The Teaching of Jesus Concerning the Kingdom of God and the Church (7)

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The Kingdom in the Sphere of Righteousness

In regard to the relation between the kingdom and righteousness, three lines of thought can be distinguished in the teaching of Jesus.

  1. According to the one, the ideal fulfillment of the will of God in man’s moral life is in itself a revelation of the divine supremacy, and the act of declaring man righteous in itself a prerogative of the divine kingship.
  2. According to the other, the righteousness needed by man appears as one of the blessings which God in his kingdom bestows.
  3. According to still a third representation, the kingdom is given as a reward for the practice of righteousness in this life. Each of these we shall consider separately.

Kingdom Righteousness Reveals the Divine Kingship

According to the Old Testament and the Semitic conception generally, the kingship and the exercise of legislative and judicial authority are inseparably united. The modern distribution of these several functions of government over distinct institutions is entirely unknown. The king gives laws and executes laws. “To judge” and “to reign” are synonymous expressions. This should be kept in mind in order to apprehend correctly the first aspect of our Lord’s teaching on righteousness as related to the kingdom. Righteousness is always taken by Jesus in a specific sense which it obtains from the reference to God as Lawgiver and Judge.
Our modern usage of the word is often a looser one, since we are apt to associate with it no further thought than that of what is fair and equitable, inherently just. To Jesus “righteousness” meant all this and much more than this. It meant such moral conduct and such a moral state as are right when measured by the supreme norm of the nature and will of God, so that they form a reproduction of the latter, a revelation, as it were, of the moral glory of God.
When the disciples are exhorted to let their light shine before men that these may see their good works and glorify the Father in heaven, this thought is expressed in terms of fatherhood, but the conception of glory involved is closely allied to that of kingship. In the Lord’s Prayer the petition “Thy kingdom come” naturally leads on to the petition “Thy will be done, as in heaven, so on earth,” so that the fulfillment of the will of God is obviously regarded as one of the principal forms in which his kingship is realized. Its consummate expression this principle finds in the commandment: “Ye therefore shall be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect,” (Matt. 5:48). The sayings just quoted affirm not merely

  1. that the norm of righteousness is to be found in God, they likewise imply
  2. that the aim of righteousness, the final cause[1] [goal] of obedience, lies in God. Righteousness is to be sought from the pure desire of satisfying him, who is the supreme end of all moral existence.

Jewish Ethics

In both these points, our Lord’s teaching on righteousness was no less vitally connected with his conception of the divine kingship than with that of the divine fatherhood. And in both respects we must place his teaching over against the principles and tendencies which were at work in the Jewish ethics of the time, in order fully to appreciate its profound significance. The characteristic faults of the Jewish ethics were formalism, casuistry, an inclination to emphasize the prohibition rather than the commandment, and, worst of all, self-righteousness and hypocrisy. These faults proceeded from a twofold source.
On the one hand, Judaism had virtually become a worship of the law as such. The dead letter of the law had taken the place of the living God. The majesty and authority of the holy nature and perfect will of God were no longer felt in the commandments.
On the other hand, the Jewish law-observance was self-centered, because it was chiefly intended to be the instrument for securing the blessedness of the coming age.

Effects of Having a Deified Law Rather than a Personal Lawgiver

Where the norm of righteousness is a deified law rather than a personal lawgiver, and where the supreme motive for obedience is a self-interested one, there inevitably the faults above enumerated must make their appearance. God being kept at a distance, no strong need will be felt for yielding more than compliance with the law in the outward act. Because the ultimate root in which all the commandments are one in the nature and will of God is lost sight of, the law will become a mere aggregate of unrelated precepts, a collection of statutory ordinances, for adjusting which to the compass of the entire outward life, a complicated system of the most refined casuistry will be required. Because the controlling motive is self-centered, the escape from transgression will form a more serious concern than the positive fulfillment of what the spirit of the law demands. Finally, where the moral life is thus concentrated on the outward conduct, where the conscience does not search and judge itself in the presence of the personal God, who knows the heart, there the sins of self-righteousness and hypocrisy find a fertile soil for development.

Revolution

Such was the moral consciousness in which our Lord wrought a revolution by enunciating the twofold principle above stated. He once more made the voice of the law the voice of the living God, who is present in every commandment, so absolute in his demands, so personally interested in man’s conduct, so all-observant, that the thought of yielding to him less than the whole inner life, the heart, the soul, the mind, the strength, can no longer be tolerated. Thus quickened by the spirit of God’s personality, the law becomes in our Lord’s hands a living organism, in which soul and body, spirit and letter, the greater and smaller commandments are to be distinguished, and which admits of being reduced to great comprehensive principles in whose light the weight and purport of all single precepts are to be intelligently appreciated.
The two great commandments are to love God supremely and one’s neighbor as one’s self (Mark 12:30-31). The practical test of conduct is to do unto men all things whatsoever one desires to have done to one’s self, for this is the summary of the law and the prophets (Matt. 7:12). In case of conflict the mere ceremonial must give way before the ethical (Matt. 5:23-24).
There are commandments in reference to which it is sufficient to say that they should not be left undone, such as the tithing of mint, anise and cummin, and there are commandments of such supreme and intrinsic importance as to demand in men a positive and energetic determination to do them, viz., the weightier matters of the law, justice, mercy and faith (Matt. 23:23). Because righteousness is a matter of immediate, personal concern between the soul and God, it can rest on nothing else than the divinely revealed commandments, and no human tradition can bind the conscience: “Every plant which the heavenly Father planted not, shall be rooted up” (Matt. 15:13).
Finally, what alone can impart value in the sight of God to any act of obedience is the sincerity of the heart from which it proceeds. Righteousness must be fruit, the organic product of the life and character, exponential of what is within (Matt. 7:16,20; 21:43).

Being Right; Being Declared Right

All this was the result of bringing men face to face with God as the righteous Lawgiver and King, personally cognizant of every man’s conduct. In view of it, it is hardly necessary to observe that our Lord also represents God as the supreme Judge of the moral life. To be righteous is, strictly speaking, equivalent to being justified of God. And this reference to the judgment of God is to Jesus not a subordinate matter; it is an essential ingredient of His conception of righteousness. The process of moral action does not appear complete to Him until it receives in the divine justifying sentence its crown and consummation. The right to hold accountable and judge ranked clearly in His mind among the highest of God’s royal prerogatives. On this point, he carefully preserved the valuable kernel of truth contained in the exaggerated Jewish ideas about the forensic relation between God and man. While making much of the divine love, our Lord did not suffer His emphasis on this to obscure the important principle of the divine justice. In correcting the one-sidedness of Judaism, which had no eye for the grace of God, He did not fall into the opposite extreme of reducing everything to the love of God. On the contrary, in His teaching the two divine attributes of love and justice are perfectly balanced. In the well-known saying of Matt. 6:33, we can observe the close connection He assumed between the kingship of God and His forensic righteousness. The disciples are here urged, first to make God’s kingdom the object of their pursuit, and then, as a closer specification, to seek God’s righteousness. By the latter is meant either the exercise of God’s justifying righteousness on man’s behalf, or that righteousness as a human state, which is counted before God. On either view, the kingship of God and the exercise of forensic righteousness are intimately associated.

Ethics a Subset of Religion

The supreme importance which Jesus in virtue of this God-centered conception attached to righteousness may be inferred from the fact that its pursuit is spoken of in equally absolute terms as the seeking of the kingdom. It is the highest concern of the disciple. He must hunger and thirst after it, treat it as the very sustenance of his life, the only thing that will satisfy his most instinctive desires. He must submit to persecution for its sake (Matt 5:6,10). All this becomes intelligible only on the assumption that, to Jesus, the question of right and wrong was not a purely moral, but in the deepest sense a religious question. His teaching on righteousness means the subsumption of ethics under religion.
We need not wonder that with such a sublime conception of what righteousness implied, even this aspect of the kingdom, in which formally at least, it closely resembled the Jewish idea of the already existing reign of God through the law, appeared nevertheless to Jesus as something future. The kingdom had yet to come, because it consisted in an observance of the law conformed to an altogether new ideal, practiced in an altogether new spirit. Something far greater and higher stood before his mind than had ever been contemplated by the mind of Judaism.

Kingdom Righteousness a Gift of God

Thus the God-centered ideal of righteousness itself prepared the way for the second line of thought traceable in our Lord’s teaching on the subject, viz., that righteousness is one of the blessings to be bestowed in the kingdom. For this there was an Old Testament basis. The prophets had predicted that the lawgiving function of Jehovah’s kingship would enter upon a new stage in the Messianic age. According to Jeremiah God will then write his law upon the hearts of the people (Jer. 31:33). According to Ezekiel he will make Israel to walk in his statutes (Ezek. 36:27). The prophecies in the second part of Isaiah’s book promise an impartation of righteousness to
the people of God as a result of a new marvelous disclosure of Jehovah’s own righteousness in the future. Jesus, who derived so many evangelical ideas from the last-mentioned source, may have had these prophecies in mind, when in the Sermon on the Mount he spoke of such as hunger and thirst after righteousness (Is. 55:1). At any rate the other beatitudes show that the state of mind here described is a receptive rather than a productive one. The hungering and thirsting stand on a line with the poor and the meek, they are conscious of not possessing the desired good in themselves and look to God for supplying it. When they are satisfied, this is due not to their own effort but to an act of God. The same thought is indirectly expressed in the “seeking” of righteousness commanded in Matt. 6:33. In the parable of the Pharisee and publican the term “justification” is applied to an acceptance of man by God not based on self-righteous works, but on penitence and trust in the divine mercy.

Imputed Righteousness?

It would be historically unwarranted to read into these utterances the whole doctrine of the imputed righteousness of Christ. It was impossible for Jesus to develop this doctrine with any degree of explicitness, because it was to be based on his own atoning death, which still lay in the future. Our Lord speaks of a state of righteousness before God to be conferred as a part of the coming kingdom. How far this will be done by imputation, how far it will also be done by changing the heart and life of men so as to produce works which God will be able in principle to approve in His judgment, which of these two will be the basis of the other is not clearly explained. Our Lord’s doctrine is the bud in which the two conceptions of a righteousness imputed and a righteousness embodied in the sanctified life of the believer still lie enclosed together. Still it should not be overlooked that, in more than one respect, Jesus prepared the way for Paul by enunciating principles to which the latter’s teaching could attach itself.

  1. He emphasized that, in the pursuit of righteousness, the satisfaction of God should be man’s supreme concern. This, carried out to its ultimate consequences with reference to sinful man, could not but lead to the conception of a righteousness provided by God himself in the perfect life and atoning death of Christ.
  2. He also affirmed that the righteousness required of the disciples was of an infinitely higher kind than that possessed by the Scribes and Pharisees, something as new and unprecedented as the kingdom itself, and thus raised the problem as to how this unique standing before God was to be acquired.
  3. Still further, he gave to understand that this righteousness was attainable by the disciples only, so that it must be held to rest on a previous state of acceptance by God, determined by his fatherhood and grace.

Kingdom Righteousness a Reward

The third representation connects the kingdom with righteousness practiced in this life as a reward. Here obviously the kingdom denotes not the kingship of God, but the entire complex of resulting blessings, and that as they will be bestowed in the last day. Thus in Matt. 5:20, the possession of a righteousness exceeding that of the Scribes and Pharisees appears as a prerequisite for entering the kingdom. The same idea underlies the numerous passages that speak of a future reward.

Jesus still Jewish on this Point?

It has been asserted that Jesus retained this whole line of thought, because He had not fully emancipated himself from the fundamental error of Judaism, according to which everything in religion revolved around the ideas of merit and reward. The charge, if well-founded, would be a serious one, for the principle in question, far from appearing in isolated sayings only, pervades the entire teaching of Jesus. The disciple’s life is depicted throughout as a labor in the vineyard, at the plow, in the harvest-field, in the household. Treasures can be laid up in heaven.

First Response

In order to solve this difficulty, it is necessary sharply to distinguish. The first thing to remember is that we have no right to declare the desire for reward as a motive in ethical conduct unworthy of a high standard of morality and therefore unworthy of the better element in our Lord’s own teaching. This would be the case only, if it figured as the only or the supreme motive, and if other motives of a disinterested God-centered kind did not exist side by side with or above it. If our Lord appealed to the fear of punishment as a deterrent from evil, why should he not have appealed to the desire for blessedness and reward as an incentive to the good? May we not believe that Jesus himself was strengthened in enduring his suffering by the prospect of the promised glory? cf. Heb. 12:2. Does anybody think that in his case this interfered in the least with his making it his meat and his drink to do the Father’s will?

Second Response

Secondly, it should be emphasized that the stimulus afforded by the promise of reward need not appeal to the lower, sensual instincts, as but too often it did in the Jewish mind, but may equally well address itself to the highest, spiritual desires. In this respect our Lord’s teaching moves on the highest conceivable plane. The pure in heart shall see God, those that hunger and thirst after righteousness shall be completely satisfied with the same, the peacemakers shall be called sons of God. These second clauses in the beatitudes describe the essence of the final kingdom in which the reward will consist. They show, therefore, that the reward towards which Jesus points his followers is not something morally or spiritually indifferent, but the highest enjoyment of what here already constitutes the natural blessedness pertaining to the internal kingdom. Thus the reward bears an organic relation to the conduct it is intended to crown.

Third Response

Still further, we must observe that there is a fundamental difference between the manner in which Judaism conceived of the principle of reward and Jesus’ conception of the same as regards the necessity with which this principle was believed to operate. According to the Jews, this was a legal necessity; the fulfillment of the law being inherently worthy of and entitled to the reward following it. Hence also there existed between the two a ratio of strict equivalence, so much being given for so much. Jesus plainly taught that between God and man no such commercial relation can exist, not merely because this is impossible on account of man’s sin, but for the deeper reason, that God’s absolute sovereignty precludes it even under the conditions of human rectitude, because God as God is entitled, apart from every contract or stipulation of reward, to all the service or obedience man can render. The disciples are “unprofitable servants,” even after they have done everything required of them (Luke 17:10). They are “unprofitable” not in the sense that their labors are useless, but in the sense that they can do no more for God their owner, than He can naturally expect of them. In the parable, the talents, for the increase of which the servants are rewarded, are not originally their own but entrusted to them by their Lord. As a result, the relation of pure equivalence between what is done and what is received is entirely abolished. The reward will far exceed the righteousness which precedes it. He that is faithful over a few things will be set over many things, nay over all things (Matt. 24:47; 25:21,23). He who receives a prophet or a righteous man obtains a reward as great as that of the prophet and the righteous man (Matt. 10:41,42). Restitution will be a hundredfold for things given up (Mark 10:30). And the parable of the laborers in the vineyard teaches that in its ultimate analysis the reward is a free gift, whence also the one who has labored but a little while can receive the full wages (Matt. 20:1-16; cf. Luke 17:10).
We see, therefore, that Jesus, though giving a large place to the idea of reward in his teaching, keeps this idea in strict subordination to the two higher principles of the divine sovereignty and the divine grace, in other words to the divine kingship and the divine fatherhood. In the latter respect as well as in the former, the relation between God and the disciples does not admit of the giving or receiving of rewards on the strictly commercial basis. The Father, as Father, gives to the little flock the kingdom, and in general bestows good gifts upon his children. What can be called wages from one point of view is a gracious gift from another (cf. Matt. 5:46 with Luke 6:32, 35). The reward serves simply the purpose of affording an incentive to the disciples’ zeal. Though the kingdom itself is inherited by all, and inherited by grace, there will be individual degrees in the glory which it involves for each disciple, because the ultimate issue cannot but be determined by the progress in righteousness made here below.
[1] Vos is using Aristotle’s language of four causes here.