out; and they shall come from the east and the west and recline in the kingdom of God" (Lk. 13:2829; cf. Mt. 8:1112). Two themes are combined in this text: the pilgrimage of all peoples to Jerusalem (Is. 49:12, etc.) towards the "house of prayer for all peoples" (Is. 56:7); and the banquet described in Isaiah 25:69, which ends with the archaic Ugaritic motif of Yahveh swallowing up death forever.

The Kingdom of God in Christian Tradition

Luke in his gospel and in the Acts when writing narrative regularly speaks of "preaching the good news of the kingdom of God." Paul inherits the phrase "kingdom of God" in fixed phrases from the gospel tradition; the structural parallel that plays the same role as the kingdom in his thought is the "righteousness [dikaiosune ] of God." The remaining letters of the New Testament, where, as Rudolf Bultmann says, Jesus "the Proclaimer becomes the one proclaimed" by the church, mostly speak of the kingdom of Christ. In the writings of the Greek church fathers the notion of the kingdom of God loses any sociopolitical connotation and is seen as the state of immortality or the beatific vision as entered through baptism. But in his commentary on Matthew 14:7 (244 ce), Origen coins a word that contains much of the original sense: As Christ is "wisdom itself, righteousness itself and truth itself," so is he also "the kingdom itself" (autobasileia ).

The development of the concept of the kingdom of God occurred primarily in the church of the West. In the thought of the Latin theologians and the official Reformation, it served to legitimate the state through Augustine's doctrine of two cities and Luther's of two kingdoms. The Enlightenment, while discovering the primacy of the kingdom of God in Jesus' thought, tried to accommodate it to rational categories. It was the radical Reformation that most fully recovered Jesus' original understanding, and that transmitted the most vital form of the concept to contemporary Christian believers today.

Two cities, two kingdoms

These concepts served to accommodate the church to the state. In his City of God (413426 ce), Augustine developed his grandiose contrast between the civitas Dei, with a biblical basis in Psalms 87:3 and 46:5, and the civitas terrena, the "earthly city," with no biblical antecedent. This work laid a basis for relations between church and state that was not decisively challenged until the resistance to Hitler by the German Confessing church.

Augustine's concept of the earthly city is especially ambiguous. Sometimes (e.g., Sermons 214.11) he identifies the city of God with the historical church and attributes to the earthly city aspects of the state; here he has a predecessor in the rabbinic parallelism of the "kingdom [malkhut ] of the earth" and the "kingdom of the firmament" (B.T. Ber. 58a), and in one interpretation of Jesus' saying about the "things of Caesar" and "things of God" (Mk. 12:17). Elsewhere for Augustine the city of God is the society of the redeemed, and the earthly city is the society of the devil; here the good and evil principles of the Manichaeism that Augustine previously embraced resurface.

While Augustine's language about church and kingdom fluctuates, his underlying thought is consistent. His predecessor Cyprian saw both distinction and continuity between present church and future kingdom: "One who abandons the church which is to reign [regnatura est ] cannot enter the kingdom [regnum ]" (On the Unity of the Church 14). So Augustine distinguishes the temporary "inn" of the church from the permanent "home" of the kingdom (Sermons 131.6). Hence there are two ages of the church, now with a mixture of wheat and tares, in the future transformed into a kingdom without evil. Correspondingly Augustine distinguishes two periods of the kingdom: a present "kingdom of militancy" (regnum militiae ), and a future "peaceable kingdom," a pacatissimum regnum (City of God 20.9). When he goes on then to say that "the church even now is the kingdom of Christ and the kingdom of heaven" he does not imply it is that already perfected.

Two kingdoms in Luther

In the High Middle Ages, Hugh of Saint-Victor (10961141) crystallized Augustine's two cities unambiguously into the "spiritual power" of the church and the "secular power" of the state, with the church in theory superior and in practice subservient. Martin Luther restored the New Testament term "kingdom of God" (Reich Gottes ) but placed over against it a "kingdom of the world" (Reich der Welt ). God's kingdom is one of grace and mercy; the world's kingdom, one of wrath and severity (Martin Luther, Works, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan, Saint Louis, 19551976, 46.69, 30.76). In Luther's On Temporal Authority (1523) the children of Adam are divided between the two kingdoms (Works, 45.88). The sayings "Render to Caesar what is Caesar's" (Mk. 12:17) and "The powers that be are ordained of God" (Rom. 13:1) carry great weight for Luther (Works 45.99)in part because of his dependence on the German princes for protection against Rome. Only when a political leader gives false religious commands does Luther permit the stance expressed in Acts 5:29, "We must obey God rather than men" (Works 45.111).

In a sermon of 1544, Luther boldly defined the two kingdoms as distinct operations of the one God:

The worldly government [das weltlich Regiment ] also may be called God's kingdom. For he wills that it should remain and that we should enter it; but it is only the kingdom with his left hand [nur des reych mit der lincken hand ]. But his right-hand kingdom [rechtes reych ], where he himself rules, and is called neither Kaiser nor king but rather is himself, is that where the Gospel is preached to the poor. (D. Martin Luthers Werke, Weimar, 1883, 52.26; cf. 36.385)

Luther calls these two operations of God his "alien" and "proper" work (opus alienum, proprium; cf. Is. 28:21 Vulgate). In an early sermon of 1516 he maintains, "since God could justify only those who are not just, he is forced before his proper work of justification to carry out an alien work in order to make sinners" (Works 51:19; cf. 33.140).

Sometimes Luther opposed to God's kingdom not the kingdom of the world but Satan's kingdom (Works 33.227). Unlike Augustine he closely integrates the devil's work with the work of God. On Hebrews 2:14, Luther comments: "God pierced the adversary with that one's weapon and so completes his proper work with an alien work" (Works 29.135). While he protests that "God does not wish us like the Manichaeans to imagine two gods, one the source of good, the other of evil" (On Psalms 90:16, Works 13.135), Luther comes close to postulating a duality within God, with the devil as God's dark side. Thus he holds that on occasion "God wears the mask [larva ] of the devil" (On Galatians 5:11, Works 27.43).

Only one kingdom

The doctrine of "only one kingdom" was the affirmation of the German Confessing church. Luther's scheme of two kingdoms was pushed to an extreme in the 1930s by German theologians such as Paul Althaus and Emanuel Hirsch, who favored National Socialism. In their Zwei-Reiche-Lehre ("doctrine of the two kingdoms") the state is autonomous over against the church. Opposition to this doctrine led to a rethinking of Luther's position. For example, Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his Ethics (trans. N. H. Smith, London, 1955, p. 62) condemns any thinking about God and the world "in terms of two spheres," especially when "in the pseudo-Lutheran scheme the autonomy of the orders of the world is proclaimed in opposition to the law of Christ."

During World War II, Karl Barth wrote that the "illusory paganism of the German people" had been confirmed rather than restrained by the "heritage of the greatest Christian of Germany, by Martin Luther's error on the relation between the temporal and spiritual order" (A Letter to Great Britain from Switzerland, London, 1941, p. 36). On the one hand Barth uses Luther's language when he states that "nothingness" (i.e., evil) is "on the left hand of God as the object of his opus alienum " (Church Dogmatics, trans. G. T. Thomson et al., 5 vols. in 14, Edinburgh, 19361977, vol. 3, part 3, p. 361). But, contrary to Luther, he emphasizes the uniqueness of God's kingdom, insisting on the radical "antithesis of the kingdom of God to all human kingdoms" and also to the "sphere of Satan" (Church Dogmatics 4.2.177, 2.2.688). "There is no collateral rule [Nebenregierung ] side by side with [God's] and no counter-rule opposed to it. He alone can rule, and ought to rule, and wills to rule; and he alone does so" (Church Dogmatics 3.3.157).

Barth's views were accepted in principle by the newly formed German Confessing church at the Synod of Barmen (May 31, 1934) in opposition to the Nazi state church. The fifth thesis of Barmen, drafted by Barth and going beyond previous Lutheran or Reformed confessions, says that "the State has by divine appointment the task of providing for justice and peace. The Church acknowledges the benefit of this appointment. It calls to mind the Kingdom of God and thereby the responsibility both of rulers and of the ruled." The document contains nothing about the nature of the state, much less its alleged status as a parallel kingdom; it refers only to the state's assigned task (Cochrane, 1962, pp. 192, 241).

The legacy of the Enlightenment

Here the concept of the coming of the kingdom of God is accommodated to rational categories. Hermann Samuel Reimarus (16941768), in a posthumously published manuscript, was the first modern scholar to recognize that the coming of the kingdom of God was Jesus' central theme (Reimarus: Fragments, ed. C. H. Talbert, Philadelphia, 1970, pp. 136138). Reimarus presumes that Jesus' contemporaries expected no other savior "than a worldly deliverer of Israel, who was to release them from bondage and build up a glorious worldly kingdom for them." When to announce his kingdom (Mt. 10:7) Jesus "chose for his messengers men who were themselves under the common impression," Reimarus concludes, he could have had "no other object than to rouse the Jews who had so long been groaning under the Roman yoke." Thus he sees Jesus as simply a political revolutionary or Zealot.

From an opposite, but no less rationalistic, perspective, Immanuel Kant argued for a universal philosophic interpretation of the kingdom of God. He took the title of the third book of his Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone (1793) from the language of Jesus: "The victory of the good over the evil principle, and the founding of a kingdom of God on earth." He ends the work by citing the phrase from Luke 17:22 ("the kingdom of God is in your midst") in the translation "the kingdom of God is within you," thus giving the saying the "spiritual" interpretation that remains popular: "Here a kingdom of God is represented not according to a particular covenant (i.e., not messianic) but moral (knowable through unassisted reason)."

Most nineteenth-century German New Testament scholars interpreted the Gospels according to Kant's presuppositions. This accommodation, however, collapsed with the publication in 1892 of the first edition of Johannes Weiss's Jesus' Proclamation of the Kingdom of God (trans. R. H. Hiers, Philadelphia, 1971, p. 130). Weiss concluded that "although Jesus initially hoped to live to see the establishment of the kingdom of God, he gradually became certain" that he must die first, but that after his death he would "return upon the clouds of heaven at the establishment of the kingdom of God, within the lifetime of the generation which rejected him." He frankly recognized that this historical reconstruction contradicted the "modern Protestant worldview" that he shared with his contemporaries, because he could not take the "eschatological attitude" that the world was passing away. Likewise, Albert Schweitzer conceived of Jesus as an eschatological visionary awaiting an imminent end of the world. In his The Mystery of the Kingdom of God (1901; trans. W. L. Lowrie, New York, 1950, p. 55), Schweitzer explained the radical demands of the sermon on the mount as an Interimsethik, too rigorous for normal life, in the brief period before the full establishment of the kingdom.

A number of twentieth-century scholars defined Jesus' idea of the kingdom of God as basically completed in his own work. Charles Harold Dodd in his The Parables of the Kingdom (London, 1935) rejects Schweitzer's "thoroughgoing eschatology" and argues that Jesus regarded the kingdom of God as having already come. He interprets "the ministry of Jesus as 'realized eschatology,' that is, as the impact upon this world of the 'powers of the world to come'" (p. 151). Rudolf Bultmann in his Jesus and the Word (1926; trans. L. P. Smith et al., New York, 1934, pp. 52, 131), anticipating his later program of "demythologization," interprets the absolute certainty of the coming of the kingdom as a "crisis of decision" in which every hour is the last hour. He defines the kingdom as "an eschatological deliverance which ends everything earthly" by confronting the human being with a decision in crisis as in Kierkegaard's "Either/Or."

Schweitzer laid much weight on the saying in Mark 9:1, "There are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God coming with power." If this verse is both historically attributed to Jesus and understood literally, Jesus will seem to have been in error. There have been many efforts to account for the apparent error. In his On Being a Christian (New York, 1978, p. 220), Hans Küng argues that Jesus' "apocalyptic horizon," the expectation of an immediate end of the world, is "not so much an error as a time-conditioned worldview which Jesus shared with his contemporaries." Erich Grässer, in his Das Problem der Parusieverzögerung in den synoptischen Evangelien (Berlin, 1960), sees the entire development of the early church as a response to the "delay of the parousia [i.e., 'expected coming']," citing especially 2 Peter 3:4: "Where is the promise of his coming?" John G. Gager in his Kingdom and Community: The Social World of Early Christianity (Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1975, p. 39) explains the whole original Christian mission by analogy to a contemporary millenarian sect that, after its prediction of an immediate end is disconfirmed, "may undertake zealous missionary activity as a response to its sense of cognitive dissonance." Other scholars, such as Werner G. Kümmel and Norman Perrin, have characterized the supposed error as springing from the adoption of a literalistic antithesis of present/future.

A kingdom of righteousness and peace

This kingdom was the heritage of the radical Reformation. Both the centrality and the original meaning of Jesus' concept of the kingdom of God were grasped by the radical reformers, less through their scholarship than through the conformity of their lives to Jesus' pattern. Menno Simons (c. 14961561), rejecting the violence of the Peasants' Revolt of 1525 under Thomas Münzer but speaking from the same social situation, based his stand of nonretaliation on the sermon on the mount. He wrote, "Christ has not taken his kingdom with the sword, although he entered it with much suffering" (The Complete Writings of Menno Simons, trans. L. Verduin et al., Scottsdale, 1956, p. 49). And again, "We acknowledge no other sword in the kingdom or church of Christ than the sharp sword of the Spirit" (p. 300). While leaving "the civil sword to those to whom it is committed," Menno's only kingdoms are those of "the Prince of Peace and the prince of strife" (p. 554). Similarly, in his Journal, George Fox, recording his famous testimony of November 21, 1660 before Charles II, characterizes the kingdom of God as wholly pacific: "The Spirit of Christ, which leads us into all truth, will never move us to fight and war against any man with outward weapons, neither for the kingdom of Christ nor for the kingdoms of this world."

The visual arts

The church early developed pictorial versions of the human scenes of the Gospels. But an adequate symbol of the kingdom of God first appears in the nineteenth century in the many versions of The Peaceable Kingdom painted by the American Quaker primitive Edward Hicks (17801849). These paintings illustrate Isaiah 11:68: Against a Delaware River landscape the wolf and lamb, leopard and kid lie down together, the cow and bear feed side by side, and the lion eats straw with the ox; one child leads them, another plays on the serpent's den. In a background vignette William Penn signs his peace treaty with the Indians.

The popular piety of Hymnody

Even for Luther, when he turned hymn-writer, the only opposite to God's kingdom can be Satan's: In Ein feste Burg (1529) God's opposite is the "Prince of this world" (John 12:31), and the sole kingdom is the one we inherit, Das Reich muss uns doch bleiben. The masters of English hymnody, who always attribute the kingdom of Jesus, suffuse it with the social witness Evangelical revival. Thus Isaac Watts in his paraphrase (1719) of the messianic Psalm 72: "Jesus shall reign where'er the sun his kingdom stretch from shore to shore." Charles Wesley's Christmas hymn (1739) once began "Glory to the King of kings!"; congregations still sing, "Hail, the Sun of Righteousness! / Hail, the heav'n-born Prince of Peace!" Their focus on the person of Jesus is especially plain in their transformation of the "kingship Psalms": Watt's Christmas hymn (1719) "Joy to the world! the Lord is come; / Let earth receive her King" adapts Psalm 98; Charles Wesley's ascension hymn "Hail the day that sees him rise Take the King of Glory in!" reworks Psalm 24.

Puritanism and the Social Gospel

English Puritans commonly speak of God as king. In his A Holy Commonwealth (1659), Richard Baxter affirms that "the world is a kingdom whereof God is the King an absolute Monarchy All men are subjects of God's kingdom" (Richard Niebuhr, 1937, p. 52). It is a false boast when in John Milton's Paradise Lost Satan claims "Divided Empire with Heaven's King I hold" (4.111). In America, where the symbolism of monarchy was less apt, the emphasis merely shifts to the kingdom of God. Jonathan Edwards in his History of Redemption regards the kingdom of heaven upon earth as a prosperous age of the church before the apostasy and last judgement. The Puritan inheritance was secularized in Walter Rauschenbusch's notion of the Social Gospel, in which the realization of the kingdom is identified with historical progress. In a manuscript of about 1891, posthumously published as The Righteousness of the Kingdom (Nashville, 1968), Rauschenbusch holds that the "program of the Christian revolution," namely, the kingdom of God on earth, "includes a twofold aim: the regeneration of every individual to divine sonship and eternal life, and the victory of the spirit of Christ over the spirit of this world in all the institutions formed by human society" (p. 110).

The theology of the future

After the reaction to nineteenth-century liberal theology in Bultmann's existentialism and Barth's neo-orthodoxy, the 1960s saw new theologies that were oriented toward the future. For example, Wolfhart Pannenberg in his Theology and the Kingdom of God (Philadelphia, 1969) writes: "If the Kingdom of God and the mode of his existence (power and being) belong together, then the message of the coming kingdom implies that god in his very being is the future of the world" (p. 61). And Jürgen Moltmann in his Theology of Hope (trans. J. W. Weitch, London, 1967) holds that "the kingdom is present here as promise and hope for the future horizon of all things" (p. 223).

Councils, Catholic and Protestant

Paul had defined the kingdom of God as "righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit" (Rom. 14:17). Those identifications are taken up in the documents of the Second Vatican Council (19631965): "To the extent that [earthly progress] can contribute to the better ordering of human society, it is of vital concern to the kingdom of God" (Gaudium et Spes 39, cf. Lumen Gentium 5). Similarly, the Sixth Assembly of the World Council of Churches (Vancouver, 1983) affirms "the identification of the churches with the poor in their witness to God's kingdom"; and in its statement rejecting nuclear weapons says that "as we witness to our genuine desire for peace with specific actions, the Spirit of God can use our feeble efforts for bringing the kingdoms of this world closer to the kingdom of God."

The theology of liberation

A unity of piety with political struggle marks a new life in the Latin American church. A key spokesman is the Peruvian Gustavo Gutiérrez, who writes: "The process of liberation will not have conquered the very roots of oppression without the coming of the kingdom of God, which is above all a gift. The historical, political liberating event is the growth of the kingdom but it is not the coming of the kingdom" (A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics and Salvation, trans. Caridad Inda and J. Eagleson, Maryknoll, N.Y., 1973, p. 177). This theology is adapted to North American experience by James H. Cone, who in his A Black Theology of Liberation (Philadelphia, 1970, p. 220) writes: "The appearance of Jesus as the Black Christ also means that the Black Revolution is God's kingdom becoming a reality in America. The kingdom of God is what happens to a person when his being is confronted with the reality of God's liberation."

The movement for justice and peace

Dom Helder Câmara of Recife has often said that the current world faces twin threats: the actual "M-bomb" of misery and the potential holocaust of the A-bomb. In that situation, the most critical in history, many readers of the New Testament are finding that its apocalyptic images of the end of the world, far from being alien to their mentality, are merely literal. To many Christian believers in the movement for justice and peace the kingdom of God has become the primary name for what is at work in them. James W. Douglass, in his Resistance and Contemplation: The Way of Liberation (Garden City, 1972, p. 107), writes: "The way of revolution is the kingdom because the revolution is the people coming together in a new humanity, ignited by a divine symbol given through the man of truthJesus in the Temple and on the cross, Gandhi by the sea [on the salt march], the Berrigans at Catonsville [destroying draft files]." In the slums of São Paulo a French priest, Dominique Barbé, drawing on an indigenous Brazilian tradition of nonviolent resistance, writes (La grâce et le pouvoir, Paris, 1982, p. 206): "If I have been snatched out of the empire of darkness to enter into the kingdom, that is, into that part of reality where death has been eliminated, the only means of combat left me is the Cross and not the revolver." After Martin Luther King Jr., the disciple of Rauschenbusch and Gandhi, delivered his speech "I have a dream" at the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963 (A Testament of Hope, ed. J. M. Washington, San Francisco, 1986, p. 217), Coretta King commented: "At that moment it seemed as if the Kingdom of God appeared." She added, "But it only lasted for a moment." Contemporary belief in the kingdom of God requires it to be reappropriated freshly by human beings at each historical turning point.

See Also

Christian Social Movements; Kingship; Political Theology; Theocracy.


No comprehensive study of the topic exists. For a well-documented source of texts from the ancient Near East and an extensive bibliography, see Thorkild Jacobsen's The Treasures of Darkness: A History of Mesopotamian Religion (New Haven, Conn., 1976). The Ugaritic data with relation to Hebrew are clearly presented by Werner H. Schmidt in Königtum Gottes in Ugarit und Israel: Zur Herkunft der Königsprädikation Jahwes, 2d ed. (Berlin, 1966). The most reliable surveys for the biblical material as a whole are Rudolf Schnackenburg's God's Rule and Kingdom (New York, 1963) and "Basileus" and related entries in the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich., 1964). For excellent surveys of Old Testament scholarship on Yahveh's kingship, see Joseph Coppens's contribution to the entry "Règne (ou Royaume) de Dieu," in the Supplément au Dictionnaire de la Bible, vol. 10 (Paris, 1981), and the article "Melek" by Helmer Ringgren et al. in the Theologisches Wörterbuch zum Alten Testament, vol. 4 (Stuttgart, 1984). Martin Buber's Kingship of God, translated from the third German edition (New York, 1967), is more theological than exegetical in its handling of the topic. John Gray restates the "enthronement-festival theory" uncritically but offers a thorough bibliography in The Biblical Doctrine of the Reign of God (Edinburgh, 1979).

The rabbinic sources were first analyzed by Gustaf H. Dalman in The Words of Jesus Considered in the Light of Post-Biblical Jewish Writings and the Aramaic Language, rev. Eng. ed. (Edinburgh, 1909); see especially pages 91102 in volume 1 on the "kingship of heaven." Thousands of rabbinic texts in German translation are included in Hermann L. Strack and Paul Billerbeck's Kommentar zum neuen Testament aus Talmud und Midrasch, 6 vols. in 7 (Munich, 19221961); see especially the collection on "kingdom of God" in volume 1, pages 172180. The use of the term kingdom in the Targum is analyzed by Bruce D. Chilton in "Regnum Dei Deus Est," Scottish Journal of Theology 31 (1978): 261276.

For an introduction to the teachings of Jesus, see Hans Küng's On Being a Christian (Garden City, N.Y., 1976) and Günther Bornkamm's Jesus of Nazareth (New York, 1960). The "form-criticism" (Formgeschichte ) of the gospel materials, important for assessing the historicity of the different sayings on the kingdom, was begun and almost ended with Rudolf Bultmann's The History of the Synoptic Tradition, 2d ed. (New York, 1968). On the Aramaic background of the sayings, consult Joachim Jeremias's New Testament Theology: The Proclamation of Jesus (New York, 1971). The case for making Jesus a political revolutionary has been restated by S. G. F. Brandon in Jesus and the Zealots (Manchester, 1967).

For a bibliography of the research on Jesus' sayings on the kingdom, together with scrupulous exegesis of key ones, see Jacques Schlosser's Le règne de Dieu dans les dits de Jésus, 2 vols. (Paris, 1980). Two articles on the subject of Jesus' sayings are especially useful: Hans Windisch's "Die Sprüche vom Eingehen in das Reich Gottes," Zeitschrift für die neutestamentliche Wissenschaft 27 (1928): 163192, and Heinz Kruse's "The Return of the Prodigal: Fortunes of a Parable on Its Way to the Far East," Orientalia 47 (1978): 163214.

Ernst Staehelin offers a very large annotated compilation of texts from the Christian church in Die Verkündigung des Reiches Gottes in der Kirche Jesu Christi, 7 vols. (Basel, 19511965). The early church fathers' treatment of the concept is indexed in "Basileia," in A Patristic Greek Lexicon, edited by G. W. H. Lampe (Oxford, 1961). A reliable guide to Augustine's thought is Étienne Gilson's The Christian Philosophy of Saint Augustine (New York, 1960), especially pp. 180183. For a brief introduction to the thorny controversy surrounding Luther's doctrine, consult Heinrich Bornkamm's Luther's Doctrine of the Two Kingdoms in the Context of His Theology (Philadelphia, 1966). Arthur C. Cochrane narrates the struggle within the German church in The Church's Confession under Hitler (Philadelphia, 1962).

Read in sequence, three works provide the history of scholarly research into the meaning of the kingdom in Jesus' sayings: Christian Walther's Typen des Reich-Gottes-Verständnisses: Studien zur Eschatologie und Ethik im 19. Jarhundert (Munich, 1961) offers the perspective of nineteenth-century thinkers; Albert Schweitzer's The Quest of the Historical Jesus: A Critical Study of Its Progress from Reimarus to Wrede, 2d ed. (London, 1911), moves from Reimarus to Schweitzer himself; and Gösta Lundström's The Kingdom of God in the Teaching of Jesus: A History of Interpretation from the Last Decades of the Nineteenth Century to the Present Day (Edinburgh, 1963) moves forward to the 1960s. The most extensive contemporary work is the lifetime opus of Norman Perrin: The Kingdom of God in the Teaching of Jesus (Philadelphia, 1963), Rediscovering the Teaching of Jesus (New York, 1967), and Jesus and the Language of the Kingdom: Symbol and Metaphor in New Testament Interpretation (Philadelphia, 1976). Werner B. Kümmel's Promise and Fulfillment: The Eschatological Message of Jesus (Naperville, Ill., 1957) is also useful.

Numerous texts otherwise barely accessible are cited in H. Richard Niebuhr's The Kingdom of God in America (Chicago, 1937); his schematism is to be taken with reserve.

New Sources

Blumenfeld, Bruno. The Political Paul: Justice, Democracy, and Kingship in a Hellenistic Framework. London, 2001.

Chilton, Bruce. Pure Kingdom: Jesus' Vision of God. Grand Rapids, Mich., 1996.

Fuellenbach, John. Church: Community for the Kingdom. Maryknoll, N.Y., 2002.

Humphries, Michael L. Christian Origins and the Language of the Kingdom of God. Carbondale, Ill., 1999.

Kainz, Howard P. Democracy and the "Kingdom of God." Milwaukee, Wis., 1995.

Liebenberg, Jacobus. The Language of the Kingdom and Jesus. New York, 2000.

Malina, Bruce J. The Social Gospel of Jesus. Minneapolis, 2001.

O'Donovan, Oliver. The Desire of the Nations: Rediscovering the Roots of Political Theology. Cambridge, 1996.

Phillips, Paul T. A Kingdom on Earth: Anglo-American Social Christianity, 18801940. University Park, Pa., 1996.

Viviano, Benedict T. The Kingdom of God in History. Wilmington, Del., 1988.

John Pairman Brown (1987)

Revised Bibliography