When Mark the Evangelist wanted to sum up the way Jesus started His earthly ministry, he used these words:
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” (1:14–15).
The Greek word that Mark uses to summarize Jesus’ message—basileia—is probably better translated with a word that indicates activity. A word like “rule,” “reign,” or even “kingship” is closer to the original meaning of basileia—which means that when Jesus says “the kingdom of God has come near,” He is proclaiming that God is asserting His rule in the world in and through Jesus’ ministry.
But what kind of rule will it be? Coronations can be terrifying. The enthronement of a new king or leader can make one queasy with dread. If you’ve never had to fear when a new prime minister, president, or monarch comes into power, then you have lived a life of rare privilege. For many people in the world—throughout history and also presently, even in the modern West—the passing of power to a new ruler is a matter of gnawing anxiety.
A scene from the end of The Godfather—one of the most haunting pieces of cinema I’ve ever seen—captures this fear well. The protagonist, Michael Corleone, stands near the baptismal font in an ornate Catholic church for his nephew’s christening. As the camera lingers on his stoic facial expression and elegant suit, the scene cuts to a series of assassinations that Michael has orchestrated, which are happening at the very same time as the service of baptism. It turns out that Michael has arranged to become the kingpin of the New York mob, and he is ascending to his throne by means of a bloodbath. The cost of his rule is the death of anyone who stands in his way. The agonizing, devastating final scene of the film shows him being crowned, as it were, as “Don Corleone”—the new monarch of terror.
This fictional story is haunting enough, but similar stories happen in real life all the time. Dictators trample on human dignity to ascend their thrones. Terrorists seize the reins of power. Evil overlords who care nothing for the poor or the sick take control of governments and kingdoms, and the citizens consequently fear for their lives. Coronations, for much of the world, are occasions of uncertainty, worry, and alarm.
Perhaps that same worry and alarm was stirred up in the hearts of Jesus’ hearers when He preached. His message about God’s reign would have conjured up all the churning emotions that coronations usually conjure up: the trembling uncertainty about how severe the new king’s reign would be, the nagging apprehension that the king might demand of them what they aren’t able to give, the dread of what wars the king might lead them into. This is the way things go with kings in our world. Perhaps Jesus’ hearers would have remembered the words of the prophet Samuel:
These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers. He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king. (1 Sam 8:11–18)
The world of first-century Judea was sadly familiar with this sort of kingly script. The Jews of Palestine were used to ambitious would-be rulers rising through the ranks by means of betrayal and intrigue and nighttime assassinations. They were familiar with the story of Julius Caesar’s stabbing. They knew the way that plot unfolds.
But God’s now-arriving rule doesn’t follow the usual pattern, according to Jesus.
The Unseen Kingdom
God’s reign spells liberation for Israel, not coercion. God taking up His crown means the dawning of a new era of deliverance, not domination. When Jesus wants to point His hearers to the telltale signs of God’s kingship bursting onto the scene, He says things like 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” (Luke 11:20). Where you see people being delivered from oppression, in other words, there you see God’s reign in action. Jesus made His followers into emissaries of God’s saving rule; “he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal” (Luke 9:2). Where you see healing and the restoration of what sin and death have disfigured, there you see God’s kingship displayed.
That is what Jesus teaches His followers to cry out for: “Your kingdom come” means “Father, make Your healing reign more and more tangible and visible in our world. Let Your rule assert itself ever more concretely in the places where sickness and evil still seem to have the upper hand.”
Jesus also teaches His followers to pray “Your kingdom come” because—we must not evade this uncomfortable truth—God’s rule is not yet visible in the way we long for it to be. God’s reign, Jesus says,
is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade. (Mark 4:31–32)
Or, as He puts it in another place, “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened” (Matt 13:33). God’s rule is breaking into the world in Jesus’ ministry—but not in such a way that it can be readily identified by the unaided human eye. We can discern it by faith, but we don’t yet see it in the way that we will someday.
One illustration that modern Bible interpreters use to describe the mysterious already-but-not-yet nature of God’s reign is the distinction between “D-Day,” the operation whereby the Allied forces in World War II secured a foothold in France in 1944, and “V-E Day,” or “Victory in Europe Day,” which came some eleven months later when Nazi Germany offered its unconditional surrender. Historians looking back now recognize that the war was effectively won when the Allies landed on Normandy’s beaches. The D-Day invasion hearkened the end of the Nazi regime, even though the death camps kept running and many more lives of combatants and civilians alike were lost before Germany’s surrender in May of the following year.
It’s as though we live between two similarly momentous days. We look backward to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus as the moment when God’s rule showed itself to be unconquerable—theological D-Day, we might call it. In a very real way, God’s conquest of His rebellious world was achieved when His Son left His tomb behind on Easter morning. Yet suffering continues, and we go on longing for an end that isn’t yet public and universal. In this time between the times, as we await Christ’s coming in glory, we who have caught the vision of the way the war will end, we “who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies” (Rom 8:23).
We know that God will one day do for us and for His whole creation what He did for Jesus in raising Him from the dead, but for now, in the meantime, we weep and wait. And that is why we continue to pray, “Your kingdom come,” meaning, “Father, let us see, in the present, more and more signs that the war You have won against the powers that corrupt and enslave Your world is nearing its consummation. Give us more tangible previews of that great day when death will be swallowed up in victory. Help us see that Jesus’ resurrection isn’t just a one-off event but will sweep us along in its wake so that we will share in His transformation.”
As we enter this season of Advent, in which we prepare to celebrate Christmas and, beyond that, Christ’s second advent, we wait and long for the promised transformation of the world, the glorious appearing of our benevolent King.
Wesley Hill is associate professor of biblical studies at Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pennsylvania. This adapted excerpt is from his new book The Lord’s Prayer: A Guide to Prayer to Our Father (Lexham Press).
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