“Seek first the kingdom of God …” (Matt 6:33)
The way Jesus told it, the most important thing in life is to seek the kingdom of God. He said it is more important than healthy eating or wearing the right labels or gaining popularity (Matt 6:25-29). But what did he mean by “Seek the kingdom!”? What is God’s kingdom?
That question has generated enormous debate among New Testament scholars, especially in the last 150 years. Some understand “the kingdom of heaven” to mean going to heaven when we die. Others understand it to mean pursuing social justice on earth now. Is it the millennium? Or the future rule of Christ on earth? Or is his rule already present through his people? Or is it referring back to the time when David and Solomon ruled God’s kingdom? Is the kingdom internal, something that happens inside us? Or is it something that is in the world? Or is it something that will be in heaven? Given the range of opinions, it is abundantly clear that whatever Jesus meant by seeking the kingdom, it is not obvious to us in our modern Western world.
Over the last 1000 years, we have developed a society as far removed from “kingdom” as possible. We don’t want a kingdom, and for good reason. In the world of ancient kingdoms, the king handed down his laws and enforced them at his pleasure. History teaches us that power corrupts. When power is concentrated in the hands of a few, corruption is insidious and inevitable.
The Magna Carta began the process of distributing power from the monarch to the people of the British Isles. Those of us who live under political systems developed from there no longer have an individual head of state making laws: we distribute that power to parliament. We no longer have a head of state enforcing laws: we distribute that power to the police. We no longer have a head of state deciding guilt and penalties: we distribute that power to the judiciary. Our democratic system still suffers from abuse of power, but it is far better than the old kingdom model.
As we read the Bible, we seek to apply the ancient text to ourselves in our own time. Our world is very different from the imperial world of the first century, so we ignore those things that are no longer relevant. We read the Bible for principles to guide our daily choices, since our lives are characterized by individual choice. Our lives have nothing to do with ancient kingdoms, of course. So we ignore that part.
Oops! Is there a problem if Jesus thought seeking the kingdom was the main thing, but we filter out the kingdom bits as irrelevant? I remember the day when that reality dawned on me. It penetrated my soul like the icy shock of opening a door on a winter’s day. All my life, I’ve filtered out the main thing. Now the door was open. Narnia was right there, beckoning me into the world of Jesus and his hearers. I needed to enter their world, to see the kingdom as they saw it.
If Jesus was right and the kingdom of God is the main thing, it is the theme that makes sense of the whole Biblical story. There is no greater pursuit to which I could devote my life.
I’m still seeking the kingdom. I invite you to share the journey. Narnia beckons.
What others are saying
Brevard S. Childs. Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments: Theological Reflection on the Christian Bible (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2011), 624:
The concern to understand and to appropriate the biblical theme of the kingdom of God has been a continual one throughout the history of the Christian church. However, few topics have been subject to such varying interpretations in regard to its meaning and theological role. …
In sum, it would seem that few subjects are in greater need of the contribution of Biblical Theology in seeking to overcome the present fragmentation in the understanding of God’s kingship over the world.
I. Howard Marshall. Jesus the Saviour: Studies in New Testament Theology (IVP, 1990), 213:
Although the phrase [the Kingdom of God] has been the subject of much biblical research in recent years, and although it is banded about with great frequency in discussions of Christian social action, it is unfortunately often the case that it is used in a very vague manner and that there is a lack of clear biblical exposition in the churches on the meaning of the term.
Christopher W. Morgan and Robert A. Peterson, “Introduction,” in The Kingdom of God, ed. Christopher W. Morgan et al Theology in Community (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 19:
A good grasp of the kingdom of God is indispensable for a proper understanding of Christ and the redemption that he accomplished. The kingdom of God is a very large biblical category indeed.
What do you think?
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