The kingdom of God
Jesus did not invent the idea of the ‘kingdom of God’. Behind the use of the phrase in the Gospels lie two distinct Old Testament motifs. Together they account for the eschatological narrative structure that gives shape to the New Testament concept of the kingdom of God.
The first entails the coming of the Lord to dwell once more amongst his people as king, which draws on prophetic themes of the restoration of Israel following exile in Babylon. It is acted out most powerfully in the carefully staged, and of course ironic, pageant of Jesus’ final entry into Jerusalem in the guise of the prophesied king of peace: ‘Tell the daughter of Zion, Behold your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on an ass…’ (Matt.21:5; Jn.12:15; cf. Zech.9:9). It is invoked in the numerous parables of a master who returns to his house after a long journey (eg. Matt.25:14-30; 12:35-40; 19:11-27). It speaks of the renewed and decisive presence (parousia) of God within Israel, which is a presence inevitably both for judgment and salvation. Jesus’ warning to the disciples that they must be ready for the return of the master (eg. Lk.12:35) has a particular historical frame of reference: the great crisis of judgment and salvation at the end of Israel’s age. If the disciples do not remain faithful to their calling, they will be put ‘with the unfaithful’ (Lk.12:46), ‘with the hypocrites’ (Matt.24:51), cast ‘into outer darkness’ where ‘men will weep and gnash their teeth’ (Matt.25:30) – in other words, they too will suffer the judgment that was coming upon Israel.
The second motif relates to the overthrow of Israel’s enemies and the vindication of the righteous – the saints of the Most High – in the aftermath of persecution. It emerges from the complex and dramatic prophecy in Daniel 7 concerning ‘one like a son of man’ who, as a representative, or better a representation, of the persecuted saints of the Most High, receives ‘dominion and glory and kingdom’ (Dan.7:14). This story may appear obscure and irrelevant (suffering is not one of the great postmodern aspirations), but it pervades much of the New Testament and must be made central to our attempt to understand the person of Jesus and the community that takes its identity from him. Only by recovering the significance of this story can we begin to appreciate the seriousness and realism of his vision.
In Daniel’s vision four great beasts, representing earthly kingdoms, emerge from the sea. The fourth beast is more dreadful in appearance than the others; on its head appear ten horns and in their midst a little horn with ‘eyes like the eyes of a man, and a mouth speaking great things’ (8), which ‘made war with the saints, and prevailed over them’ (21). Thrones are set up, the Ancient of Days takes his seat, and the court passes judgment on the beasts; dominion is taken from the first three beasts, and the fourth beast is slain and its body burned. The Son of man figure then comes ‘with the clouds of heaven’, is presented before the Ancient of Days, and is given ‘dominion and glory and kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him’ (13-14). In the interpretation of the vision, however, this single human figure is identified with the saints of the Most High who are oppressed by the king symbolized by the little horn. The angel tells Daniel: ‘the kingdom and the dominion and the greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven shall be given to the people of the saints of the Most High; their kingdom shall be an everlasting kingdom, and all dominions shall serve and obey them’ (27).
The prophetic drama of the overthrow of the four beasts and the transfer of sovereignty to the one like a Son of man originally had reference to the circumstances leading to the Maccabean crisis in the 2nd century BC. Jesus, following Jewish apocalyptic tradition, has taken this scenario and transposed it to the circumstances of first century Judaism. The ‘coming of the kingdom of God’ in the Gospels, therefore, should be understood principally as the imminent transfer of sovereignty from the political and religious forces represented by the fourth beast and the little horn to the Christ and those in him. This is the sense in which we must understand, for example, the prayer ‘Thy kingdom come’ (Matt.6:10; Lk.11:2) and Jesus’ promise that some of those listening to him would live to ‘see the Son of man coming in his kingdom’ (Matt.16:28).
The prophecy will be realized historically in the faithfulness of the disciples in the face of persecution, in the extension of the people of God beyond the boundaries of Israel, and finally in the victory of the gospel over Roman imperial ideology. It is an assurance that the new community founded on the confession of Jesus as the Christ will find its way through the dangerous years ahead; not even death will prevail against it (Matt.16:18). It is realized mythically in the affirmation of Christ’s lordship, but also in the assurance that those who suffer for the sake of Christ will reign with him. It is important to recognize that sovereignty is not transferred to the church – as though the conversion of Constantine put the final seal on the transfer of power. It is to those who have suffered, supremely to Christ himself, that ‘dominion and glory and kingdom’ are given.
A narrative logic connects these two motifs. The restoration of Israel as missionary community driven by the Spirit of God and committed to proclaim the universal lordship of Christ inevitably brings them into conflict with pagan belief and, above all, with the imperial cult. The ‘saints’, therefore, will be oppressed, as they were by Antiochus, and will cry out for vindication. The vision of the coming of the Son of man figure is the assurance that the church that is faithful to the gospel of Jesus will eventually overcome even the most overweening and brutal opposition. Here we see, too, the means by which the kingdom of God motif is transposed from the rule of God in restored Zion to the rule of the Son of man at the right hand of the Father.