The number-one thing Jesus talked about is the kingdom of God. It’s everywhere in the Gospels and impossible to miss. But if the theme of the kingdom is so significant, then we need to make sure we know what it means. A good starting place is to have a solid working definition.

Here’s one: The kingdom is God’s reign through God’s people over God’s place.

That’s the message of the kingdom in eight words. Now let’s break down each aspect to begin plumbing the depths.

God’s Reign

The kingdom is first and foremost a statement about God. God is king, and he is coming as king to set right what our sin made wrong. The phrase “kingdom of God” could just as easily be translated “reign of God” or “kingship of God.” The message of the kingdom is about God’s royal power directed by his self-giving love.

Claiming that the kingdom of God is primarily about God may seem obvious, but many today use “kingdom” to refer to the way we as human beings make the world a better place (“kingdom work”) or to refer to all the Christians in the world (“kingdom minded”). Unfortunately, much of the contemporary talk about the kingdom paints a picture of a kingdom with a vacant throne. But if the kingdom is portrayed as a utopian world without mention of God, then the Bible’s vision of the kingdom has been lost. The kingdom of God is the vision of the world reordered around the powerful love of God in Christ.

Much of the contemporary talk about the kingdom paints a picture of a kingdom with a vacant throne.

God is king, and he reigns over his creation. But in a world marred by sin, God’s kingship is resisted, and the peace of his kingdom has been shattered. After Adam and Eve’s rebellion, God’s reign is revealed as redemptive. He’s the king who is reclaiming his creation. His kingdom is not the culmination of human potential and effort, but the intervention of his royal grace into a sinful and broken world.

God’s People

God the Creator-King reigns over all his creatures, but he also reigns through his people. This was his design from the beginning. Adam and Eve were commissioned as royal representatives of the king, called to steward his creation and spread the blessings of his reign throughout the earth. Instead, they chose to seek their own path to power and glory, apart from God. Their rebellion fractured humanity’s relationship with God and shattered the goodness of his creation. Ever since sin entered the world, God’s kingdom project has at its heart a rescue mission for rebellious sinners, drawing them into his renewing work.

God’s reign is a saving reign. The kingdom of God provides a holistic understanding of salvation, including not only what we are saved from, but also what we are saved for:

We are saved from death and for life.

We are saved from shame and for glory.

We are saved from slavery and for freedom.

We are saved from sin and for following our Savior.

We are saved from the kingdom of darkness and for the kingdom of light.

To be saved into God’s kingdom is to embrace God’s comprehensive rule over every aspect of life. This is a far cry from merely “asking Jesus into my heart.” It means a new life, a new identity, and a new kingdom.

God’s Place

The Bible is the story of God making his good creation a glorious kingdom. It all started in the garden, where God commissioned his people to go to the ends of the earth to make the rest of the world like Eden. The garden kingdom was meant to become a global kingdom where people would rejoice and the world would flourish under God’s loving reign.

After the fall, making the world God’s glorious kingdom would require a reversal of the curse and a renewal by grace. And that’s exactly what God set out to do. The Bible is a rescue story, not about God rescuing sinners from a broken creation but about him rescuing them for a new creation. God’s reign begins in the human heart, but it will one day extend to the ends of the earth. Many Christians today think of salvation as leaving earth for heaven, but the story of Scripture is quite the opposite. The message of the kingdom is not an escape from earth to heaven but God’s reign coming from heaven to earth. The focus of God’s reign is his people, but the scope of God’s reign is all of creation.

The Bible is a rescue story, not about God rescuing sinners from a broken creation but about him rescuing them for a new creation.

Jesus and the Kingdom of God

This understanding of the kingdom of God may be new to you, but it would not have been surprising to the first-century crowds listening to Jesus. Their collective hope was that God would come as king to redeem his people and restore his creation.

What surprised them about Jesus’s proclamation was not what the kingdom is, but who would bring it and how. Jesus fulfills every kingdom promise, but he establishes the kingdom in a way that is different from what they expected and yet more glorious than they could’ve imagined.

In our journey to understand God’s kingdom, this difference introduces a key element. The kingdom message is counterintuitive and surprising, going against the grain of worldly wisdom, because unlike any other kingdom this world has ever seen, Christ’s kingdom is built on grace and advances with compassion. In this kingdom, the throne is a cross and the King reigns with self-giving love.

Editors’ note: 

This article is an adapted excerpt from Jeremy Treat’s book Seek First: How the Kingdom of God Changes Everything (Zondervan). Used with permission.