In a world being turned upside down by technical advancements, changing mores in civilization and personal outlook, we face a changing, revolutionary world. My esteemed professor of homiletics, G. Ray Jordan, said to us as we prepared for ministry: “If we are going to preach at all, it will be during a revolution” (Preaching During a Revolution, 1962).
Imagine a small Middle Eastern country: its people looked back in their history when their country was strong and free, but now is depressingly weak, poor and under the thumb of foreign imperialists. They long for release and for a better future. Being a religious people, they pray for it but without much optimism. Leaders come and go promising great things but failing to deliver. But now at last it seems different: this man told them, “The Revolution is here!”, and he seemed to be someone who might actually deliver the goods. Crowds are out in the streets; they throng him and listen with excited curiosity to his speeches.
He preached a revolution: Good news for the needy, bad news for the power brokers. Jesus came into the world announcing a new order where Satan is overthrown and broken relationships are restored. Jesus’ most vivid portraits of this new kingdom are found in the parables. His parables are all describing some aspect of the “‘kingdom of God”. The “kingdom of God” was the central theme of Jesus preaching and indeed of his whole ministry, and the parables should all be seen and understood in that context. Whereas the word “kingdom” itself often suggests a place to us, Jesus used the term in a broad sense to refer to a state of affairs – to God ruling as king – as well as to the realm where God rules. We can see then that Kingdom of God does not mean a territory which God is king; it means a condition of heart and mind and will where God is Lord of all.
So when Jesus announced the coming of God’s kingdom or kingly rule, he was claiming something of enormous importance and practical relevance was taking place, of which people needed to take urgent account. He was in fact announcing God’s final intervention in history. The Old Testament prophets looked forward to the time when God would impose his kingly rule on the world. They believed that in one sense God had always ruled the world from the time of creation, and so the psalmists joyfully exclaim “The Lord reigns” (e.g. Ps. 93:10); and yet at the same time it was quite evident that God was not exerting his rule in a total sense: the sin and suffering and oppression that were such a painful reality in the Old Testament world were the reflection of a world out of tune with its maker and in rebellion against God’s kingly rule. So the Old Testament prophets looked forward to a future time when God would intervene, put things right and rule – so Zechariah 14:9, “The Lord will be king over the whole earth.”
We might describe the Old Testament hope as a hope for a divine “revolution.” The prophets looked forward to a cosmic revolution with the whole world being at peace again with God and under his kingly control. Jesus came and announced the coming of this greater revolution. When he told people that “The time is fulfilled; the kingdom of God has come near” (Mk. 1:15), he was saying, in effect, “The long-for-revolution is now under way.”
But, although God’s revolution was not quite as the disciples expected, it was something powerful and down-to-earth, not just a heavenly reality. Modern readers of the New Testament may be misled by the phrase “kingdom of heaven”, which we find in Matthew’s gospel, and suppose that in speaking about the kingdom Jesus was talking about “getting to heaven.” But the phrase “kingdom of heaven” is just an alternative way of saying “kingdom of God” (the expression used by Mark and Luke in their gospels). Matthew, writing his distinctly Jewish gospel, used the alternative expression because it refers to God indirectly (as Jews often did) rather than directly, and perhaps because it makes it clear that the kingdom in question is not a purely this-worldly kingdom. And yet the kingdom which Jesus proclaimed was not just up in heaven; it was more like an invasion of earth by heaven!
Jesus extraordinary miracles were evidence of this. He explained them as a fulfillment of the Old Testament promises and as tangible evidence of the overthrow of Satan’s evil empire: so when John the Baptist had doubts about Jesus, Jesus said to John’s disciples, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised” – a revolution indeed, and a fulfillment of Old Testament passages such as Isaiah 35:5-6; 61:l (see Mt. 11:2-6; Lk. 7:18-23).
Jesus’ revolution affected not only people’s diseases, but also their relationships with each other: Jesus broke through social barriers, bringing together Jew and Samaritan, man and woman, rich and poor. It was no accident that on meeting with Jesus the rich Zacchaeus gave half his goods to the poor (Lk. 19:8), because God’s revolutionary rule is not something affecting only people’s minds or their relationships with God, but also their life in society and their relationships with each other. The revolution of God entails the establishment of a revolutionary society. Indeed the word “kingdom” when used by Jesus, often suggests not just the process of revolution, but also the new world and society that God is bringing.
Of course, a most important part of the revolution that Jesus brought had to do with divine-human relationships. God’s new society includes God – not surprisingly! Thus Jesus proclaimed forgiveness to sinners, thereby bringing people out of the darkness of Satan’s rule into the light of God’s favor and into the experience of God as “Abba”, Father. “Abba” was a revolutionary word to use of God: it was the intimate family word used by children to address their father – a little like “Daddy” in English, though without the juvenile feel that the English word often has. Jews did not ordinarily address their holy God with this word, but Jesus brought a revolution, expressing his own close relationship with God through this word and inviting his followers to do so too (see Mk. 14:36; Lk. 11:2; Jn. 17:1-26; Rom. 8:15; Gal. 4:6, etc.)
To announce the coming of a revolution is calculated to stir people up. The question on many lips is: What’s involved in joining the revolution, and what must I do to get into the new society (“to enter the kingdom”)? Some people, especially those who have suffered under the old regime, will be stirred up in enthusiastic support, and will often be prepared to commit themselves in a very costly way to the cause; others, especially those who are comfortably content with the status quo, will see the revolution as a threat to be resisted. Jesus’ announcement of the kingdom, of God’s revolution, had precisely the same effect: some responded enthusiastically, others did their best to suppress the revolution.
Few revolutions are established overnight; there is often a long and fierce struggle with drawn-out resistance from “reactionary” elements. Jesus’ revolution was no exception, nor did he suppose that it would be. He, in his ministry, death and resurrection, established a decisive bridgehead in the occupied territory; but it would be a long struggle with many casualties before Satan was completely ousted and God’s legitimate rule restored. Jesus taught his followers to look forward to his return at the end of time, when he would bring the revolution to completion and when God’s new world and society would be finally and fully established. In the meantime he called his followers to live for the revolution and in the spirit (or rather “Spirit”) of the revolution, and to keep alive their confident expectation of the final liberation and victory.
So there we have it: in proclaiming the kingdom of God, Jesus was announcing the coming of God’s revolution and of God’s new world, as promised in the Old Testament. God was at last intervening, Jesus declared, to establish his reign over everything, to bring salvation to his people and renewal and reconciliation to the world. But fortunately Jesus did not announce his message in such general theological terms; he announced in primarily through vivid, concrete parables. Over the next several weeks we will seek to bring to life some of those first-century parables and illuminate their significance for today."