In this post I want to offer some reflections on the ‘kingdom of God’. For those familiar with the pages upon pages of discussion in works on the historical Jesus (I think of Wright, Meier, Dunn) this will not offer any new insights. However, I do hope that some of my readers will be unfamiliar with some of the material. By way of autobiography I was brought up in a independent evangelical church (FIEC), with Calvinistic tendencies, which sought to faithfully teach the scriptures. If my memory serves me correctly, and sometimes it doesn’t, I can’t remember any sustained reflection on the meaning of the kingdom. As a generalisation it is fair to say that the emphasis was often placed on Pauline theology and the gospels were rarely seriously studied. SO it is possible to be bible believing and yet remain at a distance from Jesus’ central teaching of the kingdom of God. I am thankful for my theological upbringing but a corrective is needed in this regard.
So I have said that Jesus teaching of the kingdom was central to his preaching. A quick search on my bible software reveals that the kingdom of God appears numerous times in the synoptic gospels although Matthew prefers the phrase ‘kingdom of heaven’. I use the first 5 occurrences in Mark as an example.
Mark 1:15 (ESV)
15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”
Mark 4:11 (ESV)
11 And he said to them, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables,
Mark 4:26 (ESV)
26 And he said, “The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground.
Mark 4:30 (ESV)
30 And he said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable shall we use for it?
Mark 9:1 (ESV)
1 And he said to them, “Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God after it has come with power.”
Yet what does the kingdom of God mean. In popular usage it may be suggested that the ‘kingdom of God’ is to be equated with the ‘church’ or of a future life in ‘heaven’. I want to remove these two views from the hermeneutical table as, important as they are, they do not take seriously the concept of kingdom for those living at the time of Jesus. Jesus offered a new way of percieving the kingdom but he was developing ideas of the kingdom which were already present to his audience.
So what is the background to the phrase ‘kingdom of God’? In the following I am summarising the work of James Dunn Jesus Remembered Ch 12.
2nd Temple Jews, those living around the time of Jesus, would have been familiar with the idea that YHWH is the king over all the earth.
Jews would have seen YHWH as only being acknowledged as king by Israel.
The hope of Israel was that at some point in history YHWH would be recognised as King in all the world.
Yet we can be more specfic about what this hope would like.
When God becomes king, as with N.T. Wright, the Israel would be restored, the exile would be over.
When God becomes king there will be abundant prosperity (Deut 30:5,9)
When God becomes king suffering shall be removed. (Is 29:18)
When God becomes king, in metaphorical language, there will be a great feast
When God becomes king the covenant will be removed
When God becomes king his spirit will rest on his people
When God becomes king the temple will be rebuilt
When God becomes king YHWH will return to Zion
When God becomes king Israel will be vindicated
When God becomes king the gentiles will seek YHWH
When God becomes king the whole earth will be an inheritance to the covenant people (Is 60:21)
When God becomes king a time a climatic time of tribulation will have taken place
When God becomes king there will be cosmic disturbances (Is 65:17)- a new creation
When God becomes king Satan will be defeated
When God becomes king there will be resurrection
This is, in Dunn’s words, the context of expectation into which Jesus preached and lived his message of the kingdom. The kingdom of God had to do with, drawing on Wright, monotheism, covenant and eschatology. The true God, YHWH, would act on his covenant promises to usher within history that which he had promised he would.
As we glance over the thirteen points above we can see that some of these have been fulfilled in Jesus and the life of the Church, but the fullness is yet to come.
I close this ramble of a posting with an illustration I have stolen from Mike Goheen.
My wife makes a great curry. I want you to imagine that while she is cooking it I go into the kitchen and start sampling the food. Have I had my curry’? In one sense Yes! I have tasted it. In another and greater sense NO! I have simply had a foretaste of the full dinner which awaits me. This is like the kingdom, the now and not yet. The fulfilment and hope.