This Christmas series was intended to run through the Baptism of Jesus, which is commemorated on Epiphany (Jan 6) in the Eastern Churches; in Western tradition, Jesus’ Baptism is celebrated on the octave of Epiphany (Jan 13).
As a follow-up to the recent notes on believers as “sons/children of God”, today I would like to examine the connection between sonship and the kingdom of God. It is not possible in this relatively brief discussion to provide a comprehensive treatment of the “kingdom of God” as a concept or topic; however, a number of key points and observations will be offered here.
To begin with, contrary to some commentators, I find little distinction between the use or meaning of the expressions “kingdom of God” and “kingdom of Heaven (lit. ‘of the Heavens’)”. The latter is found exclusively in the Gospel of Matthew, and a comparison of parallel passages and sayings of Jesus in the Synoptics, demonstrates more or less decisively that the expressions are synonymous (and interchangeable). Which is not to say that the Gospel of Matthew does not have specific reasons for using “Heaven” instead of “God”. Exactly how, or to what extent, the different idioms (in Greek) relate to the actual words of Jesus (the ipsissima verba, probably spoken in Aramaic) continues to be debated.
The Kingdom-concept appears to have a fairly wide range of meaning, but it is possible, I believe, to isolate three primary aspects or elements:
- Rule and authority—that is to say, of God as king. While, from the human perspective, God rules and exercises sovereignty, primarily from heaven, he has also made his will known to people on earth—principally through the commands and communication revealed and preserved in the Scriptures. Eventually, God will enforce his rule more fully and directly upon the world (at the end time).
- Dominion—by this is meant the area (domain) that is subject to God and the means by which he rules; one may divide this into two additional aspects: (a) the people who are under his rule and obedient to it (i.e. the “righteous”), and (b) the rule of God in terms of the Law (or “laws”, i.e. commands, precepts, etc) under which the ‘Kingdom’ is governed. According to Pauline thought and terminology, especially, the “Law of God” is synonymous with the “Will of God”.
- Eschatology—at the time of the New Testament, and in Jesus’ own day, the “Kingdom of God” was understood primarily in terms of the rule of God which will be realized over humankind (and all things) and the end of the (present) Age. Several related ideas and expectations were brought together, variously, in this context: (a) God’s end-time Judgment of human beings, (b) the specific judgment against the wicked/idolatrous “Nations”, (c) the restoration of Israel, and (d) the reward of the righteous (who have been suffering during the current wicked Age). The expectation of an Anointed ruler (i.e. Messiah/Christ), from the line of David, whose appearance would attend (or govern) these eschatological events, appears to have been relatively common in the 1st centuries B.C/A.D.
The initial proclamation of Jesus was to announce that this coming Kingdom was now arriving: “The time has been (ful)filled, the Kingdom of God has come near…!” (Mark 1:15 par). The vast majority of references to “the kingdom of God/Heaven” in the New Testament, in fact, come from Jesus’ own teaching (and virtually all from the Synoptic Gospels, except for John 3:3-5). These can generally be divided into several categories:
- Ethical and hortatory instruction in an eschatological context, i.e. his followers (believers) in relation to the Kingdom (inheriting the Kingdom, etc)—Matt 5:3, 10, 19-20; 7:21; 11:11-12; Mark 9:47; 10:14-15, 23-25 and pars, et al.
- Parables and sayings illustrating the nature and character of the Kingdom (often with an eschatological orientation as well)—Matthew 13; Mark 3:24; 4:11, 26, 30 par, et al.
- Specific eschatological sayings and teachings regarding the Kingdom—Mark 1:15; 9:1; 14:25; Luke 21:31 and pars, et al.
“Inheriting” and “Entering” the Kingdom
A principal metaphor, encompassing both ethical and eschatological aspects of the Kingdom concept, is that of inheriting or entering the Kingdom. The two idioms are, it would seem, generally synonymous, and are rooted clearly in the idea of believers (or the righteous) passing the (end-time) judgment before the heavenly/divine tribunal. This is especially so in terms of “entering” the Kingdom; whereas inheritance may also carry the connotation that believers (or the righteous) have already (previously) been appointed a share (i.e. lot) and place in the Kingdom. It is certainly true that one sees a kind of “realized” eschatology throughout much of the New Testament, drawn largely, I would say, from the basic idea of the covenant God established with his people (Israel)—if believers remain faithful, they will inherit that which God has prepared for them.
“Enter” the Kingdom (including parallels)—Mark 9:47; 10:15, 23-25; Luke 18:17, 24-25; Matthew 5:20; 7:21; 18:3; 19:23-24; 23:13; John 3:5; Acts 14:22; see also Mark 9:43, 45; Matt 7:13; 8:11; 18:8-9; 19:17; 25:21, 23; Lk 11:52; 13:24, 29; Heb 3:11, 18-19; 4:1-6, 10-11; 10:19; Rev 21:27; 22:14 and John 10:1-2, 9.
“Inherit” the Kingdom (including parallels)—Matthew 25:34; 1 Corinthians 6:9-10; 15:50; Galatians 5:21; Ephesians 5:5. For the parallel idea of inheriting eternal life, cf. Mark 10:17 par; and for similar language involving inheritance, cf. Mark 12:7 par; Lk 12:32; Acts 20:32; Gal 3:18ff; 4:30; Col 1:12; 3:24; Eph 1:11, 14, 18; Heb 1:14; 6:12; 9:15; 11:8; 1 Pet 1:4.
With regard to each of these expressions, there are two particular ideas or images which especially relate to believers as “sons/children of God”:
- The sayings of Jesus that it is necessary to become like little children in order to enter the Kingdom—Mark 10:14-15 / Lk 18:16-17 / Matt 19:14; and Matt 18:3-4. Note especially reference to the Kingdom belonging to the children (cf. Matt 5:3, 10).
- Believers as heirs of God
It is necessary to examine this last image in a bit more detail.
Believers as Heirs (to the Kingdom)
As indicated above, this motif is connected with the idea of believers (or the righteous) inheriting the Kingdom of God. It is the sons who inherit the father’s estate, and, especially the eldest/firstborn son. This is expressed in early Christian thought by the theological (and Christological) premise that Jesus is the true “Son” and heir of God (cf. Mark 12:7 par; Hebrews 1:2; Romans 8:17), which is further reinforced by reference to the Kingdom as belonging to Christ (“my Kingdom”, etc)—Luke 1:33; 22:29-30; 23:42; John 18:36; 1 Cor 15:24; Col 1:13; Eph 5:5; 2 Tim 4:1, 18; 2 Pet 1:11; Rev 11:15; 12:10; also Matthew 16:28; 26:29; Luke 19:12ff; Heb 1:8. Believers are heirs through Christ, and heirs together with him (Romans 8:17). The concept of believers as heirs of God is important within Paul’s argument in Galatians and Romans, contrasting the freedom of believers in Christ with slavery under the Law (the old covenant) and sin—cf. throughout Galatians 3-4 and Romans 4:13ff; 8:12-30. For other New Testament references, see James 2:5; 1 Pet 3:7; Eph 3:6; Tit 3:7; Heb 6:17; 11:7ff. At least once in the New Testament, in Jesus’ teaching, believers are specifically referred to as “sons of the Kingdom [ui(oi\ th=$ basilei/a$]” (Matt 13:38, but note the somewhat different use in Matt 8:12).
The specific motif of the firstborn son will be discussed in the next article in this series.