If someone asked you to sum up the teachings of Jesus, could you do it? If you were asked to name one key concept that encapsulated all of Jesus’ message, could you do that?
The most important things in a person’s life are the things on which they spend the most time. If you read the words of Jesus, there is one phrase that will stand out because of its sheer repetition and depth of explanation. That phrase is the Kingdom of God–called the Kingdom of Heaven in Matthew’s gospel. The Kingdom is at once the sum and the theme of all of Jesus’ teaching. It’s the framework upon which he builds all of his concepts and message. Trouble is, most of us don’t know what Jesus means by the Kingdom of God. Worse, we think we know–but from a 21st century Western viewpoint, we miss it. If we don’t understand what Jesus meant by Kingdom, we will never understand the thrust of his teachings. We will see implied contradictions between salvation by faith or by works, and we will miss the focus Jesus had on the here and now.
If you ask the average Christian what the Kingdom of Heaven (to use Matthew’s version) is, you’ll most likely get the answer “heaven,” as in the place we go after death. After all, it is called the Kingdom of Heaven, right? Why would Matthew call it the Kingdom of Heaven, but Mark, Luke and John call it the Kingdom of God? Well, Matthew was written primarily to Jews and the other three gospels to primarily to gentiles. Jews, by tradition, do not speak aloud the name of God, for fear of profaning it. They used euphemisms like Adonai (lord), Jehovah (I am), Ha Shem (the name), and Shemaya. Shemaya comes from the same root as shem (name, essence, character), but the -aya ending takes it into the connectedness of all creation. Shemaya was understood as the sky, the place of the winds, but as ruha (wind) also means breath and spirit, it was also the place of God’s spirit–heaven. And so it was also used as a polite way of avoiding the use of God’s name. In other words, the Kingdom of Heaven and the Kingdom of God is the same thing tuned for different audiences. Let’s use the Kingdom of God, since it has fewer connotations for us.
What do we know about the Kingdom? What did Jesus tell us? In Mark 1:15, his “coming out ” party at the beginning of that gospel, Jesus says, “The waiting is over, the kingdom is here.” Your version may say the kingdom is near or at hand, but the Greek word egizzo and the Aramaic meta, also mean, “has already arrived.” Jesus is telling us the kingdom is here and now. Not at some point in the future after we die…now. Even today, Jews do not have a clear concept of salvation or the afterlife; there is no set doctrine concerning these issues. The first five books of the Old Testament, the Pentateuch, don’t even mention an afterlife, which is why the Sadducees, who only recognized the first five books, did not believe in an afterlife. (See Mt 22:23ff) The first Jewish hearers of Jesus’ message would not have made the mistake that we make, that the Kingdom was a place in the afterlife. They actually would have had the opposite idea: that it was the political reestablishment of the throne of David, set up by the messiah to overthrow the Romans. Jesus had to help them unlearn their preconceptions, just as he has to help us unlearn ours. The Kingdom is not heaven; it doesn’t take place at some future time. It’s here and now.
In fact, the Kingdom is not a place at all. In Luke 17:21 Jesus said: “The Kingdom will not come by observation: no one will say here it is, there it is…The Kingdom is within you.” The Greek word entos can mean within, among, or in your midst, and the Aramaic legau men indicates a process moving from inside to outside. The Kingdom is not a place or a territory, it is something within ourselves that expresses itself externally–among ourselves and in our midst. It is a state of being that elsewhere Jesus describes as beginning deep inside and then breaking out with great force to affect the whole community and eventually the whole world. That’s the sense in which there is a future Kingdom as well.
So the Kingdom is not heaven, not out there or til then, and not a place at all. Then what is it? The Greek word behind the English word kingdom is basileia, and the Aramaic word behind that is malkutha. Both baseleia and malkutha have as their primary meaning, not the territory of the king, but of the rule or reign of the king himself: the dominion, sway, or the principles by which he rules. We could translate, without a stretch, the will of the king. So to be in Kingdom is to literally be in the will of the King–the will of God. We Christians spend so much time trying to find the will of God for our lives, and here it is hiding in plain sight. The Kingdom is not a place, it’s the very principles, the will, by which God reigns. What are those principles?
There is one term left undefined, and that is the actual word for God. God in Aramaic is alaha; in Hebrew, eloah. Both words, at their roots mean one, oneness, unity. But not necessarily just one thing, but multiple things functioning as one. The ancient Jews were all about function over form. We are primarily focused on form–what something looks like, and we (over) use adjectives to describe what we see. Jews were primarily focused on what something did, and used verbs to describe function. God, alaha, eloah functioned as one, in unity. The Kingdom of God, malkutha d’bashmaya, could literally be translated the Reign of Unity. The principle by which God rules is unity, oneness. Everyone functioning as one.
The opposite of unity is hataha, sin. I’ve often heard teachers say that sin leads to separation, but this misses the ancient Semitic mark. Sin doesn’t lead to separation, sin is separation itself. It is the separation that is the sin since it is the opposite of the principle of unity by which God rules. Again, it is the function that is important, not what it looks like. Anything that functions as separation is seen as sinful, anything that doesn’t, isn’t. We innately know this, don’t we? Lying isn’t always a sin. If it’s used for personal gain and breaks down relationships, it’s sinful; if it’s used to save a life and preserve a relationship, it’s not.
Jesus is calling us right here and right now, in the deepest part of ourselves to move into the unity of oneness with God and each other. To make his deepest purpose and desire, his sebyana, ours. To see his face in each human face we encounter, and to express his unity by practicing on others the same unconditional and complete love that he showers on each one of us.
Now just to be clear: there is a heaven. And heaven is waiting for us in all its glory, but we don’t have to wait for heaven. Jesus is telling us that we can experience moments of heaven right here and now, and he calls that experience the Kingdom of God.
Do you know what the Kingdom feels like? Of course you do. When you were in love for the first time and you looked into your beloved’s eyes; when you held your first child and melted into that tiny face; when you sat watching a sunset and were transported into the scene; when you threw your head back and laughed with abandon at the punchline of a really funny joke; at prayer; at worship…
What were you thinking at any of these moments? NOTHING! These are moments so powerful that our sense of self breaks down, and we are completely borderless as individuals. We are fully connected to everyone and everything. For once, the voice with which we talk to ourselves in our minds is hushed and we cease to be one, separate and alone, but one of many, functioning as one together. This is the Kingdom of God, a Kingdom moment. And this moment, right now, can be such a moment… Or this one. It’s our choice every moment to enter the Kingdom or to leave it. And when we string enough Kingdom moments together, then we can say with Jesus, that we are characterized by Kingdom. Our name, our shem, our essence, is now one with God’s. Right here. Right now.