The writer of the Gospel of Mark introduces the ministry of Jesus by describing how “Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.’” The phrase the ‘kingdom of God’ (which in Greek is hē basileia tou theou), or sometimes in Matthew, the ‘kingdom of heaven’ (hē basileia tōn ouranōn), is central to Jesus’ message. Robert Stein writes that these two expressions occur “in sixty-one separate sayings of Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels.” Stein explains that as the Gospel of Matthew was written for a Jewish audience, heaven was used instead of God as no devout Jew would want to risk breaking the Third Commandment and say the sacred name of God.
Scholars have debated what kind of kingdom Jesus meant, how and when it would come and what role Jesus had in this kingdom. Stein makes the point that “Jesus never defined exactly what he meant by the kingdom of God/heaven” and he “assumed that his listeners would understand, and the evangelists assumed that their readers would understand as well.”
What kind of kingdom is it?
James Dunn poses the question “is ‘the kingdom of God’ a concept or a symbol?” Was Jesus talking about an historical kingdom, a political kingdom, one based beyond physical spatial realities, or one at the end of history? Stein notes that the word ‘kingdom’ itself can lead to a presumption of meaning, and it is important to know what it meant to Jesus and those who heard him. He illustrates this by giving the example of a medieval fiefdom with a castle that has control of a territory or realm. This is the image that forms in a Western mind when thinking of a kingdom. However, in the Synoptic Gospels, the term ‘kingdom’ or basileia can often “only be understood in a dynamic way as referring to a ‘reign.’” There are times when it could refer to a territory or realm, but the primary sense of kingdom of God relates to the reign of God in a dynamic sense.
Stein explains the view that a political kingdom where “Jesus sought to re-establish a Davidic-like kingdom whose centre would be the city of Jerusalem” is evidenced by Jesus including a Zealot as one of his disciples, by challenging Roman authority in his triumphal entry to Jerusalem as Israel’s king on Palm Sunday and by being crucified “on political charges.” Stein adds that “there are too many teachings of Jesus which have powerful claims to authenticity that refute such a view.”
A mystical kingdom is hinted at in the Wisdom of Solomon 10:10, where Wisdom shows the righteous man the ‘Kingdom of God.’ During the nineteenth-century, liberal theologians emphasised the “inward moral ethic” of Jesus’ teaching. Stein explains that “the kingdom of God involved the present reign of God in the heart of the believer.” This view is noneschatological and Stein says “any apocalyptic or eschatological elements present in [Jesus’] teaching … were either discarded or interpreted symbolically.”
Johannes Weiß and Albert Schweitzer writing at the turn of the twentieth-century held a view now known as “consistent eschatology.” Stein explains that “the kingdom of God refers to a future reign of God that Jesus believed was to be inaugurated in the near future.”History would come to an end and “the Son of Man would come to judge the world and the kingdom of God would be inaugurated.”
C. H. Dodd writing in 1961 coined the phrase “realised eschatology” when he argued that the kingdom had already arrived. Dodd interpreted “drawn near” from Mark 1:15 and Luke 10:9 as meaning present. The kingdom of God was present in Jesus teaching and ministry and there was no future aspect yet to come. Crispin Fletcher-Louis argues that Dodd was wrong about the Greek, and this interpretation is due to a mistranslation.
How does the kingdom come?
There have been attempts to bring in a political kingdom of God by means of revolution. In the second-century BC, Israel was under the rule of the Seleucid Empire, a remnant of Alexander the Great’s Macedonian Empire. Interference in the appointment of High Priests and the Hellenization of Jews led to a revolt against the Seleucids by Judah Maccabee and his followers. Josephus records the rebellion led by Judas the Galilean in around AD 6. Judas, with a Pharisee named Zadok, founded the Zealots, which Josephus called the “fourth of the philosophies” in first-century Judaism. After the time of Jesus there were further rebellions against Roman rule in Jerusalem in AD 66, north Africa in AD 115-117 and Palestine in AD 132-135.
One of the other philosophies of the second-century BC to the first-century AD was the Essenes. From their community in Qumran, they saw the kingdom of God in mysticism. In the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice, they “worship in the heavenly Temple with the angels.” In Song VII it says “for in the splendour of praises is the Glory of His Kingdom.”
A third way of seeing the kingdom come was in the keeping of Torah. The study and practice of Torah instead of Temple sacrifice had developed during the Babylonian exile when Temple worship was not possible. Jews in the first-century who lived outside of Israel and the Pharisees developed this practice, and Rabbinic Judaism continued it after the destruction of the Second Temple in AD 70.
How did Jesus say the kingdom would come?
In many ways Jesus acted as though he was bringing in a political kingdom. He called the twelve disciples, who symbolically replaced the twelve tribes of Israel. Further, he called the seventy-two disciples, as a symbolic replacement of the Jewish council called the Sanhedrin. Jesus accepted the title of ‘Son of David’ in Mark 10:47 and was hailed as ‘Son of David’ on his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Parallels to David’s life can be seen by Jesus spending much of his ministry wandering the countryside around Galilee. In Mark 6:34, Jesus acts like Israel’s true king by being the good shepherd, evoking Numbers 27:17 and 1 Kings 22:17.
In Matthew 5:17-20 Jesus affirms the Torah by saying the Law would remain until heaven and earth passes away, and that anyone who “relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” And that “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus therefore links practice of Torah with entry to the kingdom.
When does the kingdom come?
Parts of the Old Testament would suggest that the kingdom is a reality that is always present. Many Psalms speak of God as King of creation and of history (e.g. Psalms 24, 47, 89, 93, 97-99). Tobit 13:1 records that God’s “kingdom lasts throughout all ages.” Additionally, Psalm of Solomon 17:3 states “the Kingdom of our God is forever over the nations in judgement.”  However, the reality was that many Jews still lived in exile away from the land of Israel, and those who did live in the land were under the Gentile rule of Rome.
Scot McKnight writes that the presence of the kingdom would fulfil Jewish hopes of “the end of the exile, the defeat of Rome, the return of the scattered tribes to the promised land, the restoration of pure worship in the temple, and the coming of God in full glory to Zion.”It would be the fulfilment of prophecies dating back to Isaiah, and “would usher the people of God into a new era of jubilee, peace, justice, and righteousness.”
There are passages in the Synoptic Gospels which suggest that in Jesus the kingdom had already come and was a present reality in his ministry. McKnight cites the stories of Simeon and Anna from Luke 2:25-35, 36-38 as examples that the restoration was happening. Stein refers to the story of Jesus healing a mute from Luke 11:14-22 where he was accused of casting out demons by Beelzebul. Jesus answered by saying that “the kingdom of God has come upon you.” Stein comments that some scholars interpret this as meaning “is near” but argues that it should be read as “has arrived” or “has come.” In this, Stein says, Jesus “saw in his healing of the demoniacs a proof that the kingdom of God had in fact come in his ministry.”
McKnight also suggests the parable of the sower from Mark 4:1-9 as evidence of the kingdom as present reality, saying “here the kingdom of God is being sown (in the present), and already both rejection and fruitfulness are evident.” In Luke 17:20-21, Jesus is asked by some Pharisees when the kingdom would come. He replies by saying that “the kingdom of God is in the midst of you.” McKnight notes that this phrase can be translated as “within you” or “within your grasp” and so “the saying describes the kingdom as present and capable of being experienced.” George Beasley-Murray includes these and other passages where the sayings and parables of Jesus indicate a coming of the kingdom in the present.
Stein writes that there are more numerous passages describing the kingdom as a future reality. In Luke 11:2, Jesus teaches his disciples to pray saying “your kingdom come.” McKnight says “Jesus saw in the unfolding events associated with the coming destruction of Jerusalem a harbinger of the imminent kingdom of God,” and so “Jesus viewed the kingdom of God as a future reality.” Stein mentions passages where the future coming of the kingdom is linked to the final judgement, such as Matthew 7:21-23 and Luke 13:22-30. He writes that, “the parable of the wheat and the weeds (Matthew 13:24-30) likens the kingdom of God to the gathering of the weeds and their destruction at harvest time.”
Again, Beasley-Murray has a comprehensive list of sayings and parables of Jesus that refer to the kingdom as a future reality. Fletcher-Louis categorises the future sayings as those which clearly refer to the events of AD 70 and the destruction of the Temple, those which possibly refer to AD 70 and others which refer to a post-resurrection kingdom reality.
There appears to be a contradiction in what Jesus is saying here, between the present reality of the kingdom and a future reality of the kingdom. Stein attempts to solve this when he says “the kingdom has not come as most people in the time of Jesus expected, that is, in its fullness. It has come only in part. Its fullness awaits the consummation when the Son of Man returns to judge the world.” This “now and not yet” of the kingdom has been likened by Oscar Cullman to the D-Day landings which decided the outcome of World War II and VE-Day when the war finally ended in Europe. Stein says that Jesus fully expected an interval between his ministry and the future coming of the kingdom, quoting Mark 2:18-20 where Jesus refers to himself as the bridegroom who will be taken away.
What is the relationship between Jesus himself and the kingdom?
McKnight calls Jesus “the agent of the kingdom” who firmly believed it was God’s kingdom, i.e. the Father’s kingdom. He writes that “Jesus thought he was the one through whom the kingdom was being manifested.” It was Jesus through his ministry who would answer the Jewish hope and bring in the kingdom. Jesus speaks of gathering in Luke 11:23. Fletcher-Louis highlights parallels in Old Testament and contemporary Jewish writings where God will gather Israel.
Drawing on the parable of the Prodigal Son from Luke 15:11-32, Fletcher-Louis describes how this is a picture of the kingdom. The parable is told in the context of Jesus’ table fellowship with sinners and tax collectors in Galilee. At one level the son who returns can refer to these sinners, but at another level the son can also refer to Israel in exile. Fletcher-Louis explains “the Prodigal Son retells the metanarrative of sin, exile and restoration, claiming that return from exile and full restoration is happening now for sinners welcomed by Jesus.” McKnight adds that the table fellowship of Jesus, eating with sinners, redefines the true Israel.
There was clear Jewish expectation of the kingdom of God when Jesus began his ministry. Jesus spoke about a kingdom which at times was political in nature and which could be experienced by keeping Torah perfectly. There are examples where the kingdom was realised; a present reality in Jesus’ ministry through healings and exorcisms. But there is also an expectation of more to come in a future reality of the kingdom. Jesus saw himself as the agent bringing in God’s kingdom and in so doing bringing to completion the Jewish metanarrative, in which the true Israel is gathered and restored in the kingdom of God.
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