Chapter VI: The Signs of the Kingdom

by Martin Dibelius

Chapter VI: The Signs of the Kingdom

Those who sought in the star-studded sky or in the great events of the time for signs that pointed to the end of the world and the beginning of God’s Kingdom could easily pass Jesus by; what was expected among the Jewish people as the sign of the Coming One was not fulfilled through Jesus. “No sign shall be given!” So the words ring from his lips — or what comes to the same thing: “No sign other than the sign of Jonah.” But that saying about the Kingdom of God which is “among you” gives us to understand that for Jesus there is only one sign of the Kingdom: his own person, his preaching, his movement. It is not so important what one calls him if only one understands this sign and per­ceives in Jesus’ activity the coming Kingdom of God.

That Jesus wanted to be so regarded is shown by the ex­tremely important tradition of the sending of the Baptist’s disciples to him. John the Baptist had heard of Jesus while in prison; the prisoner’s communication with the outer world, so it seems, was not entirely interrupted, but was maintained through visits of his disciples. But John could not arrive at certainty as to whether this Galilean prophet was really the promised Anointed of the Lord, the Messiah; whether he was the One whose coming he, the Baptist, had once proclaimed. Was he really the Greater One whose shoe’s latchet John did not feel himself worthy to unloose? Was he the Judge, who separates the chaff from the wheat and casts it into the unquenchable fire (Matt. 3:12) ?

John had no personal experience of the significance of Jesus. If the Gospel of John makes him a witness of the ap­pearance of the Spirit at Jesus’ baptism (ch. 1:32), that is be­cause the Christian account of this appearance transfers to the Baptist an experience of the one baptized; in this way John’s Gospel, but only John’s, makes a Christian of the Baptist. If the Gospel of Matthew represents the Baptist as at first declining to administer the baptism because he feels himself unworthy (ch. 3:14), that is simply a later Christian solution of the problem that the baptism and the apparent subordination of Jesus to the Baptist presented to the com­munities. Luke and Mark know nothing of such a conversa­tion. Jesus’ appearance in no way corresponded to the picture of the Messianic Judge of the world as envisaged by John. It is quite understandable that the Baptist did not know what he ought to think of Jesus. So through his disciples he addressed himself to Jesus: “Are you yourself the Coming One, or must we wait for another?

Jesus answered him neither “Yes” nor “No,” but only pointed to what was taking place round about him. And he did it in words that would evoke in the hearer the picture of the coming Kingdom of God, words that perhaps, if we may draw an inference from the poetic style, belonged to a Messianic hymn:


“The blind see and the lame walk,

The lepers are healed and the deaf hear, The dead are raised, And the poor receive the message of salvation.”


As to himself Jesus added only this: “Blessed is he who is not offended in me! “ (Matt. 11:2—6). It is not assumed that all those marvels have actually taken place in the presence of the messengers; but things of this kind are known to have happened, and those who have experienced them must see in them the manifestation of the powers of the Kingdom in their midst, as God’s proclamation announcing its com­ing. Anyone who perceives what is happening in Jesus’ pres­ence will believe! He will not be misled by the fact that Jesus himself does not show the traits of the traditional picture of the Messiah; whatever one may call him, the Kingdom is in process of coming, that is certain!

The same implication is to be found in another saying of Jesus, one applying to events of a similar sort, i.e., those cures that were looked on in that day as the expulsion of demons who had taken up their lodgment in sick persons. This saying may have been uttered in connection with a controversial debate. The devil’s exorciser has been suspected of being in league with the devil: he casts out the demons by means of the archdemon Beelzebul, their chief. 1.  But Jesus retorts to his calumniators that Jews also drive out de­mons: “ By what power then do your people drive them out? “ And he adds, “ But if it is by the finger of God that I expel the evil spirits, then God’s Kingdom has already made its presence known among you” (Luke 11 :19, 20). In this saying too, whose wording permits the translation, “ God’s Kingdom has come even to you,” it is not said that God’s Kingdom is already there — of such a statement, these ex­pulsions taken alone would really have been no proof! —hut that in the abundance of such wonderful events it announced its proximity. Hence the demon expulsions are also signs of the coming Kingdom.

Thus from Jesus’ own words we discover the conscious­ness that he is performing mighty works of this kind and that these works announce the nearness of the Kingdom of God. God is already beginning to transform the curse of this present existence, which appears in sicknesses and other dark fatalities, into blessing. The populace have perceived this in the fact that here more is happening, and of a different sort, than in the circle of the Baptist. It was remembered that the latter had done no signs (John 10:41); all the more signifi­cant, therefore, appeared what Jesus was accomplishing be­fore the eyes of all. The extraordinary acts that are told of Jesus are accordingly not something that was imposed on his portrait later on; from the beginning they formed an essen­tial part of the tradition about him. Jesus moved through the land not only as a preacher of the Kingdom and a judge of men, but also as their benefactor, who, with his special “charismatic” (i.e., God-given) gift of healing, practically demonstrated to many persons the nearness of God’s King­dom. It is these acts that the language of everyday calls “miracles.” And before we ask how this tradition that Jesus performed such signs is related to the other fact already noted in the preceding chapter, that he looked upon himself as a God-given sign, we must devote some consideration to these miracles and to the current opinion of them.


When one speaks of Jesus’ “miracles,” one ordinarily means deeds that appear to transcend normal human capac­ity and to contradict our (certainly still incomplete) knowl­edge of nature’s laws. Of course the New Testament, when it mentions “signs” or “mighty works,” does not have in mind that negative notion of the contradiction of nature’s laws, but something very positive, viz., that in these deeds God himself is acting, that they are evidences of Jesus’ close bond with God and of the nearness of God’s Kingdom.. There are persons to whom Jesus means so much, and the conception of the world disseminated by natural science means so little, that they see no problem here — who never ask the question, What really happened? and who need no explanation, but instead uncritically take what they read in the Gospels for the thing that occurred. For them, of course, there is really no need of going into further explanations, either as to what happened or as to how it came to be reported as it is.

And yet it must be said that the attitude of all of us toward a miracle, including even that of the uncritical, is quite di­fferent from that of Jesus’ contemporaries (and from that of the medieval man as well). We have become accustomed, and even feel it our duty, as far as we really take faith in God seriously, to recognize God’s activity in normally explainable events, indeed chiefly in such. But Jesus’ hearers, none of whom had been seriously influenced by the critical philoso­phy of the Greeks, supposed that God’s working was to be seen precisely in the inexplicable. If something inexplicable should happen in our world and before our eyes, if someone should cause a person who was lying dead suddenly to get up perfectly well, or if a man should lift himself up into the air without using any mechanical means to help him, the stouthearted would regard the event as a subject for investi­gation, the timorous would draw away from it, those who disapproved would call in the police, while the enthusiastic would give the news to the press — but nobody, we can be sure, would fall on his knees in prayer!  But this is just what seemed to Jesus’ hearers the most natural thing to do when confronted by the marvelous. To them, anything that was not instantly explicable was miraculous. They did not reckon with laws of nature or trouble themselves with attempts at explanation, for it was the supernatural that they sensed at once in the unexplained. It was a case for either adoration or condemnation, for seeing either God’s hand or the devil’s at work — there was no other alternative, for them. We, how­ever, insist on first having the unusual explained before we pass judgment. On the other hand, the happenings in na­ture that are known to everybody, a human birth or death, the renewal of vegetation in spring, the unison rhythm of a great mass gathering, or the grandeur of a work of art —these often enough prompt us to worship or thanksgiving, and out of such experiences of shock or exaltation there arises, confirmed and renewed, faith in the God who is at work there — but openly, not in the dark. “Miracle is faith’s dearest child “— that holds good perhaps for the uncritical man of the bygone and even of the present day, but in no case for the faith that endeavors to hear God’s voice in the events of everyday. Just for that reason we — in harmony with our own religious situation — bring scientific considera­tions to bear on the “miracles” of Jesus.

The tradition that Jesus performed extraordinary deeds is as well guaranteed as such a fact can be guaranteed at all by means of popular reports. But alongside this positive judg­ment must immediately be placed a critical one: none of these reports is at pains to give a clarifying presentation, none of them inquires about the medical diagnosis of an illness or the factors entering into the cure. These narratives do not set out to explain, but to transfigure, to exalt; their purpose is to make God’s power visible, and not the human circum­stances. It has been shown already that two types of narrative style can be distinguished in the Gospels, which achieve this purpose in differing ways: one simply, but in a genuinely primitive fashion (the “ Paradigms “) ; the other in greater fullness, but with motives that are also employed outside of Judaism and Christianity in such narratives (the “Tales”). None of these accounts narrates without any pur­pose whatsoever; only, in our attempt to find out what really happened, we must begin with that type which seems least influenced by other literatures, i.e., with the Paradigms.

Now this type of narrative shows with utmost clearness that it would be a mistake to reject the whole report as un­historical. For we see precisely in these short and, in the lit­erary sense, unpretentious narratives that Jesus’ healing ac­tivity stands in the service of his whole message about the Kingdom of God. With the healing often goes an announce­ment: he heals the lame man in order to demonstrate the legitimacy and the genuineness of the forgiveness of sins pronounced by him; the man with the withered hand in order to unmask the rigid Jewish Sabbath observance in all its mercilessness. The story of the centurion of Capernaum is told to bring out the confidence of the heathen centurion in the supernatural power of Jesus’ command; the cure of the “ possessed” in the synagogue at Capernaum justifies by means of an act what Jesus has previously announced in this synagogue. What is certain in the case of the “possessed” is probable in other cases of illness: we have to do with psychically conditioned maladies which are healed by means of an impact upon the psychical life of the patient. And this impact is effected frequently by means of a command which brings about a psychical reaction: “ Arise, take up your bed and go home!” Such curative commands are also known to modern medicine. Use has been made of them in cases of lameness caused by war, e.g., as the result of pressure on a nerve or something similar, and we now speak of a therapy by means of sudden inspiration [Uberwältigungstlierapie]. That emotional states such as fear or anger have curative effects was something the ancients also experienced. An in­scription from the sanctuary of Asclepius in Epidaurus tells about a lame man by the name of Nicanor. A boy stole his indispensable crutch from him, but he sprang up and pur­sued the thief — and so was healed. In the case of Jesus’ cures, one must think of entirely different and quite special psychical factors. The oldest accounts do not tell of a miracle worker, who performs as many miracles as possible, but of the proclaimer and guarantor of the coming Kingdom of God; God himself is drawing near to the world, and his nearness is perceived in the fact that through Jesus he speaks, through him he acts, through him he heals.

Those reports which are modeled upon the pattern of the Tale occasionally present Jesus as one of the ancient mira­cle workers. They tell about the sickness, how long it has lasted; about the means Jesus employed in the cure, for ex­ample, the laying on of hands, or the utterance of a formula, or even the use of spittle; and finally the evidence of success:

the girl restored to life is given something to eat, the demon Legion “ takes possession of a whole herd of swine, the lepers are certified by the priests as healed. These stories do not, like the others, cause one to realize the nearness of the Kingdom of God but only the presence of a great miracle worker. Hence they report not only healings but also other miraculous deeds of Jesus, the so-called nature miracles.

Much that we seize upon in these “ novelistic “ Tales as distinctive in contrast to the more concise stories, the “Para­digms,” may be due simply to the difference in style: an event was reported in the manner of popular miracle narra­tion, with the inevitable result that there took place a heightening of the miraculous. In such a case we can only guess at the original event. But there is no question that a historical occurrence of some kind, a cure or a rescue from danger at sea, did really take place.

In other cases, the emphasis of the narrative falls upon an event that had symbolical meaning for the Christian commu­nity. In such stories the community saw Jesus portrayed in a function that belonged to him as Lord or Son of God. The actor in this given instance was the exalted Lord, not the Master who journeyed about Galilee. They beheld him in his epiphany (i.e., in his divine rank), already exalted a stage above all historical events. The historical occasion had per­haps existed, but we can no longer reconstruct it, because the narrator himself lays the decisive emphasis on something else. An epiphany of this sort is given, e.g., in the story of the transfiguration (Mark 9:2—9), according to which Jesus is snatched up from a mountaintop into the heavenly sphere, between Moses and Elijah. In this instance Jesus himself does nothing miraculous, but the miracle is worked on him from heaven, and a heavenly voice proclaims him as God’s Son. But perhaps also the walking on the water was originally an epiphany, for Jesus does not actually appear to the dis­ciples on the water in order to proceed with them to land, but — as is still clearly to be read in Mark (ch. 6:48) —“he meant to pass by them.” It is their fright that first moves him to get into the boat with them. The community was thus to see in this story the Lord of the waves; perhaps it signified at the same time that he is the Lord over life and death. In any case the walking on the water is not meant as the special accomplishment of a saint or pious man. It is in this latter sense that the Buddhist tradition tells of a devout lay brother who, while engaged in contemplation upon Buddha, walked across a river. Only when he had reached the middle of the river was he diverted by the sight of the waves from his meditation on Buddha and his feet began to sink; but by renewed concentration of his thoughts on Buddha he became master of his insecurity and happily arrived at the opposite bank. This is a parallel to the story of the sinking Peter (Matt. 14:28—31), who comes to grief through lack of faith as did the Indian through the diverting of his thoughts; but the Indian tale is essentially different from the story of Jesus’ appearance on the waves.

So too the story of the feeding of the five thousand or of the four thousand (Mark 6:34—44; 8:1—9) was understood in the community as an “epiphany,” indeed was perhaps told as such from the outset. One sees in the Master who blesses and distributes the food the Lord of the Love Feast or Agape (or even of the Last Supper) who is invisibly pres­ent to his community as he was visibly present to that great throng. Finally, the three raisings of the dead which are narrated in the Gospels and report the miraculous return to life of Jairus’ daughter, of the young man of Nain, and of Lazarus, aimed at portraying the Lord of life and death, who, according to John 11:25, is “the resurrection and the life.” Jesus is the vanquisher of death, but, according to primitive Christian belief, he first became this through his own resurrection. So in reality these miracle stories are al­ready depicting the exalted Lord of the community.

Of course one may ask, in the case of these last examples, the stories of miraculous feedings and of the raising of the dead, whether foreign, i.e., extra-Christian, traits have not been woven into the portrayal. That is, to be sure, a possi­bility with which one has to reckon, and this recognition prevents us from being entirely certain whether or not a his­torical occasion for these stories was present in the life of Jesus. It is probable that now and then the Christians ap­propriated to themselves and transferred to their Saviour not only foreign motives but also whole stories of foreign origin. There are at bottom, however, only three instances where whole stories suggest such an origin. One tells of the demon Legion who, on going out of the sick man, drives a whole herd of swine into the water (Mark 5:1—17). All mis­giving about the damage done the owners would disappear if we could assume that this entire incident was not origi­nally one told about Jesus, but about a Jewish miracle man who undertook this expulsion in some heathen country, and hence felt no sympathetic concern either for the men or for the unclean animals. Likewise, the story of the wedding feast at Cana, though it is certainly understood in the Gospel of John as the revelation of Jesus’ glory (ch. 2:11), betrays in its actual course certain secular features which any Bible reader can detect. One thinks, e.g., of the great amount of water turned into wine, and of the charming way in which the finished miracle is reported indirectly — in the bluff and hearty reproach of the bridegroom by the steward. Here, as in the case of the (not reported but only promised) finding of a coin in the mouth of a fish (Matt. 17:27), one can recall extra-Christian parallels which at least show that the sub­stance of the story was known elsewhere too.

The result of our survey of the great miracle stories, re­ported in the form of Tales, is therefore this: that they elude a single uniform estimate. We may have to do with a fur­ther development of old traditions, with Christian portrayals of the exalted Lord, or with foreign motives or materials that have been transferred to Jesus; what lies behind these Tales in the way of historical reality is hardly accessible to us. But we know from the simpler healing stories that those great miracles were attributed to Jesus because he really had done things that were extraordinary and inexplicable to the minds of his contemporaries. He proceeded through the country as a herald, a judge, and a counselor, but also as a healer and a helper; from this historical statement of fact there is nothing to be stricken out.

But of course the healings are not to be isolated. Jesus did not come forth as a miraculous physician whose mission it was to make as many sick folk as possible well. Whoever makes him the patron of a method of religious healing, e.g., of Christian Science, has misunderstood him. If he had wanted to be anything of that sort he would have healed more persons, he would have extended his healing activity systematically over the country, he would also have said more about it. Suffering, including physical suffering, is a characteristic mark of this world; only God’s Kingdom will show once more the finished creation, untouched by pain. Jesus’ cures do not signify an arbitrary anticipation of this Kingdom, which no man knows when God will send. On the contrary, they signify the proclamation and promise of this Kingdom; they prove that it is on the way, that God, through the One whom he has sent, is already permitting the splendor of this Kingdom to shine out here and there.

Here and there — this also holds good for everything Jesus communicates to the world in the way of warning or instruction. Accordingly, his words do not set forth a basic program for the reform of this world. And if a section of the Sermon on the Mount gives the impression that Jesus was systematically revising the application of the Ten Command­ments, it is these very sayings that show how many questions remain unanswered, indeed are not even considered. Jesus did not set out to settle all the affairs of this world, nor to remove all examples of social injustice. He opposed them only where he came upon them; he also caused the powers of the coming Kingdom to shine here, but lie did not antici­pate this Kingdom. Whoever makes him out to be a world reformer has also misconstrued him.

But, to be sure, he did act; he intervened in the sphere of illness and in that of injustice, and he set himself against the course of this world. He did not merely talk about the com­ing Kingdom of God, but he brought home to men its promises and also its demands — through what he did, through his judging, warning, healing. But he did it by way of example, as occasion offered, not systematically, not by organizing it on a large scale. The transformation of the world is God’s affair; what Jesus does is to make men recog­nize this God, his will, his judgment, and his grace, in every event of life. The powers of the Kingdom are already pres­ent, yet not as a force that changes the world but as the strength that radiates from One, the only one, who is fa­miliar with it and mediates it. What he makes men see in the form of healing or of encouragement, of criticism and of promise, is not the Kingdom but the signs of this Kingdom. To that extent certainly, but only to that extent, “the King­dom of God is in your midst.” And the One who brings all this in the last hour, who not only announces it but through his own activity mediates it, is himself the sign that it is the last hour, the only sign of the Kingdom of God that is vouchsafed to men.

Thus Jesus’ message and Jesus’ deeds cannot be sepa­rated from his person. And so the question arises how he himself wanted to be regarded.





1.  Mark 3:22. The ancient translations were the flrst to change this word, which means “lord of dung “ or ‘‘lord of the dwelling, into Beelzebub, “lord of flies.” See II Kings 1:2, Beelzebul must be the name of a demon, perhaps in purposely perverted form.