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Thursday, June 11, 2009

Is The Kingdom of God Heaven?

Here is a bit from 2 Corinthians 5, which is this Sunday's scripture.
Now we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands. . . . Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. We live by faith, not by sight. We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.
An eternal house in heaven. It sort of reminds me of Psalm 23:6, "Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever."

A generation or two later Mark and Matthew wrote about the Kingdom of God. Here is sort of a run on of quotes. First from Mark:
"The time has come," he said. "The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!" 1:15; He told them, "The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables." 4:11; He also said, "This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground . . . 4:26; 4:30 (like a mustard seed); And he said to them, "I tell you the truth, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God come with power." 9:1.
Now Matthew:
"But if I drive out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you." 12:28; "Again I tell you, 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." 19:24; Jesus said to them, "I tell you the truth, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him." 21:32; "Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit." 21:43;
There is some mention of entering the Kingdom of Heaven for sure. And, without quoting them I think there are ample passages suggesting that Jesus and his followers believed in an afterlife. But, does it sound like the Kingdom of God is describing Heaven or the afterlife?

6 comments:

Matt Dick said...

I have always thought that the quote, "I tell you the truth, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God come with power." is a clear indication that Jesus and his followers believed that they were less than 50 years from their world more or less coming to an end as they knew it.

It's also insulting to describe this as an apocalyptic cult, and I don't mean it with the associations that brings to mind, but this was, I think, a group of folks who really would be shocked to find out that 2,000 years later there is any debate about which God is the true God.

The quote does *not* sound substantially more or less radical than any end-times philosophy espoused today.

JimII said...

Matt, let me place one fact in front of you to move you off of your reading of this quote as being about the end of the world. The human being who wrote these words, wrote them a generation or two after Jesus was crucified.

Mark was written some time between 65 CE and 75 CE. Matthew and Luke another 10 or 15 years later and John another 10 or 15 after that.

Matt Dick said...

yeah... okay. So then how can you interpret something so specific?

JimII said...

"I tell you the truth, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God come with power."

The phrase "kingdom of God" does all the work here. Which is why I am challenging the understanding of that phrase. If the kingdom of God means heaven, the phrase means one thing. If it means a movement the phrase means something else.

The kingdom of God, is completely unlike the kingdom of Caesar. It is a movement of people following God's teachings, which everyone already knew like loving your neighbor as yourself, but also take the next logical step and loving their enemies. (In the Gospel of John, the author goes further to claim that Jesus not Augustus Caesar is the Prince of Peace, God from God, and Light of the World.)

In a sense, entry into the kingdom of God is easy because it only requires you to repent and believe in the good news. That is the secret of the kingdom. But for some taking that step will be harder than others. It is like when a sower scatters seeds. For some the seeds take and for others not. But ultimately, the kingdom of God will take root and grow. It is like a mustard seed which is small (like our band) but will grow to the largest of plants and even allow birds to rest there.

None of the parables about the kingdom of God make sense if the kingdom of God is heaven.

Matt, I think you are right that Jesus' early followers "really would be shocked to find out that 2,000 years later there is any debate about which God is the true God." They thought the power of Christ's movement would immediately transform the world, but THIS world and right NOW.

I heard Peter or Paul of Peter, Paul and Mary introducing a song to a group of children. He said, "When we used to sing this song we really believed that we were about to end hunger and war and racism," then he began to sing We Shall Overcome. I think that is the message the Gospel preachers would give us today.

Medardthoughts said...

This is really interesting stuff. There is no doubt that under the influence of Greek and Egyptian (Alexandrian) thinking the earthy teachings of Jesus became infused with body/soul paradigm and the teaching of the "kingdom" becomes heaven for the spirit.

I do think that the issue is the "when". There is lots of evidence and frankly pent up demand that the poor, starving etc. wanted a new kingdom of equality at least at the food level. Jesus takes it further and includes the dregs of society, "the sinners". And that demand for it to be NOW! But the model was non-Jesus model of the power of the Roman empire.

The truth of the matter is that the kingdom is now...just look at the crazy folk who for no material gain work in "humanitarian" fashion in Africa, So America and Asia...under the threat of death and in the midst of suffering. Do they not embody the kingdom? Did not Jesus embody the kingdom.

History is loaded with examples of those who slave for the poor and disenfranchised etc.

The distraction from the presence of the kindgom is often the face of religion, the power of the institution that often rivals that of Rome that Paul was preaching against. So, for my money, the "kingdom" is at hand. Just think of the importance that Tiberias would give to Jesus running around Galilee...an annoyance at best. So today there are Christians and similar folk running around today living the "kingdom" but are seen only a step above annoyance.

So, for me, heaven isnot the kingdom, much of religious language and institution is not the "kingdom"; but those nuns fighting in Brazil for the indigenous peoples, the folks who feed the hungry, make showers available to homeless and so on...they are the kingdom and the kindgom is at hand!
Bill

Lin said...

Great discussion!
I agree with Jim and Bill that the gospel writers understood the kingdom of God to be here & now, breaking in in incremental but profound ways. That was radical for a couple of reasons. They were struggling to survive in the kingdom of Ceasar as you've pointed out, so their language of empire or kingdom was significant. If we follow a formula of dualism (Paul & the gospel writers reflect their Greek contemporaries), for God's reign to manifest, Ceasar's reign (read empire, dominance, classism, etc.) had to end in defeat. Traditionally that would require warfare, with a new dominant power establishing control -- something closer to Israel's anticipation of a Messiah-led revolt. The notion of a force strong enough to overthrow Rome was pretty radical. The notion that it could happen incrementally via one personal encounter at a time and grow wild, unpredictable and big like a mustard plant so that they could see "the kingdom of God come with power" in their lifetimes -- now that was radical.

No wonder a movement like that had to be stopped. And a movement like that couldn't be stopped.

In my understanding, the kingdom of God was a huge, exciting secret with the subversive power to transform society -- and still is. The desire to see it dominate is natural, but internal, elemental, systemic change is much more powerful.

I think they did imagine that the world as they knew it would end, and soon -- but not in a great cataclysm. By transformation. I believe that after the Easter event the disciples understood the whole Jesus story differently, including the expectation that he would establish a new kingdom. I imagine them saying, "but wait a minute! He did. We saw the kingdom when we saw him drive out demons...." I think it was that wisdom they were writing into the story.