What is the Kingdom of God? Not a “Ticket” to Heaven

The essence of the Kingdom is, “I will be your God and you will be my people.” This is the central theme from the beginning to the end of the Bible. This people group belonging to God is what forms the population of the Kingdom of God. A kingdom is simply a place and people group that is governed (as a nation is governed by a president). Thus, the Kingdom of God is a unified group of people who belong to, and are governed by God and reside in the location where God dwells:

“I will establish my covenant with you between me and you and your descendants after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant to be God to you and your descendants after you . . .” (Gen 17:7-8).

“Now then, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, then you shall be My own possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is mine; you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Exod 19:5-6).

“ . . . and He has made us to be a kingdom, priests to His God and Father . . .Behold the tabernacle of God is among men, and He will dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be among them . . .” (Rev 1:6; 21:3).

What is the Culture of the Kingdom of God?

Every people group or nation has its own cultural flavor to it. In the United States a predominant cultural theme is individualism. The Kingdom of God also has predominant cultural themes. Specifically, righteousness and justice. God loves righteousness and justice (Psalm 33:5), desires them more than sacrificial offerings (Prov. 21:3), and “betroths” us to himself forever in righteousness and justice (Hosea 2:19). God says, “Let him who boasts boast of this, that he understands and knows Me, that I am the LORD who exercises lovingkindness, justice and righteousness on earth; for I delight in these things” (Jer. 9:24). These attributes form the pillars of the governing philosophy of the Kingdom and are to be exemplified especially by those in power:

Abraham: “keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice” (Gen. 18:19)

Moses: “You shall appoint for yourself judges and officers in all your towns which the Lord your God is giving you, according to your tribes, and they shall judge the people with righteous judgment. You shall not distort justice . . .” (Deut. 16:18-19a).

David: “So David reigned over all Israel; and he administered justice and righteousness for all his people” (I Chron. 18:14).

Solomon: “Blessed be the Lord your God who delighted in you [Solomon] to set you on the throne of Israel; because the Lord loved Israel forever, therefore He made you king, to do justice and righteousness” (I Kings 10:9).

Messiah: “In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch of David to spring forth; and He shall execute justice and righteousness on the earth” (Jer. 33:15).

God: “Righteousness and justice are the foundation of Your throne” (Psalm 89:14).

What is Righteousness?

The Hebrew word for righteousness is צדקה (tsedeqah). It is derived from an Aramaic word that means “speak the truth” or straight, even, perfect (Brown, Driver, Briggs 2003). Righteousness refers to what is “right, just, and normal.” A synonym is the Hebrew word ישר (yasar) which means “upright” or “straight, level, right, pleasing, agreeable”—from an Aramaic term that means to be gentle, easy and manageable as in making a smooth path. This concept is captured in Proverbs, “ . . . the righteousness of the blameless will smooth his way” (11:4).

Often when one thinks of “righteousness” it brings to mind perfectionism or strict correctness. It has the connotation of legalism or something that wears us out trying to measure up to it. This is contrary to the biblical concept which is associated with something that makes easy and smooth. Biblically, righteousness is positive and beautiful. It is associated with healing, purity, light, joy, life, glory, stability, confidence, quietness, exaltation and especially well-being (Psalm 85:10; 89:16; 97:11; 112:4; 118:15; Prov. 4:18; 11:30; 28:12; Isaiah 32:17; 33:5; 48:18; Mal. 3:3; 4:2). Psalm 85:10 highlights the relationship between righteousness and well-being in the expression, “Righteousness and well-being have kissed each other.”

So what is righteousness on a practical level? It is about the character of a person—the quality of a person’s heart. Proverbs draws this out in its descriptions: “Out of the mouth of the righteous flows wisdom,” the “desire of the righteous is only good,” the “thoughts of the righteous are just,” “the righteous man has regard for life,” he “hates falsehood,” “ponders how to answer,” is “bold,” “sings and rejoices,” is “concerned for the rights of the poor”, and has “integrity” (10:31; 11:13; 12:5, 10; 13:5; 15:28; 20:7; 28:1; 29:6, 7). These verses point to an internal quality that is also emotive. Righteousness is much more than behavior, it is first and foremost about the character of one’s heart. Righteousness involves passion for the things that are pleasing in the eyes of God—a longing for the way things should be. Scripture says the eschatological Kingdom is the place “wherein righteousness dwells” (2 Pet 3:13).

What is Justice?

The Hebrew word for justice is משפט (mishpat), and it means, more specifically, “judgment.” That is, the act of deciding a case. The verb form refers to acting as a lawgiver, giving law and rendering decisions on controversies. It refers to the sentence or decision itself, a place where such decisions are made, or a case or a cause that is presented for a decision (Brown, Driver, Briggs 2003). It is the deciding in favor or against something. The word itself is neutral. Often, the term “judgment” is perceived as synonymous with condemnation, but this is not what the word means. Condemnation or vindication is a possible by-product of the decision. A judgment (decision) could equally result in exoneration or exaltation. When it is translated as “justice” it is referring to the attribute of right and fair decisions as opposed to decisions that are tainted by bribes or malicious intent. In the Bible the concept is often associated with rescuing the prisoner or the oppressed.

When one has the internal character of righteousness, one then acts upon it with justice. It is because God is a righteous that God makes decisions that do not distort justice. God justifies the righteous (I Sam. 8:31). That is, God makes judgments that do not show partiality and in doing so, vindicates the innocent. As a result, righteousness is closely associated with the concept of deliverance. In contrast to wicked rulers who oppress and take advantage of the innocent, God is a refuge who delivers the righteous (Psalm 31:1; 43:19; 71:2; 103:6; 143:11; Prov. 11:8). It is important to note that the deliverance is specifically related to being rescued from the hurtful and cruel actions of unrighteous people (Psalm 5:8; 37:40). The Kingdom of God is a place where righteousness governs everything. There is no room for unrighteousness. Thus, to be in the Kingdom of God is to be freed from the torment of wickedness. The Kingdom is a place God’s people inherit that is not subject to cruel people and unjust rule.

Mishpat emphasizes leadership governing with equity, fairness, and not being influenced by bribes or false witnesses. Particularly of concern are those who are weak and helpless against corrupt leaders (Deut. 16:19; I Sam. 8:3; Psalm 99:4; Prov. 17:23; 29:4; Is. 10:2; Jer. 21:12). Repeatedly, the word is used in reference to social justice for the widow, orphan, immigrant, low wage worker and other vulnerable people (Deut. 24:17; 27: 19; Psalm 82:3; Is. 1:17, 21-23; 10:2; Jer. 7:5; 22:3, 29; Zech. 7:9). As with righteousness, God expects people to employ justice because that is what God does.

Point to Ponder

Some conservative Christians tend to spiritualize righteousness and justice as if it all boils down to one thing—the atonement of our sin and being rescued from the condemnation we deserve. It is true that God rescues people from their own unrighteousness and could have rendered a judgment of condemnation. However, cleansing from unrighteousness was not the final goal; it was a step toward the goal. The end desire has always been the Kingdom, a people for God’s own possession who are pure hearted and zealous for good deeds. Cleansing from sin was simply a stepping stone to get to the desired Kingdom because the unrighteousness of humanity has consistently thwarted the establishment of the Kingdom.

The point isn’t just to have the status of being righteous so that we are not condemned. The gospel is not primarily a “ticket” to heaven. The point is that we are to have the incredibly invigorating and good character of God within us to transform how we relate to God and others. Unrighteousness and injustice are all about treating people poorly. Righteousness and justice are about showing kindness to others, especially those with less power, and seeking their well-being. In other words being a citizen of the Kingdom of God is a way of life that begins now. How does your life reflect righteousness and justice on a practical level? Can others discern what Kingdom you belong to by your cultural practices?