The Kingdom of God in the teaching of Jesus (i)

This is a rather unusual post, in that I am offering here a final year undergraduate essay I wrote in 1991. There are several reasons for this:

1. It still offers quite a good overview of the range of themes that are present in Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom.

2. It is missing more recent literature, but I wonder if this might be a strength. It avoids some of the more recent debates about theological agenda in interpretation and instead focuses on what the text says. If discussion about this has been going on a long time, will that have been solved in the last couple of years?

3. I just used sections of it at a church weekend as the basis for some teaching on the nature of the kingdom of God—which suggests that things people do in residential training are more useful than is often thought.

Do we talk enough about the kingdom of God in either biblical studies or the local church these days?

parableofthesower-440Discuss Jesus’ use of the term ‘Kingdom of God’. Did he expect it to come in the near future?

It is widely agreed that the idea of the ‘Kingdom of God’ was central to Jesus’ teaching[i]. The debate about the meaning of the phrase—for Jesus, for his hearers, and for us—has raged as one of the central issues in New Testament studies for the last one hundred years. The debate has become so complex that many commentators feel it necessary to carefully survey the scene before beginning to make their own contribution. The discussion is more confused by the fact that in many treatments of the issue, as Stanton puts it, ‘theological concerns win out over a careful weighing of the evidence’.[ii]

I hope to look briefly at the contemporary Jewish background to the term before giving a short survey of Jesus’ different uses of it. Then, by examining the views of Weiss and Dodd, I hope to demonstrate the ‘present’ and ‘future’ aspects of the Kingdom of God in Jesus’ teaching. A look at three recent ways of resolving the dilemma of these two, potentially conflicting, aspects should point the way to an answer to the question of Jesus’ own expectation. Finally, I shall point out one or two other notable features of Jesus’ teaching.

It should be noted at the outset that I will be focusing (as the debate has) on the so-called ‘synoptic’ gospels. John rarely uses the term ‘Kingdom of God’, substituting the motif of ‘eternal life’ to denote life in the age to come. Also, I will be taking Matthew’s characteristic term ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ as synonymous with ‘Kingdom of God’. It is generally agreed that Matthew’s version is a Semitism[iii], which is therefore closer to Jesus’ actual words, but one which, if translated literally, would not have made such good sense to Mark and Luke’s (mainly Gentile) audiences.[iv] There is no significant difference in emphasis.[v] I will follow Marshall’s abbreviation of KG to stand for ‘the Kingdom of God’ throughout.

The meaning of ‘KG’ in its Jewish context forms the starting point for the whole debate, and is itself a matter of contention. Ladd[vi], Perrin[vii] and numerous others trace the development of the idea of God’s kingdom in the Old Testament. Ladd examines the growth of the idea of God as king, whilst Perrin sees the development of a ‘tensive symbol’ at the meeting point of the ‘myth of God as king, with its emphasis on creation and renewal, and the myth of Salvation History, with its emphasis on the activity of God on behalf of his people’[viii]. Whatever the reconstruction of traditions—history, it seems certain that the Old Testament idea of KG, though rarely referred to explicitly, is a dynamic conception of God’s action. It is related closely to the idea of God’s ‘visitation’[ix], and as such elicits the prophetic concern with the ‘ethical impact of the future upon the present’[x]. Thus the idea already embraces both the ‘inner’ and ethical as well as the ‘outer’ and objective.

The concept of KG develops, though in different degrees and directions, both in rabbinical Judaism and inter-Testamental apocalypticism[xi]. The rabbinical emphasis was on KG as synonymous with obedience to the Law; taking on the yoke of [Torah] was the same as accepting the KG[xii]. Apocalyptic hopes focused on God’s divine intervention to bring about the liberation and restoration of Israel; the Kaddish prayer probably goes back to Jesus’ time, and bears a striking resemblance to Jesus’ own instruction to his disciples.[xiii] But with a deepening dualism, this hope became increasingly ‘other-worldly’[xiv], resulting in a kind of ‘ethical passivity’[xv]. These observations are necessarily vague and tentative; it is difficult to date the true (possibly oral) origin of many documents, or to gauge how accurately they represent popular teaching. Furthermore, as Sanders notes from Glasson, it is probably more appropriate to talk of a range of ‘restoration theologies’ that were current[xvi].

Now there do appear to be emphases in Jesus’ teaching in the synoptics that are related to these two main strands of thought. But the most striking thing about Jesus’ use of ‘KG’ is its frequency; the term was relatively rare in both rabbinical and apocalyptic literature[xvii]. Furthermore, as Ladd rightly points out, we must allow Jesus the originality to transform or transcend contemporary ideas about KG[xviii].

Pearl-of-great-PriceWhat did Jesus mean by ‘KG’? He gives no definition, nor explanation as such, but his use of the term is very flexible. Stanton gives a helpful classification of the different ways the term is used in the ‘synoptics’. It is a dynamic thing, ‘near’ or ‘at hand’ (Mk 1:15 and parallels that is the hope of kings and prophets of old (Mt 13.16f/Lk 10.23f)[xix]. It is a place to be entered, sometimes with difficulty, or be in, both now (Mk 10.23-5 and parallels, Mt 21.31, Mt 11.11/Lk 7.28) and in the future (Mk 9.47/Mt 18.9, Mk 14.25 and parallels, Mt 8.11/Lk 13.28-9). It is a possession to receive, that belongs to certain people,that is to be sought after (Mk 10.14-15 and parallels, Mt 5.3/Lk 6.20, Mt 6.33/Lk 12.31, Mr 13.44-46). It is present, hidden, and grows in secret, and is future and comes in power (Mk 4.31 and parallels, Mt 13.33/Lk 13.21, Mk 9.1 and parallels, Lk11.2/Mt 6.10). All of these ideas are present in mark and sayings that Matthew and Luke share outside Mark (‘Q’); they go back to the oldest and most reliable gospel traditions.

In what sense was the KG ‘near’ or present, and in what sense was it future? Could it be both? Did Jesus claim that the KG had come in his ministry, or did he expect it in the near future?

Contrary to the prevailing understanding of his time, Weiss argued that Jesus’ idea of KG was ‘completely apocalyptic and eschatological’ in character.[xx] His views led to such a turn around in scholarly opinion that Bultmann could later comment that ‘the eschatological meaning of the preaching of Jesus is self-evident’[xxi]. Of course, if Weiss was right, then the KG was entirely future, not present[xxii], and ultimately Jesus was mistaken about the central element of his thought and teaching (that is, that KG was imminent, or ‘near’). To support his view Weiss claims that ‘if KG was present only in Jesus and his works, one could not enter it’[xxiii]. He focuses on the verb engiken (in Mk 1.15 and parallels) as meaning that KG is near, but not here[xxiv], and notices the absence of claims of the kind ‘the KG is here’ to parallel Jesus’ sayings about its coming in the future.

But to sustain his argument Weiss has to be very radical with his sources, discounting the parables (which include many references to the presence and hiddenness and growth of KG) on what appear to me to be rather spurious grounds[xxv]. His exegeses of the ‘KG is present’-type texts also suffer. When others ‘enter the KG ahead of’ the Pharisees, (Mr 21.31), Weiss interprets this as meaning that they had a head start[xxvi]. Any talk of people being greatest or least in KG (Mt 11.11/Lk 7.28) is ‘hypothetical’[xxvii], and when Jesus sees KG present in his victory over Satan expressed in exorcisms (Lk 10.18, and especially Mt 12.28/Lk 11.20), ‘these are moments of sublime prophetic enthusiasm’[xxviii]. It is easy to get the feeling, reading on with Weiss, that he is finding it increasingly difficult to fit all the textual evidence in with his overall system. In the end, he cannot get away from the present nature of the KG in Jesus’ sayings. In Mt 12.28/Lk 11.20, ephthasen means that ‘the basileia has come into your very midst, it is already touching you’[xxix]. And although he insists that the KG is ‘either here, or it is not yet here’ (that is, it cannot be present and future) and that for the disciples it is ‘not yet here, not even in its beginnings’[xxx], yet he concedes in the face of Lk 17.20 (he basileia tou theou entos humon estin) that ‘the decisive beginnings of the rule of God are already present in their [the pharisees’] midst’[xxxi]. Whatever the meaning of entos humon (most probably ‘amongst’ rather than ‘within you’[xxxii]), it seems that the emphasis is on the present reality of KG, as opposed to it being a future event.

In the end, these textual and exegetical criticisms are over-shadowed by the central theological one. If Jesus expected the eschatological KG to come imminently (and it manifestly didn’t), then ‘it is difficult to see how the integrity of Jesus’ person and message can be rescued from the charge of complete delusion’[xxxiii]. This is not to say that Weiss’ work was worthless—far from it. He was right to bring to attention the eschatological heart of Jesus’ teaching, in the context of a consensus that saw God’s rule almost exclusively in terms of the obedient heart, and not as a new order brought in by God’s radical action. He was concerned to oppose the equation of KG with the church[xxxiv], re-emphasised the importance of Jesus’ death for the coming of the KG (though not really in an orthodox fashion), and highlighted the KG as a motive for the ethical life, not just the goal of it[xxxv].

Part 2 follows here.


[i] See I H Marshall, Jesus the Saviour p 213. G Stanton The Gospels and Jesus pp 89–190 shows how the idea is central to Matthew, Mark and Luke.

[ii] Stanton, op cit, p 191

[iii] See Stanton, op cit, p 189

[iv] This is not universally agreed. Dr Maurice Casey does not support the view that Matthew would have been coy about using the phrase basileia tou theou (as, in fact, he does once in Matt 19.24).

[v] Although it has been conjectured that ‘the kingdom of God’ is a more dynamic term, suggesting God’s active presence in the world. See G E Ladd New Testament Theology, pp 63–64 and G E Ladd ‘The kingdom of God’ in ISBE p 24.

[vi] Ladd, The Presence of the Future, pp 45–74

[vii] N Perrin Jesus and the Language of the Kingdom pp 16–32

[viii] Ibid p 20

[ix] Ladd, op cit, pp 48f

[x] Ibid p 75

[xi] It seems to me that part of the problem with the debate about the kingdom of God is that at different times one of these influences is seen to be dominant in Jesus’ teaching, and the other absent or negligible, and then there is a swing to reverse the two. So Jesus is at one time seen as a great moral teacher urging an ethical reform towards a higher goal, and at others as nothing more than a deluded apocalyptic prophet. (See, for instance, on Weiss, below).

[xii] In Siphra (a commentary on Leviticus) 93a, obedience to the purity laws is ‘taking upon [oneself] the kingdom of heaven.’ Although this probably dates only to 200 AD, the oral tradition behind it is considerably earlier. See also Dodd The Parables of the Kingdom p 35

[xiii] ‘May he establish his kingdom in your lifetime…even speedily and at a near time.’ Perrin, op cit, p 28

[xiv] So in the Assumption of Moses, the language becomes more metaphorical, and hope future, and the action God’s alone. See Perrin, op cit, p 27 and Dodd, op cit, p 37

[xv] Ladd, op cit, p 99

[xvi] Sanders, Jesus and Judaism p 124

[xvii] See Stanton, op cit, p 195, Marshall, op cit p 217, Ladd, op cit p 130

[xviii] Ladd, op cit, p 148: ‘It is a far too rigid application of a historical critical methodology to ignore the possibility that Jesus may have proclaimed a message about the kingdom of God that radically transcended his environment.’

[xix] See below for comment on Weiss’ and Dodds’ different exegeses of these two verses.

[xx] Weiss, Jesus’ Proclamation of the Kingdom of God p 56

[xxi] Bultmann’s introduction to Weiss, op cit, p xi

[xxii] See Richard Hiers’ summary of Weiss’ argument in Weiss, op cit, pp 9–10. His position has come to be known as ‘thoroughgoing eschatology’.

[xxiii] Weiss, op cit, p 37

[xxiv] Ibid p 66

[xxv] Ibid pp 61f

[xxvi] Ibid p 69. Contrast France and Hill in their commentaries, who interpret this as indicating present displacement of the Pharisees in the kingdom.

[xxvii] Ibid, p 70

[xxviii] Ibid, p 78

[xxix] Ibid, p 67

[xxx] Ibid, p 73

[xxxi] Ibid, p 91

[xxxii] See Marshall The Gospel of Luke p 655. Stanton (op cit, p 197) reaches the same conclusion, but for the wrong reason; his objection that the kingdom of God could not be ‘within’ the Pharisees is corrected by Marshall who points out that the humon can be taken to be quite indefinite.

[xxxiii] Ladd, op cit, p 141

[xxxiv] Weiss, op cit, p 68

[xxxv] Ibid, p 9

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