Kingdom of God: Fulfillment without Consummation
Having seen the Old Testament hope we now move to the Gospels and fulfillment of that hope in Jesus.
John the Baptist
John the Baptist came preaching “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Mt 3:1-2). His message was one of immanent judgment (“the axe is already laid at the root of the trees” Mt 3:10 = Lk 3:9) which demanded an ethical response (“bear fruit in keeping with repentance” Mt 3:8 = Lk 3:8). Being a child of Abraham was of no advantage to you (Mt 3:9 = Lk 3:8). When the people asked how to escape the judgment John said that repentance, and the acts that accompany it, was necessary.
John’s message of the kingdom was also Messianic. While he was speaking the people were wondering whether he might be the one (Lk 3:15). He responded by pointing them to the Messiah: “One is coming who is mightier than I” (Lk 3:16). This Messiah would come as a judge to bring either salvation or judgment: “His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire” (Lk 3:17).
Jesus also came preaching the nearness of the Kingdom which also called for repentance (Mt 4:17, Mk 1:15) and was accompanied by healing (Mt 4:23, Mt 9:35). Jesus’ message, however, did not point to another Messiah. Jesus claimed that he himself was the one who fulfilled the Old Testament hope (Lk 4:16-20).
John the Baptist, meanwhile, had put in prison. John, who and leapt in his mother’s womb in anticipation of Jesus and who had witnessed the Spirit descending from heaven, accompanied by the voice out of heaven, now had some doubts. Upon hearing a report of what Jesus had been doing sent a question to Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?” (Mt 11:2) Jesus responded by pointing back to the same passage he had read in the synagogue and to the miracles which accompanied his message: “The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor” (Mt 11:5).
John’s question raises an interesting question for us: What was John expecting from the Messiah? It appears, at least to some degree, that John was expecting Jesus to bring in the final judgment. That is, he probably thought the end of the age would come during his life time. He probably did not have a fully developed understanding of Jesus’ mission.
Does this cast aspersions on John’s preaching? I don’t believe it does. In fact, while Jesus did not bring about the final judgment he nevertheless inaugurated the coming of the Kingdom, as he demonstrated by giving sight to the blind, raising the dead, and proclaiming the good news (Mt 11:5).
John’s message of immanent judgment was still valid, even if it was not the final judgment. The coming of the Messiah only heightened the call for repentance. The prophets of the Old Testament had a singular hope: the God who brings salvation and judgment. The same is true for John. His hope was in the God who judges, and God had indeed visited the earth, which demanded a radical response from the people.
Though God had come in the person of Christ, the world did not see the ultimate consummation of the Kingdom. Jesus Himself preaching a coming Kingdom which he referred to as the “Age to Come” or the “End of the Age.” While explaining the parable of the weeds Jesus states, “As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send out his angels” (Mt 13:40-41). Again, describing the parable of the net, “This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous” (Mt 13:49-50). Here, while Jesus is giving a parable on the kingdom, he points to a future judgment/separation that takes place at the end of the age.
Between two Ages
So here we are, between two ages. The Messiah has already come, but we are awaiting his return. How then should we live?
1) Bear fruit it keeping with repentance. John’s warning is as valid today as it was for the people. The nearness of the kingdom demands a radical response.
2) Submit yourself fully to God. In the story of the rich young ruler (Lk 18) Jesus placed an incredible demand on the young man – sell all that he had and give to the poor. This is not a universal command, but Jesus’ demands, and entrance into the Kingdom, requires submission to God, something which itself is only possible by a work of God (Lk 18:27).
3) Prepare for judgment. The nearness of the Kingdom means the nearness of judgment. Even if Christ does not return in our lifetime, we will all one day face a final judgment (Heb 9:27). Preparing for judgment means humbling ourselves before God.
4) Expect the good to grow up with the bad. Until the final judgment the weed and the wheat will grow together.
5) Take heart that God has already fulfilled His promise of the Messiah. This gives us even more hope for Christ’s return.