At the heart of Jesus’ preaching is the simple statement that “the kingdom of God is at hand”, to which an equally simple exhortation is attached: repent and believe this good news (Mk. 1:15). Simple? Perhaps not. We appear still to be remarkably confused about what Jesus meant. Is the kingdom present or future? Is it the same as the church? Is it bigger than the church? Is it all about miracles? Is this the social justice dimension that somehow fell out of evangelical theology? It’s not unusual to hear preachers say that they don’t really understand what the kingdom of God is, but they’re going to preach on it anyway…. That’s odd, surely?
The problem arises, I think, partly because we try to make the concept do too much—it sounds simple, it probably was simple—but mainly because we approach it from the wrong direction. If we try to make sense of it from Jesus’ point of view, as he made his way along the troubled road of Israel’s history, a different set of questions may help us grasp the significance of his stark announcement.
The first question can be answered quickly. Who was the announcement made to? The announcement was made to first-century Israel—to people living in Jerusalem and in the towns and cities of Judea and Galilee. It was made to first-century Israel because it concerned first-century Israel. In the not-too-distant future something would happen that would profoundly impact the nation. The only proper response to this prophetic announcement was to repent and believe it—and, of course, to begin to live in the light of this coming event.
The second question is: What is this future event? If a Jewish prophet announces to his people that their God is about to act sovereignly as king, it has to be understood as a political statement regarding the condition and status of the people and their relation to the nations. This is the whole thrust of the Old Testament theme of divine kingship, but it can be illustrated most clearly from Isaiah 52. In the Greek Septuagint the prophet announces good news (euangelizomenos) to the devastated city of Jerusalem that “Your God shall reign”. This is a “gospel” of a coming “reign of God”. The captives will be brought back from exile, the city will be restored, and this dramatic political transformation or salvation will be seen by the nations. Cutting a long story short, what Jesus announces is something comparable: impending historical events which will result in the transformation of the condition and status of Israel in relation to the nations.
This answers the third question, but we’ll ask it anyway: When will the kingdom of God come? Much Christendom theology, including modern evangelical theology, assumes that “kingdom of God” refers to a new state of affairs that was inaugurated with Jesus’ death and resurrection (so it is “already”) and will come to fulfilment at the end of the world (so it is “not yet”). The answer to question two, however, suggests that Jesus expected the kingdom to come in the foreseeable future of his people—indeed, within a generation. Miraculous events that occurred through the ministry of Jesus and the disciples were not so much the “already” of the coming kingdom but prophetic and proleptic signs of the transformation—the forgiveness, the restoration, the healing, the elevation—that was to come. (In case you’re wondering, “proleptic” means that these events anticipated or were an advance realization of a reality to come.)
Back to history…
It has been the presumption of Western or European or Christendom theology that everything must conform to its totalizing paradigm. The post-Christendom perspective, reinforced by a postmodern regard for context, suggests that we would do well to recover the contingent dimensions of the historical narrative that shapes the New Testament. We resist this because we think that what God did in Jesus must somehow transcend history, and to some extent we are right to do so. But the announcement about the coming kingdom of God is an announcement about what will happen to a people in the course of history, so we have to go to history in order to understand it. If this all sounds too worldly, it may be because we have not fully grasped the significance of the fourth question: How will the kingdom of God come?
Roughly speaking, the Jews believed that the condition and status of Israel in relation to the nations would be changed through a show of power—either divine power or human power or more likely some combination of the two. What Jesus believed was that this political-religious transformation would come about through a show of weakness—through his own suffering in the first place, but also through the suffering of his followers.
It may be helpful to plot expectations about the coming kingdom of God on a chart:
Top left: Jews believed that God would transform the status of his people at the end of the age of israel’s “exile”, at the dawn of the age of Israel’s ascendancy amongst the nations, through power. Bottom right: standard evangelical belief is that the kingdom will finally come at the end of the world, but it is the weakness of the cross that has made this possible. Bottom left: we could pencil in a sort of modern literal Christian apocalypticism that imagines that the world will be brought to an end with a dramatic display of divine power involving natural catastrophes and hosts of well-armed angels. Top right: lastly, there is what to my mind is a New Perspective option—that the “coming of the kingdom of God” has reference to a transformation in the course of history through the weakness of a faithful community in Christ.
So I would suggest that the kingdom of God came—that is, it’s not still coming—through a sequence of events by which the status of the family of Abraham amongst the nations of the ancient world was dramatically transformed. Jesus told Israel that God was about to save his people. When Paul became convinced that God had raised Jesus from the dead, he took this good news about what God was doing for Israel to the nations—not least because he believed that through the transformation of his people God would at long last “judge” the world of pagan imperialism. That is the story of the coming of the kingdom of God.
But because the kingdom of God came in this way, the people of God now operates securely under the lordship of Christ. There is no power in the cosmos, in the heavens or on earth, that can defeat or oppress this people in the way that Rome and other pagan empires defeated and oppressed Israel. We do not have to live in fear of our enemies (cf. Lk. 1:74). Not even of the final enemy death. This is the fundamental theological outcome of the fact that God, in history, transformed the status of his people through the weakness of Jesus and the weakness of the early martyr church. It will last until the end. It is what allows us to be a new creation people until the final making new of all things.