Jesus and the Kingdom of God Part 3

Reflections on the “Kingdom of God” in Scholarship

Interwoven within the Quest for the Historical Jesus has been a continued endeavor to understand how Jesus understood the Kingdom. Delbert Burkett provides an excellent summary from key theologians and scholars.[1] Albert Schweitzer (1906) following Johannes Weiss (1892) emphasized the apocalyptic and eschatological view of Jesus and the Kingdom. It was a Kingdom that would be established by intervening drastically in human history. It was cosmic as well as cataclysmic in how it would impact the entire social order of the world. It was C.H. Dodd (1935) though who chose to go in another direction rescuing the Kingdom from the almost exclusive future aspect writing that in the present Jesus could be seen inaugurating the Kingdom. In commenting on our above passage of Mark 1:15 Dodd translated it as, “The Kingdom of God has arrived.” Interestingly, Burkett states, “According to this ‘realized eschatology,’ Jesus did not expect a future, apocalyptic Kingdom, though the early church attributed this view to him.”[2]

Following C.H. Dodd and his landmark work “The Parables of the Kingdom”[3] the consensus among many scholars was a twofold understanding of Jesus and his view of the Kingdom. Unsurprisingly, given our study above, most agreed that the texts point to a both realized and future reality where fulfilment of the Kingdom would take place. In essence this means that Jesus expected God to establish the Kingdom in the future but saw it already beginning through his work. As Burkett rightly states, “the Kingdom was an eschatological concept, but somehow it was already anticipated in Jesus.”[4]

Moving on from Dodd into more modern streams of thought on the Kingdom we find E.P. Sanders who also believed in the apocalyptic establishment by God resulting in a Kingdom in the here and now. He posited that not only did Jesus believe this was coming but a reflection of this can also be seen in John the Baptist and early church. In fact, the baptism of Jesus by John is so significant that one could say the early church received their apocalyptic expectation from Jesus, who received it from the John the Baptist according to Burkett.[5] Two other scholars who have made a significant impact on the study of Jesus and the Kingdom would be Scot McKnight and N.T. Wright. Both find themselves in a proportioned understanding of the Kingdom emphasizing a both present and future Kingdom begun by Jesus with his apocalyptical and ethical teachings as well as miracles.  

In “A New Vision for Israel” McKnight argues, among many things, that Jesus functioned in the mode of a national prophet calling the nation of Israel to repentance. He helps to bring to the surface the political reception of Jesus’ message and how he navigated the various expectations of Israel longing for political freedom. McKnight highlights this tension on multiple occasions and helps the reader see and feel what it must have been like when hearing the Kingdom spoken about. In the only (to our knowledge) prayer Jesus ever taught his disciples he explains 

that in the earliest traditions about Jesus, the Kingdom of God was future yet—in an immanent sense…. Jesus shaped his prayer around the Kingdom motif and expressed his essential view of the Kingdom: ‘though presently operative, its fullness is yet to come.’[6]

In commenting on this same prayer found in Matthew 6 McKnight interacts with John P. Meier where he explained that this “Kingdom focused” prayer reveals 

that when Jesus prays that God’s Kingdom come, he is simply expressing in a more abstract phrase the eschatological hope of the latter part of the OT and the pseudepigrapha that God would come on the last day to save and restore his people, Israel.[7]

McKnight sees that this eschatological hope was not coming out of thin air but rather the societal and political environment. Jesus could discern that society was about to come to a cataclysmic end where (like the hope of the Essenes) God would intervene with his Kingdom breaking in against the work of the enemy furthering what was already taking place in his own ministry. McKnight sees this tumultuous environment and the “coming destruction of Jerusalem as a harbinger of the imminent Kingdom of God.”[8] He then asks, “how can we combine these clear indications of a future Kingdom with Jesus’ teachings about the Kingdom as a present, operative reality?”[9]

As is seen throughout the Gospels, Jesus expected that those who would follow him, his teachings, as well as adopt his own viewpoints, would begin to radically experience the Kingdom of God in their midst. Some of the key scriptures which point to this present Kingdom which was at work among them were Luke 4:33; 9:1; 9:11; Matt. 4:23; 9:35; 24:14. As can be seen in these texts those who were positively engaging the content of the Kingdom message were (it seems according to Jesus) being drawn deeper into the present Kingdom reality, though only a taste. The full meal or banquet was yet to come. But that taste alone was enough to demonstrate to his followers that this was the arrival of something special and new. Something perhaps written about, hoped for, and urgently needed during their season of time. 

Giving this taste of the Kingdom was the supreme mindset of Jesus according to McKnight. “This is the career mission of Jesus: to usher others into the Kingdom through the proclamation of its arrival, through participation in meals, and through his mighty deeds.”[10] This path Jesus is walking is best likened to the true path of a king. Though we call Jesus King of Kings, and it is exclaimed about him (again finding its own correlations in pseudepigraphal texts) we need to properly understand the role of the Kingdom motif considering Jesus as King. “Kingdom” implies a king ruling which would make sense with the instances where Jesus is observed leading, judging, and ruling his Kingdom people.[11]McKnight rightly states that it is in Matthew 23:8-12 we see this come into light indirectly with the warning of Jesus to his disciples that they are not to be called Rabbi while also not to call anyone on earth Father. Jesus goes even further by saying they should not be called instructors as well. In fact, such is the role reversal of the Kingdom, they are to be servants of all which results in exaltation. McKnight does a fantastic job opening the “kingly” dimensions of Jesus and how he viewed the Kingdom at work through him. He was the King, his followers were the members of the Kingdom, and the mission was to expand the Kingdom by going into the highways and byways finding those who were ready to receive the benefits of a new King. Benefits stemming from a new and eschatological Kingdom which was anticipated in the decades and centuries previous. 

The highlight of McKnight’s contribution to the discussion on the Kingdom of God is that he so brilliantly illustrates the nature of the Kingly rule in Jesus while he lived as well as how the meaning of his own death is interwoven.[12] He helps the reader locate with simplicity the objective of Jesus as King: announce the news, the King is here, expand the Kingdom, its beginning now, and the best is yet to come. Before we turn to N.T. Wright and his writings which shed light on how Jesus viewed the narrative of the Kingdom it is fitting to allow McKnight himself to give a robust summary of how Jesus of Nazareth viewed the eschatological Kingdom. 

Jesus clearly taught that a grand display of the Kingdom of God and the coming of the Son of Man [Daniel 7] would take place within one generation. His followers would be persecuted and chased but delivered; those who followed him would not die before they saw the climatic event; and everything predicted about Jerusalem’s destruction and God wrapping up his plan for Israel would take place before the current generation died out. Jesus believed in an imminent display of the Kingdom of God, and he used the metaphor of the coming of the Son of Man [Daniel 7] to refer to this Kingdom event…. He also encouraged his followers to pray with a yearning desire for the immediate fulfillment of the coming Kingdom.[13]

N.T. Wright has contributed extensively on how Jesus perceived the Kingdom at work in his ministry. In his seminal work “Jesus and the Victory of God” Wright leads the reader up a deep and winding path to a vista of the Kingdom that is far reaching, back into Israel’s narrative. Wright holds a belief (among other scholars) that Jesus’ focus was to retell the story of Israel both explicitly and implicitly through his prophetic work.[14] Keeping this in mind, that Jesus is retelling the story of Israel, it should be no surprise according to Wright that Jesus would place himself in the prophetic position of primary Kingdom announcer as well as placing himself at the center of the “redrawn narrative” of Israel.[15] Jesus viewed his role, according to Wright, as the one spearheading Israel’s renewal and salvation. In effect, Israel’s true god was becoming king and Jesus claimed to be his true prophet. In a similar tone E.P. Sanders synthesizes the conception of thought Jesus had regarding his role. 

He [Jesus] regarded his relationship with God as especially intimate. As Geza Vermes pointed out, other charismatic prophets besides Jesus felt that they had a very intimate relationship with God, and we should not overemphasize Jesus’ view of himself in this regard. There may have been numerous people who felt as close to God as Jesus did. But we may be certain about him: he thought that he had been especially commissioned to speak for God, and this conviction was based on a feeling of personal intimacy with the deity.[16]

Building upon this idea that Jesus saw himself as a pioneer it is evident that Jesus’ miracles and deeds, we part of an inward impetus to bring an all-encompassing redemption to the children of Israel.[17] This narrative understanding Wright brings to us on Jesus and the Kingdom expands our understanding to see that Jesus viewed the work of the Kingdom on a cosmic scale, as stated already. Divorcing this Kingdom context from the story of Israel’s redemptive hope is a total disservice to the entire Kingdom motif and those who find hope within it. 

The understanding of who comprises the members of the Kingdom according to Jesus is clear: they are Israel.[18]They are the chosen people of God. They are the true Israel who are in the process of being redeemed at last by God over against those who are seeking to oppress, kill, and destroy them.[19] The support for this is found in texts such as Matthew 5:3-10; Luke 6:20-23; Matthew 13:11; Mark 4:11; Luke 8:10 and more. With the above in mind, a simple rereading of the gospel texts will highlight this Kingdom/ Israel relationship in the ministry of Jesus. With the followers of Jesus realizing their place as the “new Israel” following the true King and messiah would elicit emotions of deep relief because their time of exile was coming to an end. Wright contends that during this time if you were to ask the contemporaries of Jesus where they were at in the timeline of God’s redemptive history of Israel, they would have answered like Ezra and Nehemiah: “we are in exile.”[20] It is within this exile that Jesus thinks to pronounce the arrived and forthcoming Kingdom of God. However, the program this Kingdom offered was not a revitalization of land and violent overthrow of overlords. Jesus was heralding a Kingdom that sought to 

subsume it [Israel] within a different fulfillment of the Kingdom, which would embrace the whole creation – from which, of course, he drew continually in the narratives and imagery of his teaching and announcement.[21]

In Jesus’ purview was the entirety of Israel’s situation. He understood her past, present, and a solution for the future. Thus far with Wright we see that his narrative approach to the restoration of Israel through the divine work of Jesus gives us a window into how Jesus perhaps saw his work and mission. He was spearheading this restorative movement while speaking into the lives of the “new Israel” who were struggling in exile. There may not have been a better situation for the prophetic actions and teachings of Jesus to resonate and gain a large following.  

Wright argues that the solution Jesus offers for Israel through his ministry is twofold. The first level of course was the acceptance and embrace of this Kingdom he proclaimed. There was to be allegiance and devotion given to it which would bring redemption and salvation.[22] But probing deeper past the announcement and invitation of Jesus, the very actions and teachings were in of themselves radical solutions to be followed. He was offering a Kingdom ethic which would lead them out of the tumultuous times they were living in while simultaneously preparing them for the inbreaking Kingdom that was perhaps only a generation away. 

There are many other texts we could analyze for Wright. Everything up to this point opens our view extensively as did McKnight’s. While McKnight opens the door for us to see the King, Wright leads us through the door to a room containing within it the story from beginning to end. Wright and McKnight situate Jesus in his Jewish context highlighting how his teachings and work further the narrative of the Kingdom from the Old Testament all the way through. 

As was done above, it is only fitting to allow Wright to give us a wonderful summation of Jesus’ Kingdom mission before continuing. On the topic of “what is the solution?” Wright states

But, if this is one obvious answer, the other one is ‘Jesus himself.’ He claimed that the Kingdom had arrived where he was, and with his activity. He was not announcing it as though he were merely a fly on the wall. His own work – his Kingdom announcement, his prophetic praxis, his celebrations, his warning, his symbolic activity – all of these were part of the movement through which Israel would be renewed, evil would be defeated, and YHWH would return to Zion at last.[23]

While the focus was primarily upon McKnight and Wright, we must be fair and acknowledge the plethora of texts that are available for further study. It is safe to say that when combining these two scholars among others we see a robust image of Jesus and the Kingdom. One where (1) Jesus viewed himself as a pioneering King who was (2) spearheading an apocalyptic and eschatological movement that was (3) breaking into the present space and time while maintaining an ever-present trajectory to future fulfillment. We see that this narrative of a King, his subjects, and the expansion of the Kingdom was not original in the least. This was (4) the next step in the story of Israel. Jesus was refining a people as (5) the new Israel who would leave exile and live in the fulness of God’s Kingdom beginning in the work and teachings of Jesus—who saw himself as (6) Israel’s god YHWH bringing salvation, forgiving sins, and enacting the Kingdom agenda. 

Having researched common streams of thought on the Kingdom in literature predating Jesus as well as gaining a grasp of what Jesus himself thought about his role and the content of the Kingdom we must now look to what was left in his wake. How did the early church, disciples, and Church Fathers view this Kingdom Jesus spoke so much about? More on this in Part 4.

[1] Delbert Royce Burkett, An Introduction to the New Testament and the Origins of Christianity (Cambridge, UK ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 246.

[2] Ibid.  

[3] C. H Dodd, The Parables of the Kingdom (New York: Scribner, 1961).

[4] Burkett, An Introduction to the New Testament and the Origins of Christianity, 246.

[5] Ibid.

[6] McKnight, A New Vision for Israel, 125.

[7] John Paul Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, Anchor Bible Reference Library (New York New Haven (Conn.): Doubleday Yale university press, 1991), 299.

[8] McKnight, A New Vision for Israel, 124.

[9] Ibid. 

[10] Ibid, 126.

[11] Scot McKnight, Kingdom Conspiracy: Returning to the Radical Mission of the Local Church (Grand Rapid, Michigan: Brazos Press, 2014), 77.

[12] Scot McKnight, Jesus and His Death: Historiography, the Historical Jesus, and Atonement Theory (Waco, Tex: Baylor University Press, 2005), 82–86.

[13] McKnight, A New Vision for Israel, 137. Following p.137 on p.138 McKnight treats the next logical thought regarding his summary: “Was Jesus Mistaken?” This is a question which I personally have encountered in the doubting of believers as well as atheists who point to this as a reason to dismiss the claims of Jesus as well as Christianity as a whole. McKnight wonderfully answers this valid question by saying, “the evidence above clearly reveals a vision for the future with a limited horizon: Jesus prophesied that God would wrap things up within one generation. However, instead of saying that Jesus was mistaken, that he was either a false prophet or a misguided fanatic, we ought to admit that his knowledge of the future was limited in the same way that the Hebrew prophet’s visions were limited to the events of their respective generations. Further, Jesus’ knowledge of the future was expressed in metaphorical and poetic images of collapse, judgment, and deliverance. Within this limitation, Jesus prophesied the destruction of Jerusalem as the climatic event in Israel’s history that would end the privilege of Israel in God’s plan.” 

[14] Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, 1996, 199.

[15] Ibid, 199-201.

[16] E. P. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus, 1. ed (London: Lane [u.a.], 1993), 239.

[17] In pp. 204-205 Wright summarizes how the desire and work of Jesus in retelling Israel’s story intersects almost perfectly with the general desire and deep longing of Israel itself which focused on the return of Yahweh to redeem Israel. Following these five simple paragraph summaries he concludes, “If then, someone were to speak to Jesus’ contemporaries of YHWH’s becoming king, we may safely assume that they would have in mind, in some form or other, this two-sided story concerning the double reality of exile. Israel would ‘really’ return from exile; YHWH would finally return to Zion…. It cannot be stressed too strongly that the ‘kingdom of god’, as a theme within second-Temple Judaism, connoted first and foremost this complete story-line.” He later reminds the reader that once we grasp this, it is not hard to see how the symbols and praxis associated with the Temple, Torah, Land and Jewish identity sustained and reinforced the narrative of hope.” (Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, 206.)

[18] Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, 443.

[19] Gentiles are those grafted into the promises and people of Israel by faith in Christ according to Paul in Romans 9-11. 

[20] N. T. Wright, Christian Origins and the Question of God: The New Testament and the People of God.  1st North American ed (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 268.

[21] Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, 446. 

[22] Ibid, 463.

[23] Ibid, 464.

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