In a lengthy comment on my “The narrative-historical method—an outline” post Paul K. asks some thoughtful and probing questions about the relevance or prevalence of the notion of kingdom that I have been proposing. My argument is that the kingdom motif in the New Testament belongs not to a creational but to a political-religious story about Israel and the nations, which culminates, as I see it, in the conversion of the empire. There are three main parts to Paul’s response. I will address the third here—the interpretation of some New Testament texts which he suggests do not fit the narrative-historical paradigm. The other two parts I will address in separate posts.
Being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, he answered them, “The kingdom of God is not coming in ways that can be observed, nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you.” (Lk. 17:20–21)
Whatever Jesus exactly is getting at here, there is no reason to think that this “kingdom” is any different from the kingdom to which the angel refers when he tells Mary that her son “will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Lk. 1:33), or the kingdom which the disciples expect to be restored to Israel (Acts 1:6), just to stick with Luke. Kingdom has to do with what is happening or about to happen to Israel. The saying about kingdom in Luke 17:20-21 cannot be separated from the immediately following warning to the disciples that before the Son of Man comes, people will say, “Look, there”, or “Look, here” (Lk. 17:22-24). The present foreshadows the future.
But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. (Matt. 6:33)
Taken out of context this sounds like a nice Wisdom saying about trusting God to provide for basic human needs. But it is part of the Sermon on the Mount, which begins with eschatological beatitudes and ends with a parable of divine judgment against a people that has built its house on the sand. I would argue that Jesus is not purveying general Christian wisdom here but teaching his followers how to respond to the coming eschatological crisis of judgment on Israel. If they live in the light of that impending event, they will find themselves in material need, but their Father in heaven will take care of them.
For the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. (Rom. 14:17, my translation)
Again, context is everything….
Chapters 9-11 are about the Jews, who are “enemies of God”, “vessels of wrath prepared for destruction” (9:22; 11:28). The nation faces the sort of judgment described in Isaiah 59:16-20—Paul quotes verse 20 in Romans 11:26. YHWH will punish unrighteous Israel, but a deliverer will come from (or to?) Zion to banish ungodliness from Jacob. Whatever the precise meaning and precise outcome, the section ends on a strongly eschatological note.
Paul then, for this reason (“therefore”), appeals to the saints in Rome to present their bodies as a living sacrifice, not to be conformed to the world, but to be transformed “by the renewal of your mind” (Rom. 12:1-2). Later he speaks of himself as a “minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in the priestly service of the gospel of God, so that the offering of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 15:16). So I would suggest that everything in between (12:3-15:13) is teaching about how to live properly as Gentiles, newly incorporated into the people of God, at a time of eschatological crisis. In particular, they should behave in ways that reflect the fact that the hour has come to wake from sleep, the “night is far gone, the day is at hand” (Rom. 13:11-14).
The teaching about the weak and the strong in chapter 14 is put forward in view of the fact that they will soon have to stand before the judgment seat of God. So they should “not pass judgment on one another any longer” and should be careful not cause a brother to stumble. It is in this context that Paul states that the kingdom is “righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit”. At the end of the section, having affirmed in the words of Isaiah, that Jesus is the one who will arise to rule the nations, he prays that the God of hope will fill them with “all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope” (15:13).
So if the kingdom is in any sense already present as righteousness, peace and joy through the Holy Spirit, it is for the sake of a future moment, or moments, when YHWH will judge his people and Jesus will rule the nations.
He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. (Col. 1:13–14)
This verse would appear to speak of the kingdom not as a future event or transformation of the political-religious status of God’s people but as a present spiritual reality. It may be, therefore, that Colossians has a more realized eschatology than the other Pauline texts. The Colossian believers have been qualified to share with the saints in the light of God as opposed to the darkness that covered the pagan world. But the “beloved Son”, nevertheless, is the one who will rule the nations, who will “bring forth justice to the nations” (cf. Ps. 2:7-9; Is. 42:1). To be part of Jesus’ kingdom now means to have “died” to the old world and to live for the sake of a different future, when—to paraphrase—the wrath of God will come upon the pagan oikoumenē, Christ will be revealed to the nations, and the Colossians will be vindicated and glorified with him (Col. 3:3-4, 6).
Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it. (Lk. 18:17)
Paul K. asks, finally, about a number of passages in which Jesus speaks about entering the kingdom of God. I have argued that the kingdom language in the New Testament has to do mostly with a coming climactic event, but here we appear to have the thought of the kingdom as a spiritual space. Jesus tells Nicodemus that he needs to be “born again” or “born of water and the Spirit” in order to “enter the kingdom of God” (Jn. 3:3-5).
Jesus tells the Jews that their righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees if they wish to enter the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 5:20). Only those who do the will of the Father or who become like children will enter the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 7:21; 18:3; Mk. 10:15; Lk. 18:17). It will be very difficult for the wealthy to enter the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 19:23-24; Mk. 10:23-25; Lk. 18:24-25). It is better for Jews to enter the kingdom of heaven maimed than to suffer the coming catastrophe of war and destruction—which is what I think Jesus is talking about when he speaks of being thrown into Gehenna (Mk. 9:47).
The point, presumably, is that impending dramatic, climactic events introduce a new state of affairs, when Jesus reigns at the right hand of God, for the sake of the people of God, until the last enemy is destroyed. To enter the kingdom is to become part of this new régime.
Your characterization makes a lot of sense, but I don’t understand why the religious/political cannot be a consequence or even microcosm of a cosmic and creational picture of things.
For instance, in John’s gospel, the langauge of the kingdom coming and now being here is replaced with God’s seeking of worship in spirit and truth rather than in geography. The two, it seems to me, were intimately related.
So the kingom to be entered into is entered by means of discipleship to Jesus, but that kingdom seems to remain until death itself is defeated in the whole creation.
I think that makes sense of Jesus claim that heaven earth will pass away prior to the law passing away is that the passing away of heaven and earth has really already started in Jesus’ ministry, it happens in an apocalyptic way in the death and resurrection of Christ, it happens in fairly literal way with the destruction of the temple (which was seens as a symbol of the world), and it will still happen in a final way.
I’ve been wrong before, but it just seems that the ideas are not mutually exclusive.
Geoff, this was one of the points made, give or take, by Paul. I will deal with it as best I can in a separate post.
It makes me wonder if we’ve abandoned the medieval hermeneutic to frivolously. If the text, precisely because of what it historically means, has significance beyond that meaning, but perhaps still intended by the author (certainly by the canonical collectors) it seems that we need more than the “literal-historical” sense as a matter of simple deduction.
That’s not meant to be a weird hobby-horse, but rather a reflection on the fact that A) Matthew’s gospel is a chronicle of the life of Jesus and his significance for Israel and B) a discipleship manual.
Thanks for taking the time to understand the main themes in my lengthy post and to address them in turn. A reply here and then probably some more thoughts on your second and third posts (thinking and writing time permitting).
While I tend to consider the context in reading verses and passages, perhaps I hadn’t really appreciated the overarching eschatological context for much or all of the New Testament, as you see it, so that may take a while to appreciate and allow it to colour my thinking; I tend to be an “osmotic learner” (a phrase I coined; hope it makes sense), which inevitably involves a bit of time, sitting around in a different environment. So I appreciate the input and look forward to see where it takes me.
I’ll highlight a few of my reflections and inner journeying here.
On kingdom: Where does the focus lie in NT thought?
Where I probably most struggle to tune into your interpretation of kingdom in light of the narrative-historical method is that, like the angel speaking to Mary, I see the kingdom narrative focusing on the one who the angel said “will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Lk. 1:33) – i.e the King and his rule, and therefore not so much limited to a specific event or events, and certainly not only past events.
Does that make sense?
I think there was an expectation among Israel of a king, Messiah, the Son of Man — i.e. not just divine intervention to judge and to restore, but of a person through whom that judgement and restoration would take place, with ongoing-ness (beyond lasting consequences) — and especially those with keen spiritual sight, such as Simeon and Anna (mentioned by Luke). That focus on a person — and his immanence — is only strengthened when it comes to NT church.
Having said that, I’ve just re-read the “end of the age” passages and seen Luke 21:31 “So you also, when you see these things happening, recognize that the kingdom of God is near” — so I finally understand (one of the reasons) why you strongly associate events of judgement and restoration with the kingdom. Though, on balance, at the moment I would still struggle to see it exclusively — or even primarily — that way.
Detour to the end of the age passages
I also for the first time much more clearly understand how people arrive at seeing the terminus of Jesus’ end of the age teaching as at the destruction of the temple (i.e. answering the disciples on when it would be that the temple would be destroyed; end of the age as opposed to end of time; apocalyptic as opposed to literal language; etc).
I still have questions re: a) “until the time of the Gentiles are fulfilled; b) the gospel being preached to all nations before the end comes; c) the gathering of the elect.
I welcome your perspective on these, if you have time.
On participation in kingdom activity
The context of Jesus’ statement on the necessity of the new birth in order to see and enter into the kingdom of God — and of the dynamic of the Holy Spirit — were in response to Nicodemus’ conviction that Jesus was from God and God was with him evidenced by the signs he performed. Jesus’ reply was not moving off topic; he was — I believe — addressing Nicodemus’ enquiry. Jesus was equating what he was doing as the activity of the kingdom (a display of the powers of the age to come, as Hebrews calls it) and saying that one needs to be born again in order to participate in the activity of the kingdom.
…like the angel speaking to Mary, I see the kingdom narrative focusing on the one who the angel said “will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Lk. 1:33) – i.e the King and his rule, and therefore not so much limited to a specific event or events, and certainly not only past events.
I would differentiate here between Jesus becoming king with respect to the people of YHWH and the subsequent judgment and rule over the nations. Jesus becomes King over the “descendants” of Abraham when he is raised to the right hand of the Father, and it is the church’s belief that he will hold that position of authority for the sake of his body until the last enemy has been destroyed. The destruction of Jerusalem and the temple was the inevitably corrolary to that and, importantly, a historical vindication of the disciples who had faithfully proclaimed the inauguraiton of this new régime.
The rule of YHWH over the nations through his Son, however, appears not to have been a permanent arrangement. It seems to me that we have to accept that this was a long but ultimately contingent historical phenomenon—Christendom—and we are now looking for new paradigms to express the relationship of the creator to his world. But the ephemerality of the historical arrangement does not alter the fact that, in the first place, Jesus is sovereign over his own people for their benefit and for God’s glory.
I think the preaching of the gospel to all nations is thought to happen before the end of the age of the second temple Judaism: the nations are being told that YHWH is about to judge and restore his people—and in the process it will transpire that this will have far-reaching implications for the nations themselves.
For my views on the gathering of the elect see this post.
On the saying about the times of the Gentiles the following from Nolland’s commentary may be helpful—it certainly makes good sense in the context of the New Testament as a whole, though Jesus appears to have been reluctant to pronounce judgment on Rome:
The final clause is normally referred to the time period in which the gentile nations have dominance, or occasionally to the period of the gentile mission (eg, Zmijewski, Eschatologiereden, 217–18; Wiefel, 353). But there is much to be said for taking καιροὶ ἐθνῶν, “times of [the] nations,” as referring to the period for a judgment upon the gentile nations (cf Wellhausen, 118) that corresponds to the judgment upon Jerusalem: after the καιρός, “time,” of Jerusalem (v 20; cf v 8) come the καιροί, “times,” of the nations (cf Conzelmann, Luke, 130: “the times of the Gentiles [v 24] have not yet come”). For the sense required for πληρωθῶσιν (lit “are fulfilled”), cf the use of the verb at Mark 1:15; some find a similar use of συμπληροῦν at Luke 9:51, but it has not been taken so above. For the general thought, see also Ezek 30:3; Jer 27:7; and, perhaps, Obad 16. The underlying pattern here of judgment upon Jerusalem/Judah/Israel followed by judgment upon the instruments of their judgment may be found in Isa 10; 13–14; 33; 47; Jer 50–51; Dan 9:26–27; and cf Ezek 38; Hab 1:1–2:3; 2ApocBar 12:3–4. See further Nolland (‘Luke’s Readers,’ 227–30). Does the ἄχρι οὗ, “until,” contemplate a future restoration of Jerusalem beyond the judgment of the gentile nations (cf Tiede, “Weeping,” 89; Chance, Jerusalem, 133–34)?
John Nolland, Luke 18:35–24:53, 1002-1003.
Thank you for your reply to my questions – that’s really good of you. All of what you said, and the further reading, you’ve directed me too has been really helpful to finally better understand a view of eschatology that I really did not see how people got where they got to. A lot of it makes a lot of sense, and much of the remaining I can see possibly becoming more satisfying when it has time to settle or I read further.
That “the world” – oikiomene – could mean Empire is an eye-opener.
The implications of reading the meaning of OT imagery into the text makes a lot of sense of a passage that seemed to break unexpectedly and yet with Jesus talking about it all happening within a generation.
And Nolland’s commentary is really helpful too.
I’ve got a few more questions as a result related to “the elect” but arising from reading the two posts you referred me to in your reply (on the elect and the gospel being preached to the whole world):
1. In what way was the destruction of the temple a vindication of Jesus before the nations?
2. In what way did it help the people of God? Did that radically change their circumstances or make life better somehow?
3. Did it really show the world that the people of God are in the right? Did anyone – other than possibly the Christians themselves, and perhaps only the Jewish ones – really consider the meaning of the destruction of the temple in relation to Christ? And were Jewish Christians really that happy about it?
4. How were they gathered as a renewed people of God anymore than they had been previously prior to the destruction of the temple? How were they restored?
By the way, you also wrote:
“The rule of YHWH over the nations through his Son, however, appears not to have been a permanent arrangement. It seems to me that we have to accept that this was a long but ultimately contingent historical phenomenon—Christendom…”
Is that not reading the New Testament backwards rather than forward, as you suggest we should do?
And doesn’t that understanding run counter to what Israel would have understood was promised to them with regard to Messiah, kingdom and his rule over the nations?
Is that not reading the New Testament backwards rather than forward, as you suggest we should do?
Sorry, I wasn’t very clear. This isn’t a matter of reading the New Testament at all—it is simply a historical observation. The political-religious arrangement put in place in the 4th century didn’t last forever, and a historical-realist hermeneutic has to recognize that.
But that makes your second question all the more relevant. The triumph of secular reason over the last three centuries was not foreseen by scripture, so perhaps I need to fall back on the argument that the Jewish vision of rule over the nations pertained under foreseeable conditions. Under radically different cultural, intellectual, political conditions the relationship of the creator God to the world needs to be re-articulated. It doesn’t alter the fact that Jesus reigns at the right hand of the father for the sake of his people, but perhaps it is important that we admit the defeat of God or the failure of the church in the West, if not globally, to maintain a credible witness. In other words, there’s a judgment-restoration process underway at all levels of the church’s life, including, as here, its understanding of the New Testament.