Part 12 of series:
What Was the Message of Jesus?
I ended my last post with an apparent riddle. Throughout the Gospels Jesus proclaims the kingdom of God, sometimes as coming in the future, and sometimes as a present reality. So which is it? How can we understand the apparently divergent themes in Jesus’ preaching of the reign of God?
Throughout the last 150 years, many New Testament scholars have cut this Gordian knot by claiming that some of what is attributed to Jesus in the gospels is not authentic, but was added by the early church. Ironically, depending on the preference of the scholar, the supposedly inauthentic portion of Jesus’ teaching can be either the future kingdom or the present kingdom. Scholarly methodology bends freely to the whims of the individual scholar.
So, for example, Marcus Borg, a prominent member of the Jesus Seminar and prolific author on Jesus, has repeatedly argued that Jesus did not expect God’s kingdom to come sometime in the future. Gospel passages that suggest this were inserted by the early church, Borg claims, under the influence of Jewish eschatology. Yet, contradicting Borg, a cadre of contemporary scholars insists that Jesus did in fact present himself as an eschatological prophet who proclaimed the coming of the kingdom. John P. Meier is a highly-acclaimed advocate of this view, though he hasn’t received as much popular attention as Borg, partly because Meier’s writings are more scholarly and less sensationalistic than Borg’s. (One of the very best books to introduce you to the scholarly debate about Jesus is co-written by Marcus Borg and N. T. Wright. It’s called The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions. I highly recommend this book.)
If you wade through the tangled bog of New Testament scholarship, as I have, you’ll find circular arguments almost everywhere among those who try to slice and dice the teachings of Jesus. The Jesus Seminar is perhaps the most brazen in this regard, assuming from the outset that Jesus was a non-apocalyptic Hellenistic sage and then excising from the Gospels anything that doesn’t fit this assumption. Other scholars are more subtle. But, in the end, efforts to reduce Jesus’ preaching to either an exclusively future kingdom or an exclusively present kingdom are unconvincing. The riddle of kingdom of God is too deeply embedded in the Gospel accounts to be amputated by responsible scholarship. (For more on the Jesus Seminar, see my article: Unmasking the Jesus Seminar.)
Could it be that Jesus simply contradicted himself? Did he speak of the kingdom as present and future without realizing his confusion? I doubt it. Even bracketing Jesus’ unique identity for a moment, I’d argue that brilliant, influential thinkers are rarely so obviously confused. Moreover, they are rarely easy to fathom. Have you ever tried to understand Plato, or Augustine, or Calvin, or Kant, or Wittgenstein? Good luck! Thus, simply working with historical probability, it’s likely that Jesus proclaimed the kingdom of God as somehow both future and present, and that he knew what he was doing at the time.
“With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade” (Mark 4:30-32)
Jesus invites us to look at the mustard seed from two perspectives. In the present – and it is really present – it is small and insignificant. In the future, however, the mustard seed will be great and notable. Similarly, God’s reign has truly come on earth in the ministry of Jesus. When blind eyes are opened, when deaf ears hear, when demons are cast out, when the hungry are fed, when sinners are forgiven, the kingdom of God is truly present on earth. Yet it’s relatively small, and won’t reach its full, glorious extent until later.
Many New Testament scholars today realize that Jesus proclaimed the kingdom as both present and future. You can find a refreshingly concise statement of this perspective in the now classic little book by G. E. Ladd, The Gospel of the Kingdom. Scholars who hold together both dimensions of the reign of God sometimes speak of it as “already and not yet.” The kingdom is already present in the ministry of Jesus and it is not yet fully present. If you read through the Gospels with this thought in mind, much begins to make sense. The sayings of Jesus and his actions demonstrate both the real presence and the future glory of the kingdom of God.
But the whole idea of “already and not yet” may seem odd and hard to fathom. If you’re accustomed to thinking of the kingdom as either future or present but not both, this new way of looking at Jesus can seem counter-intuitive. What sense does it make, you might wonder, to speak of something as “already and not yet” present?
I have found that three analogies from contemporary life make this seemingly odd concept much easier to grasp. But, since this post is running on, I’ll save these analogies for tomorrow.