Frankly, it is an absurdity that we still have such a hard time making sense of Jesus’ core proclamation about the kingdom of God. The problem comes up again in another book by Alan Roxburgh on “missional church,” this time co-written with Scott Boren: Introducing the Missional Church: What It Is, Why It Matters, How to Become One (2009).
The general thrust of the book seems to me to be pretty good: missional church does not constitute another form of church or methodology, rather it names a more fundamental change of attitude, a theological re-imagining, a reorientation towards what God is doing in the world. “God is up to something in the world that is bigger than the church even though the church is called to be sign, witness, and foretaste of God’s purposes in the world.” I’m not sure I agree with their understanding of what God is up to, and perhaps we can come back to that another day; but it makes very good sense in biblical terms, in a time of change, to say that the question about what God is doing precedes the question about what the church should be and do.
Chapter Two, however, addresses the question of what exactly we mean by “missional church,” and the authors basically argue that if ideas like the “kingdom of God” or “missional church” are hard to pin down conceptually, it is because they require a radically different way of thinking or imagining. That may be unhelpful. In both cases, I think, we make life difficult for ourselves by ignoring the historical context. History carves the channel along which meaning flows.
What the kingdom of God was
According to Mark, Jesus begins his ministry with the oracular pronouncement, “The kingdom of God is at hand” (Mk. 1:14-15). Roxburgh and Boren comment that here “Mark states unequivocally that Jesus declares himself bearer and fulfillment of the kingdom.” Of course, Jesus says no such thing, only that the kingdom of God has come near. It’s an odd mistake to make when they have just insisted that “missional church” must proceed by discerning what God is doing in the world.
But the real problem with their argument about the meaning of the “kingdom of God” lies in the claim that it is more or less impossible to give a “simple, clear definition” of the expression.
How do you turn a story about a woman sweeping a room and finding a dime into a definition of the kingdom of God? How do you do that with a man plowing a field and finding a box, then going to sell everything he has to buy the field and get the box? How do you write a definition of the kingdom when Jesus tells us it’s about mustard seeds and vineyards and cheating servants? (35)
They say that it is “more difficult to come up with a clear, simple definition of something than we might imagine.” Much is made of the fact that when Jesus spoke about the kingdom, he often began with an expression like “the kingdom of God is as if…” or the kingdom of God can be compared to….” The modern mind wants a clear and precise definition, but what we get are “metaphors, similes, images, and pictures.”
It is impossible to put all the images into one simple, rational definition for a dictionary. You can’t codify these descriptions or contain them in a neat box. Jesus’s words point, open, and suggest rather than conclude or define. This idea of the kingdom of God is filled with imprecision that can’t be pinned down; it invites us to risk entering a world we may not be able to control or manipulate for our own needs…. This may be frustrating; it may create consternation in those demanding precision; but it invites us to risk having our imaginations invaded by the God who is endlessly elusive (38).
The confusion arises largely because we assume that Jesus is speaking to the church throughout the ages or to all humanity, not to first century Israel. This is apparent from a sample definition that Roxburgh and Boren consider:
The kingdom of God is when God’s new future breaks into the present to change the ways people think about the world; it is when things happen that make it clear that everything must change because now God is doing what he promised he would always do (35).
The implication is that some highly generalised, vaguely existential version of the kingdom of God is always breaking into the present to change the way that people think. But in Jesus’ teaching the kingdom of God was not a thing that was always coming and never arriving. Whatever it was, it would happen unmistakably within a generation. The disciples wouldn’t get through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man came in his kingdom (Matt. 10:23; 16:28). If anything was breaking into the present—in the way of exorcisms and healings, for example—it was only as a sign of the judgment and renewal to come.
There is nothing imprecise, open-ended, or irrational about the kingdom of God motif in the Synoptic Gospels. It’s a first century square Jewish peg and it needs to go in a first century square Jewish hole. It won’t fit in a twenty-first century round hole.
In the Gospels, no one asks Jesus what “kingdom of God” means—not the scribes and Pharisees, not the tax collectors and sinners, not the disciples. People understood very well what he was talking about: the God of Israel would soon act to judge and redeem his people, to deliver them from their enemies, and to establish his own just rule over them in place of the Satanically inspired rule of the corrupt Jerusalem hierarchy and the Roman occupying force. This was something—good news—that needed to be proclaimed (cf. Lk. 4:43), not explained.
There was nothing mysterious or mystical about the kingdom of God. Just as YHWH had acted as king to rescue his people from their captivity in Babylon and bring them back to Jerusalem (cf. Is. 52:7), so he would act as king to deliver them from captivity to Rome and re-establish them as a people who could worship and serve him in righteousness and without fear (cf. Lk. 1:68-75).
This historical outcome, bound in time and space, would be the coming of the kingdom of God.
What was not so clear to Jesus’ hearers were certain corollaries. Who would benefit? What about the wealthy? What was the appropriate response to the message? Why did so many Jews not believe? How would it come about? When would it come about? When Jesus makes apparently enigmatic statements, therefore, about what the kingdom of God was like, the uncertainty lies not in the core definition of “kingdom of God” but in the manner and circumstances of its realisation.
Parables of the kingdom
The parable of the woman who searches for a lost coin is not strictly a parable of the kingdom (Lk. 15:8-10). It is told simply to explain to the scribes and Pharisees why Jesus eats with sinners (Lk. 15:1-2). But it makes the point, nevertheless, that the coming intervention of YHWH would entail the forgiveness and inclusion of various types of Jewish outsider and pariah—ultimately, though this is not the point of the parable, to the extreme discomfort of the current political and religious leadership of Israel.
The parable of the man who sells all that he has and buys a field in order to secure a treasure hidden in it (Matt. 13:44) speaks of the critical importance of Jews reordering their lives in light of the expectation that God would soon act to judge and restore his people.
If the kingdom of heaven was like a mustard seed, it was because what was beginning with the inauspicious prophetic ministry of Jesus and his followers would eventually culminate in a new political-religious order for Israel, which would perhaps even provide shelter for people from the nations, as imagined by the prophets (Matt. 13:31-32; cf. Ezek. 17:22-24). Nothing difficult to understand here, I think.
The parables were not told to create uncertainty about what the coming of the kingdom of God would mean for Israel. They said something about people’s reactions to the proclamation of the kingdom of God or about the consequences of it. The end of the age of second temple Judaism would be like fishermen sorting through a catch of fish, throwing out the bad, keeping the good (Matt. 13:47-50). The kingdom of God would mean catastrophic “judgment” on unrighteous Israel.
Jesus tells his disciples that they have been given the mystērion or “secret” of the kingdom of God, while “for those outside everything is in parables, so that they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand, lest they should turn and be forgiven” (Mk. 4:11-12).
The first point to make here is that it was those outside the community of disciples who struggled to understand what he was saying about the kingdom of God. That pretty much explains our problem. We are reading the texts as dull-eared, short-sighted, self-regarding outsiders to the historical context of Jesus’ ministry.
But the allusion to Isaiah 6:9-10 also makes it abundantly clear what the kingdom of God was all about. Like Isaiah before him, Jesus had been sent to a people whose hearing was dull, whose eyes were blind, who would refuse to heed the call to moral and religious repentance, who would therefore not receive national healing. He speaks in parables as a sign that those outside the community of his followers—typically, the scribes, Pharisees, priests, elders of the people—would again fail to grasp the seriousness of the situation and the urgency of the demand for repentance.
When Isaiah asks how long he must prophesy to such an obstinate people, he is told, “Until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without people, and the land is a desolate waste, and the LORD removes people far away, and the forsaken places are many in the midst of the land” (Is. 6:11–12). Jesus would have been aware of that. It is exactly what the kingdom of God was all about.
What missional church is
So if we can give a satisfactory historical definition of “kingdom of God,” what about that other slippery term “missional church.” Roxburgh and Boren say that the implications of the elusiveness of “kingdom of God” are clear: “We have to become willing (like little children) to enter the strange world of the Bible” (38). That’s certainly true for the kingdom of God—except that once we enter the strange historical world of the Bible, we find that actually the term can be defined quite easily.
Missional church, on the other hand, may require us not to the enter the strange world of the Bible so wholeheartedly because its presuppositions in one crucial respect are not biblical. The churches of the New Testament period were communities of prophetic or eschatological witness, called into existence by the God of Israel to be signs of the new age that would come with the end of second temple Judaism and the conversion of the Greek-Roman world.
Missional church in Western theological discourse is the church in a world unimagined in the Bible—after the long age of God’s rule over the nations. It is the church finally coming to terms with and constructively reacting to, first, numerical decline and, secondly, social-cultural marginalisation and irrelevance. It is the church scrabbling to salvage enough from the shipwreck of Western Christianity to keep it afloat in the turbulent waters now flooding our world.
It’s the church asking the critical question, “Now what?”