He taught with the simplicity required by his audiences, with interesting stories that insinuated his lessons into the understanding, with pungent aphorisms rather than with reasoned argument, and with similes and metaphors as brilliant as any in literature. The parable form that he used was customary in the East, and some of his fetching analogies had come down to him, perhaps unconsciously, from the prophets, the psalmists, and the rabbis; nevertheless, the directness of his speech, the vivid colors of his imagery, the warm sincerity of his nature lifted his utterances to the most inspired poetry. Some of his sayings are obscure, some seem at first sight unjust, some are sharp with sarcasm and bitterness; nearly all of them are models of brevity, clarity, and force.
His starting point was the Gospel of John the Baptist, which itself went back to Daniel and Enoch; historia non facit saltum. The Kingdom of Heaven was at hand, he said; soon God would put an end to the reign of wickedness on earth; the Son of Man would come “on the clouds of the sky” to judge all humanity, living and dead. The time for repentance was running out; those who repented, lived justly, loved God, and put their faith in his messenger would inherit the Kingdom, would be raised to power and glory in a world at last freed from all evil, suffering, and death.
As these ideas were familiar to his hearers, Christ did not define them clearly, and many difficulties obscure his conception now. What did he mean by the Kingdom? A supernatural heaven? Apparently not, for the apostles and the early Christians unanimously expected an earthly kingdom. This was the Jewish tradition that Christ inherited; and he taught his followers to pray to the Father, “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Only after that hope had faded did the Gospel of John make Jesus say, “My kingdom is not of this world.” Did he mean a spiritual condition, or a material utopia? At times he spoke of the Kingdom as a state of soul reached by the pure and sinless- “the Kingdom of God is within you”; at other times he pictured it as a happy future society in which the apostles would be rulers, and those who had given or suffered for Christ’s sake would receive a hundredfold reward. He seems to have thought of moral perfection as only metaphorically the Kingdom, as the preparation and price for the Kingdom, and as the condition of all saved souls in the Kingdom when realized.
When would the Kingdom come? Soon. “I will drink no more of the fruit of the vine until I drink it new in the Kingdom of God.” “Ye shall not have gone over the cities of Israel,” he told his followers, “till the Son of Man is come.” Later he deferred it a bit: “There be some standing here that shall not taste of death till they see the Son of Man coming in the Kingdom”; and “this generation shall not pass till all these things be done.” In more politic moments he warned his apostles: “Of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels in heaven, neither the Son, but the Father.” Certain signs would precede the coming: “wars and rumors of war… nation will rise against nation… there will be famines and earthquakes… many shall be offended, and… shall hate one another. Many false prophets will appear, many will be misled by them; and because of the increase of wickedness most men’s love will grow cold.” Sometimes Jesus made the advent of the Kingdom depend and wait upon the conversion of man to God and justice; usually he made its coming an act of God, a sudden and miraculous gift of divine grace.
Many have interpreted the Kingdom as a communist utopia, and have seen in Christ a social revolutionist. The Gospels provide some evidence for this view. Christ obviously scorned the man whose chief purpose in life is to amass money and luxuries. He promised hunger and woe to the rich and filled, and comforted the poor with Beatitudes that pledged them the Kingdom. To the rich youth who asked what he should do besides keeping the commandments, Christ answered: “Sell your property, give your money to the poor, and… follow me.” Apparently the apostles interpreted the Kingdom as a revolutionary inversion of the existing relationships between the rich and the poor; we shall find them and the early Christians forming a communistic band which “had all things in common.” The charge on which Jesus was condemned was that he had plotted to make himself “King of the Jews.”