In my last post, I looked at how the prophets had predicted exile for unrepentant Israel. Their prophecies were not just about warning, as you can read in the verses I cited. The prophets also promised a future when God would restore relationships between himself and his creation, especially humanity. This restoration of God’s Kingdom was the hope of Israel—the nation was constantly under the oppressive rule of other nations. They realized that, even though they had physically returned to the Promised Land under Ezra and Nehemiah, they were still, in fact, under God’s wrath. God had not forgiven their sins and therefore they were still in exile.
- “But see, we are slaves today, slaves in the land you gave our forefathers so they could eat its fruit and the other good things it produces. Because of our sins, its abundant harvest goes to the kings you have placed over us. They rule over our bodies and our cattle as they please. We are in great distress.” (Nehemiah 9:36-37, see also Ezra 9:8-9)
But even more is at stake here. The Creator God had always planned to deal with the creation’s predicaments (the destruction of Cosmic Shalom and the alienation of Relationships between God, humans, and creation) through the nation of Israel. This is why this nation was elected in the first place—not to be some small band of people to haughtily claim special favor from God, but as a people ‘blessed to be a blessing.” The Kingdom of God manifested in Israel had always meant to be the vehicle for the salvation of the world. This would be accomplished when Israel’s history reached its climax in her Messiah, the “anointed one,” the King.
So, let’s look at a brief timeline of Jesus’ ministry:
- The angel appears to Mary and announces that she will give birth to “the Son of the Most High,” and that “the Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.” (Luke 1:32-33)
- In Mary’s “Magnificat,” she utters words that can only mean that through this ruler of the kingdom, God is going to do some pretty amazing socio-political things: He will favor the humble and poor, he will show mercy to those who fear him, he will scatter those who are proud, he will bring down rulers from their thrones but lift up the humble.
- Jesus is sent into the wilderness for 40 days (think the 40 years of exodus wanderings), and there he withstands the Devil’s temptations that seek to short-circuit God’s plan for Jesus to become the King.
- Jesus then went to the synagogue in Nazareth, and what happened there shocks his hometown. He opened the passage from Isaiah 61 (which I cited in my last post) — “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And then he boldly stated, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:18-21). Again (echoing the Magnificat), these words are Messianic Kingdom words—the restoration of relationships and Shalom to the people, especially to the down-and-outers, those who have not experienced much justice and shalom.
- From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” (Matthew 4:17) After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:14-15). What I hear Jesus saying here is this: “The Kingdom of God is arriving. You must change your course: sin (both personal transgressions and systemic societal injustices) has put you in this predicament, but instead of contrition, you seek to overthrow Rome by force. My way is the way to be Israel; I have an agenda that will set you free. Change your ways and believe in what I can accomplish.” He will later reveal to them the way for Israel to live as the restored Kingdom of God: The way of the Sermon on the Mount, with instructions like, “love your enemies,” and “do not resist evil,” and “turn the other cheek,” and “go the second mile,” and “give to the needy in secret,” and “take the plank out of your own eye” and “build your house on the rock (that is, Jesus).” He will also later reveal the way he would set them free: through his death and resurrection.
- “Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness.” (Matt 9:35)
- Jesus begins to heal people—and we are told that this is the manifestation of the Kingdom. “If I drive out demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has come to you” (Luke 11:20). And he also calls and sends his 12 disciples (when we hear “12” we should not miss that the disciples are the reconstituted 12 tribes of Israel) telling them, “As you go, preach this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven is near.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons.” (Matt 10:7-8).
- Jesus then began to tell parables to explain the nature of the Kingdom. The parable of the prodigal son is often interpreted in individualistic terms for our personal application. However, the 1st Century Jews would have heard it differently: “The story about a scoundrel young son who goes off into a far pagan country and is then astonishingly welcomed back home is – of course! – the story of exile and restoration. It was the story Jesus’ contemporaries wanted to hear. And Jesus told the story to make the point that the return from exile was happening in and through his own work.” (N. T. Wright, The Challenge of Jesus [InterVarsity Press, 1999], pp. 41-42)
Jesus’ ministry was a living, breathing object lesson explaining that the long awaited time of freedom from bondage had arrived. The exile was about to be over. This was the gospel of the kingdom that Jesus proclaimed.
“The theo-drama (of Scripture) revolves around a series of such exiles and returns. Israel’s is the most conspicuous historical example, though creation itself, ‘groaning’ from its bondage to decay, is also in exile (Rom. 8:22). An evangelical theology needs to keep this broader theo-dramatic horizon in mind in order to understand the central action of the gospel of Jesus Christ.” (Kevin Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine [WJK, 2005], pp. 51-52)
Links to the entire series:
1: Define the Predicament, and You Understand another Facet of the Gospel
2: Predicament #1: The Lack of Shalom
3: Evil Bondage in the Place of Shalom
4: EXODUS and the GOOD NEWS of FREEDOM in Paul
5: EXODUS and the GOOD NEWS of FREEDOM in the GOSPELS
6: Another of Humanity’s Predicaments: Broken Relationships
7: The Prophesied Kingdom of God
8: The Kingdom of God Restoring Israel from Exile
9: The Kingdom of God Healing Broken Relationships
10: The Kingdom of God and the Atonement
11: The Kingdom and the Mission of God’s People
12: What is my view of the Kingdom of God?
technorati: emerging church, spiritual formation