Bruce Chilton starts his book Pure Kingdom: Jesus’ Vision of God by noting that at the end of the nineteenth century Albert Schweitzer had come to the realisation that the “kingdom of God” was basically “eschatological”. He had seen the connection between Jesus’ teaching and the literature of early Judaism and had concluded that Jesus must have been talking about the “violent end of the world”—a “cataclysm on a cosmic scale”.
This eschatological interpretation, grounded in a Jewish worldview, was very different from the two prevailing theological understandings of the kingdom of God: on the one hand, that the “kingdom of God” was a reference to an individual’s life after death”; on the other, that it was a “movement of social improvement on earth”.
The brilliant and incontrovertible assertion of the basic significance of eschatology, first by Johannes Weiss and then by Schweitzer, changed all that. They demonstrated that the kingdom of God in early Judaism and in Jesus’ preaching involved God’s final judgment of the world; the concept of the kingdom was part and parcel of anticipation of the last things. (2)
That was more than a hundred years ago, but things appear not to have changed very much since then. We still have conservative evangelicals trying to cram the sweeping political narrative of the kingdom of God into the sock drawer of a theology of personal salvation, while progressive, post-evangelical, and even some “missional” theologies have revived the old nineteenth century liberal argument that because Jesus proclaimed good news to the poor, liberty to the captives and oppressed, and recovery of sight to the blind (Lk. 4:16-19), “kingdom of God” must mean making the world a better place.
Neither view takes into account the eschatological character of Jesus’ teaching. Jesus’ announcement in the synagogue in Nazareth had nothing to do with social transformation in the broad secular sense that we understand it today. It was the declaration that God was about to transform the wretched condition of his people and set them in a place of honour in the world, for the sake of his glory. That is eschatology, but not quite on the scale that Weiss and Schweitzer conceived it.
Weiss and Schweitzer got hold of the wrong end of the right stick. They were right to insist that the kingdom of God in Jesus’ teaching was not about maximising the number of saved individuals (1) or transforming society (2). They were wrong to think that Jesus was talking about the end of the world.
I think they probably misread the Jewish material. It’s not so obvious that Jewish apocalypticism always had the end of the world in view. On the contrary, it seems to me that the basic expectation was for a geo-political overhaul of Israel’s world—for righteous Israel to inherit the status and authority that formerly belonged to Greece or Rome. Consider this passage, for example, from the Sibylline Oracles (late first-century BC)—the vision is somewhat idyllic but very down-to-earth:
O Rome, pampered golden offspring of Latium! you virgin often intoxicated by your many suitors in marriage, as a slave-girl will you be wedded without ceremony, and often will your mistress shear your luxuriant locks, and passing sentence on you will cast you from heaven to earth, and will lift you up again from earth to heaven, because men held to a bad and lawless life. Samos too will be sand, Delos will vanish and Rome become a street: and all the oracles are being fulfilled…. But tranquil peace will make its way to the land of Asia. And Europe will then be happy, the air healthy, year after year bracing and free from storms and free from hail, producing everything, birds and creeping creatures of the earth. three times happy who will live unto that time, man or woman: happy he whose life is as among country folk. (Sib. Or. 3:356-64, 367-72)
This goes beyond Jesus’ outlook, but what he foresaw was not the violent end-of-the-world, a cataclysm on a cosmic scale. It was the end-of-the-age, a cataclysm on a national scale. He foresaw the end of the apocalyptic age of Israel subject to Greek and then Roman oppression (3). It would culminate in the violence of the war against Rome, a cataclysmic judgment against rebellious Israel. But the world would carry on.
Did this mean that personal salvation and social transformation were irrelevant? No. The coming of the kingdom of God would dramatically change the situation of God’s people in the world, their standing among the nations. But this new status still constituted in itself a divine challenge to individuals, Jews and Gentiles alike. Do you want to be part of this redeemed people or not? Do you want to be part of God’s future? Do you want the privilege and joy? Do you want the responsibility and burden and suffering and humiliation?
Equally, the whole point of the coming intervention of God as king was to produce a righteous people whose character and behaviour would transform the empire. So the Sibyl continues: “For good law will come in its fullness from the starry heaven upon men, and good justice, and with it the best of all gifts to men, sober concord, and affection, faithfulness, friendship from strangers and fellow-citizens too” (3:373-76).
This is not some abstract forensic righteousness. It is a matter of concrete behaviour, and Paul’s view is no different—except, of course, that he would attribute it to the Spirit and not to the Law.
Likewise today, I suggest that we should think of the “kingdom of God” as God’s management—through his Son—of the historical existence of his people, not least when the going gets rough. That makes it a rather important concept for the church in the West as it struggles to keep its head above the turbulent waters of secularism.
But if God genuinely is in control—that’s where faith comes in—there is good reason to be part of what he is doing, to be for him rather than against him. We may call that personal salvation, if we wish. And a people managed by God must constitute a challenge, both negatively and positively, to idolatry, immorality, and injustice. Both of these are important and necessary consequences, but they are not the kingdom of God.