Saturday, October 25, 2008

What and when is the kingdom of God?

Not an easy question to answer, but I've had a go! This was for an NTI assignment and, among other things, I found Thomas Schreiner New Testament Theology particularly helpful.

Reader, please feel free to comment and criticise!


What and When is the Kingdom of God?

Joseph of Arimathea was by no means alone in 1st-century Israel in “looking for the kingdom of God” (Mark 15.43; Luke 23.51).

Both John the Baptist and Jesus announced the imminent arrival of the kingdom and called people to prepare themselves (repent) for its arrival. In addition, both link the coming of the kingdom with the coming of Jesus himself. Thus John announces the coming of one “more powerful than I” who will bring the purifying fire of judgment, separating the wheat from the chaff (Matthew 3.11-12). But while John points forward to the one who would follow, Jesus in his teaching and his miracles indicates that through him the kingdom is now breaking in. This is seen in his breathtaking announcement in the synagogue in Nazareth that the prophecy of Isaiah 61 was being fulfilled “today… in your hearing” (Luke 4.16-21).
But it is Jesus’ miracles that constitute strong evidence that the kingdom of God has arrived in the person of Jesus. This is the thrust of Jesus’ dispute with the Pharisees (Matt. 12.22-30): “but if I drive out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.” (v.28) In a similar vein, when John the Baptist sends to ask Jesus whether he is “the one who was to come” or not, it is to his miracles that Jesus’ appeals as evidence: “go back and report to John what you hear and see: the blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor.” (Mt. 11.1-5)
Jesus’ answer to John not only indicates that the kingdom is arriving in Jesus, but also gives us important clues as to what the kingdom is that Jesus is bringing in. For it would seem that John’s doubt as to whether Jesus is the one springs from some wrong expectations as to what the kingdom is. As hinted at earlier, John’s expectation was that of imminent purifying judgment (Mt 3.1-12) – “the coming wrath” (v.7), but Jesus’ ministry is not that of judgment, but of deliverance and mercy, of preaching good news to the poor, proclaiming freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, bringing release to the oppressed and proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favour. (Luke 4.18-19, quoting Isaiah 61)
This is a programme of restoration, salvation, liberation – the fulfilment of God’s promises for His people, being accomplished through Jesus – as the people declare in Luke 7.16, “A great prophet has appeared among us… God has come to help his people.” But the picture is more complex than that.
For example, in the early chapters of Mark’s gospel we find that, following the startling evidences that the kingdom is near (chapter 1), there is an escalating conflict between Jesus and the religious leadership of Israel (Mark 2.1-3.6), culminating in their determination to kill him (3.6). In turn, Jesus begins to constitute a new people of God (a new Israel, as indicated by the selection of twelve to be apostles (3.14)) around himself. There is a dramatic reversal of who is in and who is not; in the words of Jesus in Matthew 8.11-12, “many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Entrance into the kingdom is for those receives the kingdom “like a little child” (Mar 10.15; Luke 18.17) – it is the tax collector who appeals for mercy that is justified before God, not the self-righteous Pharisee (Luke 18.9-14) – Jesus has come for sinners, not for the righteous (Mark 2.17)
Moreover, there is a complexity to the arrival of the kingdom. For, while it is near and, indeed, “has come upon you” it is still to come. This is the importance of many of the parables of the kingdom (Mat 13, Mark 4) – the kingdom arrives in a small, imperceptible way (like a mustard seed), and then there is a period of growth before the kingdom is fully present (the tree). “The mystery of the kingdom is that an interval exists between the inauguration and the consummation of the kingdom”[1]
We need to draw some of these threads together. There was an expectation in Israel that the kingdom of God was coming; both John and Jesus announced that the kingdom was about to break in – through Jesus. But John’s expectation was of purifying judgment, while Jesus’ programme was that the kingdom had arrived in Him now, in a programme of restoration and salvation, especially for the despised & the outcasts, but that the kingdom was also to come – there is a two-stage arrival of the kingdom.
But now we need to factor in the remarable series of events that follow Peter’s recognition that Jesus is the Christ (i.e. the king of the kingdom!) – Jesus’ declarations that the Christ must suffer, die and be raised again, along with his journey to Jerusalem culminating in precisely his suffering, death and resurrection. That this series of events has to do with the kingdom as much as the miracles and kingdom parables do is evidenced by, for example, Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on the donkey – “blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord” cry the people (Luke 19.38) and “blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David” (Mark 11.10). But what precisely do Jesus’ death and resurrection have to do with the kingdom of God? For Jesus’ triumphal entry does not usher in a political kingdom and the expulsion of the Romans as no doubt some expected (e.g. Luke 19.11).
In a sense, John was right to expect the coming of the kingdom of God to be associated with judgment. Indeed, this is the Old Testament background: “the expectation of a future rule of God in which he fulfills his promises to Israel and subjugates his enemies”[2] And it is also clear as Jesus’ ministry develops, that his rejection by the Jewish establishment is going to bring judgment on them, with God’s people being reconstituted afresh around Jesus.
And so, in the pattern of Isaiah 53, the king himself bears the judgment of God – on the cross – “giving his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10.45) Jesus’ new people is a community of sinners, and He himself bears their sins that they may enter into His kingdom. Jesus’ death and resurrection provides the basis for the sinner’s appeal for mercy, which, as we have seen, is the prerequisite for entrance into his kingdom. (cf also Luke 23.42) And it opens the interim day of opportunity between the inauguration and consummation of the kingdom, the day of salvation before the final harvest.
In conclusion, the kingdom of God is, in general terms, God’s climactic act in history to decisively and visibly establish his reign in the world, fulfilling his promises to Israel & ushering in a new creation, defeating his enemies and once and for all. But we see that God’s kingdom arrives in the person of Jesus, indicated by his miracles and teaching, and established by his death and resurrection through which, by bearing the wrath of God, a new people of God are constituted who are the firstfruits of the new creation. A day of salvation is opened as the final consummation of the kingdom is postponed, when the full effects of Jesus’ work will be brought to completion in final judgment and new creation.

[1] Schreiner, T. (2008) New Testament Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker), p.61
[2] Schreiner, p.49

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