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.