The Challenge of the Kingdom (Part 4)

When we study Jesus’ understanding of “kingdom” in the Gospels there are two competing themes. In some texts, Jesus seems to say that the Kingdom of God is present in his ministry. For example, Mark describes Jesus preaching that the Kingdom of God is “near” at the very beginning of his ministry (Mark 1:15, Luke 8:1). In Jesus says that if demons are cast out by the hand of God, then the kingdom of God has come (Luke 11:20). Jesus also says that the reason he teaches in parables was to reveal the secrets of the Kingdom to his disciples (Luke 8:10).

Yet in other texts he seems to say that the Kingdom is has not yet come and that his disciples ought to be prepared for a wait before the Kingdom finally comes. The parables in Matthew 25, for example, indicate that Jesus will go away for a long time before returning. The Ten Virgins (25:1-12) indicates that the disciple will have to prepare for a long wait before the “wedding banquet” begins, and the Parable of the Talents (25:14-30) tells the disciples that they will have to give an account for how they use the time before the coming of the king. The Parable of the Minas in Luke 19 is told specifically to defuse the crowd’s expectation that Jesus was about to establish a kingdom in Jerusalem at that moment.

How do we account for this apparently conflicting data? One common way is to emphasize either one or the other aspect. C. H. Dodd famously stressed the presence of the kingdom, arguing that the kingdom was “fully realized” in Jesus’ ministry. This means that there is no real future kingdom, the present Church fulfills Jesus’ vision for a kingdom. This means that there is no future restoration of Israel, the promises of the Hebrew prophets are fulfilled in the Church. One potential problem with a fully realized eschatology is that the parables warning of a long delay must be taken as creations of the church to explain the non-return of Jesus.

On the other hand, it is possible to stress only the future aspect of the kingdom. Someone like Schweitzer, for example, thought Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet who expected a messianic kingdom promised by the prophets of the Hebrew Bible. While Schweitzer thought Jesus was wrong, other streams of theology (such as classic dispensationalism) understands Jesus as teaching a future kingdom, literally fulfilling the promises of the Hebrew Bible, including a restoration of the kingdom to the Jewish people. But a wholly future kingdom does not really do justice to Jesus’ claim that the kingdom is present in his ministry.

A third option is to see Jesus’s ministry as a present kingdom, but a kingdom which does not exhaust the prophecies of the Hebrew Bible. This has the advantage of taking Jesus seriously when he says that his miracles are establishing some sort of kingdom, but also the warnings of a lengthy interim between the establishment of the kingdom and the consummation of the kingdom in the (now distant) future.

The catch-phrase “Already / Not Yet” is perhaps so overused that it has lost all rhetorical value, but it remains a fairly good way of understanding the kingdom in the gospels. Some elements of the kingdom expected by the prophets is present in Jesus’ ministry, but others remain unfulfilled until a future time.  This means we live “between the ages,” after the “already” but before the “not yet.” We look back to the death and resurrection of Jesus, but also forward to the future consummation of the ages.

What are some ways this “already/not yet” strategy helps read the message of Jesus?  Or to put it another way, what elements are “present” and what are “future”?

The Challenge of the Kingdom (Part 3)

A couple of days ago Sam asked about the reason we would look at Jewish messianic expectations from the Second Temple Period as background for understanding the Kingdom of God. His point was that the Jews misunderstood Jesus completely, so “…why would we look to their understanding of what the Kingdom of God was supposed to be about? Wouldn’t it be likely that they missed on that, too? Jesus’ life and mission turned on its head everything they were looking for in Messiah. Why would it be different with ‘the Kingdom of God’”?

I found this an intriguing question especially since reading N. T. Wright one might get the impression that the Jewish leaders had a great many things correct and only slightly misunderstood Jesus announcement that he was the Messiah.

One possible way to answer this objection is to properly understand Judaism in the first century. Like modern Christianity, there were less things that “all Jews agree on” that might be expected, and hopes for a future Kingdom and the role of the Messiah in that kingdom were quite varied. I often hear people say things like, “all Jews thought that the messiah would be a military leader who would attack Rome.” I suppose that is true for some Jews, but not all. At Qumran the Essenes appear to have expected a “military messiah,” but also a priestly messiah who would be like Aaron. This view was not “normative” for all Jews, but probably a minority position.

Pharisees seem to have expected a Messiah, certainly they are the most interested in Jesus’ talk about the Kingdom in the Gospels. It is likely that the Psalms of Solomon reflect the view of the Pharisees. Psalm 17 serves as an indication of messianic expectations which were current only shortly before the time of Jesus. Rome is viewed as a foreign invader who will be removed when the messiah comes. If these sorts of messianic expectations were popular in Galilee in the 20’s A.D. then we have good reason to read Jesus’ teaching as intentionally messianic and we are able to understand some of the confusion and disappointment among the Jews who heard him teach.

I might even speculate that the ideas in PsSol. 17 are the motive behind Judas’s betrayal of Jesus. If Judas was thinking something like what we read in PsSol. 17 then it is possible he was trying to “force Messiah’s hand” into striking out against Rome and the Temple establishment. Jesus seemed to be claiming to be the Messiah, but he did not seem to be the davidic messiah expected in Psalm 17.

On the other end of the scale would be the Sadducees, a group that (as far as we know) had no messianic expectations. The fact that they limited their canon to the Torah also limited their expectations of a future restoration of the Davidic kingdom. What would a Sadducee think when Jesus announced “the kingdom of God is near”? Perhaps that was enough to identify him as Pharisee or an Essene, and therefore not very interesting.  (I would guess that the Herodians were even less interested in a coming kingdom, since any Jewish messiah would probably start their judgment with a thorough smiting of Herod and his family.)

This is all to say that there was a wide range of belief about Messiah, Kingdom, restoration of David’s rule, or a future reign of God in the Judaism of the Second Temple Period. Sam is right to wonder about the use of this material, but I think it serves to show that Jesus did not fit neatly into any first century conception of Messiah or Kingdom, which is exactly why audience struggled to understand him, both disciples and enemies.

I really am not sure he fits very neatly into contemporary theological categories either.

The Challenge of the Kingdom (Part 2)

One of the things that has always annoyed me about N. T. Wright’s description of the Kingdom in the Gospels is that he seems to be guarding the idea of the Kingdom on two separate fronts. On the one hand, he frequently denies that Jewish expectations were looking for the “end of space and time,” or the end of the world.  Here has in mind the typical American view of the end times as channeled through the Left Behind series.  Wright usually uses words like “lurid” to describe these apocalyptic fantasies. (While I do believe in a future rapture, I think that pop-media goes too far, turning what was a “blessed hope” into a post-apocalyptic movie of Schwarzenegger-ian proportions.)

On the other hand, Wright wants to invest the Kingdom with a fair amount of radicalness in the first century.  This means he must avoid the rather bland descriptions of the Kingdom as doing good and loving your neighbor popular in liberal Christianity.  In Simply Jesus, for example, he compares Jesus to several messianic movements in the Second Temple period.  Jesus is in many ways more radical than these, but obviously less militaristic.

I think both sides have a cause to be annoyed at Wright’s regular characterization of their positions.  For example, while Left Behind is one representation of Dispensationalist thinking, it is in fact fantasy, a fictional “what if” story and not at all a reasonable presentation of a theology.  To me, judging Dispensationalism by Left Behind is life judging Catholicism by the movie Dogma.  This is a strawman argument at best and an ad hominem argument at worst.  Wright regular points out that the Jews expected a real kingdom in this world, not the end of the world whether (post-apocalyptic or eternal state).  This is exactly what Dispensationalist have always said about Jewish messianic hopes. It disappoints me that wild speculation in bad fiction is used to judge a theological system.  (There are many good reasons to attack dispensational theology, the popularity of the Left Behind series ought not be one of them).

On the second front, Wright is correct that protestant liberal interpretations of the Kingdom are bland and not at all what Jesus would have meant.  Nor would Jesus have been understood if he tried to present a Kingdom which was based on the “Golden Rule” alone.  There are far more political and social issues in the teaching of Jesus which have to be dismissed if he was just telling us to be nice to each other.  What is more, why kill someone who was encouraging us to love one another?  What harm could Jesus have done if that was all he really taught?  No, there is something more in the teaching of Jesus, something which was a challenge to the worldview of the people who heard him teach and watched him “act out” the Kingdom of God.

Wright is certainly correct when he states that Jesus was offering a critique of his contemporaries from within, “his summons was not to abandon Judaism and try something else, but to be the true, returned-from-exile people of the one true God” (Challenge of Jesus, 52).  Jesus is presenting himself as the voice of Isaiah 40-55 – calling his people out of exile to meet their messiah and to enjoy a renewed relationship with their God.

The Challenge of the Kingdom (Part 1)

In The Challenge of Jesus, N. T. Wright correctly points out that we need to understand the “Kingdom of God” in terms of first century Judaism, not modern conceptions.  For Wright, this means properly understanding the election of Israel as well as the eschatology of Israel (35).  Israel was chosen by God to bless the whole world (Gen 12:1-3).  But after centuries of exile and domination by foreign powers, some in Israel began to wonder how that blessing was going to happen.

In his more recent Simply Jesus, Wright compares Judas Maccabees (“The Hammer”) with Jesus.  Both begin their career with a revolution.  Judas’s revolution was quite literal, a rebellion against the Selucids in response the policies of Antiochus IV Epiphanes.  Jesus was no less revolutionary, although his preaching that the “kingdom of God is near” did not have a military component.  But would people have heard echoes of The Hammer in the preaching of Jesus?  Perhaps, and as Wright says, these echoes would have been even more clear after Jesus cleanses the Temple in his final week – the same sort of thing Judas did.

Wright suggests three ways at least some of Jewish thinkers understood the problem (Challenge of Jesus, 37).  First, for Jews like the Qumran community withdrawal from society was the best option.  Assuming the standard view of the Qumran community, it appears that this group went out in into the wilderness to “prepare the way of the Lord” by living an ultra-pure life in anticipation of the soon arrival of Messiah.  Second, the opposite was the case for Jews like Herod.  Herod was more or less a Roman, wholeheartedly buying into the a Roman worldview.  Perhaps I would include Josephus here as well, since he seemed to think that the Roman victory over Jerusalem was “God’s will.”  The third view was that of the Zealots, who did not meekly withdraw into the wilderness nor did the compromise.  Rather, like Phineas in the Hebrew Bible or Judas Maccabees, they burned zealously for the traditions of the Jews and took up arms against the Romans.

What was common between the Zealots and the Qumran community, according to Wright, was the belief that the exile would come to an end soon.  God was about to break into history and establish his kingdom in Jerusalem once and for all.  The nations would be converted (or judged) and the whole world would worship at Jerusalem.  While this eschatological view appears in slightly different ways among the various Jewish documents of the Second Temple Period, that God would establish his kingdom and end the exile is as much of a “standard” view as anything in this period.

How does the three-part description of Jewish Expectations help us to understand Jesus’ announcement that the Kingdom of God is “at hand”? Or better, how does this help us understand the idea of a “present kingdom” in Jesus Ministry?

1 Thessalonians 2:10-12 – Encouraging, Like a Father

[Audio for this study is available at Sermons.net, as is a PDF copy of the notes. You may right-click and “save as….” ]

The classic stereotype is that the mother is loving and caring, but the father is a stern disciplinarian. A father’s encouragement, however, can be one of the greatest motivations in a child’s life, just as is a mother’s love and compassion. Paul uses three participles to describe how he was like a father to the Thessalonian church.

First, Paul states that he exhorted the church. The differences between the meaning of “to exhort” (ESV), or “encourage” (NIV, παρακαλέω) and “to encourage” (ESV), or “to comfort” (παραμυθέομαι) are very close, the two Greek words can both be translated as encourage.  The verb “exhort”  means something like “to prod toward a particular action.” If I urge you to do something, that has a bit more punch than “I encourage you,” but the Greek word is the same. A similar word is used in Romans 12:1, where Paul “begs” his readers to present their bodies as living sacrifices.

Exhortation is something like a cheerleader, someone that builds another up and says “you can do it!” Think of the father who is trying to encourage his child to have confidence playing baseball for the first time – he builds the kid up and pushes just a bit so that there is confidence to “step up to the plate.”  Paul had to do that with his congregation:  He prodded them and pushed them to live  a life honoring to God, especially since some aspects of the Christian life are strange to the Greco-Roman world.

Second, Paul comforted the church. By comfort, Paul is looking more at cheering someone up, consoling, or helping someone who is experiencing a difficult time. The verb is used in the context of comforting someone who has suffered a loss, a death or other tragic event. For example, in John 11:19 people came to comfort Mary and Martha after the death of Lazarus.

Notice how closely related the concept of encouragement and comfort are related in Paul’s ministry. He could, as a father, encourage his congregation to excel in godliness, then comfort them in their weaknesses. Taking the baseball analogy from above, the father might “exhort” his child to step up to the plate, but when they strike out on three pitches without swinging the bat, he needs to comfort the child after a failure.

Third, Paul charged you to live lives worthy of God. Paul’s “urge” is “to be emphatic in stating an opinion or desire; to insist on” (L&N). When your father expressed his opinion on a topic, he often was not offering something for discussion, he was telling you what you ought to be doing, perhaps phrased in the form of an opinion. That is what Paul did as well. He showed from the Scripture how the new believers ought to believe and behave. This was not “his opinion” which was open for discussion, something to be accepted or rejected. Paul was telling his congregation how they ought to live.

The content of Paul’s insistence is that his readers live lives worthy of God. Imagine in your mind a scale, with God’s requirements on one side and our actions on the other. “Worthy” describes the balance of those scales, something that is impossible in our own power. Paul is urging his readers to set this lofty goal of spiritual growth for themselves, that they be worthy of the one that called us.

If God is your Father, then the goal of the Christian life ought to be living in a way which makes your Father in Heaven proud to call you his child.

Luke 4:22-27 – A Prophet is Never Welcome

After reading from the scroll of Isaiah 61, Jesus declares that the words of the prophecy are fulfilled at that time.  He is claiming that the end of the exile as arrived and that the kingdom of God has finally arrived. This is a bold claim which appears to have  been understood as a bold claim by the original listeners. Their reaction is remarkable for several reasons.

First, the initial response to Jesus is amazement (v, 22). The people are amazed because his words were “full of grace.” But what do they mean by calling Jesus the “son of Joseph” (v. 22b)? It is possible that the people are question the legitimacy of Jesus (John 8:41), but more likely they using the question to deflect the implication of Jesus’ words. By claiming that he fulfills the prophecy is to claim to be the Messiah, or something very much like it.

Second, Jesus is a bit harsh in vv. 23–24. Does he jump to the conclusion that they are rejecting him? Does he know what the people are thinking (as he does in Luke 5:22; 6:8; 7:40)? The meaning of the proverb is that Jesus is not the right person to offer himself as a fulfillment of the prophecy – who are you to be the Savior? This is not unlike the mockery endured on the cross, “he saved others, let me save himself.”

Third, the nature of the demand that the Nazareth congregation has in mind in v 23. If Jesus is responding to their unexpressed demands, what is it that they are demanding? Likely the people are requesting a sign to show that Jesus is the Messiah. Jesus never really does signs in response to a demand, therefore his response understandable.

Fourth, is the purpose of verse 24 to be a response to or justification of verse 23? “No prophet is accepted in his hometown” – this is the standard fate for a prophet! Jesus is not upset that his own town rejects him, this is the first of what will be many rejections in the gospel.

Fifth, does verses 25–27 imply a future Gentile mission? Some argue that the fact that Elijah and Elisha went outside of Israel and did miracles implies that Jesus will work outside of Israel and offer salvation to the Gentiles. But in the context of the rejection theme, it is better to see the analogy of Elijah and Elisha as rejected prophets who were not welcome in their own land, therefore the outsiders were the ones that were benefitted by their miracles. In Luke, as in each of the Gospels, it is the outsiders that are brought into the ministry of Jesus, not the good people of the synagogue in his hometown.

How ever we sort out these issues, the people are angry enough so that by v. 28 they are ready to toss Jesus over a cliff. This is not unlike the reaction to the speech of Stephen in Acts 7. Jesus simply walks away from them (possibly protected in supernaturally, cf. 4:10-11). From this point on, Jesus’ ministry focuses on “others” outside of his hometown of Nazareth.

Luke 4:16-21 – Reading Isaiah in Nazareth

After the baptism and temptation, Jesus returns to his hometown of Nazareth where he attends a synagogue service. He is asked to read a portion of scripture from Isaiah 61. (It is possible Jesus was allowed to choose the passage, it is not certain whether synagogue readings were scheduled for the prophetic books in the first century. In addition, a small synagogue in an insignificant town like Nazareth may not have had a complete set of scrolls other than the Torah.)

After Jesus reads from Isaiah 61 he declares that they are fulfilled “today.” This is a remarkable claim since the passage in Isaiah is associated with the year of Jubilee – the time when the slaves would be set free and land returned to the original owner. N. T. Wright regularly points out that this prophetic text alludes to Lev. 25:8-12 and would have been understood as a reference to a new age of release and forgiveness for the nation (Simply Jesus, 75, for example).

Did Jews think they were still in an exile and in need of restoration? A key text is Daniel 9, where Daniel reads the prophet Jeremiah and determines that the 70 year exile ought to be over. In response to his prayer for restoration and the end of the exile, God reveals to him that the exile will be extended for “70 Sevens,” presumably 490 years. Only after that period is over will God finally end the exile.

Another text found among  the Dead Sea Scrolls has a similar view that the end of the exile will be like a Jubilee.  11Q13 Melichzedek indicates that at least some Jews prior to the time of Jesus thought of themselves as living in the exile. While this text is fragmentary it appears to be a collection of texts from Isaiah describing the end of the age as a new Jubilee. Melchizedek appears as a messiah-like figure who was predicted by “the anointed of the spir[it] as Dan[iel]”in Dan 9:25. He will be a “the messenger of good who announ[ces salvation].” All this sounds very much like Jesus’ words in Luke 4.

In fact, if the community at Qumran is associated with scrolls like this one, then their location in the desert, near the place where Israel ended their 40 years exile in the wilderness and finally entered the Land is remarkable. They are enacting the prophecy of Isaiah 40 to go “into the wilderness and make straight the paths of the Lord.”

By choosing this text to read, Jesus is drawing on a stock of apocalyptic imagery to describe his own ministry, the “times of jubilee” are fast approaching! It is significant that he stops reading where he does, he does not read the lines about the day of vengeance. The Melchizedek scroll includes vengence on the enemies of God’s people: “Melchizedek will carry out the vengeance of Go[d’s] judgments, [and on that day he will fr]e[e them from the hand of] Belial and from the hand of all the sp[irits of his lot.]”  Why did Jesus stop before the announcement of vengeance? I would suggest that it is simply because he knew his mission was not judgment, but to ‘provide a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).

The kingdom is already arriving, but it is not yet fully arrived int h ministry of Jesus. The prophecy of Isaiah is demonstrated in the next few pericopes. In 4:31-37 a demon is driven out of a man (releasing of the oppressed); in 4:38-44 many people are healed. In Luke 7:36-50 Jesus forgives a woman’s sin! As Wright says, these stories not only resonate with the long-awaited Jubilee, but also the Exodus story.

Are there other indications that Jesus thought of his ministry as the “end of the exile”?

NB:  All DSS citations are from Martinez and Tigchelaar The Dead Sea Scrolls Study Edition.  Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans.