Part 7 of series:
What Was the Message of Jesus?
Oops. Yesterday’s post “Where is the Kingdom of God?” came a day too soon. I want to say a little more about how Jesus proclaims the kingdom of God before I move. So please pardon a day of backtracking.
In Tuesday’s post, I showed some of the ways Jesus used words to proclaim the kingdom of God. These included basic statements of fact, explanations, and parables. But Jesus “proclaimed” God’s coming reign, not only in words, but also in works. These actions both illustrated the kingdom of God and demonstrated its presence. Without these works, Jesus’ announcement of the kingdom would have fallen on deaf ears. People would have regarded him as a dreamer, perhaps as a deceiver or even a demoniac, but not as the divine envoy of the kingdom.
The works of Jesus that revealed the presence of the kingdom took various forms, including healings, exorcisms, nature miracles, and other symbolic gestures. Let me say a bit about each of these actions and their significance.
Healings. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus healed people of various diseases. His extraordinary popularity came, not simply from the authority of his preaching, but also from his authority over human bodies. Yet healing was not an end in and of itself for those familiar with the Hebrew prophets. It was also a sign of the presence of God’s reign on earth. In Isaiah 35, for example, God comes to save and redeem his people. In this context we find the following promise: “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy” (Isa 35:5-6). The fact that these things were happening in the ministry of Jesus proved the presence of the kingdom. Jesus himself said this when he was asked by the disciples of John the Baptist whether he (Jesus) was the one through whom the kingdom was coming. Jesus said, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them” (Matt 11:4-5). In other words, “Because the healings promised in Isaiah are happening in my ministry, yes, I am the one through whom God’s kingdom has come.”
Exorcisms. One of the most peculiar aspects of the Gospels for North American readers is Jesus’ repeated expulsion of demons. Most of us simply aren’t familiar or comfortable with such things, unlike so many believers in the Southern Hemisphere today. But, whether we like it or not, exorcisms are central to the ministry of Jesus, and, according to Jesus himself, clear evidence of the presence of the kingdom. In Matthew 12, for example, some of the Pharisees accuse Jesus of casting out demons with demonic power. He answers them, first by citing the now classic line about a house divided against itself being certain to fall (Matt 12:25). Then he adds, “But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come to you” (Matt 12:28). Whatever we might think of Jesus’ exorcisms, for him and his fellow first-century Jews they are a demonstration of the presence of God’s reign.
Nature Miracles. According to the Gospels, Jesus multiplies food, walks on water, and stills the storm. Once again, these mighty works are associated with God’s kingdom. In Psalm 89, for example, the Lord says, “I have made a covenant with my chosen one, I have sworn to my servant David: ‘I will establish your descendants forever, and build your throne for all generations'” (Ps 89:3-4). Then, only four verses later the Psalm continues, “O LORD God of hosts, who is as mighty as you, O LORD? Your faithfulness surrounds you. You rule the raging of the sea; when its waves rise, you still them” (Ps 89:8-9). So Jesus’ power over nature suggests that God’s promised kingdom has arrived and, indeed, that God himself is somehow truly present in the ministry of Jesus.
I recognize that for many people today the miracles of Jesus are harder to swallow than a camel. In some circles and among quite a few New Testament scholars, the miracles of Jesus are not considered as historical events so much as symbolic legends. Yet if you take away the miraculous from the message of Jesus, you severely truncate his announcement of the kingdom and, at the same time, you are left with a Jesus whom most people would have ignored. Even many skeptical modern scholars, therefore, believe that Jesus must have been a “healer” of sorts, one who used psychosomatic cures and the power of suggestion to help people feel better. At this point I’m not prepared to mount a defense for the genuineness of the miracle stories in the Gospels. But, whether you believe that the miracles happened or not, they are clearly essential to the picture of Jesus painted by the gospel writers. The mighty works of Jesus, more than showing his love for people, are part and parcel of his announcement of the reign of God. Take away these works and there’s no reason to believe his words. (In my book, Can We Trust the Gospels?, I explain why I believe it is reasonable to accept the miracle stories in the Gospels as historical.)
Other Symbolic Gestures. Although the mighty works of Jesus persuaded people to take seriously his announcement of the kingdom, he did other things that illustrated the kingdom’s presence and character. For example, Jesus ate with social and religious outcasts (tax collectors and sinners) as a sign of the unexpected inclusiveness of God’s reign. Similarly, he embraced children, not only because he loved them, but also to teach something essential about the kingdom. “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them,” Jesus said, “for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs” (Mark 10:14). Like the Hebrew prophets, who often used symbolic gestures to communicate God’s message, so did Jesus. Ultimately, some of his most powerful statements about the kingdom would come through symbolic actions: the cleansing of the temple, the Last Supper, and the crucifixion itself. I’ll have much more to say about these actions later.