Q. I’m teaching a Bible overview course on the Old and New Testaments. Please help me understand the progression of the teachings from Jesus and the apostles to Paul. How do they complement each other, and how do they differ? Thank you.
You’re asking a gigantic question about New Testament theology, and it really deserves to be treated by an entire volume in that field, rather than in a blog post or series of posts. However, your question is so delightfully inviting that I can’t resist sharing some of my own personal reflections in response to it, simply as a reader and student of the Bible. I would refer you to longer works on New Testament theology by writers such as Thomas R. Schreiner, George Eldon Ladd, I. Howard Marshall, and especially N.T. Wright for a more detailed answer to your question.
To summarize my whole response in advance, I would say that the teaching of Jesus represents a transformed dualism. (I’ll explain shortly what I mean by that.) The teaching of the apostles confirms Jesus’ teaching in that regard. Paul is among these apostles, and his teaching, since he addressed Greeks as well as Jews, also constitutes the transformation of a further dualism. There are some other New Testament books that seem to represent slightly divergent theological streams, but they ultimately contribute to a harmonious overall teaching.
In the rest of this first post, I’ll discuss the teaching of Jesus as presented in the synoptic gospels. In my next post, I’ll discuss the teaching of the apostles as presented in the book of Acts and, briefly, the general epistles.In the post after that, I’ll talk about Paul’s teaching. In a fourth and final post, I’ll look at the gospel and letters of John, Hebrews, and Revelation.
The synoptic evangelists (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) agree that the concept of the “kingdom of God” (often called the “kingdom of heaven” in Matthew) is the central element in the teaching of Jesus. Matthew and Mark summarize Jesus’ teaching by quoting his statement, “The kingdom of God has come near.” Luke reports that Jesus went about “proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God.”
However, Jesus used the term “kingdom” to mean something different than it had previously meant to the Jewish people of his time. It was therefore a term that he transformed. It was also a term that described a dualism. Jesus’ listeners understood the world in dualistic terms. As they saw it, there were only two kinds of people: those who were in the kingdom, and those who weren’t. The essence of the teaching of Jesus was to convey a new understanding of who was in and who was out by presenting a new vision of what the kingdom was.
The Jewish people understood the kingdom to be the kingdom of David. That is, it was a hereditary monarchy that would be re-established when a new ruler came from the line of David and restored their fortunes—their independence, prosperity, and influence. The crowds on Palm Sunday thought this was happening as Jesus entered Jerusalem in triumph, and so they shouted, “Blessed is the kingdom of our father David that is coming!” (That is, that is coming now, with this event.)
The people did express this same dualism with some other terms. Since the kingdom itself was hereditary, that is, it belonged to those who were descended from twelve tribes, they also spoke of a distinction between “Israel” and “the nations,” or between “Jew” and “Gentile,” when they were describing who was in and who was out. They also expressed a distinction between those who had the law (and were at least supposed to follow it) and people who were “sinners” and didn’t follow the law because they didn’t have it. Jesus used this kind of language himself in the Garden of Gethsemane when he said, “The Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners.” He meant “Gentiles”—he was being turned over to the Romans for trial and execution. Paul reports in Galatians that he used the expression “Gentile sinners” when speaking to Peter, who was a fellow Jew (although Paul’s theology deals largely with a different dualism, as we’ll see in a later post).
However, even though there were these other ways of expressing the distinction between those who were “in” and “out,” the kingdom remains the primary term in the teaching of Jesus. And it’s the term he specifically employed to transform the dualism that he encountered.
For one thing, Jesus presented a vision of the kingdom of God as not exclusively hereditary, but rather open to anyone, Jew or Gentile. He said, for example, that “many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom [i.e. people of Jewish descent] will be thrown into the outer darkness.” Jesus said this right after commending the faith of a Roman centurion who asked him to heal his servant (“I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith“). So the implication is that the kingdom belongs to all those who have faith in God, not just to those who can claim a certain ethnic pedigree. Faith means not so much belief about God as an implicit trust in God. Jesus encouraged people to have this same kind of implicit trust in himself.
Another transformation Jesus introduced was to envision the kingdom as something that was already present, not something that would only arrive in the future when the monarchy was re-established. That’s part of the tantalizing ambiguity of Jesus’ thematic statement, “The kingdom of God has come near.” It can mean either that the kingdom is nearby (in place), or that the time of the kingdom is just about to begin or has already begun. In Mark, the statement is prefaced with, “The time is fulfilled,” emphasizing the temporal aspect. According to Luke, Jesus stated even more explicitly that the kingdom was not a future reality but a present one: “Once, on being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, ‘The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, “Here it is,” or “There it is,” because the kingdom of God is in your midst.'” That is, “It’s already here, in my person and in the community that I’m creating.”
To expand on that a bit, let me say that I personally believe that Jesus gave his most concise definition of the kingdom of God in the Lord’s Prayer. He taught his disciples to pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” I don’t think that’s two separate requests; it’s saying the same thing in two different ways. The implication is that the kingdom of God is present on earth wherever and whenever God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven, that is, without resistance. This holds true most of all in the area of relationships. When people relate to one another unconditionally in the way God wants them to, then God’s kingdom appears among them on earth in its “already” form. (Jesus didn’t teach that the kingdom was exclusively present; he also spoke often of when he would return in power to establish his kingdom. That’s the “not yet” form, which we are still anticipating.)
So the dualism that Jesus was engaging envisioned a world in which people were either in or out of a kingdom that was the possession of a particular ethnic group, that was based on law-keeping, and that was expected in the future. He replaced that vision with one in which people were either in or out of a kingdom that was open to everyone on earth, that was based on faith, and that was already present, in addition to being expected in the future.
I’ll discuss in my next post how the apostles confirmed the understanding of the kingdom that’s found in the teaching of Jesus.