At the center of Jesus’ preaching and teaching stood the good news of the kingdom of heaven. According to the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus spoke more about the kingdom of heaven than of himself. If, however, we listen carefully to the content of the sermons preached week after week, month after month, year after year, decade after decade from our pulpits, we cannot easily escape the impression that at best we have a blurred vision of the kingdom of heaven or at worst entirely lost sight of it.
The concern that I have raised here others have already flagged. For example, Krister Stendahl wrote that from the point of the post-resurrection kerygma, “it seems that the kingdom of which Jesus spoke has been swallowed up into personalized christology. The kingdom language with its powerful theological potential has somehow been neutralized and emasculated.” In another place Stendahl warned that “we may so preach Jesus that we lose the vision of the kingdom.”
In an effort to counter the risk we may be running of losing “the vision of the kingdom,” I will enumerate and comment briefly upon three optical aids for keeping it in focus.
The first optical aid is a robust pneumatology (or theology of the Holy Spirit). A Christian must have a keen appreciation for the role of God’s Holy Spirit. It is the Holy Spirit who powers the expansion of God’s kingdom. According to Matthew, Jesus once rejoined, “But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.” Although I do not promote the silliness so often encountered among Charismatic Christians, their calling attention to the activity of the Holy Spirit in our world today has been salutary and remains relevant to the good news of the kingdom of heaven.
The second aid is a willingness to move with God as he increases his reign. Robert Lindsey, who labored many years in the Greek texts of the Gospels, was fond of paraphrasing Matthew 11:12 in these words: “The kingdom of heaven is breaking forth, and everybody is breaking forth with it.” Jesus sometimes spoke of the kingdom of heaven in language suggesting the impact of God’s redemptive power upon humanity.
God’s redemptive agenda continues to be expansive: the kingdom of heaven is centrifugal. As we align ourselves with God’s program and move with the expansion of his kingdom, we will find ourselves being spun outward, away from our comfort zones, across social, economic, religious and educational lines, and entering the world of the other—the stranger, the foreigner, the outcast and the downtrodden. Jesus spoke as if the good news of the kingdom of heaven would be a windfall for the poor, the lame, the blind, and the deaf. He seemed to single out such people as being the most likely recipients of his proclamation.
The final aid for a clear vision is listening afresh to Jesus’ words within their original historical, religious and social context. A gap exists between the way Jesus read, preached and taught his Hebrew Torah scroll and the way we read, preach and teach our English Bible. This gap can never be closed, but it can certainly be reduced by comparing and contrasting Jesus’ teachings with what we find in post-biblical, ancient Jewish texts such as the Psuedepigrapha, Dead Sea Scrolls and Rabbinic literature.
The expression, the kingdom of heaven, appears repeatedly in only two bodies of ancient Jewish texts—the New Testament and Rabbinic literature. A number of notable Jewish sages contributed to the conceptual evolution of the kingdom of heaven. Jesus, who also belonged to the ranks of Israel’s finest sages, made his own distinctive contribution to the concept. Examining, therefore, what these sages said about the kingdom of heaven is a helpful exercise for better understanding Jesus’ unique perspective on it. Too many Christian scholars and clerics have treated as irrelevant, or neglected out of ignorance, the earliest stratum of rabbinic literature. Failing to factor significant data from rabbinic texts into their research, they have arrived at conclusions that in some cases lack preciseness, but in other cases, altogether miss the mark.
Based on my reading of ancient Jewish texts—including the New Testament, I am optimistic that a fresh, unclouded vision for God’s kingdom can be regained. Implementing the three optical aids enumerated above should prove to be a helpful initial prescription for sharpening our vision of his kingdom. I am eager to start seeing it more clearly, and my hope is that you are, too!