My Earliest Question
“Dick, what is the kingdom of God? We talk about the gospel but Jesus is always talking about the kingdom of God. What is the kingdom of God?”
I was riding along, a passenger in my Young Life leader’s car, a senior in high school. It was a school night and he and I were on our way to an event in a neighboring town where he was working to develop a new Young Life club. I had been reading the Bible somewhat sporadically, a little Luke here, a bit of Paul there. One night I stayed up for hours, reading Romans right through in my J. B. Phillips New Testament. Not that I did that sort of thing all the time. Then I read a little Mark and the same phrase I had noticed in Luke came up again: the kingdom of God. And so my question.
I do not remember much of the rest of that conversation. I am sure Dick gave me some things to chew on and I certainly remember him giving me no hard and fast doctrinal position. I have always been thankful for Dick’s way of forcing me to think rather than providing me with pat answers that shut down my thinking.
So why the question? That much is easy. Up to that point I had been raised in an easy-going evangelical world of thought which defined the gospel, the good news as, ‘Jesus died to save us from our sins and we can go to heaven when we die if we each accept Jesus as our personal savior.’ The simple gospel as we understood it. Maybe, I began to think, a bit too simple. I mean, Jesus rarely talked about any of that and yet he not only repeatedly proclaimed the kingdom of God, the New Testament writers, at least Luke and Mark, called the proclamation of the kingdom of God, the gospel! John did not so much but John was just plain different and Matthew had Jesus proclaiming “the kingdom of heaven.” Was that the same or different?
I did not find answers to these questions any time soon. It all came together, a bit at a time. The John thing, it turned out was not so hard. If Matthew and Luke were independently building their gospels on a structure they picked up from Mark and if John wrote independently, either before or after Mark, then John was just being John and telling the story in a different way, his own way.
The Matthew issue I finally straightened out in seminary when I learned how Jews of Jesus’ time just plain did not say “god” or “el” or “theos” or certainly not “Yahveh” or any other word that meant “god” in their vain attempt to never take the name of God in vain by never saying it. So they referred to “god” as “the ancient one” or as “on high” or even as, “heaven.”
Now it made sense. Matthew, a Jew writing to Jews, meant “kingdom of God” when he wrote “kingdom of heaven” but he did not want to offend his audience: good move, Matthew!
So the three writers all meant the same thing. All three “common view” (synoptic) gospels had Jesus saying the same thing, talking about “the gospel of the kingdom of God (Heaven)” Okay, that is three out of four and yet I was no closer to an answer: what is the kingdom of God?
A Misleading Answer
A friend at Sem had an answer. Jesus proclaimed the good news about the kingdom of God/Heaven but since the Jews of the day rejected that kingdom, their kingdom, God then went to Plan B. He went after the Gentiles instead, postponing Plan A, the kingdom plan, until a later time. That, said my friend was why Paul never talked about the kingdom, only the church, which was Plan B.
Sometimes answers are worse than the question. I knew that kind of thinking broke the plan and promises of God in two. There had to be a better answer than that. I began to sort it out. What was the plan of God, really? And how does the story of God reveal the plan?
Toward a Better Answer
Everyone has a canon inside the cannon of Scripture; some passages which are more significant than others. I had came to see Genesis 12:1-3 as one of those heavy, touchstone texts, the kind that sets up, explains and even organizes all the rest:
Now the Lord said to Abram, go forth from your country, and from your relatives and from your father’s house, to the land which I will show you; and I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great; and so you shall be a blessing; And I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse. and in you all the families of the earth will be blessed. Genesis 12:1-3
Over the years I have learned more and more about this critical passage. Sure, it is a land-grant covenant, a treaty in which God promises the second son of Terah huge holdings on the SW tip of the Fertile Crescent, some of the best land around in the day.
But here is the really important thing. God tells Abram he is going to take care of him, no-matter what – and he does – if Abram will believe that from between his legs God will bring out a nation whom God will also protect, a nation which will bless all the families of the earth.
Israel will be made great so that they can bless all the nations of the whole earth.
That is it, full stop!
Why is God going to bless Abe? So that his kid’s kid’s kids can bless everyone else. Period.
Blessed to be a blessing. Israel’s future was all tied up with what happened to the nations; it was not separate.
Again, why was Israel created as a nation? To bless all the other nations which God had been having a Devil of a time reaching!
Why did Israel exist? So that everyone would get in on the blessings of God.
What was the sole and solitary purpose for Israel’s existence? The blessing of all the other families and nations of the world.
So how could the blessing of the nations, clearly what went on when Jewish folks like Paul and Silas brought the gospel to a terrified Gentile jailer in Philippi, Macedonia, be a parenthesis to a postponed kingdom of God?
Nope, I needed a better answer than that.
It was when I was reading Acts several years ago for a first run at a Luke/Acts InDepth course that I noticed how the very Jewish Jew, James the Tzaddich (Righteous/Just) read the prophecy of Amos. That was when I clearly saw what I had long expected to find some day.
Here is how James shows a meeting of the early leadership of the church that the influx of the Gentiles is a proof of the restored kingdom of God:
After they had stopped speaking, James answered, saying, “Brethren, listen to me. Simeon has related how God first concerned himself about taking from among the Gentiles a people for his name. With this the words of the Prophets agree, just as it is written, ʻAfter these things I will return, and I will rebuild the tabernacle of David which has fallen, and I will rebuild its ruins, and I will restore it, so that the rest of mankind may seek the Lord, and all the Gentiles who are called by my name,ʼ says the Lord, who makes these things known from long ago. Acts 15:13-18
The “tabernacle of David” which had fallen and which remained fallen in Amos’ day was the united kingdom of Israel, David’s kingdom which had included all twelve tribes of Israel. The restoration of David’s kingdom (tabernacle) would not and could not be fulfilled if the kingdom of God was postponed. And in fact, the kingdom was proclaimed first to the Jews by Jesus but it continued to be declared by Peter, Paul, James and the other leaders of the early church, first to Jews but then to Gentiles. The kingdom of God was not postponed to bring in Gentiles. The proof of the kingdom’s restoration was the influx of the Gentiles!
Still, why did Jesus talk “kingdom” and Paul talk “church?” Or is that really the way it went? Next time, Jesus, Paul and the kingdom of God.
Any thoughts or comments?