Jesus Journey: 40 Days in the Footsteps of Christ

Day 10

Slow and Sneaky Kingdom

Read Mark 1:14–15, Luke 17:20–21, Mark 4:30–32, John 18:36–37

I’m standing above one of the most stunning archaeological sites in Israel: Beth Shean.

This spot is mentioned in 1 Samuel 31 as the place where the Philistines hung the bodies of Saul and Jonathan after they were killed in battle. A thousand years later, it was the capital of the cities of the Decapolis, a region the Bible says Jesus visited.

The ruins here are spectacular: Beautiful, colonnaded sidewalks border shops, temples, and gymnasiums deco-
rated with mosaics and marble. This city stood strong and proud until it was destroyed by an earthquake on January 18, 749 AD. In a moment, dozens of massive columns toppled over in the same direction, and were simply left there as sandstorms slowly buried the city. It was all but forgotten when it was uncovered in the 1920s by archaeologists.

Today Beth Shean, or Scythopolis as it was known in the time of Christ, is a great place to be reminded that first-century residents of Israel were rather sophisticated. In cities like this there were beautiful fountains, smoothly paved streets, and art and culture everywhere.


This is also a great spot to note the variety of governments the Holy Land has had.

Monuments with hieroglyphics detailing the reigns of the Pharaohs Seti I and Ramses II were discovered here, as well as a life-sized statue of Ramses III. As I stand on top of the hill in the ruins of the Egyptian governor’s house, I can look down past Canaanite and Israelite fortifications all the way to the Roman and Byzantine ruins in the valley, one powerful civilization after the next.

That’s typical in this part of the world. The Holy Land has probably seen more of the world’s kingdoms reigning over it than any other piece of real estate on earth. And there’s a simple explanation.


This is a land bridge between Africa and the Arabian peninsula to the south, and Europe and Asia to the north. Picture a thin strip of hospitable country with the ocean on one side and the desert on the other. That’s Israel.

From prehistoric times, humans and animals have travelled back and forth across this space, funneled by geography into a narrow channel about seventy miles wide (at its widest).

All of the world empires that ever existed anywhere close to this strip of land longed to control it because of its strategic importance. The flags of Egypt, Babylon, Assyria, Greece, Rome, Turkey, England, and many more empires, have flown over this small area. For a brief period that became the stuff of legend, there was even a united kingdom of Israel led by David and Solomon.

To understand the mindset of the long-suffering Jewish inhabitants of this land in the first century, understand: This was a place of constant kingdom replacement.

Consequently the people here saw the solution to all their problems in terms of regime change. After this parade of foreign kingdoms, the idea of a great and good ruler leading a kingdom that once again actually originated right here was seen as a kind of paradise.

Since kingdoms had brought so much pain and so much progress, that was clearly, people figured, both the problem and the solution: Get rid of the old kingdom. Get a new kingdom. A kingdom of God.


Jesus, as the people would have expected from a Messiah figure, does indeed use a lot of “kingdom” language. But he slowly and surely changes their idea of what God’s kingdom is all about.

He says his kingdom is in the world, but not of the world. It is really in the world. It’s not merely a spiritual kingdom. It’s just as real as Rome. But it is not of the world. In crucial ways, it’s not like any earthly kingdom.


Parable after parable is introduced with the words, “The kingdom of heaven is like…” and then Jesus gives a surprising metaphor designed to explain the kind of kingdom the Messiah was here to establish. It’s like a buried treasure. It’s like a pearl in an oyster. It’s like a tiny seed that grows into the biggest tree.

What can you learn from the details of those parables and sayings? Jesus makes clear that the kingdom of God has a ruler and citizens and power and authority, like earthly kingdoms. But in at least five ways the kingdom of God differs from the paradigm the people had when they thought of the kingdom:

First, it starts in the heart. It starts at the soul level before it gets to the system level. Then saved souls are like a good virus inside the system, changing it from the inside-out, even as they’ve been changed.

Second, it’s already here. God’s kingdom isn’t something we have to sit and wait for anymore. It’s here now. That’s good for us to remember, too. It’s already in prisons. In oppressed countries. In hospitals. In nursing homes. In businesses. In schools.

Third, it starts small and grows until it fills the whole world. God’s kingdom starts inside individual hearts and souls. Then one day the very planet will be transformed by the Messiah himself when he returns to perfect what has begun.

Fourth, followers of the Messiah are like advance ambassadors for the fully realized kingdom. Through the way we live, the way we treat others, we show people what living in the kingdom of heaven is like. We proclaim that the Messiah will return one day to make the whole world a place of such peace — permanently. Being part of the kingdom in this way is worth any sacrifice we can possibly make.

Fifth, it grows through love, not violence or political manipulation. God’s reign on earth is typified by the poor and hungry being fed, by sinners being forgiven, by the sick being cared for. This is what the Messiah came to do, and what his followers do. These good deeds are not the good news; the gospel is the simple message of God’s rescue mission in Christ. But these acts flow from lives changed by the gospel.


It’s easy to feel that the kingdom of God is weak because its soldiers go about feeding the poor and healing the sick instead of waving weapons and crowning kings. And it is often weak in the eyes of the world’s power brokers.

True, the kingdom of heaven is powered not by political alliances or gunpowder. But it has power.

It’s powered by the same loving God who makes every wave that seems weak but shapes the shoreline, every tree that grows quietly until it splits pavement, every creeping glacier that almost imperceptibly carves valleys, and it’s just as slow and just as deliberate and ultimately just as relentless.

Make no mistake: earthly kingdoms will oppose God’s kingdom. No one gives up a kingdom easily. Even though God brings a kingdom of love, this is still seen as a threat by earthly powers. Somehow they understand the revolutionary nature of this concept. Followers of the Messiah should expect opposition. But we can also expect ultimate victory.

Jesus still corrects our concept of God’s kingdom today.

When his first-century audience heard that phrase, they thought only of earth, of thrones and soldiers and crowns and kings — a purely physical government. Even today some want to see God’s kingdom advance with weapons of this world. They promote violence, fear, and anger, all in the name of religion. But his kingdom is not of the world.

We can err in the other direction, too, often imagining Jesus is speaking only of heaven. One day, we think, we will see the kingdom of God, in the sweet bye-and-bye. But Jesus says his kingdom is in the world. Now.

…the point of God’s split-level good creation, heaven and earth, is not that earth is a kind of training ground for heaven, but that heaven and earth are designed to overlap and interlock… and that one day — as the book of Revelation makes very clear — one day they will do so fully and forever, as the New Jerusalem comes down from heaven to earth. — N. T. Wright 17


How can you bring God’s kingdom closer to your world today? What does it mean to you when Jesus says to “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness”?