The Kingdom of Heaven is Good News!
Throughout Jesus' time on earth, the focus
of his teaching was the Kingdom of God. In fact, he says, 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). Even though Jesus' ministry
focused on it, many things he says about it leave us scratching our heads.
Is it now or in the future? Why is it so important to him? Why is it good
news? Once again, having a knowledge about Jesus' first century Hebrew
culture will greatly clarify his teaching.
Kingdom of Heaven & Kingdom
First of all, we read two different phrases in the gospels - "kingdom
of heaven" and "kingdom of God". In Matthew, "kingdom
of heaven" is used, while in Mark and Luke, "kingdom of God"
is used. This is because in Jesus' day, and even now, Jews show respect
for God by not pronouncing his name, but substituting another word. For
example, the prodigal son says, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight."(Luke 15:21) So, Matthew is preserving the culturally-correct
"kingdom of heaven" while Mark and Luke are explaining that
"heaven" is a reference to God. The actual words that came out
of Jesus' mouth were probably "Malchut shemayim" (mahl-KUT shuh-MAH-eem)
which was a phrase common in rabbinic teaching in his day. Malchut,
which we translate as "kingdom", actually refers more to the
actions of a king - his reign and authority, and also anyone who is under
his authority. Shemayim is Hebrew for "heavens". A simple
way of translating it would be "God's reign", or "how
God reigns" or "those God reigns over".
But what does it really mean?
Apparently, the discussion of Jesus' day was focused on how and when God
would establish his kingdom on earth. They were thinking of prophecies
like those in Zechariah that say that one day,
The LORD will be king over the whole
earth. On that day there will be one LORD, and his name the only name.
We may wonder why they felt that
God wouldn't be king from the beginning of creation, but they believed
that as long as the world was filled with evil and other nations worshipped
other gods, that the people of the world refused to acknowledge him as
its king. Especially in Jesus' day this feeling was very strong. God's
people, Israel, were suffering at the hands of the Romans. They longed
for the day that God would come to save his people and fully establish
his reign over the earth.
The reason the ministry of Jesus focuses on the kingdom was because it
was the role of the Messiah to establish God's kingdom on earth. Messianic
passages in the Old Testament focus on how God was going to anoint a king
from the people of Israel to reign over the whole world, and that he would
bring God's kingdom to earth. (See Is. 11, Ps. 2, 72, Dan. 2 and others).
Because Jesus was the Messiah, he was describing his own mission as the
Anointed King sent by God.
We can imagine that there would be much speculation in Jesus' time about
how God would establish his reign over the whole world. Obviously, they
thought, when the Messiah came, he would establish God's reign by conquering
the enemies of Israel. They read many prophecies about the Messiah that
were images of a mighty king who defeated his foes and then took the throne,
The kings of the earth take their stand
and the rulers gather together against the LORD and against his Anointed
One (Messiah, in Hebrew). Then he rebukes them in his anger and terrifies
them in his wrath, saying, I have installed my King on Zion, my holy
hill. You will rule them with an iron scepter; you will dash them to
pieces like pottery. (Ps. 2:2,4-6, 8)
And, they read about the great
and dreadful "day of the Lord" where he would come to judge
the enemies of Israel, and they longed for that day. Messianic prophecy
also talks about a "suffering servant" and a "Prince of
Peace", but the people of Jesus' day expected that the Messiah would
bring God's judgment. This attitude was pervasive in Jesus' time. The
Essenes formed ascetic communities in the desert and called themselves
the "sons of light", waiting for the great war when God would
destroy the "sons of darkness", which was everyone except them.
Even Jesus' disciples were convinced that this was Jesus' mission. They
asked him "Lord, is it at this time You are restoring the kingdom
to Israel? (Acts 1:6) And, in the words of John the Baptist,
we hear him warning his listeners that because the Messiah was here, the
judgment of God was imminent:
Indeed the axe is already laid
at the root of the trees; so every tree that does not bear good fruit
is cut down and thrown into the fire. (Luke 3:9) and His winnowing fork is in his hand to thoroughly clear his threshing
floor, and to gather the wheat into his barn; but he will burn up the
chaff with unquenchable fire. (Luke 3:17).
Jesus' Teaching About the Kingdom
Jesus teaching about the kingdom was to correct his people's expectations
of his messianic role, and even their understanding of God's nature itself.
Those around him wanted God to reign over the earth by destroying anyone
who didn't acknowledge him as king. Jesus, in contrast, says that God
would establish his kingdom on earth, not by judgment, but by mercy to
sinners, who would be reconciled with God through Jesus' atoning death.
This is the fundamental message of Jesus - the good news of the kingdom
of God is that the Messiah had come, and was building his kingdom by bringing
forgiveness to anyone who would repent, rather than bringing God's judgment
to the world.
If we see this as Jesus' message, it gives insight on parables about the
kingdom that are hard to understand otherwise. One seems to be directly
intended to correct John the Baptist's picture of the Messiah coming in
judgment to establish God's kingdom. We hear from John that "the
axe is already laid at the root of the tree", ready to chop it
down because it doesn't bear fruit. But Jesus tells the parable:
A man had a fig tree which had been planted
in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and did not find
any. And he said to the vineyard-keeper, Behold, for three years
I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree without finding any.
Cut it down! Why does it even use up the ground? And he
answered and said to him, Let it alone, sir, for this year too,
until I dig around it and put in fertilizer; and if it bears fruit next
year, fine; but if not, cut it down. (Luke 13:6-9)
The point of this parable is
to emphasize God's mercy rather than his imminent judgment. Jesus seems
to be speaking about the same tree that John was, only here the tree is
given another chance, rather than being chopped down. Was John the Baptist
wrong about Jesus? No, actually, because Jesus will eventually return
in judgment, just as John said. When Jesus speaks about his return, he
says that then he will come to separate the sheep from the goats, and
judge the world. John was just premature in his timing, as were Jesus'
disciples. This is probably why John asks Jesus, "Are you the
one who is to come, or should we look for another?" He was expecting
Jesus to bring the judgment of God, but this was to come later.
What are the implications
of Jesus' teaching?
Even though the main difference between Jesus' picture of the kingdom
of God and those around him was in the timing of the judgment, this difference
had profound implications for the kind of kingdom it is, and the character
of God himself.
The picture that most had about the kingdom is that it would be established
through God's judgment. It seems to be a logical answer to the problem
of evil. In one sudden event, God would assert his power and vanquish
his enemies, the "wicked" of the nations around them, and those
of their own nation who were "sinners". Only the righteous would
be left to be God's Kingdom. They assumed that they were the righteous
that would survive the judgment, and that their enemies would not survive.
This was good news to those who were the "righteous", who were
on God's side, because they would have the victory.
Jesus utterly disagrees with this. He says that God's kingdom had come
to earth, but it would be a time of healing and forgiveness. He said that
his kingdom would start out small like a mustard seed, but would grow
as people would accept Christ and enthrone God as their King. In Jesus'
understanding, a person was brought into the kingdom of God when the person
decided to accept God as his King, and it is something that happens in
a person's heart, not a political movement or visible display of God's
power. His idea was very close to that of other rabbis who said that when
a person committed himself daily to love God with all of his heart, soul,
mind and strength, that he had "received upon himself the kingdom
of heaven". This kingdom would be invisible, like leaven that some
how works its way through bread to make it rise. We can hear this in this
Now having been questioned by the Pharisees
as to when the kingdom of God was coming, He answered them and said, "The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed; nor
will they say, 'Look, here it is!' or, 'There it is!' For behold, the
kingdom of God is in your midst."(Luke 17:20 - 21)
Jesus is saying through this
that he was the Messiah, and he truly had brought God's kingdom to earth.
But it would be a very different kind of kingdom because it would grow
through forgiveness of sin rather than judgment. It was good
news to the sinners who knew that if God came in judgment, they would
be the ones to be judged!
Also, because the kingdom was growing slowly by God's mercy toward sinners,
it would be like like wheat that grows up among "tares", or
weeds (Matt 13:24-30), representing evil. When the tares were found growing
in the field, instead pulling them out, the farmer waited until the end.
The farmer was merciful, preferring to leave the weeds alone in his desire
not to harm the wheat. Once again, this contrasts with John's saying that
the Messiah would come to "winnow" - meaning to separate the
wheat from the chaff, or good from evil, for destruction. Again, Jesus
is saying that God's kingdom had truly come to the earth, but evil would
not be ended, so it would not be a kind of utopia. Rather, it would grow
in the midst of evil because of God's mercy, so that there was still hope
for the enemies if they chose to repent and enter.
If we have this understanding, many of Jesus sayings make more sense.
His kingdom is made up of the poor in spirit, those who know they are
guilty of sin, who come to God for forgiveness. The tax collectors and
prostitutes were the first to enter Jesus' kingdom of mercy, and the last
were the outwardly religious who really were hoping for God to judge their
enemies. The merciful, who do not want to see God's judgment come on others,
are shown mercy themselves. One day, the kingdom would come in power
when Jesus returns to judge, but he would wait as long as possible to
allow as many to enter as can.
Jesus' picture of the kingdom of God gives us a profoundly different understanding
of God's character. It shows that God is, at his very heart, merciful
and wanting no one to perish. He teaches us to love our enemies, because
he himself is merciful toward his enemies, giving them time to change
their ways. It is easy to see what our response must be to Jesus' message.
We must examine ourselves, know that no one is righteous in the eyes of
God, and repent and receive God as our King. Only because the Messianic
King came to die to establish his Kingdom, rather than to kill his enemies,
can we, his former enemies become members of his Kingdom and children
of his Father.
©2003 Lois A. Tverberg, Ph.D., OurRabbiJesus.com. All rights reserved. This article is copyrighted and may not be redistributed without the express written consent of the author. To request permission, contact Tverberg@OurRabbiJesus.com.