The Kingdom of God in Luke (Part 1)

I am posting first drafts from my future book, The Words of the Covenant, Vol. 2 – NT Continuity.

According to Richard Hays, “The overall design of Luke’s two-volume work… highlights God’s purpose in fulfilling the promise of redemption for his people Israel.”1 There is little doubt that this purpose is concentrated on the Kingdom of God, for more than half of the NT’s uses of the term are found in Luke/Acts.2 Luke never uses the term incidentally; he is always strategic in his placement of it. Therefore it is central to his purpose. But what is the Kingdom of God? It seems that the majority opinion is that the “kingdom of God” is the promised kingdom of the Davidic covenant but somehow it has changed from a Jewish/Israelite based covenant into a Church based covenant. Oftentimes there is a presumption that since Luke – Acts is a two volume work and Acts deals with the Church, it means that he is concerned with ecclesiological theology all the way through. The result of this position is that the theme of the Kingdom of God in Luke’s Gospel is read in light of the Church, not in its original Israelite covenantal context.3 We might begin with a basic definition of the Kingdom. The Kingdom of God may be defined as the sphere of God’s activity in Jesus as it unfurls towards its consummation. Along with that is the crucial aspect of the consummation itself. I shall bring these two aspects out as we go through.

I will begin in Luke 4:14 and following:

Then Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit to Galilee, and news of Him went out through all the surrounding region. And He taught in their synagogues, being glorified by all. So He came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up. And as His custom was, He went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and stood up to read. And He was handed the book of the prophet Isaiah. And when He had opened the book, He found the place where it was written:

“The Spirit of the LORD is upon Me,
Because He has anointed Me
To preach the gospel to the poor;
He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted,
To proclaim liberty to the captives
And recovery of sight to the blind,
To set at liberty those who are oppressed;

To proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD.”

Then He closed the book, and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all who were in the synagogue were fixed on Him. And He began to say to them, “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:14-21)

Providence supplies the right reading from Isaiah into the hands of Jesus. But in Isaiah 61:1-2a we are told that in the midst of Luke emphasis upon the work of the Spirit after Christ’s baptism, we get a quotation that speaks about the Spirit of the Lord. Although in Isaiah the “vengeance” of which the prophet spoke in Isaiah 61:2b is fused together with the passage which comes before. However, at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry we find Him deliberately stopping the reading, closing the book (scroll) and announcing that what has just been read is being fulfilled. If He had continued to read on, He could not have claimed fulfillment. Everything that was read out at the synagogue at Nazareth was indeed being fulfilled or was about to be. But Jesus is aware of a division in the prophecy. The twin events of vengeance upon God’s enemies and comfort for those who mourn appear at the second coming, not the first.

By omitting the second part of the quotation of Isaiah 61:2 not only was Jesus adverting to the division of the passage but so was Luke. This has to be kept in mind when reading the book. Clearly there is more work for Christ to do on this world, and it is covenantally related.

We must also pay attention to the fact that the plain sense of Isaiah 61:1-2a is appealed to for the fulfillment of God’s words. In the original setting it is clear that there is much still to do. Look for example at Isaiah 61:3, which develops the comfort side of the second advent prediction:

To console those who mourn in Zion,
To give them beauty for ashes,
The oil of joy for mourning,
The garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness;
That they may be called trees of righteousness,
The planting of the LORD, that He may be glorified.” (Isaiah 61:3)

The consolation being spoken of refers in the first instance to “Zion”, which indicates Jerusalem. The mention of “beauty for ashes” and “righteousness” call to mind God’s New covenant with Israel. At the end of Luke 4 we find Jesus being mobbed by admirers, to whom He retorted,

“I must preach the kingdom of God to the other cities also, because for this purpose I have been sent.” (Luke 4:43.)

It can hardly be the case that what was preached by Jesus in Nazareth of Galilee was much different than what He taught in Galilee’s other towns (Lk. 4:44). Thus, the preaching of the Kingdom of God at the commencement of Jesus’ public ministry included a separation of fulfilment of the OT expectation depending on whether it was first or second coming fulfilment. But the literal meaning of the Kingdom should not change (otherwise there would exist an equivocation in Isaiah and also an implied equivocation in Jesus’ teaching). The second coming prophecies also pertain to the Kingdom of God.

In the next chapter we find Jesus forgiving the sins of the paralytic man who was lowered through the roof (Lk. 5:17-20). The question arises; on what covenantal basis could Jesus forgive this man’s sins? It might be objected that I have begged the question putting it like that. But when one recalls that it is by the blood of Jesus that sinners are saved (in both Testaments), and that Jesus distinctly referred to His blood as “the blood of the New covenant,” (Lk. 22:20), it looks obvious that Jesus sees His mission in covenant terms.

In Luke 12:31 Jesus declares “seek the kingdom of God.” The Kingdom of God here is future. If it were present, there would be no need to seek for it. In the Parable of the Mustard seed in Luke 13 the Lord asks,

“What is the kingdom of God like? And to what shall I compare it? It is like a mustard seed, which a man took and put in his garden; and it grew and became a large tree, and the birds of the air nested in its branches.” (Lk. 13:18-19)

I shall be exploring the parables in Matthew 13 (which is mirrored here) in more detail, but I just because Luke is very concerned with the Kingdom, I wanted to notice the obvious fact that a mustard seed will grow into a mustard tree or plant. That will always be the expected outcome. It will not develop into some unexpected plant. Thus, the note of expectation being in line with fulfillment is illustrated for us. There will only be a natural transformation as expected. In like manner the OT expectation and the NT fulfillment will be predictable. Just so, the eschatological Kingdom is in view in Jesus’ description of the Jewish people being excluded from the company of the pious saints “when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, and yourselves thrust out. (Lk. 13:28). The kingdom to which Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and the Prophets aspired was geographical, Jerusalem-centered, and covenantal.

But Jesus goes on to speak about the godly from beyond Israel:

They will come from the east and the west, from the north and the south, and sit down in the kingdom of God. (Lk. 13:29)

This future wherein those from all corners of the world will be included in the Kingdom shows that saints will come from all the points of the compass. The context does not give us enough information to decide whether these are Jews or Gentiles, but it would not be a stretch to count Gentiles among their number. This is exactly in line with the covenantal expectation grounded in the Abrahamic (Gen. 12:3) and New (Isa. 49:6-8) covenants.

Notes

1 Richard B. Hays, Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels, Waco. TX: Baylor University Press, 2016, 191.

2 In Luke’s Gospel “kingdom of God” occurs 32 times, with a further 7 times in Acts.

3 A good example of this is the book Reading Luke: Interpretation, Reflection, Formation, edited by Craig G. Bartholomew, et al, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, Scripture and Hermeneutics, Volume 6, 2005. While this volume is insightful, its essays on theological interpretation all presuppose that the “kingdom of God” in the Gospel is fulfilled in the Church. The approach of this book is to let the text “play out” and see what it says.

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