The Essence of the Kingdom

December 15, 2015 — Leave a comment

Turris_Babel_by_Athanasius_KircherTodd Wilson has an excellent review of Scot McKnight’s book Kingdom Conspiracy (which I also reviewed). He brought up two questions towards the end which were thoughtful responses.


First, he asserts the people of the kingdom are not to be equated with the kingdom although they are inseparable from it. People may be a concomitant of the kingdom without constituting the essence of the kingdom.

While I follow the distinction, I am not sure it works. A thought experiment clarifies this. Wilson is essentially arguing that the essence of the kingdom is the dynamic sense, following Ladd. But couldn’t we also say that power should not be equated with the kingdom but is inseparable from it? This then seems to be a distinction without a difference because it is hard to find that which is equated with the kingdom which is not also inseparable from it.

So proposing this distinction actually undercuts the dynamic sense as well as the people sense of the kingdom.

A little look at the history of the definition reveals that the dynamic sense has been the leading view since Gustaf Dalman’s study Die Worte Jesu in 1898. George Eldon Ladd popularized this view in his numerous works on the kingdom arguing that the abstract idea is the primary meaning. Even the dictionaries have followed suit. However, Ladd’s conception of the kingdom must be understood in its historical and geographical context. For Ladd was, at least in part, reacting to dispensationalism with its focus on land, and therefore was prone to downplay other features.

Second, there seems to be some confusion on whether Jesus himself is the embodiment of the kingdom, or if he is the proxy or agent of God’s kingly rule.

The presence of the king is the presence of the kingdom. Certainly not in full, because we are waiting for it to be consummated, but Jesus is embodying the kingdom in his ministry thereby being the proxy agent of God’s kingly rule. I don’t think we can or should separate the two.

Luke 17:20-21 in particular has a reference to this concept. The Pharisees ask when the kingdom of God will come (temporal question), and Jesus replies by telling them they do not understand the nature of the kingdom for the kingdom of God is coming in ways that cannot be observed. Jesus then says “The kingdom of God is in the midst of you” (ἰδοὺ γὰρ ἡ βασιλεία τοῦ θεοῦ ἐντὸς ὑμῶν ἐστιν). Although there is much debate whether this should be translated “within you” or in the “midst of you,” he seems to be correcting their view of the kingdom as not external, but localized.

So why can’t they observe it? Because they are blind. It is standing right there in front of them.

Interestingly, The Gospel of Thomas 113 has a parallel passage: Jesus’ disciples said to him, ‘When will the kingdom come?’ Jesus said, ‘It will not come by expectation. It will not be a matter of saying “here it is” or “there it is.” Rather the kingdom of the Father is spread out upon the earth, and people do not see it. The parallel ties the concepts of “spread out upon the earth” with it being ἐντὸς ὑμῶν. Could Jesus be saying the kingdom is spatial now in bodily form?

Both the Gospel of Thomas and Tertullian (Marc. 4.35) associate the saying in Luke 17:20-21 with Deut 30:11-14 (LXX), where the commandment is said to be not far away, or in heaven, or beyond the sea, but very near, in one’s heart, and in one’s hands. Deuteronomy casts the commandment in spatial terms, not far away, or in heaven, but near. If both Tertullian and The Gospel of Thomas tie this passage to the nearness language of Deuteronomy, then it would be fitting to tie such to the spatiality of Jesus’ body. The kingdom is in the midst of them in the person of Jesus. Thus, it seems from the surrounding literature that Luke is not giving a spiritualization or interiorization of the kingdom in the usual sense.

At some point we need to ask what embodiment actually means, but for most I think they are asserting that Jesus is picturing both what kingdom life is and what it will be like.

I could go on and speak much more about this. If interested see my forthcoming book for a whole argument concerning this issue from Matthew, but I will leave it here.

Overall I am thankful for Wilson’s response and maybe he has further thoughts that will help clarify my thinking on these issues.




Patrick Schreiner

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I teach New Testament at Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon. I am married with three children. This blog, against all wisdom, includes anything I am interested in. That includes movies, music, theology, culture, hermeneutics, the Gospels, and politics. Feel free to comment and let me know you are reading or that you have found something helpful. I reserve the right to delete unhelpful or rude comments. Many of these posts are simply things I find interesting and therefore I am not asserting I agree with everything I link to.

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