The righteous people of Jesus’s time believed that the ‘reign of God’ was imminent. Popular belief expected a messiah to arise and restore the old political rule of King David. The more spiritual belief of the Pharisees was that God’s reign would come through the full and detailed observance of the Law. When a well-meaning Pharisee asks, “When will the ‘reign of God’ come ?” Jesus well understood the context of the question.
Don’t look for the kingdom of God in external signs, warns Jesus. “They will say to you, ‘Look, there!’ or ‘Look, here!’ but do not go running off in pursuit…for in fact, the kingdom of God is within you.” The messianic age therefore is the age of the Spirit present in each one, and not to be grasped solely through external practices or outward signs. God’s reign takes place first of all within our hearts.
There’s another characteristic of this time – its suddenness. Again and again, Jesus warns: Be aware! Be watchful! The Son of Man comes suddenly, and strikes as swiftly as lightning. He uses two comparisons from early Israeli history: the Flood caught people in the midst of their daily chores, and only Noah escaped because only he was aware. The city of Sodom was destroyed in a rain of fire and brimstone, and only Lot escaped, because he took care.
In the same way God’s reign comes as a vindication for those who have kept faith, and as a rejection of those preoccupied with the passing things of this world. This takes place unexpectedly, just when most of us are lulled into complacency.
These texts about the end of the world, or the ‘Endtime’ as it is also called, were relevant to the early Christians. They really believed that Jesus “died, rose from the dead, and would come again”. They expected him to return soon, but the time in between was also a time of confusion and persecution.
The early followers of Jesus in Palestine were shattered by the destruction of the Temple by the Romans, and the dispersal of their people. The Christians in Rome and other parts of the Empire were frightened by the persecutions inflicted upon them. It took much time and reflection to accept that God’s kingdom is established in glory after his people have passed through the crucible of suffering, just as Jesus did.
Nor can we fix a calendar date for this to happen, for God’s reign is a spiritual reality which has a time and effectiveness of it own.