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At a time when so many different ideas about Jesus are being circulated, what more authentic source for learning about him than the Gospels? And what better way of studying the New Testament than with an expert who has spent his life pondering and teaching it? Scripture scholar Father Daniel J. Harrington, S.J., is our guide.

Jesus: A Historical Portrait

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The Now and Future Kingdom

by Daniel J. Harrington, S.J.

When Matthew sat down to summarize the preaching of John the Baptist early in his Gospel, he wrote: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (3:2). And the first words that Matthew attributed to Jesus as he began his public ministry are exactly the same: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (4:17). The Kingdom of God was the central theme in the preaching of both John the Baptist and Jesus. (The “kingdom of heaven” was Matthew’s typically Jewish substitute expression. As a sign of reverence, Jews avoided using the name of God.)

Thy Kingdom come

In the context of first-century Judaism, the “Kingdom of God” referred especially to God’s future display of power and judgment and to the final establishment of God’s rule over all creation. Then, all people and all creation will recognize and acknowledge the God of Israel as the only God and Lord. This is what we ask for when we pray: “Thy Kingdom come!”

When the day of the Lord comes and God’s Kingdom is fully established, the will of God shall be done on earth as it is in heaven. Jesus’ own prayer—the Lord’s Prayer—is, first and foremost, a prayer for the coming of God’s Kingdom in its fullness.

The theme of the Kingdom of God dates to the Old Testament, where we read about God’s eternal kingship and the monarchy in ancient Israel. Many of the “kingship” psalms of the Hebrew Bible begin by celebrating Yahweh, the God of Israel, as king over all creation: “The Lord is king!” (Ps 93:1; 97:1; 99:1).

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God’s kingly rule was revealed especially in Israel’s exodus from Egypt, and that rule is also associated with God’s justice and judgment: “The Lord is king! The world is firmly established; it shall never be moved. He will judge the peoples with equity” (Ps 96:10).

In the debate about anointing Saul as king over Israel, the chief hesitation concerned the relationship of the earthly king to the kingship of God: “they [Israel] have rejected me [God] from being king over them” (1 Sm 8:7).

From present to future fulfillment

From the sixth century B.C. onward, after Israel’s exile to Babylon and its return, the emphasis on God’s kingship shifted from the present to the future. The people were oppressed, in turn, by the Persians, the Greeks and the Romans. It became increasingly difficult for them to imagine how God’s promise of an eternal kingship from the line of David could ever be fulfilled under such conditions.

One possibility of this fulfillment was that in the “last days” of the present age in human history, God’s kingship would be made evident in a truly spectacular way. Then the righteous in Israel would be vindicated and granted what had been promised to God’s people.

In describing the future manifestation of God’s reign, the Jewish writers of the day used words and images from earlier times: the day of the Lord, the divine warrior, God as king, the anointed one (Messiah), cosmic signs, etc. But they placed these words and images in a new context that pointed to the last days (eschatological) or the future (apocalyptic).

Justice will prevail

In Jewish writings of Jesus’ time there was no uniform description of the events accompanying the full coming of God’s Kingdom.

• Daniel writes of a cosmic battle featuring the archangel Michael, the great tribulation and the vindication of the righteous and wise in their resurrection to eternal life (12:1-3).

• In 1 Enoch (a Jewish apocalyptic book containing writings from the third century B.C. to the first century A.D.), we learn that there will be the establishment of justice in Israel, a judgment upon the whole world, and a new heaven and a new earth (91:12-17).

• The Assumption of Moses, another early Jewish apocalyptic writing, foresees cosmic signs accompanying the coming of the Kingdom as well as punishments for the gentiles and exaltation for Israel.

• The Rule of the Community, one of the Dead Sea scrolls, contains regulations and related materials for Jewish life in something like a monastery.

Underlying all these scenarios is the conviction that when the course of history has been accomplished, God will vindicate Israel (or the faithful within it) by destroying evil and evildoers, and by bringing about a new heaven and a new earth where goodness and justice will prevail. It is God’s task to fulfill his promises to Israel and to establish the Kingdom for all creation to see and celebrate.

Jesus preaches the future Kingdom

That Jesus shared the hopes of his Jewish contemporaries for the future coming of God’s Kingdom is indicated by the summary of his preaching in Matthew 4:17 (“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near”) and by the Lord’s Prayer (“Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”). We can learn even more from the parables which, many scholars agree, best represent the “voice” of the historical Jesus regarding the Kingdom of God.

The 13th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel contains several short parables that begin with the words “The kingdom of heaven is like....” The twin parables of the mustard seed and the yeast (31-33) emphasize that the Kingdom’s small beginnings in the present (especially in Jesus’ own preaching) will produce great results as symbolized by the large mustard bush and the abundance of bread.

The twin parables of the hidden treasure and the precious pearl (44-46) stress the extraordinary value of the coming Kingdom and the total commitment that it deserves and demands. The parables of the wheat and weeds (24-30, 36-43) and the fishing net (47-50) indicate that the full coming of God’s Kingdom will be accompanied by a divine judgment that will separate the good from the bad and give them their appropriate rewards and punishments.

These parables, and many other passages in the New Testament, affirm that there will be a clear and more obvious manifestation of God’s rule in the future. It will include a divine judgment in which the righteous will be vindicated and the wicked will be condemned.

Future—and present

While the “kingdom of heaven” parables in Matthew 13 look to the future, they also have a present dimension. The Kingdom is present now, even if in a small way, in the mustard seed, the yeast, the hidden treasure and the pearl.

Moreover, something important pertaining to the Kingdom is going on now: The mustard seed is growing into a great bush; the yeast is expanding the flour; and the treasure and the pearl are present realities insofar as they can be found, handled and enjoyed here and now. While Jesus shared the hopes of his contemporaries for the fullness of God’s Kingdom, he also wanted to alert people to the presence of God’s Kingdom already among them.

Jesus’ words confirm the Kingdom as present

Three sayings in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke confirm that God’s Kingdom is a present entity. All of these sayings reflect with a very high degree of probability the views of the historical Jesus.

• In Luke 11:20 (and Matthew 12:28), Jesus defends his practice of casting out demons by saying: “But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out the demons, then the Kingdom of God has come to you.” The “finger of God” alludes to Old Testament contests between Pharaoh’s magicians and Moses the miracle worker (see Ex 8:19). The Gospel saying claims that Jesus’ healings and exorcisms are present manifestations of God’s reign and represent his victory over demonic forces.

• In Matthew 11:12 (and Luke 16:16), Jesus says: “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.” The idea is that from John to Jesus, the Kingdom of God was real enough in the present to have been the object of violent opposition. Surely Jesus alludes to John’s execution under Herod Antipas. Moreover, the opposition that Jesus himself faced was another sign that the Kingdom was present in his ministry.

• In Luke 17:21, Jesus tells the Pharisees: “the kingdom of God is among you.” Jesus here rejects the idea that the Kingdom will come only with cosmic signs, and reminds his audience that the Kingdom is to some extent already present. The translations “among you” and “in your midst” are preferable to “within you.” (In a first-century Jewish context, “within you” would involve an excessively individual and spiritual interpretation.)

These three sayings are widely regarded as expressing the “voice” of the historical Jesus about the Kingdom of God. They all suggest that, according to Jesus, the Kingdom of God has a present dimension as well as future dimensions. These sayings assert that Jesus’ healings were present signs of the Kingdom, that the Kingdom was enough of a present reality to suffer violent opposition and that the Kingdom is “among us” and “in our midst” if only we look hard enough for it.

Jesus embodies the Kingdom

The parables and sayings tell us that God’s Kingdom was present in the person and ministry of Jesus in an especially powerful way. The early Christian writer Origen described Jesus as “the kingdom itself.” In other words, Jesus was the embodiment or Incarnation of the Kingdom of God.

One of the puzzles that some New Testament scholars have found especially difficult to explain is why, in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, the focus is on the Kingdom of God, while in John’s Gospel the focus is on Jesus himself as the revealer and revelation of God. The answer may be found in the idea of Jesus as “the kingdom itself,” as the present manifestation of the Kingdom of God par excellence.

Goal and horizon of Christian living

The theme of the Kingdom of God offers the goal and the horizon for Christian life. The fullness of the Kingdom remains beyond human comprehension and control. It is God’s task and privilege to bring it about in God’s own time. The Resurrection of Jesus is the most dramatic and significant anticipation of the fullness of God’s Kingdom, since in Jewish thought resurrection was understood to be a collective event in the future that would serve as a prelude to the last judgment.

The other teachings of Jesus are always set in the framework of the Kingdom of God. The three great questions of human existence are: Who am I? What is my goal in life? How do I get there? For followers of Jesus, the goal is the Kingdom of God. Those who aspire to fullness of life in God’s Kingdom follow the teachings and example of Jesus. In this way they may enter the Kingdom of God.

The Kingdom of God was the central theme in Jesus’ life and teaching. He is well described as the prophet of God’s Kingdom. While he shared hopes for the coming Kingdom with his Jewish contemporaries, he also insisted that the Kingdom of God is among us and in our midst. He was not only the perfect embodiment of his own teaching, but he also provided for his followers a sound framework for living in the present so that they, too, might enter that Kingdom.

Daniel J. Harrington, S.J., is professor of New Testament at Weston Jesuit School of Theology in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and editor of New Testament Abstracts since 1972. He is past president of the Catholic Biblical Association.

Next: Listening to the Master’s Voice

    

Questions

• Where do you see the Kingdom of God present in the world today? Which parable about the Kingdom means the most to you? Why do you think that is?

• When you pray the words “thy Kingdom come” in the Lord’s Prayer, what are you praying for? How would you explain the Kingdom of God to a young child?

• What are you doing to be a servant of the Kingdom so that one day it will be fully realized? What about your faith community? Are you—and it—being called to do more?

 

 

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