Part 3 of series:
What Was the Message of Jesus?
In my last post in the series, What Was the Message of Jesus?, I explained that the core of Jesus’ preaching was the good news of the kingdom of God. This is summarized succinctly in Mark 1:15, where Jesus proclaims, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” Of course this summary leads to an obvious follow-up question: What is the kingdom of God? What is it that, according to Jesus, has drawn near?
The kingdom of God has been equated with all sorts of things in the last two milennia. Some have claimed that it is heaven, and that Jesus was saying, in so many words, “Now you can go to heaven when you die.” Others have understood “the kingdom of God” as referring to the Church. From their perspective, Jesus announced the beginning of the age of the Church. Still others have seen the kingdom of God as a world infused by divine justice. They have taken Jesus’ announcement as a call to social action. In recent times, “spiritually” inclined people have reduced the kingdom of God to inner awareness of one’s divinity. Like the ancient Gnostics, they understand the good news of the kingdom to mean “You are divine.”
None of these renditions of the kingdom of God hits a historical home run, although the first three are in the ballpark, at least. But all of them fail to take seriously both what Jesus actually says about the kingdom of God, and what his fellow Jews, especially the Old Testament prophets, had been saying about the kingdom for centuries.
Before we analyze Jesus’ use of the phrase “the kingdom of God,” we need to pay close attention to his use of the word “kingdom.” When we try to understand Jesus’ message of the kingdom, we easily get tripped up by a language gap. In everyday English, “kingdom” means a place where a king reigns. The Kingdom of Jordan, for example, is the place where King Abdullah II rules. But when Jesus spoke of the kingdom of God, he did not think in terms of locality, but authority.
In the New Testament Gospels, Jesus uses the Greek phrase he basileia tou theou, “the kingdom of God.” The word basileia could sometimes refer to a locale over which a king ruled, but its primary meaning in the first-century was “reign, rule, authority, sovereignty.” (The same was true of the Aramaic term, malku, the word probably spoken by Jesus.) We see this meaning clearly in one of Jesus’ parables. He speaks of a nobleman who “went to a distant country to have himself appointed king and then to return” (Luke 19:12, NIV; the NRSV reads “to get royal power for himself”). The Greek of this verse reads, literally, “he went to a distant country to receive a basileia for himself.” He didn’t go to get a new region over which to rule, but rather to get new and greater authority over the place he already lived.
We see this same meaning of “kingdom” in the Hebrew Scriptures. In Psalm 145, for example, we read:
All your works shall give thanks to you, O LORD,
and all your faithful shall bless you.
They shall speak of the glory of your kingdom
[malkuth in Hebrew; basileia in Greek],
and tell of your power (Ps 145:10-11).
Here God’s kingdom is parallel, not to the place over which God reigns, but to his divine power. God’s faithful praise his sovereignty here, not the place over which God is sovereign.
So when Jesus proclaims that the kingdom of God has come near, he doesn’t mean that a place is approaching , but that God’s own royal authority and power have come on the scene. So, we could paraphrase Mark 1:15, which summarizes Jesus’ preaching, as follows: “God’s reign is at hand. God’s power is being unleashed. Turn your life around and put your trust in this good news.”
Of course Jesus’ announcement of God’s reign didn’t come in a vacuum. It was both consistent with and a fulfillment of a central theme in the Hebrew prophets. In my next post I’ll examine how these prophets spoke of the kingdom of God, and how this prepared the way for the message and ministry of Jesus.