The Kingdom of God is explosive in power and therefore when it is fully understood, and boldly declared, it will radically impact those who hear and respond. The truth of this statement is nowhere more clearly seen than in the life and ministry of Jesus. We cannot read the Gospels and not be confronted by the centrality of the kingdom in the preaching of Jesus.
The Overarching Theme
It is not insignificant that the Gospels begin with Jesus preaching the Kingdom. Matthew tells us that Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tested. The final testing is pivotal when the devil took Jesus to a very high mountain and offered Him all the kingdoms of the world if he would but worship him. Jesus’ immediate response was to quote from Deuteronomy 6 which underlines the exclusive worship of the Lord your God. It is not insignificant to notice that the testing is followed by the note of John’s arrest and Jesus’ ministry in Galilee. Listen to verse 17: “From then on Jesus began to preach, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near!.” The implication of the verse is clear – the preaching of the kingdom was not a casual and momentary matter, but a convictional and continual one.
In Luke’s gospel we have a slightly different emphasis but with the same bottom line. His preaching begins in the synagogue in Nazareth. Luke tells us that Jesus reads from Isaiah 61 and then declares: “Today as you listen, this Scripture has been fulfilled” (4:21). While there is no specific mention of the term “kingdom”, we have here a clear description of the kingdom as it invades planet earth. Thus this Old Testament reference with its emphasis on redemption, freedom, social justice for the oppressed, and sight for the blind is a reference to the invasion of the kingdom through the ministry and preaching of Jesus.
Mark tells us with brevity and power that after John was arrested, Jesus began preaching the good news of God. “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near, Repent and believe in the good news!” (Mk. 1:15). Mark’s emphasis on “time fulfilled” indicates that Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom signals a major turning point in the history of redemption. History is moving toward an ultimate goal under the direct supervision of God.
John’s first mention of the kingdom is found in Nathanael’s declaration: “’Rabbi,’ Nathanael replied, ‘You are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” (Jn. 1:49). Nathanael had been impressed that Jesus had seen him under the fig tree before Philip had called him to follow Jesus. Jesus thus assures him that much more is in store as he sees heaven opened and the angels descending on the Son of Man. The imagery of the kingdom is not far in the background. The first specific mention of the kingdom in John’s gospel is found in Jesus’ message to Nicodemus: “I assure you: Unless someone is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”
To grasp the significance of the message of the kingdom in the ministry of Jesus we can also resort to a statistical analysis. The term basileia (kingdom) occurs 162 times in the New Testament and 121 of those are in the Synoptic gospels where the preaching of Jesus is recorded. The formula “kingdom of God” or the “kingdom of heaven” occurs 104 times in the gospels. This message is not only the inaugural message of Jesus and the focus of His great Sermon on the Mount, it is his final message. “After He had suffered, He also presented Himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing during 40 days and speaking about the kingdom of God” (Acts 1:3).
It is right to conclude that the central message of Jesus should be at the heart of our proclamation. But as we consider the task of preaching the kingdom we would be well served to ask ourselves whether our primary motivation is to advance our kingdom or His. Kingdom truth must first convict and transform us before it will impact our hearers. We regularly face the temptation to place our kingdom before His. Kingdom preaching will require us to confront issues that may not always be popular. It should cause our church to look beyond itself and ask the hard questions concerning our motives and ministries.
The Content of Kingdom Preaching
The kingdom is not clearly and simply defined and therefore there will always remain a bit of mystery. Yet it is clear that the kingdom of God is about the rightful rule and reign of God as absolute sovereign. I sometimes hear preachers declare that they preach the gospel. By that statement they generally mean that they preach the scripture faithfully with a passion to see persons saved. To that I would respond that we should follow Jesus’ example and preach the gospel of the kingdom. The gospel of the kingdom includes the necessity of salvation since the very message begins with the call for repentance, but it goes beyond the call to salvation and includes the demand for kingdom-focused living. It insists that we are saved for a purpose.
We can discover several key components of kingdom focused preaching in Mark 1:14; “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” The phrase “time is fulfilled” underlines the biblical premise that history is to be interpreted in a linear fashion. God is moving history to an ultimate goal and purpose. This is a distinctly different view than the cyclical view endorsed by many of our hearers who have been influenced by new age mysticism. This theme will help us to keep daily events in their proper biblical perspective.
Second, since the kingdom of God is about God’s rule and reign, the initial and ongoing human response must be repentance, which includes the submitting of our will to the will of God. Here again we are faced with the pervading question of whether we live in a manner that advances God’s kingdom or our own.
Third, since the full expression of the kingdom is “not yet,” man must “believe in the gospel.” God’s kingdom is not perceived by human sight and therefore it is fully appropriated only by faith. Thus we can understand why we must become like little children to comprehend the kingdom. We must preach in such a manner to help our people replace childish faith with childlike faith.
Fourth, the phrase, “is at hand” reminds us the kingdom has not yet fully invaded our planet. When Jesus made this declaration, the kingdom was “at hand” in the flesh. It was fully expressed in the Son of Man, yet not fully realized on earth or even among His followers. Nonetheless, the seed of the kingdom had been sown and the harvest of the kingdom is now assured. Since the kingdom came in Jesus but is not yet complete, there is the open invitation for us to be involved in the advance of the kingdom.
A Challenge to Kingdom Involvement
Jesus inaugurated the kingdom and its spread is continued by the Holy Spirit through the church until it is brought definitively to earth by the Son of Man, the risen and resurrected Lord. Thus we must follow Jesus’ example and preach in such a manner that we encourage our hearers to bring kingdom principles into ongoing earthly relationships. Kingdom preaching will not only have personal implications, but it will have social implications as we work to His righteousness on earth. Let me suggest a few implications or appropriate kingdom involvement.
Since the kingdom is a divine prerogative, our first response is to pray. The focus of the Prayer of Jesus in Matthew 6 was to fast forward kingdom realities into present day relationships. Jesus taught His disciples to pray that God’s kingdom would come on earth as it is in heaven. When we listen to our prayers, we often find that they are focused on issues of our kingdom and not His. Even our requests for bread, forgiveness, and deliverance from evil all have the intended results of enabling us to focus on His kingdom.
Second, kingdom citizens are to serve with the firm assurance that the rightful king is returning. Many of the parables of Jesus concerning the kingdom deal with the priority of service among kingdom minded persons. We have not always placed issues such as stewardship and service in the broader context of kingdom privilege and accountability.
Third, we must boldly declare the gospel of the Kingdom. Even a cursory reading of Acts indicates that the Holy Spirit provided the members of the early church with the empowering to boldly declare the gospel. Statistics among all evangelicals tell us the church has not been very bold in declaring this incredible news about the kingdom of God.
Fourth, we must model kingdom living. This task must flow from the top. You cannot preach with conviction about a kingdom lifestyle unless you as preacher are willing to embody and model kingdom living. This means that we must allow the beatitudes to speak to us and to transform us. We must humbly ask the Father to produce His character in us. We must be passionate about mercy, purity, peacemaking, and the quest for God’s righteous rule on planet earth. We must be salt and light as we preach the gospel of the kingdom.
We must both engage the culture and work for its transformation. Paul tells us “The Kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 14:17). Our preaching should not lead to a new form of legalism, but to a new freedom which works for righteousness and peace in the context of joy.
Ken Hemphill is National Strategist for the Empowering Kingdom Growth effort among Southern Baptists.