Having examined the idea of Jesus as an Anointed (Messianic) Teacher in the previous article, here I will be looking at one specific (central) theme of Jesus’ teaching—the Kingdom of God. It is not possible to cover all of the aspects of this theme in one relatively short article; I have already addressed certain points and references in some detail in earlier notes and articles, and will cite these below.
The importance of the Kingdom (of God) in Jesus’ teaching is indicated by the fact that, of the approx. 125 occurrences of “kingdom” (basilei/a, basileía) in the Gospels, all but one or two relate to Jesus and his teaching, with more than a hundred recorded in Jesus’ own words. In addition, we may note the following:
- In the Synoptic tradition, Jesus’ first recorded words of his public ministry are: “the time has been (ful)filled and the kingdom of God has come near” (Mark 1:15; par Matt 4:17).
- This is also the primary declaration Jesus gives to his disciples when they are sent out (according to Matt 10:7; Luke 10:11).
- In Luke 4:43, preaching the Kingdom is stated by Jesus as the primary purpose of his ministry travels through Galilee and the surrounding regions—”I was set forth [i.e. sent] from (God) unto this [i.e. for this purpose]” (cf. also Matt 4:23).
- In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus’ first recorded words of instruction to his disciples are a declaration (beatitude/macarism) involving the Kingdom of God (Matt 5:3 [also v. 11], par Luke 6:20). For more on this passage, see my series of notes on the Beatitudes.
- While references to the Kingdom are rare in the Gospel of John, it plays an important role in two key scenes (John 3:3ff; 18:36), set at the beginning and end of Jesus’ ministry (according to the structure of the narrative).
A major difficulty that commentators face when analyzing and interpreting the Kingdom of God in Jesus’ teaching, is that he appears to use “Kingdom” as a multivalent expression in a fairly wide range of contexts. However, I believe that it is possible to separate Jesus’ sayings, teachings and parables on the Kingdom into three formal categories, those which involve:
- The Kingdom coming upon the earth
- People coming into the Kingdom, and
- Descriptions/illustrations of the character and nature of the Kingdom
In terms of the sense in which “Kingdom” is used, again we may divide this into several categories:
- As God’s dwelling/domain in Heaven
- As an end-time domain on earth ruled by God(‘s representative)
- As an expression of God’s rule—the will/law of the King, the character of its citizens, etc
For a fairly thorough survey and outline of references to the Kingdom in the Gospels (and the rest of the New Testament), see my earlier article. With regard to Messianic thought in Judaism at the time of Jesus (1st centuries B.C./A.D.), the Kingdom theme is associated with it and expressed several ways:
- The belief that a future/end-time Anointed (Davidic) ruler will restore the kingdom to Israel, subjugating her enemies and ushering in the Age to Come.
- The idea of God’s impending end-time Judgment coming upon the earth (the Day of YHWH motif in the Old Testament Prophets). As we have seen, this may involve related traditions of an Anointed Prophet (Elijah) who will come and bring people to repentance prior to the Judgment. A separate strand of tradition (to be discussed) seems to involve an Angelic/Heavenly figure who will come as God’s representative to usher in and oversee the Judgment. By the end of the first century, the Messianic figures of Davidic ruler and Heavenly Judge appear to have merged (attested in at least three strands of Jewish/Christian tradition). The Gospel motifs of “inheriting”, “receiving” and “entering” the Kingdom all stem from the basic concept of the faithful/righteous passing through God’s Judgment.
- In the Qumran texts, we find the idea that only those who remain faithful to the Covenant—understood as adherence within the Community to the Torah and the words of the “Teacher/Instructor of Righteousness”—will pass through the Judgment of God. The Qumran Community, which almost certainly viewed itself as the faithful of the last days, is to be identified generally with the Kingdom of God (spec. the Covenant)—the law/rule of the Community is essentially the law of the Kingdom. As pointed out in the previous article, this “Teacher of Righteousness” (probably to be identified also with the “Interpreter of the Law”), is a quasi-Messianic figure. In at least two passages, his future/end-time appearance is emphasized, and in one text he is associated specifically with the coming “Anointed (One) of Aaron and Israel”.
Before turning again to the place of the Kingdom in Jesus’ teaching, let us first explore several passages from Jewish writings of the first centuries B.C./A.D. which mention the Kingdom, or are otherwise relevant in this regard:
- In the Book of Wisdom (Wisdom of Solomon) 6:1-11, the earthly rule of kings is seen as coming from the sovereignty of God; as a result, rulers should follow God’s Law and Wisdom. In 6:20; 10:10, following Wisdom and the way of Righteousness leads one to the Kingdom of God.
- In Jubilees 23:24-31, as part of a (prophetic) summary of Israelite/Jewish history, according to the Old Testament model, the punishment/judgment of the Exile will ultimately be followed by an age of peace and restoration for Israel, in which God himself will reign (vv. 30-31).
- The third book of the Sibylline Oracles (Sib Or 3:652ff) prophecies that God will send a king “from the sun” who will subdue the nations (i.e. the Roman Empire) and establish a rule of peace over the world.
- The 17th of the so-called Psalms of Solomon (Ps Sol 17:3ff) vividly describes the coming of a Davidic Ruler (called Anointed/Messiah) who will come to Jerusalem, subdue the nations, and establish the (Messianic) Kingdom of God on earth.
- Specific references to the Kingdom of God are rare in the Qumran texts, but at least two are worth noting:
- The so-called War Rule (1QM, 4QM), which throughout refers to the coming war of the “Sons of Light” (the faithful of Israel, i.e. the Community) against the “sons of darkness” (the nations/unbelievers, especially the Kittim [cipher for Rome, cf. Dan 11:30]). See especially 1QM 1:4f, the hymns in 1QM 10, 12, 14, 19, and the citation of Num 24:17ff in 1QM 11:7ff. Other texts also refer to this end-time battle.
- The Aramaic 4Q246, inspired by the book of Daniel (and/or its underlying traditions), predicts the coming of a great king (column 1, lines 7-9 [restored]) who will subdue the nations (and bring peace). Parallel to the rise of this ‘Messianic’ figure (called “son of God” and “son of the Most High” col. 2, line 1, cf. Lk 1:32, 35), we find the rise of the People of God (line 4), and the establishment of the everlasting (Messianic?) kingdom of God (lines 5-9).
- The Testament of Moses 10:1ff describes the end-time appearance of the Kingdom of God, in terms of the great Judgment of God upon the earth, with a new age of peace and dominion for Israel (vv. 8-9).
- In the Similitudes of Enoch (1 Enoch 37-71), the heavenly “Righteous/Elect One” or “Son of Man” exercises God’s judgment against kings and rulers on earth (cf. 45:3ff; 46:4-6; 52:4-9; 55:4; 61:8-9; 62:3-5ff; 69:27-29); the establishment of a future dominion for the righteous/Israel is indicated in 53:6-7, etc. The contrast between earthly rulers and God as king is expressed in 1 Enoch 63:1-9ff.
- In 2 Baruch 70-72 the end-time Judgment by God coincides with the coming of the Messiah; chapters 73-74 describe the establishment of the (Messianic) Kingdom of God.
- In 2/4 Esdras 2:10-14, God’s control over the kingdom of Israel/Judah is expressed. Throughout the core chapters of the book (chaps. 4-13), there are numerous eschatological visions and prophecies of the coming Judgment and the subsequent new Age; especially notable are the description of the ‘Messianic kingdom’ in 7:26ff, the vision and interpretation in chaps. 11-12 (drawing on Daniel 7), and the final vision of chap. 13. The Messianic Kingdom (of God) is presented vividly in 12:22-39.
- In the Testament of Judah (Christian, but drawing upon earlier Jewish material), God’s control over the kingdom of Israel/Judah is described in chapters 21-22. In 24:1-6, the prophecy of Balaam (Num 24:17ff) is cited (cf. above): “then will the scepter of my kingdom shine forth…and from it will spring a staff of righteousness for the Gentiles, to judge and save all who call upon the Lord” (vv. 5-6).
These passages generally draw upon three distinct traditions from the Old Testament Scriptures:
- The coming Day of YHWH, when God will appear to bring Judgment upon the nations of the earth. Perhaps the latest reference to this is found in Malachi 3:1ff, a passage which, as we have seen, proved to have tremendous influence on eschatological/Messianic thought at the time of Jesus.
- The kingdom-visions of Daniel 2 and 7—in which a series of earthly empires is ultimately succeed by an everlasting Kingdom (of God) which is given to the People of God (Dan 7:24-27). These motifs are played out in the later visions of chapters 10-12, and the basic motifs—contrasting earthly and Divine rule—are also expressed in the account of Nebuchadnezzar (Dan 4, see esp. the hymn of praise in vv. 34-35), the episode of Belshazzar and the handwriting (Dan 5), the declaration by Darius in Dan 6:26-27, and Daniel’s prayer in chapter 9.
- The hope/promise for a coming end-time/ideal Age of peace and security, as described most vividly in the oracles of (Deutero-)Isaiah, as well as elsewhere throughout the Prophets. In Zechariah 9:9-17, the age of peace is brought about by a coming King, making this a seminal prophecy for the subsequent idea of a Messianic Kingdom established by God on earth.
Now let us return to the Kingdom of God as expressed in Jesus’ teaching. It will be useful here, in conclusion, to examine how the three categories of his sayings/teachings on the Kingdom relate to Messianic thought of the period.
1. The Kingdom as Coming (upon the earth)
Here we have the primary declaration from the start of Jesus’ ministry (“the kingdom of God has come near”, Mark 1:15 par), also in Matt 10:7; Luke 10:9, 11. There is little reason to think that this declaration does not stem from the lines of Old Testament and Jewish tradition cited above, in the sense that—(a) the context is eschatological (cf. Luke 21:31), and that (b) it relates to the end-time Judgment by God (the OT “Day of YHWH”). This latter was perhaps expressed more clearly in John the Baptist’s preaching (cf. Matt 3:2, 7), but the same emphasis on repentance can be found in Jesus’ preaching as well (Matt 4:17 / Mk 1:15). The coming of the Kingdom is not limited to Judgment, but is also proclaimed as a “good message” (Matt 4:23; 9:35; Matt 24:14; Luke 4:43; 8:1; 16:16)—reflecting the other side of the Day of YHWH, in terms of salvation/deliverance for the people of God (the faithful/righteous). In the context of early Gospel tradition, this aspect is closely tied to the (healing) miracles of Jesus (Matt 11:5 / Lk 7:22, cf. also Lk 9:1-2 etc), and is almost certainly inspired by Isaiah 61:1 and its Anointed Prophet-figure (Lk 4:18ff).
It should be pointed out that while there definitely appears to be an imminent expectation of the Kingdom in Jesus’ teaching (and throughout early Christian tradition), and while it clearly has associations with the appearance of Messiah-figures (cf. above), he does not seem to identify the Kingdom specifically (or entirely) in terms of his own person and presence. Though the kingdom may have “come/drawn near” in Jesus’ earthly ministry (Matt 12:28/Lk 11:20), it is yet to come, as expressed in the petition of the Lord’s Prayer (Matt 6:10/Lk 11:2). According to Luke 19:11, Jesus attempts to avert the expectation that the Kingdom would come immediately upon his arrival in Jerusalem (cf. Mark 11:10 par), and goes so far to deny that the Kingdom will appear with concrete visible signs (Lk 17:20-21). This last reference seems to suggest that the Kingdom is present (invisibly) among people by the presence of Jesus himself, but there are considerable difficulties in interpreting this saying (cf. my earlier note). At any event, Jesus does clearly teach that the Kingdom of God is near through his words and actions (cf. also Mark 12:34).
Did Jesus envisage the Kingdom as a temporal, earthly kingdom, which was about to be established by God? There are several passages which point in this direction (Mark 10:29-30, 35-40 par; Matt 19:28/Lk 22:28-30), but it is by no means clear that a concrete earthly kingdom is involved, and the weight of Jesus’ other sayings, taken together, suggests rather the opposite. His response to the disciples’ question in Acts 1:6 purposely avoids discussion of the conventional idea of an earthly kingdom being restored to Israel, emphasizing rather the disciples’ role in proclaiming the Gospel. In a number of instances, the Gospel (“good message/news”, cf. above) and the Kingdom are closely intertwined, nearly synonymous.
2. People coming into (receiving, inheriting, etc) the Kingdom
Jesus frequently uses the motif of “coming into” (entering) the Kingdom (Mark 9:47; 10:23-25 pars; Matt 5:20; 7:21; 8:11 [implied, par]; 21:31; cf. also Lk 23:42). Similar in sense and meaning are the idea of “inheriting” or “receiving (being given)” the Kingdom (cf. Mk 4:11; 10:15 pars; Matt 5:3, 10; 8:11-12; 13:38, 41, 43; 21:43; 25:34; Lk 22:29-30). Along the same lines are sayings which refer to believers/disciples “belonging” to the Kingdom, or of being fit/worthy for it (Mark 10:14; Matt 5:3, 10, 20; 7:21; 13:38, 52 and pars; Lk 9:62, etc). All of these references draw upon a separate image of the Judgment—human beings appearing before the Divine/Heavenly tribunal after death or at the end-time. This is also the context generally of the Beatitude form—those who are deemed worthy to pass through the Judgment and enter the heavenly realm are called “happy/blessed”. In at least one saying of Jesus, we see the Son of Man (identified with Jesus himself) overseeing the heavenly tribunal (Lk 12:8-9, cf. also Matt 7:21-23). Similarly, in the Similitudes of Enoch, the Messianic “Righteous/Elect One” and “Son of Man” serves as heavenly Judge over humankind. We may also recall that in the Qumran texts we find the idea that faithfulness/loyalty to the “Teacher of Righteousness” will be the basis for being freed from the Judgment by God. The sayings of Jesus in Gospel tradition make faithfulness in following Christ and the Gospel the basis for entering/inheriting the Kingdom. A particularly Christian emphasis is on suffering for the sake of the Kingdom (= for the sake of the Gospel), cf. Matt 5:10; 19:12; Luke 18:29 par, and also Mark 9:47. This is, of course, patterned after Jesus’ own suffering (Mark 8:31, 34-37; 9:12-13; Matt 8:19-20; 10:17ff pars, etc). It is to be expected that the Kingdom (that is, the proclamation of the Gospel) should endure violence and persecution (Mk 10:29-30; 12:1-12 par; Lk 19:14, 27; Matt 11:12; 23:13, etc, and see Acts 14:22).
3. Descriptions of the Kingdom
Jesus’ unique understanding and proclamation of the Kingdom is given deeper expression in the numerous parables and illustrations (Mark 4:26-32 par; Matt 13:24-30, 33 [par Lk 13:20-21], 44-50; 20:1-16; 22:2-14; 25:1-30; cf. also Mk 3:23-27; 4:3-8, 14-20; Lk 14:16-24 and pars). Many of these have an eschatological context; others prefigure his own suffering and death, the spread of the Gospel, and so forth. Especially worthy of note are the teachings and illustrations which describe the character of the Kingdom (and those belonging to it). Here the emphasis is on meekness, humility, mercy and forgiveness, self-sacrifice, a desire for righteousness, etc—all summarized powerfully and concisely in the Beatitudes (Matt 5:3-12). Jesus also symbolizes these Kingdom-traits in the figure of a little child (Mark 10:14-15 par, etc)—the least in the Kingdom of God is greater than the most prominent and influential person in the current age (Matt 11:11/Lk 7:28). Jesus frequently uses this reversal-of-fate motif in his teaching—the poor and humble will pass through the Judgment, while the rich and powerful will not (cf. especially the Lukan Beatitudes [Lk 6:20-26]).
As mentioned previously, there are few references to the Kingdom in the Gospel of John; but one major passage is found in Jn 3:3-8, part of the discourse with Nicodemus. There Jesus makes two parallel statements:
“unless a person comes to be (born) from above, he is not able to see the Kingdom of God” (v. 3)
“unless a person comes to be (born) out of water and (the) Spirit, he is not able to come into [i.e. enter] the Kingdom of God” (v. 5)
The Synoptic idea of faithfulness in following the example and teaching of Jesus (= the Gospel), has been deepened still further in meaning and symbolism—defined as coming to be born from above and from the Spirit. This rather indicates a personal transformation, an entirely new identity: as children/offspring born from God (Jn 1:12-13). The new birth, of course, is dependent upon receiving/accepting Christ as the unique Apostle and Son of God. The other passage in the Gospel of John occurs during the exchange/discourse between Jesus and Pilate (Jn 18:33-38, part of the Passion narrative). In v. 36, in response to Pilate’s question “are you the king of the Jews?”, Jesus ultimately answers:
“My Kingdom is not out of [i.e. from, belonging to] this world…”
When Pilate asks again “You are not (really) then a king, (are you)?”, Jesus defines his kingship in unexpected terms (v. 37):
“Unto this I have come to be (born), and unto this I have come into the world:
that I should witness to the truth—every one that is out of [i.e. from, belonging to] the truth hears my voice”
Jesus’ role and position as King will be discussed further as part of a study on the Messiah as King/Ruler, to begin in the next article (Part 6 of this series). For more on these passages from the Gospel of John, see the second half of my earlier article on the Kingdom of God.