Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Now and Not Yet 2

Can't seem to get my body clock right after almost three weeks.  It's almost 3am here (almost 9pm at home) and I'm up for the day.  Next installment on Jesus.
Now and Not Yet
So everyone agrees that Jesus preached the kingdom of God.  But when was that kingdom going to come and what was it going to be like?  Our answer to this question is no doubt seriously affected by the fact that we know what did not happen at the time.  The kingdom was not restored to Israel, as Acts 1:8 so clearly addresses. Jesus did not return from heaven in any literal sense, as we might have expected from Mark 9:1 or 13:30.

The historical context and literary overtones of the message of John the Baptist push us to expect a political restoration of Israel.  What happened was a largely unanticipated two part series to be finished next season when Christ returns to earth from heaven. The question of how the kingdom of God has played out over time has generated an immense amount of discussion and speculation throughout history and we will want to take some time to ponder these matters in this chapter.

What is clear is that our hindsight has massively affected later interpretations of Jesus from the beginning of Christianity to the present.  Did Jesus preach that the kingdom was coming but was not here yet?  Did Jesus preach that the kingdom was already fully present in himself?  Or did Jesus preach what has generally become the consensus: that he was inaugurating the kingdom but that it was not yet fully here?

[text box on the three eschatologies]

Given how important Jesus is for our faith, it is perhaps not surprising that interpreters would spend so much time rankling over minute details in the wording of the gospels.  What does it mean to say that the kingdom "has come near" (Mark 1:15)?  Near is not quite here yet, is it?

But can there be any real doubt that Jesus saw the beginnings of the kingdom in his own ministry? "The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches" (Matt. 13:31-32).  Surely Jesus meant to say that the kingdom of God was already present there in Galilee, starting out small, beginning to grow, almost imperceptible at first, but destined to tower over the world. [4]

Perhaps the favorite verse of those who have wanted to stress that the kingdom of God was already present in Jesus' ministry is Luke 17:21: "The kingdom of God is among you" (NRSV).  This is probably the best translation of the verse, but no doubt those who emphasize the presentness of the kingdom would rather translate it like the old NIV used to: "the kingdom of God is within you." Some would like to make Jesus' preaching on the kingdom of God purely a matter of the heart and the coming of the Holy Spirit.

But this is not what the disciples were expecting (Acts 1:8) and this is not what the historical context and the preaching texts from Isaiah were expecting.  Everything in the context of Jesus' environment pointed toward a literal kingdom on earth with a visible king on the throne of Israel. The questions this situation raises are so significant that we will not wait till the end of the chapter to reflect on them.

For example, these matters raise questions about what Jesus knew and when he knew it.  They raise questions about what the New Testament authors knew and when they knew it.  These are incredibly serious issues because people have lost their faith over them.  Alfred Loisy once said that "Jesus preached the kingdom of God; but what came was the church."  This cynical comment captures well our sense that what has come after Jesus is not yet quite what we were expecting.

I myself was once deeply troubled by Mark 13:30: "Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place" (13:30). The context is Jesus and some key disciples looking at the Jerusalem temple and Jesus predicting that it will be destroyed.  Tim LaHaye and others aside, the temple they were talking about is not something yet to be rebuilt.  It was right in front of them and it was indeed destroyed in AD70.

So what are we to make of the fact that Jesus flows seamlessly into a discussion of his second coming?  "In those days," he says, "after that suffering... they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds... this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place" (13:24, 26, 30).  N. T. Wright has ingeniously suggested that this is about the Son of Man going in the clouds, abandoning Israel.  But is this great scholar here not simply guilty of the same kinds of reinterpretations we might hear in a Sunday School class, when we just do not like what the text seems to be saying...

[4] The Parable of the Mustard Seed is one of Jesus' sayings that not only appears in the "canonical" gospel of Matthew, but in the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas as well (20).


davey said...

"N. T. Wright has ingeniously suggested that this is about the Son of Man going in the clouds, abandoning Israel"

This doesn't look right to me! I reckon Wright says the Son of Man's coming was to God, to be presented as the true man. This wouldn't be any abandonment of Israel or humanity.

Ken Schenck said...

I'm sorry I haven't put the page reference. Wright is ingeniously building on the fact that the word erchomai in Greek can mean either coming or going. As I understand him, Wright is suggesting that Jesus departed from Israel in its destruction and thus that Jesus was "going" on the clouds.

Scott F said...

'departed from Israel in its destruction and thus that Jesus was "going" on the clouds.'

That would be ingenious if the Ascension hadn't happened 40 days after the resurrection (Acts 1:9) instead of in 70 CE. Of course this is the same scholar who decided that the opening of the tombs at the end of Matthew is probably historical precisely because it is so ludicrous and unattested.

Scott F said...

This is one of the big challenges to Christianity. Why has it been two thousand years and nary a mustard tree to be seen? The time scales over which God acts in the Old Testament are decades or a century or two, not two millennia. I might grant that much progress has been seen in the last two centuries but that still leaves a huge gulf of time filled with violence , ignorance and suffering. What one doesn't witness is a steady and gradual flowering of a heavenly kingdom.

I take this very absence of the Kingdom of God as the reason we see so many varied, desperate, and "ingenious" attempts to salvage the texts that predict its coming. And so I eagerly follow your blog, interested to see what insight a Christian whose thoughtfulness I respect can shed.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

The debates of times, words and their meanings, and the political/spiritual divide or union, dizzys one's head, doesn't it?

Why not admit that the agenda today is a social agenda, of the Church, which exists and lives within a political context. There is no "special or supernatural revelation" in this sense, because humans are physical bodies that make up the social group, called the Church. And the Church has political agendas for those political bodies of ours!!! and yet, they call it "God's agenda"!

Just this morning it was reported that the Muslim Brotherhood would gain power in the Middle East with the upcoming elections. What is on thier agenda and of primary importance? banning bikinis and alcohol on beaches...promoting beaches that are segregated by sex!!!

Angie Van De Merwe said...

(tongue in cheek); maybe we should ban any apparrel that shows skin, then no one would be offended. If we go back to prohibition, then we can govern by LAW, and hope that it doesn't make for "moonshining", or "black market adventures" AND we should allign our economic policy with Marxist ideology, so that no one would be "offended". Then we would all look alike and no one would have anything more than another!!! What a BORING world!!! And humans would be the most uniform is ALL of living creation!!!

davey said...

Ken: It looks like you are thinking of eg Jesus and the Victory of God, p.361 following. It doesn't look to me that Wright is building anything on 'erchomai'. Wright thinks the 'coming' is Jesus' vindication especially over against those in Israel who oppose him. I suppose this might be said to be his abandoning Israel, as you say! But, the context just seems to me different than you are putting it in. It doesn't seem to be about the coming of the kingdom in a final sense (I reckon it's not even really about the other possibilities you table - now, not yet etc), rather it's about the kingdom being decisively seen to have opened to the nations, not excluding Israel but not theirs alone.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

The "Now and Not Yet" can be useful to promote whatever is expedient for the Church, because it can be used with whatever needs are to be met "for the Kingdom".

If there are political needs, then the Now, is a Constitutional government and the addressing of those needs for social order.

If there are humanitarian needs, then there is a "not yet" of service to the poor, so the "not yet of the Kingdom" can be the " of serving those needs".

Whichever "the Church wins" because the Church speaks out of both sides of the mouth (political and spiritual)!

Ken Schenck said...

Thanks for looking it up Davey. Unfortunately, I only brought Wright's Resurrection with me here.

Scott F said...

"the kingdom being decisively seen to have opened to the nations"

It is exactly this kind of language that confuses me. What exactly does it mean for a kingdom to be "opened up to the nations"? Either a kingdom has dominion or it doesn't. A king rules or he is a symbol, a figurehead.

Perhaps it is the term "kingdom" that is inadequate to express what is claimed to have been accomplished. Even if original to the Gospel writers and Jesus himself, the term may be too weighted with earthly implications to do justice to the concept embodied.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Scott F,
One has to ask how one is to rule the Kingdom. Dominion means that there is RULE and RULER! Islam fits nicely in this shape and format.

Western countries do not believe in this type of governing or government. And America esp. believes in an equalizing force in the law, which isn't USED BY rulers, but used AS a means of protection FROM RULERS, or those that would dominate another! There is to be no "official discrimination".

Ioana said...

No comment.

Scott F said...


We're not talking about modern American political systems here. We are talking about the heavenly rule of the creator of all things. If you don't believe in such a being then the discussion will be at best an intellectual exercise, at worst a whole lot of twaddle.

FrGregACCA said...

In Luke, at least, Jesus is asked about the coming of the Kingdom.

Regarding "generation", the term apparently can also mean "race" or "ethnic group". Thus, we can understand Jesus to be saying that either the Jewish people will be around as a distinct group until the end, or b)that he is speaking of the Church as the fulfillment of the nation of Israel.

"The Kingdom of God is within/among you":

From where I sit, the major locus of the Kingdom is, of course, the Church Christ founded. Therefore, "the Kingdom" cannot be within one if that person is not found where the Kingdom is, indeed, "among" those gathered together around the King Himself: "Where Jesus is, there is the Catholic Church".

Ken Schenck said...

Greg, the word genea (generation) and genos (race) are very close, but this option has always seemed an obvious cop out to me. What's the point of saying that this will happen before humanity goes extinct? This is the kind of stuff that almost caused me to lose my faith. If we don't have better answers than this, then we're in trouble, I think. The new atheists are calling our bluff on the interpretive legerdemain we can get away with when we're preaching to the convinced.

FrGregACCA said...

Ken, will humanity ever go extinct? Is there anything in Scripture (or the rest of the Tradition) to suggest this?

Christ's return does not entail humanity's extinction.

If, within this framework, Jesus is talking about the Jewish people, what he is saying fits in well with what St. Paul writes in Romans 11:15, which implies a connection between the "reconciliation" of the Jews with Christ and the Parousia.

Alternatively, if the Church is meant, then Jesus is simply saying, in another way, what he says elsewhere about the fact that the Church He founded will indeed endure until He returns.

Finally, there is one other option, and this is, I suspect, probably the most likely. He is speaking of the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, understanding it as an eschatological event (but not necessarily as preterism understands it) and possibly, telescoping it with other, later events related to his return.

I hope that no one would lose their faith over such matters. However, it does seem to be an all-too-human tendency to focus on the more obscure aspects of Scripture. This is unfortunate.

Ken Schenck said...

"Telescoping" is I think the word with the most promise. Very difficult to convey this idea and steer clear of Scylla and Charybdis. I'm going to try on Friday.