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the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. Reprinting prohibited
The Now and Future Kingdom
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
“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).
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
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.
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
• 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
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 Masters Voice
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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