Jesus Proclaims the Kingdom of God

Jesus’s ministry was centred on his proclamation of the kingdom of God. What did he mean by the ‘kingdom of God’, and why was it central to his ministry?

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Meanwhile, here is a brief quotation I came across again whilst thinking about this page. It is from a book I first read in January 1978, in my second term at Oxford; it (and its main author) was condemned as atheistic by many of my contemporaries, but I found and still find much of value in it. Together with the tv programme which preceded it, it clearly made a major impact on my life.

[Jesus] did not describe the Kingdom of God, and nor are his parables allegories of it. His vividly rhetorical use of language was designed rather to change people so that they could directly experience the reality of the Kingdom. In his ethical teaching he does not lay down universal moral rules of conduct so much as communicate a stab of insight which changes the way we see ourselves and the moral situation. [from Who Was Jesus?, Don Cupitt and Peter Armstrong, BBC Books, 1977, page 65.]

Another feature of Jesus’s ministry was his declarations of the forgiveness of sins. Judaism laid down a strict set of rituals that had to be performed in order to obtain divine forgiveness. Ultimately this included the offering of sacrifices on the altar of the Temple in Jerusalem. Only here could guilt be assuaged, by the pouring of the life-blood of the sacrificed animal on the altar. But Jesus proclaimed that we can be forgiven our sins without this sacrificial system. If we are truly sorry for the wrongs that we have done and if we commit ourselves to trying to do better, then our wrongdoings are no more – the slate is wiped clean, in the same way that we wipe clean the slates of those who have wronged us.

Guilt for past failings can, even today, become obsessive: Jesus’s message is that by not holding grudges against other people for what they have done to us, we too will be freed from the grudges we hold against ourselves. There is a subtlety here, concerning the reciprocal nature of this ‘deal’, or rather its asymmetry. We are not freed from the weight of our wrongdoings when the person wronged forgives us; no, we are freed from them in the same way that we are to forget the wrongs others have done to us. If we do not bear grudges, then we are ourselves freed. This radical, almost psychological, attitude does not, however, lead to a free for all (‘I can wrong others as much as I like as long as I don't bear grudges against them either!’). No, we are still bound by the positive teaching of Jesus to love others as we love ourselves.

Jesus’s proclamation of the kingdom of God, and his teaching on forgiveness, are summarized in the prayer that he taught his disciples, the Lord’s Prayer, or ‘Our Father’.

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Simon Kershaw <>
24 February 2004