Monday, November 03, 2008

What is the 'kingdom of God’?

Assuming (not without the awareness of source criticism) that the Gospel according to Mark was written first, it is important and appropriate to start there: The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel. (Mark 1.15)

The question is how would regular pedestrians of that time understand such message? What did Jesus mean? These are vital questions that we must ask if we are serious in finding out the meaning of the ‘kingdom of God’. And unless we do so, all of our understanding of the phrase is just our own fabrication.

The time is fulfilled…”

Given the Greek word used here for ‘time’ is kairos (appointed occasion: appropriate time) rather than chronos (period), it suggests that Jesus’ proclamation has something to do with an appointed occurrence. Surely that alone does not tell us much. To find out more we need to look at the earlier part of Mark.

Mark began his narrative by reciting an ancient oracle prophesied by Isaiah that found its fulfillment through the mission of John the Baptist (1.2-3). This oracle is about the upcoming rescue mission that will be launched by the God of Israel. He intends to liberate his suffering people by engaging and overthrowing the corrupted religious, social and political systems that were ravaging them at that time (particularly Isa 40.11; 29-31; the entire chapter 41-42).

Upon invoking Isaiah 40.3, Mark transposed John’s own awareness of the coming of someone much greater than him (presumably the Messiah). It is highly notable that John saw himself as the one prophesied by Isaiah; one who prepares the way for the visitation of the Lord, one who helps in the initiation of the kingdom of God into the world (1.7-8). And when Isaiah 40-42 being put side by side with the awareness of John, we are hit with the impression that the divine coming is imminent. It is at hand.

As to make his point obvious, right after citing the anticipated prophecy about the visitation of Israel’s God, Mark wrote pretty much assertively that, “Jesus came…” This is remarkably revealing. Mark directed all the ‘coming’ prophecies as the background, and here in Mark 1.9, he gave us the climax ‘Jesus came…’

Further, Mark recorded the divine confirmation of Jesus during his baptism, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” And this citation drives us back again to Isaiah 42.1: Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. This seems like Mark’s further attempt to reinforce the kind of kingdom that Jesus will bring into the world.

Out of all these, we get the sense that Jesus is someone whose life is intertwined with Isaiah’s prophecy. As it appeared to Mark, Jesus’ presence characterizes the promised rescue plan. He saw Jesus’ arrival as the appointed occurrence. He saw Jesus as the fulfillment of Isaiah 40-42; the inauguration of the kingdom of God into the world.

Therefore the phrase “the time is fulfilled” is Jesus’ self-referential decree. Jesus saw himself as the promised ‘Lord’ who brings God’s kingdom into the world. To Mark, Jesus is the kurios (Lord) precisely because he is the kairos (the appointed occurrence).

“…the kingdom of God is at hand

To discover what Jesus meant by “the kingdom of God”, we have to go back again to the oracle to find out. Because for Mark the phrase makes sense only within this tradition of prophecy as we saw in his chapter 1.

In Isaiah 40-42, the main concern of these passages is the socio-political predicament facing the Israelites. God’s mission was to eradicate all these mess. And it was further revealed that this mission is a global movement that concerns not only Israel alone, but also ‘the nations’ (Isa 42.1). In other words, when God come to reign in the world, he will get rid off all the nonsense, crap, and injustice.

These actions can be seen through Jesus’ own dealings with the people around him. For example, Jesus’ declaration that all foods are clean (Mark 7.19) is more than just an issue about food. It is about Jewish kosher observation (food-law) that separates them from the non-Jews. And this observation is the basis of Jews’ discrimination towards non-Jews. Hence when Jesus declared that all foods are valid, he was challenging the social discrimination (our modern’s term: racism) of his day.

A more tensed example is Jesus’ drastic actions in the Jerusalem temple (Mark 11.1-13.38) that provoked the temple authorities to plot against him (Mark 11.18). The vandalizing highlights Jesus as confronting the corrupted systems and not the individual businessmen at the temple. Jesus takes the temple as a worship place for all people; an inclusive place of worship. But it has been mismanaged by exploitative systems that favor the rich and disdain the poor (Mark 12.38-44).

Therefore the ‘kingdom of God’ concerns primarily over the establishment of a better world; a world under the dominion of God. The kingdom of God is not chiefly concern over individual’s aspiration to be materially wealthy and rich, nor individuals’ desire to have a struggle-less and carefree life. It is first and foremost about God’s mission to get rid off all the nonsense, crap, and injustice of the world.

Here we need to note that God’s reign is not an idea that empowers or promises prosperity to individuals. The divine kingdom’s main concern is to care and bring hope to the less-fortunate, the marginalized, the outcasts, and the godless. Jesus ultimately demonstrated this vision through the cross and his resurrection; two climatic events that subvert all corrupted and exploitative systems in the world. That is the kingdom of God.

“…repent and believe in the gospel

The call to ‘repentance’ here should not be confused with our modern over-emphasized notion of individual’s regretting and restraining of private sins, impurity, and guilt. At least this is not the main concern of the regular pedestrians in Jesus’ era. They had the sacrificial system at the temple to take care of these. Thus we cannot read back our modern understanding of ‘repentance’ and ‘believe’ into those passages.

The writing of Josephus, which dated very closely to Mark’s narrative, helpfully provides a context to learn about the meaning of ‘repent and believe’. In an incident where Josephus was convincing his opponent to abandon his plot, he used the same root word as those used by Mark,

“…if he would repent and believe in me…” (Greek: metanoesein kai pistos. The same root words for ‘repent’ and ‘believe’ in Mark 1.15 metanoeite kai pisteuete)

Definitely Josephus was not asking his opponent to feel guilty and restrain himself from his private sins. Josephus was calling him to stop rebelling and submit loyalty to him. In other words, Josephus was extending an invitation to the rebel to abandon his cause, switch alliance and join him.

And when we apply this background into Jesus’ phrase, we see that Jesus was extending invitations, asking people to give up their cause and join him in his mission in establishing God’s kingdom.

On the other hand, giving up our own aspiration and submitting our loyalties ‘to the gospel’ throws us back to asking what is the ‘gospel’?

And again we have to look back to Isaiah 40 to find out. And when we do that, we stumble across this:

O Zion, herald of gospel; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of gospel; lift it up, fear not; say to the cities of Judah, "Behold your God!" (Isa 40.9)

Read, “Behold your God!

The occurrence of God through Jesus into the world is the gospel. Jesus was revolutionary in announcing that the arrival of God was found in him. He was asking his hearers to abandon whatever their own pursuits, switch their alliance to him, and join him in fighting for the divine cause; and fight it in his way: not by swords or spears, but through the cross. This is the ‘kingdom of God’.


Green, Joel B. McKnight, Scot. Marshall I. Howard. Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels.
- On the temple cleansing, p.817-821.

Loader, William. Jesus and the Fundamentalism of His Day
- On Jesus’ attitude towards kosher, p.36-39.
- On Jesus’ dealings with the temple, p.45-49.

Wright, N.T. Jesus and the Victory of God
- On Josephus’ notion of repentance, p.250.
- On the temple and sacrificial systems, p.405-412.
- On Jesus and his relation with the temple, p.490-528.


Kar Yong said...

Not "textual criticism" but "source criticism"... :-)

Sze Zeng said...

Opps... Thank you, KY.