When Jesus heard that John had been put in prison, he returned to Galilee. Leaving Nazareth, he went and lived in Capernaum, which was by the lake in the area of Zebulun and Naphtali— to fulfill what was said through the prophet Isaiah:
"Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali,
the way to the sea, along the Jordan,
Galilee of the Gentiles—
the people living in darkness
have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of the shadow of death
a light has dawned."
From that time on Jesus began to preach, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near."
- Matthew 4:12-17
The earth was redeemed in the First century A.D. In one sense it is a completed work, yet in another sense that redemption continues to spread through history like leaven through dough or ripples through a pond. It is both finished and still to be fully manifest. But there was a redeeming event in history. Paul refers to this event as happening “In the fullness of time…” (Gal. 4:4)
People who were there at that time and witnessed the event wrote about it (or recounted to others who, in turn, wrote about it). There was a history leading up to the redemption event and there is a history flowing out from it, into eternity. Of course, the event of redemption is centered on the person of Jesus Christ.
Redemption, then, was a time/space event. It occurred within a context - historical, geographical, cultural, ethnic, etc. If we understand the context – what it meant then and there – we’ll be in a better position to understand what it means here and now, in our context.
In order to understand the original context that the scriptures were written from, we need to be willing to set aside our modern-day presuppositions.
Ways to set aside our modern-day presuppositions might include:
Letting go of assumptions:
Don’t assume that what something means to us now is what it meant to them then.
Identifying and thinking through anachronisms:
Are we projecting concepts from other contexts (historical, geographical, cultural, ethnic, etc.) onto the scriptural context.
A term often used in Post-Modernism. Deconstruction is not synonymous with destruction. It is more about trying to get to the essence of something by stripping away overlays of interpretation and then rebuilding from that revealed truth. Jesus continually “deconstructed” the Talmud and the Torah. An example of this is in Matt 22:36-40:
"Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?" Jesus replied: " 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments."
A very common presupposition/assumption/anachronism in Christianity was the development of viewing the “Kingdom of God” (or “Kingdom of Heaven” in Matthew) as a place that believers go to when they die. If the Kingdom of God were a place, how could it have been about to arrive, as Jesus and John the Baptist proclaimed, or “in the midst of you” as Jesus states in Luke 12:21?
Another presupposition/assumption/anachronism that results from equating the Kingdom of God to heaven is to think that the Gospel is therefore all about getting souls into heaven.
First century Jews, however, were not asking about how to get their souls into heaven. Their agenda was very earthbound and political and tied to God’s promises to Abraham & Moses. The Jewish hope was not heaven, but resurrection and vindication as the chosen people of God. They would be exalted as a nation, over their oppressors. God would be their King and would bring justice and peace, first to Israel, then to the world. To the Jews of Jesus’ day, the Kingdom of God was very much a temporal hope; perhaps even something that could be brought about through armed revolt.
Much of Jesus’ teaching was saying, “No, the Kingdom of God is not like that, it’s like this.”
Jesus redefined the Kingdom of God, not as a geopolitical reality or as an immaterial afterworld, but as an interactive relationship with God, along with the other citizens of His kingdom. The Kingdom of God is a community – a web of relationships – that all intersect with the same King. It’s a life; both day-to-day and eternal. It is an invitation to be blessed in order to be a blessing.
Mark and Luke use the term “Kingdom of God” in their Gospels. Matthew uses “Kingdom of Heaven”, most likely out of deference to Jewish sensibilities about speaking God’s name. John doesn’t use “Kingdom” language at all in his Gospel but instead speaks of “life”, “abundant life”, “eternal life”. Jesus offers a new way of living; one that participates in the creative, healing, redemptive work of God through the ages. This is the Kingdom.
Perhaps it makes more sense to say that the Kingdom of God is the Kingship
of God. It is God’s will being done, here on earth, as it is in heaven. It is the redemption and healing and restoration of His entire creation. It echoes back to Adam & Eve’s commission to rule the earth, not as dominators, but as caretakers.
Jesus proclaimed a radically different, and much more universal, vision of the Kingdom of God than what His first century audience had been expecting. He repeatedly warned them not to go the way of armed revolt against the Romans, because it would bring disastrous results (see Luke 13:1-9 for example). He told them to repent – change direction – and then to bear fruit. Fruit is the result of living day-to-day in His abundant life, aka His Kingdom.
As seen in the Wilderness Temptations, Jesus wouldn’t take the easy way. He wouldn’t fight violence with violence, oppression with oppression, imperialism with nationalism. In this context, the call to repent had more to do with turning from a course of insurrection against Rome, than it did with personal sin issues. This is not to downplay the necessity of repentance from sin, but God doesn’t appear to be as “freaked out” by our sin as we sometimes expect Him to be. Repentance is not about how you feel – it’s about what action you take. Graham Cooke talks about repentance as being "cold-blooded" and rational.
The Anglican Archbishop William Temple once said that Jesus was not a philosopher but a politician. By this, he meant that Jesus was concerned with the well-being of people and that He messed with the status quo of the world systems, for the sake of the people. Many of Jesus’ parables had a political edge to them. The phrase Kingdom of God was itself a politically charged (and dangerous) term. It’s no wonder that Jesus was crucified by the governing authorities (both Jewish and Roman). The real wonder is how the Kingdom of God eventually eclipsed the Roman empire (and all empires since).
What does all this mean to us here and now?
Perhaps we should be continuously asking ourselves how to participate in extending the Kingdom of God in our context. How do we seek justice, healing, redemption and restoration? Jesus acted out the Kingdom and then commented on His actions. St. Francis echoed this when he said “Preach the Gospel at all times. Use words if necessary.”
But what happens if the Light-bearers bring darkness instead? What if the Peacemakers bring strife? Or the “Repairers of the Breach” bring division? Or those called to reflect God’s love and forgiveness instead bring hatred and unforgiveness? The answer is that they must repent and begin to bear fruit.
Are we extending God’s Kingdom in the world, or getting in the way? Are we bringing forth fruit or just consuming resources? Are we challenging injustice or supporting it (perhaps by simply doing nothing)? To what extent are we reflecting the image of Christ into our world? These are the questions I lay awake at night asking myself as I search my own heart.
Jesus was born into a particular culture “in the fullness of time” and He fully engaged that culture. By stripping away our assumptions and seeking to learn how He interacted with first century Palestine, we can better learn how to engage our world for the Kingdom. Paul fully engaged the pagan gentile cultures he found himself led into. He quoted their poets and philosophers and saw God’s eternal fingerprints on their temples and statues. Rather than run in repulsion from their pagan-ness, he discerned what could be redeemed and spoke to them of the greater truth of God’s kingdom. We should do likewise.