Jesus and the Kingdom of God in Mark - 4 Gpp essay

The kingdom, or rather kingship, of God is at the centre of Jesus' teaching and of the evangelists' message. Its meaning has been one of the chief storm-centres of gospel scholarship throughout the twentieth century. The scene was set and the problem posed by Albert Schweitzer, who maintained that Jesus urgently expected a cosmic cataclysm: he sent out the disciples with no time to lose, expecting that their preaching would usher in the final stage; when they returned without its fulfilment Jesus took the sufferings of the eschatological cataclysm on himself, wrongly expecting his passion and death to be the last stages in the drama of renewal of the cosmos and the establishment of a new world-order. This view of Schweitzer's is determined by his view of 'late Jewish apocalyptic', according to which the contemporaries of Jesus are supposed to have been expecting the kingdom as an inbreaking of a new world and the end of the old system; Jesus is supposed to have adopted this view. In spite of the dominance of this view, e.g. in Bultmann and his school, other scholars objected to it at the time of its original proposal. (RH Charles wrote: 'Schweitzer's eschatological studies show no knowledge of original documents and hardly any of first-hand works on the documents'). Its hollowness has been well documented by T. Francis Glasson, 'Schweitzer's Influence - Blessing or Bane?' (1977).

Half a century later Norman Perrin held that the kingship of God in the preaching of Jesus was a mythical formulation, a sort of cypher for God's power at work in the world; the specific understanding of it was that, just as God had intervened in Egypt and Babylon to declare his power by delivering his people from their oppressors, so he would deliver them from the Roman oppressors. EP Sanders, on the other hand, sees Jesus' preaching of the kingdom in function of the renewal of Israel expected in late biblical and post-biblical Judaism, a this-worldly rather than other-worldly phenomenon, for which Jesus intends to establish a structure and a society.

1. The Kingship of God in the Old Testament and the Inter-Testamental Period

[The translation 'kingship' is to be preferred because it does not carry the suggestion of a territorial entity. The Hebrew term is malkuth Adonai, an abstract noun of the formation which suggests '-ness', so 'the kinglyness of God', the being-king of God.]

The bare facts may be easily seen e.g. from texts cited in NJB Is 52.7, footnote d. The kingship of God is one of the basic factors of Hebrew thought. The prophets look forward to a moment when this kingship will be realised by the liberation of Jerusalem or the restoration of Israel. It is conceived very much in this-worldly terms, though of course these terms may be symbolic. Similarly Ps-Sal 17.22-37, written about the middle of the last pre-Christian century, conceives of the coming of the new David to be God's king. Other contemporary documents in e.g. Howard C. Kee, The Origins of Christianity (SPCK 1973), pp. 173-210.

2. The Kingship of God in the New Testament

In the ministry of Jesus the theme of the Kingship is all-important, cf. NJB Mt 4.17, note f. A convincing summary of the evidence for the kingship of God as already present in the ministry of Jesus is given in Norman Perrin, The Kingdom of God in the Teaching of Jesus (SCM 1963) p. 74-78, and another of the evidence for the kingship of God as still future on p. 83-84. The tension exists, in that the kingship of God is already present and at work in Jesus, but is not yet complete.

1. A Time of Crisis

There is certainly an element of crisis in Jesus' teaching of the kingship of God, which establishes the kingdom firmly as a reality present in the ministry of Jesus. The need for haste is one possible interpretation of the instructions to the disciples on their mission not to be encumbered with gear and not to greet anyone on the road. An authentic-sounding saying is that they will not have finished with the cities of Israel before the son of man comes (Mt 10.23) - it is hardly likely to have been invented as the time was lengthening in the early church. The original Sitz im Leben Jesu of what Jeremias calls the Krisisgleichnisse was probably the crisis facing the Jewish people with the coming among them of Jesus, though the Sitz im Leben Ecclesiae is, especially according to Matthew, the crisis at the approach of judgement at the final coming. The question is, however, whether the crisis is one of time or of importance: is it simply the importance of the decision which makes decisive action crucial, or does Jesus envisage a time-limit beyond which there is no hope? The message of the Baptist is immediate: the axe is even now at the foot of the tree, and the Messiah comes with the winnowing-fan already in his hand. Jesus consciously approves and continues the work of the Baptist: he himself was baptising, presumably with the same baptism as John in Jn 3.26; he calls the Baptist the greatest of the old dispensation, and his conundrum about his authority provokes the authorities to put his own authority on a level with John's. At least in some respects, therefore, Jesus felt himself to be continuing in the same line as the Baptist had been.

But traditionally the exegesis of time-crisis has been tied to two terms whose interpretation is dubious, hv,ggiken, as meaning 'has come near', 'has arrived', in Jesus' opening proclamation, and e,vfqasen meaning 'has got in beforehand' or 'caught you unawares' (Mt 12.28). But ev,fqasen is so typically Greek in concept that it is hard to envisage any semitic equivalent which could have this somewhat tortuous meaning; even if Matthew knew what he was saying, it is not credible that Jesus said precisely this. Similarly with hv,ggiken, it would be a mistake to press the sophisticatedly exact overtones of the Greek perfect tense. In some sense, however, they must be saying that the kingdom is present.

2. The Miracles and the Kingdom

However the sayings of Jesus may be interpreted, he surely sees the kingship of God as present in his healing miracles. It is certainly true that Matthew and Luke so regarded the miracles, for Mt 11.2-6 // Lk shows Jesus interpreting his healings as the fulfilment of the prophecies of Isaiah. On the other hand, miracles as such were not necessarily signs of the messianic age or of the arrival of the kingdom. Quite apart from the well-attested miracles claimed for Aesculapius at Epidaurus, those claimed for Apollonius of Tyana and those of the Greek Magical Papyri, in Palestine itself Honi the Rainmaker and other charismatic Galilean rabbis must be credited with miracles. The promises of Theudas and the Galilean messianic pretender to work miracles are not necessarily signs that they claimed to be the Messiah; it could be simply that miracles were to be signs that they were authorised by God. Similarly, claims Sanders, with Jesus: the miracles are signs that he was a messenger of God; they were so seen by the crowds, and no doubt by Jesus himself. The immediate reaction to Jesus' miracles was indeed that he was a prophet; this is shown by the reaction to the raising of the boy at Naim, a story, of course, closely modelled on the miraculous raising of the boy by Elijah and Elisha, so that Jesus is in fact hailed specifically among the prophets as a personification of Elijah.

But this cautious approach neglects the context of Jesus' miracles as part of his whole mission. From the time when the Baptist appeared, bearing and wearing the persona of Elijah and declaring his mission as a herald, preparing and gathering a community for repentance, the context has been one of fulfilment and the final arrival of God's kingship. In ordinary life it is harmless (if tasteless) to wear an orange tie; in Northern Ireland at present it would be highly significant. Similarly with miracles in the context of Jesus' other actions: they are part of his demonstration of authorisation, and his authorisation was as bringing the kingship of God. Matthew and Luke were correct in interpreting them as the fulfilment of Isaiah's messianic prophecies.

It is not, however, the healing of the sick, nor yet the expulsion of evil spirits which seems to be at the centre of Jesus' preaching of the kingdom. In themselves they play only a supporting role. Perhaps the most important aspect of Jesus' proclamation of the kingdom, which gives it its specific character, is the renewal of Israel. This is a prominent element in the hope of Israel for the last times. The question is how it is envisaged by Jesus. In looking for a central core of Jesus' view of the kingship of God, Sanders (Jesus and Judaism) despairs of finding any firm basis for interpretation in the sayings of Jesus and turns the question to his actions, finding in the 'cleansing' of the Temple a symbol of the destruction of the sacrificial system. It was not a cleansing, for which Jesus would have used water. Instead the overturning of the tables (there is no evidence of malpractice by these essential financial officers) is symbolic of the messianic overturning of the whole old order. This not only coheres with the multiply attested sayings of Jesus about the destruction of the Temple (the independent saying at the opening of the Markan apocalypse, the accusation at the trial, the mockery on the Cross, the saying at the Johannine 'cleansing' of the Temple). It also fulfills the richly-documented Jewish hope for establishment of a new Temple in the last times (Is 14.5; 54.1; Tob 13.16-18; Jub 1.15-17; Ps-Sal 17.32; 1 QM 7.4-10; 4Q Flor 1.6-7; 4 QpPs 37 3.11; 11 QTemple 29.8-10; Rv 21.22). For Sanders, then, the central point of Jesus' proclamation of the kingship of God is the renewal of Judaism, symbolised by the renovation of the Temple.

3. Socio-Political Structure of the Kingdom

This renewal of Judaism was not an other-worldly matter, but involved a socio-political structure. The kingdom, though it is not a spatial entity, is something into which one enters, as one enters the covenant. One must enter it with the filial relationship of a child (Mk 10.15), and those who have riches will find it hard to enter (Mk 10.23). The renewal of the covenant is also indicated by the choice of Twelve to judge the twelve tribes of the new Israel (Mt 19.28). So important is this number that 'the Twelve' are primitively so described even when the defection of Judas has reduced their number to eleven (1 Cor 15.5). The structured nature of this new covenant community is further indicated by the appointment of Simon as Cepha or Rock, with the use of an Aramaic term and in so many different strata of the New Testament tradition, though only in Matthew 16.18 is this specifically explained to be the Rock on which Jesus' new community is founded. When the sons of Zebedee ask for a high place in this structure (to the embarrassment of Matthew, who attributes the request to their mother), Jesus does not deny their conception, but merely refuses the particular positions to them. And his repeated attempts to instruct his disciples on the nature of authority as service again point to a community in which there will be authority.

How far will this society extend? There are strong indicators that Jesus saw his mission as confined to Israel. Only two encounters of Jesus with a gentile are recorded, and in one of them (the centurion at Capernaum tells us more of his own attitude than of Jesus'), with the Syro-Phoenician, he attempts to exclude her from the benefits designed for Israel. Similarly in the instructions to missioners no extension to the gentiles is envisaged (Mt 10.5, 23). A significant change is marked, both by Mark and by Matthew, at the death of Jesus. Mark shows the gentile centurion as being the first gentile to acknowledge him, immediately after his death. Matthew gives the final charge to make disciples of all nations, and the end of Judaism, symbolised by the splitting of the veil of the Temple, may also be the moment of the opening of Judaism to all nations. The instructions to missioners in the Markan apocalypse envisage the dangers of a gentile mission, and persecution before governors and kings. If these were the only indications it would be safe to say that the extension of the Gospel to the gentiles was a consequence perceived by the disciples only after Jesus' historical ministry was over. A further hint of the inclusion of the gentiles in the intentions of the historical Jesus is the inclusion by Mark of 'for all nations' in the quotation of Jr 7.11 about the 'house of prayer', namely the Temple. Mt and Lk omit this phrase, but that only lends weight to its authenticity.

Such an extension to the gentiles would be thoroughly compatible with the spirit of the times. The prophets had systematically foretold that in the messianic renewal the gentiles would flow to Zion to draw salvation from there, passages echoed in such first century writings as the Targum on Zechariah 14.9, 'The kingdom of the Lord will be revealed on all dwellers on the earth'. It has been argued that Galatians and Acts show such hostility to the entry of the gentiles that this cannot have been prepared by Jesus, though Sanders claims 'As far as we can see from Galatians, no Christian group objected to the Gentile mission; they disagreed only as to its terms and conditions' (p. 220). As on so many other topics, the evidence is slippery, and susceptible of contrary interpretations. In the Acts, for what this evidence is worth, it certainly comes as a surprise to Peter that gentiles should be invited to enter the Church, and he needs vigorously to defend his conduct to the Jerusalem community when he has admitted Cornelius. As on so many other topics, it is not necessary to demand that Jesus should have seen the full implications of his actions for the unforseeable future.

4. Eschatological-Apocalyptic?

But does Jesus envisage this renewal as taking place in his own ministry or by some decisive other-worldly event in the near (or distant) future? That Jesus did teach about a future event is suggested in the first place by the evidence of Paul. He conceives the completion as being a second coming, not too long delayed. 'At the signal given by the voice of the Archangel and the trumpet of God, the Lord himself will come down from heaven...and we shall be taken up in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air' (1 Thess 4.16-17). This is of a piece with the scene in First Corinthians, 'So in Christ all will be brought to life...Christ the first-fruits, and next at his coming those who belong to him. After that will come the end, when he will hand over the kingdom to God the Father' (15.22-24).

This same imagery continues in the Gospels, in the climax of the synoptic apocalypse - in Matthew keeping the same imagery of angels and the great trumpet (Mt 24.21) - and in the climax of the trial scene in Mark. Both the trial scene and large parts of the synoptic apocalypse are normally dismissed as historically unreliable, but a more persuasive saying which could indicate that Jesus expected some definitive establishment of the kingdom within a fairly short time occurs at the Last Supper, 'I shall not drink of the fruit of the vine until I drink it new in the kingdom of God' (Mk 14.23). From here it is a short step, but perhaps one which should not be taken, to accepting as coming from Jesus himself the glorious Son of Man imagery contained in the gospels, and spreading from the trial scene and the synoptic apocalypse. But I myself (see Essay on Leben-Jesu-Forschung) do not think that a single Qumran text is sufficient to validate the contention that the expression 'son of man' is on Jesus' lips a title rather than a periphrasis for the personal pronoun, and that it carries the Danielic sense.

However, the evidence of Paul, and the natural situation of a charismatic Galilean rabbi who grew up in in the first century, is most economically explained if Jesus shared to some extent the apocalyptic expectations of his contemporaries, at least as far as the symbolic expression of them goes. There is nothing to contradict this and much to be said in its favour.

What sort of Kingdom did Jesus mean to found?


Get an initial idea from reading NJB note Mt 4.17f and following up the passages - and other notes, see Index.

Wright T New Testament & the People of God, p. 270-307

Hooker, Morna in Dictionary of Biblical Interpretation

Morgan, and Barton J Biblical Interpretation

Neill & Wright T Interpretatiopn of the NT, chap on Kingdom

EP Sanders Jesus and Judaism (1985) - complicated

It may be best to leave this till vacation, but it must be read sometime

B Meyer The Aims of Jesus (1979), esp. chaps 6-9 - basic

B Chilton (ed.) The Kingdom of God in the Teaching of Jesus (1984), intro & other essays

G Caird Jesus & the Jewish Nation (lecture 1965) - gd start

John Riches Jesus & the Transformation of Judaism (1980), pp. 87-111

John Riches Review of Sanders, Heythrop Journal 27 (1986), 53-62 - Sanders also critical of Riches!

CH Dodd The Parables of the Kingdom (1936),fascinating old book - or his 'Founder of Christianity'

Some questions to ask:

1. What is the connection between Jesus and this Rule of God?

2. What does this Rule of God consist in? You could look into different views of Sadducees, Pharisees, Zealots. Was Jesus' idea totally different from theirs?

3. Present? Immediate future? Distant future? Was Jesus wrong about the time-element?

4. Is it something transcendent or this-worldly? Does it involve a socio-political structure, or would this be too human?

5. Did the evangelists get Jesus right or did they change the concept radically?