Q. Jesus seemed to talk a lot about the kingdom of God. Most biblical teachers seem to talk more about salvation and redemption. What is the difference and why does it matter?
You’re right that the kingdom of God was the centerpiece of Jesus’ teaching. When the gospel writers summarize his teaching, they say that Jesus went about “proclaiming the good news of God. ‘The time has come,’ he said. ‘The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!'” Jesus typically began his parables by saying, “This is what the kingdom of God is like,” or, “What shall we say the kingdom of God is like?” He described choosing to follow him as “entering the kingdom.” And so forth.
So what exactly is the kingdom of God? I believe that Jesus gave us a definition of it in the Lord’s Prayer when he taught us to pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” That is, God’s kingdom is present on earth whenever and wherever God’s will is done as it is in heaven—without resistance. What I like to call “circles of warmth and light” emerge at various places and times as the followers of Jesus commit together to do God’s will eagerly and freely. This applies primarily to relationships: There is a shared commitment to treat others with the compassion, generosity, mercy, and love that Jesus taught us to have. This strengthens the bonds within the circle and draws others in.
Note, then, that in our day, the kingdom of God is primarily a community. Gordon Fee has described it as “the community that lives the life of the future in the present.” Followers of Jesus are called to live now in the way that one day everyone will live when Jesus’ reign is extended over the whole earth. Note as well how this contrasts with the emphases you mentioned, on “salvation” and “redemption.” Those things are typically envisioned in individual terms: You will go and live forever in God’s presence when you die; your sins have been forgiven; you can be set free from old patterns of life.
So how do these two approaches relate to one another? I’d say that Jesus is envisioning and teaching that people receive all of those individual benefits as a result of their participation in the new community. It welcomes and accepts them as an expression of how God has forgiven them. Together the followers of Jesus grow into maturity, stirring one another up to love and good works. Life in God’s presence begins within that “circle of warmth and light,” and it continues from there into all eternity.
We see, then, that Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom of God is larger than the emphases on individual salvation and redemption and that it encompasses them. So it should really be our starting point. The individual benefits are wonderful, but we don’t want to miss out on a recognition and appreciation of the larger community within which we actually receive those benefits and they become real in our lives.