Did Jesus expect the kingdom fully to come within history? Did he look for the transformation of society, either gradually or by progressive stages, until it would entirely conform to the will of God? Or did he expect history to be consummated abruptly in judgement to be followed by a display of the power of God in condemnation of the wicked and their separation from those who had conformed to God's will? The answer is not clear and appears to be a paradox.
Jesus obviously believed the kingdom to be already present. He saw his healings, especially his cure of those troubled by demon possession, as evidence that it had come. To him the forces of evil were intensely real and personal. He accepted Satan as an existent being, an enemy of God, and he addressed the demons whom he cast out, not as delusions of sick minds, but as actual. To him the fact that the demons were being deprived of their baleful power over men was clear proof that the kingdom of heaven, the rule of God, was beginning. Jesus taught his disciples to pray that God's will might be done on earth as it is in heaven and commanded them to make fellow-disciples of all nations, baptizing them, and teaching them to observe all that he had commanded the little inner group of his followers. By his comparison of the kingdom of God with "leaven which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal, till the whole was leavened" he might well be supposed to be implying that all human society would be fully transformed by a progressive process. There is, too, the confident statement by one who was very close to the mind of Jesus, that God sent his son into the world not to condemn the world but that the world might be saved through him.
On the other hand, Jesus declared that few find the way to life and that many follow the road which leads to destruction, that both good and evil grow until the harvest, apparently a sudden consummation, in which the wicked, their character fully revealed by the ripening of their course will be dealt with as harvesters deal with noxious weeds, and the good be conserved as wheat is gathered into a granary.
Perhaps the paradox is insoluble within history. Certainly thus far in history it remains a paradox. What Jesus would have said had he been questioned about it we may not know. He certainly held that God is sovereign in the universe and that His will would be done. He also taught men to pray that it be done, as though God were dependent on their prayer.
Closely allied with the problem of whether Jesus believed that God's rule is to be acknowledged and complied with by all men within history is that other one of whether Jesus expected the consummation of history at an early date.
On the one hand is the well-known apocalypticism which pervaded the Jewish thought of the time and with which Jesus was clearly familiar. Much of it looked towards an early climax of history or at least a major, revolutionary crisis. Many sayings of Jesus can be interpreted as indicating that he shared this expectation. When speaking of what he seems to have intended to be interpreted as the end of history, he declared: "This generation shall not pass until all these things be done," He undoubtedly taught that history was to come to a climax in dramatic Judgement and warned his disciples to watch, for their testing by their Lord's return might be at any time and would most certainly come when it was not expected. In this he was seemingly referring to the end of history.
Yet Jesus also most emphatically declared that the disciples were not to know precise times for the fulfillment of their expectation, and that not even he knew the day or the hour when the consummation was to come, but only God. Nor can we be sure to what extent his disciples, in remembering and handing on his sayings, expecting as they naturally did the early termination of history, misread the mind of Jesus and put together words of his which he had not intended to be interpreted in this fashion. We, too, may well misunderstand sayings in which imagery has a large part. A notable instance of this is the passage in which Jesus foretold the destruction of Jerusalem and appeared to conjoin it with the end of the world. That the destruction of Jerusalem was imminent any clear-headed man of the time must have seen. Seething resentment against Roman rule was obviously soon to break out in open revolt. Fanatics believed that God would intervene on behalf of his people, but Jesus was too much aware of the power of Rome, perhaps in part because of the ruthless and overwhelming fashion in which it had been displayed at Sepphoris, had too early in his public career come to the conclusion that it was not in accord with God's methods to step in miraculously to save even His own son if he presumed on His favour by recklessly jeopardizing his life, and was too sadly cognizant of the blind folly all about him to see anything but early doom for the people and the city that he loved. Jerusalem was rejecting the one way to peace, the way which he was offering it, and the end was tragically certain. He can be interpreted as having conjoined this with the end of history, and that has been a general understanding, especially among many recent scholars. Yet the interpreters may have failed to enter fully into his mind.
Certainly there are other sayings, so counter to current expectations that their preservation is evidence of correct reporting, which apparently imply a prolonged postponement of the final climax. Thought-provoking is the familiar parable of the five wise and the five foolish virgins who, anticipating being present at a wedding, were waiting for the coming of the bridegroom. The five who were condemned as foolish were those who, in expectation of the early arrival of the bridegroom, had come with insufficient oil in their lamps, and the five who were praised were those who were prepared for a prolonged delay, and, as the event proved, were right. It may well be that Jesus anticipated many successive crises, each a judgement, before the termination of history on this planet.
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