Part 13 of series:
What Was the Message of Jesus?
In recent posts I have shown that Jesus proclaimed the kingdom of God as something both present and future. Like the mustard seed, the kingdom is small in the moment, yet will be great in the future. The more we study Jesus’ ministry without chopping it into disconnected bits, the more we realize that he proclaimed the reign of God as something that was “already and not yet” present. It was already present in Jesus’ own ministry, but it was not yet fully present. Much more was still to come.
I have found that three analogies help people grasp the “already and not yet-ness” of the kingdom. You can probably think of others, but here are my three.
Engagement and Marriage
As a pastor, I have the privilege of sharing with engaged couples as they prepare for marriage. When their wedding day arrives, most couples are well-prepared to commit their lives to each other. In the minutes before the ceremony begins, I visit with the bride and groom, praying with them for what lies ahead. If I were to ask them at that point, “Do you love your fiancé? Will you commit yourself completely to him or her?” they would answer “Yes. Yes.” Are they married at that point? No, not yet. Yet are they deeply committed to each other? Yes. Do they love each other profoundly? Yes. All that’s necessary for a marriage is present and ready to go. In many ways they’re already feeling as if they were married, and yet they aren’t married.
Pregnancy and Parenthood
There’s just about nothing more exciting for a woman who wants to be a mother than being pregnant. From the moment she first hears the good news of her pregnancy, she starts preparing emotionally to be a mother. After just a few weeks, she gets to hear the baby’s heartbeat during a visit to the doctor. Not long afterward, she begins to feel the baby kicking and moving. By the time a woman is nine months’ pregnant, she has thought about her baby for thousands of hours. She has taken new baby classes. She has prepared a place for the baby and usually chosen a name. She loves her baby intensely. So then, is a woman in her last weeks of pregnancy a mother? In so many ways the answer is “yes.” But most people would say that, however real her motherhood may be, something is lacking. The act of giving birth makes it all complete. (Well, actually, it’s just one big step forward in a lifelong enterprise of being a mother.) Is a woman a mother when she’s nine months pregnant? She is already . . . and not yet.
I enrolled as a freshman at Harvard College in September of 1975. Sixteen and a half years later, in May of 1992, I faced the last challenge of my Harvard career: the oral defense of my Ph.D. dissertation. On that fateful day in early May, I sat in a room with four brilliant scholars and defended my academic work. Then they sent me out in the hall to sweat while they decided my fate. After about twenty minutes, my advisor beckoned me back into the room. “We have voted unanimously to approve your dissertation,” he said. “Congratulations, Dr. Roberts!”
In order to make things official, I had to submit four copies of my doctoral thesis to the appropriate office and, of course, pay all of my outstanding bills. I did these things soon after my oral defense was over. And that was that! Done!
But was I really done? Could I truly claim to be Dr. Roberts? Well, not quite. Graduation wasn’t until early June. I wouldn’t hold my Ph.D. in my hand until then. So, was I Dr. Roberts in late May of 1992? In some sense, yes, I already was. And, in some sense, no, I wasn’t yet.
The Kingdom of God: Already and Not Yet
When Jesus began his ministry in Galilee, the reign of God had truly begun to appear on earth. God’s power was present in Jesus, which explains why blind eyes were opened and demons expelled. But the kingdom hadn’t fully come, even though it was already truly present. And Jesus, though he was announcing and inaugurating the kingdom, hadn’t finished everything for his “graduation” as messiah. This work, as it turned out, wasn’t just proclaiming the kingdom and demonstrating its presence through works of power and love. For the kingdom of God to come fully, Jesus had to do something else, something so radical, paradoxical, and unexpected that nobody anticipated it.
In my next post in this series I’ll begin to explore Jesus’ surprising action as I answer the question: “How is the Kingdom of God Coming?”