This woman stands still as she savors the fading sunset. The night and the tide are coming fast. She’s pregnant and her child is expected any day now. Will this sunset be one of the last calm things she experiences before birth pangs begin and her baby finally arrives?
For those of us who’ve experienced the birth of our children either as a mother who has delivered children or as a father assisting, many of us have witnessed the painful convulsions associated with those children coming into our world. Often the process of birthing a child can be traumatic, both for the mother and the child. In Jesus’ era childbirth could be a risk to both mother and child. Dangerous. Recall how Benjamin escaped death while his mother Rachel didn’t (Genesis 35:16-18). There are so many complications during childbirth, so many things that can go wrong. Jesus uses the concept of birth pangs in Matthew 24:8 and Mark 13:8 when speaking about His kingdom. Why?
“Jesus left the temple and was going away when his disciples came to point out to him the buildings of the temple. But he answered them, “You see all these, do you not? Truly, I say to you, there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.” As he sat on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying, “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” And Jesus answered them, “See that no one leads you astray. For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and they will lead many astray. And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not alarmed, for this must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are but the beginning of the birth pains.” Matthew 24:1-8 ESV
“For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. These are but the beginning of the birth pains.” Mark 13:8 ESV
Jesus wept over Jerusalem because He loved it: “And when he drew near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying,“Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. For the days will come upon you when your enemies will set up a barricade around you and surround you and hem you in on every side and tear you down to the ground, you and your children within you. And they will not leave one stone upon another in you because you did not know the time of your visitation.” Luke 19:41-44
It appears the destruction of the city and the temple have quite a bit to do with the birth of God’s promised Messianic kingdom. Rome would oversee their destruction. However, the ideal birth of God’s kingdom for an Israelite would, of course, be relatively painless and without risk. Yet, few Jews presumed that a Messianic inauguration would be swift and involve little resistance.
What stuns the apostolic trio after Jesus’ declaration that the temple structures would become rubble, is His paradigm shift. “Wasn’t the Messiah going to reform the Temple state?” They came privately (Mt 24:3), shocked by imagining the inverse of their dreams, asking when this disaster was going to happen.
Jesus’ first response in the synoptics is “Don’t be fooled!” Many Messianic pretenders would emerge on the political landscape between Jesus’ ministry and the city’s demise in 70 AD, and many in Israel would be deceived. Many would offer their allegiance to these imposters in exchange for that false hope. Surely, driving out the oppressor is key to the success of God’s kingdom. Many Jews, like the apostles, saw the saving of the Temple as an indicator that the Messianic age had finally arrived. Jesus explains that the Messianic age has indeed arrived but one tragic indicator will be the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, not the act of God saving and restoring them. A new “city” and a new “Temple” is going to be built, but it’s one they can’t begin to fathom.
Wars and rumors of wars, famines, earthquakes, pestilences, and especially false messiahs were other indicators that Jesus’ messianic kingdom was going through a risky birthing process in history. In one sense by 70 AD the promised kingdom of God had already been born in a dangerous environment. In another sense, the baby leaving the womb would obviously still appear very vulnerable. That provides us a convenient segue into the idea of a good mayor elected by a corrupt city.
Imagine a loving, forgiving, patient and benevolent mayor being elected in a city with a reputation for corruption and decline. Imagine his campaign promises as those that inspired a better future. Imagine him wanting to establish a secure, peaceful and beautiful environment for its people to flourish in and grow. Imagine this boss planning new hospitals, new schools, new parks, and more. Maybe we can begin to glimpse the idea of Jesus’ kingdom attempting to root itself in our own generation.
Let’s now think of what contributes to this imaginary city being characterized as “corrupt.” Stereotypically, we might discover that there’s a drug problem that plagues large sectors. The divorce rate has escalated for years. Most existing marriages are dysfunctional. Children are abused, born addicted to abusive substances and grow up understanding life as painful and chaotic. Educating children seems futile because of the paranoia that surrounds their lives. It becomes difficult for them to imagine lives worth investing in. There are drug lords that are obviously extremely territorial. They’re known to use violent gang activity in order to compete for business. They contribute to increases in child abuse, prostitution, theft and so on. Another part of the city is far less turbulent but has developed an appetite for wealth. They are greedy. Everything is too expensive there for anyone else in the city, even a dozen cupcakes or donuts would come close to rivaling your monthly cable bill. You rarely see an old vehicle there. People driving through with economy cars are looked at with disappointment. Pets live higher quality lives than many laborers entering the gated neighborhoods. Many of these neighborhoods are exclusive and are only filled with what others would consider dream homes. Status there is determined by the quality of clothing you wear, the quality of food you eat, who your colleagues and friends are, where your children attend school, and where your family went to college.
How did this imaginary city get this way? Does the city appear to have a handle on its future? Might the election of our imaginary loving mayor cause any problems? Do you think there’d be any resistance to the policies he wants to enforce? Would your allegiance and advocation of those policies come in conflict with any of the typical modes of life in this city? What might you expect when you begin to oppose violence, drug abuse, prostitution, greed, and elitism? What kind of reactions could you expect when you seek to “save” citizens from the evil paths they’ve been on?
Maybe this helps us understand what Jesus was trying to convey about what the kingdom of God looked like in real time in His era. The kingdom Jesus promised was a revolutionary redemptive process overall, and that wasn’t welcomed by the majority in His era. Jesus’ kingdom sought to expose evil, conquer it, free those held captive by it, and create new realities, heavenly realities. Does it then make sense why the noble desire to bring about a heavenly way of life, a wholesome way of life, to make it a reality in a “corrupt city” could cause tension and meet resistance from several angles? Does it make sense why the mayor’s attempt to bring about real and valuable change could appear like it has no real chance of survival in such an environment? Drug lords, politicians, and elites are typically hardened and tyrannical. They are the Pharaohs of every generation. They won’t allow God’s people to “worship” God freely in this place or any other, except maybe death. Life in this imaginary city favors those that are in power positions. They don’t ever want that to change. History repeats itself because many choose what they feel are shortcuts and fast lanes. They don’t want to be bothered with others who oppose their momentum, get in their way, or seek to block their agendas…especially a golden hearted “mayor.”
Jesus’ effort to redeem the world in reality is often met with extreme resistance. The devil has much of the world in handcuffs and chains. Jesus is saying that saving the world is a historical process that can be painful and traumatic and resemble that of child birth, a process that can appear weak and extremely vulnerable to surrounding threats.
Talking about Jesus’ kingdom today is difficult. Obviously, evil hasn’t been eradicated. Isn’t that what the kingdom was supposed to do? Jesus prayed that God’s kingdom should come, that God’s will should be done on earth as it is in heaven. What does it mean then for God’s kingdom to come and His will be done on earth as in heaven? …Look through the Gospels and locate the passages where Jesus uses the phrase kingdom of God or kingdom of heaven and see if Jesus makes it easy for us to define God’s kingdom and understand how Jesus rules heaven and earth (cf. Mt 28:16-20). It appears the explanations of the kingdom of God coming and God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven are difficult and even cryptic at times. However, while Jesus was on earth, evil was being confronted and dealt with.
There are several ways people have defined the kingdom of God but rarely does the definition include the idea of a painful birthing process. Some think of the kingdom of God as heaven, the place where people go to be with God after passing from an earthly life. This view conveys the idea that when we’ve passed from an earthly existence we’ve essentially escaped the world and all the evil in it. It’s true we go to God after death but that doesn’t help with the question about how God’s will is for the kingdom to be on earth as it is in heaven. Others offer a definition arguing that the kingdom is the body of Christ, believers who compose the church. This definition often sees Jesus’ major ministry objective as establishing the church and discarding Judaism as a reluctant but necessary precursor to the church era. The church can then be imagined as a second Israel and therefore a type of refuge from earth. The church becomes a place where people escape the evil of the world and also imagines itself to be the safe zone, kind of like a tree that children playing “tag” designate as an inoculating object. Yet, the evil of the world continues on in history as a constant force, sort of like a constant storm. The church, though, is able to give out “heavenly” real estate deeds, contracts that guarantee an eventual escape from earth and it’s evil. Sunday assemblies then can become more like people reminding us that a heavenly home is being built and it really isn’t that far away. Waiting for that real estate (life after death) is a typical theme. There are elements of truth in these definitions but when hearing Jesus speak about the kingdom these definitions fail to deliver the same impressions. Fewer see the kingdom of God as heaven making its influence known in the world. Fewer see the kingdom desiring to rescue the world from its evil mess, redeem all of it and actually be in charge of it. Most, definitely won’t see Jesus’ description of the kingdom as something that comes to birth in a painful, sometimes volatile, and many times…dangerous way.