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Kingdom of God Revisited

For many Christians today, the phrases “kingdom of God” and “kingdom of heaven” refer to “heaven”—in other words, the place called heaven experienced after one dies. However, this is not what was originally meant when Jews (including Jesus) and early Christian Jews of Jesus’ day spoke of “the kingdom of God” or “the kingdom of heaven”. This does not then mean there is not a place called “heaven” but rather that those phrases refer to something different. Their misreading goes at least as far back as the Early Middle Ages. Unfortunately, it has led to faulty interpretations of passages both in the Gospel narratives (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), Paul’s many letters, and other New Testament writings. As with any reading of ancient literature (or for that matter, any literature, no matter the time period it came from), context is everything. Historical context must be considered because context determines the meaning of a passage in any piece of literature, including passages in the sacred text of Scripture. This will be the aim of the following article: to put the phrases “kingdom of God” and “kingdom of heaven” in their historical context.  The historical context of those phrases are set within the larger context of ancient Israel’s story and God’s purpose in calling and choosing this people. Once the context is better understood, the student of Scripture should then have greater clarity on the meaning of Jesus of Nazareth’s first announcement to his people, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Consequently, this clarity will help to instill a renewed sense (and even fuller sense) of meaning, passion, and motivation in how one follows Jesus today. Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.

The following article is structured by three sections. 1) First, a brief definition of “kingdom of God” and “kingdom of heaven” is provided in their 1st century context. 2) Second, a short overview of ancient Israel’s Story will give the broader historical framework. 3) Third, their Story is detailed further and set within God’s overall purpose for the whole world.

Definition of “kingdom of God” and “kingdom of heaven”: By the 1st century Palestine the phrase “kingdom of heaven” (for Hebrews, “heaven” was language referring to “God”) and its synonymous phrase “kingdom of God” referred to God’s rule, or reign over the people and land of Israel, and by extension, the world. It became part of the language the Jewish people used to refer to the much anticipated restoration of Israel as a theocratic nation under the leadership of Yahweh, no longer under occupation by a foreign power. They had already been under foreign occupation for over 700 years by the time of Jesus of Nazareth. What in fact that restoration would look like and how it would then transform our entire world and cosmos will be looked at in more detail below.  In order to get at those details, it is crucial then to investigate the context from which the phrase kingdom of God emerges, which then means getting familiar with ancient Israel and their long but forward looking story of God’s purpose–for Israel, and through Israel, the rest of the known world.

Short overview of ancient Israel’s Story: In the beginning stages of their Story, from 2000 BCE to 1000 BCE, Israel took shape as a theocracy, in which their god, Yahweh, led and guided them in all aspects of life (politically, socially, economically, and ritual purity). It later blended bits of theocracy and monarchy in a very dramatic and incredible story of salvation and covenant, victory and defeat, exile and the hope for deliverance.

Ancient Israel’s Story within God’s purpose for the whole world: At the start, Yahweh chose Abraham and his descendants (the Hebrew people) to be the agents through whom He would bless all the families and people groups of the earth. This followed humanity’s downward turn of events brought on by Adam and Eve’s disobedience and climaxed at the Tower of Babel when the known world exalted themselves above God their Creator. Yahweh’s choice of Abraham’s family was to establish His name and glory in His creation and world, namely by bringing wise order to it, through a people who might reflect Him in a way that their ancestors had failed to do and might reverse the effects of Adam and Eve’s disobedience (see Genesis 1:27-31 and 12:1-3 keeping in mind also 3:14-15). Yahweh demonstrated Himself powerfully and in various ways through Abraham, then through Abraham’s son Isaac, then his son Jacob, and then through Jacob’s son Joseph. These demonstrations of power were accomplished in the sight of many nations and people groups of the ancient Near East—notably, in front of kings and tribes of the people of Canaan as well as the Egyptians and their pharaoh. Among these displays of power was the favor Yahweh gave to Joseph with Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, whereby Joseph was able to rescue—from many years of life threatening famine—not only his entire Hebrew family (Jacob’s sons and their families), but also the entire populous of Egypt and tribal groups from Canaan land.

A period of time later, another pharaoh rose to power in Egypt who did not know of Yahweh or Joseph or how he—due to Yahweh’s favor—rescued Egypt from the famine. For fear of the Hebrew’s ever increasing population and the potential threat they posed in the land of Egypt, this new pharaoh made slaves of Abraham’s descendants. After being slaves for nearly 400 years, Yahweh rescued them by performing plagues against the Egyptians and their pharaoh, and then again by His dramatic salvation at the Red Sea. At Mount Sinai in the Arabian Desert, Yahweh affirmed His prior choice of the Hebrews, and established it further, by inviting them into a covenant that would grant them covenant status as Yahweh’s special people. This involved laying out His expectations (in the form of Covenant Law) for a covenant people, and the Hebrews accepted the terms. Obedience to the Law of the Covenant became for them the means whereby they would represent and reflect Yahweh as their god both within the larger community of Israel (now named) and to the wider world in order that His name and glory would be known to all (Genesis 3:15; 12:1-3; Deuteronomy 4:1-8; see Isaiah 49:6 for His broader purpose for Israel, and bits of the Law that command for the proper treatment of the visiting foreigner—Exodus 22-23 and other passages in Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy). Yahweh promised that should they fail to obey His covenant, He would not forgive them (Exodus 23:21), meaning He would hold Israel accountable for their disobedience; he would do this by bringing destruction to the land (the land Yahweh had given them to steward) and then forcing them into exile at the hands of a foreign nation (Leviticus 26:27-45; Deuteronomy 7:1-4; 11:16-17 & 28; 28:15-68).

While there were seasons of obedience as a people and had their share of godly leaders, Israel, as a people, consistently failed to obey Yahweh’s Law on a grand scale. At the top of the list of offenses was Israel’s repetitive idolatry, failure to keep His Sabbath, and wide spread oppression of fellow Israelites (see i.e. Isaiah 10:1-4; ch.57-58; Ezekiel 20-22; Amos 2-8; and other passages in the Prophets). Why were three offenses particularly grievous and frustrating to Yahweh? Let’s start with idolatry: Idolatry was to serve and worship a god or gods and the idols that represented the god or gods—often made of wood, stone, or clay. In the ancient Near East, the vast array of gods (depending on the god) were believed to hold certain power over regions or places and various aspects of life, such providing strength and favor in battle, healing to overcome sickness or disease, fertility for pregnancy, wisdom, and prosperity of land and wealth. Serving a god or gods (or goddess/goddesses) meant doing what those gods demanded in hopes that they in return provide any of the above list. Worshipping a god (or goddess) was to revere and acknowledge that god’s power through various ritual acts. In entering a covenant with Him, Yahweh expected His covenant people to depend on Him for their general welfare and no longer on other gods nor their idols—which interestingly enough was not, at first, a denouncement of the existence of other gods (that would come later in their history), but of dependence on them. His command to no longer serve nor worship other gods besides Him was the substance of the first two of the Ten Commandments when Yahweh introduced to Israel His Covenant Law. Not far into Israel’s history you will discover the sins of idolatry showing up frequently and often unquestioned (see 1 & 2 Kings and 1 & 2 Chronicles), and among some Hebrew families and kings, even the practice of making the firstborn baby pass through fire to please the god Molech (or Moloch), which was an abomination to Yahweh. Idolatry, at its core, was not only a demonstration of Israel’s lack of dependence on Yahweh as their god but a way of demonstrating sometimes greater loyalty to other gods over against Yahweh, and at the very least showing a sort of synchronistic loyalty. There is also reason to believe that at times Israel had given credit to other gods for things Yahweh himself had done for Israel (see i.e. Exodus 32—the creation or recreation of the golden calf). Idolatry was a slap in the face to all that Yahweh had accomplished in, for, and through Israel—from the time of Abraham up through the time of the Kings—and after 700 years of idolatry following the Sinai Covenant, He had enough (the Sinai Covenant likely happened in the 1400’s BCE and the fall of Israel and the first stage of exile at the hand of the Assyrians in the early part of the 700’s BCE).

Why was Sabbath keeping so important to Yahweh? Although in the fourth of the Ten Commandments, the Sabbath was established prior to the introduction to His Covenant Law (see Exodus 16 and 20). Sabbath meant “rest” understood as a day of rest. It was to be a day when Israel would not do work as usual, but instead rest from work. By resting from work, Israel was given time and mental space to reflect on Yahweh and His provision of the basic sustenance of life, food and water, as well as remembering what He had done in and for Israel in days past. By not working, it also meant Israel was relying on Yahweh and trusting Him that the basic sustenance of life (food and water) would be provided again the following week just as it had the week prior. Additional Sabbaths were added to the many yearly feasts (or festivals) Israel was commanded to celebrate—some centered on Yahweh’s provision of food during the season of harvest, while other feasts focused on one or more of the following: His deliverance from slavery in Egypt, dramatic salvation at the Red Sea, guidance toward the Promised Land, and atonement of collective sin in the community of Israel (see i.e. Exodus 23:14-17; 35:18-26; Leviticus 23:1-44). Every seventh year was to be a Sabbath year in which the land was not harvested as before, but was provided rest from men’s labors. Every fiftieth year was to be a Year of Jubilee—a yearlong Sabbath of sorts in which all human debts were cancelled and the land was given another year of rest from men’s harvesting of its crops (see Leviticus 25). These commands make clear that Yahweh valued rest both for His covenant people and for the land He provided them, and in these days or seasons of “rest” He valued His people taking time out to reflect and give thanks to Him for what He had done for them. It was intended to be a good and beneficial thing both for His covenant people and their land. Sabbath keeping, at one level, meant choosing to trust Yahweh’s promise to provide for them. At another level, it meant keeping the covenant they promised to Him. Unfortunately, they failed on both counts. While it is not clear from the historical narratives how much or how often Israel failed to keep the Sabbath during their weekly observances, yearly festivals, Sabbath years, and the years of Jubilee, their lack of being mentioned at least implies Israel did not keep it as a normative practice. However, it is clear from the prophetic literature (i.e. The Prophets), from Yahweh’s own mouth, that Israel had grossly neglected Sabbath keeping (as stated above, see i.e. Isaiah 10:1-4; chs.57-58; Ezekiel 20-22). The cancelling of debts every fifty years can hardly be imagined as normative Israelite practice by the time of Isaiah. Whereas the practice of keeping the Sabbath could have (and would have) fostered a climate of trust in Yahweh for provision during the land’s harvest season, which consequently would have cultivated honesty in business dealings and dedicated attempts to care for the poor and less fortunate, not keeping the Sabbath fostered instead a climate of self-sufficiency and blatant disregard of Yahweh’s past provisions, which then of course cultivated dishonesty in business dealings and financial oppression of their own people, including treatment of widows, orphans, and the poor in general. Not keeping the Sabbath became in the community of Israel a widespread demonstration of their selfishness—those in positions of authority and or with great wealth leading the way—to acquire wealth at the expense of the vulnerable and poor, which perpetuated their ongoing disobedience to Yahweh, both to His Law (the written down commands and instructions given to Moses) and His voice (i.e. “the word of Yahweh” which came through the prophets).

Widespread oppression of fellow Israelites, as just noted, worked in conjunction with Israel’s neglect of the Sabbath. Oppression hit on various levels. According to the would be prophet Amos—Amos himself wrote that he is not a prophet but “a herdsman and a grower of sycamore figs” in chapter 7:14-17 of his prophecy)—there were those in power that cheated fellow Israelites by changing the value of their crops for sale by selling smaller bundles for more than they were worth (or should have been worth), while raising the value of money (deflation—as with the shekel) in order to buy more from the less fortunate, the vulnerable, like widows and orphans, and the poor (Amos 5:10-13 & 8:5-6). It appears that certain wealthy Israelites owned two homes (summer and winter), even houses constructed with ivory (a sign of great wealth), while many of the poor in the land suffered with little (Amos 3:14-4:2). There was no doubt a direct connection between the financial oppression and disparity within the community of Israel and false prophecies that were rampant. People who have wealth and power to lose often, in their sinfulness, want to protect their wealth and power, and the false prophets spoke “Yahweh’s favor” toward the wicked priests and kings in order to maintain whatever power and favor they had with the kings and priests. The false prophets in turn also were protecting the wicket lifestyles of the kings and or priests, including their sexual impropriety and drunkenness; this climate of disobedience was not just a leadership issue, however, as it seems the above sins were reflective of many in Israel (see Amos 2:6-4:2 and Ezekiel 22:6-12 & 26-31 and any number of Israel and Judah’s kings whose memories are recorded in 1 & 2 Kings and 1 & 2 Chronicles). The rulers in power, including the priests and kings, made aims at keeping the true prophets quiet in order to continue living however they wanted, without sincere and honest regard for the Covenant Law (Amos 2:12; 7:10-17; and Ezekiel 22:6-12). Enough was enough and was only time before Yahweh would soon hold them to account.

Though a godly king would rise up from time to time, sometimes in conjunction with a prophet of Yahweh (and many times not, because Israel’s kings were often part of the problem), to rebuke the people and their leaders of widespread disobedience, calling them to repentance, the people and their leaders would often turn back for short seasons only (again, see 1 & 2 Kings, 1 & 2 Chronicles). It was primarily because of the grand scale disobedience in the three areas just dealt with above (idolatry, Sabbath breaking, and oppression), the Prophets tell us, that compelled Yahweh to take action against His people and send them into exile. It was not merely for breaking His Law in general that they were exiled (as many in the church today assert and assume) for the sacrificial system required in the Law had taken care of ritual purity and provided the avenue for Yahweh’s forgiveness of sin(s). Having said that, Yahweh eventually did judge His people for the above mentioned sins by sending (or prompting) the Assyrians and then later the Babylonians to wreak havoc on His people and land and take them into exile in the foreigner’s lands (2 Kings 17-25; 2 Chronicles 28-36; Ezekiel 20: 33-44; Amos 9:1-4; Isaiah 10; 13:1-9; 47:1-6). The broader effect of Israel’s grand scale disobedience was that in failing to obey Yahweh’s Covenant Law they also failed to reflect Yahweh (i.e. bear His image) to the surrounding nations, and so failing to establish His name and glory to wider world. Despite their massive failure, He anticipated a day when His people would in fact, by His own doing, accomplish the mission He gave to Abraham (recalling Genesis 12:1-3).

Exile felt to Israel as if Yahweh had abandoned them. Eventually, the people of God repented and cried out to Yahweh (see the cries and prayers from exile: Psalm 137; the whole book of Lamentations; Jeremiah 31:18-19; and possibly Psalm 42-43). Yahweh answered their cry for help and began sending them back to the Land of Promise by giving them favor with the foreign powers (see the continuing story of Israel in the books Ezra, Nehemiah, and Daniel). Although the people were permitted to return to their land, foreign powers remained in control of them. A series of five empires remained in control of Israel at different times from 721 BCE and on into the time of the 1st century CE and beyond (the Assyrians, Babylonians, Media-Persians, Greeks, and Romans). The Jews, however, did gain semi-independence over Judea and some areas surrounding Judea for nearly 100 years through the resilient and aggressive efforts of the Maccabean revolt. While there was a degree of freedom that the people had, religiously and socially, among the latter three empires, they were still under occupation and control, which gave them a gnawing sense that the period of exile was not over, that Yahweh had not returned to their community as before exile, actively working among them, speaking to them via the prophets and leaders, and blessing them.

This very real sense that exile had not ended (at least not completely) was in conjunction with the widespread belief that the Spirit of God was no longer at work in and through Israel as He once had been during the glory days of their past, and that this would remain a reality until the much anticipated future restoration of Israel at the hands of Yahweh (see Amos 9:11-15). The prophetic books spoke of a day when God’s Spirit would return to His people, even come into them and write Yahweh’s Law on their hearts (Ezekiel 36; Jeremiah 31:33-34, Isaiah 32:15). This future restoration of Israel was often believed to be working hand in hand with Yahweh’s judgment of the foreigner powers (or Gentile nations) which had occupied Israel and taken them into exile (see i.e. Isaiah 10 and 66; Jeremiah 30; Joel 3 and other passages in the Prophets). His coming judgment of these nations was for their arrogance in exalting themselves above Him (see i.e. Isaiah 10:5-34; 47:1-15; 51:22-23). Yahweh’s judgment came to be named the day of Yahweh (often translated into English as the day of the LORD). There were differing views on whether Yahweh would judge the nations Himself or act via a human agent, a Messiah (Anointed One) whom He would chose (see i.e. Deuteronomy 18:15 and Psalm 2); although there seemed to be widespread belief in Israel that He would indeed use a human agent. There was also differing views on the timeframe and quality of the future Messianic age. Would Yahweh’s judgment be prior the Messianic age or following it? Would the Messianic age be the final and ultimate age of Yahweh’s reign? Would the age be entirely earthly, entirely heavenly, or would it be a combination of both? It is clear, however, that many in Israel did in fact hope in and anticipate an earthly reign of the Messiah who would overthrow the foreign powers and usher in the restored kingdom of Israel, or kingdom of God.

Brooklyn_Museum_-_Reconstruction_of_Jerusalem_and_the_Temple_of_Herod_(Réconstitution_de_Jérusalem_et_du_temple_d'Hérode)_-_James_Tissot

During 2nd Temple Judaism (515 BCE to 70 AD) in particular, but likely beginning much earlier in Israel’s history, this future Messiah figure was widely believed to be a descendant of David, which meant he would be a king of Israel (see i.e. Micah 5:2; Isaiah 9 and 32; Jeremiah 33:17; 2 Samuel 7:12-13; 2 Chronicles 13:5; Zechariah 9:9; and Ezekiel 37). Others believed Yahweh would send a heavenly figure who would operate in His power (using Daniel 7:9-14 and apocalyptic literature), while some held that this figure and the Messiah were one and the same. Still, it seems that others may have wondered whether Isaiah’s Servant figure was the promised Messiah or simply representative of the whole nation of Israel (see i.e. Isaiah 42-43; 52-53).

The much anticipated restoration of Israel, not only included Yahweh’s coming judgment, the work of His Messiah, and the Spirit of Yahweh, but also the restoration of the land of Israel (i.e. Isaiah chapter 11; ch.35; 65:17-25; Jeremiah 31; Ezekiel 36:24-38), and this restoration seemed to have an effect not only in Israel but somehow making its way in all the earth (Isaiah 11:9; & 65:17). Not only this, but some prophets acknowledged that the restoration of Israel as a people and land would positively affect Gentiles coming into covenant with Yahweh (see Hosea 1:10, 23; Psalm 22:27-29). So as the day of the Lord extended from Israel to the whole world, it would affect all of humanity and all across Yahweh’s earth, harkening back to an earlier promise (Genesis 12:1-3). When these things eventually happen in the sight of Israel, the people of God would once and for all know that Yahweh their covenant god and King had returned to them and forgave them of the sins that led to exile, and extending out from Israel (the land) and through Israel (the covenant people), act as the rightful Lord of this world.

Other highly significant parts of the story are not mentioned here but are still very important, such as Yahweh’s creation, the importance and purpose of the Temple, the priesthood, the sacrificial system and other bits of the Covenant Law, the divided nation of Israel into the kingdom of Israel and kingdom of Judah, which myself and others have dealt with in other places (see the resources mentioned below). For now, returning to where we started, the long Story of Israel was the larger historical context in which the phrase “kingdom of God” (and “kingdom of heaven”) emerged; it emerged sometime during second temple Judaism (515 BCE to 70 AD). This is the time period that Jesus of Nazareth was born into and in which, when he began his public ministry, spoke of the kingdom of God. When Jesus said, “repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand”, we must take into account what the common Jew in Israel in the first century understood that to mean. Sadly and frustratingly, this has all too often not been the case and all too often “the kingdom of God” has come to mean something very different.

the kingdom of God today

Since the above Story is the historical context for Jesus’ proclamation of and teaching about the kingdom of God, then it raises at least a few questions regarding how the phrase “the kingdom of God” is commonly used today in many Christian circles. So first, what has “the kingdom of God” come to mean today? How does this new meaning alter the vision and meaning the New Testament authors gave to us? What are the resulting shortcomings today in Christian thought and values as well as in lifestyle when we embrace today’s popular alternate meaning rather than the one rooted in Israel’s history (as revealed in Scripture)? How will embracing the New Testament’s vision of the kingdom of God positively affect Christian thought, values, and lifestyle today? These are some of the questions, and much more, that my upcoming articles, “The Gospel Revisited” and “The Gospel Today: How Christians often miss the point,” will attempt to answer.

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For further study on this topic

In addition to thoroughly reading and studying the Bible books and passages mentioned in this article, I highly recommend the following resources for additional historical background and context: the three articles “Kingdom of God/Heaven”, “Servant of Yahweh”, and “Revolutionary Movements” in the IVP Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels; also, my upcoming article “The Grand Narrative Begins: The Story of Israel in God’s purpose for the whole world” in a larger project yet to be titled (and still in the process of completing). I also highly recommend the following four books by New Testament historian and theologian N.T. Wright which set out the historical context of 1st century Palestine in great detail: How God became King: the forgotten story of the Gospels; Simply Jesus: A new vision for who he was, what he did, and why he matters; Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s vision; and his large scholarly work, The New Testament and the people of God (Volume 1 of a 4 volume series entitled Christian Origins and the Question of God).

One Comment

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  1. Nick says:

    Great article Peter! I enjoyed it.

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