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18th January, 2010

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Jesus said, "The kingdom of heaven is at hand": It is?

How could Jesus have been so wrong? After all, He plainly proclaimed the imminence of the kingdom, didn't He?

Now after John was put in prison, Jesus came to Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, and saying, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel" (Mark 1:14-15).

Nearly two thousand years have elapsed since then, yet the world continues on its not-so-merry way.

The significance of Jesus' words for individuals is underscored by His call to repentance; in light of its "at handness", it would be a jolly good idea for each of us to accept the generous invitation to repent. Yet if He meant that its coming was imminent, He was obviously wrong and we need pay no attention to these words - or to any other of His sayings, for that matter. His credibility is shot. George Eldon Ladd recognizes the gravity of the problem for Jesus' credibility caused by this and similar sayings:

If it is a fact that Jesus unequivocally thought that the Kingdom of God meant the end of the world in his lifetime, then we must not only admit that he was in error but must recognize that his entire message rested upon a delusion.1

Many nineteenth and twentieth century scholars insisted that Jesus believed that the kingdom would come within a matter of decades at the most. They made much of another of His famous sayings:

Assuredly, I say to you, this generation will by no means pass away till all these things take place (Matt. 23:34).

The entire sweep of His "Olivet prophecy", which culminates in His own return and the establishment of the new age, was supposed to be fulfilled, according to their interpretation of Jesus' words, before the current generation passed away. Since it wasn't fulfilled, Jesus must therefore be placed in the same category as horoscope writers. But is that what Jesus meant? Numerous points show it was not. For instance, just moments after His "this generation" pronouncement, He added,

But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, but My Father only (vs. 36).

To suggest that the Kingdom would come within the lifetime of most of His listeners surely comes very close to assigning

a calendric date. To the contrary, this added comment shows that His previous "this generation" statement was not intended in the way many have interpreted it. Exactly what it means remains moot; at least two perfectly satisfactory suggestions have been made. 2

Furthermore, if Jesus was saying that the kingdom of God was near in time, then the Markan saying above could be paraphrased something like,

The time has finally arrived for the kingdom of God to arrive soon.

Obviously, a meaningless statement.

So what did Jesus mean? The phrase "at hand" is actually quite a good translation of the Greek word used ( eggiken ) inasmuch as both can be used with respect to either time or space. "Near" would be another excellent rendering. The insistence by some scholars that Jesus must have meant that the kingdom of God was imminent has no linguistic support. He could equally well have meant that it was "close"; for those who believe that Jesus knew what He was talking about, the failure of the Kingdom to come in the full sense spoken of in the Old Testament prophets (e.g. Zech 14:9) in His lifetime or shortly thereafter proves He must have had proximity in mind rather than imminence.

In what sense was the kingdom of God "close"? One explanation rests on the very plausible notion that the kingdom of God and its powers were, in the person and mission of Jesus Christ - the King of the Kingdom - so close they could even be described as "present" (hence the title of Ladd's book, "The Presence of the Future"). Ladd summarizes this way:

In this person [Jesus] and mission, the kingdom of God had come near in history in fulfillment of the prophetic hope; but it would yet come in eschatological consummation in the future at a time known only to God.

Perhaps one can also (or alternatively, as the case may be) take the "at handness" as referring to accessibility. Before Jesus came, Israel was "shut up" from saving faith (Gal. 3:23) under the constraints of the old covenant. With the coming of John the Baptist and Jesus Christ, the constraining locks were smashed and people at last had access to salvation in the kingdom of God. Who would be silly enough to turn down Jesus' invitation to repent and enter into the kingdom of God?

1The Presence of the Future, p.41

2One is that "generation" can equally well be translated "race"; "If this is the meaning here it signifies the Jews will continue to the end" (New Geneva Study Bible). A second, more likely answer, is given by Ladd. "'These things' in verse 29 must refer to the signs described in verses 5-23. These signs would not be confined to the remote future; the present generation would witness them" (p. 321). Exactly that occurred less than forty years later when the Romans besieged Jerusalem, slaughtered its inhabitants and razed the temple to the ground. Other interpretations that make sense have also been proposed.


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