Our first question is whether the kingdom of God and the kingdom of heaven might both refer to the same thing, or whether each term might mean something different. The book of Matthew is the only place where the term “kingdom of heaven” appears. “Kingdom of God” is there four times as well, and there they both seem to have the same meaning; and for this and other reasons, it seems reasonable to posit that the terms are interchangeable. And for an initial working definition of both, we might try something like, “Where God Reigns.”
Okay then. With Jesus’s six previously described Core Teachings in mind, let us together try to understand why the kingdom of God – or the kingdom of heaven – is such an obsession for Jesus. I have just cruised through the Book of Luke, considering all the instances where the kingdom of God is mentioned, and found that:
Wow. It is Jesus’s teaching about the kingdom of God, more than any other, that makes us wish that we had more of the public words that Jesus spoke. But in fact, we probably have fewer than fifteen percent of the Lord’s public words preserved.
“The kingdom of God is not coming with signs that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or, ‘There it is!’ For behold, the kingdom of God is within you” (LK 17:20-22).
Now they were bringing even their babies to Him so that He would touch them; but when the disciples saw it, they began rebuking them. But Jesus called for the little ones, saying, “Allow the children to come to Me, and do not forbid them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it at all” (LK 18:15-17).
“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. When he had agreed with the laborers for a denarius for the day, he sent them into his vineyard. And he went out about the third hour and saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and to those he said, ‘You go into the vineyard also, and whatever is right, I will give you.’ And so they went. Again he went out about the sixth and the ninth hour, and did the same thing. And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why have you been standing here idle all day long?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too.’
“Now when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages, starting with the last group to the first.’ When those hired about the eleventh hour came, each one received a denarius. And so when those hired first came, they thought that they would receive more; but each of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they grumbled at the landowner, saying, ‘These who were hired last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day’s work and the scorching heat.’ But he answered and said to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what is yours and go; but I want to give to this last person the same as to you. Is it not lawful for me to do what I want with what is my own? Or is your eye envious because I am generous?’ So the last shall be first, and the first, last” (MT 20:1-16).
Every word that is recorded in the Gospels as having been spoken by Jesus was remembered as faithfully as illiterates could remember it, and was then passed down in a loving game of telephone for five to seven decades before it was first written down. But still, there are compelling consistencies to be found when we look for them.
And the more we consider the term kingdom of God/heaven, and the ways that Jesus uses the term, the more we come to see that it is perhaps Jesus teaching His followers to become more aware of the role of Consciousness that He is talking about here, and His efforts to help them to develop their internal lives so they can grow spiritually and develop their individual relationships with God. (See the discussion of Jesus’s understanding of Consciousness under Jesus’s Apparent Knowledge.)
We take thinking in the ways that we modern people habitually think so much for granted! But our minds are tools just as our hands are tools, and ancient people would not have used either their minds or their hands in the same ways that we use our own. It is difficult for modern people to imagine the internal lives of those who lived two thousand years ago. But it is striking that Jesus was so focused on doing away with religions and teaching people to pray to God directly. One suspects that perhaps there had not been much going on in people’s minds before Jesus arrived.
He said: “When you pray, you are not to be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners so that they may be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, close your door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you” (MT 6:5-6).
And even His prototype prayer, The Lord’s Prayer, emphasizes a need to turn on our internal lights: “Your kingdom come, Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (MT 6:10). And this is also why Jesus insists that the kingdom of God will be internal. He says, “The kingdom of God is not coming with signs that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or, ‘There it is!’ For behold, the kingdom of God is within you” (LK 17:20-22). And as the kingdom of God overspreads the earth, we will at last joyfully stop being cringing creatures controlled by irrational fears instilled in us by Pharisees and Sadducees – or, today, by Calvinist ministers and Catholic priests – but we will instead begin to be genuinely spiritual beings who are always in intimate contact with God.
Jesus even understands the actual process of spiritual growth, the way that it works, which explains His teaching at MT 13:12: “For whoever has, to him more shall be given, and he will have an abundance; but whoever does not have, even what he has shall be taken away from him.” He says some version of this repeatedly! And for Jesus to say this makes no sense unless we understand that spiritual growth requires that we make regular spiritual progress, or else we will regress spiritually. When I first realized that this was actually what He was talking about, I was astounded.
Even two thousand years ago, Jesus was a fully modern Man.
As His ministry matures, Jesus begins to send out emissaries to preach the kingdom of God, telling them, “Whatever city you enter and they receive you, eat what is served to you; and heal those in it who are sick, and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you’” (LK 10:8-9). Or, “Whatever city you enter and they do not receive you, go out into its streets and say, ‘Even the dust of your city which clings to our feet we wipe off in protest against you; yet know this, that the kingdom of God has come near.’ I say to you, it will be more tolerable on that day for Sodom than for that city’” (LK 10:11). More and more, you suspect that Jesus’s kingdom of God is a kingdom past base animal fears. It is indeed a kingdom of the mind!
Following His resurrection, Jesus gives to His disciples what is now called the Great Commission when He says to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all the nations, … teaching them to follow all that I commanded you; and behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (MT 28:19-20). And so Jesus’s spiritual movement was very well begun! It had millions of followers when the Roman Emperor Constantine destroyed it three hundred years later, and then he built on its ashes a new fear-based religion that the Romans could use as just a means of control.