Saturday 19 August 2006

Theology for beginners (5): Jesus

Summary: Jesus of Nazareth proclaimed and enacted the imminent nearness of Israel’s God.

In the first century CE, a wandering Jewish prophet and rabbi announced the end of history. He proclaimed a radical re-ordering of power, and the arrival of a new age: the “reign” or “kingdom” of Israel’s God was now dawning, and the story of Israel was fast approaching its climactic moment. Through both his words and actions, this young Galilean peasant announced that the promises which God had made to Israel would soon be fulfilled: God would reign, he would liberate his people from oppression, he would judge the wicked and vindicate the righteous, and the new age of God’s future would dawn. This was the message of Jesus of Nazareth.

Jesus’ entire message was concentrated on the theme of God’s “kingdom.” He proclaimed the kingdom of God as the power of God himself, breaking in from the future. The kingdom of God was not merely something that God would do – it was God himself coming to Israel in kingly power. The God of promise, the God of hope: this God was now drawing near, so that the final goal of history was at hand. Jesus thus chose for himself twelve pupils, as a symbolic announcement that the twelve tribes of Israel were now being gathered for the final scene in the drama of Israel’s history. God is coming! God is near! Now, at last, God’s promises to Israel will be fulfilled!

Indeed, God was so near that Jesus even spoke of him in a new way. He referred to God with striking personal familiarity, and his most characteristic designation of God was “Father.” Israel’s God was no longer the God of a distant future, the God of unfulfilled promises – he was now the Father of the imminent future, the one whose arrival was expected at any moment and who could therefore be spoken of only in the context of mundane, everyday life. Thus Jesus described God’s kingdom by telling parables, simple stories that relate the surprising ways in which God’s nearness impacts on daily life. A person finds hidden treasure in a field; a farmer plants seed and discovers a great harvest; a man pounds on his neighbour’s door in the middle of the night; a thief breaks into a house while everyone is sleeping – this, Jesus said, is what God’s imminent arrival will be like!

Further, Jesus enacted the coming of God’s kingdom by enjoying table fellowship with social outcasts and “sinners.” To such people, Jesus extended forgiveness and acceptance. He indicated that they, too – or rather, they especially – were being gathered into fellowship with God. Thus Jesus demonstrated that the coming of God’s kingdom is wholly unconditional. It is a kingdom of freedom and joy. It is a royal banquet to which everyone is invited – indeed, it is the banquet, the great and final celebration that awaits all people at the climax of history.

This message of God’s imminent kingdom was enacted most dramatically in Jesus’ works of healing and exorcism. However we might wish to interpret such works today, from a historical point of view there is no doubt whatsoever that Jesus’ entire ministry was characterised by healings and miraculous wonders. The disabled, the diseased, those tormented by mental illness – such people flocked to Jesus, and he healed them. Here Jesus was enacting his message of the kingdom – he was performing God’s nearness through the power of God’s Spirit. When God comes near to reign as king, it is the end of oppression and darkness. The victorious power of God’s future drives out all other powers. It lifts up the broken and the disabled. It affirms and restores those whom society considers unclean. It shines light into lives tormented by darkness. It expels everything that negates and destroys life. It brings wholeness or “salvation” – the salvation of God’s future!

Thus Jesus proclaims God’s imminent arrival – and even as Jesus is announcing it, the power of God’s future begins to dawn all around him. In the ministry of Jesus, God’s kingdom comes so near that its effects are already felt – like the wind before a storm, like tremors before an earthquake. And thus Jesus himself expects that Israel’s history will reach its climax at any moment – so near is the one whom Jesus calls Father!

Further reading

  • Bornkamm, Günther. Jesus of Nazareth (New York: Harper & Row, 1960), pp. 53-152.
  • Dunn, James D. G. Jesus Remembered (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), pp. 339-611.
  • Ebeling, Gerhard. The Nature of Faith (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1961), pp. 44-57.
  • Moltmann, Jürgen. The Way of Jesus Christ (London: SCM, 1990), pp. 87-150.
  • Pannenberg, Wolfhart. Jesus – God and Man (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1968), pp. 225-44.
  • Theissen, Gerd. The Shadow of the Galilean (London: SCM, 1987).
  • Wright, N. T. Jesus and the Victory of God (London: SPCK, 1996), pp. 147-474.


Anonymous said...

"It affirms and restores those whom society considers unclean."

Affirms? Is this the right word?

Those whom "society" considers unclean?
This disconnects Jesus too much from the "Law of Moses" and how He Himself is the new Law.

Anonymous said...

You nailed the pro-action of Jesus, Ben; all that's missing is the re-action from the establishment, from those who exercised authority in the social/religious/political space of Second Temple Judaism, viz. the scribes on the one hand, the priests on the other. So in his healings Jesus challenged the priestly monopoly on "health care", while in his Jubilee cancellation of debt (and forgiveness of sin) he challenged the scribal monopoly on Torah interpretation and jurisdiction. He wasn't part of the union. He had to go.

Perhaps you will cover this topic when you come to the death of Jesus. I am simply asking the question: "How is it that the ministry of Jesus ended in a shambles? What is it that got the prophet and healer from Nazareth killed?" And I am suggesting that the the death of Jesus must be understood in the context of his life and work - the way he he pissed people off as he spoke truth to power in word and deed.

A useful book on this subject to add to your bibliography is Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark's Story of Jesus (1988).

Anonymous said...

The first sentence makes Jesus sound like Francis Fukuyama. But that unhappy thought soon disappears:)

Thanks for another interesting post.

desertflower said...

Being a part of the "Kingdom of God" seems like an awesome invitation. However, today's "Christianity" does not seem to have the life-changing punch that it did during Jesus' ministry. As a matter of fact becoming a "Christian" seems not to be synonymous with being a "disciple of Jesus" at all. Why not?

byron smith said...

If I may reply to AndrewE many months later, I suspect it is the other way round...

byron smith said...

Desertflower: could it be because "Christians" have forgotten the message of Jesus? "The reign of God is imminent, so turn around and entrust your future to him!"

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