Chapter 1: Where We Stand

Understanding the Kingdom of God
by Georgia Harkness

Chapter 1: Where We Stand

Jesus preached the kingdom of God. We preach Jesus. In him and through the power of his message the kingdom is available to us. But can we preach Jesus or even understand him without understanding God’s kingly rule, the central note in all his preaching?

1. The popularity of Jesus

In our time there has been a remarkable increase in the popularity of Jesus. This is not to deny that in one way or another he has always been central to Christianity. But today this centrality has taken on a new emphasis. About God there is considerable doubt and uncertainty, not only in the secular world but in Christian circles as well, with various attempts to preserve the meaning and value of God for human experience without the personal God of historic Christian faith. The churches, long the primary carrier of the gospel that centers in Jesus Christ, are the recipients of many attacks. Some of these are merited, while more are based on the misunderstandings accruing from noninvolvement. But central to these charges is the complaint that the churches have forsaken the teachings, the example, and the commands of Christianity’s founder.

Occasionally we hear the oft-repeated charge of former days, that Jesus was an impractical dreamer. But not often. Not only is Jesus not under criticism by the press or the public, he is the center of important movements. A few years ago when the death-of-God theology was claiming much popular attention, its exponents advocated the substitution of loyalty to Jesus. This homage they were willing to render in full measure to him even while decrying the God whom Jesus worshipped and served, from whom he drew his message, its power, and the nature of his own living and dying.

Today the Jesus movement has enlisted the concern of thousands of modern youth, some of them within the churches, but more of them church dropouts or the products of nonreligious homes. Usually ultraconservative in theology, seriously limited in their awareness of what full discipleship would mean, certainly unschooled in the subtleties of New Testament scholarship, they nevertheless find in Jesus their Lord and Savior. And their lives are changed thereby! Such a commitment to Jesus amid the claims and counterclaims of a secular society needs to be understood rather than disparaged, and, if possible, directed toward a larger vision of Jesus and his message for the totality of human life.1

Personal conversion is not the only sphere in which Jesus lays claim to life today. It is one of the encouraging facts of our time that in the churches there is a growing sense of the need for Christians to be involved in political and other forms of social action. To be sure, this impulse is far from general, and there are many who want the churches to stick to "spiritual" matters, to "preach the gospel" instead of social change, and in particular, not to "meddle in politics." Yet, the recognition that the gospel relates to the whole of life is more common today, even in the conservative churches, than it has ever been. Many ministers discerned the vital need of social action in the time of the liberal social gospel in the earlier part of this century. But now under other names this movement is more widespread. It comes through various channels, but its source appears to be a more realistic awareness of the love commandment of Jesus.

This appears even in the most unconventional and revolutionary movements. Many young people are unconnected with either the Jesus movement or the churches; yet they find in Jesus their authority for anti-war, anti-injustice, anti-establishment, and other social protests.

Though we may rejoice that Jesus is in such good standing today, there are perils in this popularity. One of his own most significant sayings is, "Woe to you, when all men speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets" (Luke 6:26). There is no danger that we shall discover him to be a false prophet. Yet it is much easier to praise Jesus than to follow him. When he bids us to seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, it is a costly demand all too easily glossed over.

But of this, more later. Our concern now is to ask what there is about Jesus that leads so many to speak well of him.

2. The miracle of Jesus

The rise in the popularity of Jesus has reasons. To cite a familiar adage, when it is darkest we can see the stars. This is a dark time; men and women must have hope or perish in apathy and discouragement. And there is not much in the surrounding culture, with all its achievements and its glitter, to elicit hope. The shadows cast a few years ago by the threat of impending atomic destruction have lightened somewhat, only to be replaced in popular attention by an awareness of ecological danger and the energy crisis. War, poverty, violence, racial tension, and human exploitation continue to darken the scene. The vision of the American dream with its great ideals and dedication to the good of mankind has become clouded, not only by social and political disorder and revelations of immorality, but by the prevalence of a self-centered hedonism which finds expression in a feverish quest for enjoyment.

In such a sick society, the star of Jesus shines with a greater brilliance. Here, it seems to many, is one way of life, one source of inner power, one flame of hope, one call to an upward course, which without reservation can be depended on.

This is a true intuition. It is a spontaneous witness to the uniqueness of Jesus and the truth imbedded in his message that men cling to him, not only in good times, but when other supports prove undependable. It is the power of Jesus to speak to all sorts and conditions of men in all circumstances that has given Christianity its tenacity through the centuries. Some fifty years ago H. G. Wells, certainly an informed historian and keen analyst of human affairs, said of Jesus: "His is easily the dominant figure of history. . . . A historian without any theological bias whatever would find that he simply cannot portray the progress of humanity honestly without giving a foremost place to a penniless teacher from Nazareth." 2

Whatever may be thought about the miracles of Jesus, he himself is the greatest miracle of all. For a peasant woman’s child in occupied territory in an out-of-the-way corner of the Roman Empire to have become the man he did, attracting what looked like flash-in-the-pan attention during his brief years of ministry, unknown to most of his contemporaries and viewed as an upstart, a wonder-worker, or a fanatic by most of those who knew about him, dying a felon’s death deserted by most of his close and trusted friends with the incredible rumor then circulated that he had risen again -- what chance had he of any lasting fame? For such a man to occupy a foremost place in history, and to continue to occupy it after nineteen centuries and more, is unexplainable on any ordinary grounds.

What chance had this man of leaving anything behind him after he had tangled with the ruling powers for saying things which seemed to them treasonable or blasphemous, or both? Yet one cannot narrate the history of the Western world and leave Jesus out. One cannot consider the great music or art or literature of the centuries and leave Jesus out. His words are imbedded in our language and, let us hope, in our consciences as well. It is an exaggeration to say that every advancement in the Western world has stemmed from him, but so much has that this in itself is a miracle. When we think of all that has come from him in the impulse toward human freedom and dignity -- the challenge of ignorance and the attempt to remedy it, the concern for and conquest of disease, the sensitivity to the needs and plight of the weak, destitute, helpless, and those in every kind of suffering, the stabilizing of the inner lives of millions of his followers around the world, and the fostering of a prophetic attack on such giant social evils as prejudice, injustice, and war -- when we consider the things that have stemmed from this "penniless teacher of Nazareth," we are dull indeed if the wonder of it does not sweep over our souls.

3. The problems emerge

The appeal of Jesus through the centuries to the many vital angles of human experience is such that we need not wonder when many people today give him high praise and a good press. We do well to rejoice in the lives committed to him, whatever the need of variations in the forms and enrichment in their expressions. That Jesus is still Lord and Savior marks him as the supreme disclosure of God and the authentic and unique Son of God. But because this is so, it is the more imperative that we look carefully at the many facets of his message.

There are problems that need to be confronted if one is to grasp the message of Jesus and build one’s life upon it. Too often they are glossed over or only superficially understood. All of them are related to his central message, the kingdom of God. Hence, the writing of this book.

Some of these problems are practical, moral, and existential. In short, they have to do with the soul of the follower of Jesus -- his personal faith, his moral decisions in the many crises of everyday life, his power for living, and his attitudes toward dying. We must sort out the perennial from the peripheral and socially-conditioned elements in the words attributed to Jesus in the record. There is a peril in modernizing Jesus3 in view of the fact that he lived in a very remote, pre-industrial society nearly two thousand years ago. The conditions within which we must make decisions now are very different. This is often pointed out and needs to be. But there is also a peril in not modernizing Jesus to the point of seeing the relevance of his spirit and basic teachings to the life of today.

Again, there is the problem that Jesus left few specific directives for decision-making. How much easier it would be if we could turn to him and find a legal code to go by! But probably it is better that he did not leave many directives. The one most specific, his prohibition of divorce, turns out to cause a good deal of suffering when rigidly adhered to. And where would the economic foundations of society be if there were a large-scale, literal observance of the injunction, "Give to him who begs from you, and do not refuse him who would borrow from you"? (Matt. 5:42).

Another problem of a practical and spiritual nature arises from apparent inconsistencies, or at least profound paradoxes, that emerge when individual passages are cited. For example: "Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light" (Matt. 11:28, 30). Many in deep trouble and anxiety have found rest for the soul in this promise, and it is one of the most precious assurances of our faith. But look a little further in the same Gospel, and we find Jesus saying: ‘’If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it" (Matt. 16:24-25). Here are summarized the demands of the gospel. While Christian experience validates both statements, distortions arise from accepting one without the other. Much of today’s adulation of Jesus is questionable in the light of his call to self-denial. For to seek for one’s self a kind of euphoria, even if it is the spiritual euphoria of celebrating one’s adoration of Jesus, is not to seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.

Look further at this last injunction, and another kind of problem emerges. "But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well" (Matt. 6:33). According to the context, "these things" are food, drink, and clothing, and can easily be extended to include shelter and other material necessities -- money to pay the rent and to buy the groceries. But is this in accord with experienced realities? The evidence appears to be to the contrary. Christian fidelity may or may not be rewarded in this manner. Those denied the basic physical foundations of "the good life’’ are quite apt to be as good Christians and as saintly souls as those who are able to live in comfort. If they are not, the reason may often be found in the lack of these necessities which our Lord elsewhere bids us to share with those in need. There is no neat correlation between the kingdom of God and prospering in this world’s goods; in fact, we are warned of the peril of riches to the soul.

A familiar problem in the interpretation of the words of Jesus -- a problem which has evoked interminable discussion and is basic to the most serious of all social issues -- is the attitude of Jesus toward violence and hence toward war. One may quote, "for all who take the sword will perish by the sword" (Matt. 26:52), only to find it immediately countered with, "Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword" (Matt. 10:34). In the Sermon on the Mount there is the familiar and often debated word, "Do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also" (Matt. 5:39). This at least evokes debate. But there is a passage in Luke so cruel and vindictive in its implications, so unlike the whole spirit of Jesus, that it is seldom quoted, if indeed it is discovered. "But as for these enemies of mine, who did not want me to reign over them, bring them here and slay them before me" (Luke 19:27). Any but the most confirmed literalist will question whether Jesus ever said such a thing, even as the punch line of a parable.4

We are not left mute before such matters. These apparent inconsistencies in the words of Jesus can be at least partially explained by an understanding of how the New Testament was compiled and of the influences that played upon those early Christians who took the oral tradition and wrote it down as a connected narrative. There is also a basic polarity in the Christian message, with its great demands and equally great assurances, which accounts for the apparent disparity in some statements.

Yet after these factors have been taken into account, there still remain inconsistencies in the words of Jesus. These important, but relatively understandable, problems have been surveyed as preparation for a much more baffling one. This is found in what is most central to the message of Jesus -- the nature of the kingdom of God. Imbedded in the question of its nature are the issues of when and where and how it is to come. A case can be made for its having come in the past with the coming of Jesus, for its gradual growth in the present, or for its coming only in the future with a catastrophic end of the earthly scene. Some believe that Jesus preached its coming on earth and taught us to labor and pray for it; while others place it either at the end of earthly history or totally beyond it in a transcendent realm. Some would make it solely a personal inner commitment, while others have identified its coming with a transformed society. Running throughout all these variants is the question of whether Christ’s followers as the servants of God have a responsibility for bringing it to pass --"building the kingdom" is the phrase formerly often heard -- or whether God in his wisdom and power will usher in the kingdom in his own good time.

There are enough differences of opinion on these points -- and all of them defended from some statements in the New Testament -- to keep us busy for the remainder of this book. But, first, let us outline the primary grounds of these differences.

4. Prophetic or apocalyptic?

There is a dual strain in the recorded words of Jesus in reference to the kingdom of God, and from this divergence stem most of the other variants listed above. Within each strain there is a reasonable degree of consistency; but this consistency disappears when one of them is set over against the other.

It is not difficult to summarize the understanding of the kingdom which is prevalent in most of the mainline churches. It seems clear enough that the kingdom of God means the rule of God over his world (especially over man, his supreme creation) and the assurance of God’s presence and support that requires of us reciprocal obligations. It carries with it the call to obedience, both within the individual soul and in the total relationship of persons within the whole. Our supreme moral endeavor is to strive in manifold ways for the advancement of God’s kingdom throughout the world. Thus, when we pray "Thy kingdom come," we call upon God to assist in our effort to bring the state of mankind into conformity with the divine will.

This understanding of the kingdom, though expressed in other language, is in conformity with not only a major thrust in the teaching of Jesus, but of the prophets as well. It is previsioned in Jeremiah as a new covenant written in the hearts of men (Jer. 31:31-34). We see it foreshadowed in Second Isaiah’s portrayal of the Suffering Servant as the true Messiah. It is coherent with the call of Jesus to the way of love as he states it in the two great commandments which lie at the base of our moral and spiritual obligation (Matt. 22:35-40; Mark 12:28-31; Luke 10:25-28). This note of God’s rulership in conjunction with the requirements which this lays upon us is sounded again and again in the parables of the kingdom which make up a large part of the first three Gospels.

This interpretation of the kingdom of God, though it usually comes without a special name, may be designated as the prophetic conception of the kingdom. It views Jesus standing within the great succession of the Old Testament prophets; however, it does not limit him to that or deny his uniqueness as the supreme disclosure of God, the Son of God, and the Christ.

This general point of view has been stated in various ways, but I have not found it better expressed in terms of what it both does and does not imply than in the words of a distinguished New Testament scholar, Frederick Grant, in his book The Gospel of the Kingdom.

What I have tried to do is to see the movement of primitive Christianity as a whole and against its total background, political and economic as well as religious. . . . The result is a picture of Jesus as a prophet and a teacher -- but one who was ‘more than a prophet’ and certainly one who taught ‘not as the scribes’-- rather than as a social reformer, the ‘founder’ of a religious movement, an ethical philosopher, or a fanatical apocalyptist. All these interpretations owe something to his teaching, seize upon and elaborate one or another element in its main old variety; but none of them, nor all of them taken together, suffice to account for him. After all, Jesus was unique, and does not fit any specified category, ancient or modern. And his Gospel, though not a pattern of an ecclesiastical system nor yet a program for modern social reform, is still ‘social’ through and through -- social because religious, in the ancient biblical understanding of religion.5

If this prophetic note in the words of Jesus were all we find in the records, we should still have the problem of discovering and doing the will of God as servants in his kingdom amid all the manifold complexities of our time. But it is not all.

Deeply imbedded in the records are both incidental sayings and extensive passages which point toward a catastrophic end of the earthly scene. A great transformation will suddenly take place in which the souls of the righteous will be separated from those of the ungodly, the latter will be condemned to eternal punishment, and Christ having come again will reign in glory with his saints. In some passages this second coming of Christ is presented as a visible descent through the clouds, comparable to the account in the first chapter of Acts of his ascension into heaven (Acts 1:6-11). Not only is "the Son of man coming on the clouds of heaven" (Matt. 24:30), but vivid accounts are given of the "wars and rumors of wars" when ‘’nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom" and other forms of evil and turmoil will give warning that the end is near (Matt. 24:1-35; Mark 13:1-31; Luke 21:5-36). This cannot be dismissed as a passing reference, for all three of the Synoptic Gospels give an extended account of these woes and warnings after which the Son of man will come with power and great glory to gather his elect from the four winds, and the kingdom will come.

The book of Revelation contains much in a similar vein. We are told that Christ will reign on this earth for a thousand years, after which there will be a great last battle and victory at Armageddon. This millennial imagery in the twentieth chapter of Revelation is sufficiently ambiguous to cause the premillenialists of today to place the victory over Satan at the beginning of Christ’s return and reign, while the postmillenialists hold that God’s kingdom will come to its consummation and fulfillment at the end of this period.

This general position has various nuances but, taken as a whole, it is an apocalyptic view of the coming of the kingdom of God. The terms apocalypse and eschatology are often used interchangeably, but the latter is the more inclusive. Eschatology, from the Greek eschaton or "the end,’’ is the doctrine of last things. It includes whatever may be believed about the ultimate future of the world or our own life after death. Heaven, hell, purgatory, resurrection, personal immortality, and final judgment are all eschatological concepts, as is the kingdom of God when it is viewed in the light of a final consummation. In short, when the common, often casual question, "What is the world coming to?" is taken seriously, this is an eschatological inquiry.

What is distinctive about apocalypse is its visionary nature, with signs and wonders and many predictions, often with very vivid imagery. It usually centers in the foretelling of events which it is believed will take place at a particular point in time, whether precisely predictable or somewhat hidden from our imperfect knowledge. Whatever comes to pass will have major dramatic accompaniments. There is apocalypse in the Old Testament, especially in the book of Daniel. It abounds in the intertestamental period and is, as we have noted, ascribed to Jesus in the New Testament.

Eschatology is the more general term for the expectation of a new order which will come to replace the present world. This becomes apocalyptic when the attempt is made to picture in advance the form the new world will take, the series of events that will accompany it, and the signs that indicate the nearness of its coming. A point of much importance in the apocalyptic passages attributed to Jesus is the imminence of the end. The woes will be experienced, false Christs and false prophets will arise, and then -- in the near future -- the cosmic drama will occur. Jesus bids his followers to be watchful and not expect to know the exact time, which is known only to the Father. Yet as surely as summer follows the appearance of leaves upon the fig tree, it is coming. "Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away till all these things take place" (Matt. 24:34). See also Mark 13:30 and Luke 21:32.

Whatever we may think about whether Jesus expected a speedy end of the world, the early church without question did expect it. But it did not happen. These apocalyptic expectations gradually subsided, only to rise again with full force just before the year 1000. But with the same result. Again and again the time of Christ’s coming has been predicted, one of the most famous occasions being the Millerite movement of the 1840s, when many sold their property and donned white robes for the great event on the night of March 21, 1843. This group, sobered in expectations but undaunted, have since rendered great service through their hospitals as the Seventh-Day Adventists. The Millenial Dawn group expected Christ’s return in 1914. They are now the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Their periodical, The Watchtower, which was founded a hundred years ago by their famous pastor Charles T. Russell, is still being brought to your door by faithful witnesses.

We are now experiencing a revival of this expectation. To many, the state of the world seems to give clear evidence that these are the warnings of Christ’s imminent return in judgment on the evil and in redemption of the righteous. Bumper stickers announce that Christ is coming soon, and a spate of books are being published which, whether read or not, are being sold in very great numbers. 6

5. Our dilemma

While the mainline churches have, for the most part, long since ceased to expect a visible return of Christ, this expectation has never been given up in the more conservative groups. Furthermore, there are first-rank theologians and biblical scholars who, though they have rejected the crude literalism of a descent of Christ through the clouds as the mythological product of a prescientific age, nevertheless use the language of a second coming to designate the final consummation of the kingdom.

If this seems surprising, we have only to look at the prevalence of this concept in the New Testament. The parousia (from the Greek which means "to be near") as Christ’s return is called in scholarly language, is promised again and again. In Matthew 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21, almost identical accounts are given. Mark’s account is generally regarded as the original. While Matthew and Luke frequently draw from a common earlier source, Mark’s account is often somewhat different. In Matthew 25 there is a strongly prophetic strain in the injunctions to compassion for and service to the needy, yet it is in the apocalyptic setting of a great last judgment. More incidental references are found in all four of the Gospels, in Acts, and in the letters, whether of Paul or other writers. An extensive list of these will be found in the notes.7

It is certain that the early church believed that Christ was coming soon. It is equally certain that this parousia did not occur, save as the living Christ as Holy Spirit indwelt his followers from Pentecost onward. What is not certain, and it has enlisted an endless amount of speculation, is what Jesus himself believed about it. New Testament scholars are virtually unanimous in their belief that the Gospels reflect the thinking of the early church in which these writings were compiled. There is no unanimity as to how much they embody the authentic words of Jesus.

From one angle, this finding of the biblical scholars, that we cannot say with certainty that we have the exact words of Jesus, relieves the dilemma. If Jesus expected his own dramatic return and a cataclysmic end of the world, and it did not happen, then he was in error at a crucial point in his message. The biblical writers were fallible persons like ourselves and could have made mistakes, the more probably because current Jewish thought was full of apocalyptic imagery. In the time gap between the ministry of Jesus and the earliest written records, it could have been attributed to him

But can we assume this in faithfulness to the total record? And can we believe that Jesus made the kingdom the central note in his message, taught his followers to pray "thy kingdom come," with many poignant parables of the kingdom, and then had all this apocalyptic matter only grafted onto it? It looks very much interwoven with it.

So this is our dilemma. What kind of coming kingdom did Jesus expect? What did he believe about his own return? Is there an eschatology which can take into account both the biblical record and the deepest insights of our faith?

This must be our inquiry in the ensuing chapters. The next chapter will trace with rapid strokes the major attempts that have been made within the twentieth century to solve this problem. From this survey we may find some guidelines, not for a solution, but at least for a defensible opinion.




1. I have included some further discussion of the Jesus movement in my Mysticism: Its Meaning and Message (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1973), pp. 174 77.

2. "The Six Greatest Men of History," American Magazine, November, 1922.

3. Cf. Henry J. Cadbury, The Peril of Modernizing Jesus (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1937).

4. These words are attributed to the returning nobleman in the parable of the pounds (Luke 19:11-27). However, its setting, as of the similar parable of the talents in Matthew 25:14-30, is divine judgment at Christ’s return.

5. Frederick C. Grant, The Gospel of the Kingdom (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1940), pp. x-xi.

6. The popularity of this movement is evidenced by the attention given to it in the secular press when assemblies of its adherents attract thousands in attendance.

7. In addition to the major affirmations in the chapters indicated, the second coming of Christ or the Son of man is directly affirmed in Matt. 10:23; Mark 8:38 and 14:62; Luke 12:40, 18:8, and 23:42; and John 21:22. It is implied and less decisively stated in Matt. 13:41; Mark 10:37; Luke 12:8-9, 13:35, and 22:29-30; John 14:3, 18, 28, 16:16. The book of Acts affirms a second coming in 1:11 and 3:20-21 though it is silent about it thereafter. The letters, whether of Paul or others, abound in such passages. See I Cor. 4:5, 11:26, and 16:22; 11 Cor. 5:10; 1 Thess 1:10 and 4:15-17; Heb. 9:28; Jas. 5:8-9. In numerous other passages there is an oblique reference which may or may not be thus interpreted.


1. I have included some further discussion of the Jesus movement in my Mysticism: Its Meaning and Message (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1973), pp. 174-77.

2. "The Six Greatest Men of History," American Magazine, November, 1922.

3. Cf. Henry J. Cadbury, The Peril of Modernizing Jesus (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1937).

4. These words are attributed to the returning nobleman in the parable of the pounds (Luke 19:11-27). However, its setting, as of the similar parable of the talents in Matthew 25:14-30, is divine judgment at Christ’s retum.

5. Frederick C. Grant, The Gospel of the Kingdom (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1940), pp. x-xi.

6. The popularity of this movement is evidenced by the attention given to it in the secular press when assemblies of its adherents attract thousands in attendance.

7. In addition to the major affirmations in the chapters indicated, the second coming of Christ or the Son of man is directly affirmed in Matt. 10:23; Mark 8:38 and 14:62; Luke 12:40, 18:8, and 23:42; and John 21.22. It is implied and less decisively stated in Matt. 13:41; Mark 10:37; Luke 12:8-9, 13:35, and 22:29-30; John 14:3, 18, 28, 16:16. The book of Acts affirms a second coming in 1:11 and 3:20-21 though it is silent about it thereafter. The letters, whether of Paul or others, abound in such passages. See I Cor. 4:5, 11:26, and 16:22; 11 Cor. 5:10; 1 Thess. 1:10 and 4:15-17; Heb. 9:28; Jas. 5:8-9. In numerous other passages there is an oblique reference which may or may not be thus interpreted.