Part 13 of series:
What Was the Message of Jesus?
So far in this series, What Was the Message of Jesus?, we’ve seen that the core of Jesus’ proclamation was “the kingdom of God has come near” (Mark 1:15). In my most recent posts in this series, I focused on the question of when the kingdom of God is coming. In fact, Jesus proclaimed the kingdom as something both present and future, as something “already and not yet” here on earth. Like a mustard seed, God’s reign begins as something small and insignificant, but in time it will become great and glorious.
This leads to an obvious question: How is the kingdom of God coming, according to Jesus? By what means will God begin to reign on earth more fully and obviously?
Before addressing this question, I want to survey other Jewish options in Jesus’ day.
First-Century Jewish Views on the Coming of the Kingdom of God
In the first century, there were a variety of answers to the question of how God’s reign would come on earth. Some Jews believed that the kingdom would come through armed rebellion against Rome. The Zealots and others with a revolutionary bent continually plotted ways to undermine and ultimately depose the Romans. Ultimately, this strategy lead to the Roman decimation of Judea and the destruction of the Jewish temple in A.D. 70.
Other Jews rejected this approach, preferring instead to wait for God’s dramatic intervention. The Essenes at Qumran near the Dead Sea had grand visions of an apocalyptic war between the sons of light and the sons of darkness, a war in which God would finally vindicate his people and restore both his temple and his kingdom. The folk at Qumran were disinclined to look for human agents who might bring the God’s kingdom, probably because their experience of Hasmonean (Maccabean/Jewish) rule of Judea had been such a negative one.
In many of the Jewish kingdom scenarios, God would act through a human being who would execute divine justice and restore divine rule over Israel. Only a few Jewish texts refer to this human as the Son of Man (literally in Hebrew/Aramaic, “the human being”). More commonly, however, the human agent of the kingdom was called “the anointed one” (in Hebrew, mashiach or “messiah”). There wasn’t one established set of expectations for the messiah, however. The Dead Sea Scrolls, for example, actually speak of multiple messiahs, including a priestly messiah and a royal messiah.
Common to every Jewish scenario of the coming to the kingdom was the expulsion of the gentiles who ruled over Judea. In Jesus’ day, the Romans were the hated overlords whom, it was hoped, would someday be vanquished by the Lord and his anointed leader. One Jewish writer, perhaps a Pharisee, wrote a collection of psalms, one of which bears passionate witness to Jewish hopes for the coming kingdom:
See, Lord, and raise up for them their king,
the son of David, to rule over your servant Israel
in the time known to you, O God.
Undergird him with the strength to destroy the unrighteous rulers,
to purge Jerusalem from gentiles . . .
He will gather a holy people
whom he will lead in righteousness . . . .
And he will be a righteous king over them, taught by God.
There will be no unrighteousness among them in his days,
for all shall be holy,
and their king shall be the Lord Messiah. (Psalms of Solomon 17)
Jesus proclaimed the reign of God to a people who fervently hoped and prayed for its coming. Yet he did not affirm common Jewish expectations for how the kingdom would come. He didn’t raise up an army to wage war against Rome. And he didn’t promise that God would fight this battle himself in some imminent Armageddon. In fact Jesus’ answer to the question “How will the kingdom come?” was quite novel, elusive, and frustrating.
Now that I’ve established the Jewish context for Jesus’ explanation of how the kingdom will come, I’ll focus on Jesus in my next post.