In the first part of this short series, we looked at how both ancient and modern disciples “take offense” at Jesus against his warning in Luke 7:23 —“Blessed is the one who doesn’t take offense in Me.” Easy scholarly and popular conclusions that Israel hoped for the wrong kind of kingdom made Jesus offensive and Israel culpable at the same time. Our second part here also finds Jesus’ view of the kingdom offensive to ancients and moderns, but for a different reason.

In its most extreme iteration, we’re getting at a long-held belief in critical scholarship that the Gospels are not reliable history at all. They represent propaganda of the new Christian movement wherein the Gospel writers with cavalier abandon invent Jesus-sayings to promote their own agendas. Of course the Church’s tradition and modern conservative scholars reject such radical notions. The Gospels do have theological agendas for sure, but this need not entail shredding an accurate historical account. However, even in much conservative thinking on Jesus’ presentation of the kingdom there is a kind of step-child holdover to this liberal approach. Like the liberal, these conservatives deny the possibility of a narrative development to Jesus’ understanding of the kingdom. For these too the kingdom in Jesus as a monolithic concept laying inert and static from beginning to end.

The problem with such an approach, whether in radical or conservative iteration, is that Jesus’ announcement of the kingdom is too full of mutually-exclusive notions to be so easily managed. The kingdom is somehow present (Matt. 12:28) but also still to come (Matt. 6:10). It is taken from Israel (Matt. 21:43) but it is also still their hope (Matt. 19:28 & Luke 13:35). It is the “gospel” (good news) of the prophets (Matt. 4:23; 9:35), and it is also something the prophets would never have recognized (Mark 4; Matt. 13).

Cover of "The Five Gospels" from the Jesus SeminarThe answer to such tensions for the radical is to slice and dice the Gospels by critical methodologies and excise off all but a kind of lowest-common-denominator “kingdom.” In this category you get the conclusions of the infamous “Jesus Seminar” in The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus – What Did Jesus Really Say? where not one kingdom-saying of Jesus appears as authentic.[1] Typical in this vein would be the views of the eminent kingdom-scholar from the last generation, Norman Perrin. He is more generous with his findings than the Jesus Seminar but still believes only Matthew 6:10; Luke 17:20, 21; Matthew 12:28 and some kingdom parables came from the mouth of the historical Jesus.[2] For Perrin and others, the kingdom becomes a kind of polyvalent “tensive symbol” capable of just about anything the reader wants to make of it but is finally summarized by broad catch-alls, like “God in strength for his people.”[3]

Conservatives take the kingdom tensions in a different direction. While they would never dream of subverting Scripture like the radicals, they kind of end up in the same bucket with hermeneutical moves no Jew would ever dream of either. The attempt here is to make the tensions of the kingdom go away by redefining the kingdom from its OT prophetic paradigms. And in this reading, Jesus himself is party to the project as from the beginning of his ministry he supposedly renounced, or better and more genteel perhaps, “re-visioned,” the earthly, political kingdom notions of the prophets. For this more conservative Jesus, the kingdom was always just an individualized and spiritualized project.[4] Dallas Willard, an important voice in the Spiritual Formation movement, well articulates this view of the kingdom in his book, The Divine Conspiracy: “the kingdom of God is not essentially a social or political reality at all” (p. 25), but “the range of God’s effective will” in the believer’s life (pp. 21, 25). Jesus’ announcement that the kingdom of heaven is at hand (Matt. 4:17) means the availability of divine life for all who would submit their own kingdom to God’s by dependence upon and confidence in Jesus (pp. 20, 27).[5] Similarly, for New Testament scholar G. R. Beasely-Murray, the kingdom amounts to “life lived under the sovereignty of God.”[6]

A New Vision—the Gospels as Story

The problem with both of these angles is that neither of them take the Gospels seriously as narrative accounts, as stories with discernable movement and growth over the time of Jesus’ public ministry. For them, the Jesus of the beginning is the same as the Jesus at the end, the middle and every point in between. Same with his announcement of the kingdom—it doesn’t change.

While some initially might take issue with the notion of Jesus changing his understanding of the kingdom in the course of his ministry, other points can be raised to open such a possibility. For example, Matthew and Mark record different “from that time” moments when Jesus introduces new teaching that was not part of his earlier proclamation. The word of his going to the cross, is a good example (Matt. 16:21 = Mark 8:31), or the church he will build (Matt. 16:18). According to Matthew, the Messianic passion and the Church were not in his message from the beginning.

Act 1: Kingdom of the Prophets

Other such movements can be detected in the Gospels that specifically concern the kingdom, which is more to our point now. Matthew’s Gospel records three discernable stages we can consider briefly. First is the kingdom when Jesus begins his ministry. And notably at this point the kingdom comes without any definition, or “re-definition,” as the case may be. It is simply announced as “at hand” (Matt. 4:17; Mark 1:15). It comes in every way as it should right out of the Old Testament prophetic record. It is the “good news” of the kingdom that Isaiah spoke about (Matt. 4:23; cf. Is 52:7) offered by the One anointed by the Spirit who was to be poured out in the new Age (Luke 4:16ff., cf. Matt. 4:15ff = Isa. 61). It comes with the miracles of healing and restoration (Matt. 4:23; 11:5 = Isa. 35:15) that lay waste to the Adversary’s oppressive bonds (Luke 13:16; Isa. 49:24-25). And all as the prophets said. No deviation.

Act Two: Rejection and the “parable” Kingdom.

The second phase in Jesus’ teaching of the kingdom comes in response to Israel’s answer to the call to repent. As we saw in the earlier post, Part One before, the prophetic call to repent was also part of Jesus’, John’s, and even the disciples’ proclamation of the kingdom from the beginning. But in this Israel would be like the rest of us and demand the kingdom their way. In Matthew’s gospel the rejection is seen particularly in chapters 11 through 12. This is where Jesus specifically calls out their non-repentance, not their wrong view of the kingdom (11:20ff). It’s where the nation’s leaders accuse him of sorcery (12:24) and even his own mother tries to remove him from the public eye because of the scandal he is to the family’s honor (Matt. 12:46-49 = Mark 3:21). Israel rejected the kingdom under the King’s conditions. So He answers.

The result is new content for the kingdom’s storyline that begins in with the parables of Matthew thirteen. For Matthew the parables here represent both a new method and a new content to the kingdom. In method, this is the first time we see Jesus as specifically teaching “parables”—the word first appears in 13:3 for Matthew, and its novelty is not lost on the disciples—“Why do you speak to them in parables”? (13:10).[7] Jesus also speaks of these teachings as the “mysteries” of the kingdom (13:11) that are now available only to those who have the spiritual eyes and ears to receive them (13:12-17). Here will be new content for the kingdom, and its content is nothing anyone with just the Old Testament would ever have figured out. Clearly here at this point of Jesus’ ministry something new is afoot for the kingdom. In these parables, the kingdom begins to resemble what those like Willard and Beasley-Murray want to say has been from the beginning. It’s a kingdom that is already present, though small (Leaven, Mustard Seed). It is a secret, invisible kingdom, but one that is growing (Leaven, Mustard Seed). It is “taken” from Israel’s leaders (The Two Sons of the Vine grower Matt 21:27-32; Wicked Tenants 21:33-40; Wedding Feast 22:1-4), but will be consummated one day in judgment (Wheat and Tares, Dragnet). Though it is a kingdom of priceless value (Hidden Treasure, Pearl), it will not be welcomed by all (Sower).

Act Three: The Already and Not Yet Kingdom

The new development of Jesus’ teaching of the kingdom brings us to the final Act of the Gospel drama for the kingdom. But the third Act now is not so much another distinct development as it is another aspect or clarification to the kingdom of Act Two. Specifically, Act Two introduced a kind of kingdom that would be for the present Age while the King’s people wait for the King to return (see Luke 19:11-27). It’s the kingdom that is intensely personal in its call for allegiance, but it is also the kingdom that is defined by other realities of the present Age like the Church and the Cross—both also not present at the beginning of Jesus’ mission and teaching. Thus, in Act Two Jesus has introduced the “Already” of the well-known “Already – Not Yet” moniker for the kingdom. Here in Act Three the question is the nature of the kingdom’s “Not Yet”.

For those who take the kingdom of Jesus’ proclamation to only concern its “Already” form – and this from the very start of his ministry through his supposed redefining the prophets, the kingdom’s “Not Yet” is just a matter of the King’s return and judgment. There is nothing left for the Messiah’s reign but what is taking place in the present time. After this the kingdom recapitulates into its New Earth and New Heaven form for all eternity. But as we have seen the kingdom’s “Already” form did not enter the stage of history when Jesus did. It comes later in response to Israel’s failure to repent. Jesus had the prophets’ understanding of the kingdom in his mind from the beginning, so does the change of an Already-kind-of-kingdom mean Jesus is done with the prophets now?

Odd as such a notion even sounds—that any first century Jew could even think of “redefining” Israel’s prophets as if they didn’t see clearly and all the way to the world’s End—the evidence does not take us there either. No, the coming of the chosen Church does not mean the end for the chosen nation. Jesus says Israel’s continued “exile” and desolation will persist until one day when they do see him for who he really is. They will bless him as their Messiah (Matt. 23:37 –39; cf. Zech. 12:10) and so begin to fulfil all the prophets had for them and the world through them. The kingdom that was “at hand” at the beginning of his ministry now becomes “at hand” at the end of this present time (cf. Matt 4:17 and Luke 21:31).[8]

Reading the Gospels ‘Kingdomly’

So what does it matter that there’s a developing kingdom-storyline in the Gospels? What’s the significance? Great in at least four ways. First, we will free Jesus from the anachronistic, or better, chronocentric tendencies of our own day. A lot of syllables to say that we all tend to put ourselves at the center of the world’s narrative. Our reality tends to be the starting point, the “lens” through which everything gets defined. For reading Scripture this tendency ends up making us think the Church is the last thing the world gets or needs; it makes us think that our time is the center of fulfilment for all the prophets said. But, au contraire, the prophets of Israel and Jesus (and Paul—see Romans 11:12 & 15) say there’s more coming for this world and that this present time is still one of preparation and our making ready.[9]

Second, we can become sensitive readers of the Gospels and know what “kingdom,” or phase of the kingdom Jesus is talking about at any given point. Jesus’ kingdom-statements at the beginning of his ministry, when he has yet to introduce the kingdom’s “Already” form, need not be laced up in that straight jacket. For example, when we read that we should pray, “Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done” in the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew six, because of its place in the narrative before the Already-kingdom phase’s introduction (Matthew 13) we know Jesus is still pointing us and the world back to the prophets’ script for an earthly kingdom of peace, justice and prosperity ruling all of the cultures of the world.

Third, by the same token that we know what the kingdom means when it appears in the Gospel Story, we also know what it does not mean. Here we’re talking about what hermeneutical moves need not be made for the kingdom at certain points of the Gospels, too. Since Jesus is not adding different kingdom-teaching to the prophets’ account until later in his ministry—and these additions are still just that, additions; they do not re-define the kingdom as much as they reserve the prophets’ version of it for a time coming at his return—we need not try and force into his early teaching that which comes later. For example, when Jesus promises the meek to “inherit the land” in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:5) quoting Psalm 37:11, he is really not changing the meaning of Psalm 37:11 to mean the whole “earth” (“land” or “earth” are the meaning of the Greek word) as if to subtly re-define “Israel” and nullify the Land promise the Psalm would have referred to originally.[10] No, because this saying appears early in the Gospel story line we know that Jesus is not speaking in some Gentilized code; he is rather connecting directly to the prophets’ script his audience knew. He means his Jewish hearers can hope for the promise Yahweh made for a restored fortune in their Land when they become meek of spirit.

Finally, reading the Gospels as a coherent Story gives us a way through the myriad diversity of Jesus’ kingdom sayings. With a narrative approach we have tools to understand the undefined kingdom Jesus enters history’s stage with (OT prophets) and the kingdom of the parables (Already phase). We know that Israel and Jesus have the same thing in mind at this point. With narrative we also have a way into discerning the kingdom’s relationship to the Church and the cross (Already phase) without having to choke the prophetic message down to talking merely of atonement, or make restored Israel’s witness fulfilled by the Church, or load onto the Church the responsibility of bringing the culture of peace, justice and prosperity to the nations that the prophets said starts with a re-born Israel. Salvation is more than saving souls, it is the restoration of human life in its fullness before God. In the kingdom’s Not Yet all these dimensions of salvation will yet be realized just as Jesus said to the woman at Jacob’s well: Salvation is from the Jews. The prophets got it right just as Israel and Jesus knew.

[1] Robert W. Funk, The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus – What Did Jesus Really Say? Scribner Book Company (1993).

[2] Norman Perrin, Rediscovering the Teaching of Jesus (London: SCM, 1967).

[3] For examples, Bruce Chilton, God in Strength: Jesus’ Announcement of the Kingdom (1979); Marcus Borg, Jesus: A New Vision (1989), and John Dominic Crossan, The Historical Jesus (1991).

[4] For examples, Scot McKnight, A New Vision for Israel (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1997), and Peter Walker, The Land of Promise (Downers Grove: IVP, 2000).

[5] Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1998).

[6] G. R. Beasley-Murray, “Jesus and the Kingdom of God,” Baptist Quarterly 32 (1987), 146.

[7] The disciples’ query and the new “parable” terminology for Matthew is the substance of the so-called “Matthean theory of parables” in scholarly circles. By introduction of “parables” Matthew intends to communicate a development in Jesus’ mission at this point of the narrative.

[8] Herman Ridderbos, The Coming of the Kingdom (Philadelphia: P & R, 1962), 468. The case here continues in the risen Christ’s response to the disciples in Acts 1 and their continued reliance upon the prophets’ vision for the world’s narrative after Christ’s ascension (Acts 3:18 –21).

[9] The implication of this point is profound for essential questions of the personal callings and mission we have when we do our work within culture and also when we gather in community as the church. I have explored this more in my essay, “Storied Work: The Eschatological Turn and the Meaning of our Work,” JETS 51 (2017): 139 – 166.

[10] As such a reading is made in G. K. Beale, A New Testament Biblical Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011), 756–57; Gary M. Burge, Jesus and the Land: The New Testament Challenge to “Holy Land” Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2010), 33–35; Anthony A. Hoekema, The Bible and the Future (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979), 211–12, 281; and a host of others cited by Nelson Hsieh, “Matthew 5:5 and the Old Testament Land Promises: An Inheritance of the Earth or the Land of Israel?” MSJ 28 (2017), 42, n. 4.