What did Jesus mean when He said “the kingdom of God is within you”? Does the Kingdom only exist in our hearts and minds?
Responding to a question from the Pharisees about when the Kingdom of God would come, Jesus said, “The kingdom of God does not come with observation; nor will they say, ‘See here!’ or ‘See there!’ For indeed, the kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:20-21). The first part of Jesus’ answer has been fairly easy to understand. Misunderstanding regarding the latter part however, has given many an incomplete picture of the Kingdom.
When Jesus came to earth, the Jews were looking for the Messiah to come and elevate the Jewish nation to prominence. Instead of hearing a message of repentance, they anticipated a Deliverer who would lead them in a successful liberation of their nation. And some of the religious authorities apparently believed that they—because of their careful investigation—would be the ones to first discover the promised Savior’s coming.
In the above-noted passage, Jesus told the Pharisees that their thinking was mistaken. Jesus’ first coming was to preach “the gospel of the kingdom of God” (Mark 1:14-15) and pay the penalty for mankind’s sins. Later, He would “appear a second time … for salvation” (Hebrews 9:28) and the establishment of the Kingdom of God here on earth.
How Jesus said the Kingdom of God would come
When Jesus returns, there will indeed be dramatic signs that all will be able to discern (Matthew 24:5-14, 21-27; Revelation 1:7). But in saying, “The kingdom of God does not come with observation; nor will they say, ‘See here!’ or ‘See there!’” (Luke 17:20-21), Jesus was explaining to the Pharisees of that generation that, in spite of their meticulous efforts, their mistaken understanding would not allow them to identify the Messiah’s first coming.
Furthermore, they would not see the astonishing signs of His second coming—the signs for which they were looking. As Jesus noted, His second coming would be in another “day” (verse 24)—a time period long after the Pharisees to whom He was speaking had lived and died.
After telling the Pharisees that they wouldn’t be able to observe the coming of the Kingdom of God in the way they had anticipated, He said, “For indeed, the kingdom of God is within you” (verse 21).
In this passage, entos (the Greek word that is translated “within”) can also be translated “in the midst of” (Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words). The New American Standard Bible, the New International Version, the Modern King James Version and Green’s Literal Translation translate this phrase “in your midst.” In this sense, Jesus, the King of the coming Kingdom of God, was standing in the midst of the Pharisees. These translations are clearly better, for the Kingdom of God was not in the hearts of these Pharisees.
Living by the laws of the Kingdom
So what about the concept of the Kingdom of God being in our hearts? The Scriptures show that this subject should be on our minds. After all, we are supposed to pray for the Kingdom to come (Matthew 6:10) and Jesus told us to “seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness” (verse 33).
When we repent of our sins, are baptized and begin following the lead of the Holy Spirit, we voluntarily place ourselves under the laws and authority of the coming Kingdom of God.
Describing this process, Paul, who was being held prisoner in Rome at the time, explained, “He [God, the Father] has delivered us from the power of darkness and conveyed us into the kingdom of the Son of His love” (Colossians 1:13). So there is a sense of us being symbolically “conveyed,” “translated” (King James Version) or “transferred” (English Standard Version) into the Kingdom when we commit our lives to God and begin living as He instructs.
Our primary allegiance is transferred from all kingdoms of this world to God’s Kingdom. We are then subject to different laws (God’s laws) and belong to a different community (the Church of God).
The Holy Spirit helps us obey God’s laws. This spirit “of power and of love and of a sound mind” (2 Timothy 1:7) gives us the ability to live by God’s laws even though we are still human with human weaknesses. Those who are led by the Spirit of God are called the “sons of God” (Romans 8:14). This same spirit empowers the Church to fulfill its commission. In this sense, we have the opportunity to taste or experience “the powers of the age to come” (Hebrews 6:4-5).
How we can enter the Kingdom of God
Even though the Bible speaks of our “citizenship” as being in heaven after we are baptized (Philippians 3:20), in order to enter the Kingdom of God, humans must be changed from flesh and blood into spirit, from mortal into immortal, at Jesus’ second coming (1 Corinthians 15:50-53; Hebrews 9:28). When the Kingdom of God comes to earth, it will rule over all the “kingdoms of this world” (Revelation 11:15).
Unfortunately, in reading Jesus’ statement that “the kingdom of God is within you,” many have mistakenly limited the Kingdom of God to a philosophical perspective or a way of thinking. In reality, the coming Kingdom of God is far more than what is in the hearts and minds of Jesus’ followers. In fact, it is the Kingdom that God’s faithful elect will enter at Christ’s return and that will be established here on earth.