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the kingdom of God: an introduction

The time is fulfilled, the kingdom is at hand. (Mark 1:15)

The kingdom of God has come upon you. (Luke 11:20)

The kingdom of God is among you. (Luke 17:21)

The kingdom of God is spread out upon the earth, and men do not see it. (Gospel of Thomas 11)

At the heart of the gospel of Jesus is the kingdom of God. This one phrase sums up the entire ministry of Jesus and his whole life’s work. Jesus spoke in Aramaic and the New Testament was written in Greek. The expression kingdom of Godbasileia tou theou (bas-il-EH-ah too THEH-oo) in Greek and malkutha d’elaha (mal-KOOTH-ah dehl-ah-HAH) in Aramaic—points to the ruling activity of God over human social relationships.

As we read the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, we see that every thought and saying of Jesus was directed and subordinated to one single thing: the realization of the reign of God’s love, compassion, justice, and peace within human society. Although Jesus spoke of the kingdom of God frequently, he never clearly defined it. Instead, he spoke of it in parables, comparing something familiar (mustard seed, leaven, lost coins, a man who sowed a field) with something unfamiliar.

Then he said, “What is the kingdom of God like? And to what shall I compare it?” (Luke 13:18)

Therefore, we must always test any proposed definition or meaning of the kingdom against the parables. Over the centuries, a variety of interpretations of what Jesus meant by the kingdom of God have been put forth. We will briefly examine six of the most common explanations: the reign of God as 1) heaven, 2) an inner spiritual experience, 3) the church, 4) a separate society, 5) a new state, and 6) a new world. Continue reading

the death of Jesus

Now large crowds were travelling with him; and he turned and said to them, ‘Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.
—Luke 14:25–27

 

the cost of discipleship

To further his movement for social and economic justice, Jesus had gathered a core team of 82 disciples, with twelve in a leadership role. He had sent the remaining 70 out in pairs to the villages of Galilee to share meals, heal, and proclaim the coming of the kingdom of God.[1]

Jesus told his disciples that following him was going to be extremely difficult, even dangerous. His words about hating family are strange—words we would rather not hear, words we would like to go away. They are difficult to comprehend from a man who consistently preached love over hate.

In joining the Jesus movement, the disciples had entered what is known as a “fictive family,” not related by blood but through bonds of love for one another as sisters and brothers. In the traditional culture of ancient Israel, individuals had no real existence apart from their ties to blood relatives, particularly their parents. Jesus prioritized the creation of the kingdom of God over the pulls of family responsibility, commending his disciples for cutting their ties—leaving home, livelihood, and family behind. He knew this would be a difficult decision and a challenging test. These were strong words meant to open people’s eyes to the reality of what Jesus was about, what he was proposing, and where he was going.

Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Will he not first sit down and estimate the cost to see if he has enough money to complete it? For if he lays the foundation and is not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule him, saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’

Or suppose a king is about to go to war against another king. Will he not first sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand? If he is not able, he will send a delegation while the other is still a long way off and will ask for terms of peace.[2]

Jesus clearly understood that imprisonment, torture, and death are always potential and likely consequences of the pursuit of justice in an unjust society. He cautioned his followers that in order to follow him, they must be willing to risk public execution on a cross—the penalty for civil disobedience and insurrection by common people under Roman rule. It was a time of decision. Jesus was heading towards a confrontation with power that risked his life and the lives of his followers.

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Jesus, Justice, and the Law

 Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue.
Deuteronomy 16:20 (the Law)

What does the Lord require of you but to do justice?
— Micah 6:8 (the Prophets)

Strive first for the reign of God and God’s justice.
— Matthew 6:33 (the Gospels)

Was Jesus a law-abiding citizen? Or did he teach us to step outside the law when needed in the name of compassion and justice? Traditional orthodox Christianity claims that Jesus was perfect and sinless, fulfilling the Law of Moses and the Prophets of ancient Israel. Therefore, he obeyed the Hebrew Law completely. But the truth is more complex, illustrating the tension between written and oral laws and the biblical call to justice.

During his life, Jesus experienced three despotic structures of government organized for a privileged few at the expense of the common good of the majority. Upon the death of Herod the Great (73–4 BCE), his kingdom was divided among his three sons. Galilee was a monarchy ruled by his son Herod Antipas (born before 20 BCE – 39 CE). After the removal of his brother Herod Archelaus (23 BCE – 18 CE) by Rome in 6 CE, Judea was ruled directly by a Roman Procurator who reported to the governor of Syria. However, the day-to-day operations were entrusted to a wealthy oligarchy (meaning the ruling few) of the Sadducees, sometimes referred to in the gospels as “the leaders of the people,” or “the chief priests and the elders.” In conquered territories, it was always Rome’s practice to find indigenous collaborators to rule on their behalf. And they always chose people from the wealthy class who saw it in their personal interest to support power when it advantaged them. On top of these structures was an emperor in Rome—first Augustus (63 BCE – 14 CE), and then Tiberius (42 BCE – 37 CE)—who was essentially a self-appointed dictator. So Jesus was confronted by a monarchy in Galilee, an oligarchy in Jerusalem, and a dictatorship in Rome.

There were obviously overlapping legal systems in place in this conquered nation, but the one that is usually discussed in regards to Jesus is the Hebrew Law found in the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. At the time of Jesus, there were three levels of Hebrew Law. At the core were the Ten Commandments, which we are told were given on stone tablets to Moses by Yahweh.[1] Surrounding these were 316 laws (mitzvot) found in the Covenant Code[2] of Exodus, the Holiness Code[3] of Leviticus, and the Deuteronomic Code[4] of Deuteronomy that were written over hundreds of years. The three codes are significantly different in the range of social and religious issues they cover, the style in which they are written, and the fundamental rules they establish. They can broadly be conceived of as the law of the tribes, the law of the Temple, and the law of the royal court. They show a progression from a primitive tribal confederacy to a sophisticated temple-state ruled by a king. Debating specific interpretations of the Law was an ongoing activity, resulting in an oral law developed by the Rabbis and Pharisees. They viewed it as creating a ‘fence’ around the Law to keep its precepts from being violated.

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the weakness of God

[God] is weak and powerless in the world, and that is the way, the only way, in which [God] can be with us and help us.
— Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906–1945)

As we enter the postmodern world, the age-old omnipotent God is slowly dying in the human imagination. For many, this supernatural being is already dead. The image of a God who acts with power and might in the natural world and in human society is becoming increasingly incredible.

Yet, there is another image of God, an alternative way of envisioning God, in the Bible. We have no idea who wrote the treatise that we now refer to as the first epistle or first letter of John in the New Testament. Some authorities claim that this writer is the same author who wrote the gospel of John, but without much evidence other than tradition to back that up. Although the writing style is different, the author of “First John” seems to have some familiarity with ideas expressed in the gospel of John and may have come from the same community as the gospel writer. Whoever he was, the author of this letter developed an extraordinary theology sometime around the end of the first century.

Here is what he wrote:

God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. (1 John 4:16)

To think of God as love is radically different than the ancient image of an all-powerful being dwelling on a throne in the heavens. In regards to power, the chief characteristic of God as love is weakness. Love can only act in the world through the relative weakness of human beings. Continue reading

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