Chapter 4: The Kingdom Before and After Jesus

Understanding the Kingdom of God
by Georgia Harkness

Chapter 4: The Kingdom Before and After Jesus

If we are to arrive with any success at what Jesus believed about the kingdom of God, we must see him as a man of his times who stood within the stream of history. This is not to say that he was only a man of his times who tangled with the ruling powers and lost his life as a consequence. Christians through the centuries have rightly designated him as the Christ, the Son of God, the Savior. But this cannot mean that he was not human. To deny the true and full humanity of Jesus was the earliest heresy the church had to confront, and it has persisted to the present. But to make this denial is to reject the incarnation, the cornerstone of Christian faith.

If Jesus were truly a man, and not some mythological supernatural being, he could not fail in some measure to reflect the currents of history. Hence, to examine what he thought about the kingdom, we must note what his fathers thought. We must also try to see in historical perspective what the early church remembered and wrote. Each is a large and very important subject of which this chapter can only trace the outlines.

1. Backgrounds of the kingdom concept

The term "kingdom of God" does not as such appear in the Old Testament. There are many references to earthly kingdoms, as any concordance will indicate, and at three points, in the poetry of Psalms 103:19, 145:11-13, and Daniel 4:3, 34, "his kingdom’’ or "thy kingdom" in the mood of exalted worship clearly has the Almighty as the antecedent of the pronoun. Thus, we cannot say that the kingdom of God is not mentioned until we come to the New Testament, but as a phrase commonly used it first appears in citations of the words of Jesus.

From the infrequency of the use of this term in the Old Testament we are justified in thinking that Jesus gave it a fresh and original connotation. Furthermore, that this is the product of his own thought, stated at least approximately in his words rather than in the diction of the early church, is borne out by the fact that we find the term used much less frequently in the letters and in Acts than in the Gospels. The memory must have persisted through change.

Yet with little specific reference to the kingdom of God in the Old Testament, its foundations are embedded there. The kingdom concept is rooted in the biblical view of history, with its forward-moving stream of events under the rulership of the sovereign, righteous God. A note which permeates biblical thinking, in contrast with the cyclical or static views often found in other faiths, is that all history moves toward the fulfillment of a divine purpose -- toward an end in the double sense of both finish and fulfillment.

The concept of the covenant between God and his chosen people, so dominant in the total history of Israel, underlies this concept of the kingdom. At least from the time of the exodus, with Moses’ molding of a tribal people into a nation with a sense of its destiny and a moral consciousness of God’s demands, it was the sovereign, righteous rule of God that held them together. Disobey his commands they might, and often did, but Yahweh was still their God and they his people. After the conquest of Canaan and the turmoil of the period of the Judges had given way to a greater degree of stability under the Davidic monarchy, they now had a king, but the Almighty One was still the ultimate sovereign. Earthly fortunes might vacillate, but God never. This was to become more clear-cut as the religious thought of the people moved from henotheism -- the belief in the existence of other gods but the worship of one only, their own deity -- to the outright monotheism affirmed in Isaiah 44:6.

Thus says the Lord, the King of Israel

and his Redeemer, the Lord of hosts:

"I am the first and I am the last;

besides me there is no god."

Yet though the Lord might be acknowledged as the King of Israel, this was far from ensuring obedience to his sovereignty. There was the downright idolatry of trying to seek favors from Baal, the pagan god of fertility. A ritualistic but shallow worship of Yahweh, also more bent on seeking favors than on rendering homage, became prevalent. To these departures from the true worship of the Most High was joined also a shocking amount of injustice in the oppression of the poor by the rich, the weak by the strong, and the neglect of the needy and the afflicted. This called forth the great social messages of the eighth century prophets --Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, and Micah. We see here the foreshadowing of the thought that the kingdom of God requires social action as well as purity and depth of worship.

It was about this time also that the concept of a future "day of the Lord," which in due time would set everything right, emerged. In general this was thought of as something to anticipate with eagerness, as the defeat of their enemies and a great benefaction of Yahweh to his chosen people. But Amos thought otherwise and had to blend his message with a darker note. He could say with confidence:

Seek good, and not evil,

that you may live;

and so the Lord, the God of hosts,

will be with you,

as you have said. (5:14).

But the other side of God’s sovereign rule must also be taken to heart:

Woe to you who desire the day of the Lord!

Why would you have the day of the Lord?

It is darkness, and not light;

as if a man fled from a lion,

and a bear met him;

or went into the house and leaned with

his hand against the wall,

and a serpent bit him.

Is not the day of the Lord darkness,

and not light,

and gloom with no brightness in it? (5:18-20).

It is apparent that the thought which developed later of a great day coming which could bring the joy of God’s favor to the righteous and stern judgment on the unrighteous is here in an embryonic state.

Yet though the fortunes of the nation grew steadily worse with inner turmoil and division and with Assyria and Egypt ever in wait to annex the territory (the present Arab-Israeli conflict has a long history!), a note of hope appeared. This was the promise of a Messiah as redeemer and deliverer. This was set forth by one prophet after another. As early as the time of the first Isaiah toward the end of the eighth century we find him saying:

The people who walked in darkness

have seen a great light;

those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness,

on them has light shined (9:2).

This same ninth chapter of Isaiah, which we read so often at Christmas as the annunciation of the coming of Christ -- and of which the cadences are woven into our minds through the great music of Handel’s Messiah -- continues with words which bred the belief in a coming political Messiah such as Jesus refused to become. After the words which vividly foretell the coming of a light-bearer such as Christians know Jesus to have been, the passage continues:

Of the increase of his government and of peace

there will be no end,

upon the throne of David, and over his kingdom,

to establish it, and to uphold it

with justice and with righteousness

from this time forth and for evermore.

The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this (9:7).

We tend easily to bypass these words, for the throne of David was something of long ago that need not concern us in our day. But not so the people of Isaiah’s time, or of several centuries later. One king after another, often very unmessianic in behavior, tried to claim this prerogative. After the conquests by Alexander the Great in 332 B.C., the ensuing domination by the Ptolemies and the Seleucids, and the conquest by Rome under Pompey in 63 B.C. with the annexation of the land as a Roman province, the dream persisted.

While lsaiah confidently foretold the coming of a messianic prince of the house of David, he was nevertheless realistic enough to recognize that Israel, having so woefully broken the people’s side of the covenant, would not return as an entire nation to its former greatness. Hence, he announced also the doctrine of the remnant who were to be the custodians of the promise (Isa. 10:20-23). l This hope of a righteous remnant continued throughout the exilic and post-exilic periods and on into New Testament times.

Less specifically related to the concept of the kingdom of God in the Old Testament, but very much related to the course which Jesus chose to take, was Jeremiah’s vision of the reign of God in the hearts of men. This is a high-water mark of the covenant concept, and of the Old Testament, as the mistrusted and persecuted prophet wrote of the new covenant which would replace the old:

But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each man teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying "Know the Lord,’’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more (Jer. 31:33-34).

Ezekiel, after the blow had fallen upon the nation and the exile had destroyed any lingering glory of the house of Israel, portrayed an unquenchable hope in the vision of the valley of dry bones that by the power, of God were made to rise up and live again (Ezek. 37:1-14). It was in the words of Ezekiel also that the term "Son of man" became a familiar one. However, as we shall note presently, he was not responsible for giving it the apocalyptic turn that it later came to have.

It was in the great prophet of the exile, Second Isaiah, that the hope of divine deliverance came to its highest expression. It was in a sequence of servant poems, and in particular his portrayal of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 53, that he set forth at the same time his high hopes for his people and the mode by which God would bring this to pass.

It is generally agreed among biblical scholars that in these servant passages, the prophet was not referring to a particular individual but was calling his people to become the suffering servant of all mankind. Yet the terms in which he describes the servant fit Jesus so aptly that it is more than accidental that Isaiah 53 has often been regarded as a direct prophecy of the coming of Jesus as the Messiah. The fact that Jesus took as the keynote of his ministry the passage in Isaiah 61:1-2 which is quoted in Luke 4:18-19 suggests the depth of the prophet’s influence on the formation of Jesus’ understanding of his own vocation. Isaiah may have written more prophetically than he knew.

But the people were not able to live up to or out of these great hopes. While the prophets were announcing these great messages of moral responsibility, of impending doom if these were evaded, and of the hope of divine deliverance of the faithful remnant through the coming Messiah, the political fortunes of the people were anything but such as to nourish this hope. The return from exile brought a temporary upturn but no real nationhood, and the subsequent conquests dashed what outward hope there was. Yet the people went on hoping that the coming Messiah would be a political leader who would restore the nation to its former greatness under King David. No wonder that there was consternation, with claims and counterclaims, when Jesus repudiated any aspiration to such a messiahship yet died with an inscription over his head, "This is the King of the Jews" (Luke 23:38). His was a different kind of kingdom, drawn from a new and truer reading of the prophets.

Yet what of the backgrounds of apocalypse? The same troubled times in which the hope of a political Messiah refused to die saw the rise of a different kind of messianic hope. Although the nation’s fortunes had seemed to pick up after the return from exile in 538, there was still much internal dissension. After the successive conquests by Alexander’s and then by Pompey’s legions, what had once been a strong and powerful nation was no nation at all. Yet in those disturbed days, as in ours today, an other-worldly hope grew into prominence as worldly hopes seemed to have less likelihood of fulfillment. God must surely triumph, it was believed, even if not on this sorry earthly plane. His purpose must be fulfilled.

It was then that the messianic hope took the form of the expectation of a great, cataclysmic, divine intervention. If no earthly leader were going to come to fulfill the longing of many hearts, one could come from heaven -- even down through the clouds! The nation could be lost. This old earth could end. But still one could hope that God would send his Messiah to reign in a new heaven and a new earth. In this new world, with Satan conquered, the righteous would be taken to dwell with the King in a realm of glory, and the wicked would be consigned to eternal punishment. This belief gave assurance of God’s justice and his immediacy in both space and time. In a troubled period, it was a needed bulwark to faith and courage.

This heavenly messenger, God’s special agent to usher in the new regime at the end of earthly history, came commonly to be spoken of as the Son of man. Furthermore, this end of the world with the day of supernatural deliverance for the faithful could be known to be near at hand. It was to be foreseen by the presence of wars and rumors of war and the presence of many other encompassing evils. In God’s own time, the Son of man would come to set up his reign on earth.

But why the Son of man rather than of God?

The term "Son of man" is used many times in the Old Testament to mean simply "man." It is used with great frequency in Ezekiel, where the context indicates that it means a male human being, but usually with the implication of his being a messenger of God with something of importance to say to the people. In fact, it is Ezekiel’s most frequent designation of himself. For example:

And he said to me, "Son of man, stand upon your feet, and I will speak with you." And when he spoke to me, the Spirit entered into me and set me upon my feet; and I heard him speaking to me. And he said to me, "Son of man, I send you to the people of Israel, to a nation of rebels, who have rebelled against me; they and their fathers have transgressed against me to this very day’’ (2:1-3).

This frequent use of the term in the Old Testament and especially in Ezekiel, who does not hesitate to regard himself as a prophet, throws light on Jesus’ frequent use of the term when he refers to himself in connection with his mission. In such passages as "Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head" (Matt. 8:20) or "the Son of man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Behold a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ " (Matt. 11:19), Jesus is apparently referring to himself in some sense as a special messenger of God, but there is no suggestion here of a supernatural and apocalyptic second coming.

For the apocalyptic connotations of the term "Son of man" we must look to the book of Daniel and the intertestamental writings. Daniel was written in a time of troubles during the persecutions under the Seleucid ruler Antiochus Epiphanes. Its aim was to reinforce the faith of the people. With its setting during the Babylonian captivity under King Nebuchadnezzar four centuries earlier, its primary theme is the divine protection and God-given courage of the fiery furnace and the lion’s den. Yet it contains apocalyptic imagery as well. The most influential passage of this type is:

I saw in the night visions,

and behold, with the clouds of heaven

there came one like a son of man,

and he came to the Ancient of Days

and was presented before him.

And to him was given dominion

and glory and kingdom,

that all peoples, nations, and languages

should serve him;

his dominion is an everlasting dominion,

which shall not pass away,

and his kingdom one

that shall not be destroyed.

(7:13-14. See also verses 9-12.).

What is hinted at here as "one like a son of man" becomes considerably more concrete and definite in the Similitudes of Enoch, where a figure appears who is variously called "the Elect One," or "the Anointed One," or "the Son of man.’’ In him dwells the spirit of wisdom, understanding, and might, and the righteous will remain forever in his presence. He will be God’s agent in the day of the Lord—the great day of final victory—and he will "try the works" of the people. At the resurrection of the dead he will winnow out the righteous and take them to dwell with him eternally as he sits on the throne of his glory.

Numerous references to the kingdom of God, or the kingdom of heaven as a reverent way to avoid speaking the divine name, appear in late Jewish literature. Not only I and 11 Enoch but 11 Baruch, IV Ezra, the Twelve Testaments, and the Assumption of Moses pave the way for the apocalyptic cosmic drama. In Jewish prayers, the Kaddish, still used today, emerged, "May he establish his kingdom in your lifetime and in your days.’’

Without specific use of the term "Son of man," an apocalyptic coming of the day of the Lord is indicated elsewhere in the Old Testament as well as in the intertestamental writings. The book of Joel has two dominant themes -- the sufferings of the people due to their disobedience, and the imminent day of judgment and hope.

Blow the trumpet in Zion;

sound the alarm on my holy mountain!

Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble,

for the day of the Lord is coming, it is near,

a day of darkness and gloom,

a day of clouds and thick darkness! (Joel 2: I -2).

In great words quoted by Peter at Pentecost the prophet affirms:

And it shall come to pass afterward,

that I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;

your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,

your old men shall dream dreams,

and your young men shall see visions.

Even upon the menservants and maidservants

in those days, I will pour out my spirit.

(Joel 2:28-29. See also Acts 2:17-18.).

The whole book of Zechariah deals with this dual nature of the coming day of the Lord. Here the agency of the Messiah is presupposed, triumphant, and victorious, yet "humble and riding on an ass, on a colt the foal of an ass" (Zech. 9:9. See also Matt. 21:5; John 12:15.). The messianic ruler comes not as a warrior but as a new kind of victor. This may be the background of Jesus’ mode of entrance into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.

In some intertestamental writing the apocalyptic establishment of God’s kingdom seems to require no mediator.

Then His kingdom shall appear throughout all His creation,

And then Satan shall be no more,

And sorrow shall depart with him (Assumption of Moses 10:1)2

Yet more commonly it is God’s chosen messenger who will defeat Satan and bring in the new world that is to come.

The crux of the problem as to the apocalypticism of Jesus and his own relation to the coming kingdom lies in the degree to which he shared this point of view. It is my belief that to some extent he did share it, though he transformed it by an emphasis on the mercy as well as the judgment of God and on the love of God and neighbor as the criterion for God’s moral demands. How might he have done so? The Old Testament had not yet been canonized in its present form, and there was no such sharp distinction as the church was later to establish between the sacred writings and others. We have no way of knowing whether Jesus during his hidden years had read these intertestamental writings, especially the passages in the Similitudes of Enoch. Yet this was not impossible, for the book had been written partly in his native Aramaic and partly in Hebrew during the first or second century B.C. Whether or not he had read it, its ideas were in general circulation.

As Jesus pondered the form his own ministry would take, and he became convinced that God had chosen him for a special mission, it was natural enough that he designate himself as the Son of man in the sense in which Ezekiel had used the term. To blend it with the Daniel-Enoch concept was the next step. This he could do so long as he put it in the framework of his own understanding of the love and mercy of God and of moral obedience to the love commandments which God so long before had laid upon his people. And this Jesus appears to have done.

I do not profess to know with certainty that Jesus made this amalgamation. My own faith in him and loyalty to him as the Lord Jesus Christ is in no way dependent on these apocalyptic Son-of-man passages; it hinges upon all that he was and did and said during what we know of his earthly ministry and his continuing presence as the living Christ. It does not impair my confidence in him as, in truth, the unique Son of God and our Savior to think that he may have blended the apocalyptic with the more basic prophetic notes in his ministry.

The third major element in Jesus’ legacy from the past is the law. This had been a major element in the entire history of Israel from the time of Moses. The Ten Commandments may have emerged out of the social history of people instead of being dramatically graven on tablets of stone as the first perception of their need; yet God had guided the people in the moral outlook which the commandments embody. Disobeyed again and again, their demands are still relevant. Jesus would never have thought of setting them aside.

The rabbinic literature of Jesus’ time shared the eschatological hope of the coming kingdom which has been outlined. But it also reflected a strong sense of divine discipline to be accepted by obedient submission to God’s will. The daily repetition of the Shema (Deut. 6:4-5) was regarded as taking upon oneself the yoke of the kingdom. Thus were linked the kingdom and the law. Furthermore, the kingdom was present where the rule of God was obeyed.3

Yet over the years, and especially in the later years of Judaism, the law had become cluttered with a great minutia of details -- some important to human living, some very trivial. In the time of Jesus, its chief custodians were the Pharisees, who for the most part were good people with whom Jesus had much more in common than with the priestly Sadducees, who were much concerned to preserve their own power and status by currying favor with Rome. Had we a fuller account of the words of Jesus, we might find him saying better things of the Pharisees than those which have led us to think unkindly of them. Yet as prophecy had declined, the law had tended to become externalized; its letter rather than its spirit was accented. Jesus did not hesitate to disregard the sabbath observance and the dietary regulations when they conflicted with human good or to point out the hypocrisy latent in such legalism.

Jesus took the law seriously, not to abolish but to fulfill it (Matt. 5:17), and this too enters as a legacy from the past into his concept of the kingdom. In his summary of the demands of personal living as these are epitomized in the Beatitudes and illustrated again and again in his parables of the kingdom, the moral law is not left behind but its external demands are turned inward. Here we have again, though in a different framework, the new covenant written in the hearts of men which Jeremiah had announced so long before. And with it is blended the way of self-denial, of self-giving, and of service which was to become the way of the Cross.

This approach through the law is less obviously related to Jesus’ understanding of the kingdom than the approach through either prophecy or apocalypse. Yet it was to bear much fruit, for he had an encompassing sense of the importance of moral obedience to the will of God as a condition of entrance into the kingdom. The call to put the love of God and neighbor above legalistic requirements was basic to his message. But his concern for the law persisted in his summons to distinguish between the external obedience required by it and the inner fidelity to a higher law required of a life reborn by the love and mercy of God. This distinction was to become in Paul’s thought a sharp distinction between the law and the gospel, with the gospel centered in Jesus himself. To Jesus, the good news God had commissioned him to announce was the higher law of love, and its expression was an indispensable requirement of entrance into the kingdom of God.

If these antecedents from his heritage were present in the mind of Jesus, as it seems certain that they were, it is not surprising that they should have found their way into his understanding and speaking of the kingdom. Indeed, it would have been surprising if they had not. The marvel is that he took them and so transformed them that their major notes have continued to be vital and compelling to the present day. In this lies his uniqueness and his Saviorhood.

If this be the case, then an understanding of the kingdom in three senses -- the eternal, righteous rule of the sovereign God; the call to moral obedience in love; and an apocalyptic final consummation -- seems less inconsistent in the thought of Jesus than they have often been assumed to be. As he pondered the nature of his ministry at the call of God, it is not surprising that he should have expected an imminent end of the present world and believed that God had called him to be the harbinger of judgment and salvation.

2. Did Jesus believe himself to be the Messiah?

Did Jesus believe that he was the promised Messiah? This is a question on which competent scholars are not agreed. Among those who answer the question in the affirmative, there is still not full agreement as to how he conceived the messiahship. The question has been presupposed in what has been said up to this point, but the antecedents of the issue needed to be stated before considering it directly.

This author’s position is that it depends on the meaning given to the term. Then some things can be said with certainty, others only tentatively.

It seems clear that Jesus rejected outright the historic, and in his time the most common, understanding of the Messiah as a political deliverer who would restore Israel to its former greatness under King David. The Zealots sought the fulfillment of this hope by trying by force of arms to throw off the Roman yoke. While this was primarily a revolutionary effort of irreconcilable patriots rather than a messianic movement, they would doubtless have been glad to claim Jesus as their leader. He refused any overtures they may have made. Although Simon the Zealot (so called to distinguish him from Simon Peter) was one of the disciples (Luke 6:15; Acts 1:13), he does not figure prominently in the Gospel narrative, and there is no convincing evidence that Jesus had anything to do with the Zealot movement. At the beginning of his ministry his resistance to the temptations to claim for himself economic, political, or personal supernatural power may well reflect an inner struggle over the issue. If so, then the outcome was a complete repudiation of the political messianic hope. One of the disciples could say sadly after his crucifixion, "But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel" (Luke 24:21). Yet this seems never to have been the hope of Jesus in the sense in which the disciple conceived it.4

But did Jesus believe himself to be the Son-of-man Messiah? Here the affirmative evidence is stronger, and we have noted that he made much of this Son-of-man terminology, or so the record indicates. He speaks of himself repeatedly as Son of man in the prophetic sense in which Ezekiel had used the term, and numerous passages suggest that the final consummation will be ushered in by the apocalyptic coming of the Son of man. Yet on further examination it does not appear that he is necessarily referring to himself. For example:

When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next; for truly, I say to you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel, before the Son of man comes (Matt. 10:23).

For the Son of man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay every man for what he has done. Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom (Matt. 16:27-28).

For as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of man (Matt. 24:27).

When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne (Matt. 25:31).

Therefore you also must be ready; for the Son of man is coming at an hour you do not expect (Matt. 24:44).

Whether Jesus in such passages was speaking of himself or of a heavenly being known only as the Son of man, the early church was so convinced that Jesus was the Messiah that they made this identification.5 Jesus apparently believed in an imminent end of the present age. That he thought of himself as coming again in so dramatic a manner is less certain. By the time of the writing of John’s Gospel toward the end of the century, the dominant note had become the promise of the indwelling Holy Spirit that would succeed him to guide his followers in ways of truth and service.

The most we can say with certainty at this point is that Jesus may have thought of himself as the Messiah in the Son-of-man sense, and that his first century followers believed he had repeatedly made this claim. But this does not end the inquiry.

We have noted that the Old Testament prophet on whom Jesus seems most to have patterned his life work was the one whom he knew as Isaiah, though we may now speak of him as Second Isaiah, since he wrote during the exile and about one hundred and fifty years after the Isaiah of the eighth century. What Jesus sought to be and to do, at the call of God, was to give himself in suffering love to his people and to all whom he could serve and redeem by the power of God.

Does this mean that Jesus believed he was the expected Messiah? Here the lines of distinction become tenuous, for while the words of Isaiah were familiar enough, there was no "suffering servant Messiah" in the expectation of the people. There are two ways of putting what seems to have been Jesus’ understanding of his calling. We can say that he believed himself to be the Messiah but with a fresh understanding of all that the term implied.6 Or we can say that he believed God had given him a unique vocation -- to manifest and to establish the reign of God on earth through a ministry of service and self-giving love.

Actually, these are two ways of saying the same thing, though they elicit differing emotional and theological connotations. The early church was certain that in Jesus we see "the Christ, the Son of the living God" (Matt. 16:16). This conviction has been transmitted by the scriptures, tradition, and experience to the present day. I believe this designation to be meaningful and true, provided we do not distort it to the point of denying the humanity of Jesus and with it the incarnation.

Yet this still does not answer the question as to whether Jesus believed he was the Christ. Since the words directly following Peter’s affirmation in Matthew 16:16 refer to the church, which did not exist in Jesus’ lifetime, the passage may be an interpolation from early Christian thought. Jesus was addressed as "Good Teacher,’’ and we have the rejoinder, "Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone" (Mark 10:18. See also Luke 18:19.). When during his trial he was asked by the governor, "Are you the King of the Jews?" the reply is simply, "You have said so" (Matt. 27:11). In Luke the question is, "Are you the Son of God, then?’’ and the answer is equivocal, "You say that I am" (Luke 22:70). It is only in Mark that we find a clear affirmative. In reply to the high priest’s question, "Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?" the answer is, "I am; and you will see the Son of man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven" (Mark 14:61-62).7

So, perhaps we had best conclude that we cannot enter Jesus’ own consciousness to say with certainty just how he thought of himself in relation to the ancient messianic hope. We can be sure that he had no doubt of having been called by God to a special mission for the redemption of his own people, and beyond them of all humanity. Whether or not he accepted for himself the title of the Christ, the Anointed One, we are fully justified in using it.

3. The kingdom of God in the early church

A point on which biblical scholars are agreed is that in the preaching and teaching of the apostolic church, it was Jesus himself as Christ the Lord, the Son of God, the Savior that became the central message. In fact, the ichthus or "fish," which became the sacred symbol found repeatedly on the walls of the catacombs where the persecuted Christians took refuge, is an acronym formed from the first letters of the Greek words for "Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior." The kingdom of God is referred to in Paul’s letters, the book of Acts, and elsewhere, but much less attention is given to it than to Christ, the crucified and risen Lord. The fact that it is so central in the Synoptic Gospels, which were compiled considerably later than any of Paul’s letters, is evidence that the kingdom teachings of Jesus had persisted in spite of, and perhaps because of, the centrality given to Jesus as the Christ.

Enough has been said of Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom of God as presented in the Synoptic Gospels so that we need not linger in repetition of it. However, some significant aspects may be indicated. The first of these is that the lapse of time between the death of Jesus and the writing of Mark, the earliest Gospel, may have modified but did not quench the memory of this teaching. It must be authentic in its general structure, or it would not have been preserved. The second is to call attention to the fact that Matthew, and he only, used "the kingdom of heaven" as a synonym for "the kingdom of God," and does so some thirty times. The probable reason is that this author was writing primarily for the church that was centered in Jerusalem, and the Jews had long hesitated to speak the name of God openly, lest in doing so they profane him in violation of the third commandment. A third matter of note is that Luke freely includes references to the kingdom in citing the sayings of Jesus, though less often than Matthew, but in the book of Acts by the same author the references to the kingdom are few. This seems to indicate that he could not tell the story of Jesus without them, though in the early church this note had become subordinate to Jesus himself as the Christ.

In the Gospel of John we find a very different approach. Its purpose is stated succinctly by its author, "these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name’’ (20:31). Though it contains great, tender words about life after death, its primary concern is not eschatology but eternal life through Christ in the present. It has no apocalyptic language and only a brief reference, in what is probably a later addition, to Christ’s return (21:22). Instead, the Holy Spirit will come as the counselor to teach them all things and keep fresh his memory (14:26).8

Prominent as is the teaching of the kingdom in the Synoptics, in John it is found only twice and this in a single passage. In the interview with Nicodemus, Jesus says, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God." When Nicodemus asks how this can be, the reply becomes more specific, ‘’Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God" (John 3:3, 5). This suggests that by the end of the first century, when John’s Gospel was written, both baptism as the external sign of regeneration and the Holy Spirit as its inner agency had become linked to the concept of the kingdom. But of the kingdom itself we hear no more in the fourth Gospel. John, like the other three evangelists, accents the importance of the crucifixion and resurrection by giving these events a major place in the narrative; but unlike them he makes the divinity of Jesus so predominant over his humanity that the teachings presented take quite a different turn.

In John there is no agony in Gethsemane, no cry of dereliction from the Cross, but Jesus is in complete command of every situation. This brings about in the trial scene an indirect reference to the kingdom in a different context from that in the Synoptics. When asked by Pilate, "Are you the King of the Jews?" Jesus answers, "My kingship is not of this world; . . . For this I was born, and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth. Every one who is of the truth hears my voice" (18:36-37). The kingship of Jesus, not a kingdom to be entered, is here the central note.

In Acts we are told that Jesus continued to speak of the kingdom in his post-resurrection appearances (1:3). Yet the difficulty encountered by even his closest disciples to grasp his message is evidenced by the fact that when they came together they asked him, "Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?" The Davidic Messiah was still their dream! Jesus apparently thought that it was useless to argue with them, for he told them it was not for them to know the times or seasons fixed by the Father’s authority. Instead, they should be witnesses to him by the power of the Holy Spirit "in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth’’ (1:6-8).

In Luke’s account of the birth and spread of the church in Acts, we find a few references to the kingdom of God, first in connection with Philip’s and then with Paul’s preaching and teaching about the kingdom (8:12; 14:22; 19:8; 28:23, 31). What they indicate is that the kingdom message was not forgotten, but was not taken nearly so seriously as the impulse to preach Christ crucified and the good news of salvation through Christ. The references are very general, the most concrete being the statement that in Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch Paul and Barnabas were "strengthening the souls of the disciples, exhorting them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God" (Acts 14:22).

In Paul’s letters there are more references to the kingdom of God than in Acts, but considering the volume of the letters the proportion is no greater. Paul clearly believed in an imminent end of the present world. Yet it is noteworthy that he does not associate it with any such dramatic panoply as the Synoptic Gospels were later to present. While the term "second coming," in so many words, is found nowhere in the New Testament, there are brief references to the Lord’s coming in I Corinthians 4:5 and 15:23; I Thessalonians 2:19, 4:15, and 5:23; and a day of judgment through Christ in Romans 2:16. These are similar to somewhat incidental references in John 21:22, James 5:7, and Revelation 2:25. It would appear that these writers, in common with the prevalent idea in the early church, believed that Christ would return, but they stopped short of making this a spectacular event.

Paul seems to have thought of the kingdom as both present and future, and what is dominant in his mention of it is a strong emphasis on its moral requirements. We are told in Romans 14:17, "For the kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit." Again in I Corinthians 4:20 in a protest against too much arrogant talk we find Paul saying, "For the kingdom of God does not consist in talk but in power." The futuristic element blends with the moral as he says in I Corinthians 6:9, "Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God?" Then he proceeds to give a list of offenses which mark the unrighteous. There is a similar approach in Galatians 5:19-21 with a long list of offenses. Yet the passage leads into his priceless statement, "But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such there is no law" (5:22-23). Apparently these are the qualities most basic for membership in the kingdom of God.

In a few passages Paul speaks of the kingdom of Christ. In Ephesians 5:5, if he wrote this letter, Paul has it that no immoral or impure man "has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God." In a more authentic but also more obscure passage in I Corinthians 15:23-28 he speaks of the coming of Christ and says, "Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet’’ (15:24-25). There seems here to be a blend of the present reign of Christ before the final consummation with an ultimate surrender to God of the authority delegated to him as the Christ.

What shall we make of all this? What I make of it has already been indicated along the way, but a summary may be in order. This is that Jesus was heavily indebted to his past, but was no copyist of it; that he spoke as an apocalyptist, but that his apocalypticism was probably distorted and exaggerated in the records of the Synoptics; more important, that he had a prophetic sense of mission as God’s suffering servant and agent of redemption; that he deeply respected the law of his fathers, but gave it a new depth of meaning in self-giving love. I believe with his followers in the early church that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the living God, and our Savior; and that he believed himself to have a unique calling and God-given mission. To Jesus the kingdom of God was the universal, eternal, righteous reign of God, only partially accepted amid the world’s evil yet a present fact, a sphere of human existence to be entered and furthered by moral obedience in love to the will of God. He believed also in a final consummation with God’s victory over evil, and believed himself to be God’s agent in bringing this to pass. Whether this is equivalent to saying that he believed himself to be the Messiah depends on the connotation given to this term.

The reader is invited to agree or to disagree with these conclusions to the degree that the evidence that has been presented seems persuasive. However, they will be presupposed in the remainder of the book.




1. The doctrine of the remnant, having passed through the crucible and reinterpretations of New Testament thought, still persists in the belief of Jehovah’s Witnesses and other Pentecostals that on the day of the second coming, they alone will be taken to dwell with Jesus in heaven.

2. Quoted by O. E. Evans in The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, K-Q (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1962), p. 19.

3. John Bright, The Kingdom of God (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1953). Chapter 6 uses the suggestive term "the holy commonwealth" to designate this aspect of the outlook of Judaism.

4. It is the contention of S. G. F. Brandon in Jesus and the Zealots: A Study of the Political Factor in Primitive Christianity (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1968) that Jesus was a Zealot and a violent exponent of nationalism. This position has been effectively answered by George R. Edwards in Jesus and the Politics of Violence (New York: Harper and Row, 1972).

5. John Knox in Christ the Lord, pp. 30 38, points out Jesus probably used the terms "Son of man" in both senses, but that the early church, convinced that he was the Messiah, gave an eschatological interpretation to some sayings not so intended. He gives a more extended list of such passages.

6. John Bright, The Kingdom of God, pp. 208-14, regards Jesus as definitely believing himself to be the Messiah, but in the pattern and concept of the Suffering Servant.

7. The affirmation in Mark 14:61 in answer to Pilate’s question is less likely to have been spoken by Jesus than the replies given in Matthew 27:11 and Luke 22:70, for if he had said that he was the Son of God, the Jews could have put him to death for blasphemy.

8. There is no single word in English by which to translate the full meaning of the Paraclete. It has been variously rendered as comforter, counselor, advocate, and simply helper.