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7 things you need to know about the kingdom of God

This always baffles me. At the heart of Jesus’ teaching is the proclamation of the coming kingdom of God: ‘Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel”’ (Mk. 1:14–15). The origins of the theme are to be found far back in the Old Testament, and it echoes loudly through the rest of the New Testament, reaching a sonorous climax in the later chapters of the book of Revelation. It is what the Bible is about.

And yet it seems to me—just an impression—that most church people have only a very hazy and confused idea of what this passionately proclaimed thing was all about. Something to do with heaven? Something to do with human progress? Social justice? New creation? People doing what God wants them to do?

So to clear up the haziness and confusion once and for all, here are seven things you need to know about the New Testament concept of the kingdom of God.

1. The kingdom of God was a political concept

Because modernity has driven a wedge between the religious and the secular spheres of life, Christians today operate mostly with an over-spiritualised notion of the kingdom of God. In the Bible, however, a “kingdom” is what it says it is—a political entity or form of governance. The kingdom of God had to do with the active rule of God over a people in the midst of other nations and how that worked out in history. The word for it is “theocracy”—rule by or on behalf of God. As often happens in international politics, that rule was contested. The coming of the kingdom of God, therefore, was God getting his own way on the political stage in the period envisaged by the New Testament. That brings us to the second point.

2. The kingdom of God was expected to come soon

The proclamation about the kingdom of God directly addressed the political situation that prevailed in the first century as seen from the perspective of Israel. Jesus was quite clear: the kingdom of God was at hand, not remote; the climax would come within a generation. When Paul contemplated the difficult circumstances faced by the churches, he felt bound to reassure them that the situation would not last long. Jesus would come as Lord, in the foreseeable future, to deliver them from the wrath of God, defeat their enemies, and reward them for their faithfulness under persecution (Phil. 3:20-21; 1 Thess. 1:9-10; 4:17; 5:1-11; 2 Thess. 1:5-10; 2:1-12). The writer of the book of Revelation tied the triumphant establishment of God’s kingdom to the overthrow of the violent, corrupt, blasphemous Roman régime. When the kingdom of God would come was of central importance to the belief. If we are still expecting the kingdom of God to come two thousand years later, then something has gone badly wrong either with biblical prophecy or with biblical interpretation.

3. The kingdom of God would come in two stages

What the coming of the kingdom of God meant, therefore, was that the God of Israel would begin to rule the nations as seen from the perspective of first century Israel. “Arise, O God, judge the earth”, the Psalmist cried; “for you shall inherit all the nations!” (Ps. 82:8). YHWH would give his king the nations to rule with a rod of iron (Ps. 2:7-9). He would seat his king at his right hand to rule in the midst of his enemies until they had been made his footstool (Ps. 110:1-2). Paul quotes Isaiah: “The root of Jesse will come, even he who arises to rule the Gentiles; in him will the Gentiles hope” (Rom. 15:12, quoting Is. 11:10). Notice that: the principal hope of the nations is not for a personal saviour but for a just ruler. Sovereignty over the nations would be taken from the oppressive empire and given to “the people of the saints of the Most High” (Dan. 7:26-27). A glance at the cross-references will show how crucial these political “kingdom” texts were for explaining the significance of Jesus’ death and resurrection.

No one in the New Testament felt the need to devise a “now-and-not-yet” apologetic to account for the delay. It was really just a matter of waiting.

But before the God of Israel could judge the nations, he was bound—as a matter of theological integrity—to judge his own people, because in many respects, although they possessed “the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises” (Rom. 9:4), they were no better than the nations. “Is God unrighteous to inflict wrath on us Jews?” Paul asks. Not at all! “For then how could God judge the world?” (Rom. 3:5–6; cf. 3:19). God had to put his own house in order first.

So before there would be wrath against the Greek, there would be wrath against the Jew, which is the story that we get in the Synoptic Gospels. John the Baptist berated the Pharisees and Sadducees: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (Matt. 3:7). Jesus became convinced that Jerusalem would reject this final appeal to repent and give the owner of the vineyard the fruit of righteousness and would be destroyed (cf. Matt. 23:32-39).

There were, therefore, two political horizons to the coming of the kingdom of God, both clearly visible from the viewpoint of first century Jews: the judgment and re-formation of Israel and the judgment and annexation of the Greek-Roman world. The first was the horizon that mattered to Jesus. The second was the horizon that mattered, with increasing intensity, to the apostles and churches in the pagan world.

4. The coming of the kingdom of God was vouchsafed by the death, resurrection and exaltation of Jesus

So the eschatological vision was that YHWH would judge his own people, then establish his righteous rule over the nations in place of the worthless pagan gods, with his own people serving as priests, within the foreseeable historical horizons of the New Testament. The resurrection was seen as divine endorsement of Jesus—a descendant of David, as it happened—as the king who would receive authority, as the “Lord” seated at the right hand of God, to bring about the eschatological transformation (cf. Rom. 1:3-4). But the end—or ends—wouldn’t happen immediately. It would take time.

5. “Now and not yet” is not particularly helpful

From the perspective of the New Testament the two stage coming of the kingdom of God was firmly in the future. Historical events don’t happen until they happen. But there were two important respects in which the future events were being anticipated in the circumstances of the early church.

First, Jesus was already seated at the right hand of God, waiting for his enemies to be subjugated (the hostile leadership in Jerusalem, the persecutors of his followers throughout the empire, the blasphemous imperial régime, not to mention the unseen powers behind them), waiting for the moment of his parousia.

Secondly, the churches already embodied in their communal existence the political, social, religious and ethical reality of the age to come. Living by the Spirit rather than by the Jewish Law, Jewish and Gentile believers together, as one body, worshipped the one true living God and confessed as “Lord”, in the place of the quasi-divine Caesar, Jesus who had been raised from the dead. It wasn’t easy, but they demonstrated in advance what would eventually become a reality for the nations of the empire.

No one in the New Testament, however, felt the need to devise a clever “now-and-not-yet” apologetic to account for the delay. It was really just a matter of waiting (cf. 2 Pet. 3:1-13).

6. The kingdom of God was something that God would do eventually

The New Testament church did not think that it was somehow working with God to help bring in his kingdom. The prophetic narrative had nothing to do with the church changing society. The most that the church did was, in its life and proclamation, to point forward to what God was going to do. God would judge his people. God would judge Rome.

7. The kingdom of God was not new creation

When you put it in these terms, it’s pretty clear that when Jesus and his followers spoke about the kingdom of God, they were not speaking about a final remaking of heaven and earth. The coming of the kingdom of God was the renewal of a regional political-religious order, not of the cosmos.

We can illustrate the point from Isaiah. The gods of the nations are worthless idols; the God of Israel is the true God who “sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers”, to whom “the nations are like a drop from a bucket, and are accounted as the dust on the scales” (Is. 40:15, 22). That’s the cosmic God. But then the “gospel” goes out that this creator God is about to intervene as king in the political affairs of his people to put things right for his people—and in the process make a profound impact on the idol-worshipping, hostile, uncooperative nations:

How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness, who publishes salvation, who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.” The voice of your watchmen—they lift up their voice; together they sing for joy; for eye to eye they see the return of the LORD to Zion. Break forth together into singing, you waste places of Jerusalem, for the LORD has comforted his people; he has redeemed Jerusalem. The LORD has bared his holy arm before the eyes of all the nations, and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God. (Is. 52:7–10)

In order to expand its vision the modern church has tended to allow the two concepts to merge—and you can understand why when “kingdom” had become another word for heaven, a remote transcendent reality that was of no use until you died. Talking about the kingdom in cosmic and creational terms has at least allowed the church to bring social and environmental concerns into its mission.

But working backwards from our flawed eschatologies to the texts is a poor way to do interpretation. To understand the New Testament concept of the kingdom of God we have to begin—and arguably end—with the political outlook of first century Israel, waiting to hear good news.

Comments

#5 will shock you!

Excellent post!

I might push back slightly on #6 because I think Paul thought mission work among Gentiles might cause jealousy followed by repentance among Jews, which I believe he saw as tied to Jesus’ return. (And I suspect the author of 2 Peter thought followers of Christ could be influential in more people repenting, which would lead to Jesus’ return.)

…check the second to last paragraph.

Thank you. Yes, that crossed my mind. I was thinking more of the progressive idea that bring in the kingdom of God means collaborating with God in building a better world. The New Testament argument, in any case, is at most that the churches can hasten the coming of the kingdom of God by getting on with the work of proclamation, which sort of makes historical sense: the more people believed that the Christians were right, the sooner the church would be triumphant.

And thanks for pointing out the typo.

“Jesus was quite clear: the kingdom of God was at hand, not remote; the climax would come within a generation.”

I feel like objecting to what I believe to be a serious misconception. That Jesus believed the Kingdom of God to be at hand is certainly true, as confirmed by Matthew 3:2; Mt 4:17; Mark 1:15.

That he would have even put a precise time-limit on its establishment is not true. This misconception is based on the text-proof verse that is usually brought forth:

Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place. (Matthew 24:34)

The original Greek expression translated in English with “this generation” is γενεα αυτη (genea autē), where autē does NOT  mean “this one here, in front of me” BUT “this same one”: the one that will witness all the signs that Jesus has spoken about, and in particular those at Matthew 24:29-31.

Jesus’ reference to “this generation” means that the Coming of the Son of Man will happen within the span of a generation from the signs that announce it.

The original Greek expression translated in English with “this generation” is γενεα αυτη (genea autē), where autē does NOT mean “this one here, in front of me” BUT “this same one”: the one that will witness all the signs that Jesus has spoken about, and in particular those at Matthew 24:29-31.

What are your reasons for saying that?

How would you read these two statements? Aren’t they both directed at the generation of Jesus’ contemporaries?

But to what shall I compare this generation (tēn genean tautēn)? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to their playmates…. (Matt. 11:16)

The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation (tēs geneas tautēs) and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here. The queen of the South will rise up at the judgment with this generation (tēs geneas tautēs) and condemn it, for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, something greater than Solomon is here. (Matt. 12:41–42)

BDAG gives for houtos: “as adj., pert. to an entity perceived as present or near in the discourse, this“.

If Jesus had meant “that” generation, referring to a time more remote, he would have used ἐκεῖνος.

What are your reasons for saying that?

I am glad that you have quoted other verses from Matthew (Matt 11:16; Matt 12:41,42 ), to object to my interpretation of Matthew 24:34, because the comparison is more homogeneous. What we are comparing them all for is the presence in them all of the Greek demonstrative adjective/pronoun οὗτος , αὕτη, τοῦτο, which, according to the BDAG that you cite, means “this”. 

“This” is also the basic meaning of οὗτος , αὕτη, τοῦτο for the Liddell, Scott & Jones.

But there are differences in the meaning of “this”, and they are the same in English as they are in Greek. “This” refers either to something immediately present or to something that has been mentioned previously

In Matt 11:16, tēn genean tautēn is clearly the generation contempotary to Jesus and the people he is speaking to, because there is no antecedent to which it could possibly refer.

The same applies to Matt 12:41,42.

In Matthew 24:34, after the Q&A session between the Apostles and Jesus, the most obvious understanding of genea autē is that “this generation” refers to the one amply illustrated by Jesus in the previous verses

If Jesus had meant “that” generation, referring to a time more remote, he would have used ἐκεῖνος.

I agree that what you say applies to Matt 11:16; Matt 12:41,42. Not to Matthew 24:34, though. See again the LSJC.I.):

[οὗτος] this, to designate the nearer, opp. ἐκεῖνος, that, the more remote

 

I find that very implausible. The obvious construction in that case would be hē genea ekeinē (cf. Judg. 2:10; Ps. 94:10). There is no grammatical objection to “this generation” referring to the generation of Jesus and his disciples. Also there is the reference to the disciples in the immediately preceding sentence:

So also, when you see all these things, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place. (Matt. 24:33–34)

The disciples, who obviously belong to this generation, will also live to see these things taking place (cf. Matt. 16:28). And Jesus tells Caiaphas and the Council that they will see the Son of Man coming, etc.

You seem to have some difficulty with the different use of the demonstrative pronoun/adjective “this” (οὗτος , αὕτη, τοῦτο), depending on the context: either “this one here”, or “this one that I have just described”.

If I say …

“The car that I’m going to buy will have all the latest technical sophistication. This car is the car I want.”

… it does NOT mean that I am speaking of a car in front of me or my interlocutor.

Besides, look ye here:

1. You say that “the Greek church … lost touch with the apocalyptic origins of its faith”, but the obvious reason why the church did so was to provide a diffferent perspective for the lack of fulfilment of Jesus’ apocalyptic promises, that many (most?) understood as imminent.

2. You would like to liquidate the very apocalyptical promises of the last part of Jesus’ earthy mission. IOW, you would like to simply say that Jesus got it wrong.

3. Yet you know that the are several strata in Jesus’ apocalyptic promises. Just look at Matthew 24.  The question of the Apostles, after Jesus has said that the Temple will be “thrown down” (Mt 24:2), is formulated in two parts:

[1] “Tell us, when will these things be, [2] and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” (Mt 24:3)

In his reply Jesus (who says nothing else about the Temple), gives a sequence of signs of the approaching “end of the age”, including the “sign of the Son of Man” (Matt 24:30), and concluded by actual “coming of the Son of Man” (Matt 24:37,39).

It is all quite clear. Of course, it is also perfectly possible to dissmiss the prophecy of the destruction of the Temple as “prophecy after the event”, and to dissmiss the signs of the “end of the age” as apocalyptic fantasy gone gaga.

Your choice.

“The car that I’m going to buy will have all the latest technical sophistication. This car is the car I want.”

I would say, “That car is the car I want.” In any case, in Matthew 24:34 there is no mention of a “generation” in the preceding sentence for the anaphora to work.

You would like to liquidate the very apocalyptical promises of the last part of Jesus’ earthy mission. IOW, you would like to simply say that Jesus got it wrong.

Not that I’m aware of. On the contrary, I think that Jesus got it right. I think that his apocalyptic vision is central to his prophetic teaching. We can’t understand Jesus without it.

Whether or not there are different “strata” in the apocalyptic discourse, Matthew certainly thought that there was a close logical and temporal connection between the events of the war and the vision of the coming of the Son of Man.

Presumably this is a reference to the temple:

So when you see the abomination of desolation spoken of by the prophet Daniel, standing in the holy place (let the reader understand)…. (Matt. 24:15)

I have read your post of 2013 that you linked to, When prophecy fails: why do people always assume that Jesus got it wrong?

In your exam of Frederick Murphy’s book Apocalypticism in the Bible and Its World: A Comprehensive Introduction (2012), you take good note of his distinction between the “quality” of God’s intervention in history according to prophecy vs apocalypticism. When you apply that distinction to Jesus, though, you make manifest your difference from Frederick Murphy in this sentence:

“… why is the possibility not at least considered that Jesus was more a prophet than an apocalypticist, that he spoke about an end within history rather than the end of history, and that his sparing use of the language of cosmic disturbance was metaphorical? Why are such possibilities allowed in general in Murphy’s introductory chapter [presumably, section Apocalyptic Language, pp. 11-13] but ruled out for Jesus?”

And then, in your last paragraph:

“Surely, then, the place to start in any discussion of Jesus’ “apocalyptic” language is with the towering historical fact that he was believed to have predicted judgment against the temple and that this prediction was fulfilled. This was at least a central part of what he meant when he said that God would act decisively within a generation, within the lifetime of many of those listening to him, to establish his kingly rule with respect to his people.”

So, if words have any sense at all,

  • You do not dissmiss the prophecy of the destruction of the Temple as “prophecy after the event”.
  • At the same time you consider all the “signs of the end of age”, spoken of by Jesus, as metaphorical [your word], including the rather mysterious “sign of the Son of Man” and also, lastly the “coming of the Son of Man”.

Your very final conclusion is:

This [the “judgment against the temple”] was at least a central part of what he [Jesus] meant when he said that God would act decisively within a generation, within the lifetime of many of those listening to him, to establish his kingly rule with respect to his people.

Question: what do you mean by, “his people”?

1. “Metaphorical” is a useful label from our point of view because we are to a large extent concerned to distance him from a more “literal” interpretation (or not). But it probably doesn’t really explain how Jesus understood his reference to the cosmic signs and the coming of the Son of Man. I would imagine that Jesus thought of himself as invoking prophetic narratives for similar prophetic purposes, relying on a common Jewish understanding of how prophetic language worked. But I could be wrong.

2. By “his people” I mean the Jews, Israel, as a nation.

1. It seems that you agree that “metaphorical” is the key-word for describing Jesus’ role in Israel’s drama. For the rest, your paragraph is rather convoluted.

I prefer the Collins Thesaurus (“metaphorical: (adjective) figurative, symbolic, emblematic, allegorical, emblematical, tropical (Rhetoric) The ship may be heading for the metaphorical rocks unless a buyer can be found”). Anyway, I believe that Jesus applied seriously the Danielic title “Son of Man” to himself (see Dan 7:13) and, at least at the end of his life, identified with that figure.

2. I have read your post Jesus and the restoration of Israel according to Matthew. You write …

“My contention (…) is that the Jesus of the Synoptic Gospels announced a coming judgment on the state of Israel, largely because of the corruption and obduracy of the ruling elites, but he nevertheless expected the people of Israel to continue under a new covenant in fulfilment of Old Testament prophecies, with himself as its true king.”

While it is quite evident that the final result of the ensuing catastrophe of the “state of Israel” (hardly a “state” BTW, fully incorporated as it was in the Roman Empire) was the debacle of the Greek-Roman paganism, it is less obvious in what way Jesus would have expected to be “king” of (what was left) of “the people of Israel”.

You then write:

“… Paul had not moved very far from this belief even at the time of the writing of Romans.”

The perspective that Paul gives in Romans for Israel, summed up in “all Israel will be saved” (Rm 11:26) is clearly set in an eschatological, indefinitely remote perspective. It makes far more sense today, after the birth of Zionism, and the establishment of the State of Israel, than it ever did in Paul’s time or any time in between.