Jesus, the Dream Awakener

Jesus, the Dream Awakener April 3, 2011

From One.Life: Jesus Calls, We Follow :

Jesus was a Dream Awakener. He startled his contemporaries from their self-imposed deep sleep by standing up tall and in front of everyone and announcing the following three lines:

The time has come.

The kingdom of God has come near.

Repent and believe the good news!

Unfortunately, these words about the kingdom have become dog-eared for many of us. They’re about as catchy as the Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way” or New Kids on the Block’s “You Got It (the Right Stuff).” I’m sorry to connect what Jesus means by kingdom to boy bands that no longer matter, but hear me out: Jesus’ word kingdom has been used so many times by so many preachers and teachers and writers for so many ideas, we forget how revolutionary that word was for the Galileans of his day. Jesus’ words brought waves of ordinary folks to their feet and awakened in them a reverie of hope. It’s too bad for us that “kingdom” sounds so nineties.

For Jesus the word kingdom meant “God’s dream for this world come true.” But we need to get our minds and hearts and bodies around one very important element of this word kingdom: Kingdom wasn’t just Jesus’ dream, but the dream of everyone in Israel. Pick up any of Israel’s Prophets in the Old Testament, like the long and winding Isaiah or the short and abrupt Haggai, and you will catch snippets of a bold and robust hope for what God would do someday. Jesus was capturing those dreams when he announced the time had now come. Jesus is the Dream Awakener when he uses this term….

When they heard the word “kingdom” what do you think the contemporaries of Jesus imagined?

Every Jew in Galilee and everywhere else, and I mean every one of them, when they heard Jesus say “the kingdom,” looked for three things: king, land, citizens. This might surprise you, but that is only because so many Christians have turned kingdom into either a “personal experience with Jesus” (the evangelical meaning of kingdom) or into “cultural redemption” (the liberal, progressive meaning of kingdom). When Jesus said “kingdom,” the first thing his hearers looked for was a king, and then they were thinking of the land (or a sacred place or sacred space) and themselves as participants (citizens). This needs to be fleshed out for one reason: Kingdom is not about an experience with God but about the society of God, and this society is Jewish (and biblical) to the core….

If you grew up in a church, you might be surprised that I say Jesus uses the word kingdom to refer to God’s Dream Society on earth. Along about the nineteenth century the more progressive side of the Church (now called “liberalism”) converted Jesus’ message about the kingdom into the inner experience of God’s personal rule in one’s life and they urged their culture to adopt the big ideas of Jesus in order to transform culture. The oddest thing then happened. Evangelical Christians, who have always pushed hard against the liberals, picked up what the liberals were teaching; but they connected Jesus’ message of kingdom with the experience of personal conversion, to that single-moment acceptance of Christ. This led to a widespread conviction, held both by liberals and conservatives, that kingdom means “God’s personal rule in the heart of the individual.” Kingdom became an inner experience of God; some people have reduced it to the nearly meaningless word spirituality.

This unfortunate agreement of the traditionalist and the progressive gets things exactly backwards. Jesus surely did call folks to personal religious faith, but that word kingdom meant something else for him. It was about God’s society on earth. Transforming Jesus’ powerful, full-orbed God’s-Dream-Society vision into a personal-religion vision sucks the life out of the word kingdom.

The Lord’s Prayer, Jesus’ most important prayer for expressing his mission, says this: “May your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” That line is preceded by this one: “May your kingdom come.” These two requests are to be read together: God’s kingdom coming means God’s will being done on earth—in a society, and this kingdom society is what the Church is called to embody….

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  • Randall

    My wife and I started reading this Thursday night. She read it to me yesterday while I was redoing our deck. This is some seriously good stuff in this book. I am going to recommend this book to anyone who asks what Jesus meant about God’s kingdom. Thanks for writing this.

  • LCM

    Thank you! We were not created to dwell in an individual and inward-looking, selfish “world of one”, which is all too often what spiritiuality comes down to. If there is no “your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” , what is the point of having faith in Christ?

  • I predict the more we understand the Kingdom in its Jewish context, the shakier our concept of “church” will grow… but it could be that we’re returning to “Israel’s Kingdom of God” because the time of the gentiles are drawing to a close…

  • I already wanted to read this book and now I want to even more. This is great, thought-provoking stuff. I appreciate the helpful perspective.

  • Hey Scott I blogged on something very similar must be the week for it, lol.
    The shift as I see it has been the transition from holistic praxis to the drive for personal sanctification and holiness. Which has essentially derailed the church from its mission, in creating disciples which of course should lead to societal transformation. What is the point of making disciples unless we change their environment as well?

  • Lyn

    I think one reason God’s reign (dream society) has been interpreted/reduced to a spiritual/personal experience is because of the “land” component. Evangelicals (the broad category with which I identify) recognize Jesus as king, but consider the church to be the sacred place (“land”), and believe Christians are its citizens. How does one enter the land? Become a Christian! (a personal slash spiritual event). If the reign of God is already been spelled out (King? Check. Place? Check.) then the only real issue is getting the greencard. Kingdom come? Will be done? Sure…as individuals become citizens. What else do we need to know? (heavy on the irony here) Good post. Hadn’t heard of your book, so it’s piqued my interest.

  • Jesus was … JR Woodward?? I’m confused…

  • scotmcknight

    JR, in the book I give due credit to JR Woodward for his expression.

  • Michael Redding

    I have not yet picked up your new book, but I did read “A New Vision for Israel” and I am working on “Jesus and His Death”. Your contention in the first was that right up to the moment of his death, the offer of a kingdom (king, land, citizens) was real. After the death of Jesus, and the long history of the theological discussion of “kingdom” which you summarized above, does your new book (which I will read) suggest how we got off track through the first 18 centuries? And I suspect the answers are in the book, but do indicate what blend of making disciples and “other social activities” makes up the right mix for us today – in your opinion?

  • Scot McKnight

    Michael, thanks.

    I have not done a complete study of the history of “kingdom” theology in the church, but my suspicion is that “kingdom” got tied closely to Roman empire or Byzantine empire or German empire. In other words, Constantine’s agenda had biblical warrant (though he mismanaged it and abused it etc and I’m not one to give him too many breaks) — gospel creates kingdom conditions, expressed in the church with powerful world-wide implications with Jesus as Lord, etc., but the fundamental mistake was a realized eschatology — the belief that God’s kingdom and a nation’s rule were one and the same.

    But my reading would suggest that the internalization of the kingdom in Protestant liberalism, seen glowingly in one form say in Tolstoy’s “The Kingdom is within you”, de-politicized and spiritualized the kingdom. That was a major mistake.

    The correction made by decoupling kingdom from nation-state needed to be made, but total spiritualizaton is another imbalance that needs correction.

    My contention is that the first word that came to mind for a Jew when Jesus said the kingdom had drawn near was “David,” not I can find a personal relationship with God.

  • Calvin and Wesley contributed to the idea of internalization as well Sobrino makes some good points on that one.

  • Thanks for this, Scot. Linked it to my Facebook and latest blog posting. Helpful.

  • Larry Chouinard

    Scot– The language describing a vision of the renewed land in the prophets (cf., e.g., Isa.32,35) and Revelation (chs.21-22) seem to envision a renewed Eden, where heaven and earth are reunited in shalom. In some sense the language is spiritualized to conjure up an imagery of the new creation. There appears to be some continuity with the old world creation in its earthiness, yet elements reflecting a new heavens and earth (immortality) emphasize a discontinuity with the old fallen creation. When the reign of God is described it is depicted as a radical reversal of the current world forms of disorder and chaos created by the old world practice of injustice, the inequities of poverty, and the use of war to promote national interests (Isa. 52:7; 2:1-4; 65:16-66:2; Psa. 72:1-4). Perhaps the culmination of the Kingdom’s presence continues the spiritual formation of a people committed to this alternative world. Even in the here and now the Kingdom’s radical presence has began to stir our hearts with a renewed praise and praxis. This is not a mere tweaking of the typical church culture, but a radical change of paradigm for defining identity and mission. Thanks for stimulating some reflective thoughts on the issue.