The proclamation of the Kingdom of God belongs to the heart of Jesus’ message and ministry. We have only symbolic sayings and actions through which Jesus discloses the meaning of the Kingdom. It does not refer to a place or territory or simply to ‘royal power’ as the word ‘kingdom’ tends to suggest in our common usage. The basic meaning of the symbolic expression ‘Kingdom of God’ refers to the kingly activity of God, the activity by which God exercises his dominion over the people.
According to Near Eastern understanding, the first and foremost role of a king is to save, to defend the weak against the powerful who opposes them. As Joachim Jeremias says in his New Testament Theology: “From earliest times, the oriental conception of kingly righteousness – and indeed that held in the Israel of Jesus’ time – was not primarily one of the dispassionate adjudication, but of the protection which the king extends to the helpless, the weak and the poor, widows and orphans” (p. 98). This is what God did for the Israelites. By liberating the weak Israelite slaves from the powerful Pharaohs of Egypt, God manifested that it is He who reigns over human history and destiny. He did it through his saving actions, through deeds of salvation.
For the people of the Old Testament, God exercises his kingship by his creative and saving activity. He liberates all his people from every form of enslavement and manifest his mercy, justice, and integrity in the concrete historical situation of his people (Ex 15: 18; Is 40: 10). All this is understood as God’s reign, the exercise of his kingship. The prophets proclaimed the reign of God in the concrete historical situation of the people. In their view, God’s reign implied the dynamic and saving intervention of God by which He recreates history. They focussed on God’s action in favour of the weak.
However, God’s liberating intervention in human history was not always conceived in a uniform manner. The hopes and expectations of God’s saving intervention came to be expressed differently in course of time. The expectation of a political Messiah who would re-establish the glorious kingdom of David is firmly rooted in the Old Testament (Cf. 2 Sam 7: 1-17), from which different types of messianic expectations developed. Some, like the Zealots believed that God’s kingdom is connected with their efforts to overthrow the Roman rule by means of armed revolution. Again, others expected that God would annihilate all that is evil by an extraordinary, catastrophic intervention before He ushers in the kingdom. The Pharisaic circle adhered to the strict observance of the written Law and their traditions as preparatory to the advent of the reign of God.
It was when such expectations were already in the air that Jesus appears on the scene announcing the Kingdom of God.
What did Jesus mean by ‘Kingdom of God’? Did he share the current, popular ideas about God’s kingdom?
By ‘Kingdom of God’ Jesus did not mean a territory or a group of people under God’s rule. It is not even the abstract idea of God’s reign or God’s kingship as such. For Jesus the kingdom meant something radically new and totally different. Quite concretely, the Kingdom of God for Jesus is God’s saving and liberating activity. It is the unconditional and unmerited love of the Father which liberates human beings from all that is evil and from every form of enslavement.
The kingdom is, first and foremost, the powerful love of God which Jesus brings into human life and experience. It is equally a challenging love. It is both a gift and a task. In other words, this freely offered gift demands an appropriate response. Jesus calls this response ‘repentance’. Thus in Mark 1: 15 we have this twofold aspect of God’s kingdom spelt out in two indicatives and two parallel imperatives: –
GIFT “The time is fulfilled
(Indicatives) and the kingdom of God is at hand”.
(Imperatives) and believe in the gospel”.
The word ‘repent’ is to be understood in its original Hebrew meaning: – to retrace one’s step, to turn one’s whole being to God. It does not mean just being sorry for sins, but it does mean a radical and urgent decision to be loved by God. In other words, while the Kingdom of God means the gift of God’s unconditional love offered in Jesus, repentance signifies the total surrender of oneself to this freely offered love, allowing oneself to be under the total impact of the powerful divine love. The demand to “believe in the Good News” is an explication of the meaning of the call to repentance. The Good News that Jesus ‘is’ and which he proclaims is that God unconditionally loves all. In the person of Jesus the kingdom is near, and the people are confronted by its wholly new form of presence in God’s love incarnate. The kingdom in Jesus is the final, decisive intervention of God in history. All are confronted by it. When Jesus says that the Kingdom of God is near, the meaning is that the final eschatological time of salvation, the final victory of God, the fulfilment of all hope is at our doors and indeed very near. It means, ‘God is near’ in and through Jesus. Jesus announced the dawn of God’s reign not only in words but also in deeds. The Kingdom of God has another fundamental dimension;- It is present reality with a future and final orientation, the ‘already’ and ‘not-yet’ dialectic. The kingdom grows and reaches its final fruitfulness at the end of time. That is why Jesus also spoke of the kingdom as something to be fully realised in the future.
What God does in Jesus radically affects human beings. John the Baptist proclaimed the advent of God’s decisive intervention in “the coming one” and asked the people to repent. For God was about to act. But in the person of Jesus the definitive activity of God’s rule of love has appeared in space and time, here and now. People are confronted with the final gift of God’s love. Hence the urgency and radicalness of the response is required. In Jesus’ call to repentance we can hear the prophetic call to return to God’s love. For the hour is decisive. The moment is critical, for God’s activity is new and final in Jesus, in whom God invades and pervades human history with his offer to love. Hence the summons to decision too is radial and urgent. The transformation brought about by the power of God’s love must affect both the personal and collective levels of life. It is not only individual conversion that is required, but a radically new relationship with God and with one another. An enduring relationship which is personal and societal, and which is based on a new value system, namely, the ‘gospel’.
Confronted by the kingdom in Jesus, people either surrender themselves to the power of God’s love or allow themselves to be ruled by the power of evil. Thus exclude themselves from the reign of God.
As we follow Mark’s unfolding of the ministry of Jesus we will get a clearer vision of the Kingdom of God’s love as it bursts upon human history in Jesus.