The Kingdom of God: Living God’s ways in the here and now
The kingdom of God lies at the heart of Yeshua`’s teachings. Understanding the kingdom of God helps us to realise how he saw God’s active Presence working in and through humanity. Sadly, it remains the most widely misunderstood of all his teachings. Ask most people, and they will say that the kingdom of God is heaven; or else it is a place, or something that will come about in the future. All these misunderstandings are a tragic blow to the hopes and ideals that the kingdom of God embodies, and the great future it promises.
Yeshua` transmitted the message of the kingdom through the medium of the Aramaic language, and in a Jewish environment. Once the message got removed from that into a Greek and Gentile cultural milieu, it started taking on ideas and concepts that were foreign to the original. Therefore, our modern-day confusion results from an ancient failure to accurately transmit a Jewish idea to a non-Jewish audience.
When a writer relates historical material, they cannot help but interpret that material. When the writers of the New Testament recorded the sayings of Yeshua`, what they recorded was their own personal understanding of what he said, and this just adds to the confusion.
What I hope to do in this article is clarify in the mind of the reader exactly what the kingdom of God is, when it is, what it can become, and how we can play our part in it.
The kingdom of God is not heaven
The problem all translators have, no matter what they translate, and no matter what languages they are translating from and to, is that it is sometimes difficult to convey precisely the concept intended in the original. A string of words that mean one thing in one language, will often mean something quite different in another.
This is basically what has happened to the term, ‘the Kingdom of Heaven’. Simply because the individual words themselves have a particular connotation to us, many people now think that this term is referring to heaven itself – the afterlife. If you do assume this, you would be quite mistaken. The Aramaic phrase ‘malkhuta dishmayya’ does literally translate as ‘the kingdom of heaven’, but that’s not what it means.
In this instance, ‘Heaven’ is simply a respectful, rabbinical Jewish avoidance of using the word ‘God’. The term ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ means exactly the same as the normal Jewish term ‘Kingdom of God’; there is no difference.
The kingdom of God is not a place
The next thing we have to do is understand that the Aramaic malkhuta doesn’t always mean exactly what the English word ‘kingdom’ means. Because the English word ‘kingdom’ usually denotes a place in ordinary, everyday speech, some people immediately think of God’s kingdom as a mystical place somewhere. This would also be quite mistaken.
Aramaic vocabulary back then was quite limited in its range. Words were overworked and overused, and one word had to make do for several different concepts. For example, where today we might use the words kingdom, kingship, reign, authority, and government, in ancient Aramaic you just had the one word to translate them all: malkhuta.
For example, in English you would say, “in the fiftieth year of the reign of Queen Elizabeth”; in Aramaic you would have to say, “in the fiftieth year of the kingdom of Queen Elizabeth”.
From among the various possible choices of English words we have for the Aramaic malkhuta, the most appropriate for our discussion is ‘reign’.
Let me explain. When we pick a new President or Prime Minister, each Presidency or Prime Ministership will be characterised by certain laws, policies and ways of thinking. Just as a presidency puts forward certain proposals, so also does God’s reign carry an implicit set of proposals. While God’s reign lasts, certain changes, policies and laws are meant to be enacted.
This begs the next question: So when is God’s reign? When does it start? To answer this, I’d like to direct your attention to the Miqra (the Hebrew bible).
The kingdom of God in the Miqra
The Hebrew and Aramaic phrases for ‘the Kingdom of God’ are ha-malkhut elohim and malkhuta delaha respectively. There are just two sections of the Miqra that refer to God’s kingdom – the Hebrew Psalms and the Aramaic book of Daniel. Yeshua` knew his scripture well, and these books would have had considerable influence on his thinking about God’s kingdom. I’d like you to consider the following passages:
Your throne, O God, is forever and ever;
the sceptre of your kingdom is a sceptre of justice.
All your works shall praise you, O YHVH; and your pious faithful shall bless you.
They shall speak of the glory of your kingdom, and talk of your power;
To make known to human beings God’s mighty acts, and the glorious majesty of God’s kingdom.
Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and your dominion endures throughout all generations.
How great are God’s signs! and how mighty are God’s wonders! God’s kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and God’s dominion is from generation to generation.
From the above passages, we can see that God’s kingdom is forever – it ‘is’, not ‘will be’. That means it’s already begun. It was, is and always will be!
God’s kingdom is now!
The Synoptic Gospels all use the phrase ‘The Kingdom of God is at hand’. They gospel writers were all trying to conceptualise an Aramaic original, and all missed the mark. When Yeshua` said, “God’s kingdom is at hand”, it doesn’t mean it’s almost here, it means it is here! God’s kingdom is now! Yeshua` wasn’t announcing an advent – a coming; he was trying to get people to realise an established fact. He was trying to tell people to stop waiting, and start acting, because God’s kingdom was already with them, and always had been. And this meant that they had to stop dithering and start acting and behaving like God’s kingdom was with them. They had to change their heart and their ways (this is the meaning of ‘repent’), and conform to the ways of their great and just King and God.
This realisation makes people think, “Yikes! I’ve been sitting here, waiting, not really doing anything, and all this time I could have done something to realise the great aspirations of God’s kingdom. I’d better get a move on!” The mere dawning of this thought goaded Yeshua`’s followers into action .
Yeshua` described the overwhelming joy that individuals had once they fully realised what the Kingdom of God was (SY 23:1 to 24:3)
Yeshua` said, ‘The kingdom of God is like a hoard of money hidden in a field. While ploughing, a man found it. He immediately covered it up again, and then in his joy went and sold every last possession in order to buy that field.’
Yeshua` said, ‘The kingdom of God is like a pearl of great value, which a merchant found while examining a consignment of goods. He went and sold everything he owned. Then he came back and bought the whole consignment, in order that he might have the one pearl.’
So why hadn’t anyone in his day realised this before? The reason can be summed up in one word: messianism.
The kingdom of God as a replacement for messianism
In Yeshua`’s day, the Jewish people were under the Roman occupation. They had suffered much, and longed for release. They looked forward to a day when a messiah would come to free them, and restore the kingdom of Israel. The kingdom of God got mixed up in the Jewish mind with a messianic kingdom, and this caused Jews to end up waiting for both. Zealots fought violently for the messianic kingdom, and by doing so believed that they were also working towards bringing about the kingdom of God.
‘From the days of Yochanan (John), right to this very moment, the kingdom of God is being proclaimed, but men of violence are trying to gain the kingdom of God by violence.’
Followers of the Way do not consider Yeshua` to have been the messiah.
Consider this: in all of Yeshua`’s teachings on the kingdom of God, there is no mention of a messiah being at the head of this kingdom, but there are copious mentions of what the kingdom of God is like with God at its head. Yeshua` considered God his king, not a human messiah.
This is the reason why Talmidi thinkers feel that Yeshua`’s teachings on the kingdom of God, which emphasised just action and moral conduct, were intended to replace the contemporary violence of messianic theology.
Messianism makes people wait for something to happen; the Kingdom of God makes people act now. You can believe in one or the other – you can act now, or you can wait for something to happen later; you cannot have both.
What the kingdom of God is like
The effects of the kingdom of God would start out small:
It’s like the tiny mustard seed, which a man took and sowed in his field. It grew and became a bush, and little birds sheltered under its branches.’
And it will grow to permeate everything it touches:
The kingdom of God is like a little yeast which a woman took and hid in three sata of flour. Eventually all the flour was leavened.’
The kingdom is open to those whom society has rejected:
Those who reckon themselves first will be last, and those whom others reckon last, will be first in the kingdom of God.
We live the kingdom by doing God’s will:
Not everyone who calls out in God’s Name, saying “Adonai! Adonai!” will find the kingdom of God; only those who do the will of their heavenly Father.
Living the kingdom of God
It’s not about externals, but rather what is within us:
The kingdom of God won’t come by watching and waiting for it. Nor will people say, “Here it is!” or “There it is!” Because the kingdom of God is within you.
Humility is required:
Blessed are the humble in spirit, because theirs is the kingdom of God.
We must pursue virtue without seeking reward or praise.
Blessed are they who pursue virtue simply for what it is, because theirs is the kingdom of God.
Living the kingdom helps us to put our anxieties into perspective:
Don’t be anxious, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?” Because even the Gentiles look for these things, and yet your heavenly Father knows that they need them all. Rather, look for the kingdom of God, and you’ll see, all these things will be yours as well.
Service as part of the kingdom of God
There are two passages which contain a play on words in Aramaic which have not been conveyed in any other language (that I know of!):
When Yeshua` realised what his followers were doing, he became indignant and said, ‘Let the children come to me, and don’t try to stop them; because the kingdom of God belongs to ones such as these. Let me tell you, unless you accept the kingdom of God like a child, you shall never find it.’
Yeshua` said, ‘Whoever humbles themselves like a child will be the greatest in the kingdom of God.’
(SY 146:3 to 147:1)
The two passages play on the two meanings of the Aramaic word for child, talya. The first tells us we must live the kingdom with the wonder and innocence of a child.
However, the Aramaic talya also means house-servant. In the kingdom of God, we must also have the humility of a servant (not a child!), and be willing to serve others:
…. whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave to all.
What the kingdom can become: the fulfilment of God’s kingdom
Now, there are some passages which seem to refer to a time in the future. What we have to realise, is that there is a difference between the kingdom as it is now, and what it can become in the future.
When all follow the ways of the kingdom, there will come a time when God’s plans are fulfilled. There will be a time of peace. There will be no crime or poverty or war.
The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatted beasts together; and a little child shall lead them. ………… They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain: for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of YHVH, as the waters cover the sea.
and they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.
(Isaiah 2:4, Micah 4:3)
The kingdom of God is now, but we can all work towards what the kingdom can become, and we all have our part to play in it.
“The kingdom of God is within us”; what we can do for the kingdom
What can you do for the kingdom of God? What part can you play towards its fulfilment?
We play our part by putting God’s will into action. As Followers of the Way of God’s Kingdom, we should serve others, help others, act selflessly without thought of reward; we should extend a hand to those society rejects, the poor and the outcast; we should treat every human being equally, regardless of their station or ability in life.
A citizen of God’s kingdom has an infectious enthusiasm for it. In the way they live, they show that they believe God has a purpose and a great plan for all of humanity, a plan for a world of peace and prosperity. They see the potential that humanity has, instead of seeing only its faults.
Live the kingdom by having a kind and open heart to all you meet, so that the kingdom of God spreads. Infect those you meet with your love and kindness. Open the door of the kingdom of God to all, regardless of their religion or belief.
The kingdom is not heaven, or a place, or something that will happen only in the future. The kingdom is here and now. We all have our part to play in it. The kingdom of God is within us – in how we live our lives, living God’s ways, working towards bringing the kingdom of peace and prosperity to its ultimate fulfilment.