The apostle Paul is well known for many of his theological insights, such as his theology of justification, salvation, sanctification, glorification and all of the other Pauline words that, in English, end in “-ation.” Many scholars note, however, the scarcity of references to the kingdom of God in Paul’s epistles. Since this is the central theme of Jesus’ message, this would appear to be a problem!
Many suggestions have been offered in reference to the lack of kingdom language in Paul. Some suggest that he knew nothing of Jesus’ teaching, and thus he knew little of the kingdom of God. This answer is unsatisfactory, however, since as a good Jew, from the pharisaic tradition, he would have certainly been well acquainted with the promise of the coming kingdom found in places such as Daniel 7 and elsewhere throughout the Jewish Scriptures. Furthermore, Paul does indeed use kingdom language in his letters, albeit rarely.
Why do you think Paul talked about the kingdom of God so rarely?
In most instances Paul uses kingdom language eschatalogically (referring to the end of the age), and many use this fact to show that Paul knew nothing of the “at-hand” kingdom that Jesus was set on inaugurating in the present. Some, such as James Dunn (see his The Theology of Paul the Apostle, pp. 190-191) have proposed that there is more to Paul’s understanding of the kingdom of God than many have given him credit for.
Dunn contends that Paul replaced much of the kingdom language associated with Jesus’ teaching with Spirit-language and I am inclined to agree with him on this point. He shows that in the synoptic Gospels, “the kingdom” is mentioned some 105 times. In contrast, Paul uses the term kingdom of God (or related variations) only 14 times. Paul, however, mentions the Spirit over 110 times. Could it be then that through Paul’s emphasis on the Spirit we may see allusions to Jesus’ not-yet/already tension of the kingdom of God?
Next week we will look at why Paul uses the phrase so rarely and we will survey the pertinent passages in relation to Paul’s view of the kingdom to attempt to understand what Paul means when he does use kingdom language and how this compares to Jesus’ use of the phrase.
Does Paul actually view the kingdom of God similarly to Jesus? What would it mean for Christian theology if Paul truly knew nothing of Jesus’ teachings? What role does the kingdom of God play in your own theology?