[ Thanks to Scott Stone for eliciting this post with his study and comments ]
I’ve done a lot of reading over the past few years on the Kingdom of God. It is one of the most important biblical themes to study in my opinion, because it is the central teaching of Jesus Christ as we know from the 4 gospels. I have this theory, I know I’m not the first to come up with it. I think much of what is happening in the American evangelical church today is sort of a “new reformation.” Or perhaps it could be termed a “protestant counter-reformation,” which deals precisely with the Kingdom of God theme in Jesus’ teachings. We are, in a sense, rediscovering the Gospel. Let me explain what I mean.
When Luther was battling with the Catholic Church over theology and the politics of the Roman Catholic Church, his personal/theological quest was to rediscover the Gospel. In rediscovering the gospel, he found out that many of the beliefs people held were in error, especially their views of penance which had to do, ultimately, with justification. He sought to free the German church from the erroneous views and to accent what he believed to be imperative: sola gratia & sola scriptura. Today, there is widespread study of the Kingdom of God theme in evangelical Christianity. Many theologians and pastors are waking up to the reality that we also have held a view of the gospel which has so been reduced and refined over time so as to actually diminish some of the central teachings of Jesus.
Many of those women and men who are writing about this theme in our time have noted that the past 150 years or so have been dominated by a reduced form of the gospel, i.e., a gospel of “sin management” as Dallas Willard puts it. This basically means the true gospel as preached by Jesus has been inadvertently (which is an important point for me) subverted by the church and it has morphed into a very individualistic way to deal with our sin through Christ so that we can go to heaven when we die. The theme of Christ’s teachings – the kerygma, which means his main message, was not how to go to heaven when you die. His main message was “The time if fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” (Mark 1:14) This Greek word metanoia, which is translated “repent” in most of our modern versions is the source of a lot of misunderstanding. To fully appreciate the work being done with the kingdom of God theology today, one must understand how this word has been treated.
Three understandings of Metanoia:
JEROME: do penance
Jerome’s translation and revision of the Vulgate seems to have been completed around 400 AD. It grew in popularity and became the official version for the Roman Catholic Church for about 1000 years. Whether he translated the Gospels from the Septuagint or simply revised a Latin version isn’t really the point here. But however he constructed the Vulgate, Jerome translated metanoia “do penance.” Around this understanding/translation the whole confession/penance system grew up in the Catholic church including indulgences, which fueled the reformation.
LUTHER: change your mind
When Luther translated the bible into German he noted that Jerome was wrong in his translation of metanoia, (virtually every scholar acknowledges this as true now – even the Roman Catholic Church). The word is now rightfully translated as “repent.” Luther took this to mean “a change of mind.” He related it to trust or faith in a more wholistic way, but over time this understanding was reduced. Soon there was this idea that the gospel was all about what you believe. Change your mind and believe in Jesus and then you are set. The church in the enlightenment, modern era ran with this idea and over time the gospel really came to mean something like “give mental assent to these truth claims about Jesus, say a prayer reflecting this and you will go to heaven when you die.” This has been the understanding of the Gospel in evangelical circles starting in the reformation and has been more refined and in some sense reduced since then. This view still holds sway in much of evangelicalism.
POST-MODERNITY: change your whole direction/pursuit
Next came some serious theologians and writers working around the beginning of the 20th century and then in earnest after WWII (although there has always been this stream of thought – ironically much of it in the Roman Catholic church after the Catholic Counter-reformation as well as the Eastern Orthodox Church), which acknowledged a more complete understanding of metanoia. The word is still translated as “repent” but in the Greek, metanoia carries much more meaning than does this word “repent” in English. A common American English understanding of “repent” means to express regret. Some understand it as a turning, but this is often symbolic not actual. For the most part the change which is understood to happen in repentance is a rational one. But the original understanding of metanoia denotes more than changing our mind. It was understood as changing of one’s whole way of life and agenda for living.
Many believe, and I am persuaded by them, that this is a better understanding of what Jesus was saying in Mark 1:14. Jesus meant for us to change our whole way of life and agenda and to follow after him. This seems like a better exegesis of Mark 1 than simply changing one’s mind – it certainly invovles the mind but connotes much more than that.
A good example of how to understand the phrase “repent and believe” can be found in the writing’s of Josephus, a well known Jewish political figure and writer who lived in the time of Jesus. He fought against the Romans as a General in the Jewish revolt which saw the Temple destroyed in AD 70. From that war we have a letter written by General Josephus to one of his rival Generals who was fighting in his own battle in another part of the Empire. He was urging this rival General to come join him and come under his command and fight the battle differently. To express this and convince the rival to leave his current pursuit, Josephus wrote “repent and believe in me,” the same exact words in the Greek which Jesus used in Mark 1:14! What Josephus wanted this rival to do was leave his current way of bringing about the rule of God and come join Josephus and pursue his way of bringing about the rule of God. This is a good way of understanding what Jesus was asking us to do.
To simply understand Mark 1:14 to mean “you must give mental assent to truth claims about Jesus” really does not seem to fully express what Jesus taught. All of the kerygma expresses that to follow Jesus means to leave one’s current agenda of what they think it means to follow after God, or live in god’s rule and reign , and instead pursue the kingdom of God in the way which Jesus espoused. Thus Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount becomes paramount for us to discover what it means to pursue the Kingdom of God in the way Jesus recommends to us.
Now as with every sort of reform movement there are possibilities of over-correction. It seems pertinent to acknowledge that here and realize that any understanding of metanoia or “repent” must include the changing of one’s mind. We cannot throw out the baby with the bath water. There is also a sense in which Christ’s kingdom call will require penance, not as a way of earning our justification as the Roman Catholic church espoused before the reformation, but as the only appropriate response to the grace of God. Should we choose to jettison the previous understandings of what it means to “repent,” we should fall prey to new insidious distortions of the Gospel. We should hold these all in proper view as we interpret Mark 1:14.
The Good news of Jesus is accurately described as a turning from our own agenda to the agenda of Christ – which entails many things. His agenda involves the whole person, mind, body, soul and spirit. It means to believe in Jesus, to love him, to devote our bodies to him as we follow his teachings and to do all we can to see that he rules and reigns on earth as in heaven. I am pursuing this kingdom with all of my heart, mind, soul and strength and hope that this will be the direction of the church universal over the next 100 years and forever.
Here are a few great books that help to explore the Kingdom of God theme. If you have already read N.T. Wright’s The Challenge of Jesus, then this is the right order to read them. If not, I’d insert Wright’s book before McLaren’s. I know some people bristle at McLaren but his work is important and though you may not agree with all of what he says in this book, it is a very good description of Kingdom of God theology and will broaden our thinking with insight which seems important to me.
The Divine Conspiracy by Dallas Willard
The Upside Down Kingdom by Donald Kraybill
The Secret Message of Jesus by Brian McLaren