Friday, September 01, 2006

Not very good essay about the Kingdom of God

Here (continuing the spring clean from last year's work) is a short essay I wrote summarising the theme of 'the Kingdom of God' as it occurs in Mark's Gospel. I'm not totally pleased with the essay but it did include some thoughts I'd never really though before, especially about the pattern-setting nature of Mark 4. I also enjoyed footnote 15, but there we have it.

The Kingdom of God in the Gospel of Mark – A Summary.

The Kingdom of God[1] is a central theme in Mark’s presentation of ‘the gospel of Jesus Christ’ and is therefore interwoven with other major themes in the book, namely, Jesus’ identity, death and resurrection, and the nature of discipleship.

The phrase first occurs in 1:15. Having announced that his entire book is about ‘the gospel of Jesus Christ’ Mark describes that gospel in terms of Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom. If it is correct to see Isaiah 52:7 as one of the key texts standing behind this verse[2] then it becomes clear that Mark understands the kingdom in terms of the reign of God, i.e. his promised kingship rather than a particular time and place.[3] Jesus is announcing that the time for the fulfilment of God’s promised exile-ending reign, bringing salvation and judgment, has arrived. Additionally, given the Christocentricity of Mark’s introduction, it seems evident that not only is the kingdom announced by Jesus, it is also somehow focussed on him and his ministry.[4] This seems to be at least one implication of the authority Jesus displays in these early chapters; healing, forgiveness and exorcism being evidence that through Jesus’ ministry God is reigning in salvation and judgment.[5]

Understood in context then, 1:15 indicates that the kingdom is a present reality. The time of fulfilment has arrived and the kingdom has drawn near[6] and its message requires believing repentance now. However, there are also a number of texts which appear to speak of the kingdom futuristically, as the coming reign of God which is yet to be manifested. 9:47 (in a passage about sin, judgment and hell) talks of ‘entering the kingdom’ as synonymous with entering ‘life’. Likewise, several times in 10: 17-31 the kingdom is described in terms of eternal life, salvation and the life of the age to come[7]. It is the juxtaposition of these two (apparently) opposing understandings of the timing of the kingdom that is at the heart of Mark’s portrayal of the kingdom; the kingdom is both a present reality, and one that awaits future fullness. This is most clearly set out in the various parables of 4:1-34 which emerges as a key text for understanding the kingdom in Mark.[8] The teaching in Mark 4 comes at a crucial junction in the gospel when the nature of the kingdom dramatically announced in Mark 1 needs clarifying given the mixed responses Jesus has received[9] and the peculiar priorities he has displayed.[10] If the parables are understood in the context of Jesus’ explanatory discourse with his disciples it becomes clear that the kingdom has arrived but it is a ‘secret’ known only by those to whom it is revealed and concealed from those on the outside.[11] The proclamation of the kingdom meets with rejection or superficial responses unprepared for a kingdom that involves tribulation.[12] However, the kingdom is not destined to remain a secret,[13] but will gradually grow as the word is spread despite apparent failure. This growth will eventually climax in a ‘harvest-time’[14] when the kingdom is fully realised in trans-ethnic global proportions.[15] Hence the reign of God has arrived and at the same time awaits (and grows towards) the time of fullness.

The pattern given in Mark 4 is expanded upon in two major ways throughout the rest of the gospel, firstly in what Mark records of the ‘career’ of the King of the Kingdom - the Messiah, and secondly in the picture Mark gives of the nature of life in the kingdom for its subjects – those who will become the disciples of the King. Further, because the kingdom is located in the person of Jesus Christ, his story is the unfolding of the kingdom as pictured in Mark 4, a story which will prove paradigmatic for all who identify with him and become his subjects as his kingdom grows. Hence, although Jesus is the Christ, his identity is a secret which must be revealed to be discerned.[16] The majority it seems reject or misunderstand his kingship, eventually climaxing in his death. However, even in his death the secret of Jesus’ kingship is revealed for those who have eyes to see it – as indicated by the fact that the title King[17] is only directly ascribed to Jesus the six times it is used in the passion narrative.[18] Although subject to severe rejection, in his death Christ is exercising his kingship in service of his many subjects whom he came to ransom.[19] Although there are no recorded resurrection appearances and the only direct reference to the kingdom after the crucifixion is probably a final example of the kingdom misunderstood or missed altogether,[20] Mark is at pains to show that Jesus’ kingship is not destined to remain a secret shrouded in death. Christ will be raised to life and will reign in glory.[21] This is not only foretold[22] but also prefigured in the transfiguration, when three disciples witness the coming of the kingdom in power.[23]

If the story of Jesus is the story of the kingdom then it follows that the kingdom is entered or rejected on the basis of response to Jesus’ kingship.[24] More specifically, because the kingdom has come but is a secret shrouded in the rejection of the king, entering the kingdom is an act of grace on the part of God (those who enter must ‘receive’ the kingdom like children and must have their blind eyes miraculously opened)[25] and faith on the part of the hearer who must be ready to follow a rejected Christ and trust his word about the glorious future of the kingdom.[26] Hence life in the kingdom until the time of the ‘harvest’ will be marked by the same rejection, suffering, and servant-hood that characterised the earthly experience of the King.[27] Through its subjects the kingdom will be proclaimed to the ends of the earth such that it reaches the global and ethnic proportions predicted in the mustard-seed parable.[28] Entering the kingdom now will mean reward as the kingdom grows and will culminate in eternal life when the King is fully revealed.[29]

[1] Greek = η βασιλεια του θεου
[2] Paul Barnett, The Servant King: Reading Mark Today, (Aquila Press: Sydney, 1991) pp. 28-29.
[3] R. T. France, Divine Government: God’s Kingship in the Gospel of Mark, (London: SPCK, 1990) p. 12.
[4] Mark 1:3, 7-8. John the Baptist is the voice preparing the way for the coming of the LORD in judgment and salvation as prophesised by Isaiah and Malachi. What he actually does is prepare the way for Jesus Christ. The correlation between Jesus’ identity and the kingdom will be explored further below.
[5] Donald English, The Bible Speaks Today: The Message of Mark – The Mystery of Faith, (Leicester: IVP, 1992) p. 19.
[6] For the significance of the use of the perfect tense of the verbs in 1:15 in relation to the kingdom. See R. T. France, The New International Greek Testament Commentary: The Gospel of Mark, (Carlisle: Paternoster Press 2002) p. 91.
[7] Mark 10:17, 23, 26, 29-31. See also Mark 14:24 for another text which implies the kingdom is yet to come.
[8] All three parables are explicitly about the kingdom. After Mark 10 these verses are the most intensive string of direct consecutive references to the kingdom in the gospel, containing three out of the total of 15 references.
[9] Ranging from amazement to murderous plotting, see for example Mark 1:27 and 3:6.
[10] For example, avoiding large crowds (see Mark 1:35-38, 45) and forbidding the disclosure of his Messianic identity (see Mark 1: 34).
[11] Mark 4:10-12.
[12] Mark 4:16-19.
[13] Mark 4:21-22.
[14] All three parables picture the kingdom starting small but finish with pictures of growth and fruition. See Mark 4:20, 29, 32.
[15] The description in Mark 4:32 echoes the picture of Daniel 4:12 which concerns the global nature of Nebuchadnezzar’s reign (see Daniel 4:1, 22). Given the importance of Daniel for Jesus’ ministry, majoring as it does on the theme of God’s kingship and containing the vision of the ‘son of man’ figure with whom Jesus identified himself (see Mark 14:62 and Daniel 7:13-14), it seems highly probable that Jesus is saying his kingdom will have the same global breadth as Nebuchadnezzar’s.
[16] Mark 8:14-30.
[17] Greek = βασιλευσ. See footnote 1.
[18] Mark 15:2, 9, 12, 18, 26 and 32. Barnett argues that this signals the appearance of the kingdom. Barnett, Servant King, p. 29.
[19] Mark 10:45, 14:24.
[20] Mark 15:
[21] Mark 8:38.
[22] Mark 8:31, see also Mark 14:24 where Jesus looks forward to life in the kingdom as his death approaches.
[23] The most obvious reading of Mark 9:1 is that it refers at least firstly to the transfiguration which follows. This understanding fits with the way the resurrection is closely connected to the transfiguration at several points in the narrative, e.g. the disciples can only tell of it once Christ has been raised (see Mark 9:9).
[24] In Mark 10:21-23 the failure of the rich man to follow Jesus illustrates how hard it is for such to enter the kingdom.
[25] Mark 10:14-15, 52.
[26] Mark 8:34-38.
[27] Mark 8:34, 10:39, 45.
[28] Mark 13:10-13, 27.
[29] Mark 10: 29-31.

No comments: