Chapter 2: The Synoptic Gospels

Many Witnesses, One Lord
by William Barclay

Chapter 2: The Synoptic Gospels

The Gospel of the Kingdom

The Synoptic Gospels by Mark, Matthew and Luke leave us in no doubt concerning the message with which Jesus came. Jesus came preaching the Gospel of God: "The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe the Gospel" (Mark 1:15).

Here is the conception of the Kingdom. This was not a new conception, but it was a fluid conception. To a Pharisee the Kingdom was a time when men would perfectly obey the Law. "If Israel would only keep the Law perfectly for one day the Kingdom would come." On the whole the Sadducees were not much interested in the Kingdom; their main preoccupation was to keep things as they were, so that by a policy of prudent collaboration they might retain their wealth and their political influence. The quiet in the land thought of the Kingdom in terms of quiet devotion to God, in prayer to him, waiting for him, and communion with him. No doubt the great mass of the people thought of the Kingdom in terms of national deliverance, liberation and power. They could cite the prophets.

I will make your oppressors eat their own flesh, And they shall be drunk with their own blood as with wine. (Isaiah 49:26).

For the nation and the kingdom that will not serve you shall perish; those nations shall be utterly laid waste. (Isaiah 60.12)

With the conception of the Kingdom there was indissolubly connected the idea of the Messiah, the champion of God who would deliver the people of God; and Jesus accepted the confession of faith of Peter at Caesarea Philippi: "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God" (Matthew 16.16, NEB). Again the idea of the Messiah was fluid, and might mean either a mighty human champion of David's line, or a divine supernatural figure unleashed by God in irresistible might upon the world.

Still further, and again inextricably connected with the Kingdom and the Messiah, was the conception of the Day of the Lord. It was the increasing conviction of the Jews that things had come to such a pass that the Kingdom could never come by human means. They therefore divided time into two ages, this present age, which is wholly and incurably bad, and the age to come, which is the blessed age of God. The time between was the Day of the Lord when God would suddenly and shatteringly break into the world in cosmos-destroying power and judgment, and in which the old world would be completely destroyed and the new world born.

Into this complex of ideas Jesus came, and he came preaching the Kingdom. The word kingdom tends to mean to us an area of land ruled over by a king; in the NT the word rather means the Reign of God. It describes not an area of territory but the universal sovereignty of God. The odd thing is that Jesus never defined the Kingdom. We can be perfectly sure that he did not think of in terms of the observance of the Law or in terms of national empire. How then did he think of it? He taught men to pray:

Thy Kingdom come,

Thy will be done,

On earth as it is in heaven.

(Matthew 6.10)

If we apply to that the principle of Hebrew parallelism in which the second arm of the two parallel phrases reiterates or explains the first, then we can say that the Kingdom is a society upon earth in which God's will is as perfectly done as it is in heaven. And this makes good sense, for any kingdom is both an area and a society in which the king's word is law. If this be so, it sets us at once in two relationships.

1.It sets us in a relationship to God; and that relationship is obedience. If we then equate the membership of the Kingdom with the acceptance of the will of God, we find that the Kingdom is worth everything a man has to give (Matthew 13:.44, 45). The acceptance of the will of God is worth any sacrifice, however surgical, that a man may be called upon to make (Mark 9.43-48). For the Christian the most important thing in the universe is the will of God. Only when he accepts that will is he in the Kingdom.

2. But clearly, the citizens of a kingdom are not only in a relationship to their king, they are also in a relationship to each other. So membership of the Kingdom demands a certain attitude to our fellow men.

(a) It demands a certain usefulness. Uselessness invites disaster (Luke 13.6-9), and the failure to use the talents God has given brings judgment (Matthew 25.14-30). So far from detaching a man from the world the Kingdom sets him firmly In it.

(b) It demands an attitude of mercy. It is only the merciful who will receive mercy (Matthew 5.7), and only the forgiving who can be forgiven (Matthew 18.23-35). So far from equipping a man with a consciously superior and intolerant goodness the Kingdom must equip a man with a sympathy as wide as the world.

(c) We may put this more widely. Membership of the Kingdom means the deepest possible involvement in the human situation (Matthew 25.31-46). Citizenship of the Kingdom involves a new sense of responsibility; it joins a man as firmly to his fellow-men as it joins him to God.

(d) All this means to say that the law of the Kingdom is love. The watchword of the Kingdom is that untranslatable word agape, that unconquerable benevolence, that determination to seek nothing but the highest good of all men, that reflection of God's attitude to men.

In the Kingdom love of God and love of men go hand in hand. Obedience to God is paramount and no fine words can ever be a substitute for it (Matthew 7.21-23); involvement with men is essential and no one who passes by on the other side can be a member of the Kingdom (Luke 10.29-37).

In the Synoptic Gospels the Kingdom is conceived of in a double way. It is conceived of as a growth. It is a slow, steady, unseen growth, developing not by the effort of man, but by the power of God (Mark 4.26-29; Matthew 13.33). In this sense the Kingdom might well be called the product of the power and Spirit of God at work in the world and in the minds and hearts of men. But it is also conceived of as a consummation (Matthew 24; Mark 13). It is not, as it were, a growth which will never be anything else but a growth; it is a growth moving towards a consummation in which at last the will of God will be done not partially but completely, and in which the kingdoms of the world will become the Kingdom of God. Quite inevitably that involves judgment, for where there must be obedience there can be disobedience, and where there is a king who lays claim to the world there must be rebels who refuse his claim.

Wherein then is Jesus' place within this Kingdom? First and foremost, Jesus is the Kingdom, Jesus embodied the Kingdom. If the Kingdom is a state and condition of things in which the will of God is perfectly accepted and done, then Jesus is the only person in the universe who perfectly accepted that will. The thread that binds the life of Jesus together is his continual acceptance of the will of God. At the beginning and the end of his life on earth we see him accepting that will. In the temptation story (Matthew 4:1-I I; Luke 4.1-13) we see him accepting that way which can end only in the Cross. In Gethsemane (Matthew 26.36-46; Mark 14.32-42; Luke 22.39-46) we see him still accepting this will. In Jesus the Kingdom actually and in fact did come. To look at him is to see life in the Kingdom.

But the Synoptic Gospels do not leave the matter there. If this was all that we could say, then there could descend on the human spirit nothing but blank despair, for all that this does is to present us with a picture of the impossible. The necessary obedience is something that no man can ever bring, and to think of the Kingdom in terms of obedience is to think of it in terms of judgment which no man could escape. It would be in fact to make law the moving and dominating conception in the Kingdom.

When we lay down obedience as the principle of the Kingdom, when we lay down as the all-important decision the acceptance of the will of God, we are immediately faced with another question. What is the attitude behind that will of God? What is the character, what is the heart, of which that will is the expression? If that will is heartless, if that will is tyrannical and capricious, if that will is harsh and even cruel, then it may have to be accepted, but the acceptance can only be the act of a man who knows that he is crushed into helplessness and can do no other. He may accept it, but his acceptance will be either the acceptance of defeated resignation or rebellious resentment. That cannot be so, because Jesus came preaching the Gospel of God and urging men to repent and believe in the Gospel, and the Gospel is literally Good News (Mark 1:14, 15). What, then, is this Good News?

It is Good News about God, and it is summed up in the name which Jesus taught men to use to God, and the name by which he taught men to think of God. That name is Father. It is more than that; it is Abba (Mark 14:36; Romans 8:15; Galatians 4:6). This is the name by which a little child called his father in the home-circle in Palestine, as jaba still is in Arabic today. It is the name the picture of which is drawn in the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32), which would be far better called the parable of the loving Father. It is quite true that in the OT God is called the father of the nation and even the father of the king; but nowhere is there this individualized fatherhood which Jesus taught us is the supreme characteristic of God.

The very name changes the whole atmosphere. So long as we think in terms of a kingdom we have to think in terms of a king; and in the conception of kingship there is always something remote and distant and withdrawn. It is only to very few that it can ever be given to be on intimate terms with a king, or who can hope to have at any time unhindered access to the presence of the king. But as soon as the word father is mentioned the picture changes from that of a kingdom to a family; and thereby our relationship to God is completely changed. The essence of the divine-human relationship becomes not law but love. Sin becomes not a breaking of God's law but a breaking of God's heart. The desire of the penitent sinner becomes not flight from the king and judge but return to the father who waits in patient love. The very essence of this relationship is expressed in Jesus' lamentation over Jerusalem: "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not" (Matthew 23:37). There speaks the voice, not of outraged majesty, not of insulted law, but of yearning love.

And where does Jesus come into this in the thought of the Synoptic Gospels? He comes into it in a double way.

1. Apart from Jesus men could never have known that God is like this. It was easy and natural and instinctive to think of him as King and Judge; it was far too good to be true to think of him as waiting and yearning love. Jesus is the Son of God; and, whatever else that may mean, and however else that relationship may be defined, it certainly does mean that the relationship between Jesus and God is so close and essential and intimate that Jesus can tell men what God is really like. There is no need to guess and grope any more. Jesus knows what God is like, because he is the Son of the Father -- and the message he brings is Good News.

2.But there is more to it than that. It would be easy to sentimentalize this conception of God, and to persuade oneself in consequence of it that sin does not matter; but the God who is Father does not cease to be the God who is Judge and King, and the God who is loving does not cease to be the God who is holy. Sin, therefore, matters intensely and cannot be waved aside as if it had never existed.

Now if a Jew was to think on these lines at all, and with all his heritage he could not avoid doing so, he was bound to think in terms of sacrifice, for it was through penitence expressed in terms of sacrifice that sin could be forgiven. The Synoptic Gospels, therefore, think of Jesus as making the sacrifice of his life for the sins of the world. "The Son of Man came to seek and to save that which was lost" (Luke 19:10). "The Son of Man came . . . to give his life a ransom for many" (Mark 10.45). It would not have entered the minds of the early preachers to discuss to whom the sacrifice was made and to whom the ransom was paid; they would simply have been firm and immovable in the conviction that it cost the death of Jesus to make it possible for men to come back home to the family of God.

The Synoptic Gospels tell of the Good News of the Kingdom. The Kingdom means the Reign of the will of God. That Reign grows steadily but there is "one divine far off event to which the whole creation moves". Jesus revealed God as Father, and therefore a Father's will can be willingly and humbly and trustfully accepted, even if the cost of acceptance be very great. And the sacrifice of Jesus Christ upon the Cross dealt finally with the sin of man, and made it possible for man, the prodigal son, to enter again into the family circle of the God, who is the loving Father and the holy King.