The Refrain of the KingdomJarrett Dickey 2018-05-16
In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God (Acts 1:1-3 NRSV).
In music, a refrain is a repeated section that typically follows each verse. When hearing a song for the first time, the refrain is frequently the most memorable part of the song. In the refrain, the singer emphasizes the main messages and themes of the lyrics. Especially in modern worship music, the refrain is the portion of the song that congregants learn easily and can sing confidently. In church, the volume often swells when the song reaches the refrain, as even timid singers join in wholeheartedly when they know the words and tune well. Like a skillful musician, Jesus sung a repeated refrain throughout his earthly ministry so that his main message of God’s kingdom would be ingrained in the memories of his disciples.
From the Beginning
During the days of his earthly ministry, Jesus addressed a number of topics regularly. Forgiveness, faith, love, and compassion were a few of his most prominent themes. Yet, even amongst these recurrent themes, one towers above the rest: the kingdom of God.
Matthew’s Gospel begins with John’s proclamation of the kingdom of heaven (Mt 3:2). After John’s arrest, Jesus picks up John’s mantle and continues to spread the message of the kingdom (Mt 3:17). The first red-lettered words of Jesus in Mark’s Gospel are, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news (Mk 1:15).” Throughout the rest of Matthew and Mark, Jesus returns to the refrain of the kingdom repeatedly.
Luke opens the book of Acts, the sequel to his gospel story of Jesus, by saying that he previously “wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven (Acts 1:1-2).” If the kingdom of God was truly the refrain of Jesus’ teachings, it would be reasonable to expect this theme to recur throughout Luke’s gospel.
In Luke 4 Jesus attends a synagogue service on the Sabbath day in Nazareth. During the service, Jesus reads from the prophet Isaiah. The words of the prophet and Jesus’ proclamation about himself produce a riot that nearly ends with Jesus being hurled over the cliff. Jesus moves onto the town of Capernaum and preaches in the synagogue there as well. While in Capernaum, Jesus stays at Simon’s house and cures many people of sickness. The chapter ends with Jesus moving onto another town. When his disciples protest, Jesus responds, “I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other cities also; for I was sent for this purpose (Lk 4:43).” From the beginning of his ministry, Jesus establishes the kingdom as the main content of his preaching, and he insists that spreading the message of the kingdom is his primary calling from God.
In the Middle
Like a jazz musician, Jesus introduces his kingdom motif and then riffs on that theme throughout the rest of his ministry. His subsequent teachings reprise and improvise on his message of the kingdom, bringing new insights and dimensions. Along the way, Jesus begins to involve his disciples in the mission to spread the message of the kingdom. In Luke 10, Jesus commissions seventy of his disciples to go on ahead of him. As was shown above in Luke 4, Jesus senses a divine mandate to travel to as many towns as possible to spread word of God’s coming kingdom. In an effort to make his preaching more effective, he sends his disciples to begin tilling the ground before he arrives to plant the seed (Mt 13:1-9). When Jesus sends out his disciples, he gives them specific instructions to take nothing with them on the journey. Instead, they are to depend on the hospitality of the people they meet and the provision of God. When they find people who welcome them, they are to cure the sick and say, “The kingdom of God has come near to you (Lk 10:9).”
When Jesus speaks about the kingdom, it often sounds like an eschatological reality, something that will only happen at the end of the ages. While it is clear that Jesus’ disciples anticipate that the end is on the horizon (Acts 1:6), from their vantage point they are still primarily in the position of waiting on the kingdom to arrive. In light of this future-oriented eschatology, Jesus offers a surprising variation to his refrain in Luke 17. The Pharisees asks Jesus about the coming of God’s kingdom, and he responds by telling them that the kingdom is not something that can be seen and identified. Rather, “the kingdom of God is among you (Lk 17:21).”
This introduces an important nuance to Jesus’ kingdom message. Contrary to popular expectations, the kingdom is not merely a future political reality. The kingdom starts small like a mustard seed (Mt 13:31-32), but then grows into a life-giving tree. The kingdom is like leaven in a loaf of bread (Mt 13:33); it is at work in hidden, small, and secret ways even now. Whenever Jesus’ disciples walk in the way of God’s love and justice, the kingdom is on earth as it is in heaven. Whenever people experience God’s goodness, forgiveness, abundance, and salvation, the end has come into the present.
Into the Future
Jesus began the work of both announcing and manifesting God’s kingdom on earth throughout his earthly ministry. All of the gospels document this, but Luke’s gospel in particular highlights this point. Yet, Luke wants to make an important point in the opening to the book of Acts. The mission of the kingdom does not end with the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. Even when Jesus is “gone” from this earth, his disciples carry the responsibility of continuing his mission and being his witnesses (Acts 1:8). In Acts 2, Jesus sends his Spirit on his disciples to empower them to continue to sing the refrain of the kingdom.
The rest of the book, then, documents the ongoing kingdom ministry of the Spirit of Jesus through his church. Two brief examples will suffice to show that the disciples carried the kingdom refrain into the future. In Acts 8, Philip goes to the city of Samaria to proclaim the message. There he encounters a magician named Simon who has enchanted the whole town with his power. What does Philip say to break the spell? Luke simply says that Philip proclaimed “the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus (Acts 8:12).” Not only did the townspeople believe this message and receive baptism, but even Simon believed!
Later in Acts, Luke shows that the Apostle Paul continued to spread the message of the kingdom. This is noteworthy since Paul was not one of the original disciples who heard Jesus preach frequently on the kingdom. Paul’s knowledge of the message shows that the disciples learned the repeated refrain well and passed it down through oral tradition. In Acts 19, Paul visits the synagogue in Ephesus, like Jesus did in the towns of Nazareth and Capernaum. While at the synagogue, Paul “argued persuasively about the kingdom of God (Acts 19:8)” for a period of three months. Just as Jesus met resistance, so does Paul, but he takes his message beyond the synagogue to the Greeks when he faces rejection, many of whom embrace the message of God’s kingdom.
The message of the kingdom was the repeated refrain of Jesus’ earthly ministry, and the first apostles continued this legacy during the early history of the church. God’s kingdom is, simply put, the manifestation of his rule over his people. Wherever people repent from their sinful ways to live according to God’s commandments, the kingdom is there. Wherever God’s people come together in the joy of Christian unity, the kingdom is there. Wherever captives are set free and the blind see, the kingdom is there (Lk 4:18-19). The book of Acts shows that the community of the Spirit of Jesus is the kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. Of course, things are not perfect yet (Acts 5:1-11). So even though the disciples of Jesus can experience the kingdom now, they still wait for the final consummation of the kingdom. In the meantime, disciples today have an ongoing obligation to sing the old repeated refrain: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near (Mt 4:17).”
Featured image an icon from Christ the Savior Church in Chicago, IL from Father Ted via Flickr. Used under creative commons license.
Jarrett is a bi-vocational house church pastor and adjunct faculty member. He teaches classes at several local colleges in the areas of religion and humanities. In addition to teaching, Jarrett is the assistant pastor of a house church, where he helps with preaching, teaching, worship leading, and discipleship. Jarrett married his high school sweetheart, Hannah, in 2005, and they now have four small children. Jarrett holds a bachelor of science degree in biology from Ohio Northern University and a master of divinity degree from Emory University, Candler School of Theology. His hobbies include guitar, hiking, bird watching, crossword puzzles, sports, reading, and writing.