The Quest for the Lost Jesus
Part 3: The Coming of the Kingdom
Andy Bannister 2002

You are welcome to email the author at andybannister@mac.com

Read the other parts of the Quest for the Lost Jesus series
Part 1
Asking Questions, Seeking Answers
Part 2
The Mindset of the Messiah
Part 3
The Coming of the Kingdom

Download all three parts as one handy PDF file

Recommended reading
(UK readers click here instead)



The story so far ...

In the first part of the Quest for the Lost Jesus series we looked at why it is important for Muslims to discover more about the historical Jesus of Nazareth. The Qur'an contains such a small amount of information about him that if Muslims wish to truly say that they honour and respect him, then it is important that they try to get to grips with history. Since even a cursory reading of the historical data about Jesus of Nazareth reveals that he certainly did not consider himself to be merely one in a long line of prophets, the vital question for any student of history becomes who did Jesus consider himself to be?

The answer is that Jesus considered himself to be the Messiah --- a title which both the Bible and the Qur'an affirm. Last time, in the second part of the Quest for the Lost Jesus series, we looked at a crucially important question which Muslims sometimes overlook. What does it mean to say that Jesus is the Messiah? What does the word Messiah mean? What did Jesus consider his role as Messiah meant? And what does that mean for us today?

Now, in the third part of the Quest for the Lost Jesus series, we turn to another important question, one that not only sheds more light about Jesus' messianic identity, but also upon what Jesus understood his ministry to have achieved. The question what did Jesus accomplish? is a vital one. Muslims would say that he was simply an important prophet, speaking what Allah commanded him to say to the people of Israel. However, as we have seen in the previous two parts of this series, Muslim definitions of Jesus often fall short because they are not grounded in history. To understood what Jesus understood himself to be doing, one needs to look at two distinct areas:

Particularly when one studies the teaching of Jesus recorded in the New Testament gospels, something very striking leaps out. A phrase that is found on the lips of Jesus more than perhaps any other --- the Kingdom of God. Jesus referred to the Kingdom of God over 100 times in his preaching and teaching, for him it was a vitally important concept:

The central aspect of the teaching of Jesus was that concerning the Kingdom of God. On this there can be no doubt and today no scholar does, in fact, doubt it. Jesus appeared as one who proclaimed the Kingdom; all else in his message and ministry serves a function in relation to that proclamation and derives its meaning from it. [1]

The majority of his parables were told to explain aspects of the Kingdom of God. Jesus refers to the coming of the Kingdom, speaks of his actions as signs of the Kingdom, and so on and so forth. If Muslims are to understand both what Jesus taught and did, then it is important to get to grips with what Jesus meant by this mysterious phrase. So what is the "Kingdom of God"? To answer that question, we need to discover what the Old Testament has to say about the idea --- and what it would have meant to a first century Jew.


The Kingdom of God in the Old Testament

The Old Testament is filled with a rich imagery that Jesus drew upon when he spoke about the Kingdom of God. Central to the whole message of the Old Testament is the idea of God as King, not merely of Israel but of the whole world:

"O Yahweh [2], God of our fathers, are you not God in heaven? Do you not rule over all the Kingdoms of the nations? In your hand are power and might, and none is able to withstand you." (2 Chronicles 20:6)

But Yahweh is the true God; he is the living God and the everlasting King. At his wrath the earth quakes, and the nations cannot endure his indignation. (Jeremiah 10:10)

However, as well as speaking of God as King of all the nations, there is also a major strand of teaching in the Old Testament prophets that speaks of a day when God will become King. Whilst it may indeed be true, argues the Old Testament, that God is King of every nation, what do you see when you look around at the world? Human sin and rebellion, pride and disobedience, injustice, disease, famine and war. The Old Testament prophets looked forward to a day when God would act in power to demonstrate his kingly rule, to right wrongs, deal with injustice and sin, and assert his kingship. One of the best examples of this is spoken by the Old Testament prophet Zechariah:

Behold, a day of Yahweh is coming, when the spoil taken from you will be divided in the midst of you. For I will gather all the nations against Jerusalem to battle, and the city shall be taken and the houses plundered and the women ravished; half of the city shall go into exile, but the rest of the people shall not be cut off from the city. Then Yahweh will go forth and fight against those nations as when he fights on a day of battle. On that day his feet shall stand on the Mount of Olives which lies before Jerusalem on the east; and the Mount of Olives shall be split in two from east to west by a very wide valley; so that one half of the Mount shall withdraw northward, and the other half southward. And the valley of my mountains shall be stopped up, for the valley of the mountains shall touch the side of it; and you shall flee as you fled from the earthquake in the days of Uzziah king of Judah. Then Yahweh will come, and all the holy ones with him.
On that day there shall be neither cold nor frost. And there shall be continuous day (it is known to Yahweh), not day and not night, for at evening time there shall be light. On that day living waters shall flow out from Jerusalem, half of them to the eastern sea and half of them to the western sea; it shall continue in summer as in winter. And Yahweh will become king over all the earth; on that day Yahweh will be one and his name one.
(Zechariah 14:1-9)

As history rolled on, this hope that God would act dramatically in history to assert his reign and his kingship grew stronger in Judaism. As God's people went through the trauma of exile and return, and then oppression by the more powerful nations which surrounded them, this hope was shaped and refined. Slowly the Jews grew to believe that things on earth were so bad, that sin and injustice and oppression were so out of control, that when God acted dramatically in history what would actually occur would be the end of history itself. When the Kingdom of God came, it was believed, then a line would be drawn under human history. (To some extent this idea can be compared to the strong belief in Islam of the final Day of Judgement, often spoken about in the Qur'an. When that day comes, according to Islamic belief, human history will be at an end).

The Kingdom of God in the Old Testament involved an inbreaking of God into history when God's redemptive purpose is fully realized. The Kingdom of God is always an earthly hope, although an earth redeemed from the curse of evil. However, the Old Testament hope is always ethical and not speculative. It lets the light of the future shine on the present ... God would act in the near future to save or judge Israel ... to act for his people.[3]

This belief was strong among Jesus' first century contemporaries, as can be shown by examining the historical evidence from the time, for example the Dead Sea Scrolls written by the Essene community at Qumran. This first century Jewish belief in God's kingly rule, in the coming of his Kingdom, can be summarised then like this:

George Ladd, who we quoted above, has helpfully illustrated this powerful Old Testament and Jewish understanding of history with the following diagram, which shows how the Judaism of Jesus' day believed in what can be described as two ages; this age characterised by evil, sin and suffering, and the age to come, brought in when God's Kingdom comes in power.

Signs of the Kingdom

We have seen how the Judaism of Jesus' day looked forward to the day when God would act decisively in history, when he would dramatically exercise his kingship. But this was no vague, undefined, content-less hope --- Jews of Jesus' day understood what this coming of the Kingdom of God would entail. They found this information in the Old Testament prophets, and expressed their hope in their own writings. One of the most valuable discoveries for unlocking more of the history of the first century was the discovery in the 1940s of the Dead Sea Scrolls. These were copies of the Old Testament and community writings from a Jewish sect known as the Essenes, a radical separatist movement who lived out in the desert at Qumran around the time of Jesus. Because so many of their writings have been preserved, historians have another unique window[4] into the hopes and beliefs of Jews living at the same time as Jesus.

Here is the text of a fragment of manuscript from Qumran which gives us an insight into some of the fervent hopes that Jews at the time of Jesus were placing upon the coming of the Kingdom of God, an event which the Qumran community clearly linked with the work of the Messiah:

[the hea]vens and the earth will listen to His Messiah,
and none therein will stray from the commandments of the holy ones.
Seekers of the Lord, strengthen yourselves in His service!
All you hopeful in (your) heart, will you not find the Lord in this?
For the Lord will consider the pious and call the righteous by name.
Over the poor His spirit will hover and will renew the faithful with His power.
And He will glorify the pious on the throne of the eternal Kingdom.
He who liberates the captives, restores sight to the blind, straightens the b[ent]
And f[or] ever I will cleav[ve to the h]opeful and in His mercy ...
And the fr[uit ...] will not be delayed for anyone.
And the Lord will accomplish glorious things which have never been as [he ...]
For He will heal the wounded, and revive the dead and bring good news to the poor
(Qumran fragment 4Q521)

Notice some of the key ideas --- the blind will see, the poor will be filled with God's Spirit, the wounded healed, dead raised, and the poor will be given hope and good news. This message of hope and expectation was not invented by first century Jews but drawn from the Old Testament prophets. There we find prophets like Isaiah prophesying:

The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me to bring good tidings to the afflicted;
he has sent me to bind up the broken-hearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and the opening of the prison to those who are bound;
to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
to grant to those who mourn in Zion --- to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit;
that they may be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the Lord,
that he may be glorified.
(Isaiah 61:1-3)

Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the dumb sing for joy.
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert;
the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water;
the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes.
And a highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way;
the unclean shall not pass over it, and fools shall not err therein.
No lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it;
they shall not be found there, but the redeemed shall walk there.
And the ransomed of Yahweh shall return, and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.
(Isaiah 35:4-10)

This then was the hope that was burning in Jesus' contemporaries in first century Palestine. They believed in a God who had acted dramatically in history in the past and who would do so again in the future. Despite the oppression of Roman rule, they clung to their faith in God's coming Kingdom. To speak of God's Kingdom coming was to speak of ...

... the action of the covenant God, within Israel's history, to restore her fortunes, to bring to an end the bitter period of exile, and to defeat, through her, the evil that ruled the whole world. This restoration of Israel, celebrated in the regular liturgy [such as the Psalms], is part of the meaning of her God's becoming king. Israel herself is the people through whom the king will rule.[5]

This then was the background against which Jesus taught and ministered. When Jesus spoke of the "Kingdom of God" as he did time after time, this is what he would have evoked at first in the minds of his listeners. But the next question is this; did Jesus teach anything new about the Kingdom of God, or did he simply believe exactly the same as his contemporaries did? When one looks in depth at what Jesus said about this vital subject, one finds that as with many topics, Jesus was unique.


Jesus and the Kingdom of God

What was original about Jesus' teaching concerning the Kingdom of God was not its content --- he spoke of forgiveness, of healing, of the restoration of God's people. No, what was original with Jesus was two aspects; the means by which the Kingdom of God would come and the timing of the Kingdom. On both of these subjects, Jesus departed radically from his first century contemporaries.

The means by which the Kingdom would come

We have seen how the Jews of the first century knew that God's Kingdom was coming. The question was not whether or not God would dramatically act in history, but how and through whom. Messianic movements were rife in the first century. Whilst Christians and Muslims agree that Jesus is the Messiah[6], there were plenty of other candidates for messiahship in first century Palestine. The various Jewish groups wildly differed on the means by which the Kingdom of God would come. For example:

Jesus, on the other hand, rejected all three of these popular options. Whilst he may have shared the assessment of contemporary society as evil and sinful, he did not believe that the way to deal with that was to withdraw. Indeed his enemies were fond of attacking him for his habit of mixing with the outcasts of society:

And the scribes of the Pharisees, when they saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, said to his disciples, "Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?"
When Jesus heard it, he said to them, "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I came not to call the righteous, but sinners."
(Mark 2:16-17)

One of the Pharisees asked him to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee's house, and took his place at table. And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was at table in the Pharisee's house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment, and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears, and wiped them with the hair of her head, and kissed his feet, and anointed them with the ointment.
Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, "If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner."
And Jesus answering said to him, "Simon, I have something to say to you." And Simon answered, "What is it, Teacher?"
Jesus said, "A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he forgave them both. Now which of them will love him more?"
Simon answered, "The one, I suppose, to whom he forgave more." And Jesus said to him, "You have judged rightly."
Then turning toward the woman he said to Simon, "Do you see this woman? I entered your house, you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much; but he who is forgiven little, loves little."
Then Jesus said to her, "Your sins are forgiven."
Then those who were at table with him began to say among themselves, "Who is this, who even forgives sins?"
(Luke 7:36-49)

The "holy war" option for bringing in the Kingdom of God was perhaps the most popular one at the time. Rebel leaders were often popular heroes, enjoying widespread support amongst the common people. Yet Jesus was not afraid to distance himself from the very idea of using violence and revolution to bring in the Kingdom of God. As on many other subjects, Jesus was outspoken:

"You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' But I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also; and if any one forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles."
"You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you."
(Matthew 5:38-39, 41, 43-44)

In first century Palestine, it would have been very obvious to anyone in the audience at Jesus' Sermon on the Mount who was being referred to. One type of person in particular was likely to force you to go a mile --- and that was a Roman soldier. The soldiers of the occupying power would regularly conscript young Jewish men to carry heavy equipment for them; no wonder then that talk of revolution was always in the air, this was just one more insult among many. Yet Jesus did not align himself with the revolutionary cause, he issued no rallying cry to holy war, but rather gave the hard instruction that enemies were to be loved and prayed for. Whilst his view of warfare and bloodshed in particular is famous:

While he was still speaking, Judas came, one of the twelve, and with him a great crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests and the elders of the people. Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, "The one I shall kiss is the man; seize him." And he came up to Jesus at once and said, "Hail, Master!" And he kissed him.
Jesus said to him, "Friend, why are you here?" Then they came up and laid hands on Jesus and seized him.
And behold, one of those who were with Jesus stretched out his hand and drew his sword, and struck the slave of the high priest, and cut off his ear.
Then Jesus said to him, "Put your sword back into its place; for all who live by the sword will die by the sword."
(Matthew 26:47-52)

So if Jesus rejected the popular options of violent revolution or total withdrawal, how did he believe that God's Kingdom would break into history? How would liberation and forgiveness, healing and hope, come pouring out on the people of God and onwards to a wider world. Jesus believed, quite simply, that the Kingdom of God would break into history not by war or withdrawal, but through him.

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

Commenting on the above verse, New Testament scholar George Beasley-Murray writes:

There is a whole range of sayings of Jesus that compel us to interpret [the above verse] as declaring the inauguration of the Kingdom of God through the presence, the deeds, and the word of Jesus as the instrument of the Kingdom ... [many] actions of Jesus refer to the inbreaking of the Kingdom of God through his action and his imperious word.[8]

In a moment, we will examine some examples of the "range of sayings" to which Beasley-Murray refers. Jesus consistently showed that he believed the Kingdom of God to be especially wrapped up with and coming in his teaching, ministry, and miracles. He was no mere prophet, announcing like all those who had gone before that the Kingdom of God would one day come, that the culmination of Israel's hopes would come eventually --- rather Jesus announced that in him, the long hoped for Kingdom was breaking into history. You could reject him and reject the Kingdom, or accept him, follow him, and accept the Kingdom.

Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, "Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?"
And Jesus said to them, "Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come, when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast."
(Matthew 9:14-15)

The point that Jesus is making here is that fasting is for those who are awaiting the Kingdom of God to come, but it is not however appropriate for the one who is actually bringing it.

And a ruler asked Jesus, "Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?"
Jesus said to him, "Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: 'Do not commit adultery, Do not kill, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honour your father and mother.'
And the ruler replied, "All these I have observed from my youth."
When Jesus heard this, he said to him, "One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me."
But when he heard this the man became sad, for he was very rich.
Jesus looking at him said, "How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the Kingdom of God! For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God.
Those who heard it said, "Then who can be saved?"
But he said, "What is impossible with men is possible with God."
(Luke 18:18-27)

Once again we see key themes of Jesus' preaching and teaching linked --- entry to the Kingdom of God is linked to following him. The rich young ruler was presented with the opportunity of following Jesus, of entering the Kingdom, yet was held back by his great wealth. The issue of riches is not what concerns us here; rather what is striking is the way that Jesus claims to be not only the one who brings the Kingdom but the one who controls access to it.[9]

Now Jesus was casting out a demon from a man who could not speak. When the demon had gone out, the man was able to speak, and the people marvelled. But some of them said, "He casts out demons by Beelzebub, the prince of demons"; while others, to test him, sought from him a sign from heaven.
But Jesus, knowing their thoughts, said to them, "Every Kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and a divided household falls. If Satan also is divided against himself, how will his Kingdom stand? For you say that I cast out demons by Beelzebub. And if I cast out demons by Beelzebub, by whom do your sons cast them out? Therefore they shall be your judges. But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the Kingdom of God has come upon you.
(Luke 11:14-20)

Jesus explicitly links his ministry to the coming of the Kingdom of God. The two are inseparable. This makes Jesus not only unique among his first century contemporaries, but a unique figure within history. The Old Testament prophets spoke again and again of the time when God's Kingdom would break into history --- Jesus went far further, claiming that through him this great hope was coming true.

Jesus clearly believed that with his own work something dramatically new was already happening. The days of preparation were over; Israel's God was now acting in the way he had promised of old.[10]


The timing of the Kingdom

We saw earlier how most Jews of Jesus' time thought in terms of two "ages" - a present evil age, characterised by suffering and sin and the oppression of God's people by their enemies, and a glorious future age to come, when God's Kingdom would break into history, God would right wrongs, end suffering, and vindicate his people. It was something that Jews consistently looked forward too, for they saw the Kingdom of God as something that would occur in the future. When it came, then that would be the end of history as we know it. A concept similar to the Day of Judgement in Islamic thinking. Yet once again, we see that Jesus differed over this point with his contemporaries. He taught that the Kingdom of God was not something located at some distant point in history, but was very dramatically breaking into history right there and then.

[Jesus said to his disciples], "But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. Truly, I say to you, many prophets and righteous men longed to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it." (Matthew 13:16-17)

This theme of Jesus being not merely a pointer to something greater that was to come, but rather the very one who was actually bringing in the Kingdom, is picked up elsewhere by the gospels:

Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, "Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?"
Jesus answered them, "Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them."
(Matthew 11:2-5)

By now you should recognise some of the list of miracles that Jesus uses to explain to the disciples of John what he is about --- the blind seeing, dead being raised and so forth --- these were some of what the Old Testament promised would mark the Kingdom of God coming. Jesus did not see the Kingdom of God as being purely a future thing, but a very real, here and now, tangible reality.

Being asked by the Pharisees when the Kingdom of God was coming, he answered them, "The Kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed; nor will they say 'Lo, here it is!' or 'There!' for behold, the Kingdom of God is in the midst of you." (Luke 17:20-21)

Jesus considered that the Kingdom of God was breaking into history through his ministry and teaching. Unlike any prophet before him, Jesus did not speak of the Kingdom as purely a future reality, a hope to cling to and long for. Rather he saw God's Kingdom breaking into history through him. Sickness and death, sin and suffering, and the power of the devil --- these Jesus considered to be defeated and subject to him as the inaugurator of God's Kingdom. Parable after parable of Jesus speaks of the nature of this Kingdom, the way that, despite the popular expectation, God's Kingdom has not come with dramatic explosions that split the sky in two, but quietly. Jesus believed that he had ushered in God's Kingdom, and that its nature was to grow slow and quietly amongst those who were his faithful followers.

And Jesus said, "The Kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed upon the ground, and should sleep and rise night and day, and the seed should sprout and grow, he knows not how. The earth produces of itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come."
And he said, "With what can we compare the Kingdom of God, or what parable shall we use for it? It is like a grain of 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 4:26-32)

Jesus consistently taught that the Kingdom was a present reality, he acted to show it was operating, and he demonstrated with works of power --- healings and miracles and exorcisms --- that the Kingdom was here and now. We see it too in his offer of forgiveness to the outcasts of society, his willingness to share table fellowship with sinners, and in his challenge to the religious hierarchy of his day. However, Jesus went further than that:

The Kingdom is seen in and through Jesus. Jesus was bold enough to announce that it was he, and not others, who was ushering in the Kingdom. Whether one wants to call this ego-centeredness or incipient Christology is besides the point; Jesus firmly believed that he was he whom God had appointed to usher in the Kingdom. [11]

Yet it would be overly simplistic to say that Jesus regarded the Kingdom of God as wholly in the present. Jesus also laid out some clear teaching on future aspects of the Kingdom of God. For example:

  1. Jesus regarded his own death and resurrection as playing a crucial role in the unfolding of God's Kingdom. (The subject of Jesus' death will be covered in a future part in this series, but at this point it is sufficient to point to the numerous texts where Jesus predicts his suffering and execution at the hands of his enemies; for example Matthew 12:40; 20:18; 27:63; Mark 8:31; 9:31; 10:33-34; Luke 9:22; John 2:19-22).
  2. Jesus taught his disciples to watch and wait for the signs of the Kingdom of God drawing near in more of its fullness:

    [Jesus said], "There will be signs in sun and moon and stars,
    and upon the earth distress of nations in perplexity at the roaring of the sea and the waves,
    men fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world; for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.
    Then they will see the Son of man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, look up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near."
    And he told them a parable: "Look at the fig tree, and all the trees; as soon as they come out in leaf, you see for yourselves and know that the summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the Kingdom of God is near."
    (Luke 21:25-31)
  3. Jesus looked forward to a time in the future when those who had followed him would share the benefits of the Kingdom which he was in the process of inaugurating:

    A dispute arose among the disciples concerning which of them was to be regarded as the greatest. And Jesus said to them, "The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. For which is the greater, one who sits at table, or one who serves? Is it not the one who sits at table? But I am among you as one who serves. You are those who have continued with me in my trials; and I assign to you, as my Father assigned to me, a Kingdom, that you may eat and drink at my table in my Kingdom, and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel. (Luke 22:24-30)
  4. Jesus refused to reveal to his followers exactly when the Kingdom of God would finally come in all its fullness --- when, in short, the Day of Judgement itself would fall. His disciples consistently tried to get this information out of him:

    So when they had come together, they asked him, "Lord, will you at this time restore the Kingdom to Israel?"
    Jesus said to them, "It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth."
    (Acts 1:6---8)

How then can we sum up what Jesus taught about the time scale of the Kingdom? Whatever one thinks about Jesus and the Kingdom --- and, as we have seen, being the most regular thing Jesus taught about, it is important for Muslims to begin thinking about it --- it is vital to hold together these future and present elements. George Ladd has offered another diagram to illustrate Jesus' view, replacing the traditional Jewish two-age model we encountered earlier:[12]

Jesus clearly believed that he was inaugurating the long-promised Kingdom of God. That entry to it was determined by how one responded to him, and those who entered and enjoyed eternal life in God's Kingdom when it finally came in all its splendour and glory would be those who had followed him. The Kingdom had broken in now, it was urgent to respond to Jesus now, yet the Kingdom would only finally complete its breaking into history in the future, with Jesus' second coming.

Jesus said, "A man once gave a great banquet, and invited many; and at the time for the banquet he sent his servant to say to those who had been invited, 'Come; for all is now ready.' But they all alike began to make excuses.
The first said to him, 'I have bought a field, and I must go out and see it; I ask you, have me excused.'
And another said, 'I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I go to examine them; I ask you, have me excused.'
Still another said, 'I have married a wife, and therefore I cannot come.'
So the servant came and reported this to his master. Then the householder in anger said to his servant, 'Go out quickly to the streets and lanes of the city, and bring in the poor and maimed and blind and lame.'
Then the servant said, 'Sir, what you commanded has been done, and still there is room.'
So the master said to the servant, 'Go out to the highways and hedges, and compel people to come in, that my house may be filled. For I tell you, none of those men who were invited shall taste my banquet.'"
(Luke 14:16-24)

Jesus' message was direct and clear in this and other similar parables. One could summarise it like this:

The original audience could hardly have missed the thrust of the parable. Jesus is saying to them, God's Messiah is here. He is inviting you to the messianic banquet of the day of salvation. The banquet is now ready. Do not refuse! For if you do (with your ridiculous excuses) others will fill your places from among the outcasts of Israel, and (in the future) an invitation will go out to the gentiles. The banquet will proceed without you. It will not be cancelled or postponed. The [Kingdom of God] has dawned. Respond to the invitation or opt out of participation in God's salvation. [13]

Perhaps the question that readers today are faced with is a similar one: "what weak excuses might I be placing in the way of Jesus' invitation to participate in the Kingdom of God?" I hope and pray that as this series of papers leads you to think afresh about the historical Jesus, the real flesh and blood first century Jew who preached and taught and demonstrated with works of power the Kingdom of God, the excuse "I never thought about Jesus other than the few references in the Qur'an" might not be one that keeps you from the messianic banquet to which Jesus welcomes all those who follow him, and that on the day of salvation, when God's Kingdom breaks dramatically into history in all its fullness, you might share a place at that table.


Conclusion

To understand the historical Jesus of Nazareth you need to understand his preaching about the Kingdom of God, so central was it to his message. Jesus taught that the Kingdom was breaking in now, through his ministry, and that by following him, one could enter that Kingdom:

In his proclamation of the Kingdom of God Jesus was standing firmly on Old Testament ground. At the same time he was proclaiming a subject that made every Jewish heart throb. Yet Jesus took this concept and transformed it from a narrow-minded nationalistic hope to a universal, spiritual order in which humankind could find the fulfilment of its ultimate desires for righteousness, justice, peace, happiness, freedom from sin and guilt, and a restored relationship to God. Given the fact that the basic human problem of sin and alienation from God is as true today as it ever has been, the message of the Kingdom of God ought to have as great a relevance today as it ever had. [14]

Once again, this raises serious questions for Muslims as they consider Jesus, especially in the light of how the Qur'an presents him. Even laying aside the issue of Jesus' relation to God --- a question that usually lies at the heart of discussion between Christians and Muslims --- the historical Jesus does not fit the hole into which the Qur'an wishes to file him. Jesus does not fit the label "simple prophet", he considered himself much, much more than that. We have seen already in this series how Jesus did not believe a future prophet like Muhammad would come after him and how if one understands what it means to call Jesus "Messiah", then you cannot believe that any future prophet like Muhammad was needed. Once again we face the issue: you can have Jesus and his teaching and preaching, or you can have Muhammad. But you cannot have both, because the two are incompatible.

The real, historical Jesus of Nazareth proclaimed that God's Kingdom was breaking into history and that one could follow him and be part of that. With the Kingdom comes the promise of forgiveness of sins, of the breaking of the power of sin and evil and, ultimately, the promise and hope of life beyond death in God's Kingdom. One can either accept Jesus and his message or, like those who offered the weak excuses in the parable, reject it and have no part in the Kingdom of God on the glorious Day of Salvation.



Footnotes and references
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1 John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew (Volume 2) : Mentor, Message, and Miracles (New York: Doubleday, 1994) p237.
2 Yahweh is the name of God, according to the Old Testament, first revealed by God to Moses at the burning bush (Exodus 3). The name is used in the Hebrew text of the Old Testament over 6,000 times.
3 George E. Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament (Cambridge: The Lutterworth Press, 1994) p58.
4 We say another unique window because of course we also have the writings of Josephus, Rabbinic materials which reflect the period, Roman historians such as Tacitus and, of course, the gospels themselves. The days when historians viewed the gospels with extreme historical scepticism are, thankfully, behind us.
5 N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God (London: SPCK, 1997) p307.
6 Although many Muslims do not understand what it means to call Jesus "Messiah" (al-Masih). See the second part of the Quest for the Lost Jesus series for an in depth explanation of what the term "Messiah" meant and what Jesus understood by it.
7 See N. T. Wright, The Challenge of Jesus (London: SPCK, 2000) p20-21. This book is recommended reading for those following this series.
8 George R. Beasley-Murray, 'The Kingdom of God and Christology in the Gospels' in Joel B. Green & Max Turner (editors), Jesus of Nazareth: Lord and Christ : Essays on the Historical Jesus and New Testament Christology (Carlisle: Paternoster Press, 1994) 22-36, p26-27.
9 A theme that also occurs in a famous passage in another of the gospels:
Jesus said to his disciples, "Do not let your hearts be troubled; believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father's house are many rooms; if it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And when I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. You know the way where I am going."
Thomas said to him, "Lord, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?"
Jesus replied, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me."
(John 14:1-6)
10 N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God (London: SPCK, 1999) p467.
11 Scot McKnight, A New Vision for Israel: The Teachings of Jesus in National Context (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999) p118.
12 George Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament, p67.
13 Kenneth E. Bailey, Through Peasant Eyes: A Literary-Cultural Approach to the Parables in Luke (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980) p111.
14 Chrys C. Caragounis, 'Kingdom of God/Heaven' in Joel B. Green, Scot McKnight & I. Howard Marshall (editors), Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (Leicester: IVP, 1992) 417-430, p430.


Read the other parts of the Quest for the Lost Jesus series
Part 1
Asking Questions, Seeking Answers
Part 2
The Mindset of the Messiah
Part 3
The Coming of the Kingdom

Download all three parts as one handy PDF file

Recommended reading
(UK readers click here instead)

Join us again in July for the the fourth part of The Quest for the Lost Jesus series, when we will be looking at the subject of Jesus' death. What is the historical evidence for the death of Jesus of Nazareth upon a Roman cross in approximately 30AD? What did Jesus think his death would achieve? Why did his enemies want to have him killed? All this and more, coming soon to Answering Islam.

Articles by Andy Bannister
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