The Kingdom Emphasis in Acts
by Shane Scott
The Book of Acts begins and ends with the kingdom of God. The book starts with Jesus appearing to the disciples to instruct them “about the kingdom of God” (1:3). And it ends with the apostle Paul in the heart of the capital city of the Roman Empire, “proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance” (28:31). In this article we are going to look at the emphasis on the kingdom in Acts. But first, some background about the meaning and significance of the term.
The word kingdom in the original language primarily refers to God’s reign, and secondarily to God’s realm. When Jesus taught his disciples to pray, “Your kingdom come,” he was teaching them to pray for God’s royal power to be exerted and acknowledged, as the parallel expression clarifies – “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). The entire world is under the royal authority of the Lord and his Anointed (Matthew 28:18), but not everyone submits to this authority. Those who do, “enter the kingdom,” and comprise the church (see Matthew 16:16-18).
The Old Testament prophets longed for the day when God’s kingdom would be established (Daniel 2:44). This was in keeping with the promise God made to David to establish his lineage as a royal dynasty. “I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever” (2 Samuel 7:13). These royal prospects were deeply intertwined with Israel’s national prospects. By the end of Second Kings, the nation was carried off into exile and Israel’s king was in chains. But the prophets saw a glorious future in which the nation and the royal lineage would be restored (as in Isaiah 9:6-7; 55:3).
Thus, when the apostles asked Jesus at the start of Acts, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel” (Acts 1:6), the Lord did not rebuke them for asking about his kingdom plans regarding Israel, but for their impudence regarding the timing of those plans. God all along intended to restore the nation, and to use it to draw all peoples to him (Isaiah 2:2-4). A short time later, Peter proclaimed that the outpouring of the Spirit signaled the long-awaited plan of God had commenced (Acts 2:14-21). But contrary to the expectation of many Jews, this plan was fulfilled through Jesus of Nazareth (Acts 2:22-23). In his death and resurrection, God fulfilled his promise to David “that he would set one of his descendants on his throne” (2:29-36).
As the Book of Acts unfolds, God’s plan that “whoever calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved” takes many more unexpected turns. After the murder of Stephen, the disciples scatter, preaching everywhere they went – even Samaria!
Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed to them the Christ…But when they believed Philip as he preached good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women (Acts 8:5, 12).
But the most shocking turn of events occurred in the city of Caesarea, where the Holy Spirit fell upon a Gentile, Cornelius, and he and his household were baptized (Acts 10:44-48). The admission of Gentiles into the kingdom without circumcision stirred up such dissension among certain Jewish Christians that eventually Peter, James, Paul, and Barnabas had to confront this issue directly in a conference in Jerusalem. James explained to those in attendance that the ingathering of the Gentiles was not a novel departure from God’s plan, but was exactly what God had promised would happen when the kingdom was restored.
And with this the words of the prophets agree, just as it is written,
“ ‘After this I will return,
and I will rebuild the tent of David that has fallen;
I will rebuild its ruins,
and I will restore it,
that the remnant of mankind may seek the Lord,
and all the Gentiles who are called by my name,
says the Lord, who makes these things
known from of old.”
(Acts 15:15-18, citing Amos 9:11-12).
Yes, God restored Israel. But that restoration was no longer defined on the same terms as the old covenant. Inclusion in the kingdom now centered on Jesus, and anyone – Jew or Gentile – who acknowledged the lordship of Jesus could be part of that kingdom.
This is the message of the gospel, and it saturates the Book of Acts. It is the story of the proclamation that the world’s true king is not Caesar but Christ, and that the citizenship that counts is not identity as a Roman, but as a Christian. The pagans at Thessalonica got the point as they complained about the subversive message that “there is another king, Jesus” (17:7). And the Jews in Ephesus understood it as well as they heard Paul speak and reason for three months “about the kingdom of God” (19:8).
This emphasis on the kingdom reminds us of three important lessons for our own time.
First, the kingship of Jesus is central to the gospel. The vast majority of Americans identify as “Christian,” but how many are serious about submitting to the sovereignty of Christ? It is clear that for many people, “Christian” is a label, but not an allegiance. The gospel that the apostles preached focused on the lordship of Christ and summoned people to follow him.
Second, the kingdom of God will overcome the kingdoms of the world. The gospel faced enormous obstacles in Acts. This sometimes involved officials from worldly kingdoms who attempted to thwart its spread, like Herod in Acts 12. But Herod came to a grisly end, while “the word of God increased and multiplied” (Acts 12:24). None of the kings or kingdoms in Acts remain today, except for Jesus and his kingdom! Our world is turbulent, and it is easy to lose faith in the power of the gospel. But with its emphasis on the enduring strength of God’s kingdom in the face of opposition, Acts reminds us that God’s will indeed will be done.
Third, the kingdom of God is for everyone. Jews, Samaritans, proselytes, Gentiles – everyone is eligible for the kingdom. Sometimes, the people of God were hesitant to proclaim this invitation as broadly as Jesus intended (such as those described in Acts 11:19). Who is it that we hesitate to share the gospel with? Who is on our list of people we (perhaps subconsciously) think are off-limits to God’s kingdom? Even in his imprisonment at the end of the book Paul was still laboring at every opportunity, “testifying to the kingdom of God” (28:23).
When the apostles first encountered opposition to their preaching, some Christians in Jerusalem prayed:
Sovereign Lord, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and everything in them, who through the mouth of our father David, your servant, said by the Holy Spirit,
“Why did the Gentiles rage,
and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth set themselves,
and the rulers were gathered together,
against the Lord and against his Anointed”—
for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place. And now, Lord, look upon their threats and grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness (Acts 4:24-29).
Take this prayer to heart, and be emboldened as a follower of the Lord and his Anointed to proclaim the gospel of the kingdom.