The Kingdom of God: what you see is what you get
A few months ago, I saw the news that one of my professors in graduate school, Dr. Gordon Fee, died at the age of 88. Dr. Fee taught with fervor and intensity, often slipping unconsciously into passionate preaching in the middle of a lecture. He was also an excellent biblical scholar. For many years, he served as the general editor for the acclaimed New International Commentary series. I am very grateful that I had the privilege to learn from him.
The absolutely crucial term for understanding Jesus
My favourite course with Fee was on the life and teachings of Jesus. I sat spellbound in one of the front rows of the lecture hall as he unpacked the message of Jesus from the four Gospels. When Dr. Fee came to Lecture #13, “The Proclamation of the Kingdom”, he announced that this was the most important lecture of the course. For Fee, the kingdom of God was “the absolutely crucial term for understanding Jesus.”
You cannot know anything about Jesus, anything, if you miss the kingdom of God. . . . You are zero on Jesus if you don’t understand this term. I’m sorry to say it that strongly, but this is the great failure of evangelical Christianity. We have had Jesus without the kingdom of God, and therefore have literally done Jesus in.GORDON FEE, “JESUS: EARLY MINISTRY/KINGDOM OF GOD,” LECTURE (1993), REGENT COLLEGE, TAPE SERIES 2235E, PT. 1, REGENT COLLEGE, VANCOUVER, BC, CANADA.
Already and not yet
As one would expect, our professor explained in great detail that Jesus proclaimed a kingdom that was both “already” and “not yet”. The kingdom had already appeared in Jesus’ ministry. In the casting out of demons and the healing of the sick, Satan’s overthrow had begun. The kingdom was now in their midst (Luke 17:20-21). It was now a time for feasting because the King was with them (Matt 9:15). He was bringing God’s deliverance to the poor and oppressed (Luke 4:18-19). It was now the time of the Lord’s favor on his people.
But Jesus also spoke of a kingdom was still to come. He frequently talked about entering the kingdom as a future event.1 See Matt 5:20, 7:21, 18:3. He taught his disciples to pray, “your kingdom come”. Jesus spoke of the Son of Man coming in the clouds of heaven and in great glory. That would be the time when the first would be last and the last would be first (Matt 19:30).
So how can the kingdom of God that Jesus proclaimed be both already here and not yet arrived? We explain this apparent discrepancy by saying that Jesus inaugurated the kingdom but the consummation in glory is awaiting his second coming.
The secret of the kingdom
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 parablesMark 4:11, NIV.
What Fee helped me to see is that the secret of the kingdom of God is that the kingdom has come in weakness. The kingdom was already dynamically present in Jesus’ ministry. But it had not at all come as people had expected. It had come in God’s power but that power was veiled. What people saw seemed small and insignificant, at least in comparison to the Roman empire or other kingdoms in human history.
The mystery, Jesus says in effect, is that “what you see is what you get.” The problem was that what they saw did not fit their expectations. … On the one hand, they simply could not believe that this peasant carpenter from Nazareth could be God’s Messiah. … On the other hand, they were also looking for the Kingdom to come as a great, dramatic, powerful irruption from above – that would bring a dramatic, climactic conclusion to everything. But what they got was an itinerant rabbi, with a motley crowd of followers, a friend and companion of the oppressed and of sinner. No signs in the heaven, no overthrow of the hated enemy Rome, just an itinerant teacher and healer.GoRdon Fee, “LIFE OF JESUS: Lecture 13 – The PRoclamation of the Kingdom, Feb 22, 1933.
What you see is what you get
This blog is written on a platform that provides WYSIWYG editing software. This means that as I am typing, the software allows me to immediately see what the final product will look like. There are no special codes that I need to enter to format the text. What you see is what you get on the published webpage. This definitely makes blogging much easier. But I never thought of using this acronym of Jesus and the kingdom of God.
According to Fee, the kingdom of God as presented in the life and work of Jesus is WYSIWYG. This is what the kingdom is going to be like now. The disciples were expecting something bigger, something more forceful, something more intimidating. They followed Jesus, excited about the growing number of followers, and expecting that soon the messianic triumph would burst forth. But instead, Jesus talked about being arrested and dying on a cross! People who had followed Jesus decided that his teaching was too hard and started to grumble and leave (John 6:60-66). The opposition was growing in its determination to kill Jesus. To the surprise of his disciples, Jesus seemed unwilling to take counter measures or even to avoid going into the “lion’s den” in Jerusalem.
Struggling to accept this type of kingdom
As a result, the disciples really struggled to accept that the form of the kingdom of God that they witnessed in Jesus was all they were going to get in this age. Their very last question to Jesus before his ascension was about when Jesus would restore the kingdom to Israel (Acts 1:6). How does Jesus answer? In Acts 1:8, Jesus told them that they would experience the power and might of the kingdom in their own simple, Spirit-filled witness. No heavenly armies, no thunder and lightning, no massive slaughtering of the enemy. Just transformed fishermen proclaiming the kingdom of God as they told others about they witnessed and heard from the lowly carpenter of Nazareth.
Like a mustard seed
So what does it mean for us today that the kingdom of God has come in weakness? Or is it no longer a kingdom hidden in weakness? After all, Jesus said that the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed. The smallest of seeds becomes the largest of the garden plants. Clearly that movement that begun with an itinerant preacher with a handful of disciples in a disreputable backwater of the Roman Empire now spans the globe. Millions of people from many different cultures and languages call Jesus Lord. So the kingdom is no longer unknown or insignificant.
But Jesus clearly told his disciples that they would be hated, rejected and persecuted as they faithfully preached the gospel of the kingdom to the whole world (Matt 24:9-14). There is no hint that gradually things will get easier for Jesus followers as the end approaches.
This is the story of Acts. Persecution begins in Jerusalem but it follows the messengers of the Gospel wherever they go. In the last chapter of Acts, Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles has reached the heart of the empire. But he has come as a prisoner. Nero will execute him even as the faith of the Roman church was being reported all over the world (Rom 1:8). The kingdom is dynamic, growing, and transforming lives everywhere the message goes. But its messengers are coming in weakness and vulnerability.
Messengers of the kingdom
Paul honestly, yet beautifully, testifies to his suffering as a messenger of the Gospel in 2 Corinthians chapter 4. The NIV aptly titles this chapter with “Present Weakness and Resurrection Life.”
But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body. So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you.2 Corinthians 4:7–12
Kingdom messengers do not always want to come in weakness. The Crusaders of the medieval period and the European colonialists 500 years later brought the church to distant lands under the flags of military might and economic power. But Jesus never intended that his kingdom would spread in that manner.
Throughout the two millennia since the time of Christ, we see multiple examples of humble servants who endured rejection, hardship and persecution as they brought the Gospel to people who had never heard this good news before. They spoke from a position of weakness, not forcing people to accept their message nor insisting that their safety be guaranteed. The Moravian missionaries of the 1700’s who worked among the slaves of the West Indies are great examples of this approach. Of the first 26 Moravian missionaries, 22 died within the first 2 years.2 History of Christian Missions by Don Lewis, Regent College, Fall 2018, Lecture #5.
Implications for cross-cultural workers today
If the kingdom of God has come in weakness, what are the implications for our work as cross-cultural missionaries today? What does it mean for us to be agents or ambassadors of this “already/ not yet” kingdom?
In the following weeks, I want to explore this topic in greater detail. Let me just share a few initial thoughts.
People will reject the good news
People can and will reject the message we bring. Like Jesus, we cannot demand, nor should we even expect that all those who hear our message will welcome the news that the King wants to make peace with them. In fact, it is more likely that the number of those who decide to follow Jesus and remain in faithful discipleship will be a small minority.
But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.Matthew 7:14
Small beginnings are dismissed
The changes that we seek and witness may never make it to the front page of the local newspaper. Our work, as transformative as it may be in the lives of those who profess allegiance to Jesus as King, will likely be hidden in obscurity to the majority population. Or the authorities may be quick to dismiss it as insignificant or misguided. See my related blog post: Don’t Dismiss Small Beginnings.
Criticism is normal
We should not expect praise, recognition or fame as cross-cultural workers. Instead, we should expect to be misunderstood, criticized and resisted by those who have power. As Paul experienced in his relationships with the church in Corinth, even some of those who claim to be followers of Jesus may speak derogatorily of our work.
Remember what I told you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also.John 15:20
What you see in Jesus is what you get in the kingdom of God today. The kingdom is powerful, dynamic and multiplying. It is transforming lives, families and communities all over the world. But it is present in weakness. However this is not the final form of the kingdom. We eagerly await the kingdom to come.
Similarly, the messengers of the Kingdom of God are weak and unimpressive. Even though they are Spirit-filled and representatives of the King of kings, the messengers of this kingdom come in humility, vulnerability and frailty. We eagerly await our final transformation into the glorious image of our coming King.