Jesus preached that the kingdom of God had irrupted into this world in his words and actions. He showed people what it means to live as new human beings in a new world order governed by God’s values of love, compassion and justice for all, even if God’s reign over creation would only come in its fulness at the denouement of time.
The kingdom of God is a tensive symbol because it has both a transcendent and historical sense, implying a reality that is “already, but not yet.”[i] It began with Jesus’ public ministry and continues today in the actions of those who follow him in discipleship (“already”). However, it will only reach its fulfillment at the end of time (“but not yet”). In both instances its message is the unparalleled good news of God’s love and offer of salvation to all people, especially those most in need.
Jesus never proclaimed the kingdom of God as a social, political, or economic reality. Nevertheless, it has profound societal implications. To witness to it is to denounce power and dominion over others, and instead to offer the gifts of one’s life in humble service on behalf of the common good of all. Ultimately, the kingdom of God is surreptitious. It unfolds in history as a silent revolution, predicated on a “surrender to the will of God, unto death.”[ii]
The gospel stories offer several examples of the kingdom of God as a future and transcendent reality. Jesus taught his disciples the Lord’s Prayer (Mt 6:9-13; Lk 11:2-4) invoking God’s future and definitive arrival in history. In addition, he spoke of it as one-day extending to the ends of the earth (Mt 8:11-12; Lk 13:28-29). Jesus’ beatitudes also invoke the kingdom of God as soon to come assistance for those who suffer unjustly (Mt 5:3-12; Lk 6:20-23). Finally, as his life approached its end (Mk 14:17-25), Jesus spoke of it as a banquet he would share with his disciples at a time beyond his death.
The gospel stories also describe the kingdom of God as already present in history. Jesus forgave sinners (Mk 2:1-12; Lk 5:17-26; Jn 8:1-11), healed the sick (Mk 1:29-31, Mt 4:23, Lk 7:22-23; Jn 5:1-9) and exorcised demons (Mk 1:23-28, Lk 4:33-37; Mt 9:32-33) as signs of the kingdom of God.[iii] While these actions were often experienced as miracles, at a deeper level they demonstrated the power of God’s Spirit that rested upon him to reveal that God’s reign over creation had already begun.[iv]
Jesus’ sharing of meals and his parables from every-day life were also signs of the historical presence of the kingdom God. The former included friends, sinners and social outcasts. They revealed Jesus’ mediation of God’s goodness and offer of salvation to all (Mk 2:15-17; Lk 15:1-2; Mt 9:10-13), especially those who had been cast aside by society. The latter were stories from Jewish life that depicted the kingdom of God as slowly, but inevitably, taking hold in history despite the actions of some to undermine it (Mk 4:26-29; Lk 13:18-21; Mt 13:1-9, 18-23, 31-33, 36-43, 44, 47-50). In doing so, they often addressed God’s concern for the most vulnerable of society (Lk 15:11-32; Mt 20: 1-16; 25:31-46), while criticizing the self-sufficient and powerful who lorded over them (Mt 23).
The kingdom of God was also manifest in the values Jesus incarnated on its behalf. They are, at a minimum, love, compassion, and justice, and they function in a continuum with compassion being the lynchpin that moved Jesus from an experience of God’s love to its fulfillment in action on behalf of justice.
God is love and it culminated in human history in the Incarnation. Jesus taught his disciples, first and foremost, what it means to be a human being. In turn, they glimpsed something of his divinity and their call to participate in it. The love embodied in the kingdom of God cannot be hoarded and kept unto oneself. It led Jesus into the suffering of first century Palestine where he encountered the blind (Mt 20:29-34), the deaf (Mk 7:32-35), the sick (Mt 14:14) and those without adequate access to food (Mk 8:1-9). The gospel stories reveal, over and over again, his response was one of heartfelt compassion for human suffering.
Biblical compassion is a physical gut-wrenching feeling that arises in response to the suffering of others. Jesus showed profound compassion towards those in need, and it moved him to act for justice on their behalf.
God’s love reaches its fulfillment in acts of justice. Jesus acted not only by alleviating the suffering of those in need, but also by speaking God’s truth to power (Mt 23:2-7, 13-33). It was his call for justice that led to his death, and it is the call to justice that today continues to attract the ire of those who seek self-interest over the common good of all.
Finally, there are several distinctions to be made about Jesus, the kingdom of God, and those who follow him in discipleship in our time. Jesus lived some two thousand years ago, offering signs of God’s reign over creation when it arrives in its fulness. Today, the kingdom of God remains a utopic vision still to be realized. However, it is also historic in that, like Jesus, it calls us to act against the human sinfulness that undermines its growing presence in this world.
It remains essential that people from each succeeding generation witness to the values of the kingdom of God so that the world never forgets that what God began in Jesus will one-day reach its fulfillment at the end of time. It is Christian belief that there will be then a world where God’s love will be experienced by all, God’s compassion will reach out to all those who are suffering, and God’s justice will touch not just some, but all people regardless of race, religion, sexual orientation, or political persuasion.
The next essay will focus on the prophetic voice today. We are called to listen for, even proclaim, that voice in a world still in need of redemption. It is a message that is countercultural and sure to incur the pushback of society. However, the message is the voice of God in our time calling us to become the people God intends us to be.
[ii] G. Lohfink, Jesus of Nazareth: What He Wanted, Who He Was, (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2012), 36-38.
[iii] Other examples of Jesus’ forgiveness of sinners, healings of the sick and exorcisms include: forgiveness (Lk 7:36-50); healings (Mk 1:40-45, 2:1-12, 3:1-6, 5:24-34, 7:31-37, 8:22-26, 10:46-52; Lk 13:10-17, 14:1-6, 17:11-19, 22:49-51; Mt 8:5-13, 11:4-6; Jn 9:1-41); exorcisms (Mk 5:1-20, 7:24-30, 9:14-29; Lk 8:1-2, 11:14; Mt 12:22-23, 15:21-28).
[iv] A. Nolan, Jesus Before Christianity (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1999), 41-44, 92-95, 126. Nolan states a “biblical miracle” is not scientific and has no need of historical verification. It is an unusual “act of God” that astonishes, surprises, and causes marvel and wonder at God’s power, independent of the laws of nature.