The Teaching of Jesus Concerning the Kingdom of God and the Church (5)

Chapter V

Having found that both the immanent and the eschatological conceptions of the coming of the kingdom are clearly represented in Jesus’ teaching and having in general defined the relation of the one to the other, we may now proceed to look at each separately in order to guard against certain misconceptions to which both may easily become subject.

Misconception #1

A tendency exists with some writers, especially of the class who insist that Jesus had no other than the eschatological conception of the kingdom, to identify the view ascribed to him with the current Jewish expectations. This would involve, that He was not only mistaken in regard to the time of the kingdom’s appearance, but also held an inherently false idea regarding its nature, not having entirely outgrown the limitations of His age and environment on this point. It has in all seriousness been asserted by a recent writer of this class, that the notion of the kingdom, in the historic form in which our Lord embraced it, is that element of his teaching to which we cannot ascribe abiding value, that in the experience of Jesus himself it proved a delusion, that to his teaching on the fatherhood of God rather than to it is due the enrichment which our Lord wrought in the religious consciousness of humanity.

  • Response #1 – kingdom not political

This error results from the failure to recognize the immanent, spiritual aspect of the kingdom-idea as actually present in Jesus’ teaching and the thorough reconstruction which, in result of it, the idea as a whole underwent. It was little more than the name that Jesus borrowed from the kingdom-expectation of Judaism; whatever of the content of his own kingdom-teaching He had in common with the eschatological belief of His time belonged to the purer and nobler type of Jewish eschatology, that built up around the idea of “the coming age.” And even the latter, He lifted to an infinitely higher plane by subsuming it under the principle of the supremacy of God. So far as connected with the kingdom, the Jewish hope was intensely political and national, considerably tainted also by sensuality. From all political bearings our Lord’s teaching on the kingdom was wholly dissociated, cf. Mark 12:13; John 17:36. There is no trace in the Gospels of the so-called chiliastic expectation of a provisional political kingdom, that strange compromise whereby Judaism endeavored to reconcile the two heterogeneous elements that struggled for the supremacy in its eschatological consciousness. What formally corresponds in our Lord’s teaching to this notion is the idea of the invisible, spiritual kingdom, and how totally different it is!

  • Response #2 – kingdom not limited to Jews

Equally broad and free is Jesus’ kingdom-doctrine in its attitude towards the problem of Israel’s national prerogative. Sayings like Matt. 8:11; 21:43; 28:19; Mark 13:10; 14:9; Luke 4:26-27, prove that He distinctly anticipated the rejection of many in Israel and the extension of the gospel to the Gentiles on a large scale. It is true these are all prophetic words. In his own pastoral activity, He confined Himself deliberately to the lost sheep of the house of Israel and kept His helpers within the same limits. But even so, there is in His whole attitude as a teacher of Israel that which has been strikingly characterized as “intensive universalism.” In the Jew, it is the man He seeks and endeavors to save. The problems raised, the duties required, the blessings conferred are such as to be applicable to all without distinction of race, caste, or sex.

-Objection from Luke 22:30

Luke 22:30 is sometimes quoted to prove that Jesus had not freed himself from the Jewish particularism. Though possibly the “judging” may have to be understood in the sense of “reigning,” yet the words by no means imply the salvation of all Israel, nor do they exclude the calling of the Gentiles. They were spoken at a time when Jesus could no longer doubt that the masses of Israel would reject him. Besides the words are figurative, to judge from the context with its reference to “eating” and “drinking.” All we can legitimately infer from them is that the apostles will have a position of preeminence in the kingdom.

  • Response #3 – kingdom not sensualistic

The third feature in which our Lord’s kingdom-message differs from the Jewish expectation consists in the absence of the sensualistic element so prominent in the latter. True, he speaks in connection with the kingdom of eating, drinking, reclining at table, inheriting the earth, etc., and it is said we have no right to spiritualize all this. But the Old Testament already used such forms of speech with the clear consciousness of their metaphorical character. Even in the apocalyptic literature this sense is not entirely wanting, as the statement of Enoch 15:11, “They will not partake of any food, nor will they thirst,” shows. With reference to one point at least, Jesus positively affirmed that the sensual enjoyments of the present life will cease in the world to come (Mark 12:25).

Not Purely Spiritual

On the other hand, we must remember that it is possible to go too far in the spiritualizing interpretation of this class of utterances. We may not dissolve everything into purely inward processes and mental states, as modern theologians do when they say that heaven and hell are in the hearts of men. The eschatological kingdom has certainly in our Lord’s conception its own outward forms of life. These figures stand for objective, external realities in which the body will have its own part and function. When our Lord speaks of earthly enjoyments, he means something that will be truly analogous to these and yet move on an altogether higher plane. Our difficulty lies in this, that we cannot frame a concrete conception of outward forms of life without having recourse to the senses. But our difficulty does not prove the impossibility, nor does it prove that the same difficulty existed for Jesus, who was familiar with the heavenly world by experience.

We believe, however, that there is greater need at the present day to guard against a misunderstanding of the other side of our Lord’s kingdom-teaching, that which relates to the spiritual, invisible form of the kingdom. Modern writers do not always sufficiently emphasize that, notwithstanding its internal character, the kingdom remains to all intents a supernatural kingdom. It is easy to speak disparagingly of the gross realistic expectations of the Jews, but those who do so often attack under the pretense of a refined spiritualism the very essence of Biblical supernaturalism. After all deductions are made, it must be maintained that the Jews could not have cherished this vigorous realism, had they not been supernaturalists at heart, trained in that great school of supernaturalism, the Old Testament. In this matter Jesus was in full agreement with their position.

The circumstance that some of the parables which deal with this aspect of the kingdom have been taken from the sphere of organic [plant] life has sometimes led to misconceptions here. The point of comparison in these parables is not the naturalness [as opposed to the supernaturalness] of the process but only its gradualness and invisible character. In the parable of the imperceptibly growing seed (Mark 4:26-29), rather the opposite is implied, viz., that God gives the increase without human intervention. Jesus performs all his work, even that pertaining to the immanent kingdom, in the Spirit, and the Spirit stands for the supernatural. That we must not identify the processes whereby this side of the kingdom is realized with purely natural processes can be best seen from the Fourth Gospel. Here the present life is equivalent to the immanent kingdom. But this present life appears to be thoroughly supernatural in its origin and character. Regeneration introduces into it.

At a subsequent point of our enquiry, when discussing the relation of the church to the kingdom, it will appear still more clearly, that by its translation into the sphere of the internal and invisible the kingdom-idea has lost nothing of the supernaturalistic associations which belonged to it from its very origin. The difference between the two stages of its coming does not lie in that the one is brought about by forces already present in the human world, whereas the other has to be accomplished by the introduction of new miraculous forces from above. It is a difference merely in the mode of operation and revelation of the supernatural common to both stages. The same omnipotent power at work through the ages will also affect the consummation at the end. But it will assume a new form when the end has come, so as to work instantaneously, and will draw within the sphere of its operation the entire physical universe. It would not be in harmony with Jesus’ view so to conceive of it, as if by the gradual extension of the divine power operating internally, by the growth of the church, by the ever-widening influence of the truth, the kingdom which now is will become all-comprehensive and universal and so of itself pass over into the final kingdom. This would eliminate all true eschatology and obliterate the distinction between the two aspects of Jesus’ teaching on the subject.

The parables of the wheat/tares and the fish-net, while on the one hand they do imply, as we have seen, the higher unity of the entire movement, also imply on the other hand that its consummation does not spontaneously result from the preceding process, supernatural though this be. The harvest is conditioned by the ripeness of the grain, and yet the ripeness of the grain can never of itself set in operation the harvest. The harvest comes when the man puts forth the sickle, because the fruit is ripe. So when the immanent kingdom has run its course to maturity, God will intervene in the miracle of all miracles. It would also plainly be impossible for the final kingdom to come in any other way than this. For this final state of the kingdom presupposes great physical, cosmical changes, which no force working in the spiritual sphere can produce. It would be difficult to overestimate the vividness with which our Lord realized and the emphasis with which he describes the new and marvelous conditions under which the life of the blessed in the future kingdom will be lived. It is an order of things lying altogether above this earthly life, in which the righteous shall shine as the sun, in which all the prophets will be seen, in which the pure in heart shall enjoy the beatific vision of God, in which those who hunger and thirst after righteousness shall be completely filled. Surely to effect this there must take place a great crisis, a great catastrophe at the end which will be the very opposite of all evolution. Our Lord himself has marked its unique character by calling it the παλινγενεσις [the regeneration] (Matt. 19:28).

Misconception #2

Still further we must guard against confining the internal, spiritual kingdom to the sphere of the ethical. This is an error which has had considerable vogue in recent times, owing to the fact that certain systems of theology constructed from a one-sided ethical point of view have adopted the kingdom-idea as their organizing center. The kingdom has been defined as an ethical community realized by the interaction of men on the principle of love. This is erroneous in two respects.

  • Response #1 – kingdom not just “righteousness”

In the first place, according to our Lord the whole content of religion is to be subsumed under the kingdom. While it is true that the kingdom consists in righteousness, it is by no means coextensive with the same, but consists in many other things besides. Such blessings as life, forgiveness of sin, communion with God, belong to it just as much and have just as vital a connection with the kingdom-idea, as the cultivation of love, as will subsequently appear.

  • Response #2 – origin of the kingdom is supernatural

And secondly, all that belongs to the kingdom, the ethical and religious alike, is represented in Jesus’ kingdom-teaching, not as the product of human activity, but as the work of God. He nowhere says that men make the kingdom. In our Lord’s Prayer the words: “Thy will be done” explain the preceding words “Thy Kingdom come,” but both are petitions, in uttering which we are taught to look to God that he may set up in us his reign even in that form which will be revealed through our actions.

Heidelberg Catechism

Q. 123. Which is the second petition?

Answer: “Thy kingdom come”; that is, rule us so by thy word and Spirit, that we may submit ourselves more and more to thee; preserve and increase thy church; destroy the works of the devil, and all violence which would exalt itself against thee; and also all wicked counsels devised against thy holy word; till the full perfection of thy kingdom take place, wherein thou shalt be all in all.

Q. 124. Which is the third petition?

Answer: “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”; that is, grant that we and all men may renounce our own will, and without murmuring obey thy will, which is only good; that every one may attend to, and perform the duties of his station and calling, as willingly and faithfully as the angels do in heaven.



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