For Whom Did Jesus Intend His Message

We began by examining what was clearly the central single element in Jesus' preaching — the kingdom of God. That allowed us to survey and classify (in a provisional way) a very substantial amount of the tradition of Jesus' teaching. It will be necessary to return to much of that material to ask different questions of it as we proceed. In chapter 12 one issue proved sufficiently absorbing to require all our attention — the meaning of the term itself and what its use would have evoked for Jesus' hearers, particularly as regards their hopes for the future. Somewhat frustratingly it became apparent that the question 'What precisely did Jesus mean when he spoke of God's kingship as future?' was one to which no clear answer was forthcoming. Probably the more appropriate question was 'Did Jesus mean anything precisely (that is, which we today can turn into straightforward propositions) when he so spoke?' A firm confidence in God and in the future as God's, expressed in prophetic and, in some measure, apocalyptic language, is certainly evident. But to translate that language entirely into first- (or twenty-first) century prose is a self-defeating task, losing far more than it purports to gain. Language which speaks to the imagination and spirit can rarely be translated into factual description without substantive loss.

Fortunately, however, more light can be shed on the present aspect of the kingdom. As we ask different questions and focus attention on other aspects of Jesus' mission, the whole picture will become steadily clearer, not least as to the character of living appropriate to the kingdom. Over the next five chapters, therefore, we will ask in turn: To whom did Jesus direct his message of the kingdom? What did acceptance of it mean for those who responded? How did others see Jesus' role as regards the coming of the kingdom? How did he see his own role? And did he anticipate his death as part of that role? All these are subsets of the one overarching question which has haunted the 'quest of the historical Jesus' since Reimarus first posed it so sharply: What was Jesus' intention? What did he hope to accomplish by his mission?1 However difficult it is to achieve an answer to that question, it simply will not go away. Human curiosity will demand an answer. A crucial test of any large-scale contribution to the quest is how well it handles that question and whether the answer offered makes good sense of the evidence available.

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