There is clear agreement among the synoptic Gospels that the kingdom of God was the principal theme within Jesus' message (Matt. 4.17, 23; Mark 1.15; Luke 4.42, 43), although each attests to this fact distinctively. In aggregate, they present some fifty sayings and parables of Jesus concerning the kingdom. In the gospel of John Jesus refers only once to the kingdom expressly, though the saying is repeated (3.3, 5). In that instance, however, the kingdom is presented as something that even the Pharisee Nicodemus is assumed to understand; the point at issue is not the nature of the kingdom but how it might be entered. It is, then, a matter of consensus within the canon that the kingdom constituted a primary focus of Jesus' theology.

The notion that God is king and as such rules, or wishes to rule, his people is evident in the scriptures of Israel. In the books of Judges and Samuel, the Lord's kingship is even held to exclude human monarchy as the appropriate government of the covenantal people (Judg. 8.23; 1 Sam. 8.7–9). It requires a distinctive fiat, by prophetic anointing, to establish Davidic kingship as the seal of the divine covenant (2 Sam. 7.5–17; cf. 1 Sam. 16.1–13). In no sense, then, does the Davidic royal house supplant God's ultimate rule. God could still be conceived of as reigning over all things (Ps. 145.13), and as about to reign on behalf of Israel (Isa. 52.7). In both Hebrew and Aramaic the verb “reigns” or “rules” is cognate with the nouns “king” and “kingdom” (all from the root mlk); furthermore, the noun “kingdom” refers more to the fact or force of rule than to the territory governed. The phrasing of the New Testament, although distinctive, is conceptually rooted in the Hebrew Bible.

The future orientation found in Isaiah 52.7 may be perplexing. Alongside the conviction of God's continuing, royal care, there was also the hope that God would finally—and unambiguously—be disclosed as king. Just that hope, in an ultimate and irrefutable exertion of the divine reign, is characteristic of early eschatology (e.g., Isa. 52.7). Within that perspective, the end of time is not dreaded but is rather the object of longing. The dissolution of the present age is a frightening prospect only for those who enjoy the rewards of this world; for Israel, the chosen people who had been denied the fruits of divine promise as a result of their sin and foreign domination, the end of this age—and the beginning of another—increasingly became an urgent hope. Only then, it was believed, would the promised peace of God reign supreme. Their hope seemed only to increase the more critical became the absence of a Davidic king, the presence of the Romans, and confusing controversies concerning the efficacy of worship in the Temple. Eschatological urgency was a function of two collateral axioms within the faith of Israel: that God was just and that Israel is the elect people of God. Within their own understanding, the people of Israel could not agree that contemporary circumstances were consistent with either axiom. God, they felt, must be about to act in vindication of both his people and his own integrity.

“The kingdom of God” (or “the kingdom of the Lord”) is precisely the phrase used in certain documents of early Judaism in order to express hope in God's ultimate disclosure as king. The Targums use the phrase chiefly to convey that eschatological hope (Targum of Isaiah 24.23; 31.4; 40.9; 52.7). The early (perhaps first‐century CE) prayer known as the Kaddish also refers to the kingdom in that sense: “May He make his kingdom reign in your lifetime!” Later rabbinic texts conventionally use the phrase “kingdom of the heavens,” as in Matthew. No difference in meaning is implied by replacing the word “God” or “Lord”; “heavens” appears to be a reverential periphrasis. In most rabbinic texts, however, the kingdom appears less as an eschatological than as a moral concept; the language refers to accepting God as one's king (by reciting the Shema) rather than to readying oneself for his rule.

The preaching of Jesus is far closer to eschatological expectation than to the moral emphasis of later rabbis. Although, in Jesus' thinking, the kingdom “has come near” (Mark 1.15), or has made itself available (Luke 16.16 par.; Matt. 12.28; par.), it was part of his programmatic prayer that the kingdom's coming should be sought (Matt. 6.10 par.). Care must be taken, however, to do justice to Jesus' distinctiveness as a rabbi or teacher as well as to his context within Judaism. By speaking of the kingdom, Jesus adopted the language of scripture (as used in synagogues) and of prayer and made that language his own. The kingdom in his preaching was not merely promised but announced as a divine activity that demanded repentance and that could be entered into by participating in its divine force. That stance is represented not only by the programmatic descriptions of his teaching but also by the parables. Those that involve images of growth or process (Mark 4.26–29; Matt. 13.24–30, 31–33 par.) particularly insist that the kingdom must not be limited to any single temporality, be it present or future. Such limitation would betray the dynamic unfolding such parables are designed to convey. For that reason, to describe the kingdom in Jesus' expectation as apocalyptic, in the sense of an anticipated calendar of divine unveilings in which God's rule can be dated, is misleading. The dearth of references to the kingdom in apocalyptic literature undermines that position, and much of the teaching attributed to Jesus militates against it (Luke 17.20, 21; cf. Matt. 24.36 par.; Acts 1.7, in addition to passages cited above).

A last element of Jesus' theology of the kingdom must be mentioned, which also tells against an apocalyptic construal of his message. Jesus' teaching was not simply futuristic in its eschatological orientation; he was also known as an ethical teacher (cf. Matt. 22.34–40; Mark 12.28–34; Luke 10.25–28). Many of his parables show how, within his vision of a single kingdom, Jesus could be both expectant of the future and demanding in the present. Parables of growth or process involve expectant readiness as the appropriate attitude toward the climax (Mark 4.29; Matt. 13.30; 13.32b, c par.; 13.33d par.); a king or lord who invites people to a banquet expects those invited to be prepared (Matt. 22.8, 9, 11, 12; Luke 14.24; cf. Matt. 8.11, 12 par.); even absent rulers anticipate their subjects' willing obedience during their absence (Matt. 25.1–13; 14–30; Luke 12.35–38; 17.7–10; 19.11–27). The ethical themes implicit in such parables make sense once one appreciates that Jesus conveys by them a self‐disclosing kingdom whose focus is irreducibly future and whose implications are pressingly present. Just as his claim to speak on behalf of that kingdom is perhaps the most obvious root of Christology, so his message gave to the movement that succeeded him a characteristic attitude of expectancy in respect of the future and, consequently, of responsibility within the present.

Bruce D. Chilton