by Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts
Copyright Â© 2007 by Mark D. Roberts
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With The Passion of the Christ
so much in our minds these days, I had planned to do some blogging on
the question: Why was Jesus crucified? But as I pondered this question,
I realized that my answer would only make sense in light of a prior
answer to another question: What was Jesus’ actual message? So I’ll get
to the reason for Jesus’ crucifixion in a while. But first I need to
lay a foundation for that reason by dealing with Jesus’ message. This
isn’t quite so easy as it might at first seem. Yet the effort to grasp
Jesus’ actual message pays rich dividends, because it makes sense, not
only of his life and ministry, but of his death and resurrection.
you were to ask the average person what Jesus’ preached – even the
average Christian – you’d no doubt hear something about love: “Jesus
taught about love. He said we should all love each other.” This
perception of Jesus’ teaching isn’t wrong, let me hasten to add. Jesus
did talk quite a bit about love. In fact he said that loving God is the
greatest commandment and loving our neighbors is the runner up (Mark
12:29-31). So, to be sure, love figured prominently in the message of
love was not the core of his proclamation. And, to be sure, his
preaching about love didn’t get Jesus crucified. Neither the Romans nor
the Jewish authorities would have been particularly bothered by a
Jewish prophet who ran around telling people to love God and people.
Quite a few Jews would have been distressed over the thought of having
to love their enemies, however. But the Romans – the obvious enemies –
wouldn’t have crucified someone whose main crime was telling Jews to
love them and turn the other cheek! The core of Jesus’ message must
have been more contentious, indeed, more scandalous, than a call to
common for people to reduce the message of Jesus to something all too
simple and, I might add, all too similar to the biases of whoever is
doing the reducing. You’ll see this in many of the contemporary
“scholarly” attempts to summarize the message of Jesus. The infamous
Jesus Seminar, by the time it stones Jesus to death with its red, pink,
gray, and black beads, ends up with a sage who speaks in esoteric
riddles, hardly someone who would be put to death as a threat to Roman
order in Judea.
Jesus preached, it got people excited. Even the demons were riled up.
And Jesus’ message angered most of the religious leaders he
encountered. In the end, it got him killed on a Roman cross. So what
exactly was this inspiring, challenging, goading, and apparently
subversive message of Jesus all about?
I’ll begin to answer this question in my next post.
Click here for an updated and reformatted version of this series.
Part 2: What Was the Core of Jesus’ Preaching?
my last post I began a multi-part series seeking to answer the
question: What was the message of Jesus? I mentioned that many people
would answer this question by saying something about love, because we
rightly associate Jesus’ teaching with love. But, as it turns out, love
is not the core of his message, though it is close. What Jesus actually
proclaimed, first and foremost, was not that we should love, but
find a succinct summary of this “something else” in the first
description of Jesus’ ministry in the Gospel of Mark: “Now after John
was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God,
and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come
near; repent, and believe in the good news’” (Mark 1:14-15). Here, in a
nutshell, is the message of Jesus: the kingdom of God has come near.
|The Plain of Gennesaret, where Jesus began his ministry. Copyright Â© BiblePlaces.com
phrase “kingdom of God” appears 53 times in the New Testament gospels,
almost always on the lips of Jesus. The synonymous phrase, “kingdom of
heaven,” appears 32 times in the Gospel of Matthew. Throughout the
accounts of Jesus’ ministry, he is always talking about the kingdom of
God. Many of his parables explain something about this kingdom: it is
like mustard seed, a treasure, a merchant looking for pearls, and a
king who gave a banquet (Matt 13:44-47; 22:2). Jesus even defines his
purpose in light of the kingdom: “I must proclaim the good news of the
kingdom of God to the other cities also; for I was sent for this
purpose” (Luke 4:43).
Given the centrality of
the kingdom of God to the preaching, and, as we’ll see, the actions of
Jesus, it’s strange that many Christians are relatively unfamiliar with
what this phrase means. But if we want to understand the message of
Jesus, not to mention his whole ministry, including his death and
resurrection, then we must grapple with what he says about the kingdom
of God. Gordon Fee, one of the wisest of New Testament scholars, once
said in a lecture on Jesus: “You cannot know anything about Jesus,
anything, if you miss the kingdom of God . . . . You are zero on Jesus
if you don’t understand this term. I’m sorry to say it that strongly,
but this is the great failure of evangelical Christianity. We have had
Jesus without the kingdom of God, and therefore have literally done
If you’ve read this far, I’m assuming
that you don’t want to be zero on Jesus, and that you don’t want to do
him in, either. Neither do I. So we must work together to figure out
what Jesus meant when he said “the kingdom of God has come near.” For
this was, indeed, the core of his message.
plan to structure the rest of this blog series around basic questions
having to do with the kingdom of God in the ministry of Jesus. These
questions will include:
Â· What is the kingdom of God?
Â· How did Jesus proclaim the message of the kingdom?
Â· Where is the kingdom of God?
Â· When is the kingdom of God coming?
Â· What will life in the kingdom of God be like?
Â· Who will bring the kingdom of God?
Â· How is the kingdom of God coming?
these questions could very well fill a big, fat book. But my intent is
to offer relatively bite-sized answers. If you’re looking for more
depth, I highly recommend the writings of N. T. Wright. He has written,
not one, but three big, fat books
on Jesus – and they are outstanding. But, if you’re not ready to take
on over 2000 pages of in-depth scholarship, then I’d also highly
recommend Wright’s more accessible overview in his book, The Challenge of Jesus. If you read only one book on Jesus, this is it. (Well, okay, I guess I’d like you to read my book too!)
In my next post I’ll take on the question: How did Jesus proclaim the message of the kingdom?
*Gordon Fee, “Jesus: Early Ministry/Kingdom of God,” lecture delivered at Regent College. Tape Series 2235E, Pt. 1. Copyright Â© Regent College, Vancouver, B.C., Canada.
Part 3: What is the Kingdom of God?
my last post in the series, “What Was the Message of Jesus?”, I
explained that the core of Jesus’ preaching was the good news of the
kingdom of God. This is summarized succinctly in Mark 1:15, where Jesus
proclaims, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near;
repent, and believe in the good news.” Of course this summary leads to
an obvious follow-up question: What is the kingdom of God? What is it
that, according to Jesus, has drawn near?
The kingdom of God has been equated with all sorts of things in the last two millennia. Some have claimed that it is heaven,
and that Jesus was saying, in so many words, “Now you can go to heaven
when you die.” Others have understood “the kingdom of God” as referring
to the Church. From their perspective, Jesus announced the
beginning of the age of the Church. Still others have seen the kingdom
of God as a world infused by divine justice. They have taken Jesus’ announcement as a call to social action. In recent times, New Agers have reduced the kingdom of God to inner awareness of one’s divinity. Like the ancient Gnostics, they understand the good news of the kingdom to mean “You are divine.”
of these renditions of the kingdom of God hits a historical home run,
although the first three are in the ballpark, at least. But all of them
fail to take seriously both what Jesus actually says about the kingdom
of God, and what his fellow Jews, especially the Old Testament
prophets, had been saying about the kingdom for centuries.
we analyze Jesus’ use of the phrase “the kingdom of God,” we need to
pay close attention to his use of the word “kingdom.” When we try to
understand Jesus’ message of the kingdom, we easily stumble over a
language gap. In everyday English, “kingdom” means a place where a king
reigns. The Kingdom of Jordan, for example, is the place where King
Abdullah II rules. But when Jesus spoke of the kingdom of God, he did not think in terms of locality, but authority.
King Abdullah II, with Jordan in the background.
In the New Testament gospels, Jesus uses the Greek phrase he basileia tou theou, “the kingdom of God.” The word basileia
could sometimes refer to a locale over which a king ruled, but it’s
primary meaning in the first-century was “reign, rule, authority,
sovereignty.” (The same was true of the Aramaic term, malku,
the word actually spoken by Jesus.) We see this meaning clearly in one
of Jesus’ parables. He speaks of a nobleman who “went to a distant
country to have himself appointed king and then to return” (Luke 19:12,
NIV; the NRSV reads “to get royal power for himself”). The Greek of
this verse reads, literally, “he went to a distant country to receive a
basileia for himself.” He didn’t go to get a new region over
which to rule, but rather to get new and greater authority over the
place he lived.
We see this same meaning in the Hebrew Scriptures. In Psalm 145, for example, we read:
All your works shall give thanks to you, O LORD,
and all your faithful shall bless you.
They shall speak of the glory of your kingdom
[malkuth in Hebrew; basileia in Greek],
and tell of your power (10-11).
God’s kingdom is parallel, not to the place over which God reigns, but
to his divine power. God’s faithful praise his sovereignty here, not
the place over which God is sovereign.
when Jesus proclaims that the kingdom of God has come near, he doesn’t
mean that a place is approaching like the giant comet in the movie Deep Impact,
but that God’s own royal authority and power have come on the scene.
“God’s reign is at hand. God’s power is being unleashed,” Jesus says.
“Turn your life around and put your trust in this good news.”
course Jesus’ announcement of God’s reign didn’t come in a vacuum. It
was both consistent with and a fulfillment of a central theme in the
Hebrew prophets. In my next post I’ll examine how these prophets spoke
of the kingdom of God, and how this prepared the way for the message
and ministry of Jesus.
Part 4 : What is the Kingdom of God? (cont)
yesterday’s post I began to clarify the core message of Jesus: “the
kingdom of God has come near” (Mark 1:15). Our word “kingdom,” it turns
out, misses the precise sense of Jesus’ own language. What he
proclaimed was not the approach of a place where God rules (our typical
sense of “kingdom”), but rather the dawning of God’s kingly authority
on earth. Thus when we read the phrase “kingdom of God” in the gospels,
we need to think in terms of God’s reign, rule, authority, or
sovereignty. This, according to Jesus, is what has come near.
his proclamation of the reign of God, Jesus echoes the language and
hopes of the Hebrew prophets. I have known this for over 20 years, but
it was strongly impressed upon me three years ago as I was writing my
book, Jesus Revealed.
In preparation for this project, I re-read the Hebrew prophets,
beginning with Isaiah and ending with Malachi. Time and again I ran
into the language of God’s kingdom as the Lord promised that, someday,
he would return to rule over his people.
Consider, for example, the following passage from Zephaniah, who prophesied in the latter half of the seventh century B.C.:
Sing aloud, O daughter Zion;
shout, O Israel! . . .
The LORD has taken away the judgments against you,
he has turned away your enemies.
The king of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst; . . .
a warrior who gives victory;
he will rejoice over you with gladness,
he will renew you in his love; . . .
I will deal with all your oppressors
at that time.
And I will save the lame
and gather the outcast,
and I will change their shame into praise
and renown in all the earth.
At that time I will bring you home,
at the time when I gather you;
for I will make you renowned and praised
among all the peoples of the earth,
when I restore your fortunes
before your eyes, says the LORD. (Zeph 3:14-20, emphasis added)
to this prophecy, at the right time the LORD himself will be the “king
of Israel.” In this role he will give victory to his people, removing
their oppressors, gathering their scattered exiles, and restoring their
Consider one other passage from the Hebrew prophets, this one from Isaiah:
How beautiful upon the mountains
are the feet of the messenger who announces peace,
who brings good news,
who announces salvation,
who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”
Listen! Your sentinels lift up their voices,
together they sing for joy;
for in plain sight they see
the return of the LORD to Zion.
Break forth together into singing,
you ruins of Jerusalem;
for the LORD has comforted his people,
he has redeemed Jerusalem.
The LORD has bared his holy arm
before the eyes of all the nations;
and all the ends of the earth shall see
the salvation of our God. (Isaiah 52:7-10, emphasis added)
this prophecy, God’s reign includes peace, the return of the LORD to
Jerusalem, joyful singing, comfort and redemption for Judah, and the
impact of God’s salvation upon the whole earth. The announcement of
God’s reign will be, indeed, “good news.”
with Zephaniah’s and Isaiah’s prophecies ringing in your ears, listen
again to Mark’s summary of Jesus’ message: “The time is fulfilled, and
the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news”
(Mark 1:15). The prophetic echoes are unmistakable. But there are
differences too. Whereas the prophets looked ahead to an undetermined
time in the future when God would return to rule over his people, Jesus
says, “The time is now. The reign of God has now come near. So turn
your life around and live in light of this truth.”
that we’ve identified the core message of Jesus – the proclamation of
the kingdom – and clarified the basic meaning of this proclamation, we
should pursue a bit further the means by which Jesus delivered his
message. Yes, upon occasion he stood up and said, simply, “The kingdom
of God is at hand.” But that was just the beginning. In my next post I
will answer the question: How did Jesus proclaim the kingdom of God?
Part 5 : How Did Jesus Proclaim the Kingdom of God?
far I’ve shown that the central message of Jesus was: “the kingdom of
God has come near” (Mark 1:15). This kingdom was not a place where God
reigns, but rather the reign of God itself — God’s rule, authority,
and power. The reign of God, Jesus says, is at hand.
But how does Jesus proclaim the kingdom of God? What are his means and methods?
Basic Statements of Fact.
As we’ve already seen, at times Jesus simply and bluntly proclaims the
presence of the kingdom without exceptional art or artifice. You can’t
get much simpler than “the kingdom of God has come near” (Mark 1:15).
Although the New Testament gospels never provide a thematic outline of
Jesus’ teaching – such as I’m providing in this blog series – at times
Jesus does explain some features of the kingdom of God. In Mark
10:14-15, for example, he says:
the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as
these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does
not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”
we might debate what exactly Jesus means here, his point – that one
must receive the kingdom in a childlike manner – gives us a bit more
information about the kingdom of God. Notice that the kingdom is not
something we create by our own efforts, but rather something we
receive. Christians sometimes speak of God’s kingdom as something we
produce by our own efforts. This misses the biblical point, which
emphasizes the agency of God as that which inaugurates God’s own reign.
Some of Jesus’ explanations of the kingdom take the form of parables,
which at times seem more like riddles than clarifications. For example,
at one point Jesus says,
what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for
it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the
smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and
becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so
that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade” (Mark 4:30-32).
Mustard plants in Southern California. Not the same variety as envisioned by Jesus.
parable, an animated simile, tells us about the kingdom of God by
supplying a vivid picture of its paradoxical size. It begins as a tiny
seed, but ends up as a giant plant. Whereas many Jews in the time of
Jesus expected the reign of God to appear in its full grandeur, Jesus
reveals that it begins as the smallest of seeds. The full extent of
God’s kingdom will only be revealed later.
Notice, once again, how Jesus’ parable of the mustard seed coheres with Old Testament prophecy. Through Ezekiel God once said,
I myself will take a sprig
from the lofty top of a cedar;
I will set it out.
I will break off a tender one
from the topmost of its young twigs;
I myself will plant it
on a high and lofty mountain.
On the mountain height of Israel
I will plant it,
in order that it may produce boughs and bear fruit,
and become a noble cedar.
Under it every kind of bird will live;
in the shade of its branches will nest
winged creatures of every kind. (Ezek 17:22-23)
Ezekiel spoke of a tiny cedar sprig that grew into a noble cedar in
which birds would nest, Jesus used the mustard seed to make a similar
point about God’s kingdom. Though it begins humbly, in Jesus’ own
ministry, it will someday be gloriously large, a resting place for all
sum up what we’ve seen so far, Jesus announces the presence of God’s
reign through basic statements, explanations, and parables. Yet his
words, as important as they may be, do not exhaust Jesus’ means for
proclaiming the kingdom. Alongside the words of Jesus we find his
works, his actions that announced dramatically the coming of God’s
kingdom. To these actions I’ll turn in my next post.
Part 6 : How Did Jesus Proclaim the Kingdom of God? (cont)
my last post I showed some of the ways Jesus used words to proclaim the
kingdom of God. These included basic statements of fact, explanations,
and parables. But Jesus “proclaimed” God’s coming reign, not only in
words, but also in works. These both illustrated the kingdom of God and
demonstrated its presence. Without these works, Jesus’ announcement of
the kingdom would have fallen on deaf ears. People would have regarded
him as a dreamer, perhaps as a deceiver or even a demoniac, but not as
the divine envoy of the kingdom.
The works of
Jesus that revealed the presence of the kingdom took various forms,
including healings, exorcisms, nature miracles, and other symbolic
gestures. Let me say a bit about each of these actions and their
Healings. Throughout the
gospels Jesus healed people of various diseases. His extraordinary
popularity came, not simply from the authority of his preaching, but
from his authority over human bodies. Yet healing was not an end in and
of itself for those familiar with the Hebrew prophets. It was also a
sign of the presence of God’s reign on earth. In Isaiah 35, for
example, God comes to save and redeem his people. In this context we
find the following promise: “Then the eyes of the blind shall be
opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap
like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy” (Isa
35:5-6). The fact that these things were happening in the ministry of
Jesus proved the presence of the kingdom. Jesus himself said this when
he was asked by the disciples of John the Baptist whether he (Jesus)
was the one through whom the kingdom was coming. Jesus said, “Go and
tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the
lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised,
and the poor have good news brought to them” (Matt 11:4-5). In other
words, “Because the healings promised in Isaiah are happening in my
ministry, yes, I am the one through whom God’s kingdom has come.”
One of the most peculiar aspects of the gospels for North American
readers is Jesus’ repeated expulsion of demons. Most of us simply
aren’t familiar or comfortable with such things, unlike so many
contemporary believers in the Southern Hemisphere. But, whether we like
it or not, exorcisms are central to the ministry of Jesus, and,
according to Jesus himself, clear evidence of the presence of the
kingdom. In Matthew 12, for example, some of the Pharisees accuse Jesus
of casting out demons with demonic power. He answers them, first by
citing the now classic line about a house divided against itself being
certain to fall (Matt 12:25). Then he adds, “But if it is by the Spirit
of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come to you”
(Matt 12:28). Whatever we might think of Jesus’ exorcisms, for him and
his fellow first-century Jews they are a demonstration of the presence
of God’s reign.
According to the gospels, Jesus multiplies food, walks on water, and
stills the storm. Once again, these mighty works are associated with
God’s kingdom. In Psalm 89, for example, the Lord says, “I have made a
covenant with my chosen one, I have sworn to my servant David: ‘I will
establish your descendants forever, and build your throne for all
generations’” (Ps 89:3-4). Then, only four verses later the Psalm
continues, “O LORD God of hosts, who is as mighty as you, O LORD? Your
faithfulness surrounds you. You rule the raging of the sea; when its
waves rise, you still them” (Ps 89:8-9). So Jesus’ power over nature
suggests that God’s promised kingdom has arrived and, indeed, that God
himself is mysteriously present in the ministry of Jesus.
Rembrandt’s “Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee”
recognize that for many people today the miracles of Jesus are harder
to swallow than a camel. In some circles and among quite a few New
Testament scholars the miracles of Jesus are not considered as
historical events so much as symbolic legends. Yet if you take away the
miraculous from the message of Jesus, you severely truncate his
announcement of the kingdom and, at the same time, you are left with a
Jesus whom most people would have ignored. Even many skeptical modern
scholars, therefore, believe that Jesus must have been a “healer” of
sorts, one who used psychosomatic cures and the power of suggestion to
help people feel better. At this point I’m not prepared to mount a
defense for the genuineness of the miracle stories in the gospels. But,
whether you believe that the miracles happened or not, they are clearly
essential to the picture of Jesus painted by the gospel writers. The
mighty works of Jesus, more than showing his love for people, are part
and parcel of his announcement of the reign of God. Take away these
works and there’s no reason to believe his words.
Other Symbolic Gestures.
Although the mighty works of Jesus persuaded people to take seriously
his announcement of the kingdom, he did other things that illustrated
the kingdom’s presence and character. For example, Jesus ate with
social and religious outcasts (tax collectors and sinners) as a sign of
the unexpected inclusiveness of God’s reign. Similarly, he embraced
children, not only because he loved them, but also to teach something
essential about the kingdom. “Let the little children come to me; do
not stop them,” Jesus said, “for it is to such as these that the
kingdom of God belongs” (Mark 10:14). Like the Hebrew prophets, who
often used symbolic gestures to communicate God’s message, so did
Jesus. Ultimately, some of his most powerful statements about the
kingdom would come through symbolic actions: the cleansing of the
temple, the Last Supper, and the crucifixion itself. I’ll have much
more to say about these actions later.
Part 7 : Where is the Kingdom of God?
far in this series we’ve seen that Jesus proclaimed the kingdom of God
using a variety of words and works. The essence of his message is
summarized in Mark 1:15: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God
has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
up as a Christian, I always read this verse as saying: “The time for
your personal salvation has arrived. Be sorry for your sins and believe
in Jesus as your Savior so you will go to heaven after you die.” After
having spent much of my life studying Jesus, I no longer believe this
is what Jesus meant in Mark 1:15, though I still believe in the truth
of what I once attributed to Jesus. Part of my problem in the past,
however, was that I wasn’t clear on the location of the kingdom of God.
The language of Mark 1:15 certainly suggests that God’s reign is coming on earth. This fits, as we have seen previously (Series Part 4),
with the promise found repeatedly in the Hebrew prophets: someday God
will come to reign on earth, establishing justice and peace for his
people and, indeed, for all nations.
location of God’s reign is also revealed in one of the core teachings
of Christian faith, that which we call “The Lord’s Prayer.” In Matthew
6 Jesus taught his disciples to pray:
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven . . . . (Matt 6:9-10).
The parallelism of this prayer interprets “your kingdom come” as “your will be done on earth
as it is in heaven.” In other words, we are to pray that God’s reign
will be experienced on earth as it is right now in God’s own heavenly
presence. When God’s rule is completely established in this world, then
all things will be ordered according to God’s perfect design.
fascinating to discover how much this prayer of Jesus is similar to the
prayers offered up by faithful Jews in the first century. Consider, for
example, the following prayer that many scholars believe to have been
offered daily in the time of Jesus:
God establish his kingdom in your lifetime and in your days and in the
lifetime of all the house of Israel, even speedily and at a near time.”
Sounds quite a bit like, “Thy kingdom come”, doesn’t it?
|Then there’s the eleventh blessing of the so-called Eighteen Benedictions that were spoken during weekly synagogue services:
our judges as at the first, and our counselors at the beginning; and
reign Thou over us, Thou alone. Blessed art Thou, O Lord, who lovest
judgment!” (Benediction 11 of the “Eighteen Benedictions”)
By proclaiming that the kingdom of God was near, Jesus was saying that
these prayers were being answered. God was beginning to rule on earth
as he did in heaven — in the ministry of Jesus himself.
of ancient synagogue in Capernaum, where Jesus preached. These ruins
are later than the first-century, but built upon the same location of
the original synagogue. Picture from http://www.bibleplaces.com/.
I have taught before on the location of the kingdom of God, people
sometimes remain unconvinced. “What about the kingdom of heaven ?” they wonder. “And didn’t Jesus himself say his kingdom was not of this world? How do you explain these passages?” In my next post I’ll address these questions.
Part 8 : Where is the Kingdom of God? (cont)
This post could be entitled “Where the Kingdom of God is Not.”
It deals with two common misunderstandings of the kingdom of God as
proclaimed by Jesus. I’ll address each of these by stating something
that the kingdom is not, and then defending my statement with evidence
from the gospels.
1. The kingdom of God is not what we call heaven.
my last post I mentioned that, as a boy, I understood Jesus’
proclamation of the kingdom to be an invitation to “get saved and go to
heaven.” If you had asked me “Where is the kingdom of God?” I would
have answered “In heaven.” This answer wouldn’t have been completely
wrong, because God does reign over heaven. But we miss Jesus’ point if
we think that his proclamation of the kingdom was telling us something
about God’s rule up in spiritual space or in the afterlife.
of our confusion comes from the fact that the Gospel of Matthew records
Jesus as speaking about “the kingdom of heaven” rather than “the
kingdom of God.” Where Mark 1:15 reads “the kingdom of God has come
near,” Matthew 3:2 has “the kingdom of heaven has come near” (literally
in Greek, “the reign of the heavens,” he basileia ton ouranon, mirroring the Aramaic spoken by Jesus, malkuta’ dishmaha’).
Matthew’s phraseology doesn’t mean that the kingdom is literally up in
the heavens. Rather, he is using a common circumlocution for God, much
as my grandmother did when she said “Good heavens” rather than “Good
But even if we grant that the phrase
“kingdom of heaven” refers to God’s reign on earth, isn’t this
conclusion contradicted by Jesus himself when he tells Pilate, “My
kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36, NIV)? Doesn’t Jesus mean “My
kingdom is not here on earth, but up in heaven”? No, in fact this is
not what Jesus means. Two pieces of evidence make this clear. First,
the Greek of John 18:36 literally reads, “My reign is not from this world [ek tou kosmou toutou].” Second, the latter portion of John 18:36 explains, “But now my kingdom is from another place [ouk estin enteuthen].”
Literally, this sentence reads, “Now my reign is not from here.” Jesus
is speaking, not of the location of his kingdom, but of the source of
his authority. Unlike Pilate, he does not get his authority from an
earthly source (Caesar), but from God. Now it’s certainly true that
Jesus was not seeking to use his divine authority to establish merely
another political state on earth. Nevertheless, the kingdom he
announces is, in a sense, heaven on earth, not heaven in heaven.
2. The kingdom is not merely in our hearts.
cannot tell you how many times in the last twenty years I’ve heard
people locate the kingdom of God in human hearts. Christians do it, and
so do many New Agers. Their credo is “The kingdom of God is within you”
(Luke 17:21). But they missed Jesus’ own meaning by a mile.
to be sure, God’s reign will touch human hearts. But it is not limited
to some kind of internal, subjective experience. Yes, I know Jesus is
quoted as saying that “the kingdom of God is within you,” but this
verse is usually wrenched way out of context. Let’s return to the
passage from which this line comes:
Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming,
and he answered, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can
be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’
For, in fact, the kingdom of God is entos hymon” (Luke 17:20-21).
left the original Greek untranslated for a moment so we can see the
context of this phrase without prejudging its meaning. Jesus is
speaking, not to his faithful disciples, but to a group of Pharisees.
They expected the kingdom of God to come with great signs, most
obviously the beginnings of a successful revolt against Rome. But Jesus
says their expectations are misguided. In fact, the kingdom of God is entos hymon.
Given what Jesus says about the hearts of the Pharisees elsewhere -
that are “full of greed and self-indulgence” and “all kinds of filth”
(Matt 23:25, 27) – it’s unlikely that Jesus is telling the Pharisees to
look within their hearts to find the kingdom. Rather, he is saying to
them: The kingdom of God is right here, in your midst. The Greek phrase entos hymon
can mean “among you,” as it does in this instance. If the Pharisees
want to find the kingdom, Jesus says, they should look, not into their
own sinful hearts, but right in front of their eyes, at Jesus himself,
at his words and works.
So, though God’s reign
embraces and transforms human hearts, it is not limited to some sort of
interior experience. The kingdom of God impacts actions, thoughts,
relationships, families, institutions, and governments. In the end, it
will touch everything on earth, when God’s will is done on earth “as it
is in heaven.” Yet this expansive kingdom has begun on earth in a most
unexpected and unnoticed way – rather like a mustard seed — in the
ministry of Jesus.
If the kingdom of God is
neither up in heaven nor limited to human hearts, but is something we
ought to experience in all aspects of our earthly life, this points to
another question: When is it coming? Did Jesus envision the
kingdom of God as present reality? Or was it rather something that was
coming in the future? In my next post I’ll begin to deal with the
question: When is the kingdom of God coming?
Part 9 : When is the Kingdom of God Coming?
proclaimed that the reign of God was coming to earth, but when? Did
Jesus preach the coming of the kingdom as a future reality? Or did he
believe that the kingdom of God was truly present in his earthly
ministry? In this post I want to lay out some of the basic evidence
from the gospels. Then, in my next post, I’ll try to make sense of this
The Future Kingdom
In many of his sayings, Jesus appears to state that the kingdom of God will come in the future. For example:
“Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt 6:10).
line from what we call “The Lord’s Prayer” implies that God’s kingdom
isn’t present in the moment, but is something that will come in the
future. As we saw earlier in this series, this echoes first-century Jewish prayers for the coming of God’s reign.
tell you, many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham
and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the heirs of the
kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness, where there will be
weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt 8:11-12).
that many “will come” to the great messianic banquet. They haven’t yet
arrived. Here Jesus draws on the prophetic hope of God’s future kingdom
as “a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines” that the Lord
will prepare “for all peoples” (Isa 25:6).
tell you, I will never again drink of this fruit of the vine until that
day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom” (Matt 26:29).
this poignant line from the Last Supper, Jesus looks ahead to the time
when he will share in the messianic banquet with his disciples. He
draws from the eschatological language of the prophets in speaking of
“that day” – the future day of the Lord (see Isa 25:9, for example).
could point to many other places in the gospels where Jesus implies
that the kingdom of God will come in the future. This type of
futuristic eschatology (“eschatology” = “doctrine of the end times”) is
familiar to many Christians in our time of history. When I was a young
believers, my friends and I were enchanted by The Late Great Planet Earth,
by Hal Lindsey. This book, which has sold over 35,000,000 copies
worldwide, showed that the kingdom of God was coming in the future, and
that it was coming soon, and how world events made all of this quite
certain. But when Jesus didn’t hurry back to earth in the 70′s, for a
while the eschatological fever broke. Yet in 1996 Tim LaHaye and Jerry
B. Jenkins published Left Behind,
the first volume in their fictionalized account of the end of human
history and the beginning of God’s eternal kingdom. Now, with over 55
million books sold, LaHaye and Jenkins are bringing out volume 12, the
last book in the series. Why has this series drawn so many readers?
When I asked a group of Left Behind fans about this, one
woman informed me confidently: “Because these books tell us what’s
going to happen in the future.” The others agreed. Future eschatology,
with certainty, wow!
The Present Kingdom
Jesus had only spoken of the reign of God in a future tense, our task
would be simple. Unfortunately for those of us who like things neat and
tidy, Jesus also spoke of the presence of the kingdom. Here are some
“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” (Mark 1:15).
one could argue that “has come near” isn’t exactly the same as “is
here,” the sense of Greek is that the “coming near” of the kingdom has
already begun to happen.
“But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come to you” (Matt 12:28).
response to those who accuse Jesus of casting out demons with satanic
power, he points to the true source of his authority: the Spirit of
God. The exorcisms of Jesus are not merely evidence of his compassion
for demonized people, they are also evidence that the kingdom of God is
kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will
they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the
kingdom of God is among you” (Luke 17:20-21).
In a previous post
I discussed this passage. Jesus is not saying to the Pharisees that the
kingdom is in their hearts, but that it is in their midst. Where Jesus
is doing the work of God, there is God’s kingdom.
certain quarters of Christendom the presence of the kingdom has been a
popular theme. Whereas conservative Christians have tended to embrace
the future kingdom, more liberal Christians have generally preferred
the present kingdom. (There are exceptions on both sides of this rule,
of course.) If God’s reign is here, then so is God’s justice and peace,
at least in principle. The task of the believer is not to wait around
for some dramatic act of God in the future, but to live out God’s
kingdom now by promoting divine justice in the world today.
If you were to read through all four gospels, you’d find more evidence for the future and
for the present kingdom. This presents us with a riddle. Which did
Jesus proclaim? I’ll attempt to solve this riddle in my next post.
Part 10: When is the Kingdom of God Coming? (cont)
ended my last post with an apparent riddle. Throughout the gospels
Jesus proclaims the kingdom of God, sometimes as coming in the future,
and sometimes as a present reality. So which is it? How can we
understand the apparently divergent themes in Jesus’ preaching of the
reign of God?
the last 150 years, many New Testament scholars have cut this Gordian
knot by claiming that some of what is attributed to Jesus in the
gospels is not authentic, but was added by the early church.
Ironically, depending on the preference of the scholar, the supposedly
inauthentic portion of Jesus’ teaching can be either the future kingdom
or the present kingdom. Scholarly methodology bends freely to the whims
of the individual scholar. So, for example, Marcus Borg, a prominent
member of the Jesus Seminar and prolific author on Jesus, has
repeatedly argued that Jesus did not expect God’s kingdom to come
sometime in the future. Gospel passages that suggest this were inserted
by the early church, Borg claims, under the influence of Jewish
eschatology. Yet, contradicting Borg, a cadre of contemporary scholars
insists that Jesus did in fact present himself as an eschatological
prophet who proclaimed the coming of the kingdom. John P. Meier is a
highly-acclaimed advocate of this view, though he hasn’t received as
much popular attention as Borg, partly because Meier’s writings are
more scholarly and less sensationalistic than Borg’s.
telling that the cover of Borg’s book on Jesus (top) shows a distorted,
unnatural Jesus, whereas Meier’s book (bottom) pictures a Jesus who
looks like an ordinary Jewish man.
you wade through the tangled bog of New Testament scholarship, as I
have, you’ll find circular arguments almost everywhere among those who
try to slice and dice the teachings of Jesus. The Jesus Seminar is
perhaps the most brazen in this regard, assuming from the outset that
Jesus was a non-apocalyptic Hellenistic sage and then excising from the
gospels anything that doesn’t fit this assumption. Other scholars are
more subtle. But, in the end, efforts to reduce Jesus’ preaching to
either an exclusively future kingdom or an exclusively present kingdom
are unconvincing. The riddle of kingdom of God is too deeply imbedded
in the gospel accounts to be amputated by responsible scholarship.
it be that Jesus simply contradicted himself? Did he speak of the
kingdom as present and future without realizing his confusion? I doubt
it. Even bracketing Jesus’ unique identity for a moment, I’d argue that
brilliant, influential thinkers are rarely so obviously confused.
Moreover, they are rarely easy to fathom. Have you ever tried to simply
Plato, or Augustine, or Calvin, or Kant, or Wittgenstein? Good luck!
Thus, simply working with historical probability, it’s likely that
Jesus proclaimed the kingdom of God as somehow both future and present,
and that he knew what he was doing at the time.
In my previous post
I cited examples of Jesus’ speaking of the kingdom of God as either
future or present. In a few instances, however, he indicated that the
kingdom has both present and future dimensions. Take this parable for
can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it?
It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the
smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and
becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so
that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade” (Mark 4:30-32)
invites us to look at the mustard seed from two perspectives. In the
present – and it is really present – it is small and insignificant. In
the future, however, the mustard seed will be great and notable.
Similarly, God’s reign has truly come on earth in the ministry of
Jesus. When blind eyes are opened, when deaf ears hear, when demons are
cast out, when the hungry are fed, when sinners are forgiven, the
kingdom of God is truly present on earth. Yet it’s relatively small,
and won’t reach it’s full, glorious extent until later.
New Testament scholars today realize that Jesus proclaimed the kingdom
as both present and future. You can find a refreshingly concise
statement of this perspective in the now classic little book by G. E.
Ladd, The Gospel of the Kingdom.
Scholars who hold together both dimensions of the reign of God
sometimes speak of it as “already and not yet.” The kingdom is already
present in the ministry of Jesus, and it is not yet fully present. If
you read through the gospels with this thought in mind, much begins to
make sense. The sayings of Jesus and his actions demonstrate both the
real presence and the future glory of the kingdom of God.
the whole idea of “already and not yet” may seem odd and hard to
fathom. If you’re accustomed to thinking of the kingdom as either
future or present but not both, this new way of looking at Jesus can
seem counter-intuitive. What sense does it make, you might wonder, to
speak of something as “already and not yet” present?
have found that three analogies from contemporary life make this
seemingly odd concept much easier to grasp. But, since this post is
running on, I’ll save these analogies for tomorrow, same bat time, same
Part 11 : When is the Kingdom of God Coming? (cont)
recent posts I have shown that Jesus proclaimed the kingdom of God as
something both present and future. Like the mustard seed, the kingdom
is small in the moment, yet will be great in the future. The more we
study Jesus’ ministry without chopping it into disconnected bits, the
more we realize that he proclaimed the reign of God as something that
was “already and not yet” present. It was already present in Jesus’ own
ministry, but it was not yet fully present. Much more was still to come.
have found that three analogies help people grasp the “already and not
yet-ness” of the kingdom. You can probably think of others, but here
are my three.
Engagement and Marriage
a pastor I have the privilege of sharing with engaged couples as they
prepare for marriage. When their wedding day arrives, most couples are
well-prepared to commit their lives to each other. In the minutes
before the ceremony begins, I visit with the bride and groom, praying
with them for what lies ahead. If I were to ask them at that point, “Do
you love your fiancÃ©? Will you commit yourself completely to him or
her?” they would answer “Yes. Yes.” Are they married at that point? No,
not yet. Yet are they deeply committed to each other? Yes. Do they love
each other profoundly? Yes. All that’s necessary for a marriage is
present and ready to go. In many ways they’re already feeling as if
they were married, and yet they aren’t married.
Pregnancy and Parenthood
just about nothing more exciting for a woman who wants to be a mother
than being pregnant. From the moment she first hears the good news of
her pregnancy, she starts preparing emotionally to be a mother. After
just a few weeks she gets to hear the baby’s heartbeat during a visit
to the doctor. Not long afterward she begins to feel the baby kicking
and moving. By the time a woman is nine months’ pregnant, she has
thought about her baby for thousands of hours. She has taken new baby
classes. She has prepared a place for the baby, and usually chosen a
name. She loves her baby intensely. So then, is a woman in her last
weeks of pregnancy a mother? In so many ways the answer is “yes.” But
most people would say that, however real her motherhood may be,
something is lacking. The act of giving birth makes it all complete.
(Well, actually, it’s just one big step forward in a lifelong
enterprise of being a mother.) Is a woman a mother when she’s nine
months pregnant? She is already, and not yet.
Completion and Graduation
enrolled as a freshman at Harvard College in September of 1975. Sixteen
and a half years later, in May of 1992, I faced the last challenge of
my Harvard career: the oral defense of my Ph.D. dissertation. On that
fateful day in early May, I sat in a room with four brilliant scholars
and defended my academic work. Then they sent me out in the hall to
sweat while they decided my fate. After about twenty minutes my advisor
beckoned me back into the room. “We have voted unanimously to approve
your dissertation,” he said. “Congratulations, Dr. Roberts!”
order to make things official, I had to submit four copies of my
doctoral thesis to the appropriate office and, of course, pay all of my
outstanding bills. I did these things soon after my oral defense was
over. And that was that! Done!
But was I
really done? Could I truly claim to be Dr. Roberts? Well, not quite.
Graduation wasn’t until early June. I wouldn’t hold my Ph.D. in my hand
until them. So, was I Dr. Roberts in late May of 1992? In some sense,
yes, I already was. And, in some sense, no, I wasn’t yet.
Graduation at last!
The Kingdom of God: Already and Not Yet
Jesus began his ministry in Galilee, the reign of God had truly begun
its appearance on earth. God’s power was present in Jesus, which
explains why blind eyes were opened and demons fled. But the kingdom
hadn’t fully come, even though it was already present. And Jesus,
though he was announcing and inaugurating the kingdom, hadn’t finished
everything for his graduation as messiah. This work, as it turned out,
wasn’t just proclaiming the kingdom and demonstrating its presence
through works of power and love. For the kingdom of God to come fully,
Jesus had to do something else, something so radical, paradoxical, and
unexpected that nobody anticipated it.
next post in this series I’ll begin to explore Jesus’ surprising action
as I answer the question: “How is the Kingdom of God Coming?”
Part 12: How is the Kingdom of God Coming?
far in this series “What Was the Message of Jesus?” we’ve seen that the
core of Jesus’ proclamation was “the kingdom of God has come near”
(Mark 1:15). In my most recent posts in this series I focused on the
question of when the kingdom of God is coming. In fact Jesus
proclaimed the kingdom as something both present and future, as
something “already and not yet” here on earth. Like a mustard seed,
God’s reign begins as something small and insignificant, but in time it
will become great and glorious.
How will the
kingdom of God come, according to Jesus? Before addressing this
question, I want to survey other Jewish options in Jesus’ day.
were a variety of answers to the question of how God’s reign would come
on earth. Some Jews believed that the kingdom would come through a
rebellion against Rome. The Zealots and others with a revolutionary
bent continually plotted ways to undermine and ultimately depose the
Romans. Others rejected this approach, preferring instead to wait for
God’s dramatic intervention. The Essenes at Qumran had grand visions of
an apocalyptic war between the sons of light and the sons of darkness,
in which God would finally vindicate his people and restore both his
temple and his kingdom. They were disinclined to look for human agents
who might bring the God’s kingdom, probably because their experience of
Hasmonean (Maccabean/Jewish) rule of Judea had been such a negative
many of the Jewish kingdom scenarios, God would act through a human
being who would execute divine justice and restore divine rule over
Israel. Only a few Jewish texts refer to this human as the Son of Man
(literally in Hebrew/Aramaic, “the human being”). More commonly,
however, the human agent of the kingdom was called “the anointed one”
(in Hebrew, mashiach or “messiah”). There wasn’t one
established set of expectations for the messiah, however. The Dead Sea
Scrolls, for example, actually speak of multiple messiahs, including a
priestly messiah and a royal messiah.
|Cave 4 at Qumran near the Dead Sea. The source of many of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Picture from www.bibleplaces.com
to every Jewish scenario of the coming to the kingdom was the expulsion
of the gentiles who ruled over Judea. In Jesus’ day, of course, the
Romans were the hated overlords whom, it was hoped, would someday be
vanquished by the Lord and his anointed leader. One Jewish writer,
perhaps a Pharisee, wrote a collection of psalms, one of which bears
passionate witness to Jewish hopes for the coming kingdom:
See, Lord, and raise up for them their king,
the son of David, to rule over your servant Israel
in the time known to you, O God.
Undergird him with the strength to destroy the unrighteous rulers,
to purge Jerusalem from gentiles . . .
He will gather a holy people
whom he will lead in righteousness . . . .
And he will be a righteous king over them, taught by God.
There will be no unrighteousness among them in his days,
for all shall be holy,
and their king shall be the Lord Messiah. (Psalms of Solomon 17)
proclaimed the reign of God to a people who fervently hoped and prayed
for its coming. Yet he did not affirm common Jewish expectations for
how the kingdom would come. He didn’t raise up an army to wage war
against Rome. And he didn’t promise that God would fight this battle
himself in some imminent Armageddon. In fact Jesus’ answer to the
question “How will the kingdom come?” was quite novel, elusive, and
Now that I’ve established the
Jewish context for Jesus’ explanation of how the kingdom will come,
I’ll focus on Jesus in my next post.
Part 13 : How is the Kingdom of God Coming? (cont)
my last post I outlined some of the ways Jews in the time of Jesus
answered the question: How is the kingdom of God coming? Though there
were a variety of answers to that question, most all Jews in the first
century agreed that the coming of God’s kingdom would include the
expulsion of Rome from Judea. The Zealots and others of revolutionary
ilk were convinced that this would happen as human beings did the heavy
lifting, with some help from the Lord. Others preferred to wait for God
to lead the charge. (In the end, the Zealot-option prevailed as the
Jews waged war against Rome in A.D. 66-70. The end of this effort, of
course, was the utter destruction of the temple and the devastation of
the Jewish people.)
Jesus perplexed many of the
Jews in his day by his unwillingness to support a revolt against Rome.
He healed the servant of a Roman centurion (Matt 8:5-13), praising this
leader in the oppressor’s army as a paragon of faith (v. 10). He hung
out with Jewish tax collectors who had collaborated with Rome in order
to become rich (Luke 19:1-10). He even appeared to support paying taxes
to Rome (Matt 22:15-22).
far more confusing than this was what Jesus said in the Sermon on the
Mount. God will bless those who are meek, merciful, peaceful, and
persecuted, not those who use human strength to fight against Rome
(Matt 5:3-10). Moreover, Jesus taught that one should “not resist an
evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other
also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your
cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the
second mile” (Matt 5:39-41). More troubling still, Jesus called his
fellow Jewish to love their enemies and pray for those who persecute
them (Matt 5:44). In context, there could be no question in the mind of
Jesus’ audience to whom he was referring in all of this: the Romans.
Don’t fight against the Romans, he said, but love and pray for them.
is the kind of coin that Jesus used to make his point about giving to
Caesar what is owed to Caesar, and to God what is owed to God.
Curiously, the Latin around the head of Tiberius Caesar reads TI CAESAR
DIVI AUG F AUGUSTUS, or Tiberius Caesar Divi Augusti Filius Augustus, in English, Augustus Tiberius Caesar the Son of the Divine Augustus.
you imagine how controversial this must have been? Here was Jesus,
proclaiming the kingdom of God, doing miraculous works to prove that
God’s reign had arrived, and yet opposing what most of his peers
believed to be an essential element of the kingdom’s coming – the
expulsion of Rome and the punishment of all who had oppressed Israel.
us this can seem very theoretical, far removed from real human
experience and emotion. But suppose Jesus appeared on the scene right
now in Israel. Suppose he went around telling Israeli fathers whose
children had been killed in suicide bombings that they should turn the
other cheek and love their enemies, and that this was somehow the way
to peace. When we put matters in these terms, it’s easier to understand
not only why so many people were confused by Jesus, but also why many
were so angry at him.
Jesus seemed to be saying
that the kingdom of God would come, not through human strength, but
through weakness, not through military victories, but through apparent
defeat, not through hatred, but through sacrificial love. How could
this be possible?
I’ll continue to work on this question in my next post.
Part 14 : How is the Kingdom of God Coming? (cont)
consideration of how the kingdom of God is coming must grapple with one
of the most striking and surprising passages in the New Testament. The
first chapters of the Gospel of Mark chronicle Jesus’ healings,
exorcisms, parables, and controversies. Through his words and works,
his true identity is seen, but not seen; it is revealed, and yet
In Mark 8 Jesus asks his disciples “Who
do people say that I am?” (8:27). Some think that Jesus is John the
Baptist reborn. Others think he is Elijah, the prophet whose return
signals the coming of the kingdom. Others regard Jesus as “one of the
prophets” – a label Jesus himself accepts (see Mark 6:4; Luke 4:24;
13:33). After warming up his disciples with a safe question about what
others think, he becomes much more direct and personal: “But who do you
say that I am?” (8:29). Peter, always the impetuous one, sticks his
neck out with a bold answer: “You are the Messiah” (8:29). In the
amplified version we’d read, “You are the one anointed by God to
establish the kingdom. You’re the one who will lead the Jews in
expelling the Romans from Judea.” Finally the secret is out. Jesus is
the Messiah. Peter hit the bull’s eye, well, sort of.
no sooner does Peter finish than Jesus shocks him and his colleagues
with unprecedented news: “Then he began to teach them that the Son of
Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the
chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days
rise again” (8:31). Peter is so unsettled by this that he actually
takes Jesus aside, no doubt to keep Jesus from being embarrassed, and
begins to rebuke him. Though Mark doesn’t provide the transcript of
this conversation, it isn’t hard to imagine how it might have gone:
“Now, c’mon Master. The Son of Man will bring God’s judgment upon the
wicked and inherit God’s glorious kingdom (Daniel 7). No suffering and
dying here. And the Messiah will lead us to victory over the Romans.
Don’t talk about this suffering and dying stuff. It makes no sense.”
responds by rebuking Peter, and in language that is rather blunt, to
say the least: “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not
on divine things but on human things” (8:33). Yeow! This is not what
you’d want Jesus saying to you, that’s for sure.
easy for us to look down on Peter as hard-headed, given what we know of
Jesus and his ultimate fate. But we must be fair here. What Jesus said
about the Son of Man was utterly unexpected. It seemed completely
backwards to Peter and the other disciples. The glorious one to be
humiliated? God’s victor to be killed? The healer to undergo great
suffering? The king of the Jews to be rejected by the Jewish leaders?
Peter’s response to Jesus wasn’t foolish or narrow-minded. In fact,
it’s the response that I’m quite sure I would have made, if I’d even
had the courage to speak up at all.
how hard it is for us to grasp the radical and apparently ridiculous
nature of what Jesus said about the suffering Son of Man, let me offer
the following analogy. As you know, we’re already in the middle of a
hot and heavy presidential election. For the next seven months we’ll
hear two candidates flaunt their own distinctions while flogging the
deficiencies of their opponent. That’s what candidates do ad nauseam,
like it or not. But suppose that George W. Bush called together Karl
Rove and his campaign staff. And suppose the President said something
like this: “Friends, we’re going to run a very different kind of
campaign this year. Instead of blasting away at my opponent, we’re
going to praise him. We’re going to highlight everything good about
him. Moreover, we’re going to admit all of my mistakes, without
evasions or excuses. The best thing for the country will be doing
everything we can to help John Kerry get elected.” Don’t you think at
this point Karl Rove would take the President aside and rebuke him?
Maybe suggest that he needs some serious rest, or perhaps electroshock
therapy? This is akin to Peter’s reaction to Jesus’ incredible
suggestion that his calling as Son of Man includes suffering and dying.
appears to accept Peter’s confession “You are the Messiah,” even as he
refers to himself as “The Son of Man.” But then Jesus redefines the
mission of the Messiah/Son of Man in a radically new way. He will bring
the kingdom of God, to be sure, but only through suffering and dying.
This is how the kingdom will come.
But this answer begs another question: How will the death of Jesus be a pathway for the coming of the kingdom of God?
I’ll pick this up in my next post. Stay tuned . . . .
Part 15 : How is the Kingdom of God Coming? (cont)
my last post in this series I examined the passage in Mark 8 where
Peter confessed Jesus as the Messiah (Mark 8:27-30). But, when Jesus
starting talking about the Son of Man suffering and dying, Peter
rebuked Jesus, who in turn rebuked Peter for thinking in human, not
divine terms (8:31-33). Peter, like most of his Jewish compatriots,
expected the kingdom of God to come in power. The Messiah would lead
this victorious charge and share in God’s glory, not suffer and die
along in the process.
Peter was not the only one
of Jesus’ disciples to be confused over the nature of his messianic
calling. Two chapters later in Mark, Jesus once again informed his
closest followers that he, as Son of Man, was going to be assaulted and
killed (10:33-34). Immediately after Jesus said this James and John
approached him and asked “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and
one at your left, in your glory” (10:37). Rather cheeky, don’t you
think, not to mention obtuse. Jesus responded first by asking James and
John if they were able to drink the cup that he drinks, and then by
informing them that it is not his job to decide who gets to sit at his
right or left hand (10:38-40). (The idea of the cup Jesus drinks
deserves further attention, and will be the subject of my next post.)
When the other disciples heard what James and John were plotting, they
became angry. Jesus proceeded to rebuke the whole lot of them:
know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers
lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it
is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must
be your servant, and whoever whishes to be first among you must be
slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve,
and to give his life as ransom for many.” (10:42-45)
attitudes exhibited by James and John, and the rest of the disciples
for that matter, are inconsistent with the way of Jesus, which leads to
greatness but only through servanthood. The prime illustration of this
paradox? Jesus’ own destiny as Son of Man. Here, for the first time,
Jesus supplies a hint as to the reason for his imminent death. He is
going to give up his life as a “ransom for many.”
wasn’t the first Jew in Second Temple Judaism to speak of giving up
one’s life for the sake of others. A century and a half before,
Mattathias, the father of Judas Maccabeus and his brothers, urged his
sons to “show zeal for the law, and give your lives for the covenant of
our ancestors (1 Maccabees 2:50). The Maccabean brothers were to fight
to the death for the sake of their faith. Even closer to Jesus’
understanding of his sacrifice is a description of martyrdom found in 4
Maccabees: “[those who died] having become, as it were, a ransom [antipsychon]
for the sin of our nation. And through the blood of those devout ones
and their death as an atoning sacrifice, divine Providence preserved
Israel that previously had been mistreated” (4 Macc 4:21-22). Here the
willingness of Jewish people to suffer and die rather than compromise
their faithfulness to God is seen as making up for the sin of the
Jewish people, which in turn motivated God to preserve the nation.
texts from the Maccabean literature and Jesus’ description of his own
sacrifice in Mark 10 were inspired by two crucial chapters from the
prophet Isaiah. These chapters begin with a hopeful vision of the
coming of God’s kingdom:
How beautiful upon the mountains
are the feet of the messenger who announces peace,
who brings good news,
who announces salvation,
who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.” (Isa 52:7)
But then the passage takes an unexpected turn, picturing God’s servant as anything but attractive (52:14-53:2). Moreover,
He was despised and rejected by others
a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity;
and as one from whom others hide their faces
he was despised, and we held him of no account. (53:3)
Yet this Suffering Servant endured such scorn for the sake of others:
Surely he has borne our infirmities
and carried our diseases; . . .
But he was wounded for our transgressions,
crushed for our iniquities;
upon him as the punishment that made us whole,
and by his bruises we are healed. . . .
Therefore I will allot him a portion with the great,
and he shall divide the spoil with the strong;
because he poured out himself to death,
and was numbered with the transgressors;
yet he bore the sin of many, . . . (53:4-5, 12)
Although this passage from Isaiah does not use the word “ransom” (lutron
in Mark 10:45), it clearly conveys the idea of one who suffers for the
sake of others, so that they might be made whole. Through his painful
death, the Servant of God bears the sins of others. And somehow this is
part and parcel of the coming of God’s kingdom announced at the
beginning of Isaiah 52.
Of course what makes
Jesus’ statement in Mark 10:45 so curious is that he doesn’t speak of
the Servant of God giving his life as a ransom for many, but the Son of
Man filling this role. There’s nothing in the Hebrew Scriptures to
suggest that the Son of Man would bring the kingdom through some sort
of sacrificial death. We don’t find this connection in the Maccabean
literature or in other Jewish writings either. Jesus is weaving
together disparate strands of Jewish tradition to create a unique
tapestry of the coming kingdom. He, as Messiah and Son of Man, will
bring the kingdom, but only by fulfilling the role of the Suffering
Servant in Isaiah 52-53. For the first time in the gospels we see a
part of Jesus’ rationale for suffering and dying. He will bear the sin
of many in order to bring the healing and forgiveness of God’s kingdom.
my next post I’ll examine in greater detail Jesus’ curious statement
about drinking the cup (Mark 10:39). This, as it turns out, provides
another window through which we can glimpse Jesus’ sense of his
Part 16 : How is the Kingdom of God Coming? (cont)
my last post I began to comment on the passage in Mark 10, where James
and John ask Jesus: “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at
your left, in your glory” (10:37). Of course the fact that Jesus has
just spoken for the second time about his imminent death doesn’t seem
to have made much of an impression of these two disciples. Jesus
responds by saying, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able
to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I
am baptized with?” (10:38) James and John eagerly reply, “We are able”
(10:39), to which Jesus adds, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and
with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized”
What is Jesus talking about? Do you
feel rather like James and John at this point, not really knowing what
this talk of a “cup” is all about? It’s worth understanding this
allusion, not only to get the point of this passage in Mark, but also
to get insight into Jesus’ understanding of his approaching death.
several passages of the Old Testament, the cup is a symbol of God’s
wrath. (By using the word “wrath,” I’m not referring to God’s anger
alone, but also just judgment upon sin.) In Psalm 75, for example, we
For in the hand of the LORD there is a cup
with foaming wine, well mixed;
he will pour a draught from it,
and all the wicked of the earth
shall drain it down to the dregs. (Psalm 75:8)
take the following passage from Isaiah, which appears shortly before
the description of the suffering servant in chapters 52-53.
Rouse yourself, rouse yourself!
Stand up, O Jerusalem,
you who have drunk at the hand of the LORD
the cup of his wrath,
who have drunk to the dregs
the bowl of staggering. . . . (Isa 51:17)
In a similar passage, the Lord speaks to the prophet Jeremiah:
from my hand this cup of the wine of wrath, and make all the nations to
whom I send you drink it. They shall drink and stagger and go out of
their minds because of the sword that I am sending among them. (Jer
In each of
these passages, the “cup” is a symbol of God’s wrath. Drinking the cup
is equivalent to receiving God’s righteous judgment.
when Jesus speaks to James and John of drinking from the cup, he is
once again using the language of the prophets. He himself will drink
from the cup of God’s wrath, though not because he deserves it. A few
verses later, Jesus elaborates further by explaining his calling as Son
of Man, namely, “to give his life a ransom for many” (10:45). In Jewish
speculation, the Son of Man would come to execute God’s judgment upon
the wicked gentiles. But Jesus redefines this mission. Now he will take
God’s judgment upon himself. He will drink deeply of the cup of divine
wrath, even dying so that others may live.
Mark 10 we find, not only Jesus’ second prediction of his imminent
death, but also the beginning of a rationale for this seemingly
paradoxical fate. Jesus will be killed, not only because of opposition
from Jewish and Roman leaders in Jerusalem, but also, on a deeper
level, because he is going to drink the cup of divine wrath. He is
going to bear the sin of Israel, indeed, as we learn later on, the sin
of the world. This is his unique and unexpected calling as Messiah and
Son of Man. When human sin has been righteously judged, when Jesus has
borne the penalty in his own person, then and only then will God’s
kingdom be able to come on earth.
The imagery of
the cup suggests another crucial scene in Jesus’ ministry, of course,
the Last Supper. In my next post I’ll begin to examine this episode,
which reveals even more profoundly the reason for Jesus’ death and its
connection to the coming of God’s kingdom.
Part 17 : How is the Kingdom of God Coming? (cont)
my last post I discussed Jesus’ rather elliptical response to James and
John when they ask to sit alongside him in his glory. “You do not know
what you are asking,” he says. “Are you able to drink the cup that I
drink?” (Mark 10:38). The cup, following Old Testament usage, stands
for God’s wrathful judgment upon sin. Jesus will drink the cup, bearing
this judgment by suffering and dying. This, he believes, is part and
parcel of his messianic calling, and necessary if the kingdom of God is
to come in its fullness.
Jesus’ reference to the
cup reminds us of another crucial incident in his ministry, one that
perhaps more than any other reveals his own understanding of his
imminent death. This incident, of course, is what we call The Last
Supper: Jesus’ final meal with his disciples before he is betrayed and
In the Gospel of Mark, this final
meal occurs on the occasion of the Passover, the great Jewish feast
that commemorates the Exodus, when God delivered the Jews from bondage
in Egypt. Jesus eats this meal, not with his natural family as would be
typical, but with his “kingdom family,” if you will, his closest
disciples. Here is Mark’s description of the key moments of this feast:
they were eating, he took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he
broke it, gave it to them, and said, “Take; this is my body.” Then he
took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, and all of them
drank from it. He said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant,
which is poured out for many. Truly I tell you, I will never again
drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in
the kingdom of God.” (Mark 14:22-25)
all to easy for Christians to miss the potential scandal of Jesus’
action. He and his followers are remembering God’s salvation of Israel
from Egypt, not to mention God’s faithfulness to his people throughout
the ages. Jesus, as host, is directing the meal, when he makes a most
unexpected pair of assertions. “This is my body” and “This is my
blood of the covenant.” Until that moment in history, the Passover was
preeminently about God, and secondarily about Israel. But now Jesus, an
apparently faithful Jewish man leading a celebration of the Passover,
says in so many words: “Really, this is all about me!” Astounding! Shocking!
you have a hard time relating to the apparent offense of these
statements, suppose that this Sunday when my church celebrates
communion, instead of saying to the people, “This is the body of
Christ, broken for you,” I were to say, “This is my body, the body of
Mark Roberts. Here is God’s salvation, in me.” Blasphemy, you say!?
Indeed! My future as pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church would
suddenly be in jeopardy, I can assure you.
this is more or less like what Jesus was doing with the Passover.
Either he was struck by a fit of megalomania, or he was somehow telling
the startling truth of his life and mission. Even as Passover was all
about God’s salvation of Israel, now that salvation was being embodied
in Jesus himself.
refers to the cup of wine as “my blood of the covenant, which is poured
out for many” (Mark 14:24). This is an allusion to the story in Exodus
24, where the people of Israel endorse God’s covenant. Then Moses,
having sacrificed many animals, “took the blood and dashed it on the
people, and said, ‘See the blood of the covenant that the LORD has made
with you in accordance with all these words’” (24:7-8). The new
covenant will be ratified with blood, but in this case with the spilled
blood of Jesus, who, like the lambs sacrificed in the first Passover,
will give his life so that God’s people might be spared.
wasn’t the first one to connect the blood of the covenant with the
coming of God’s kingdom. In fact the prophet Zechariah made this same
connection in a passage we associate with Jesus’ triumphal entry into
Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim
and the war horse from Jerusalem;
and the battle bow shall be cut off,
and he shall command peace to the nations;
his dominion shall be from sea to sea,
and from the River to the ends of the earth.
As for you also, because of the blood of my covenant with you,
I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit. (Zech 9:9-11)
of God’s covenant with Israel, which was ratified with the blood of
sacrificed animals, God’s king will rule over a global kingdom and
God’s people will be redeemed from bondage. Jesus comes as the
divinely-anointed king, not at first to lead Israel to victory,
however, but to offer his own blood so that the new covenant and God’s
universal kingdom might be inaugurated (see also Jeremiah 31).
Through the actions and words of the Last Supper, Jesus says:
Even as God once saved his people from slavery in Egypt, so God is now saving his people from slavery to sin through me.
Even as the blood of lambs once enabled death to “pass over” Israel, so my blood will lead to the forgiveness of sin.
as the first covenant was sealed with sacrificial blood, so the new
covenant will be sealed through my blood, poured out for many.
am choosing the way of death, Jesus says, so that the new life of the
new covenant may come. My sacrifice will overcome the problem of sin,
so that God’s kingdom may be established in all its fullness.
the last line of The Last Supper in Mark’s gospel, Jesus himself points
to the coming of the kingdom: “Truly I tell you, I will never again
drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in
the kingdom of God” (14:25). Though Jesus is about to die as a ransom
for many, he has hope of a new day, when the kingdom will come and
there will be a grand messianic banquet. Yet before this happens, Jesus
must fulfill his unique calling by offering his body and blood for
Part 18 : How Does the Message of Jesus Lead to Crucifixion?
my last post I wrapped up an extended answer to the question: How is
the kingdom of God coming? I showed that Jesus, contrary to the
expectations of his disciples and, indeed, all other first-century
Jews, believed that the kingdom of God would come as the Messiah drank
the cup of God’s wrath, offering himself as a ransom for many (Mark
10:35-45). Jesus envisioned his role as Messiah – though he preferred
the enigmatic title, Son of Man – as leading to his death in Jerusalem.
During his last meal with his disciples, Jesus symbolized his death by
recasting the imagery of the Passover meal to focus on himself and his
sacrifice. Even as God once led the Israelites out of bondage in Egypt,
so Jesus would lead God’s people out of bondage to sin and its
consequences by taking the due penalty for sin upon himself.
you might wonder, why would this sense of his calling get Jesus
crucified? Surely what Jesus thought about his future was odd and
unexpected, and quite disconcerting to some Jewish leaders, but was it
a reason to have him put to death? In our effort to understand how the
message of Jesus led to his crucifixion, we seem to be missing a
crucial piece of the puzzle. And, indeed, we are.
missing piece is the other watershed event, in addition to The Last
Supper, that happened in Jerusalem during the last week of Jesus’ life:
the so-called cleansing of the Temple. It comes after Jesus’ grand
entrance into the city, an entrance fit for a king – literally. No
doubt many of those who welcomed Jesus with their hosannas expected him
to go to the Temple, the center of Jewish life and faith, and announce
the beginning of the end of Roman rule over Judea. But when Jesus
entered the Temple, not only did he not do what was expected, but, once
more, he did something utterly unexpected and, I might add,
unappreciated. As Mark tells the story,
began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in
the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the
seats of those who sold doves; and he would not allow anyone to carry
anything through the temple (11:15-16)
What rationale did Jesus offer for such shocking behavior? Marks adds,
was teaching and saying, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called
a house of prayer for all the nations?’ But you have made it a den of
phrase, “den of robbers,” comes from the prophecy of Jeremiah (7:11),
where God condemned the Israelites for being unfaithful to him, but
believing that they could hide in the spiritual protection of the
temple, just like thieves in their hideout. Jeremiah’s prophecy spelled
doom for the temple, which God was about to destroy as a part of his
judgment upon Israel (7:12-15). By using this passage, Jesus not only
inferred that the temple authorities were dishonest thieves, but also
that God was about to judge the temple and destroy it. Not exactly a
way to win friends and influence people among the Jerusalem priesthood.
A scale model of the Jerusalem Temple, displayed at the Holyland Hotel in Jerusalem.
was not the only Jew in his day to criticize the Temple. Many of the
common folk despised its heavy taxation and financial corruptness,
while the Essenes from Qumran wrote it off completely as spiritually
bankrupt. But Jesus action in the temple, combined with his citation of
Jeremiah, was a frontal assault on the central institution of Judaism
in his day. Moreover, he explicitly undermined the authority of the
entrenched temple hierarchy. It’s no wonder that “the chief priests and
the scribes,” when they heard what Jesus had done, “kept looking for a
way to kill him” (Mark 11:18). A prophetic rabble rouser in Galilee
could be ignored; one who defamed the temple itself needed to be
dispatched quickly. The problem for the authorities, however, was the
widespread popularity of Jesus. Now if they could only get the Romans
to crucify Jesus . . . .
If you’ve been following
my series on the message of Jesus, you can see that his action in the
temple wasn’t merely a ploy to get himself killed. Rather, it was the
logical conclusion to his proclamation of the kingdom of God – a
kingdom in which forgiveness comes from Jesus directly, without the
mediation of Temple, priest, or sacrifice. In the coming kingdom of
God, in the new covenant inaugurated through Jesus’ own sacrifice,
there is no need for a Temple in Jerusalem, or anyplace else for that
matter. Instead, in the coming kingdom of God:
See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them as their God;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
and he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away. (Revelation 21:3-4)
my next and final post in this series, I’ll tie up a few loose ends and
suggest how the message of Jesus might be lived out among his people
Part 19 : Conclusions
this series on the message of Jesus I’ve attempted to answer the most
common and central questions people have about his message. In this
final post I want to review what we have learned by summarizing my
What Was the Core of Jesus’ Message?
core of Jesus’ message was the proclamation of the coming of the
kingdom of God: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come
near; repent, and believe in the good news” (Mark 1:14-15).
What is the Kingdom of God?
English phrase “kingdom of God” translates a Greek phrase from the
gospels that refers not so much to the place where God rules as to the
presence and power of God’s actual rule. The kingdom or reign of God is
here when God is exercising his authority on earth.
How Did Jesus Proclaim the Kingdom of God?
proclaimed the kingdom of God in words (basic statements of fact,
explanations, parables) and in works (healings, exorcisms, nature
miracles, other symbolic gestures). What Jesus said, he did. This not
only illustrated the truth of his proclamation, but it also drew the
people to him.
Where is the Kingdom of God?
to popular perceptions, the kingdom of God is not primarily in heaven
or our hearts, but in all dimensions of reality. God’s reign impacts
actions, thoughts, relationships, families, institutions, and
When is the Kingdom of God Coming?
proclaimed the kingdom of God as something present in his ministry, and
also as something that was still to come in glory. Thus the kingdom is
not either present or future, but both present and future. It is the
“already and not yet kingdom.” It’s is already here, and not yet fully
here. Thus it is rather like an engaged couple, a pregnant mother, or a
finished but not quite yet graduated doctoral student.
How is the Kingdom of God Coming?
to Jesus, the reign of God will not come through a Jewish revolt
against Rome. Though he agreed with his Jewish contemporaries who
looked forward to the coming of an anointed deliverer, Jesus conceived
of the work of the Messiah in radically unexpected terms. Rather than
conquering the Romans through force, Jesus, as Messiah or Son of Man,
would die on a Roman cross. Through this sacrificial action he would
take God’s judgment upon himself, offering his life as a ransom for
many. The new exodus, God’s new act of salvation, was taking place in
Jesus, and would be culminated in his passion and resurrection.
How Does the Message of Jesus Lead to Crucifixion?
his ministry, Jesus consistently upset many of the religious and
political leaders of the day. His proclamation of the kingdom through
words and works made him a marked man, both because he contradicted
many of the core values of his opponents, and because he undermined
their popular impact. But when Jesus “cleansed” the Temple in
Jerusalem, this was the last straw. He became a clear and present
danger, not only to the Pharisees in Galilee, but to the priestly
hierarchy in Jerusalem, and to the Temple, the core institution of
Judaism, and to the fragile peace of Judea. Thus he threatened the
social order so essential to Roman domination. The leaders in
Jerusalem, both Jewish and Roman, sought to crucify Jesus, both to get
him out of their way and to warn others not to follow in his footsteps.
Closing Thoughts: How Do We Follow Jesus?
Jesus came to inaugurate the reign of God on earth, if he proclaimed
this message in words and works, and if, in the end, this message led
him to the cross, then how do we who believe in Jesus follow him today?
Let me offer a few brief suggestions:
|1. We should seek to live each moment in the reality of the kingdom of God. Jesus
said, “The kingdom of God has come hear; repent and believe in the good
news” (Mark 1:15). This call is still valid today. When we accept God’s
rule over our lives, we adopt values and priorities that are radically
different than those of the world. Thus we make a U-turn; we repent and
live our lives in a brand new direction, pointing toward God’s kingdom.
2. We live in the world as salt and light.
Like Jesus, both our words and our works should proclaim the reality of
the kingdom. We talk about the good news of what God has done in
Christ, inviting others to accept this gospel and live under God’s
reign. And we live out this reign each day by loving our enemies,
healing the sick, confronting evil, feeding the hungry, forgiving those
who wrong us, and living as a active member of the community of Jesus.
3. We take up our cross and follow Jesus each day. We
who live in the community of Jesus must seek, not to dominate others,
but to serve them. We live, not for our own glory, but for God, to whom
belongs the kingdom, and the glory, and the power.
4. We live in the present power and the future hope of the resurrection. Although
I have not spoken of the resurrection in this series on the message of
Jesus, were it not for the fact that Jesus was raised from the dead on
Easter, none of what I’ve said would have any value whatsoever. The
message of Jesus would have been long forgotten as wishful thinking by
one more failed Jewish messianic pretender. The resurrection of Jesus
persuaded his confused and bereaved disciples that he was who he said
he was, and that his paradoxical “program” for the coming of the
kingdom had in fact been the right one. We who put our trust in Jesus
today have access to same power that raised Jesus from dead – the Holy
Spirit who dwells in and among us (Ephesians 1:17-23). Moreover, we
believe that Jesus’ resurrection prefigures our own, and that one day
we will live with him in the fullness of the kingdom of God (1
Corinthians 15). This hope sustains us as we live today in the
ambiguity of the “already and not yet” kingdom. Someday the kingdom of
God will come in full power; the mustard seed will be fully grown, and
the victory of God will be complete. In that day, God will wipe away
every tear and his dwelling will be here among us (Revelation 21). Then
we will join the heavenly chorus in singing,
The kingdom of this world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever.