The meaning and significance of the phrase "Kingdom of God" in the teaching of Jesus as represented by the Synoptic Gospels"The idea of the 'scum of the earth' (prostitutes and Tax-Collectors) entering the Kingdom (Matt. 21:28-32) while the 'righteous' religious leaders remained outside is yet another example of Jesus correcting mistaken notions.(48) His point is obvious, saying 'Yes' to God verbally yet failing to do the will of God excludes one from the Kingdom (cf. Matt. 7:21). "The gracious, redemptive activity of God demands a response of radical obedience." ... Jesus is not interested in religious efforts or in affirming that one can 'buy' the Kingdom; on the contrary, he is saying that the person whose whole life has been bound up with the 'pearls' will, on comprehending the true value of the Kingdom as Jesus presents it. gladly exchange all else to follow him."
The Gospel of Matthew,
the Gospel of Mark,
and the Gospel of Luke
are known as the
because they include
many of the same
stories, often in the
same sequence, and
sometimes exactly the
same wording. This
degree of parallelism
in content, narrative
and sentence structures
can only be accounted
for by literary
Scholars believe that
these gospels share
the same point of
view and are clearly
linked. The term
synoptic comes from
the Greek syn, meaning
"together", and optic,
The Meaning and Significance of the Phrase "Kingdom of God" in the
Teaching of Jesus as Represented by the Synoptic Gospels
by Robert I. Bradshaw
From that time on Jesus began to preach. "Repent for the Kingdom of God is near." Matt. 4:17.
It is clear from the Synoptic Gospels that 'the Kingdom of God' formed the central theme of Jesus' preaching from the very outset of his ministry. Although Matthew's Gospel only uses the phrase 'Kingdom of God' four times (12:28; 19:24; 21:21, 31, 43). it is generally held that the phrase 'Kingdom of Heaven' used in this Gospel is typical of the Jewish practice of circumlocution—substituting another word for the divine name. The two terms are therefore completely interchangeable (cf. Matt. 19:23 with v. 24; Mark 10:23).(1)
Jesus did not invent the phrase, but built upon existing Old Testament teaching (cf. Psalm 145:11, 13; 103:19; Isa. 45:23; Dan. 4:3; Zech. 14:9)(2) and Jewish Apocalyptic writings that follow the same pattern of thought. The regular synagogue prayer of pre- Christian times (the Kaddish), for example, reads: "May He let His Kingdom rule... speedily and soon."(3)
J. Ramsey Michaels comments:
In many different ways Jesus affirmed traditional Jewish expectation. yet he gives them at the same time what Henry James would call a 'turn of the screw', a new twist that shocks his hearers and in some respect calls their behaviour and world-view into question.(4)
It is now generally agreed that the Greek word Basileia referred primarily to the abstract concept of God's rule or reign, but was also (but less commonly) used to refer to the realm over which that rule was exercised.(5) That being said, what did Jesus mean by the term Kingdom of God? The simplest answer is that he used it to summarise his entire mission, in all its aspects,(6) but this statement requires further development lest the theological richness of the term be lost.
For Jesus the Gospel was the nearness of the Kingdom of God (Mark 1:14-15).(7) This passage (and others that emphasise the nearness of the Kingdom. e.g. Mark 9:1; Matt 12:28=Luke 11:20) were taken by C.H. Dodd as evidence that Jesus taught that the Kingdom of God was present in his own ministry and "a matter of present experience".(8) Closer examination of the texts illustrates the danger of interpreting the evidence according to ones preconceived ideas.(9) Study of Mark 1:15 has shown that the Greek texts (and the Hebrew underlying them) are ambiguous in their meaning, which has led many to conclude (rightly in my view) that Jesus intended his hearers to understand that the Kingdom of God [henceforth abbreviated to "the Kingdom"] had both a present(10) and a future aspect.(11) By way of contrast Cranfield argues that the reference is not temporal but spatial—the Kingdom has come near in the person of Jesus.(12)
C.H. Dodd felt free to alter the translation of Mark 9:1 by inserting "...the adverb 'already' and interpret 'see' to mean recognise in retrospect."(13) He wrote: "The bystanders are... promised... that they shall come to see that the Kingdom of God has already come, at some point before they became aware of it."(14) The correct translation and an examination of the context reveals, however, that for Mark (as for Matthew [16:28] and Luke [9:27]). the term "coming of the Kingdom in power" referred first of all to the transfiguration (which follows the statement in all three the Synoptics (Matt. 17:1-l3; Mark 9:2-13; Luke 9:18-36). but also pointed forward to the glory to come following the resurrection (cf. 2 Peter 1:16-18).(15) If it were to refer to the Parousia then it would have to be conceded that Jesus was mistaken in his prediction that some of the disciples would still be alive when it occurred(16) (which is exactly what T.W. Manson seeks to prove).(17)
Jesus' exorcisms mean that "the sovereign power of God has come into effective operation."(18) Matthew (4:23; 10:7; cf. 11:2-6)(19) and Luke (4:40-43; 8:1-3;9:1-2, 11; 10:9) both link the proclamation of the Kingdom with the defeat of demons and the cure of diseases.(20) The contrast is made by Jesus between God's Kingdom and that of Satan (Luke 11:18-20, cf. 4:40-43). In many of his parables Jesus taught his disciples that the Kingdom of God would coexist in the world with the kingdom of Satan for a time. In the parable of the Weeds (Matt. 13:24-30, 36-44) he explains "how the Kingdom can be present in the world without wiping yet not wiping out all opposition.(21) The parable of the Dragnet (Matt. 13:47-50) likewise speaks of a time of coexistence followed by a separation when the Kingdom is fully established at the end of the age.(22)
Matthew 12:28 (=Luke 11:20) also teaches us that the kingdom is established by the power of the Holy Spirit, in whom Jesus worked. (23) Although it is done in the power of the Spirit, the work of establishing the Kingdom is the Father's (Matt. 6:10; Luke 11:2). (24) T.W. Manson has shown that Jesus revealed God as Father to his disciples.(25) In the same way the teaching concerning the bestowal of the Kingdom was also done in the context of private instruction of the disciples (Matt. 13:43; 25:43; Luke 12:32; 22:29ff).(26) The Parable of the Growing Seed (Mark 4:26-29) illustrates that the kingdom grows on its own, apart from any visible external assistance, as the Father causes it to grow,(27) "emphasising God's initiative in the establishment of His rule."(28)
The Early Church was clear in their assertion that Jesus was the Messiah, the Anointed One (cf. Matt .4:16-17; Mark 1:10-11; Luke 3:21-22), who was Ruler and king (Matt. 2:2; cf. 21:5). Yet Jesus did not publicly claim that title. preferring instead the self- designation 'Son of Man'. Marshall suggests that just as Jesus used this ambiguous term (which could mean "Son of God" [cf. Dan. 7:27] or simply 'I') as a veiled manifestation of himself, so in the same way he used the term 'Kingdom of God' to refer to "an authority and rule that will be revealed openly in the future, but at present is hidden and partly secret."(29) This is supported by an examination of Jesus' parabolic teaching, such as the Parable of the Mustard Seed (Mark 4:30-32; Luke 13:18-19) and the Yeast (Matt. 13:33; Luke 13:20-21). Blomberg points out that the Parables, "confronted people with radical demands, and not all were willing to comply. Some followed him in discipleship, but others were actually driven further from his Kingdom."(30) (Mark 4:10-12; cf. Matt. 12:34).
The Kingdom also has a future aspect, which Weiss and Schweitzer have over emphasised(31) at the expense of those passages where Jesus taught a present Kingdom (see above).(32) Luke 13:22-31 is particularly relevant to our discussion at this point, for it not only gives a rare glimpse into events in the eschatological Kingdom i.e. the feast (vv. 29-30). This concept would have been a familiar one to his hearers (Isa. 25:6f; 64:3; 65:13f; Ezek. 32:4; 39:17-20), (33) but Jesus gives 'a turn of the screw' that would have shocked a Jewish audience: there would be many surprises as to the final membership of the Kingdom—even the Gentiles would be represented! (cf. Isa. 45:6; 49:12).(34) The same theme recurs in Luke 14:15-25, were Jesus does not correct his table companions declaration: "Blessed is the man who will eat at the feast in the Kingdom of God" (v.15), as 'feast' is "a common Jewish metaphor meaning eschatological salvation."(35) The Pharisees were deeply offended by the way in which Jesus welcomed such people as Gentiles, Tax Collectors and 'sinners' and ate with them (Matt. 9:9-13; Mark 2:15- 17; Luke 5:27-32). To which Jesus replied with the parables of the Lost Sheep, the Lost Silver and the Lost Son (Luke 15). Of these the "keynote is the joy in heaven over a son who repents (15:7, 10). over a son who comes home."(36)
The question as to membership of the Kingdom leads to the commonly asked question "Is the Church the Kingdom of God?" R.T. France points out that this question is "meaningless... roughly on a par with... 'Is Mrs. Thatcher patriotism?'"(37) because as we have already seen, the Kingdom refers primarily to God's rule. Nowhere in the New Testament is the church identified with the Kingdom of God. George Eldon Ladd states:
The Kingdom is the rule of God, and the realm of his blessings; the Church is the people of the Kingdom. who have received it, who witness it, and who will inherit.(38)
There is a danger, however, of taking Perrin's concept of the Kingdom (39) too far, as I.H. Marshall points out. Like other liberal scholars Perrin derives his "understanding of the Kingdom of God from a limited number of texts which he believed to be the authentic sayings of Jesus,(40) and so his definition of the Kingdom "namely the powerful action of God that can be expressed in a whole range of situations"(41) is proved inadequate when the rest of the evidence is examined. Marshall concludes that "the Church as the people of God is the object of his rule and is therefore His Kingdom, or at least an expression of it, imperfect and sinful though it is."(42)
Luke 17:20-21 is the only saying of Jesus that might be used as evidence to attempt to prove that he saw the Kingdom as something internal(43) (cf. Rom. 14:17). The Pharisees were looking for signs that could be observed, but Jesus replied that the Kingdom was among them—that is—it was present in His person and ministry.(44)
In contrast to the ideas current in his day, Jesus' statement that "From the time of John the Baptist until now, the Kingdom of Heaven has been forcefully advancing, and forceful men lay hold of it (Matt. 11:12; cf. Luke 16:16). These verses have given rise to a great range of interpretations. F.F. Bruce sees them as a rebuke to those of like mind to the Zealots, who sought to bring about the Kingdom of God by force.(45) More likely is the view of D.A. Carson who argues that:
From the beginning of Jesus' ministry the Kingdom had been forcefully advancing (the point also made in Luke 16:16). But it has not swept all opposition away as John expected.(46) What both John the Baptist and the Pharisees were expecting was the sudden and total establishment of the Kingdom. Instead, Jesus predicts that those in the Kingdom can expect opposition and persecution.(47)
The idea of the 'scum of the earth' (prostitutes and Tax-Collectors) entering the Kingdom (Matt. 21:28-32) while the 'righteous' religious leaders remained outside is yet another example of Jesus correcting mistaken notions.(48) His point is obvious, saying 'Yes' to God verbally yet failing to do the will of God excludes one from the Kingdom (cf. Matt. 7:21). "The gracious, redemptive activity of God demands a response of radical obedience."(49)
The parables of the Hidden Treasure (Matt. 13:44) and the Pearl (13:45-46) teach that the Kingdom is of great worth. In the former a man, having found the treasure, hid it again until he had bought the field, because treasure belonged to the owner of the property, not to the finder.(50) In the latter:
Jesus is not interested in religious efforts or in affirming that one can 'buy' the Kingdom; on the contrary, he is saying that the person whose whole life has been bound up with the 'pearls' will, on comprehending the true value of the Kingdom as Jesus presents it. gladly exchange all else to follow him.(51)
The parable of the Sower shows that productivity within the Kingdom depends on the kind of response made by each individual who heard of it. In ancient Israel a tenfold harvest was a good yield, and the average about seven and a half. The hundredfold harvest predicted was the result of two things—a correct attitude of heart and on part of the disciple and a miracle.(52) This correct attitude is further described in Luke 18. It is not self-righteousness, like that of the Pharisee (vv.9-12, 14), but humility like the Tax Collector (v.13). It is having the attitude of a child (vv. 15-16; cf. Matt. 19:13-15; Mark 10:13-16),(53) which implies total dependence upon the good pleasure of God, having no power or righteousness of one's own.(54)
For the Gospel writers the phrase "entering the Kingdom of God" is interchangeable with 'being saved' as can be seen from Luke 18:25-26 (cf. Matt. 19:24-25; Mark 10:23, 26), where Jesus describes how hard it is for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God and the disciples reply "who then can be saved?" In the next few verses the Kingdom is linked with 'eternal life' (Luke 18:30; cf. Matt. 25:29; Mark 10:30). (55) This is further strengthened in Luke 21:28-30. for in verse 28 'redemption' is drawing near, but is v.30 it is the Kingdom of God that is drawing near. Clearly the Gospels are linking the salvation and redemption of believers with the coming of the Kingdom. (56)
The term 'Kingdom of God' is a multi-ordinate term which includes every aspect of Jesus' ministry, even the cross, which in some way (that the Gospels do not make clear) is essential to the coming of the Kingdom.(57) In His teaching Jesus built on and corrected the current ideas about the Kingdom within Judaism and showed that it has both a present and a future aspect. Now it suffers violence, is resisted and requires total commitment to enter it; yet its growth is not the work of man, but of the Father. The Kingdom is the rule of God, but it also includes people, and these people are not a new Israel ruled by the Twelve Disciples (Matt. 19:28; Luke 22:29),(58) but are different from the old in composition in that it is universal rather than restricted to one nation.
(1) George Eldon Ladd, "Kingdom of God," G.W. Bromiley, Gen. Ed. International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (ISBE), revised, Vol. 3. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), 24; B. Klappert, "King, Kingdom," Colin Brown, Gen. Ed., New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, Vol. 2. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1971), 376-377.
(2) Wendell Willis, "The Discovery of the Eschatological Kingdom: Johannes Weiss and Albert Schweitzer," Wendell Willis, ed., The Kingdom of God in 20th Century Interpretation. (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendricksen, 1967), 5. Schweitzer and Weiss agree that Jesus drew on Jewish Apocalyptic; R.H. Hiers, "Pivotal Reactions to the Eschatological Interpretations: Rudolf Bultmann and C.H. Dodd," in Willis, 31. Dodd rejected this view in favour of a Hellenistic background.
(3) R.T. France, "The Church and the Kingdom of God," D.A. Carson, ed. Biblical Interpretation and the Church. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1964), 34; Klappert, 377.
(4) J. Ramsey Michaels, "The Kingdom of God And The Historical Jesus," in Willis, 216.
(5) Ladd, 24; I. Howard Marshall, I.H. Jesus The Saviour. (Downers Grove, Illinois, IVP, 1990), 215; Norman Perrin, The Kingdom of God in the Teaching of Jesus. (London: SCM Press Ltd., 1963), 24.
(6) France, 34; Robert O'Toole, "The Kingdom of God in Luke-Acts," in Willis, 153.
(7) William L. Lane, "Mark," New International Commentary on the New Testament. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974), 63-64;
(8) C.H. Dodd, Parables of the Kingdom. (London: SCM Press Ltd., 1935), 29-31.
(9) Critics have suggested that Dodd's Jesus resembles more nearly a Cambridge Platonist than a first century Jew. See Hiers, 22.
(10) Dodd, 28-35.
(11) W.G. Kümmel, Promise And Fulfillment. (London: SCM Press Ltd, 1961), 19-24; Robert A. Guelich, "Mark 1 - 8:26," Word Biblical Commentary. (Waco: Word Books, 1989), 44.
(12) C.E.B. Cranfield, "Mark," Cambridge Greek Testament Commentary. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1959), 67.
(13) Hiers, 21.
(14) Dodd, 37.
(15) Lane, 313-314.
(16) D.A. Carson, "Matthew," F.E. Gaebelein, gen. ed., The Expositor's Bible Commentary, Vol. 8. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984), 382.
(17) T.W. Manson, The Teaching of Jesus. (London: SCM Press Ltd., 1959), 282.
(18) Dodd, 29-31; Hiers, 19.
(19) Carson, 121.
(20) Ladd, 27.
(21) Carson, 317.
(22) R.T. France, "Matthew," Tyndale New Testament Commentaries. (Leicester: IVP, 1985), 230.
(23) Marshall, Saviour, 225.
(24) Marshall, Saviour, 225; O'Toole, 148.
(25) Manson, 85-115; Marshall, Saviour, 224.
(26) Marshall, Saviour, 224.
(27) Guelich, 245.
(28) Lane, 120.
(29) Marshall, Saviour, 228.
(30) Craig Blomberg, "Parable," ISBE, Vol. 3, 657.
(31) E.J. Epp, "Mediating Approaches to the Kingdom: Werner Georg Kümmel and George Eldon Ladd," in Willis, 36.
(32) Ladd, 24.
(33) I. Howard Marshall, "The Gospel Of Luke," The New International Greek Testament Commentary. (Exeter: Paternoster Press, 1989 Reprint), 568.
(34) Marshall, Luke, 568; Leon Morris, "Luke," Tyndale New Testament Comentaries. (Leicester: IVP, 1989 Reprint), 248.
(35) O'Toole, 158.
(36) Ladd, 27.
(37) France, 31.
(38) Ladd, 28.
(39) Norman Perrin, Jesus and the Language of the Kingdom. (London: SCM Press Ltd., 1976), 29-34.
(40) Marshall, Saviour, 217.
(41) Marshall, Saviour, 216.
(42) Marshall, Saviour, 230.
(43) Marshall, Luke, 655; Morris, 284.
(44) Morris, 284.
(45) F.F. Bruce, The Hard Savings of Jesus. (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP, 1983), 117.
(46) Carson, 267.
(47) Carson, 267-268.
(48) Carson, 250.
(49) Ron Farmer, The Kingdom Of God in the Gospel of Matthew in Willis, 129-130.
(50) Carson, 328.
(51) Carson, 329.
(52) Larry Hurtado, "Mark," New International Biblical Commentary on the New Testament. (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendricksen, 1989), 72.
(53) O'Toole, 160.
54 Hurtado, 162-163.
(55) O'Toole, 155-156.
(56) O'Toole, 156.
(57) Ladd, 28.
(58) Marshall, Saviour, 229.
The Kingdom of God
It has always seemed to me far more than a vivid coincidence that in 1945 should occur both the first lethal explosions of nuclear boom at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the discovery in a small desert cave near Nag Hammadi, in upper Egypt, of a lost gospel, now known as the Gospel of Thomas. It is as if, at the very moment when humanity was brought face to face with its most extreme capacities for horror, evil, and destruction, so also, in Jesus' astonishing, incandescent vision of the Kingdom in the Gospel of Thomas, humanity was shown what it could still achieve if only it woke up and realized the splendor of its divine secret identity. The sixty years since then have only emphasized more and more intensely the challenge implicit in this synchronicity; are we, as a race, going to continue pursuing the self-destructive vision that is now plunging the world into war, ruining the environment, and creating for everyone an increasingly degraded and ugly planet, or are we going to take up the ecstatic challenge of Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas to see that the Kingdom already exists in and around us and is only waiting for our transformed insight and for the action that flows from it to break into flame and change everything?
The Gospel of Thomas is more than the most exciting archaeological find of the last century, even more than another gospel to add to the four canonical ones. It is far more than another Gnostic text, or one that carries on the tradition of Jewish wisdom sayings, or, as some have also claimed, a cross between the two. These are scholarly descriptions and distinctions, fascinating and helpful in their way, but they do not begin to describe the extraordinary importance of the Gospel of Thomas, or to show how it can be used today by all sincere seekers to awaken their divine identity and to focus its powers on a radical transformation of the world.
The Gospel of Thomas really is, I believe, the clearest guide we have to the vision of the world's supreme mystical revolutionary, the teacher known as Jesus. To those who learn to unpack its sometimes cryptic sayings, the Gospel of Thomas offers a naked and dazzlingly subversive representation of Jesus' defining and most radical discovery: that the living Kingdom of God burns is us and surrounds us in the glory at all moments, and the vast and passionate love-consciousness—what you might call "Kingdom-consciousness"—can help birth it into reality. This discovery is the spiritual equivalent of Albert Einstein's and J. Robert Oppenheimer's uncovering of the potential of nuclear fission; it makes available to all humanity a wholly new level of sacred power. By fusing together a vision of God's divine world with a knowledge of how this divine world could emerge into and transfigure the human one, the Gospel of Thomas makes clear that Jesus discovered the alchemical secret of transformation that could have permanently altered world history, had it been implemented with the passion and on the scale that Jesus knew was possible. Its betrayal by the churches erected in Jesus' name has been an unmitigated disaster, one major reason for our contemporary disaster.
Unlike the Buddha, or Krishna, or any of the Eastern sages whose wisdom of transcendental knowledge left fundamentally intact the status quo of a world often characterized as illusory, the Jesus we see in the Gospel of Thomas saw and knew this world as the constant epiphany of the divine kingdom and knew too that a wholly new world could be created by divine beings, once they had seen this and allowed themselves to be transformed and empowered as he was, by divine wisdom, ecstasy, and energy. What Jesus woke up to and proceeded to enact with the fiercest and most gloriously imaginable intensity was this new life of "Kingdom-consciousness," not as a guru claiming unique status and truth—the Gospel of Thomas makes this very clear—but as a sign of what is possible for all human beings who dare to awaken to the potential splendor of their inner truth and the responsibilities for total transformation of the world that it then inspires within them.
Jesus' full revolutionary vision in all its outrageousness, grandeur, and radical passion is to be discovered in a close reading of the Gospel of Thomas. The greatest of the sayings are like the equations of physicists Werner Heisenberg or Niels Bohr—complex but intensely lucid expositions in mystical and yogic terms of the laws and potential of a new reality, an endlessly dynamic and fecund reality created by our illusory perceptions and their sterile hunger for separation, division, and stasis.
What I have discovered on my own journey into the increasingly challenging understanding of "Kingdom-consciousness" is that as I continue to uncover and develop in my own depths the "fire" that Jesus speaks of in the Gospel of Thomas, reading the sayings by the brilliant light of this "fire" becomes even more astonishing. The sayings expand in radiance, significance, and reach as I expand my own awareness of divinity and of the powers available to all those who dare to risk transformation.
What I have to offer here is a linked reading of seven of the sayings that have most inspired me. Through this linked reading, I hope to open up to seekers everywhere the full glory, as far as I understand it now, of what Jesus is trying to communicate through the Gospel of Thomas, not just to Christians but to the whole of humanity. Let us begin with saying 2:
Jesus said: The seeker should not stop until he finds. When he does find, he will be disturbed. After having been disturbed, he will be astonished. Then he will reign over everything.
This saying suggests that the Jesus who is speaking in the Gospel if Thomas is not presenting himself as a Messiah with a unique realization and a unique status of mediator. This Jesus—for me, the authentic Jesus—is like the Buddha, a human being who was awakened to the full glory of his inner divinity and so knows the secret of every human being and hungers to reveal it to change the world. The life to which Jesus is inviting everyone is not one of endless seeking, but of finding—finding the truth and power of human divinity by risking everything to uncover them.
From his own harrowing experience, Jesus knows that finding cannot be without suffering; to find out the truth and power of your inner divinity is to be "disturbed"; disturbed by the gap between your human shadow and its dark games, the abyss of light within; disturbed by the price that any authentic transformation cannot help but demand; disturbed by the grandeur you are beginning to glimpse of your real royal nature with all its burden of responsibility and solitude. Jesus knows too, however, that if you risk this disturbance and surrender to the unfolding of your divine nature, extraordinary visions will be awoken in you—visions that will astound you and drag you into what the Sufi mystics call the "kingdom of bewilderment" that "placeless place" where everything you have imagined to be true about yourself or about humanity is rubbed by the splendor of what you discover. And from this increasingly astonishing self-discovery, tremendous powers to influence and transform reality will be born in you. Just as unprecedented energy is unleashed by the splitting of an atom, so through the "splitting" of human identity to reveal the divine identity within it, a huge new transforming power is born, a ruling power, the power that great saints and sages have displayed through gifts of healing, miracles, and undaunted stamina of sacred passion and sacrifice. The seeker who becomes a finder and ruler makes a leap in evolutionary development from human being, unconscious of the Divine hidden within him or her, to an empowered divine being, capable in and under the Divine of flooding reality with the glory of the Kingdom. To reveal this secret, live it out, and release it in all its radical power, to make "finders" and rulers of us all, is why the Jesus of the Gospel of Thomas lived and preached and died.
This empowering vision of saying 2 leads naturally, as in the text itself, to the challenge of saying 3.
Jesus said: If your leaders say to you "Look! The Kingdom is in the sky!" Then the birds will be there before you are. If they say that the Kingdom is in the sea, then the fish will be there before you are. Rather the Kingdom is within you and it is outside of you. When you understand yourselves you will be understood.... If you do not know yourselves, then you exist in poverty and you are that poverty.
The savage, gorgeous radicalism of this saying should not be underestimated: Jesus is, consciously and with the most subversive imaginable scorn, mocking all versions of the spiritual journey that place the ultimate experience beyond this world, in some transcendent "otherwhere." All the patriarchal religions and mystical transmission systems—including those conceived in Jesus' honor—subtly devalue the immanent in favor of the transcendent. This addition to transcendence with its rhetoric of "the world as an illusion" keeps intact the status quo in all its misery, horror, and injustice.
In saying 8, Jesus makes fiercely clear what daring to know the truth of yourself will demand and cost: nothing less than a total commitment to the Divine and a total reversal of the ordinary values of the untransformed world.
And he said: The man is like a thoughtful fisherman who threw his net into the sea and pulled it out full of little fish. Among all the little fish, that thoughtful fisherman found one fine large fish that would be beneficial to him and, throwing all the little fish back into the sea, he easily chose to keep the large one. Whoever has ears to hear, let him hear.
Superficially heard, that saying seems fairly obvious. It seems to be saying that "Kingdom-consciousness" is life's ultimate treasure and all lesser things should be given up for it. Dig deeper and you will see that the saying reveals just what this giving up of lesser things will entail. It is, after all, crazy for a fisherman trying to earn a living to throw back all the "little fish": it reverses all comfortable laws of commerce or livelihood. And this is precisely Jesus' point—one he makes relentlessly throughout the Gospel of Thomas. If you really want to become a mystical revolutionary, dedicating your life to seeing and enacting "Kingdom-consciousness," you are going to have to surrender all conventional ways of being, acting, or living, and all conventional games of status or power. You are going to have to risk the divine madness that is the true sanity of the fisherman, who so clearly sees and knows the ultimate value of "the large fine fish" that he is willing to throw back all the "little fish" and risk poverty and the contempt of his world to stay true to that divine reality that overturns and potentially transforms all worldly realities. The way of life that Jesus advocates throughout the Gospel of Thomas is in the starkest imaginable contrast to the conservative, prosperity-conscious, family-centered, rule-ridden ethos so often promulgated in his name. For the Jesus of the Gospel of Thomas, only a life of wandering poverty, abandonment to the winds of God, and resolute refusal of the false securities of dogma, authority, or worldly or conventional religious rules of conduct and purity can bring you to the state of utter authenticity and surrender that birth to the Kingdom in you and make you a revolutionary agent of its birth in reality.
From what I have said, it should now be clear why in saying 10 Jesus announces, "I have thrown fire on the world. Look! I watch it until it blazes." The "fire" that Jesus has thrown—and is constantly throwing on the world—is the fire of a revolutionary transcendent and immanent knowledge and love that menaces all the world's political, social, economic, and religious hierarchies and elite, and all their self-serving justifications for keeping a vicious and unjust set of structures in place. The Jesus of Thomas is not the tender, often ethereal victim, or the suffering servant; he is the most fiery-eyed of revolutionaries, a being who knows he has discovered the nuclear secret of a new, potentially all-transforming power of love-in-action, and he is committed to seeing that its unleashing upon the world and transfiguration of the fire of its truth and laws take place. In saying 71, he announces cryptically, "I will destroy this house"; scholars have taken him to mean that either he will bring down the Temple with all its elite and hierarchy and business policies throughout a revelation of a direct egalitarian vision of human divinity, or that he is pledged to destroying the House of Herod that is currently "defiling" the house of David. These are entirely too limiting and local interpretations of the enterprise of Jesus. The Jesus of Thomas is not a peacemaker; he is an incendiary of love, a pyromaniac of divine passion, announcing the laws of a transformed world and of the enormous struggles, sacrifices, and sufferings, both internal and external, necessary to engender it. As he proclaims in saying 16, "People think, perhaps, that I have come to throw peace upon the world. They don't know that I have come to throw disagreement upon the world, and fire, and sword, and struggle."
Jesus has far too mordant an understanding of ruthlessness and corruption not to realize that only divine violence can end human violence—only a sacred violence of utter abandon to God and utter commitment to transformation can dissolve the human violence that keeps the world sunk in degradation. Not only does Jesus know this, but he faces its necessity and lives it out in the extremity of his own life; he is fully aware that his knowledge of the laws of the birth of the Kingdom threatened all previous human accommodations to the way of the world; after his very first public sermon, the Gospel of Matthew tells us, occasional attempts on his life were made. Unlike many of the gurus and so-called teachers of our time, whose vague transcendental waffling further drugs an already comatose culture and leaves every aspect of the status quo intact, Jesus' vision of the new way was rooted not only in visionary ecstasy but in an utterly illusionless and ruthless analysis of power in all its aspects. This is what made him—and makes him—dangerous, perpetually scandalous, and what makes the Gospel of Thomas a fiery challenge, not only to less incendiary versions of his own message, but to all philosophers who do not propose a complex mystical revolution on every level.
Jesus risked such an almost alienating fervor and uncompromising urgency of address not merely because he understood that the Kingdom could not be birthed by any less absolute passion, but because he knew too, from the majesty and astonishment of his own experience, that empowerment on a scale as yet undreamt of awaited any being radical enough to accept and risk the terms of transformation he was proposing. Anyone who reads the Gospel of Thomas with an open mind and awakened heart will realize that what Jesus was trying to create was not an ethical or sophisticated revolution alone; he was attempting to birth a fully divine human race, a race of beings as radically alive and aware as he was himself. In saying 108, he makes this clear: "Jesus said: He who drinks from my mouth will become like I am, and I will become he. And the hidden things will be revealed to him."
It is in saying 13, however, that the fullest vision of how Jesus wished to empower others is given:
Jesus asked his disciples: Make a comparison; what am I like? Simon Peter replied: You are like a righteous messenger. Matthew replied: You are like an intelligent lover of wisdom. Thomas replied: Teacher, I cannot possibly say what you are like. Jesus said to Thomas: I am not your teacher; you have drunk from and become intoxicated from the bubbling spring that I poured out. Jesus took Thomas and they withdrew. Jesus said three things to him. When Thomas returned to the other disciples, they asked him: What did Jesus tell you? Thomas replied: If I tell you even one of the sayings that he told me, you would pick up stones and throw them at me, and fire would come out of those stones and burn you up.
This is one of the most permanently astonishing of all the sayings of Thomas, and nothing like it is found in any of the synoptic gospels. What makes saying 13 so clear is that what Jesus most wanted was to set others on fire with the same fire that he himself had ignited with Thomas, so that they, like him, could be divinized. Thomas is the one disciple in the saying who does not have a tidy and dead category through which to express his understanding of Jesus. Thomas has become a "finder" and so is bewildered and astonished: "Teacher, I cannot possibly say what you are like." One last block remains to Thomas's true understanding of Jesus and who and what he is—Thomas's own reverence of Jesus as "teacher", a reverence, however beautiful and justified, that acts as a subtle distancing force from the full outrageousness of the truth. That full outrageousness Jesus proceeds with his usual nakedness to uncover: "I am not your teacher; you have drunk from and become intoxicated from the bubbling water that I have poured out." Jesus recognizes that Thomas has allowed himself not merely to try to follow him, but has risked everything by getting drunk from the "bubbling water" of divine knowledge and divine passion that Jesus has poured out for him, and in doing so, he has become like Jesus himself, one with him and one with his fiery source.
Stevan L. Davies, The Gospel of Thomas
Shambhala Library, Publication Date:December 2004
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