Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Christology in Context: What Did Jesus Say?

This month, we continue our investigation into the person of Jesus to answer the question, “what did he say?” Our best answers comes from the biographies of his life, called the Gospels. The word gospel comes from Old English; gōd meaning “good” and spell meaning “news.” If these accounts are called “good news”, what is that they are reporting? I undertook a study of common words in the Gospels, counting instances of the words cross, heaven, kingdom, salvation, sin, and their variations. Kingdom, interestingly enough, had more repetitions throughout the gospels than the others, such that an average of two out of every five verses in the synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke contain the word kingdom. The other words have a secure place in contemporary Christian parlance, so why not the Kingdom? If we aim to understand the teachings of Jesus, we will have to take a close look at what may have been the very heart of his ministry.

The Counter-Intuitive Kingdom

So Pilate entered his headquarters again and called Jesus and said to him, “Are you the King of the Jews?”


Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.”

Then Pilate said to him, “So you are a king?”

Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.”

Pilate said to him, “What is truth?” [1]

You may recall that in Jesus’ time, Palestine was at the threshold of political turmoil. The Roman Empire controlled the region through Herod Antipas, a puppet monarch, and concessions from the Judean temple-state. Agents of Rome, including military personnel and crooked bureaucrats, maintained the compliance of Judea and Galilee. Opposing them were groups of fundamentalist Jews, called Pharisees, who became religious watchdogs in their communities to enforce traditions of faith and culture, as well as Judean nationalists who sought a way to fight and drive out their foreign oppressors. These groups held one hope in common: the advent of God’s “anointed one,” or “messiah,” whom they believed would end the Roman occupation and reestablish the Davidic dynasty, ushering in a new golden age for the Jews. The “kingdom of God” or “kingdom of heaven” might sound otherworldly to us, but for 1st century Jews, the phrases pointed to an anticipated concrete government.

Then, out of the backcountry of Galilee comes Jesus. “The time has come,” he says. “The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe the gospel.” [2] In Jesus’ proclamation, the nationalists heard the promise of victory over Rome and the restoration of the old kingdom. But who was the man behind the news? Was he a prophet? Could he have been messiah?

Jesus continued to teach publicly about the kingdom. He claimed that it welcomed all manner of people: spiritually bankrupt, sorrowful, timid, desperate for morality, quick to ignore a debt, those whose hearts were set on one thing, workers for peace, and those who were punished for doing the right thing. When large crowds followed Jesus, he spoke in allegories, likening the kingdom to a sabotaged grain field, seeds from the mustard weed, and yeast in dough. When they asked who would hold power in the new regime, Jesus responded by bringing a child into their circle, saying, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” [3] Later he told his students, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” [4] He chastised the religious conservatives, calling them hypocrites, blind guides, and a “brood of vipers.” [5] He befriended disreputable people and welcomed an employee of the Romans to be his student. Could he have possibly been messiah? He appeared to have no interest in the blazes along the trails to power – neither wealth, nor reputation, nor allies, nor a large following. “My kingdom is not of this world,” said Jesus to Pilate, the highest Roman official in Judea. The economy of Jesus’ kingdom seems to trade in something other than power and ambition. If that is the case, how does it relate to this world?

The Imminent and Emanating Kingdom

Last week, a ROC student and I discussed the kingdom of heaven. I asked her to explain it to me as though I didn’t have any previous concept of it. She began by describing heaven as a spiritual realm and the location of God’s presence and reign. Jesus’ purpose on Earth, she continued, was to restore the broken relationship of God and humanity, so that we can live forever with him in the kingdom in heaven. When I asked her if that kingdom was something present in the world, she assured me that was not the case; Jesus’ teachings referred to a future reality. Jesus likened the future kingdom to ten virgins, five of whom were prepared to meet their groom and five unprepared. Similarly, he said it would be like three investors employed by a king: two turned a profit and the third just buried his money. Finally he described how the messiah would judge the nations of the world as a shepherd divides sheep from goats.

To be sure, Jesus spoke of the imminent kingdom of God, and during his ministry he described it as forthcoming. Yet what should be said about his declaration? “The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe the gospel.” If the kingdom was coming upon them, at the time of Jesus’ teaching, it would have certainly qualified as good news! Conversely, if the kingdom was near in a less literal sense – perhaps as an afterlife or farther into the future – there would have been nothing new in that statement for Jesus’ audience. To Jesus, the kingdom of God was not only forthcoming, but was even present and active at the time it was announced. Furthermore, his audacious claim was that he inaugurated it!

It was Saturday in the Galilean town of Nazareth. In the synagogue (not entirely dissimilar from a church), a scroll was passed to Jesus for him to read.

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,” [said Jesus,] “because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” [6]

The men of the synagogue marveled at his bold claim. Who could blame them? Jesus announced that God’s compassion for people was translating into action towards freedom and justice, and that he himself was God’s instrument for making that happen! Jesus wasn’t claiming only to be the herald of this change in their reality – he was the ground-zero of divine intervention in the world. Jesus announced welcome and favor for the stumbling, bumbling, and crumbling people in his Beatitudes (see Matt 5:1-12), not because their negative situations made them worthy of welcome, but because Jesus’ kingdom was available to all, regardless of their deficiencies and their merits. The kingdom of God on earth was apparently both a future and present reality to Jesus. The hope of a heavenly denouement to humanity’s story is consistent with his teachings, but Jesus’ words and actions indicate his investment into the climatic action of his then-present moment.

The Reign of God on Earth

Otherworldly. Inaugurated yet uncompleted. Even though Jesus seems like he was unafraid of allowing an analogy to go unexplained or a rhetorical question unanswered, we don’t have to settle for an incomplete idea of the kingdom of God. Stein’s reading of the word kingdom, helps us get a contextualized understanding: “In the Old Testament the term “kingdom,” or malkut, can refer to a “realm in the sense of a spatial territory, but usually it is understood dynamically as referring to the government, authority, or power of a king.” [7]

Here, “kingdom” is better understood as authority than as territory. Whereas his contemporaries blurred these denotations in their nationalistic aspirations, Jesus keenly understood the kingdom’s dominion on the interpersonal scale. He encouraged his students to stop worrying about where their next meal or change of clothes would come from: “…For all the nations of the world seek after these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, seek his kingdom, and these things will be added to you.” [8] The divine father of the disciples has authority, Jesus attests, and therefore can provide for their personal needs. He assures them that as their own lives fall under God’s authority, so do the circumstances which provide for their subsistence. Jesus describes the experience of the kingdom as a very personal reality: “The kingdom of God is in the midst of you,” [9] and “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.” [10]

When Jesus began his public ministry, his followers pinned their hopes for a messiah on him. For the subjugated and exploited inhabitants of Judea and Galilee, the news of the kingdom’s proximity, power, and availability was good news indeed. The Jews of Palestine heard political liberation in Jesus’ rhetoric, but we can see his promise of the holistic liberation of all people from spiritual oppression, regardless of their sex, age, health, history and nationality. It’s a remarkable idea, even in our times, that all were welcomed into the diverse community of the kingdom. Jesus’ inauguration of the kingdom of God – the advent of divine reign on Earth – was manifested in the lives of those who followed him.

As always, thanks for reading.  Your comments, questions, and feedback are always welcome.

Kyle Suter



[1] John 18:36-38a (all Biblical references from English Standard Version)

[2] Mark 1:15

[3] Matthew 8:14

[4] Mark 10:25

[5] Matthew 12:34

[6] Luke 4:18-21

[7] Stein, Robert. The Method and Message of Jesus' Teachings. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1978.

[8] Luke 12:30-31

[9] Luke 17:21

[10] John 14:23