Have you ever watched one of those confusing movies where after a minute or two of video the film flashes back to a few years previously? Just when I started to get the hang of that, the person who I thought was the main character dies. Now I’m REALLY confused. What is the point of the film? Who is the good guy? Is there a good guy? And what the heck is going on?!
For many years I felt the same way about the Bible. Being an avid reader, I picked up the Bible and started at the front. There was this deal about a guy named Adam and his girl, Eve. But they didn’t hang around very long – just long enough to screw up everything.
Trying to keep an open mind, I continued to read – only to get more and more confused as first one character and then another comes on the scene only to die a few chapters later. I was beginning to think that while God was a good at creating planets and the like, He was terrible at writing a book!
After what seemed like eternity, someone let me in on the secret: start with part about Jesus of Nazareth. Flipping past three-quarters of the book, I found the part about Jesus and started reading. Boy did things start making sense – I had found the main character and He was pretty cool!
However, there was one thing in story about Jesus that I did not understand. He kept talking about and referring to the “kingdom of God” or the “kingdom of heaven” . What in the world is the “kingdom of God”? I knew about the United Kingdom and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia – and I believe there was a movie called the “Kingdom of Heaven”, which I don’t think Jesus was talking about.
The Message of Jesus of Nazareth
Most of you would agree – or I hope, would agree – that Jesus of Nazareth is the main character in the drama of history. Paul tells us in Ephesians (2:20) that Jesus was the “chief cornerstone” on which the apostles and the prophets were built. In Galatians (3:19), Paul goes one step further and says that the first five books of the Bible (the Mosaic Law) points toward the person of Jesus. Shoot, Jesus said as much about himself to the disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 23:27)!
If all of history points towards Jesus, then I think the message that he shared is of great importance. Luckily for us, we have two eye witness accounts (Matthew and John) and two investigative reports (Luke and Mark) of Jesus’ First Century ministry. In them we see that primary phrase used to describe Jesus’ message is the “kingdom of God” or the “kingdom of heaven”, which is just a Jewish way of saying the “kingdom of God” since the Jews did not like to mention the name of God.
- “From that time (after his baptism and temptation) Jesus began to preach, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.’” -Matthew 4:17
- “Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness.” -Matthew 9:35
- “Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. ‘The time has come,’ he said, ‘the kingdom of God is near.’” -Mark 1:14b-15
- “But he (Jesus) said, ‘I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns also, because that is why I was sent.’” -Luke 4:43
- “(Jesus) appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God.” -Acts 1:3b (while technically not a “gospel” book, the first part of Acts in a continuation of Luke)
All in all, in the Gospels there are 45 references to the “kingdom of God” and 30 references to the “kingdom of Heaven”. This is pretty significant considering there are only 12 additional references in the rest of the New Testament (4 in Acts, 5 in I Corinthians, and 1 time each in Romans, Galatians, and Colossians).
The sad part about the Gospels is that they never define or explained what they mean by the phrase “Kingdom of God”. They assume that reader understood the term – and, for the most part, I’m sure that those who were alive in the first century did understand. However, we no longer live in the same day or in the same culture as Jesus or the Gospel writers. This makes understanding the message of Jesus a little more difficult – yet, not impossible as we have the Holy Spirit to guide us into all truth (John 16:13)
Setting the Stage
On Christmas we talked about the disappointments of the Jewish people who kept asking God “when.” When would the day of the Lord come? When would He destroy sin and death? When would He come and dwell among them with His word on their hearts? When Lord, when?
In their disappointment, Hebrew scholars went back to the Scriptures – the Law, the Prophets and the Writings – to see what had been foretold and if there was anything to hasten the “Age to Come”. One group of Jews decided that the “Day of the Lord” was mainly a spiritual kingdom ruled by a spiritual God. They chose to distance themselves from the physical world and all its evil so that they could come into closer relationship with the Lord Almighty. These people were called the Essenes and they lived in special monasteries in the deserts.
Another group, the Sadducees, decided that there was nothing they could do to hasten the “Age to Come” or the “Kingdom of God” has they now called it. Therefore instead of trying to do the impossible, they chose to join forces with their rulers, first the Greeks and then the Romans. These folks chose physical wealth over spiritual formation.
Interestingly enough this group consisted mostly of priests as they were the wealthy aristocrats in charge of the temple and the religious life of the Jews. The priests and Sadducees were also the official teachers of the law and arbitrated legal disputes.
Then there were the Pharisees. These Jews looked at the Scriptures and saw the Kingdom of God as being a physical kingdom ruled by God through the Jewish people. The Romans would punished and then ruled by the Jews as would all gentile groups.
Furthermore, they decided that there was something they could do to hasten the coming of the Messiah or King. Since God punished them for not obey His law, they would obey every little thing in the law to the point where they would be “perfect” and God would restore the physical nation of Israel as it was in the days of David and Solomon. They took upon themselves the purity code of the priests which went beyond the Torah law for lay people.
Within this group there was a subgroup who thought that not only should the Jewish nation obey all the rules of God, but then should also fight their enemies. These people where called the Zealots because of their zeal for the Kingdom of Heaven.
Note that the Pharisees, nor any of the people, were trying to gain God’s favor. Far from it! They knew that they were God’s children because they were children of Abraham. God had brought them out of Egypt so of course God liked them. What they were trying to do was to usher in the “Day of the Lord”. They what God to come and save them once again – to destroy evil and put the Jewish people back on top of the heap.
They just disagreed in how to go about doing it. And, as we will soon see, they missed the big picture of what God was doing. They forgot that God was not just the God of the Jews but God of the world. They forgot that it wasn’t just their genetics that made them Children of God, but their faith in Him to be their King. They forgot to follow the heart of God – substituting their culture, rules, programs, personal and national interests instead.
It was into this “tinder box” of emotions and fears that Jesus came claiming that the Kingdom of God had come, is coming, will be there soon but was delayed. In using the term he was riding a thin line among a people of rash emotions and an Empire set upon crushing any rebellion. Yet, Jesus chose to use the term as it carried with it the powerful idea of God’s active and dynamic rule and reign.
It is worth noting that why Jesus used the revolutionary phrase, He did not call for violence or war against the Roman Empire. Nor did He lead His followers out into the desert to live a spiritual life secluded from the physical world or did He lay out multiple laws to be followed. Instead he claimed that the rule and reign of God – the True Emperor – had come among men at that time.
It was a strange and mysterious teaching – yet, it was also one punctuated by supernatural healings and miraculous signs. No one could escape the teachings of Jesus – the Zealots loved to hear about how the rule of God was coming soon, but disliked the lack of physical force. The Pharisees got mad at the lack of rules and formulas while the Essens understood the spiritual natural of the kingdom. The Sadduess and Herodians, folks who decided to thrown in their lot with the Romans, bristled at the thought of another kingdom when they were getting rich in the current one.
And the common people – the people of the land – who were by far the majority of the people in the land at the time – well, they were trying to live as faithful as possible to the Torah why trying to make a living. Well, they – for the first time – were freely included into the Kingdom of God by Jesus along with the sinners – that is, the tax collectors, prostitutes, leapers and others outside the official structure of Judaism.
“Jesus offered forgiveness outside of the temple system to all the wrong people, on his own authority. It was to the tax collectors, the sinners, the sick, the broken that Jesus would come to with a yoke that was easy and a burden that was light (Mt 11:29). According to Jesus it would not be those who kept Torah correctly who would receive the Kingdom of Israel’s God but those who would repent and follow him. These where words that would get a man killed…..” (Quoted from Bill Jackson’s “NothinsGonnaStopIt”)
Jesus proclaimed that the Kingdom of God was coming into the world in a way unforeseen by the prophets of old. Instead of only being a one-time earth-shattering event, the Kingdom of God is like a newly planted field of wheat among which the enemy scatters weeds among the good seed. When the farmer learned about the weeds, he told his servants to leave the field alone – allowing the wheat and weeds to grow together until the time of harvest when they shall be separated. As Jesus himself explained, the field is this world into which the Kingdom of God has come. However, instead of destroying the rule of evil in one major event, the Lord Almighty chose to allow evil (the weeds) to grow alongside His chosen people (the wheat) until the Second Coming of Christ (Mt 13:24-30, 36-43).
This is the mystery of the Gospel: that Jesus came to destroy evil, sin and death, while proclaiming that the rule and reign of God (i.e. the Kingdom of God) has come, is coming; is near, and yet is delayed. Once understood, this simple, but profound, understanding of the Kingdom of God will change the way in which the Gospel, nay the entire Bible, is read. Jesus Christ’s central message was one of end-time proportions, forcing His followers to live in the tension of the here and not yet.