“The only significance of life consists in helping to establish the kingdom of God; and this can be done only by means of the acknowledgment and profession of the truth by each one of us.”–Leo Tolstoy, The Kingdom of God Is Within You
Jesus spends a fair bit of time in the New Testament trying to define “the kingdom of God” or “the kingdom of Heaven.” And he uses some of his most elaborate metaphors and conceits to try to explain what this kingdom is and why it is so important.
It is a task that absolutely requires metaphor and story. By definition, the kingdom of God is something wholly alien to the human perspective. We do not have any concrete referents that we can use to understand it, since we have never experienced anything like it. Jesus knew this, so he used metaphors and stories to try to convey different aspects of it—much as the blind men did when confronted with an elephant. Things that the kingdom of God is like in the New Testament include:
- Hidden treasure (Matt. 13:44)
- The Pearl of Great Price (Matt. 13: 45-56)
- A mustard seed (Luke 13:21)
- The seeds of a sower (Matthew 13: 3-9)
- Leaven (Luke 13: 18-19)
- A field of wheat and tares (Matt. 13: 24-29)
- A fisherman’s net (Matthew 13: 47-50)
- Ten Virgins, five of them foolish (Matthew 25: 1-14)
We can pull out some general characteristics from each of the items on this list. For me, though, they do not come together into a coherent picture until we apply the great key that Jesus gives us in the 17th chapter of Luke:
And when he was demanded of the Pharisees, when the kingdom of God should come, he answered them and said, The kingdom of God cometh not with observation. Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you.— Luke 17:20-21
The kingdom of God is within you. This is the key, I believe, to understanding all of the kingdom parables. Note what Christ does not say. He does not say that the kingdom of God is something that is coming. This is how the Pharisees had understood his statements, so they asked him when this new kingdom (presumably a replacement for the Roman Empire) would be here. Jesus rejects this notion by name.
But he also doesn’t say that the kingdom of God is something that awaits us in an afterlife. This, too, has been a great mistake of his disciples–then and now. The kingdom of God is not a kingdom at all, but a seed-like potential within each of us to live differently in this world. And it does not require the world, or anybody else, to reciprocate.
With this key in place, all of the other kingdom parables start to make sense. Like a mustard seed, the kingdom of God is an almost imperceptible potentiality planted within us. Like leaven, it raises whatever it comes in contact with, like fish, wheat and tares, and wise and foolish virgins, it exists side by side with its opposites. The kingdom of God is the life that we choose to live when we acknowledge and nourish that which is divine inside of us.
And it is urgent. When we truly understand what Jesus is saying, nothing will be able to keep us from locating the kingdom in ourselves, seeing it in others, and doing everything in our power to build it on earth. It is a buried treasure and a pearl of great price that we can have whenever we decide to look for it, give up everything we own for it, nourish it, work to build it, and share it with the world
Perhaps nobody ever understood the kingdom of God as well as the great Russian author, Leo Tolstoy, whose culminating work of Christian philosophy is called The Kingdom of God Is Within You: Christianity Not as a Mystic Religion but as a New Theory of Life. In this book, Tolstoy tries to explain what the kingdom of God looks like when an individual lives according to its principles.
It is here that Tolstoy outlines his idea of non-violent non-cooperation with evil, which influenced, among others, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Ang San Suu Kyi in their struggles against oppression. The kingdom of God cannot be built by a state, or even by a religion. The kingdom of God is not the sort of thing that any institution can call into being. It happens in the hearts and minds of those people who simply refuse to live anywhere else.
This view of God’s kingdom is very different than the view of the Jews of Christ’s day, who were expecting a political kingdom to deliver them from Rome. It is also very different from the views of most Christians today, who see “heaven” as something that awaits is in the afterlife. The kingdom of God, in either case, is something that we must wait for.
What Christ tells us, though, is that there is no waiting–and that, to anybody who understands the kingdom of God, the very idea of waiting for it would be absurd. It is already here, inside of us, waiting for us to acknowledge and encourage it. And it is in everybody else too. The kingdom of God is ours to affirm and ours to nourish, in ourselves and in everybody we encounter. Nothing is keeping us away from it. What, then, are we waiting for?