Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Kingdom of God

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:14-15).

Μετὰ δὲ τὸ παραδοθῆναι τὸν Ἰωάννην ἦλθεν ὁ Ἰησοῦς εἰς τὴν Γαλιλαίαν κηρύσσων τὸ εὐαγγέλιον τοῦ θεοῦ καὶ λέγων ὅτι πεπλήρωται ὁ καιρὸς καὶ ἤγγικεν ἡ βασιλεία τοῦ θεοῦ μετανοεῖτε καὶ πιστεύετε ἐν τῷ εὐαγγελίῳ.

I’ve recently picked up a small study by R.T. France: “Divine Government: God’s Kingship in the Gospel of Mark” (Vancouver, BC: Regent College Publishing, ©1990). France was Principal, Wycliffe Hall, Oxford University (1989–95) and has authored a number of commentaries on both Matthew and Mark (among other things).

France says he titled his book “Divine Government” because English translations which render the Hebrew and Greek phrases as “the Kingdom of God” give too much of an impression that something with a definite size and shape is what’s being talked about. “There is, as we have noted, no reference in Mark to ‘the kingdom’ as if it were a ‘thing’ in itself. It is ‘God’ that is the controlling noun. The message of Mark 1.15 is not that a change of government is imminent, but that God is taking over (which potentially puts a question mark against any human political programme, even a Jewish one)” (pg 22). And I would say, it even puts a question mark against any program that involves the establishment of a “church authority” of any kind.
But surely it must be pedantic to insist that we use the exact biblical terminology. Where is the harm in a convenient abbreviation? I hope I am not usually a pedant, but in this case I do see a significant danger in the nearly universal modern use of ‘the kingdom’, a danger which is writ large when ‘kingdom’ comes to be used as an adjective. The danger arises from a twofold misunderstanding.

Firstly, the word ‘kingdom’ does not convey in modern English what the Hebrew/Aramaic malkut and the Greek basileia conveyed in their biblical context. It is a scholarly commonplace to point out that whereas ‘kingdom’ in English is today primarily a ‘concrete’ noun, with a clearly identifiable ‘thing’ to which it refers (whether a place or a community), the biblical nouns are abstract, and refer to the act of ruling, the situation of being king – as did the word ‘kingdom’ in the sixteenth-century English from which it has entered our biblical tradition (12).
Here France’s understanding of the original Biblical terms that are rendered “kingdom” undermines the concept that the “kingdom” is visible at all, much less that it is “a visible kingdom” or “a visible church”. “Kingdom” in the original languages connotes a verb, an activity, a movement. It is not “a visible thing”. But he goes further.
The second point follows naturally. If ‘the kingdom of God’ means ‘God being king’, then to abbreviate it to ‘the kingdom’ is to focus on the wrong one of the two nouns. To speak of ‘kingship’ without saying who is king is to speak only in a vague abstraction which can have no specific reference in itself. ‘The kingdom’ is about as meaningless as ‘the will’ or ‘the power’ used alone without a reference to whose will or power is in view. To make the point in terms of a familiar biblical text, ‘Yours is the kingdom, the power and the glory” (Matt. 6.13) does not mean that there are antecedent self-existent ‘things’ called ‘the kingdom’, ‘the power’ and ‘the glory’, which have come into God’s possession. It means simply, ‘You are the king, you wield power, and you are glorious.’ It is a statement about God, not about ‘the kingdom’. The content of the phrase is no less than the great declaration of many Old Testament psalms, ‘The Lord is king’, or “God rules’.
There’s one more thing that I want to point out at the moment, and that is, happens invisibly, and automatically.

And he said, “The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how. The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come” (Mark 4:26-29).
The dynamic power of God’s kingship is the obvious point also of the parable of the growing seed (4.26-29). The emphasis falls on the ability of the seed to grow by itself. The farmer can go away and live his own life while the seed gets on with its growth; he doesn’t know, and doesn’t need to know, how it does it. The earth looks after the process by itself (automate), and all the farmer will need to do is to reap the crop which has been produced for him without his own effort. Any real-life farmer will tell you, of course, that it is not as simple as that today, that life between sowing and reaping is not simply extended holiday. But a parable is not necessarily a photographic reproduction of real life, and the story is clearly told in such a way as to emphasize the lack of human involvement. God’s kingship has its own dynamic, and is not dependent on human effort. It is, in other words, God’s saving power which is the subject of Jesus; message, not a human reform programme…. There is a secret here to be discovered. God is powerfully at work, but many will be unable to see it. But those who despise and even oppose Jesus’ mission are in for a surprise. And those who want to believe him but are tempted like John the Baptist to ask, ‘Are you really the one we were waiting for, or should we look for someone else?’ (Matt 11.3) may take heart: God’s work will be completed, in God’s way (32-33).
France’s exegetical analysis of the “Divine Government” in Mark, as we see it in the phrase “Kingdom of God”, has a direct bearing on those who say “God founded a visible church” and that “God gave the church a visible structure and government”. Of course he didn’t, and those who say he did are grossly misrepresenting what God’s program is all about.

And further, this is also a direct response to those who want to suggest that, because Sola Scriptura and “justification by faith alone”, as doctrines, were not articulated until the 16th century, that somehow they are not a part of God’s program. Both of these fundamental doctrines of the Reformation were simply a harvest on our part – the direct result of the work of God in our midst. “Our God Reigns”, and he does it in ways that surprise and delight us, with no effort at all on our part.


  1. Thanks for posting this. I had a chance to read it before church last Sunday and found it edifying.

  2. Thanks Axis. I've got more of this, along these lines, Lord willing.