The Pope's First Jesus Book— Chapter Three

Chapter Three takes on the issue of the Gospel (euangelion) and the Kingdom of God—the subject of  Jesus’ proclamation.   As the Pope says euangelion was a term with a history—it was used of all the Emperor’s official messages, whether they involved particularly positive or cheerful news or not.  The translation ‘good news’ in that context could be quite ironic— ‘good news’ the Emperor has just conquered and plundered your country and sent you a procurator to rule over you, and sent off various of your people into slavery, but hey, the land is quieter now that we have pacified it. Some good news.   The Pope thinks the Gospel writers are deliberately playing off this political use of the term and saying  “What the emperors who pretend to be gods, illegitimately claim, really occurs here—a message endowed with plenary authority, a message that is not just talk, but reality.” (p. 47).   In contemporary language we are being told that God’s Word about his reign on earth is not just informative it is performative speech— a form of action and efficacious power that changes things.   The point is that only God can really change and save the world.   Of the 122 times the phrase Kingdom of God/heaven shows up in the NT 99 are in the Synoptics, and 90 of the 99 are predicated of Jesus.

The Pope quotes Alfred Loisy’s famous saying ‘Jesus preached the Kingdom, but it was the church that showed up’.  Did the Kingdom fail to come?  What is the relationship between the message of the Kingdom and the messenger Jesus?  This, says the Pope, is the big question.   The Pope turns to the church fathers to help understand the term basiliea . Origen called Jesus the auto-basileia, that is the Kingdom in person.  On his showing the Kingdom is not a place or an abstract concept like ‘ruling’ or ‘saving rule’  but a person— Jesus himself.   In other words ‘kingdom of God’ is a veiled Christological term alluding to the king.   The point is he is God’s living presence, power, rule in person—wherever he is, there is the Kingdom.    Origen also brings up the second notion about the kingdom—namely that it is the reign of God in the soul of human beings—  (Jesus as Lord of my heart idea).  This to some extent is based on the misreading of the saying of Jesus ‘the kingdom is within you’  which should actually be translated ‘the kingdom is in the midst of ya’ll’ (you plural).    The third rendering suggests that yes, the church is the kingdom of God on earth.  It is the place where people can experience the presence, power, reign, saving activity of God.

The Pope then reviews certain modern and utopian and even secular notions about the kingdom on pp.  51-54.   But as the Pope says (p. 55) the secular and utopian vision of the Kingdom pushes God not merely to the periphery but off the stage entirely.  We are well beyond Sir Thomas More’s Utopia.   The Pope rightly points out that the Hebrew malkuta and the Greek basileia actually have the sense of kingship, rule of a King the sovereignty of a sovereign, the reigning of a ruler.  In other words, if you have a kingdom you have a king, and if its God’s kingdom, God’s rule on earth he has to be present and involved in it.   The announcement of Jesus then is about God’s final self-revelation and his salvation breaking into human history.  Interestingly here the Pope says that Daniel with its vision of the Son of Man, is a book composed in the second century B.C.

On pp. 57-58 the Pope denies that Jesus is an imminentist— someone who believes the end of the world is just around the corner.  He says that Jesus is proclaiming the beginning of the final act of God, not its end.  He says that too many sayings of Jesus don’t suit the apocalyptic Jesus view— one must ignore parables about the seed growing secretly or gradually, or the sower and seed where the harvest is clearly in the future, and so on.   The Pope in effect says Jesus’ Kingdom message was complex, involving both the already and the not yet.  He takes on the exegesis of Lk. 17.20-21  ( the kingdom is in your midst).    As it turns out, Jesus means not merely the Kingdom is present in Him, but the Kingdom shows up when he acts— if it is by the Spirit of God that I caste out demons then the divine ruling has come upon you.   Through Jesus’ presence and action, God is actively present in our midst working his will on earth as in heaven.   When the Kingdom or rule of God is something one receives as a gift, then it is grace, not achieved, not an accomplishment, and not based on one’s deeds— good or bad.  Hence the parable of the tax collector and the Pharisee, and why the former went away justified, not in his own eyes, but in God’s eyes.

  • Jeff L

    Ben,
    just wanted to say I appreciate these analyses of Benedict’s book. Heretofore, I would never have dreamed of reading a book by a Pope. Now it’s on my must-read list.

  • Kwesi Adarkwa

    Have there been similar such works by past popes? I disagree much with the Catholic church a lot especially on the office of the pope, but this is interesting

  • http://www.benwitherington.com ben witherington

    So far as I know, this is the first Pope who is a genuine Bible scholar and Biblical theologian.

    BW3

  • Bruce in Kansas

    …of course the first Pope wasn’t a genuine Bible scholar, but he did write two books of the NT…(smile)


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