Samuel M. Frost, Th. M.
Anyone and everyone familiar with the subject of Eschatology in the Bible is familiar with the so called, “time texts” of the Scriptures, particularly in the New Testament (NT). This series of articles will deal with them in their various groupings under certain terms and phrases such as, “about to”; “at hand”; “near”; “this generation”; “ready”; “now”, and various others.
The first thing that strikes the reader of Mark is that Jesus comes on the scene and announces, “the kingdom of God is at hand. The time has come” (1.15). Jesus announced this in 31 CE. Now, at first glance, this looks like he was saying that the Kingdom, God’s Kingdom in the heavenlies over all the world is ready to manifest itself for all to see. And, of course, the whole world would immediately be radically changed if, in fact, this happened. If the veil that separates our vision between what is seen and the invisible realm of God’s Kingdom were removed so that all, everywhere, would have no more doubts as to whether or not God exists, then I would not have to write this piece!
Of course, this did not happen. In the Scriptures, there are the kingdoms of differing people groups, or nations, and then there is the Kingdom of God that rules over all the kingdoms. “The LORD has established his throne in the heavens, and his kingdom rules over all. Bless the LORD, O you his angels, you mighty ones who do his word, obeying the voice of his word! Bless the LORD, all his hosts, his ministers, who do his will!” (Psalm 103.19). In the Prophets we see that it required “visions” to see this Kingdom and its host. For Daniel in particular God is seen as one that sits on the throne, having books opened before him, sending out his angels (messengers) to do all that he does in the earth. Daniel is most explicit: “He changes times and seasons; he removes kings and sets up kings; he gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to those who have understanding” (Daniel 2.21). Likewise, Isaiah pictures God as one who is “ruling from the Bench” as it were: “The LORD takes his place in court; he rises to judge the people. The LORD enters into judgment against the elders and leaders of his people” (3.12,13). King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon is recorded by Daniel as having acknowledged this truth: “At the end of the days I, Nebuchadnezzar, lifted my eyes to heaven, and my reason returned to me, and I blessed the Most High, and praised and honored him who lives forever, for his dominion is an everlasting dominion, and his kingdom endures from generation to generation; all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, and he does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand or say to him, “What have you done?” (Daniel 4.34,35).
I could literally cut and paste hundreds of verses in the Scriptures to this point. God’s Kingdom is His Rule over all of his creation and nothing escapes his attention. Thus, with this first point, when we read the phrase, “the kingdom of God is at hand” does it mean that His Eternal Kingdom is getting ready to appear to everyone and be seen by all? It cannot mean that he is getting ready to rule over his creation, for he already does. It cannot mean that he is getting ready to “build” his Kingdom, for it already is. It cannot mean that his Kingdom is going to take its place among the kingdom-nations of the world so that he can set up trade with them and perhaps join in on some alliances.
God’s Kingdom is over all kingdoms on the earth, and we have established this point. However, with Israel we find that, indeed, there is a kingdom on earth. It has a beginning point. “Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the people of Israel” (Exodus 19.5,6). Here, God has removed the Israelites from Egypt under Moses and enters into a covenant with them (an ancient form of an alliance, a contract of sorts). Here we see the existence of others “among the peoples” (nations), and the acknowledgment of my first point: “for all the earth is mine.” Everything God made and everything in it is his since, well, he made it. I will allow Saint Paul to drive this point home: “The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for “‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, “‘ For we are indeed his offspring'” (Acts 17.24-ff). This is Judaism 101.
Now, God forms this new nation under Moses and it is, like the others among them, called a kingdom. There is the Kingdom of God, then there are the kingdoms of humankind and in particular there is the kingdom or nation of Israel. This should not be a hard point to grasp. What is also to be noted in Paul’s word (which was spoken to Greeks in Athens, Greece) is that he said, “though, indeed, he is not far from each one of us.” The antonym (opposite) of “far” is “near.” In Thayer’s Greek Lexicon, this phrase “not far” denotes that God, “is near everyone of us by his power and influence.” The Louw-Nida Lexicon lists this term as an antonym of “near” or “at hand.”
Now, then, when Jesus said, “the kingdom of God is at hand” or “near”, we note that the verb in question is in the Perfect Tense in the Greek text. The Perfect Tense is a form that emphasizes a past action with present results. “America has been founded (and remains founded) on the Constitution,” where “has been” is in the Perfect Tense. Thus, many translations have, “the Kingdom of God has come near”. Luke’s Gospel goes even further with this idea. Sending out the Disciples, Jesus tells them to “Heal the sick in it and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you'” (10.9). Obviously. If the sick are healed miraculously by touch and prayer, then God was near “by his power and influence.” So near you could reach out and touch Him (as he was certainly touching them).
Luke continues with this. “But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out the demons, then the kingdom of God has come to you” (11.20). Here, the term “near” is simply dropped. The Kingdom of God has come (Perfect Tense) to them by the direct power and demonstration of Jesus over demons. In perhaps a more striking example of my point, Luke stresses the fact that the Kingdom of God is not something far off, something remote or so far away that it cannot be sought. Rather, “the Kingdom of God is among you” (17.21). These two passages in Luke demonstrate, I believe, the idea of how we should understand the Greek word, enngus – close, at hand, near. It does not denote near in terms of time, but near in terms of spatiality (as offered by Thayer).
There is a bit of translation controversy over Luke 17.21, “the kingdom of God is among you” or “within you.” However, this is irrelevant to the discussion because in any way one wishes to translate this verse, the kingdom of God was still demonstrably near. Craig A. Evans notes that this phrase is found in the Gospel of Thomas, a late first century tract. It is conflated with Deuteronomy 30.11-14. There, “For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it” (Evans’ work from NIBC, Luke).
We can note in this text the antonym “far off” as opposed to our target word, “near”. The phrase, “the word is very near you” does not denote closeness in terms of time, but in terms of space. One could insert here “the kingdom of God” and “time” in place of “the word” and have the exact same Greek phrase we find in the NT.
Indeed, Paul quotes from this same passage of Deuteronomy 30 in Romans 10.6-10, and concludes by quoting Joel 2.32, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (10.13). This passage in Joel is quoted by Peter in Acts 2.21, and concludes, “This promise is for you, for your children and all who are far away.” The promise was near them. The word of their preaching was in their hearing. The Spirit of the Kingdom of God was there – ready to save.
What is of further interest to us in this regard is that Luke reports two instances of the expectations of many of the Jews in the first century. “As they were listening to this, he went on to tell a parable, because he was near Jerusalem, and because they supposed that the kingdom of God was to appear immediately” (Luke 19.11). “Near” here is enngus and here certainly means near in terms of space. They supposed that upon Messiah’s entrance into Jerusalem, the Kingdom of God would appear in its full, manifested glory and restore all things. It didn’t.
The second instance is taken from the passage we already quoted, Luke 17.21. There, the Pharisees asked “when” the Kingdom of God would come. Jesus, not dissuading the fact that the Kingdom is indeed observable in and of itself, states that its coming is right now. “The kingdom of God is within/among you.” It is at hand, right in front of their faces, near their hearts, and hearing its word. This is what Luke means by “near.” It is not a “time-text.”
Jesus did not say the Kingdom of God is not observable, but that its appearing, which they thought to be something that would happen at that time, would be cataclysmic. He is not even denying that the Kingdom will come in terms of a final end of history and time. What he is saying is that the Kingdom of God has come – it is near them, working invisibly (as it has always done) within/among the hearts of those near and far. In this passage (Luke 17) Jesus goes on to say that he will be taken away from them, as Noah left and entered the ark, and as Lot left Sodom. Jesus entered heaven and left the land. There, in his “days of the son of man” he rules from the heavens at the right hand of God with occasional “flashes of lightning” (17.24) that appear on the earth. The Kingdom is near, and Jesus has received it upon the clouds of heaven as the son of man (Daniel 7.13,14). But, the Kingdom will continue to remain invisible, as well as his reign on David’s throne and over Israel (Luke 1.32,33 – where we must insist that David was a Prophet and saw that the throne to be inherited by one of his own bloodline was the heavenly throne). Indeed, Luke’s narrative begins with the announcement of Simeon, who declares upon seeing the infant son of man, “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Nations, and for glory to your people Israel” (Luke 2.29-ff).
This is the announcement of the Kingdom of God. The day has come. Salvation is near in their hearing. The Light has come to the Nations and the Spirit has been poured out on all flesh. This is about as “near” as one can get to the Kingdom of God and yet still be in this flesh and blood on earth! This is the “time” for those near and those far away (the nations) to come and drink from the wells of salvation and life in Jesus Christ. It is this message that we, too, proclaim: “The time has come (and is here), the Kingdom of God is at hand (in your hearing, on your lips and in your heart). Repent, while the Day is still called, “Today!”