During Jesus’ earthly ministry, he often taught people to prepare for the coming of the kingdom of God. To many Christians, this means that we ought to look ahead to heaven, where we will live in God’s kingdom for eternity
But is our understanding complete? Is heaven the kingdom of God, or is there more to Jesus’ teaching that applies now, in this life?
Heaven is the ultimate culmination of God’s kingdom and the eternal home of His people. But the kingdom of God is also present now in the hearts and lives of all believers.
The Kingdom is Near
From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”Matthew 4:17
From the very beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, Matthew tells us, the kingdom of heaven was the focal point of Jesus’ teaching. In fact, Jesus taught more about the kingdom of God than any other topic.
In Matthew’s gospel alone, Jesus mentions the “kingdom of heaven” (Matthew’s preferred phrase, interchangeable with “kingdom of God”) over 30 times. The other three gospels quote Jesus saying “kingdom of God” over 50 times.
Jesus is not simply inviting his hearers to get ready for a future in heaven. In a way, he is calling people to join him in bringing heaven to earth. Consider the familiar words of the Lord’s Prayer:
This, then, is how you should pray:
“‘Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.Matthew 6:9-10
But what does bringing heaven to earth actually look like?
Castles in the Sky?
Once, on being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, “The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is in your midst.”Luke 17:20-21
If we are looking for a cosmic event to let us know that the kingdom of God has arrived, Jesus assures us that we will be disappointed. He also tells us that we are going to miss seeing the true kingdom.
Jesus said this because Jesus himself is the embodiment of God’s kingdom. Through his presence within his believers, he causes us to embody the kingdom along with him.
While they were listening to this, he went on to tell them a parable, because he was near Jerusalem and the people thought that the kingdom of God was going to appear at once. He said: “A man of noble birth went to a distant country to have himself appointed king and then to return. So he called ten of his servants and gave them ten minas. ‘Put this money to work,’ he said, ‘until I come back.’Luke 19:11-13
Even though Jesus came from heaven and has returned to heaven until the end times, he came for the sake of establishing his kingdom here, within and through each of us.
As Jesus shared parables describing the kingdom of God, he did so to help understand God’s character, learn how to relate to one another, and know how to live as holy people even while we reside in a fallen world.
This is why many preachers and teachers today describe Christians as “kingdom people”, or the Christian way of life as a life lived according to “kingdom values.”
Citizens of God’s Kingdom
For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.Colossians 1:13-14
Expounding on Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom of God, Paul affirms that through his death and resurrection, Jesus has made us citizens of God’s kingdom now. While it is true that in Jesus, we have the eternal security and hope of heaven, Paul does not describe the kingdom in future terms.
We haven’t been handed a ticket to a future event. We’ve already been brought into the kingdom because the kingdom starts with Jesus’ work on the cross and continues with Jesus’ work through his people—the church.
The Work of God’s Kingdom
The ultimate purpose of Jesus’ redemptive work was the reconciliation of fallen people to God. In Jesus, we have renewed hearts and minds that operate differently from the way the world operates.
Paul connects this transformation to the work of calling others to redemption and citizenship in God’s kingdom in 2 Corinthians 5:
- So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. (v 16)
- Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! (v 17)
- And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. (v 19)
- We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. (v 20)
By describing us as ambassadors, Paul neatly unites our kingdom citizenship with our earthly dwelling.
We are citizens of heaven and representatives of God’s eternal kingdom in the same way that a diplomat represents his or her home country and its leaders in a foreign land.
Internationally, embassies are recognized and treated as extensions of a remote country. For example, a United States embassy in Germany is recognized by Americans, Germans, and others as US territory, even though it is physically located in Germany.
Likewise, as God’s ambassadors, we are extensions of His heavenly kingdom even while we remain on earth.
Living as Kingdom People
Live out your time as foreigners here in reverent fear.1 Peter 1:17b
As Christians, we know that our behavior does not save us. Only God’s grace—offered through the completed work of Jesus on the cross—has the power to do that.
Still, our behavior is important because we are called to live in a manner worthy of our citizenship. By allowing God’s grace to transform us and flow from us to others in kindness, mercy, and compassion, we advance and grow God’s kingdom as we invite others to kingdom citizenship:
Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.1 Peter 2:11-12
One day, the earth will be no more and the kingdom of God will be all that remains. But the kingdom has already begun—through Jesus and in each of us who know him.