Wednesday, October 7, 2015

The Apocalyptic Jesus (Part II): The imminent kingdom of God

Let us continue with our series which attempts to highlight the imminent eschatology of Jesus (part I here), an eschatology we would label as apocalyptic. In the previous post I highlighted how important it is to interpret the ministry of Jesus against the backdrop of the worldview of second temple Judaism, and how this worldview shaped and catalyzed the apocalyptic framework. This will be important to keep at the forefront as we, in this post, delve into another focal point of Jesus ministry: the Kingdom of God.

To those familiar with the New Testament it should come as no surprise to hear that Jesus’ ministry was organized around and predicated on the Kingdom of God. Jesus spoke of this Kingdom probably more often than he spoke of anything else. In fact, in the book of Matthew alone the phrase “kingdom of God” (or kingdom of Heaven) is used thirty-seven times, while it is used thirty-two times in Luke’s Gospel! In the Lord’s Prayer Jesus famously asked for “Thy Kingdom come.” Scholar Craig Keener notes that “virtually every stratum of Gospel tradition testifies that Jesus regularly announced the kingdom, there should be no doubt that this was a characteristic emphasis of Jesus teaching.” In the same vein,  secular historian Michael Grant claims the following in his book Jesus:
[E]very thought and saying of Jesus was directed and subordinated to one single thing […] the realization of the Kingdom of God  upon the earth[…] This one phrase sums up his whole ministry and his whole life’s work. (p. 10-11)

So it’s clear then, Jesus’ ministry was about one general focal point: the kingdom of God. But what exactly was meant by this phrase? Was it metaphorical or literal? Christians these days interpret the phrase “kingdom of God” as meaning a Christian lifestyle of love, or some interpret it as world evangelization. But in order to find out what Jesus meant by the phrase we need to understand how it was used in second temple Judaism.

In The Historical Jesus of the Gospels Craig Keener claims that in Jesus’ time the phrase “kingdom” signified the concept of “rule”, “reign”, or “authority” (p. 196).  Again, Michael Grant, in agreement with Keener, claims that “the Hebrew term [kingdom] refers not so much to a realm as to the dynamic kingly rule and sovereign action of God.” (p. 15) So, the kingdom of God seems to represent God’s sovereign rule and reign. To quote Keener again, “When Jewish people prayed for God’s kingdom to ‘come,’ they weren’t simply invoking God’s mystical presence among them for the present time; they were praying for God’s future reign to come.” (p. 198)

Moreover, we can survey Jewish texts in the second temple Judaic period and see how they used the phrase “kingdom of God.” The Kaddish prayer states the following: “May he establish his kingdom in your lifetime and in your days, and in the lifetime of the whole house of Israel, speedily and at a near time.” In the Testament of Moses 10:1 it says that “[God’s] kingdom shall appear throughout his creation, and Satan shall be no more[.]” And from the Dead Sea Scrolls 4Q246 it states the following: “His kingdom will be an everlasting kingdom and all his ways in truth. He will judge the earth in truth and all will make peace. The sword will cease from the earth and all provinces will worship him[.]” These uses of kingdom surely seem to imply the reign, rule and authority of God.

Thus, the phrase “kingdom of God” seems most plausibly to be conceived as the restoration of God’s rule and authority as seen through the Davidic Kingdom, brought about by divine intervention ( see part I).  Again, this is what was expected by most Jews and it makes perfect sense to interpret Jesus’ use of the phrase “kingdom” in this vein—any other interpretation only strains credulity and is anachronistic.  For, as the Jews believed, God’s authority obviously was not being exercised in second temple Judaism since the Jews were still being oppressed. But, His rule was soon to come, and his Kingdom would be established once and for all. At least this is what Jesus and many Jews believed.

This brings us to Jesus actual statements about the kingdom, and exactly how close he believed God’s rule was to being realized:
The kingdom of God has come near you. Luke 10:9
Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come in power. Mark 9:1
The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.  Mark 1:15
You must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour. Luke 12:40
Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Mark 13:30
And will God not grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. Luke 18:7-8
Obviously this is the tip of the iceberg. Anyone who’s ever cracked open the New Testament will see phrases of this kind peppered throughout. The point is that Jesus believed God’s intervention, which aimed at establishing his kingdom once and for all was right around the corner. So close in fact that his disciples wouldn’t even die before it happened. So close that Jesus’ own ministry was the first fruits of the ushering of this kingdom. This is apocalypticism, plain and simple.

But this line of thought can be taken even further, and can illuminate further elements of Jesus’ ministry. Think of some of Jesus’ extreme commands in the vein of asceticism: Taking no thought or concern for subsequent days.   To make oneself a eunuch for the kingdom’s sake. A lack of concern for material things, including personal possessions and even shelter. Jesus’ willingness to die etc. (This asceticism is also illuminated in Paul when he told the churches not to marry.) It should be obvious from reading the Gospels that Jesus kept a general distance from the way normal society took its course. He simply didn’t care about what most Jews and Romans cared about. And why should he have, since he believed the world was about to end due to God’s intervention. Why care about possessions if they won’t be important any longer? Why care about what’s going to happen tomorrow, since tomorrow might not come at all? Why care about your family or marrying a woman if such things won’t matter when God intervenes? This point is driven home in Karl Frank’s book With Greater Liberty when he states that “the conviction that the end of the world was near always fostered asceticism.” (p. 30) It should be obvious that this ascetic outlook fits like a glove with an apocalyptic worldview, and therefore gives us more reason to regard Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet.

Thus, we see that Jesus’ ministry rested on the fulcrum of the kingdom of God. Yet we’ve seen that in second temple Judaism the kingdom of God represented God’s eventual intervention which would establish once and for all his sovereign authority. And we’ve seen that Jesus made statements that explicitly state that this intervention was right around the corner and would happen within the lifetime of his disciples. Lastly, we saw that Jesus’ indifference to the common matters of the world makes perfect sense under the condition that Jesus believed the world would be ending soon. Everywhere we turn, the apocalyptic framework makes perfect sense when predicated of Jesus’ ministry. 

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