The kingdom of God is central to the gospels, and to the teachings of Jesus. It becomes clear to the discerning eye that each held differing views about the meaning of the term. These views are based on varying assumptions concerning the state of humankind. The gospel writers assume that human beings are in a state of sin and in need of redemption. Jesus will return, usher in the kingdom as a new world order, and “… he will save his people from their sins” ( Matthew 1:21).
In contrast, the evidence strongly suggests that Jesus understood the kingdom of God as a spiritual dimension that was present but unseen by most. “Unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God” ( John 3:3). We can also deduce that Jesus did not see the individual as inherently sinful but only as spiritually asleep. He demonstrated this each time he informed someone that their sins had been forgiven. His flagship parable of the lost son featured a father that did not even acknowledge the obvious sins of his wayward son. Jesus spoke of the new birth, an awakening sparked by an intuitive glimpse into one’s spiritual core. His purpose as a teacher, and key to his success as a healer, was his ability to help awaken people to their spiritual nature.
We see evidence of this difference between the gospel writer’s view of the kingdom and that of Jesus in these two similar passages. The first is from Luke, the second from the noncanonical Gospel of Thomas:
“Being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, he answered them, ‘The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed; nor will they say, ‘Lo, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is within you.’”Luke 17:20-21
“His disciples said to him, ‘When will the kingdom come?’ ‘It will not come by watching for it. It will not be said, ‘Look, here!’ or ‘Look, there!’ Rather, the Father’s kingdom is spread out upon the earth, and people don’t see it.’”Thomas 113 (1st edition estimated at 60 A.D.)
The Pharisees and the disciples want to know when the kingdom is coming. The question itself indicates that they consider it a future event. Jesus is saying the kingdom is not a coming event but a present reality. The kingdom of God is within each person and it is spread out upon the earth. As we study his kingdom-related sayings, he understands the kingdom as an underlying, omnipresent reality, a spiritual dimension, the creative life force expressing in, as, and through all things.
Do you not say, ‘There are yet four months, then comes the harvest’? I tell you, lift up your eyes, and see how the fields are already white for harvest.John 4:35
This kingdom can be experienced, but not through intellectual or visual means. It is a subjective or intuitive experience. Famed psychologist William James, described the mystical experience in this way:
“The mystical experience, defies expression, that no adequate report of its contents can be given in words. Its quality must be directly experienced; it cannot be imparted or transferred to others. Mystical states are more like states of feeling than like states of intellect. No one can make clear to another who has never had a certain feeling, in what the quality or worth of it consists.”William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience
This explains why Jesus so often spoke in parables. Intellectual knowledge consists of information gleaned through the five senses and through logical conclusions that we draw from this information. Intuitive knowledge consists of information apprehended through the spiritual sense that I refer to as the intuitive portal (The Complete Soul). The intellect is indispensable when navigating through our earthly experience. The intuitive function opens to our spiritual source. This is the realm of the soul, the kingdom of our true identity. It cannot be accessed through intellectual means, though the intellect is influenced by it. Paul mentions feeling after God,
“…that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel after him and find him. Yet he is not far from each one of us, for ‘In him we live and move and have our being.’”Acts 17:27-28
While intuitive knowledge is more closely related to feeling rather than to the intellectual nature, we do not want to confuse intuitive knowing with emotion.
In John, Jesus says to Nicodemus, “… unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” ( John 3:5). To be born of water is a reference to baptism by immersion. The ritual symbolizes a new birth, an intellectual cleansing of preconceived ideas. Prior to immersion, the person is one thing. They are submerged and brought up out of the water as something else. This ritual can inspire temporary elation, an emotional reaction that has no power to change a person at depth. To be born of Spirit is the deeper process symbolized by water baptism. This is referred to as the baptism of the holy spirit. Only an authentic exposure to the realm of the soul leaves one permanently impacted. The mind must be open to a new way of perceiving the presence of God before this new birth can occur. ” … unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3).
We can learn to detect the differences between Jesus’ and the evangelist’s understanding of the kingdom. Jesus’ idea of the kingdom is better aligned with the mystical tradition that teaches God is centered in and as the spiritual core of every person, but is also spread out upon the earth, as Thomas states. Jesus, I’m sure, would have been very much in agreement with the Psalmist’s poetic description of the omnipresence of God:
Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast. If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,” even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you.Psalms 139:7-12
I refer to passages that emphasize some aspect of the individual’s oneness with God as the mystical thread. The notion of man’s oneness with God lies at the very heart of mysticism. [Note: Those who are uncomfortable with the term mysticism may simply substitute it for the word spiritual.] I like the term because it represents an ancient and rather universal system of understanding that embraces three important principles. 1) It holds the omnipotence, omnipresence, and omniscience of God, 2) the divine nature of the individual soul, and 3) the relationship of oneness between God and the individual. The mystical thread consists of those passages that refer to one or more of these three elements.
People wondered how Jesus acquired his knowledge. “Where did this man get all of this? What is the wisdom given to him?” (Mark 6:2). In terms of external teachings, I think a good candidate could have been a local Kabbalist. These excerpts from the Jewish Encyclopedia provide some intriguing possibilities:
Jewish Kabbalah is a set of esoteric teachings meant to explain the relationship between the unchanging, eternal God—the mysterious Ein Sof (The Infinite)—and the mortal, finite universe. It forms the foundation of mystical religious interpretations within Judaism.
Jewish Kabbalists … often use classical Jewish scriptures to explain and demonstrate its mystical teachings. These teachings are held by followers in Judaism to define the inner meaning of both the Hebrew Bible and traditional rabbinic literature and their formerly concealed transmitted dimension, as well as to explain the significance of Jewish religious observances.
For a few centuries the esoteric knowledge was referred to by its aspect practice—meditation, translated as “being alone” or “isolating oneself“.Wikipedia: Kabbala
This last point from the above article echoes Jesus’ instruction on prayer:
“But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”Matthew 6:6
We also learn that he often retired to lonely or solitary places to pray.
“Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.”Mark 1:35
The sayings of Jesus often carry the elements of mysticism, enough to at least suggest some formal exposure to the discipline. It is not unreasonable to assume there were Jewish Kabbalists in or near his village.
Some suggest that Jesus may have studied with the Essenes, as John the Baptist, who baptized Jesus at the beginning of his ministerial career, exemplified the Essene mindset. The Essenes were an apocalyptic sect of Judaism that looked for the day when the Children of Light (the Essene community) would overthrow the Children of Darkness and restore Judaism to its pristine form. They, in fact, waged a military campaign against the Romans and were totally annihilated. While the gospel writers gave Jesus a definite apocalyptic tone, I consider any message related to the end times as theirs, not his.
To this notion of possible external influences, I would add that spiritual wisdom is not imparted through instructors or through formal exposure to any spiritual discipline. The mystical experience is an awakening, a direct exposure to one’s inner fountain of living water. The relationship between the unchanging, eternal God, the Infinite, and the human being is oneness. By turning our awareness within, we begin to detect the expansive activity of God as the creative life force. It reveals its nature, not through verbal or written instruction, but by direct exposure.
“I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each man teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord.”Jeremiah 31:33-34
To his listeners, we can imagine the insights that Jesus offered inspired new levels of self-perception and a different way to think of God. It caused people to rethink the deeper principles of Judaism and bring into question some of the more burdensome aspects imposed by the priesthood. But rather than engage in speculation that is not provable, our best course is to simply examine the sayings of Jesus that bear the characteristics of mysticism, and let them stand on their own.
Jesus spoke of a comforter, an advocate that will teach us all things ( John 14:26). What kinds of things? The birds of the air and the lilies of the field are naturally endowed and guided by this comforting advocate. What the biologist refers to as instinct is a pure form of knowing that instructs every species of plant and animal to interface successfully with its specific worldly niche. How does the young spider know to spin a web that will catch the flying insect it has never seen?
His message to the common people is that they too are imbued with this same guiding intelligence and more. They have an even greater ability to expand on it. The animals do not build barns to store for the future, but people can. And yet, unlike the animals, we worry over the future. His message was one of teaching how to let the life, love, power, and intelligence of God inspire a creative approach to a healthier, more peaceful and prosperous life.
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you [help you find] rest. Take my yoke upon you [Follow the discipline I teach] and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke [the truth I adhere to] is easy and my burden is light.”Matthew 11:28-30
Perhaps he was simply saying, “Those of you who are weary and burdened, listen to what I’m telling you. This way that I teach will bring rest to your soul. I am at peace, unburdened by care.” Had I been alive in his day, I would have been a follower. I am a follower today, but to be this requires a willingness to ask, seek, and knock until the truth he taught is placed squarely on the lampstand to give its wonderous light.
For nothing is hid that shall not be made manifest, nor anything secret that shall not be known and come to light.Luke 8:17
In the next post I will address the possible reasons that the message of Jesus was transformed from an inner-directed to a Jesus-directed presentation.