Taking Stock of the Reign of God

Joel B. Green

As students of the Gospels universally acknowledge, the kingdom of God was central to the message of Jesus and was also significant for preaching and teaching in the early church. My concern in this essay is to map some recent contributions to study of the kingdom of God and to suggest some of the key issues that arise from contemporary discussion.

Interestingly, in spite of the ongoing struggle with how best to translate the Greek term basiliea (God’s dominion? God’s reign? God’s empire?), the word “kingdom” continues to dominate in contemporary studies. This may be due to the generally alien character of the concept of the basileia to persons reared in more-or-less democratic societies. Alternative terms often have the advantage of being gender-inclusive, but introduce their own semantic slippage. Whatever else might be said, for Jesus and the Gospels basileia refers simultaneously to a social-and-political order and to matters of allegiance.

Two figures have set the stage for recent study of the kingdom: N.T. Wright and B.D. Chilton. Now more than a decade old, Wright’s Jesus and the Victory of God (Fortress, 1996) remains a watershed in study of the historical Jesus for the way it situates Jesus, his mission, and his message so fully vis-à-vis the politics of his Jewish world. Part Two of the book, “Profile of a Prophet,” runs some 325 pages and centers especially on Wright’s understanding of the kingdom of God. Although complex in its interaction with various aspects of the gospel tradition, the point is easily summarized. Wright thinks that when Jesus referred to the “kingdom of God” he was using a kind of shorthand for Israel’s story, that both Jesus and his listeners knew this story well, and that Jesus’ formulation of the story was intended to recall that story so as to transform it. That is, Jesus “engaged in that characteristically Jewish activity of subversively retelling the basic Jewish story, and adjusting the other worldview elements accordingly” (201).

Wright’s approach is illustrated by his comments on Luke 11:20: “If I by the finger of god [sic] cast out demons, the kingdom of god has come upon you.” This reference to the kingdom invokes an “implicit narrative”: “Israel’s god will one day become king; the establishment of this kingdom will involve the defeat of the enemy that has held enemy captive; there are clear signs that this is now happening; therefore the kingdom is indeed breaking in. YHWH really is becoming king; Israel really is being liberated” (228). Wright works out this understanding with reference to a wide range of data, including the parables of Jesus, for example, but also Israel’s most treasured symbols: Sabbath, food, people and family, and possessions. In this way, Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom belonged thoroughly within the complexities of Second Temple Judaism, whose intertwined threads of religious, political, and social interests could (and should) never be disentangled. God was coming as king, so the whole world would be set right.

Since the 1979 publication of his doctoral work, God in Strength: Jesus’ Announcement of the Kingdom (Plöchl), Chilton’s name has practically been synonymous with kingdom-study. He has published numerous studies, all demonstrative of his remarkable familiarity both with over a century of study of the kingdom and with the Jewish contexts informing how Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom might be heard. Among his writings, Pure Kingdom: Jesus’ Vision of God (Eerdmans, 1996) is the most helpful and accessible. For Chilton, the kingdom of God is above all else “God’s activity in the world,” which effects change in the world; moreover, “the point of speaking of God’s kingdom is that God makes his realm ours” (10). From the Psalms, Chilton maps the kingdom along five coordinates: eschatology, transcendence, judgment, purity, and radiance; then locates these within the message of Jesus: a kingdom that both is and is to come (eschatology), is both immanent and one day to be comprehensive (transcendence), is an impetus already at work in the present so that entry into the kingdom is a current opportunity (judgment), promotes a new understanding of what constitutes God’s people (purity), and radiates outward while also requiring a response of performance (radiation). Jesus’ vision of God is thus firmly anchored within Israel’s liturgical life.

Together, Chilton and Wright provide a viable starting point for contemporary reflection on the dominion of God in Jesus’ message. How have these conversations been focused more recently?

A Medley of Recent Study

For R.A. Horsley, the significance of Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom of God cannot be understood apart from a healthy awareness of the social setting within which Jesus carried out his mission (Jesus and Empire: The Kingdom of God and the New World Disorder [Fortress, 2003]). Horsley advocates a “relational approach to Jesus,” according to which we need to know how,

(1) in the particular historical conditions that created a crisis for the ancient Judean and Galilean people (2) and working out of the Israelite cultural tradition in which those people were rooted, (3) Jesus emerged as a leader (4) by assuming/adapting particular social role(s) (5) in interaction with particular people who responded by forming a movement that became historically significant—and in that complex context his crucifixion at the hands of the Romans made him a revered martyr for the cause. (57-58)

On the one hand, then, this leads Horsley to an extensive sketch of the situation leading up to and including the reach of Roman imperial rule in the first-century Mediterranean. On the other, Horsley urges that we take seriously “the Gospel whole” — that is, the witness of our earliest sources, the Gospel of Mark and Q, en toto rather than piecemeal, in order to comprehend that Jesus’ call to covenant renewal was inseparable from his prophetic denouncement of Roman imperial rule. Accordingly, the message of Jesus cannot be domesticated by ethereal or individualistic interests, nor can the prophetic, judgmental edge of his words be tamed. This two-edged message is to be embodied in communities of Jesus-followers whose practices serve God’s restorative action in economic and political, and not only “religious” ways.

Horsley brackets his investigation with outlines of U.S. history and the post-9/11 world in order to urge reflection on the degree to which the U.S. “empire” mirrors Rome’s “new world disorder.” One does not need to embrace the whole of Horsley’s political analysis in order to appreciate his primary concern to underscore the politics of God’s kingdom, then and now.

A greater contrast is hard to imagine than we find between Horsley and B. Witherington III, whose recent study, Imminent Domain: The Story of the Kingdom of God and Its Celebration (Eerdmans, 2009), takes the form of a small-group study manual. Whereas Horsley had emphasized Jesus’ proclamation of the presence of God’s kingdom, Witherington holds to the “already-not yet” synthesis that has guided so much kingdom-talk since G.E. Ladd’s Jesus and the Kingdom (Harper & Row, 1964; reprinted as The Presence of the Future [Eerdmans, 1974]) and more recently associated with the work of G.R. Beasley-Murray (Jesus and the Kingdom of God [Eerdmans, 1986]). Whereas Horsley emphasized the sociopolitical realities of the kingdom, Witherington thinks that the kingdom is “a matter of the heart” (11). Whereas Horsley finds in Jesus’ kingdom-message a call for bearing witness to the demands and values of God’s kingdom by serving its transformative agenda in the present, Witherington locates transformation in the future. The glorious coming of God’s dominion “…is not a human self-help program but rather a divine activity and program” (57).

Incidentally, anyone seeking material for promoting reflection and action in small group and other congregational settings would be well-served by the second installment in the “Getting Your Feet Wet Series”: The Shape of God’s Reign, by P.D. Kenneson et al. (Wipf & Stock, 2008). This is solid material, and well presented. The authors sketch “the shape of God’s reign” with reference to wholeness, truthfulness, forgiveness, and reconciliation, each worked out in ways that identify and cultivate the church as sign, foretaste, and servant of the kingdom of God.

For her part, M.A. Beavis writes that Jesus’ kingdom proclamation was “antipolitical,” this in her attempt to grapple with the relationship of the historical Jesus and the kingdom of God within Greco-Roman and Jewish utopia traditions (Jesus and Utopia: Looking for the Kingdom of God in the Roman World [Fortress, 2006]). In her view, the kingdom-sayings of Jesus do not associate the kingdom of God with a hoped-for national, political entity; evidence to the contrary, such as Jesus’ selection of twelve apostles as a symbol of restored Israel, is set aside as unoriginal to Jesus of Nazareth. Her survey of the Jesus and the kingdom in biblical scholarship (ch. 4) is useful for the way it sketches major issues in the discussion, but the lens provided by traditions of utopia seems to do little to bring Jesus’ kingdom-proclamation into focus.

Still less useful for grappling with Jesus’ message of the kingdom is B.J. Malina’s The Social Gospel of Jesus: The Kingdom of God in Mediterranean Perspective (Fortress, 2001). Here is an extended essay, long on models and reading scenarios but short on engagement with socio-historical data and even less on actual work with NT texts. Of course, Malina is right to urge that Jesus’ gospel took root “in the larger matrix of the political order centered on the Roman emperors and their elite networks” (viii), but after 150 pages of methodological throat-clearing we have heard little about the kingdom other than that the categories for making sense of life in the first century are different from our own.

More interesting and helpful on the question of the politics of the kingdom is C. Bryan’s study, Render to Caesar: Jesus, the Early Church, and the Roman Superpower (Oxford University Press, 2005), written explicitly as a response to Horsley’s Jesus and Empire. For Bryan, Horsley’s categories are too sharply drawn and his perspective is insufficiently shaped by the witness of the OT. Although Jesus and the early Christians engaged in criticism of the Roman superpower, he argues, that critique was grounded in the prophetic claim, “The LORD is our judge, the LORD is our king; he will save us” (Isa 33:22). Thus, “the biblical tradition challenges all human power structures not by attempting to dismantle them or replace them with other human power structures but by consistently confronting them with the truth about their origin and purpose” (9). In an important sense, Bryan’s understanding of the kingdom re-emphasizes that the kingdom of God is, after all, God’s kingdom.

Bryan’s work is most useful for the way he works to tie the witness of the NT into the OT prophetic tradition. However, in his treatment of Jesus and the early church, he underplays both the degree to which Roman politics is integrated into all of life and, therefore, the degree to which Jesus and his followers embraced a message and adopted lives that ran counter to the ways of Rome. In the world of the first-century Mediterranean, to declare that the kingdom belongs to children (e.g., Luke 18:16) is to engage in subversive political script-writing, as is labeling as “futile” the manner of life one has inherited from one’s forbears (e.g., 1 Pet 1:14, 18).

Questions Remain

What can be said about reflection on the kingdom of God by NT scholars? Most importantly, the last 15 years have seen little progress beyond the important work of Wright and Chilton. The quest for appropriate background for making sense of Jesus’ kingdom-message has continued, but not significantly advanced. The issue of Jesus and the politics of his day has been sharpened, but not more fully integrated into the story of Israel he was helping to write. And some issues almost beg for more attention. Where might we find extended discussion of the kingdom of God beyond study of the historical Jesus? What of the kingdom in the Gospel of Mark, for example, or in the first two centuries of the church’s life? What of the relationship between kingdom-expectation and the institution and mission of the church? This is a question of far more than antiquarian interest in the increasingly post-Christian context in which most of us live in the West. And how might immersion in the kingdom-message serve as an interpretive lens by which we make sense of the world around us, and by which we discern what God is up to in the world?

Posted Feb 01, 2010