Tuesday, 19 December 2017

"The Kingdom of Heaven"

The Gospel of Matthew is fairly well known for its particularity of speaking of "the Kingdom of Heaven" as opposed to the more classic expression found elsewhere in the New Testament of the kingdom of God. A common reason given concerns the Jewish nature of Matthew and his purposes for ensuring there is a special respect reserved for the name of God implied by the writer. Have you heard that theory? Or do you simply think that these gospel accounts vary in ways similar to different people describing different perspectives, like blind-folded people describing an elephant by its various parts? Sorry, both of these views are unlikely in this case.

I have been studying now the characteristics of Yahweh, the name of the Israelite deity, for some time now. I have also had a special interest in the Gospel of Matthew. Something needs to be clarified in these explanations (I am focussing on the first one here) which really do not satisfy, in my view, the actual biblical data available to us. Here's why.

First, although Matthew doesn't use the expression Kingdom of God very much, he still does do so, five times in fact! Secondly, he uses the word "God" just as much as any other gospel writer. Compare Matthew's usage with that of Mark for example. Matthew uses the word
God 56 times, including the 5 occurrences I just mentioned of the Kingdom of God. Mark mentions the word god 52 times. So that is, for instance, less than the author who supposedly has drawn a ring of fire around the name of God. Thirdly, the issue of pronouncement of God's name is not about saying or not saying G-O-D (or T-H-E-O-S), but rather the name of Yahweh.

So why did Matthew substitute quite often the words kingdom of God with the Kingdom of Heaven? I believe an alternative explanation can be grounded in Ephesians 5:5 in the context of what we know of Matthew more generally. Let's read this remarkable passage now, then return to it after looking at some of that "first-gospel"-context:

Among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people. Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving. For of this you can be sure: no immoral, impure or greedy person – such a person is an idolater – has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.
As we have seen before, "the Gospel of Matthew", or whatever it was originally known as, is most likely a late first century text that is deeply reverent and devoted to a hellenised Jewish proclamation, confirmation and clarification of the Good News concerning God's sent, annointed, crucified, resurrected and exalted Messiah-Son. The author is careful to clarify and develop a number of things, such as "the fulfilment" of the stories already circulating about Jesus as fulfilment of Jewish Scripture (sometimes to the extreme), the certainty that Jesus outlived John the Baptist, the truth contained in Mark and Luke's accounts, and most significantly for my own journey over the last three years, quite what being baptised meant over and above John's baptism (in the name of the trinity of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit), all of which is set in ordered teaching blocks more accessible to excommunicated Jewish-Christian groups with a desire to learn and share. That sentence was getting a bit long, but on this understanding, let us stress there is also the Matthean desire to not forget the Jewish homeland in which the Christ story took place. Just because Paul's (and others) efforts to retake the nations for God and Christ has had a very outward focus these last few decades, those Judean and Samaritan (=northern Israelite tribes) lands and inhabitants mustn't be forgotten in the missional endeavour.

This endeavour has always been, despite Paul's general reluctance on its usage, about the Kingdom of God. However, the authority of the one in charge of said kingdom is understood to have been entrusted in its entirety to the exalted Messiah, God's very own Son and Heir. Thus Paul describes the Kingdom as in joint ownership in the above passage. It's not like God has washed his hands of this great work of his - he nearly did this in Noah's day! - rather the Project is shared perfectly, and still extended further to the saints through their annointing and baptism in the Holy Spirit. But like everyone else writing and teaching (and thinking and praying and....) in the first century, no-one had yet devised this trinitarian action in terms of a "Triune God" - that was a later "clarification". Hence, for me, it is very plausible that "the Kingdom of Heaven" is a widening of the viewpoint about whose Kingdom this is - thus imputing still more divine status to Jesus via this incredible kingship appointment and sonship.

Matthew's contribution to the eventual development of the doctrine of the Triune God never ceases to amaze me and should be considered a huge stepping stone.

2 comments:

  1. John, are you alright? Didn't see any reply on christmas that's why i'm asking...

    ReplyDelete
  2. Hey Shaad! I'm ok, thanks, hope the same for you. Can you jog my (very poor) memory?

    ReplyDelete

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