So 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).
Explanations. 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:
“Let 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.”
Although 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, as in: “It is our duty to bring in the kingdom” or “Our vision is to usher in the kingdom of God.” This misses the biblical point, which emphasizes the agency of God as that which inaugurates God’s own reign. Whatever our relationship to the kingdom, we don’t bring it or produce it or inaugurate it. I’ll say more later about how we live in this world in light of the reign of God.
Parables. 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,
“With 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).
This 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)
Whereas 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 creation.
To 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.