« Prev Chapter V. Jesus.—The Promise. Next »



JESUS began His ministry with a clear and simple promise: “The kingdom of God is at hand.” By so doing He proves His acceptance of the Jewish eschatology in its simplest form. The Jews waited for the kingdom of God as the state of things when Israel should be free and exalted to a position of power and splendour, when the Gentiles should be in subjection, and the patriarchs and holy men of old should have risen from the dead, and God be enthroned visibly amidst the people. Jesus original' hope, too, must have been very similar to this, though not exactly the same. This we necessarily infer from the following considerations. Jesus never explained the conception of the kingdom of God, for He presupposes it as well-known, nor does He anywhere criticise any false conception of the kingdom of God, He merely lays all the emphasis on its near approach, and on the conditions of entrance. Furthermore, He addresses His promise exclusively to the Jews, His own people, and not to the Gentiles. Lastly, He speaks of being together with the patriarchs, 57and thus reveals the Jewish foundation of His message.

The Jewish starting-point of the promise of Jesus will therefore form the first portion of our enquiry. But Jesus’ greatness begins in every case where He sets Himself free from these Jewish presuppositions. Three points deserve notice: The place and the manner; the time; the recipients of the Promise.

1. The national pride of the Jews, the fantastic and material turn of the Oriental mind, combine to embellish the Jewish hope in the kingdom of God with a number of individual touches. This process can be traced from the apocalypses, both Jewish and Christian, down to the Koran. Read in the Apocalypse of St John the song of triumph over the fall of Babylon, the exultation over her misfortunes, the description of the final battle with all its cruel details, the delineation, at once fantastic and material, of the Jerusalem which is far indeed from being heavenly, with its arrogant contempt of the Gentiles. Mahomet’s descriptions of Paradise with their repulsive sensuality may be passed over in silence. Even so harmless a vision of the future as is contained in the Magnificat and the Benedictus, the songs of Mary and of Zacharias, that St Luke has preserved for us, is limited to the political liberation of the people. We may not indeed conclude that because the political and the fantastical elements are almost entirely absent from the sayings of Jesus, that therefore He never thought or spoke of these things. Jesus never expected that the kingdom of God and the Roman empire could co-exist. The latter would have to pass away with the advent of 58the former. His other conceptions, too, will probably have been fantastic enough to our way of looking at things. But the Evangelists were under the impression that all these traits—the political as well as the material embroidery—were meaningless for Jesus, did not belong to the essential which alone He emphasized. Jesus must have understood how to purify and to simplify the hopes of His disciples, and to concentrate them on the religious kernel. They remained indeed Jewish hopes, but such as had passed through Jesus soul. Without setting Himself in opposition to His surroundings, the hopes of a religious genius such as Jesus were from the very first of a different nature. All those features of vindictiveness, ambition, cruelty, sensuality, the artificial and fantastical pedantry, the minute and subtle calculations, did not harmonize with the simplicity of His soul. The acceptation of the Jewish eschatology by Jesus is of itself tantamount to its purification.

No very great importance, therefore, attaches to the place and the outer circumstances of the kingdom of God. It is clear that Jesus did not think of heaven or the other world. This earth, or, more strictly speaking, the land of Palestine, is the scene of the kingdom. There is no breach of continuity between the life that men live here and now, and their existence yonder. They eat and drink and take their pleasure; they live as men and not as spirits. To speak of the metaphorical language of Jesus is of itself enough to impair the naïveté of the whole picture. The entire harmlessness and innocence of Jesus are reflected in the simplicity of His expectations. For Jesus the 59earthly and the simply human are entirely free from any suggestion of the sinful. Why should that God to whom we pray for bread here below be less likely to give us food and drink in His heavenly kingdom? There is something almost countrified in Jesus’ language about the future. Even an inhabitant of Jerusalem would have used richer colours in his picture. That is why we are told nothing of the city, the length and the breadth and the height of which are equal, and the streets of which are of gold.

But what an entire misunderstanding it is of Jesus when emphasis is laid, as it often is to-day, upon the earthly elements in His hope. That which He pictured to Himself, being a Jew of His age, in earthly guise, He would have imagined in a later century just as easily after a heavenly fashion. All the emphasis is laid, not upon the place, but upon simple happiness and upon community with God. When His kingdom comes, all suffering, all sorrow and lamentation, all sense of abandonment by God, shall be changed into joy, exultation, and the blessed feeling of nearness to God. To behold God, to be called the Children of God, to experience God’s comfort and mercy—that is the centre of the promise. Therefore, too, the picture of the kingdom is enriched by a multitude of features which go beyond the earthly framework: the resurrection of the dead, the angelic body, the everlasting life. Even if this earthly stage is never left, yet the barriers between this world and the next have been removed, and the visible communion with God and with all His saints conjures forth a new world. But there is one fact which, plainer than all else, shows us of what little 60importance this world is after all for Jesus’ promise. In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, blessedness and torment follow immediately after death, but not upon earth. There is no contradiction here for Jesus with the hope in the kingdom of God, because for Him nothing depends upon the place, but every thing upon the condition of men.

Expressed in simple terms, what Jesus’ promises in the kingdom of God is everlasting life, man’s entrance into unbroken community with God. In common with His Jewish contemporaries, He pictures this everlasting life to Himself upon an earthly stage and with earthly features, but it is in the centre of the picture that He places that which is everlasting—nearness to God, such as is not known here upon earth.

And the door that leads to life eternal is the judgment of God that appoints unto every man everlasting bliss or everlasting torment. The later theology, which postponed blessedness to the next world, to heaven, understood Jesus after all better than our modern archaeologists, who in their interest for earth forget heaven. When He said the kingdom of God is at hand, He wished to place all those that heard Him in the presence of God and of eternity, in comparison with which this earth and world are of very little worth.

2. The Jews of Jesus’ time entirely postponed the coming of the kingdom of God to the future. No trace of that kingdom could be perceived as long as the Roman ruled in the land. It had not, of course, been so at all times. When the Asmonean high priests and kings set up their empire and conquered many of the 61neighbouring tribes, then the Messianic Age appeared to them and to many of their followers to have begun already. The King and Son of God was there already, the promise which Jahwe had given His people seemed to be about to be fulfilled. In the Messianic Psalms, ii. and ex., the beginning of the kingdom of God and of its king are already celebrated. But all this was nothing but beautiful dreams. We do well to remember this when we come to examine the question, Does the kingdom of God exist for Jesus in the present or in the future? Does He promise it, or does He bring it with Him?

The Gospels themselves, if asked for an answer, appear to be in doubt. By the side of passages which speak of it as still future, there are others which declare that it is just being established upon earth.

The former passages are the most numerous, and are to be found from the beginning to the end of Jesus' ministry. His disciples are to hand on this same message with which He began: “The kingdom of God is at hand”; they are not to change it and say the kingdom has come with Jesus. In the Lord’s Prayer they are to pray “Thy kingdom come,” not, “may it be fully established,” for it is not here at all as yet. So Jesus ever speaks of entrance into the kingdom as of a future event. The Beatitudes are all promises, one just as much as the other, “for theirs is the kingdom of God,” as much as “for they shall see God.” On the last journey to Jerusalem the sons of Zebedee beg for the seats of honour in the future kingdom, and Jesus acquiesces in the form of their request. And even at the Last Supper He looks 62towards the future when He says that He will not drink of the fruit of the vine with His disciples until the kingdom of God shall come.

The chief passage, too, which would seem to prove the present nature of the kingdom, points likewise to the future, if rightly understood (Luke xvii. 20: “The kingdom of God is already among you”). In the first place, it is quite certain that the right translation is “among you” and not “in you,” for Jesus is speaking to the Pharisees, so the evangelist expressly tells us. And next, we must notice the connection of the phrase with its context. It is immediately succeeded by the great eschatological speech of the sudden coming of the Son of Man, who shall appear all at once like the lightning. But first shall come days of tribulation and longing all in vain. The whole speech therefore presupposes that the kingdom of God is yet to come. And it is preceded by these words: “The kingdom of God shall not come in a way that attracts attention, nor will people say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘there it is!’ but . . . .” Now the only possible antithesis to these future tenses is: the kingdom will be amongst you so suddenly that you will have no time at all for apocalyptic calculations and disputes. For like a flash of lightning so is the kingdom of God. This celebrated passage proves, therefore, just this: that Jesus, in contrast to all apocalyptic calculations, prophesies the coming of the kingdom of God as a sudden surprise.

Finally, the force of the argument derived from a consideration of all these passages is confirmed by certain indirect conclusions. To enter into the kingdom 63of God and to inherit eternal life is so entirely one and the same thing for Jesus, that either expression is used indifferently. The opposite of the kingdom of God is hell with the everlasting fire. In the kingdom of God the patriarchs and the souls of the saved shall meet together. The resurrection of the dead will therefore coincide with the advent of the kingdom. The vision of God is a future reward. The judgment and the kingdom of God are to come together. The latter cannot be said to be present as long as the separation of men into good and bad is still impending. Finally, the coming of the kingdom is brought about by the return of Messiah.

Now if we add to these considerations the fact that the early Christians all expected the kingdom of God in the future, we may look upon it as one of the facts which we know with the greatest certainty that in the message of Jesus the term kingdom of God has an eschatological connotation, that it stands for the new world that is to come.

There are, however, it is true, passages which point in another direction, and these need to be examined as well. The question is whether they can be explained, starting as we have done from eschatological premises.

In His casting out of the devils Jesus saw the beginning of the kingdom of God. “If I cast out devils by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God is come unto you.” His victories over the devils seem to Him to be so many blows struck against the empire of Satan, leading on to its downfall. God’s Spirit works through Jesus and lays the 64foundation for the transformation of the world. When the Baptist asks Him, “Art thou He that should come?” he receives the answer: “The blind receive their sight, and the lame walk; the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear; the dead are raised up.” Once more it is the miracles by which one recognizes the dawn of the New Time. Even though much has still to be awaited—hence the warning, “Blessed is he that shall not be offended in Me”—yet for the believer a visible pledge of the final accomplishment is ready to hand.

This point we may look upon as established beyond all doubt. Jesus regarded—we must admit it—His momentary miracles as the first signs of the coming kingdom of God. We may perhaps call that the enthusiasm of Jesus.

Another saying seems to point in the same direction. We have to piece it together from Matthew and Luke. Its meaning is somewhat mysterious:

The law and the prophets until John.
Henceforth the kingdom of God suffereth violence,
And the violent take it by force.

But no sooner do we realize that Jesus uttered this in triumphant exultation than the words come to be full of life for us. The kingdom is no longer a far-off divine event as in the ages when the law and the prophets prepared the way for it. It is even now being established upon earth, and that with violence, while men take possession of it. So speaks one who beholds with joy how the promise passes into accomplishment. Therefore, too, Jesus can say that His disciples stand in the midst of the kingdom 65of God, and are for that reason greater than even John himself.

These words are the expression of a mighty enthusiasm. With more of calm, but with no less certainty and joy, Jesus praises the beginning of the kingdom here and now in certain parables.

In the double parable of the mustard seed and of the leaven, Jesus contrasts the small beginning with the mighty end. So it is with the kingdom of God. It begins small and unnoticeable—so small that the great and the wise of this earth pay it no attention whatever. But its end brings about the transformation of the world. And so it is that all the great future is already contained in the small beginning. As we read these parables we must picture to ourselves Jesus going about teaching and ministering in that little corner of Galilee, and then try and imagine how this obscure activity is to lead up to the great world-catastrophe.

In the next parable, that of the seed growing of itself, two thoughts struggle for the mastery. In the first place it is that expressed by the words ‘of itself,’ the unshaken confidence in the necessary progress of God’s cause, independent of all human activity; on the other hand, the steps in the development, the sure insight embracing the whole process of evolution by slow and gradual laws. Of the two the first thought is to be ascribed to Jesus with greater probability. There is no mention in this connection of miracles. The parables breathe an atmosphere of joy, courage, and confident resignation.

The modern mind is only too apt to read its own thoughts of evolution, immanence, and the universal 66character of the divine and the good, into these words. Jesus appears to have placed everything that is supernatural on one side. But that is just appearance. Under all circumstances Jesus imagined the kingdom of God to Himself as something supernatural. It always brings along with it the world of miracles to which belong the judgment, the new earth, the resurrection of the dead, and the vision of God. And that is just why Jesus and His disciples recognize the beginning of the kingdom in the miraculous powers that issue from Him. The only thing that is new in Jesus point' of view is that He regarded His own work not as preparation but as beginning (after all, the difference between the two is very slight) and recognized the dawn of the new age in His deeds. Here we stand once more in presence of what we have called the enthusiasm of Jesus. There was a time in the life of Jesus when hope swelled His breast in a quite unusual manner, when the people seemed to be coming over to Him, when all the devils yielded to His miraculous powers, when heaven descended upon earth. “I beheld Satan fall from heaven like lightning,” cried Jesus at that time. “The harvest is great, but the labourers are few.” “Blessed are your eyes to behold what ye behold;—that which prophets and kings have sought in vain to behold.” At that time Jesus still felt Himself to be in harmony with all the good influences at work amongst His people. Patriotism and religion were one, and hope ran into vision. That was the happiest period in His life. It was then that He uttered the words about the kingdom of God being present here and now.

But the question is whether He retained this 67enthusiastic belief until the end. That period of jubilant hope was followed by a season of deep disenchantment brought about by the recognition of the fact that He and the people would not agree together in the long run. If the unclean spirit that has been driven forth can return to the house from which he has been driven, taking unto himself seven other spirits, then the last state has become worse than the first. In the end the great miracles only serve unto the towns in which they have been performed for a greater condemnation; that surely sounds a great deal sterner than the answer to the Baptist. Finally, Jesus foresaw destruction for His people and suffering and death for Himself. But even in the midst of this painful experience He did not surrender the certainty of His hopes. At the Last Supper, just before His death, He looked forward to the meeting once more in the kingdom of God, when He should drink anew of the fruit of the vine with His disciples. He bequeathed to His disciples the daily and hourly expectation of the coming of the kingdom: they were to be prepared every moment. The present generation should not pass away till all be fulfilled. They that have seen the works of Jesus shall likewise see the accomplishment thereof. This and that particular disciple—the later tradition substituted a vague ‘certain’—shall not taste of death until they behold the kingdom. While Jesus points so decisively towards the future, the thought of the present commencement of the kingdom appears to have receded for Him into the background, but He never expressly abandoned it; and so the early Church, too, clung fast to it in spite of the Master’s death. But the 68emphasis is laid on the future. Just as in the parables before mentioned, our looks were forcibly directed away from the small beginning to the great end.

And so Jesus Himself made of Christianity the religion of hope. All His work breathes a spirit of expectation, of longing for the great invisible, for perfection. The goal of religion has not yet been reached. It cannot, it may not, be in our possession. During the whole period of His work on earth, Jesus never wearied of directing the gaze of His people forwards and upwards, and of balancing the blessedness of the future against all the suffering of the present. He did that in the Beatitudes no less than in the parable of poor Lazarus. It was only to the self-satisfied and contented, to the worldlings, that He had nothing to offer. We should picture Him entering into rich man’s house and poor man’s cottage with the greeting of peace, and then inviting His listeners in the simplest, most childlike strain to the joys of the life eternal. If Paul in a later age preaches the religion of longing in words of enthralling eloquence, he is merely continuing in his own language the Beatitudes of Jesus. This longing was the best element even in the Jewish religion, but here the Jewish nationalism—the Church—was in its way. Jesus had to remove the impediment.

3. The Jews believed that the kingdom was for Israel, and that Israel should be the ruling people in the kingdom. It is evident that Jesus shared this belief at first. Not only do isolated sayings of His show this clearly, but above all the fact that He purposely confined His message to His own people. 69Jesus seeks out the publicans and sinners for this very reason, because they, too, are the children of Abraham. And therefore His gospel is one of gladness, because it promises His people in the first instance joy and happiness. But in course of time, the message of judgment takes the place of the message of gladness, and the kingdom of God is emptied of all its national connotation.

From the very first the kingdom and the judgment were for Jesus inseparable. By the side of the kingdom was Gehenna, by the side of the invitation the threat. So the Sermon on the Mount rightly reproduces the thoughts of Jesus. The thought that every Jew as such had a right to the kingdom never entered into Jesus' mind. Yet at first the promise was throughout of a glad and enthusiastic character. But soon one disappointment follows another, and thus the Galilean ministry comes to an end. It is to disciples full of enthusiasm indeed, but not of changed life, that the word is uttered as to the mere saying of ‘Lord, Lord.’ To them also refer the parables of the tares and of the drag-net in their original form. Jesus cries woe upon the towns of Bethsaida and Chorazin and Capernaum, because all the miracles have been of no avail. The whole people He compares now to children at play in the market place, whom no one can satisfy, neither John nor Jesus; and now to the unclean and relapsed spirit, whose last state is worse than the first. The Jews cannot and will not understand the signs of the time: they live carelessly for the day; they eat and they drink; they marry and are given in marriage; they buy and they sell—that is their life, and nothing but 70that. The terrible warnings which God sends them are all in vain—the massacre of the Galileans of Jerusalem—the fall of the tower of Siloam. All in vain is the great sign that Jesus gives them by His preaching of repentance—how far more successful was Jonah with the men of Nineveh! In vain, too, is the respite that God still gives them, that they may repent before the end. Irresistibly the whole nation is tottering down the road to ruin.

So the glad message of the kingdom finally turns into the announcement of the doom upon Israel. Jesus ranges Himself on the side of John. In the last days, just before His death, Jesus announced the fall of the Jewish Church, and even of the sanctuary, in clear and unmistakable terms. Not one stone shall remain standing on the other. At the same time the world of the Gentiles bursts into view and takes Israel’s place. In the parables we are told how, instead of the invited guests who refuse the invitation, others are called to take their places at the table which is ready; how the vineyard is let out to other husbandmen, in the place of those who refuse to pay the fruits thereof to the lord of the vineyard; and then without a parable: instead of the children of the kingdom, many shall come from the east and from the west and shall sit at meat with the patriarchs in the kingdom of God. How this admission of the Gentiles shall be brought about Jesus leaves to His God. He just gives the promise without giving His disciples any command to go forth as missionaries. The history of the apostolic age is sufficient proof of this statement.

But was the rejection of Israel on the part of 71Jesus final? Not only did Paul believe in the final salvation of Israel but also the twelve apostles, too, encouraged by this hope, were unwearied in their attempts to convert their fellow-countrymen. In this particular point, however, much caution must be exercised in the way in which we deal with the tradition. It may be that even the patriotism of the disciples would no longer resign itself to accept this terrible conclusion. The early Christians only retained the parable of the fig-tree to which a season of grace had been granted, while the parable of the barren fig-tree was turned into a miracle and so deprived of all its serious meaning. All indications point to the fact that Jesus broke with the national hope more uncompromisingly, more decisively than His disciples. For individuals, even for many such, He had hopes stretching beyond His death, for that death was itself to be the means of the salvation of many. But the people as a whole He gave up as lost, obeying therein the teaching of facts better than the great apostle.

Thus, then, the message of Jesus retains its eschatological character from first to last. It is the announcement of the end, of the near approach of the judgment and of the kingdom, and such it remains. It is only the national element that is removed; the soberness and the glad joyfulness remain: they are the marks of eternity. Thereby Jesus so purified and so deepened the Jewish eschatology that it was able to conquer the world, and that the later change of the earthly expectation into the heavenly did not affect it at all. That which is great and new in Jesus is not to be found in the 72thought of a present and immanent kingdom of God—thoughts which Jesus Himself soon abandoned, and which have never been a motive power in history, but in the denationalization of the Jewish hope.

Here, again, we can trace two divergent tendencies in the early Church, both of which start from Jesus eschatology. There is first the national Jewish tendency, fragments of which can be found in the Apocalypse—even St. Paul did not show himself quite free from it—Israel must be saved, cost what it may. And there is the freer, broader view which throws a bridge over to Greek thought and finally transforms the whole Jewish eschatology into a religious hope of the next world. This latter alone understood the meaning of the work of Jesus’ life.

« Prev Chapter V. Jesus.—The Promise. Next »


| Define | Popups: Login | Register | Prev Next | Help |