What is the Kingdom that we are to pray come? In one sense, you can say that the Kingdom of God, or the Kingdom of Heaven in Matthew’s gospel, is the government of God: the fact that God is ruler over all, and the Kingdom of heaven is how God rules all. When we think of the Kingdom of Heaven as the government of God, then one wonders, “What’s to come? Doesn’t God already rule over all? Don’t the scriptures teach us this?” Well, yes and no.
God does rule over all that He has made, and God has given a certain amount of freedom to His creation. How these two realities relate is a mystery that has perplexed human minds since the beginning. One of the oldest stories in the Bible is found in the book of Job. It is a story about a man wrestling with questions such as how can God rule all and yet hold human beings accountable for freedom? And how is it that evil and suffering play a role in a good person’s life? And what are there mechanisms or principles by which we can understand all of this? Of course the conclusion the book of Job seems to lead us to is that there is no way to understand God and His ways. God is inscrutable. That is, God and His ways in creation cannot be searched out, cannot be figured out.
The inscrutability of God and His ways has to be our starting place if we are going to try to get a sense of what the Father’s Kingdom is and what it means to pray that it come. We are dealing with mystery here. However, one aspect of Christian mystery is that it can be both known and unknown at the same time. But this is nothing unique to spiritual things It is true in every human relationship. I can know someone very well, and yet they can still surprise me. And even self knowledge is something that grows as we mature. In fact, knowledge of self often grows along with knowledge of others. I have often said, reflecting on the difficult first year of married life: “I used to be such a nice person until I got married.” There is something about growing in one’s intimate knowledge of another that shines light into previously ignored areas of our own life.
And if a growing knowledge of another human being can result in a deeper knowledge myself, how much more will a growing relationship with God cause one to know him or her self more deeply? The Kingdom of Heaven is a mystery, but it is a mystery that can be known even while unknown. For example, Jesus says to His disciples when he explains to them the parable of the sower, “to you it has been given to know the mysteries of the Kingdom of Heaven.” And yet His disciples do not know completely, for later they ask if the Kingdom of God will come immediately. Jesus reveals the mystery to His disciples, but that doesn’t mean that everything about the mystery as been revealed, and it doesn’t mean that what has been revealed has been grasped.
I find it very interesting that in none of the gospel accounts is the Kingdom of Heaven ever defined. In fact, it is not until the parable of the sower that Jesus begins to speak of what the Kingdom of Heaven is like. Up to that point, we are told that Jesus and John the Baptist preached the Kingdom of Heaven. We are told to seek the Kingdom of Heaven and that “the violent take it by force.” We are told not everyone who says “Lord, Lord” will enter the Kingdom of Heaven but that a gentile centurion and others from “the east and west” will sit with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the Kingdom of Heaven, but that (some of) the sons of the Kingdom will be cast out. Jesus preaches the Kingdom of Heaven, teaches his disciples to pray that the Father’s Kingdom will come and even sends out the twelve Apostles to preach the Kingdom of Heaven all before He begins to reveal some of what the Kingdom of Heaven is like.
I take comfort in this. I don’t have to understand what the Kingdom of the Father is before I begin to pray that His Kingdom come. Those who heard Jesus preach were able to receive and benefit from Jesus’ teaching long before He tells them (and us) a little bit about what the Kingdom of Heaven is like. Jesus tells us that the Kingdom of Heaven is near (at hand) and that it is something that is not observable, for it is within us. But this expression is tricky in Greek because “within you” has a double meaning: it can mean inside each one individually, and it can mean among you as a group. I think it means both. The Kingdom of Heaven is, on the one hand, personal and even private. It has to do with my hidden life with God. On the other hand, the Kingdom of Heaven is relational: it exists in how I treat and relate to the people around me. The Kingdom of Heaven is in both these realities, but it is not in something that can be seen in the sense of being pointed at: we cannot definitively say this or that thing or person or experience is the Kingdom of Heaven.
Nonetheless, Jesus does tell us in many parables what the Kingdom of Heaven is like. The Kingdom is like a farmer sowing seeds, a fisher catching fish, a merchant searching for pearls, a king planing a wedding banquet and sending out invitations, a householder distributing his goods to his servants before taking a trip. The Kingdom of Heaven grows from something small, like a mustard seed, into something big that affects everything, like yeast in dough. The Kingdom of Heaven is something that is entered only with difficulty, through a narrow gate. It is seen only by those who are born from above. It is received only as a child. The Kingdom of Heaven is what Jesus’ disciples are to seek first. We are told that it is very difficult for those with riches to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but also (in this same context) we are told that what is impossible for human beings is possible for God. We are told that some will leave family and possessions for the Kingdom of Heaven, and that they will receive 100 times as much in return (in this age and in the age to come). We are even told that some will become eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven’s sake.
While most of these metaphors about what the Kingdom of Heaven is like seem to apply both to our relationship with God now and to our relationship with others in this life, there is also an aspect of the Kingdom of Heaven that is to come, that is eschatological. Jesus tells his disciples at the Last Supper that he will not drink of the fruit of the vine again until he drinks it anew, or fulfilled, in His Father’s Kingdom. Many of the parables about the Kingdom—especially in Matthew’s gospel—have elements of judgement or sorting out. The Kingdom of Heaven is like a dragnet that is full of all sorts of fish, so that the fishermen have to separate out the good from the bad. At harvest time, the angels of God separate the wheat from the tares. And when the Son of Man sits on His Glorious throne, he will separate the “nations,” as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.
Several of the Church Fathers point out that when we pray, “Your Kingdom Come (as in heaven, so also on earth), we are praying for this judgement. We are, in one sense, praying for the end of the world, for the second coming of Christ. However, we are also praying that the heavenly judgement will begin now—as it is in heaven, so also on earth. I think most people make a serious mistake when thinking about how these insights into the mystery of the Kingdom of Heaven and the sorting or judgement aspects of the Kingdom apply to our life and experience with God and others today. According to St. Isaac the Syrian and others—and you can even see this in some of the Hymns of the Church—the wheat and the tares, the sheep and the goats, and the good and bad fish, do not refer so much to different people—as though someone were either a sheep or a goat. These parables refer (at least) also and perhaps primarily to the good and the bad thoughts and attitudes and passions that we all experience in ourselves. The judgement of the Kingdom of Heaven, while in some ultimate sense in the age to come may refer to specific people as either sheep or goat, as these parables are understood and applied while we are still in this life, they refer rather to the sorting of the sheep and goats, the wheat and the tares within our own hearts.
When we pray that our Father’s Kingdom come, we are praying that God will sort us, that our Father in heaven will judge what is goat and tare and all that offends within us. When we pray that our Father’s Kingdom come, we are asking that God will reveal in us all that is not His Kingdom so that we may turn from it in repentance. When we pray that our Father’s Kingdom come, we are acknowledging that His Kingdom is not here, not here in us and among us as we want it to be, as we long for it to be. We are acknowledging that we are still mixed, still some sheep and some goat, still some wheat and some tare. When we pray that our Father’s Kingdom come (as in heaven, so also on earth) we are praying that the judgement and the sorting of the Kingdom of Heaven begin now, within ourselves, that we not be surprised on the Last Day, that while there is still time to repent we might see our sin, see where we fall short of our calling as children who have been taught to call upon God as Father.
I find it very helpful to reflect on the sorting parables of Matthew 25, especially the last one. Notice that when the Son of Man sits on His glorious throne, he does not call all of the people before Him for Judgement. He calls the nations. This, I think, helps us realize that the parable is not about separating people one from another, but about nations—nations understood spiritually, or allegorically. Already in the New Testament (e.g. Revelation 11:8; Galatians 4:21 ff) we are taught to interpret the nations and events of the Old Testament allegorically in order to gain a spiritual understanding. This is how the Church teaches us to read the Psalms. Aamalek, for example, represents the flesh, and Egypt the desire for ease and bodily comfort. When we read in the Psalms about battling nations, we are to understand and interpret this allegorically, or spiritually. The war against the nations is the war against our own passions, lusts and inordinate desires. The land of Canaan to be conquered is our own bodies and minds. And so when we read that the Son of Man with judge and separate the nations as sheep from goats, we understand this to mean that the judgement of the Kingdom is a separating of what is godly from what is wicked within ourselves.
Ultimately in the Age to Come, some may chose so completely to identify with what is goat and tare and brokenness and sin within them that it might be said of them that they are goat. But really we don’t know that much about how things exactly play out in the Age to Come. We know that God is a good God who loves human kind, and the Age to Come is very, very, very long. Jesus tells us that nothing is impossible for God—but how that will be manifest in the Age to Come, we do not know. What we do know is that Jesus taught his disciples to pray now, in this age, for His Father’s Kingdom to come (as in heaven, so also on earth). We do know that repentance is possible, possible for anyone no matter how “goatly” they are so long as they are still in this world. And we do know that, even in this life, the Kingdom of Heaven is received by and entered into by those with childlike faith, by those who humble themselves, and by those who know they are unworthy to receive it. May God help us to enter now the Kingdom we are so unworthy to receive, even as we pray as Jesus taught us to our Father in heaven, Your Kingdom come.