Thursday, August 16, 2007

The Kingdom of God

The book of 2 Peter, although containing a claim of authorship by Peter the apostle, is dated by most scholars as the latest New Testament book, written as late as 120 C.E. (making it later than some non-canonical writings, such as the gospels of Thomas and Peter). Virtually all scholars agree that it was not written by Peter, due to a variety of clues in the text, the least of which is the fact that Peter was an uneducated fisherman from backwater Galilee, and would have almost certainly been illiterate. Even if he could have written in Aramaic, it is a virtual certainty that he could not have read or written Greek fluently enough to have written 2 Peter (or 1 Peter, for that matter), nor have been fluent and educated enough in Hebrew to have quoted the Old Testament so freely in his writings. To suggest such a thing is to simply be ignorant of peasant life in 1st century Palestine.

Regardless, the book of 2 Peter is a harsh, 3-chapter letter, supposedly as a follow-up to the letter of 1 Peter, wherein the author lays a stream of vitriol against false prophets and those who fall away from the Christian faith. In the final chapter, the author turns to questions of when Jesus will return. He starts, in verse 3:2, by saying that he wants to “recall the words spoken in the past by the holy prophets and the command given by our Lord and Savior through your apostles.” He then goes on to talk about the imminent return of Jesus and the ushering in of God’s kingdom. It is clear, then, that the writer of this canonical book is supporting the idea that not only is Jesus returning soon, but that Jesus, during his life, taught the same thing. The writer of 2 Peter does include the caveat that “with the Lord a day is like a thousand years and a thousand years like a day,” which is quoted from Psalms, but it is clear from his tone and his admonitions that he fully believes Jesus is coming soon, just as Jesus himself promised. “You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming.” Read the passage yourself and see if you don’t get the same impression.

The point, of course is this: when you follow the scriptures from the earliest stories to the latest stories, you can see an obvious and apparent change in theology that goes like this:

1. The earliest teachings of Jesus indicate that God’s kingdom is imminent, and that Jesus himself is bringing this Kingdom, and those who hear his message must repent now in order to not be left out of God’s coming kingdom. This is generally why many scholars describe Jesus as an apocalyptic wisdom teacher -- that is, someone claiming to have special insight from God and urging followers to take the message to heart, for the end of the world is near -- there were many like him in 1st century Palestine.

2. After Jesus is executed, it seems that all hope is lost, but then the apostles experience the resurrection (however you interpret what the resurrection was), and Jesus’s message begins to spread out from Palestine.

3. That message includes a promise that Jesus will return to usher in the kingdom of God, as he had promised on earth. It is clear from the earliest writings (Paul and Mark, for instance) that this return is expected in their very own lifetimes.

4. By the time several generations have passed, and Matthew, Luke, and John are writing their gospels, fears and worries are beginning to arise because most, if not all, of the earliest followers are dead, and Jesus still hasn’t returned. Thus, you have the appearance, in Matthew’s gospel, of the idea that Jesus brought the message of salvation, and will return to usher in God’s kingdom, but the church must be built on earth first, before that happens (thus, the passage where Jesus tells Peter he is the rock upon which the church will be built, and then later utters the great commission to go out to all nations and teach).

5. By the final books of the New Testament, everyone who knew Jesus personally is long dead, and it’s already a new century, and so you see writers, like the writer of 2 Peter, remarking about skeptics who say “Where is this coming he promised?”, urging Christians to hang on to the hope, to stay true to the faith, and to keep looking forward to Jesus’s imminent return...but adding caveats that to God a day is like a thousand years.

It’s very clear and obvious that early Christianity was forced, as the decades passed, to consistently change their theology in regards to the kingdom of God. It went from Jesus, who apparently preached that it was coming in his own lifetime, to Paul who preached that Jesus would return in Paul’s own lifetime to usher in the kingdom, to Matthew who said that the church had to be built first, to the writer of 2 Peter who urged followers to keep the faith but to remember that a day is like a thousand years to God.

My personal belief is that Jesus was right. The kingdom of God did come by and through his teachings, and was experienced and exemplified through his death and resurrection (which, of course, I understand as a spiritual awakening, not a physical resuscitation). The people following in his footsteps in the first 8 or 9 decades after his death kept waiting for him to return in glory so that God’s kingdom could be ushered in, and they never realized that the kingdom was already here, available to them through Jesus’s life itself. And for the 2000 years since that time, many Christians, in my opinion, have been making the same mistake.

Jesus’s message was about abundant and renewed life in the here and now...it is my opinion that Jesus’s message was never about life after death.

1 comment:

deine schwester :) said...

Oh, Mrs. Peacock......

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