The View of Scholar on the Kingdom of God

by David W. Baker. It is posted with permission from the author. I. Introduction The Kingdom of God has been one of the dominant topics of New Testament study in this century. The reason is obvious. Many scholars, both conservative and critical, regard the kingdom of God as “the central theme” of Jesus’ public proclamation. 1 In fact, a plethora of monographs has poured forth since Johannes Weiss and Albert Schweitzer made the case that Jesus’ teaching was profoundly Jewish, drenched in intense eschatological hope. This new view contended against nineteenth century views, which moralized the kingdom and made it palatable to modern taste by arguing it was merely an expression of ethical sensitivity raised up in the hearts of men. In contrast, Weiss and Schweitzer argued that Jesus’ claim for the kingdom anticipated God’s stark intervention in the very near future that would reshape the creation. The view became known as “consistent,” “thorough-going” or “imminent” eschatology.

For Weiss, the kingdom was purely religious, not ethical; purely future, not present in any way. The Kingdom would be God’s final miracle with Jesus functioning in his current ministry as Messias designatus. 3 For Weiss, Jesus believed that he would one day become the Son of Man. At first, Jesus believed that this would occur during his lifetime, and later in his ministry, he anticipated it to come shortly after His death. 4 It is a heritage that Jesus believed he possessed, though he had not yet entered into it.

For Schweitzer, Jesus expected the end to come at first in his ministry. As he sent out the twelve in mission (Matthew 10:23), he believed that before they finished their tour of the cities of Israel, the Son of Man would come and bring the kingdom. Its appearance would mean the end of the present age, and he would be transformed into the Son of Man. When the disciples returned from their mission without this taking place, Jesus’ hopes of the end changed. It would take suffering, his own suffering, for the Kingdom to come. His death would bring the Kingdom. Though very different than Schweitzer, the oldest dispensationalists also stressed the Jewish roots of kingdom hope and placed its ultimate expression, as originally expressed through the hope of Israel’s scriptures, strictly in the future, what they referred to as the “kingdom of heaven. ” Whatever relationship Jesus’ work in the present had to the kingdom, it was part of a previously unrevealed “mystery” that made its current expression something istinct from what had been promised to Israel and distinct from what was to come one day in fulfillment. This distinction between what would happen for Israel one day and what happens to the church today was a major element in the traditional dispensational distinction between Israel and the church in the plan of God. However, in the middle of this century, that clear distinction was somewhat blurred, though how it worked precisely was never agreed to or clearly set forth as four separate views were espoused. Unlike Schweitzer, these dispensationalists, saw no “error” or “change” in Jesus’ understanding, but like him they regarded the promise of the future to be so rooted in Jewish hope and so grand in its scale that nothing Jesus did currently could be seen as the fulfillment of that great promise of old. For both classical and revised dispensationalists, the mystery introduced into the kingdom program, conceived in various ways in this century, represented an “intercalation” in the kingdom program of God, distinct from the hope given to Israel.

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So efforts were made to demyhtologize Jesus’ image of the apocalyptic Kingdom into either an existential claim for a crisis decision (Bultmann) or to turn kingdom language into a mere metaphorical symbol of hope and transformation (Wilder and the later Perrin). 8 Both of these attempts, representing more liberal readings of Scripture, tried to redeem the kingdom concept by redefining it. However, two other approaches seriously sought to engage the biblical text and assess the model Weiss and Schweitzer introduced.

These two other main views of the kingdom in this century have reacted to the “strictly future” model of the kingdom in two very diverse ways. One view, associated with C. H. Dodd, opted for a reading that the Kingdom hope was totally realized in Jesus’ ministry. 9 This became known as “realized” eschatology. The other, rooted in the work of Werner Kummel, R. H. Fuller, and Joachim Jeremias, argued that the view of the kingdom had both present and future elements. 10 This became known as the “already/not yet” view of the kingdom or eschatology in the process of realization. ” In fact, Jeremias in his conclusion to his volume on the parables closes this way, “In attempting to recover the original significance of the parables, one thing above all becomes evident: it is that all the parables of Jesus compel his hearers to come to a decision about his person and mission. For they all are full of ‘the secret of the Kingdom of God’ (Mark 4. 11), that is to say, the recognition of ‘an eschatology in the process of realization. The hour of fulfillment is come, that is the urgent note that sounds through them all. ”11 This view was made famous in evangelical circles by George Ladd. 12 It is probably the most prominent view currently in New Testament circles at large, both conservative and critical. It is known as “inaugurated” eschatology. 13 The kingdom was inaugurated or was dawning in Jesus’ words and deeds, but its consummation was yet future. As we shall see, there are also good reasons why this view is held.

I lay out this “map” of views at the start, because the issue of what the kingdom is, when it begins, and how it proceeds have been the key questions in this century. But treating the theology of the kingdom involves far more than these questions, as we hope to show and survey. In fact, I hope to consider a series of issues tied to the kingdom. They include: (1) Linguistics and the Kingdom in Jewish Expectation: A Static or Tensive Symbol; (2) Kingdom as Apocalyptic (Imminence; Remaking of This World Into The Age to Come or Renewing This World in This History or Both); (3) Kingdom: Present, Future, or Both? (4) Defining the Kingdom: “Dynamic”–God’s Powerful Presence in Rule (God in Strength) or “Realm” (Church, Israel, World, or “Eschatological”) or All the Above; (5) The Kingdom and Ethics; (6) Beyond the Term Kingdom (Messiah, Spirit, Son of Man, Salvation, Gospel, Overcoming Satan and Sin); (7) Kingdom outside the Gospels (Why Is The Term Less Prevalent? ); and (8) So What? : The Kingdom and Today. So not only is the kingdom theme an important New Testament concept generating a rich history of discussion, it is also one of the most complex topics in Scripture. II.

The Kingdom, Jesus, the Hebrew Scriptures, and Second Temple Jewish Kingdom Hope: A Static or Tensive Symbol? When Jesus used the expression “kingdom of God,” how much of its meaning can we assume he and his audience shared? This becomes an important question because the expression itself, surprisingly, is totally absent in the Hebrew Scriptures. 14 Here is a case where the study of an idea has to move past a study of the set phrase to get anywhere. The idea, however, is more frequent. 15 Yahweh is King (1 Sam 12:12; Ps. 24:10; Is. 33:22; Zeph. 3:15; Zech. 14:16-17). He rules over Israel (Exod. 15:18; Num. 23:21; Deut. 33:5; Is. 43:15).

He rules over the earth or the creation (2 Kings 19:15; Is. 6:5; Jer. 46:18; Ps. 29:10; 47:2; 93; 96:10; 145:11, 13). He possesses a royal throne (Ps. 9:4; 45:6; 47:8; Is. 6:1; 66:1; Ezek 1:26). His reign is ongoing (Ps. 10:16; 146:10; Is. 24:23). Rule or kingship is His (Ps. 22:28). It is primarily God’s special relationship to Israel that is in view here as the Son of David is said to sit on Yahweh’s throne (1 Chron 17:14; 28:5; 29:23; 2 Chron 9:8; 13:8). When Israel was overrun by the nations, a longing existed that one day God would reestablish his rule on behalf of his people and show his comprehensive sovereignty to all humanity.

After all, God had committed himself to David concerning a dynasty of duration (2 Sam. 7:13). It is here that the hope of a future kingdom of God, made not with hands, came to be contrasted with the kingdoms of men in Daniel 2 and 7. It is in the context of such expectation that Jesus used the term “kingdom of God. ” What was hoped for was something that had existed in the past, but only as a mere glimpse of what had been promised–a rule to come involving total peace for God’s people. In sum, Kingdom hope by the time of the Babylonian captivity is driven forward by the vision of the fullness of God’s rule showing up one day.

It was to this hope that Jesus preached. Such a hope had been nurtured in some circles of second temple Judaism. 16 The kingdom became linked (sometimes) to the messianic hope, but (always) to judgment of the nations, and vindication of the saints. Some Jewish documents, content with the current arrangement, do not reflect any such hope. The concept is expressed with some variety, but central to its expression is that God will assert his comprehensive rule (1 Enoch 9:4-5; 12:3; 25; 27:3; 81:3).

God’s powerful presence will involve the removal of Satan’s influence (Assumption of Moses 7–10). He will destroy his enemies and free his people. These enemies are described in both earthly terms, like the Romans in Psalms of Solomon 17–18 and 2 Baruch 36-40, and in spiritual terms, where Belial stands among the evil forces who will be defeated (1QS 3–4). Often the coming of the kingdom was seen as preceded by a period of intense upheaval and tribulation (Sib. Or. 3:796-808; 2 Bar. 70:2-8; 4 Ezra 6:24; 9:1-12; 13:29-31; 1QM 12:9; 19:1-2). The cry of the prayer of 2 Macc. :24-29 summarizes well the hope of deliverance. The call was for God to deliver and vindicate his people. The text of Psalms of Solomon 17–18 gives the most detailed expression of messianic hope in all the texts, though the idea of kingdom in this period of Judaism did not always entail a messianic hope. 17 In fact, sometimes the Messiah is seen in very earthly terms as in the Psalms of Solomon, while in other texts, he clearly possesses a more transcendent power (1 Enoch 37–71) or has a seeming mix of the two (4 Ezra 7:28-29; 12:32-34; 13:26).

Thus, associated with the consistent idea of God’s coming comprehensive and vindicating rule for his people is a complex and varying array of sub-themes tied to the kingdom’s coming. In Judaism, there was no unified view of the kingdom beyond the hope of God’s powerful coming and vindication. It is important to appreciate that it is into this somewhat confused backdrop that Jesus preached this hope. This complex background raises the question could Jesus use the phrase and really be understood? More importantly, in presenting his understanding of the idea represented in the kingdom could he assume an understanding of the term by his audience?

Given the paucity of Old Testament use of the phrase and the variety of details attached to the hope within Judaism, Jesus needed to explain his usage in order to be clear. It is this complexity that raises the issue of whether Jesus’ use of the term was “static” (steno) or “tensive. ” 18 Norman Perrin posed two options. Did Jesus use the term one way all the time with a fixed referent (steno)? Or was his use of the term something that he used with symbolic force but that could not be contained in one referent alone (tensive)?

We opt for a third possibility, did Jesus’ use operate within a fixed parameter, which he filled with a variety of detail because of the richness of the base concept he was defining and detailing (tensive yet with a steno-like base)? 19 How one approaches Jesus’ terminology will impact how one reads it. Four factors favor this third option. First, the number of and variety within the gospel kingdom sayings placed alongside the paucity of older references in the Hebrew Scriptures suggests that Jesus is developing the concept along additional lines from what the Old Testament taught.

However, Jesus’ respect for that revelation means that he is not altering the concept, but developing and complementing it. We hope to show the variety within his teaching that validates this point. Second, the very consistency of the fundamental image within Judaism means that a basic understanding of kingdom did exist on which Jesus could build. It is God’s kingdom and rule that is presented as the hope. The sheer number of texts that discuss judgment and vindication under this theme both in Scripture and in later Judaism show that Jesus works with a given understanding at its base.

Reflection taking place within Second Temple Judaism represented attempts to put the hope of Scripture together in terms of the details. Jesus both accepts and rejects elements of these reflections. Third, this idea that Jesus works with a rarely used Old Testament term and yet develops it using larger categories of scriptural teaching has precedent elsewhere in his own use. Jesus does the same type of thing with the Son of Man concept. That description of a human invested with eschatological authority appears in Daniel 7 (note the conceptual overlap with the kingdom theme–Dan. is a key kingdom text). Jesus takes this one image and uses it as a collection point for his christology. In the same way, Jesus takes the kingdom concept and uses it as a collection point for both soteriology and eschatology. 20 Fourth, the very confusion of detail within Judaism of Jesus’ time demanded that he take this type of approach to the concept. Here was a phrase that basically did not exist in the Old Testament. However, by Jesus’ time, multiple concepts swirled around it, even though its basic meaning was well established.

The phrase clearly sought to summarize a major strand of Jewish hope, yet it needed defining. Its absence in the Old Testament gave Jesus room to make it a helpful synthesizing concept. Its familiarity and importance within Judaism, because of the hope it encapsulated, made it a key term to nail down. The very diversity in its contemporary usage required that Jesus explain and develop the term. Thus, as we turn to Jesus’ use, we can expect that on the one hand he was referring to a hope his audience understood in its most basic terms, but something that also needed more detail and development.

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