Chapter V: The Kingdom of God

by Martin Dibelius

Chapter V: The Kingdom of God

“Blessed are ye poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God! “Thy Kingdom come!” “Howbeit, seek ye his Kingdom, and these things shall be added unto you! “ “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom! “ At the center of Jesus’ message stands the King­dom of God. Anyone who wishes to understand the Gospel must know what sort of thing this Kingdom is.

Several psalms begin with the exclamation, “Yahweh is king” (Ps. 93; 97; 99); others describe his ascending the throne (Ps. 47; 96). In this way, in ritual observance or in prophetic vision, the future is anticipated — that time when the God of Israel will finally seize the reins of government, and when his sacred justice will prevail upon earth. For as yet discord and unrighteousness rule; as yet the world’s course does not run in accordance with the law of God; as yet the devout sigh in misery and desolation. But when God seizes the rule, then it will be made known by revolutions in nature and history; his enemies will feel it with horror, his faithful with rejoicing that God’s sovereignty has arrived at last.

This rule of God in the last days is what is meant when the Jew speaks of God’s reign. There is no thought of a sec­tion of territory in the world that has been marked off for God; the place of his rulership is the whole cosmos. Neither is there any thought of a hidden sway of God in the soul of man; rather, God will come forth “out of his dwelling place” in power and rule in manifest glory. One prays there­fore that his Kingdom may “appear.” And yet the expres­sion “Kingdom of God” can well become the designation for God’s cause, to which the devout man confesses alle­giance even now, because he knows that it will be realized in splendor in the future. Abraham, even in his day, it is said, chose God’s Kingdom; and the heathen who becomes a proselyte (that is, goes over to Judaism) takes upon him­self God’s Kingdom. And when Judaism came, later on, to have a confessional formula which was said daily — begin­ning with,” Hear, 0 Israel,” from Deut. 6:4 — this repetition of the formula was called “taking upon oneself the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven.”

The expression “Kingdom of Heaven” does not differ at all in meaning from “Kingdom of God.” From an early time there was among the Jews an aversion to pronouncing the divine name. They spoke of the Kingdom of “the Lord” instead of the Kingdom of “Yahweh,” but they said “ Heaven” instead of “Lord “— the later Judaism was even accustomed to speak in a quite colorless way of the “Place” or the “ Name” when there was occasion to speak of God. So it is to be understood that one said “Kingship of Heaven” when one meant God’s Kingship, God’s Kingdom. Those Christian communities in which Jewish ways of speaking persisted kept these forms of expression, and thus they found entrance into Matthew’s Gospel. But Matthew himself says “Kingdom of God” in several places (chs. 6:33 and 12:28), where the phrase is required for rhetorical balance — and therefore we may assume that Jesus himself spoke in the main of the Kingdom of God.

In those days, anyone who referred to “the Kingdom of God “implied thereby that this present world is not God’s world. It was out of an experience of a world order that exalts the godless and humbles the devout, punishes the guilt­less and lets sinners achieve honor — it was out of this that the longing for God’s Kingship was born. A time would come, so it was announced, in which this evil course of the world would be turned about to its opposite, when right would again be recognized as right and sin as sin. This won­derful change could not be wrested from Heaven by men, nor could it be accomplished by their effort; all that men could do was to be prepared for the universal change. How­ever, when it does come to pass, the whole world will be able to recognize it. When the coming Kingdom of God appears, there will be an end to all questioning. The only questions for study or inquiry are: When will it come? and, Is it per­haps already near at hand? Until it actually appears, the Kingdom of God will always be viewed as a coming king­dom. So John the Baptist viewed it, and so also Jesus views it.

Any attempt to interpret the individual sayings of Jesus about the Kingdom must be preceded by a recognition of the fact that Jesus never specifically interpreted the expression

“Kingdom of God.” He at no time said anything like, “You have heard that it was said to them of old time, the Kingdom of God will come; but I say to you, the Kingdom of God is already here.” He spoke of  the coming of the Kingdom, for which one should pray. It is God who sends it. Jesus said neither that it grows gradually nor that he meant to create it.

Of course there are several parables that seem to speak of the growth of the Kingdom of God. But if one keeps to the viewpoint expounded previously., and reads the parable nar­rative apart from its editorial frame, then one will under­stand what it is these teaching stories are meant to say. The point of Mark 4:26, for example, is that the situation with re­gard to the Kingdom of God is like that of a farmer who has sown seed, but after that has nothing more that he can do; nay, the earth brings forth of itself blade and ear and fruit. Only when the fruit is ripe is it time again for the farmer to take a hand, since now the harvest is here. It is the introduc­tion, especially, that one must be careful not to misunder­stand. As we must infer from Jewish parables generally, this introduction does not signify a logical comparison, but simply serves as a heading: Such is the situation with regard to the Kingdom of God. But the picture that this little teaching story sketches has one clear, simple meaning. It affirms that one can do nothing: the harvest comes of itself. It does not affirm, however, that the harvest is already here. Nor does it affirm that the Kingdom of God is like a grain of seed that becomes fruit by a process of self-development. For the thing being compared is not the fruit, but the harvest. The parable is an injunction to wait, not an exhortation to sow.

And likewise the oft-cited parable of the Sower (Mark 4:3 ff.) does not develop a theory about the Kingdom. It portrays the partial failure with which all seed-sowing is at­tended: some seed falls on the path, some on the rocky ground, some among thorns. It is only by way of appendix that there is any mention of the many seeds that fall on the good ground, i.e., the parable is intended to afford consola­tion for the failure which lies in the natural course of things and a standing reminder of the success in the work of seed­-sowing. The point is not that one can disseminate the King­dom; not one of Jesus’ hearers could have entertained this utterly impious thought. The reference embodied in the pic­ture is not open to any doubt: it is the preaching of Jesus (and of his disciples) about the Kingdom of God. This preaching is not to be bewailed as fruitless because much of it is a failure; failure is the accompaniment of every success.

The figures of the Mustard Seed and the Leaven (Mark 4:31, 32; Matt. 13:33) likewise have no other purpose than to console and encourage. They show forth only how what is large comes from what is small, in the case of the mustard seed through growth, in the case of the leaven through hu­man effort. But such a thing is possible, and the small begin­ning is no indication of what the final result will be. Of course it is not said as general truth, but with reference to the Kingdom of God; hence the question, “How shall we liken the Kingdom of God? “ But in this case also no hearer of Jesus understood that the Kingdom was going to grow, naturally or through human effort. What is small at the be­ginning and becomes large at the end is the preaching of the Kingdom of God, the cause for which Jesus is concerned.

This preaching is not, however, the teaching of a prophet who foretells that one day. at the end of the ages, the King­dom of God will appear. What aroused Jesus’ hearers and inspired the disciples is the special, the “ actual,” viewpoint under which the preaching of the Kingdom stands: it is the message that the fullness of the times has now drawn near, that the Kingdom of God is standing before the door, that its coming is not to be delayed. And now we recall that this certainty links the Baptist with Jesus. His preaching likewise proclaimed this “now,” the absolutely imminent invasion of the Kingdom of God. Until then, the Kingdom lives only in the preaching and in the movement of the people affected by this preaching. And in Jesus’ circle this nearness is traced to his words, his decisions, his deeds. The Kingdom has not yet appeared, but its signs are visible. The old world still exists, with its enmity toward God and his Kingship; the heralds of the Kingdom still face hostility; their message is still denied and despised by the mighty who control this world — and under that heading men of the ancient world did not think only or primarily of Pilate and Herod, but of supernatural “ powers,” concerning which the Apostle Paul also wrote more than once (I Cor. 2:8; 15:24; Col. 2:15). In such a connection, Jesus’ saying also becomes easy to un­derstand — a saying that has often been styled a dark say­ing: “From the days of the Baptist until now the Kingdom of God suffers violence, and men of violence seek to take it by force” (Matt. 11:12). But that has held good only “until now “— for “it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom” (Luke 12:32).

One can understand Jesus’ mission only if he keeps in view these two poles between which lies everything that he said and did. The one pole consists of the conviction that the Kingdom of God is future and completely opposed to this world. The other consists of the consciousness that this King­dom is already in process of coming, and has already put itself in motion; its breaking in upon the present order is no longer to be held off. The movement among the people which Jesus set going advances from the time of unfulfill­ment into that of complete fulfillment; but it exists in the period between these times. This existence between “not yet having arrived “ and “ having arrived “ one must understand if one is to comprehend the historical position of the Gospel. With this as a starting point one can find the answer to cer­tain much discussed questions, such as: What historically did Jesus aim to do? or, Did he  “aim” to do anything at all? or such a question as this: What did he think about his own person?

But of course there arises, precisely out of this recognition of an existence between the times, a great question, one that touches and gathers up the whole mission of Jesus. The King­dom of God has not yet come; we are still living today “be­tween the times “ and are still confronted with the “ not yet.” Here one cannot speak merely of a widening of the horizon, in the sense that the still unrealized fulfillment has only been postponed a few hundreds or thousands of years. It still looks as though a monstrous illusion lies at the basis of the whole mission of Jesus, the illusion of something immedi­ately impending which actually never has come to pass. These fundamental questions will be discussed later (Chap­ter X). For the present we must leave them unanswered; we can come to grips with these superhistorical questions only after we have dealt with the historical situation, and have learned what this existence “between the times” was actu­ally like in the Palestine of those days. Only with a full knowledge of the historical picture can we speak of its valid­ity or invalidity in the course of the centuries and also in our own time. Only when we see what Jesus brought to his own time in the way of threat, promise, and demand are we justi­fied in asking if this threat, promise,  and demand apply to us also.

The threat stands first in this connection. For the coming of the Kingdom of God signifies judgment, destruction of the present world order, and the end of this world age. The nearness of the holy God always signifies danger for the un­holy man. Jesus does not speak of the Kingdom of God as though it were an idyl. He takes God really seriously as the One who is to come and to judge. What will happen when he suddenly enters into this world?


“Two men will be working in the field:

One shall be taken, the other shall be left.

Two women will be grinding at the mill:

One shall be taken, the other shall be left”

(Matt. 24:40, 41).


And as in the days of Noah men will not notice anything; they will eat and drink, marry and be given in marriage—and as then the flood came and suddenly destroyed them all, so shall the judgment come upon them now. The suddenness of the catastrophe Jesus depicted in ever fresh figures, its appearing will be like the lightning, which shines from the east even to the west; or like the thief, who slips into the house at an hour that no one knows; or like the lord who re­turns in the night without the servants’ knowing it (blessed are the servants whom he finds watching!); or like the bride­groom who suddenly surprises the waiting virgins (woe to those who are unprepared, who have no oil for their lamps!). 

Many Jews believed they were prepared. They had their books, ostensibly of miraculous origin, the “revelations” (apocalypses) in which they found written what should come to pass. Here too there were not lacking pictures that suggested the nearness of the end: “Near is the jug to the spring, and the ship to the harbor, and the caravan to the city, and life to death” (Syriac Apocalypse of Baruch, 85). But now come calculations as to what must take place before the end: that, e.g., four kingdoms must pass away, or twelve plagues must come upon mankind, and monsters rise up out of the sea. Sun and moon will be darkened, stars will fall from heaven; there will be uprisings among the nations, and discord among princes; wars between various countries will terrify men — these are the signs according to which pious curiosity reckoned the time of the end.

The Christian community likewise felt the need for such a calendar of events. Accordingly some Christian undertook to furnish Jesus’ words of warning and promise regarding the catastrophe with “apocalyptic “ motives in order that the Christians too might be able to note the course of things and recognize the “ signs “ of the end. And this brief Christian apocalypse,” which was widespread in the communities, was taken up in time into the tradition of Jesus, since it did indeed contain familiar words of the Master. In this way it

found a place in our Gospels as a “discourse” of Jesus con­cerning the end, and there it is still to be read today, in the thirteenth chapter of Mark’s Gospel and in the corresponding passages in Matthew and Luke. That this is not really a discourse delivered by Jesus is especially easy to discover from the Marcan text, at the point where a mysterious expression is taken over from The Book of Daniel: “But when you see the abomination of desolation standing where it [or he] ought not, then let the inhabitants of Judea flee to the moun­tains” (Mark 13:14). This saying, which foreshadows the worst — a pernicious something, which works desolation, shall stand in a holy place — is provided in Mark with the addition: “Let the reader understand.” Thus it has nothing at all to do with hearers of Jesus, but on the contrary with readers who in conformity to their Christian experience are to apply the ancient symbol of calamity to an event of their own time, which will then become for them the predicted sign of the end. By the time Luke wrote, the correct “un­derstanding” was believed to have been arrived at. For Luke replaces the suggestive word with a reference to its fulfill­ment: “But when you see Jerusalem encompassed by armies, then know that its’ desolation ‘ is near” (Luke 21:20).

One can understand how the Christians, especially those in Palestine, were at pains to understand in such fashion the disturbed times before and during the Jewish rebellion, and to insist on the point. But when they too began to reckon with “signs,” they ceased to act in accordance with Jesus’ mind. His opposition to such apocalyptic methods is only too clear. If men were as God would have them be, they would know how to interpret “the time,” just as one recog­nizes in the clouds the coming rain and in the fig tree’s leaves the nearing summer. There is no doubt (and they should have been able to observe it) that the time is ripe: the

man who stands before them witnessing by word and deed to the Kingdom of God, the band of disciples which he is gathering, the movement of the people which is spreading throughout the land — all this should have opened their eyes. Just as Jonah became a sign for the inhabitants of Nine­veh, so Jesus himself is the sign of God’s Kingdom. The Christians also tried to get out of this saying another positive sign, and later compared the Prophet Jonah’s emergence from the belly of the whale with the emergence of Jesus from the grave (Matt. 12:40); but the form of the Jonah saying in Luke (ch. 11:29, 30) and the rejection of all quest for signs in Mark (ch. 8:12) leave no doubt as to Jesus’ mean­ing: Jonah brought the people of Nineveh none of those predicted apocalyptic signs, but rather he himself, his call to repentance, was the one and only signal that was given them. If one fails to understand that, he cannot complain; God will not perform a special miracle for him, wherewith he may bemuse himself.

Indeed, the contemporaries must have noted already in the gloomy “ preacher in the wilderness,” in John the Baptist, that here “ the way of the Lord “ was being prepared. They could also have learned from the Law and Prophets what were God’s purposes for the course of this world. In such a sense Jesus retold the story of the rich man and poor Lazarus, which, as we know, was already in circulation before his time: the rich man in Hades, anxious about the future fate of his brothers, can send them no hint, no special sign, for “they have Moses and the prophets” (Luke 16:29). But if one really senses what is breaking in over the world, he will also be well aware that he is on the way to judgment, and he will act like a clever peasant who meets his adversary on the way, before they arrive at court, and quickly, while they are both walking into the city, comes to terms with him — for when once they have appeared before the judge it will be too late. This saying, also, the Christians expounded fur­ther in their effort to produce as many of Jesus’ instructions as possible for individual situations in their own life: they understood it as an exhortation of Jesus to the amicable set­tlement of lawsuits (Matt. 5:25). But the introduction in Luke 12:57 shows that the saying is a parable: “Why do you not let your own life teach you the right attitude? “— i.e., Why when you are on the way to God’s judgment do you not act in the same clever way that you do on the way to a human judge?

Recognition of the time, not a reckoning of the times, that is what Jesus  demanded of his hearers. And one should re­call how many among his people relied upon such spiritual arithmetic! Only then can we understand in what sense he said (Luke 17:20), “The Kingdom of God comes not with observation [the art of reading signs],”  i.e., there are no signs to be observed that give notice of it.  The second sentence explains the first with the parallel thought:  “Neither shall they say [of the Kingdom], Lo here! Or There!”  But at this point Jesus now adds the often quoted, often misunderstood sentence, “For lo, the Kingdom of God is among you”; one can also translate, “in you.”  This saying, in the form of the second rendering, is frequently  construed as the basic principle of pure inwardness:  Jesus sought to do away with all hope for a coming of God’s Kingdom from heaven on earth, and to affirm that the so-called Kingdom of God is in reality only to be found “inwardly present within  you,” in the souls of believing men.  But how many words of Jesus’ would have to be put out of commission if this should hold good!  Any such reference to pure inwardness is also refuted by the opening sentence.  For without doubt what is “among you” (or “in you”) is just this and nothing else, viz., something that men might readily “observe” and of which they might say in their excitement, “It is here,” or “It is there”; what is meant therefore is not the Kingdom itself but the signs of the Kingdom.  They are not to be “observed,” let us say, in the starry sky, nor are they to be confirmed by any sensation-greedy excitement “here” or “there.”  The signs of the Kingdom ae “among you” or “in your midst”; they are Jesus, his message, his deeds.  The translation “within you” is excluded on objective grounds, for Jesus’ message is not yet alive in the hearts of his contemporaries, but he does stand before them as the sole yet definitive “sign.”


“No trace of God’s Kingdom shall they find who seek it by reckoning,

Nor any trace of it shall they find who say, ‘It is here,’ or, ‘There.’

For behold, God’s Kingdom is to be found in your midst!”