The idea of God as king has a long and rich history throughout the life of ancient Israel. God as ruler over the creation is an expression not only of God’s sovereignty over creation, but also of God’s care over the world. In the New Testament, the idea of the kingdom of God is central to the mission of Jesus Christ. Jesus was unwaveringly focused on the biblical idea of God as king, and in his coming, Jesus announced the arrival of God’s active rule.
Yet, in the prayer that Jesus gives his disciples, he commanded them to petition God for God’s kingdom to come: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” The problem in understanding this portion of the Lord’s Prayer centers on two fundamental questions. First, is the kingdom of God a present reality or a future expectation? Second, is the kingdom of God primarily a theological power forced onto a passive world by God, or is it an ethical charge to humans to participate in the coming of God’s rule through discipleship?
First, Jesus surely saw his coming as the incarnation of God’s rule in the world. He announced that the kingdom of God was near to the creation that was under the power of chaos, and he demonstrated through his power over evil that he was bringing about God’s rule on the earth. So, it is clear that Jesus saw the kingdom of God as a present reality that was active in the world.
However, his command that his disciples pray that God’s kingdom would come certainly seems to suggest that the kingdom either had not come in him, or it had not be fully realized in Jesus’ incarnation. Indeed, while Jesus did announce the arrival of the kingdom, and while he also understood that in some way this kingdom was being fulfilled in him, the reality is that the fullness of God’s kingdom was not experienced in Jesus’ life on earth. The kingdom of God was already present in Jesus, but it has not yet become a full reality in the world’s experience.
We know this because we continue to long for the day of redemption in which God will bring about the new heaven and new earth, and the powers of evil will be vanquished by the God who rules justly and who will establish justice for all. Thus, while the present reality of the kingdom of God was experienced in Jesus’ preaching and miracles as signs of God’s rule, the fullness of God’s kingly power over the world remains a future expectation for a creation that longs for the day of redemption.
The second question concerning Jesus’ command for the disciples to petition God to send forth the kingdom of God is whether the rule of God is solely dependent on God’s actions, or does it have anything to do with the ethics of discipleship? In other words, does the creation wait passively for God’s rule to reach its completion, or do humans who seek to follow Jesus in faithful discipleship participate in God’s coming rule?
The answer to this question must be both. First, the coming of God’s kingdom into the world is indeed dependent on God’s actions. This is the reason Jesus calls his followers to pray that the kingdom of God would come. Moreover, the kingdom comes from God and is alien to the world both in its power and in its ethics. Yet, in offering an adjacent statement to the petition for God’s kingdom to come, “Your will be done,” Jesus indicates that the kingdom of God must have ethical implications for humanity.
Jesus said very clearly, “The kingdom of God is in you” (Luke 17:21). Certainly Jesus could have meant that the kingdom was among those around him in his presence among them. But I think, given that so much of Jesus’ ethical teachings focused on how to live under the rule of God, especially those we find in the Sermon on the Mount, that a faithful response to the coming of God’s kingdom through our discipleship means that we participate in the coming of God’s kingdom in its fullness.
This does not mean that the final realization of God’s kingdom is totally up to human efforts. We still pray and long for the future realization of the completeness of God’s just rule in the world. But it does mean that as citizens of God’s kingdom, we are called to love and bring the peace and justice of God to a world lost from God by doing the will of God on earth as it is done in heaven.