Continuing on from when the Kingdom is coming, Mark D. Roberts now addresses how the Kingdom of God comes. Here are parts 1 through 3:
How is the Kingdom of God Coming? Part 1
So far in this series, What Was the Message of Jesus?, we’ve seen that the core of Jesus’ proclamation was “the kingdom of God has come near” (Mark 1:15). In my most recent posts in this series, I focused on the question of when the kingdom of God is coming. In fact, Jesus proclaimed the kingdom as something both present and future, as something “already and not yet” here on earth. Like a mustard seed, God’s reign begins as something small and insignificant, but in time it will become great and glorious.
This leads to an obvious question: How is the kingdom of God coming, according to Jesus? By what means will God begin to reign on earth more fully and obviously?
Before addressing this question, I want to survey other Jewish options in Jesus’ day.
First-Century Jewish Views on the Coming of the Kingdom of God
In the first century, there were a variety of answers to the question of how God’s reign would come on earth. Some Jews believed that the kingdom would come through armed rebellion against Rome. The Zealots and others with a revolutionary bent continually plotted ways to undermine and ultimately depose the Romans. Ultimately, this strategy lead to the Roman decimation of Judea and the destruction of the Jewish temple in A.D. 70.
Other Jews rejected this approach, preferring instead to wait for God’s dramatic intervention. The Essenes at Qumran near the Dead Sea had grand visions of an apocalyptic war between the sons of light and the sons of darkness, a war in which God would finally vindicate his people and restore both his temple and his kingdom. The folk at Qumran were disinclined to look for human agents who might bring the God’s kingdom, probably because their experience of Hasmonean (Maccabean/Jewish) rule of Judea had been such a negative one.
In many of the Jewish kingdom scenarios, God would act through a human being who would execute divine justice and restore divine rule over Israel. Only a few Jewish texts refer to this human as the Son of Man (literally in Hebrew/Aramaic, “the human being”). More commonly, however, the human agent of the kingdom was called “the anointed one” (in Hebrew, mashiach or “messiah”). There wasn’t one established set of expectations for the messiah, however. The Dead Sea Scrolls, for example, actually speak of multiple messiahs, including a priestly messiah and a royal messiah.
Common to every Jewish scenario of the coming to the kingdom was the expulsion of the gentiles who ruled over Judea. In Jesus’ day, the Romans were the hated overlords whom, it was hoped, would someday be vanquished by the Lord and his anointed leader. One Jewish writer, perhaps a Pharisee, wrote a collection of psalms, one of which bears passionate witness to Jewish hopes for the coming kingdom:
See, Lord, and raise up for them their king, the son of David, to rule over your servant Israel in the time known to you, O God. Undergird him with the strength to destroy the unrighteous rulers, to purge Jerusalem from gentiles ... He will gather a holy people whom he will lead in righteousness ... And he will be a righteous king over them, taught by God. There will be no unrighteousness among them in his days, for all shall be holy,and their king shall be the Lord Messiah. (Psalms of Solomon 17)
Jesus proclaimed the reign of God to a people who fervently hoped and prayed for its coming. Yet he did not affirm common Jewish expectations for how the kingdom would come. He didn’t raise up an army to wage war against Rome. And he didn’t promise that God would fight this battle himself in some imminent Armageddon. In fact Jesus’ answer to the question “How will the kingdom come?” was quite novel, elusive, and frustrating.
Now that I’ve established the Jewish context for Jesus’ explanation of how the kingdom will come, I’ll focus on Jesus in my next post.
How is the Kingdom of God Coming? Part 2
In my last post, I outlined some of the ways Jews in the time of Jesus answered the question: How is the kingdom of God coming? Though there were a variety of answers to that question, almost all Jews in the first century agreed that the coming of God’s kingdom would include the expulsion of Rome from Judea. The Zealots and others of revolutionary ilk were convinced that this would happen as human beings did the heavy lifting, with some help from the Lord. Others preferred to wait for God to lead the charge. (In the end, the Zealot-option prevailed as the Jews waged war against Rome in A.D. 66-70. The end of this effort, of course, was the utter destruction of the temple and the devastation of the Jewish people.)
Jesus perplexed many of the Jews in his day by his unwillingness to support a revolt against Rome. He healed the servant of a Roman centurion (Matt 8:5-13), praising this leader in the oppressor’s army as a paragon of faith (v. 10). He hung out with Jewish tax collectors who had collaborated with Rome in order to become rich (Luke 19:1-10). He even appeared to support paying taxes to Rome (Matt 22:15-22).
But, far more confusing than this was what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount. God will bless those who are meek, merciful, peaceful, and persecuted, not those who use human strength to fight against Rome (Matt 5:3-10). Moreover, Jesus taught that one should “not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile” (Matt 5:39-41). More troubling still, Jesus called his fellow Jews to love their enemies and pray for those who persecute them (Matt 5:44). In context, there could be no question in the mind of Jesus’ audience to whom he was referring in all of this: the Romans. Don’t fight against the Romans, he said, but love and pray for them.
Can you imagine how controversial this must have been? Here was Jesus, proclaiming the kingdom of God, doing miraculous works to prove that God’s reign had arrived, and yet opposing what most of his peers believed to be an essential element of the kingdom’s coming – the expulsion of Rome and the punishment of all who had oppressed Israel.
For us this can seem very theoretical, far removed from real human experience and emotion. But suppose Jesus appeared on the scene right now in Israel. Suppose he went around telling Israeli fathers whose children had been killed in suicide bombings and other terrorist attacks that they should turn the other cheek and love their enemies, and that this was somehow the way to peace. When we put matters in these terms, it’s easier to understand not only why so many people were confused by Jesus, but also why many were so angry at him.
Jesus seemed to be saying that the kingdom of God would come, not through human strength, but through weakness, not through military victories, but through apparent defeat, not through hatred, but through sacrificial love. How could this be possible?
I’ll continue to work on this question in my next post.
How is the Kingdom of God Coming? Part 3
Any consideration of how the kingdom of God is coming must grapple with one of the most striking and surprising passages in the New Testament. The first chapters of the Gospel of Mark chronicle Jesus’ healings, exorcisms, parables, and controversies. Through his words and works, his true identity is seen, but not seen; it is revealed, and yet secret.
In Mark 8 Jesus asks his disciples “Who do people say that I am?” (8:27). Some think that Jesus is John the Baptist reborn. Others think he is Elijah, the prophet whose return signals the coming of the kingdom. Others regard Jesus as “one of the prophets” – a label Jesus himself accepts (see Mark 6:4; Luke 4:24; 13:33). After warming up his disciples with a safe question about what others think, he becomes much more direct and personal: “But who do you say that I am?” (8:29). Peter, always the impetuous one, sticks his neck out with a bold answer: “You are the Messiah” (8:29). In the amplified version we’d read, “You are the one anointed by God to establish the kingdom. You’re the one who will lead the Jews in expelling the Romans from Judea.” Finally the secret is out. Jesus is the Messiah. Peter hit the bull’s eye . . . well, sort of.
No sooner does Peter finish than Jesus shocks him and his colleagues with unprecedented news: “Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again” (8:31). Peter is so unsettled by this that he actually takes Jesus aside, no doubt to keep Jesus from being embarrassed with public admonishment and begins to rebuke him. Though Mark doesn’t provide the transcript of this conversation, it isn’t hard to imagine how it might have gone: “Now, c’mon Master. The Son of Man will bring God’s judgment upon the wicked and inherit God’s glorious kingdom (Daniel 7). No suffering and dying here. And the Messiah will lead us to victory over the Romans. Don’t talk about this suffering and dying stuff. It makes no sense.”
Jesus’ responds by rebuking Peter in language that is rather blunt, to say the least: “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things” (8:33). Yeow! This is not what you’d want Jesus saying to you, that’s for sure.
It’s easy for us to look down on Peter as hard-headed, given what we know of Jesus and his ultimate fate. But we must be fair here. What Jesus said about the Son of Man was utterly unexpected. It seemed completely backwards to Peter and the other disciples. The glorious one to be humiliated? God’s victor to be killed? The healer to undergo great suffering? The king of the Jews to be rejected by the Jewish leaders? Peter’s response to Jesus wasn’t foolish or narrow-minded. In fact, it’s the response that I’m quite sure I would have made, if I’d even had the courage to speak up at all.
Given how hard it is for us to grasp the radical and apparently ridiculous nature of what Jesus said about the suffering Son of Man, let me offer the following hypothetical story. As you know, we’re in the beginning stages of the presidential election of 2012. Of course it’s most likely that Barack Obama will be the Democratic candidate, with David Axelrod as one of his major advisors. The Republican race is wide open right now. For the sake of argument, let’s assume that Ron Paul get’s the nomination. (According to polls, this isn’t likely, so it’s just a supposition for the sake of this illustration. And, to be clear, I am not using Mr. Paul as an example in order to sneak in an endorsement.) Now, when the election starts going hot and heavy, the candidates would, of course, pummel each other with words even as they endlessly boast of their own accomplishments. But suppose President Obama gathered a small group of his closest supporters and said: “Friends, we’re going to run a very different kind of campaign this year. Instead of blasting away at Ron Paul, we’re going to praise him. We’re going to highlight everything good about him. Moreover, we’re going to admit all of my mistakes, without evasions or excuses. The best thing for the country will be doing everything we can to help Ron Paul get elected.” Don’t you think at this point David Axelrod would take the President aside and rebuke him? Maybe he’d suggest that Mr. Obama needs some serious rest, or perhaps electroshock therapy? This is akin to Peter’s reaction to Jesus’ incredible suggestion that his calling as Son of Man includes suffering and dying. From Peter’s point of view, it makes absolutely now sense whatsoever.
Jesus appears to accept Peter’s confession “You are the Messiah,” even as he refers to himself as “The Son of Man.” But then Jesus redefines the mission of the Messiah/Son of Man in a radically new way. He will bring the kingdom of God, to be sure, but only through suffering and dying. This is how the kingdom will come.
But this answer begs another question: How will the death of Jesus be a pathway for the coming of the kingdom of God?
I’ll pick this up in my next post in this series. Stay tuned . . . .