An overarching theme in both the Old and New Testaments is the idea of God becoming king over all the world. In Zechariah we read:
The LORD will be king over the whole earth. On that day there will be one LORD, and his name the only name. (Zech. 14:9)
In Revelation, we find a similar vision of God becoming king over creation:
Then the seventh angel sounded; and there were loud voices in heaven, saying,”The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ; and He will reign forever and ever.” (Rev 11:15)
It seems odd to us that the creator of all the universe would not be considered its king at all times. The biblical picture, however, is that even though God is creator over all of his creation, once humanity fell, they excluded themselves from God’s kingdom because of their disobedience.
After the fall, the world was in bondage to sin, and was given over to worshiping other gods. While God is the sovereign judge over all creation, the Bible says that only those who accept him as their king are actually a part of his kingdom.
One of the main themes of the Bible is that after the fall, God’s plan is to repair the breech and bring humans back into his kingdom. Only a couple stories after the flood, the time of man’s worst rebellion, we begin to hear about how God finds one man who will be faithful to him, Abraham. God tells him that he would make him into a great nation.
Later, God makes a covenant with Abraham’s descendants, the Israelites, that he would be their God and they would be his people. God’s kingdom started with one man and expanded to the nation of Israel. The goal was that the whole world would see the true God through this nation who worshiped him as King. He would give them a land that was in the middle of the international trade routes, so that their culture would impact the world as they lived according to his instruction.
In addition, God promised that one of king David’s descendants would be king, and have a kingdom without end. The plan was that this righteous king, the Messiah, would come to establish God’s kingdom over the whole world. The Bible’s vision is that finally, at the end of all things, the LORD will be king over the whole world once again, through the messianic king that God promised to send.
Jesus and the Kingdom of God
We can imagine there would be much speculation about how God would establish his reign over the whole world. At the time of Jesus’ coming, this was especially important to Israel, who was under oppression by the pagan Romans. Obviously, when the Messianic King came, he would establish God’s reign by conquering the Romans. They read many prophecies about the Messiah that were images of a mighty king who defeated his foes and then took the throne. For instance:
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)
They also 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 the Messiah would bring God’s judgment. They imagined that there would be one sudden event when he would assert his power and vanquish his enemies, the “wicked” of the nations around them. Then, God’s kingdom would be established because God had destroyed all his enemies. Only the righteous would be left to be God’s Kingdom. They assumed they were the righteous who would survive the judgment, and their enemies would not survive.
When Jesus comes and proclaims himself as Messiah, he spends much of his time talking about the Kingdom of God, because it was the role of the Messiah to establish God’s kingdom on earth. Much of his teaching deals with the fact that God’s way of establishing his Kingdom on earth would be very different than their expectations:
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 explained that the kingdom was not going to be established by a sudden, great war to kill all the wicked, but would grow like a mustard seed, as each person repented and enthroned God as their king. It would be a spiritual kingdom that would expand as people heard about the mercy of God, that he would forgive their sins and they could have new life as his people.
It would be good news to the poor in spirit, those who were humble and realized their need to repent, but not to the arrogant who wanted his judgment to fall on the other “sinners.” God would hold off his judgment, allowing the wheat and tares to grow together: he would allow his kingdom to grow in the midst of evil, rather than wiping it out. Only at the end would Jesus return as judge between good and evil, and then his kingdom would be fully established and have its greatest glory.
Jesus explained that God’s way of establishing his kingdom over the whole world was just the opposite of what humans had imagined. The Messiah had come to extend mercy to humanity rather than judgment. God’s kingdom would be established by the atoning death of the Messiah, by which sinners, even the most wicked, could enter by repenting of their sins and being forgiven. In that way, God’s kingdom could expand as the whole world would hear about his amazing grace. Jesus came and brought God’s kingdom to earth, and its expansion is unstoppable, as God’s spirit is poured out, the lost are found, and God’s glory fills the whole earth.
For the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea! (Habakkuk 2:14)
Jesus spends more of his ministry talking about the kingdom of heaven than anything else. If it was central to Jesus’ message, it certainly should be important to us too! To many, these sayings are confusing and difficult to grasp. Having a knowledge about Jesus’ first century Hebrew culture will greatly clarify his teaching.
Kingdom of Heaven & Kingdom of God
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 the Jewish culture of Jesus’ day, and even now, people show respect for God by not pronouncing his name. Often another word is substituted, like “heaven,” “the name,” or “the mighty one.”
For example, the prodigal son says to his father, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight.” The son is using the word “heaven” as a reference to God. So, Matthew is preserving the culturally-correct quote “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 used in rabbinic teaching in his day. The word malchut is related to the word melekh which means “king.” Malchut is associated with 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?
The primary understanding of the kingdom of heaven was God’s reign over the lives of people who enthrone him as king. You might think that God by default is king over everything he created. The biblical assumption, however, is that after the fall and the tower of Babel, the world began to serve other gods. At that point, God stopped being their king. Most of the world did not know God, but the Scriptures promised that one day, “The LORD will be king over all the earth; in that day the LORD will be the only one, and His name the only one” (Zech 14:9).
The question of Jesus’ time was when and how God would establish this kingdom over the world. It was thought that when the Messiah came, the Kingdom of God would arrive all at once with great glory. But Jesus disagrees:
Once, having been asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, “The kingdom of God does not come with your careful observation, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:20)
Jesus meant that a person is brought into the kingdom of God when the person repents and decides 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. He agreed with other rabbis who said that when a person committed himself daily to love God with all of his heart, soul, mind and strength, (by saying the Shema) he had “received upon himself the kingdom of heaven.” In essence, the person had put God on the throne over his life and entered under God’s king-ship.
One of the reasons Jesus preaches about the Kingdom of God is to proclaim the fact that he is the Anointed King (Messiah) and this is his kingdom. The “good news of the kingdom” is that when Jesus, the Son of God arrived on earth, the kingdom had arrived with him. Jesus tells his disciples to go out and heal the sick, and say that the “kingdom of heaven is near,” meaning that it is now arriving on earth, not that it isn’t quite here yet.
The take-home message is that Jesus, the king, has arrived, and he is establishing his kingdom as people repent and follow him. Jesus consistently describes the kingdom in terms of gradual expansion — like a mustard seed or a little bit of yeast that grows and grows. He is describing the community of believers that starts small, and then grows as people from all nations join. This will culminate when every knee shall bow, and every tongue confess that Jesus is the King!
Note that the primary understanding of the kingdom of heaven is God’s reign over people in this world. Often we interpret it by equating it with heaven itself. This leads us to think that Jesus was always talking about heaven, when he was actually talking about God’s work in people’s lives. It suggests that God cares little about the lives we live now, and that he only cares about getting us into heaven.
Another distortion is to always interpret the kingdom in terms of Christ’s second coming. Certainly when Jesus returns his kingdom will be at its most glorious, and sometimes the gospels do use kingdom to talk about Jesus’ second coming or about his future heavenly kingdom. But much of what Jesus says about his kingdom is about its present reality.
How does this effect how we read Jesus’ sayings?
It is interesting how reading Jesus’ sayings in terms of what God is doing on earth, rather than in terms of heaven, can give new insight on his words. Let’s look at some examples:
Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these. (Matt 19:14)
Childlike trust is a model for a believer’s commitment to God. People who are humble, who know they can’t live without God’s care and direction, who approach God as children do their father, are the ones that God really can teach and have a relationship with. Proud people who feel they have everything under control have a very hard time being under God’s king-ship.
For some are eunuchs because they were born that way; others were made that way by men; and others have renounced marriage because of the kingdom of heaven. (Matt 19:12)
This used to puzzle me — I wondered if Jesus was saying that some have renounced marriage in the hope that they will go to heaven because of it. Rather, he means, some have decided not to marry because of God’s reign over their lives – they believe that it is the God’s will, and they are submitting to his authority.
But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. (Matt. 6:33)
If you devote yourself to letting God direct your life and doing God’s will, he will take care of your physical needs.
Your kingdom come, Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. (Matt 6:10)
When we say this in the Lord’s prayer, we often assume that “your kingdom come” means “we are waiting for you to return.” We interpret it as a plea for Christ to come back again quickly. Really, the two phrases “your kingdom come” and “your will be done on earth” are synonymous.
They are saying “May all the peoples of the earth enthrone you as king! May everyone on earth know you and do your will!” Certainly we are joyously awaiting Christ’s return. But this is really a request for God to use us to spread the gospel and establish God’s kingdom on earth!
It is always fascinating and enriching to bring the Hebraic cultural context into understanding the most important, basic words that Christians use. One of the most important is the word “Christ.” What does it mean to call Jesus, “Jesus Christ”? Or, what implications does it have for us to say that Jesus is the “Christ”?
First of all, the word “Christ” comes from christos, a Greek word meaning “anointed.” It is the equivalent of the word moshiach, or “Messiah,” in Hebrew. So, to be the Christ, or Messiah, is to be “the anointed one of God.”
To be anointed is literally to have sacred anointing oil poured on one’s head because God has chosen the person for a special task. Priests and kings were anointed, and occasionally prophets. Kings were anointed during their coronation rather than receiving a crown.
Even though prophets and priests were anointed, the phrase “anointed one” or “the Lord’s anointed” was most often used to refer to a king. For instance, David used it many times to refer to King Saul, even when Saul was trying to murder David and David was on the verge of killing Saul to defend himself:
Far be it from me because of the LORD that I should do this thing to my lord, the LORD’S anointed (moshiach), to stretch out my hand against him, since he is the LORD’S anointed (moshiach). (1 Sam. 24:6)
So, the main picture of the word “Messiah” or “Christ” as the “anointed one” was of a king chosen by God. While Jesus also has a priestly and a prophetic role, the main picture that word “Messiah” is used for is a king.
Through the Old Testament, we see little hints that God would send a great king to Israel who would someday rule the world. In Genesis, Jacob gives blessings to all of his sons, and of Judah he says,
The scepter will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until he comes to whom it belongs and the obedience of the nations is his. (Gen. 49:10)
This is the first hint that they were expecting a great king to arise out of Israel who would be king over the whole earth. The clearest prophecy about this messianic king who was coming is from King David’s time. David told God that he wanted to build God a “house,” meaning a temple.
God said to him that instead his son Solomon would do that, and then promised that he will build a “house” for him, meaning that God will establish his family line after him. God further promises David that from his family will come a king whose kingdom will have no end:
“When your days are over and you go to be with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, one of your own sons, and I will establish his kingdom. He is the one who will build a house for me, and I will establish his throne forever. I will be his father, and he will be my son. I will never take my love away from him, as I took it away from your predecessor. I will set him over my house and my kingdom forever; his throne will be established forever.” (1 Chron. 17:11-14)
This prophecy has been understood as having a double fulfillment — it is first fulfilled in Solomon, who built the temple, but did what God forbade — amassed a great fortune and married foreign wives. His kingdom broke apart a few years after his death.
It also spoke about a “Son of David” who would come, who would have a kingdom without end. This prophecy is the seedbed of all of the messianic prophecies that talk about the “son of David” and the coming messianic king.
Jesus as the Christ
Even though we tend to not pick up on the cultural pictures, the gospels tell us many times that Jesus is this great King who has come. In Matthew 2, the wise men come to bring presents to this king whose star they have seen in the east. This was a fulfillment of Numbers 24:17, Isaiah 60, and Psalm 72.
The latter two passages both describe the coming of a great king and describe how representatives from nations everywhere would come to give him tribute:
He will endure as long as the sun, as long as the moon, through all generations. … He will rule from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth. The desert tribes will bow before him and his enemies will lick the dust. The kings of Tarshish and of distant shores will bring tribute to him; the kings of Sheba and Seba will present him gifts. All kings will bow down to him and all nations will serve him. (Ps. 72:5, 8-11)
Soon after Jesus begins his ministry he proclaims himself as the anointed one (the Christ) in Luke 4 when he says that passage from Isaiah 61 has been fulfilled:
The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor. (Is 61:1-2)
This is a picture of the coming messianic King, right after he is anointed by God, declaring good news of the jubilee year, a tradition observed when a new king came into power in some middle eastern countries.1 Jesus applied it to himself, arousing a very strong reaction from his audience to his bold claims.
We see yet another picture of Jesus as King when he rode on the donkey into Jerusalem. This was very much a kingly image, often part of the annunciation of a new king, as it was for Solomon in 1 Kings 1:38-39. It is the fulfillment of Zechariah 9:9, the triumphal entry of the messianic king.
Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; He is just and endowed with salvation, Humble, and mounted on a donkey, Even on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
During Jesus’ trial, the main question he is asked is “Are you the King of the Jews?” and he answers affirmatively:
And they began to accuse him, saying, “We found this man misleading our nation and forbidding to pay taxes to Caesar, and saying that he himself is Christ, a King.” So Pilate asked him, saying, “Are You the King of the Jews?” And he answered him and said, “It is as you say.” (Luke 23:2-3)
What are the implications of Jesus as King?
When we think about Jesus’ time on earth, the last thing we think of is of a king who is reigning, but Jesus explains that his kingdom is not of this world (John 18:37). Rather, Jesus is talking about the kingdom of God, the major focus of his preaching.
The kingdom of God is made up of those who submit their lives to God to reign over them. As the King that God has sent, and of course because he is God, the kingdom of God is Jesus’ kingdom. He speaks about how it is expanding like yeast or mustard seed, as the gospel that he has arrived goes forth and many more accept him as their King. When he returns in glory, all the earth at that time will see that he is King.
Did the people around him see him as a king? The fact that Jesus’ disciples and others who believed in him referred to him as “Lord” suggests that they were giving him great honor, with the understanding that he is the Messianic King.
Throughout the gospels Jesus is addressed with respect by strangers as “rabbi” or “teacher.” Only a few times is he actually addressed using his common name, Jesus, and only by demons (Mark 1:24) as well as a few who didn’t know him. To call Jesus “Lord” is using a term for addressing royalty, like saying “Your Majesty” or “Your Highness.” It is also a common term for addressing God himself, and has a hint of worshipping Jesus as God.
To use the word “Lord” displays an attitude of obedient submission to a greater power. Jesus seems even to expect that those who call him Lord obey him — he said to his listeners, “Why do you call Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?” (Luke 6:46).
To call him “Lord” or to call him Jesus “Christ” is to say that he is the King that God has sent, who has a right to reign over us. It is interesting that even though the demons know that he is the Son of God, they refuse to use the word Lord to address him (Luke 4:34, 40)!
This has implications about the basic understanding of what a Christian is. We tend to define ourselves by our creeds and statements of belief, but the very word Christ calls us to more than that. If Christ means King, a Christian is one who considers Jesus his Lord and King, and submits to his reign. Those who are saved have two things: both a belief in the atoning work of Jesus, and a commitment to honor him as their personal Lord and King. As Paul says,
If you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. (Rom. 10:9)
The main theme of Jesus’ ministry was to preach about the coming of the Kingdom of God, but it is a source of confusion and misunderstanding to many Christians. Is it in heaven after we die? Isn’t God king already?
One thing widely misunderstood is how Jesus spoke about the coming of God’s kingdom in order to proclaim himself as the Messiah, the Christ, God’s anointed king. The primary task of the Messiah, after all, was to establish God’s reign on earth. Dozens of articles are available on this page about Jesus’ Jewish Messianic claims.1
What would the coming of this kingdom look like? An ancient Jewish prayer named Aleinu (Ah-LAY-nu) can shed light on this question. Scholarly sources believe that this beautiful prayer predates Jesus, so that he himself would have prayed it. The name, Aleinu, means, literally, “it is upon us,” which means “we must” or “it is our duty to.”
Even today this prayer is recited at the conclusion of every synagogue service. It is especially prominent on Rosh Hashanah, the New Year, when it is traditional to focus on God’s kingship over the world.
Through the prayer the worshiper exalts God as his or her king, and prays that all the world will repent and do the same. (Note that in the third section, the word for “rule,” malchut, is the same word for kingdom.)
It is our duty to praise the Lord of all. To acclaim the greatness of the God of creation, Who has not made us as the nations of the world, Nor set us up as other peoples of the earth, Not making our portions as theirs, Nor our destiny as that of their multitudes.2
3For we kneel and bow low before the supreme King of Kings, The Holy One, blessed be He, Acknowledging that He has stretched forth the heavens And laid the foundations of the earth. His glorious abode is in the heavens above, The domain of His might in exalted heights. He is our God, there is no other, In truth our King, there is none else. Even thus is it written in His Torah: “This day know and lay it to your heart, That the Lord is God in the heavens above and on the earth below. There is none else.”
We therefore hope in Thee, Lord our God, Soon to behold the glory of Thy might When the world shall be established under the rule of the Almighty, And all mankind shall invoke Thy glorious name. May they all accept the rule of Thy dominion, And speedily do Thou rule over them forever more.4
Here is an excerpt of the last section from another translation that is older and more literal, that talks about the “Yoke of God’s Kingdom.”
“Therefore do we wait for Thee, O Lord our God, soon to behold Thy mighty glory, when Thou wilt remove the abominations from the earth, and idols shalt be exterminated; when the world shall be regenerated by the kingdom of the Almighty, and all the children of flesh invoke Thy name; when all the wicked of the earth shall be turned unto Thee. Then shall all the inhabitants of the world perceive and confess that unto Thee every knee must bend, and every tongue be sworn. Before Thee, O Lord our God, shall they kneel and fall down, and unto Thy glorious name give honor. So will they accept the yoke of Thy kingdom, and Thou shall be King over them speedily forever and aye. For Thine is the kingdom, and to all eternity Thou wilt reign in glory, as it is written in Thy Torah: ‘The Lord shall reign forever and aye.’ And it is also said: ‘And the Lord shall be King over all the earth; on that day the Lord shall be One and His name be One.'”
Christians should be fascinated by how this prayer describes the Kingdom of God being established on the earth, and how it desires that all the nations repent and worship the true God of heaven. It seems to be very much related to Jesus’ words about “the coming of the kingdom of God” and Paul’s sermon in Philippians:
For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Phil 2:9-11)
2 In some versions there is a line that says, “for they prostrate themselves before vanity and folly, and pray to a god who can not help.” Ironically, Christians protested since they saw it as said against them, and persecuted Jews for praying this prayer. In many prayer books it has been removed.
3 It is customary to stand for the prayer, and bow while saying this line.
4 From the Siddur, The Traditional Prayerbook for Sabbath and Festivals Behrman House, 1960
For more information about this prayer see the following:
“Alenu,” a Jewish Enclyclopedia article This site devoted to the Aleinu
The Jews of Jesus’ day were longing for a messiah, but for many, Jesus didn’t meet their expectations. What were they looking for, from how they read their Scriptures? Understanding the issues at hand can shed much light on Jesus’ teachings, which often were addressing these expectations. By situating his message in its original context, we’ll see how radical it was, and more importantly, its implications for us as members of his kingdom.
The Expectations of the Ancient World
The ancient world thought very differently than modern Westerners do, and God chose to reveal himself and the Messiah in ways that they would understand. In the polytheistic ancient Near East, it was understood that each nation worshipped its own “god” or “gods,” and the prominence of each nation showed the power of its gods. God therefore gained glory when Israel won battles against nations that worshiped false gods.1 A major theme of the Old Testament was how God was using this logic to convince Israel and all other nations that he was the supreme God. They believed that God’s intention was to enlarge his nation and to purify their hearts so that he would have a great kingdom of whole-hearted worshippers.
God’s ultimate goal, according to the prophets, was to expand his reign over all the world until one day no other gods were worshiped anywhere: “The LORD will be king over all the earth; in that day the LORD will be the only one, and His name the only one” (Zech 14:9).2 One Jewish prayer, the Alenu, which likely precedes the first century AD, expresses that hope this way:
“Therefore do we wait for Thee, O Lord our God, soon to behold Thy mighty glory, when Thou wilt remove the abominations from the earth, and idols shalt be exterminated; when the world shall be regenerated by the kingdom of the Almighty, and all the children of flesh invoke Thy name; when all the wicked of the earth shall be turned unto Thee.
Then shall all the inhabitants of the world perceive and confess that unto Thee every knee must bend, and every tongue be sworn. Before Thee, O Lord our God, shall they kneel and fall down, and unto Thy glorious name give honor.
So will they accept the yoke of Thy kingdom, and Thou shall be King over them speedily forever and aye. For Thine is the kingdom, and to all eternity Thou wilt reign in glory, as it is written in Thy Torah: ‘The Lord shall reign forever and aye.’ And it is also said: ‘And the Lord shall be King over all the earth; on that day the Lord shall be One and His name be One.'” 3
Notice how the focus on the coming of God’s kingdom in the Alenu echoes the Lord’s Prayer — that God would establish his kingdom on earth and that his glory be seen throughout the world.
Messiah as King of God’s Kingdom
Along with the idea that God would extend his kingdom over all the earth was the idea that God would send a great king to establish and reign over it, and therefore, the whole world. This great king of Israel, or “anointed one” (mashiach) is the Messiah, which is christos in Greek, or “Christ.” Many messianic passages describe him in just this way:
The scepter will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until he comes to whom it belongs and the obedience of the nations is his. Genesis 49:10
The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers gather together against the LORD and against his Anointed One (mashiach) … I will make the nations your inheritance, the ends of the earth your possession. Psalm 2: 2, 8
These prophecies describe an anointed King who rules over the whole world. Grasping this imagery of the Messiah should help us see the many messianic claims Jesus made during his ministry. In Luke 4, Jesus read the from Isaiah 61 in his hometown synagogue, “The Lord has anointed (“mashiach”ed) me…” and said that it had been fulfilled in their hearing. By doing so he was boldly claiming to be the Messiah. Also, whenever he spoke about the “kingdom of God” and referred to it as “my kingdom,” he was claiming the same thing. When he told his disciples to proclaim that God’s “kingdom was at hand,” it meant that he, God’s true King had arrived on earth. Jesus’ mission was to establish and reign over God’s kingdom, and he often spoke in these terms.4
The Messiah the People Expected: Warrior & Judge
How would God’s king establish his kingdom? One logical conclusion would be that the Messiah would wage war against the idol-worshiping Gentiles and destroy sinners among the Jews. You might be surprised at how many prophecies in their Scriptures sounded like they confirmed their ideas.
The Messiah was to be a “Son of David” (a descendant of King David), so people expected that just as David had expanded God’s kingdom by going to war, the messianic “Son of David” would too.
The Messiah was expected to be like Moses, who defeated the Egyptians and established Israel as a nation at Mt. Sinai.5 The idea that the Messianic king would lead a rebellion was a prominent expectation, which was why when Jesus admitted to being the Christ, he was accused of stirring up a rebellion against Rome (Luke 23:2-5). After he multiplied the loaves and fish, his audience became convinced that he was giving them “manna” as another prophet-leader like Moses. They responded by wanting to make him king (John 6:14-15) for just this reason.
Many prophecies also anticipate the “Day of the Lord” — a climactic battle between God and his enemies after which the nation of Israel would come into its full glory (Zeph. 1:14-15, Zech. 14:1-3). It should be noted that the “Day of the Lord” was also to be a day of great judgment on all the sinners of Israel:
“The Lord, whom you seek, will suddenly come to His temple; and the messenger of the covenant, in whom you delight, behold, He is coming,” says the LORD of hosts.
“Then I will draw near to you for judgment; and I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers and against the adulterers and against those who swear falsely, and against those who oppress the wage earner in his wages, the widow and the orphan, and those who turn aside the alien and do not fear Me,” says the LORD of hosts. (Mal 3:1, 5)
From these and other passages, people expected that the Messianic King would come to bring war and also to judge the people. This made sense because along with leading the army, one of the main roles of a king was to act as supreme judge in the land. (Ps. 72:1-4)
In the New Testament, we see John the Baptist echoing these sentiments as he warns his listeners that Christ was coming in wrath, to chop down every tree that didn’t bear fruit and burn up evildoers like chaff in unquenchable fire (Lk. 3:17).
The Essenes also combined the roles of the Messiah as warrior and judge into one, imagining that he would lead a great war between the “Sons of Light” (their pure community) and the “Sons of Darkness” – sinful Jews and enemy nations that worship other gods.
Another Kind of Messiah – Shepherd, Servant, Jubilee King
Even though the people found evidence for a warrior Messiah in their scriptures, other passages paint a very different picture. More than one passage describes a king who comes in peace to reign over the earth, rather than in war:
Behold, your king is coming to you; He is just and endowed with salvation, humble, and mounted on a donkey, even on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
I will take away the chariots from Ephraim and the war-horses from Jerusalem, and the battle bow will be broken. He will proclaim peace to the nations. His dominion will be from sea to sea, from the River to the ends of the earth. Zech. 9:9-10 (See also Isaiah 9:6-7)
This passage is familiar to us from the scene in Jesus’ life when he entered Jerusalem on a donkey. The fulfillment of this prophecy showed that he was not coming to wage war like so many believed.
Jesus also deliberately applied other passages to himself that explained his mission. He spoke of himself as the “shepherd,” a reference to many messianic passages about a shepherd-king who would re-gather the wandering tribe of Israel and give them a new heart of love and obedience to God (Deut. 30:3-6, Jer. 23:3, Ezek. 34:11). He also spoke about being the “anointed” who was announcing a year of Jubilee — freedom from debt, using debt as a metaphor for sin6 (Is. 61:1-3).
Finally and most importantly, he fulfilled Isaiah 53, which describes God’s “servant” who takes all of the sins of the people on himself, who suffers and dies for their sins to purchase their forgiveness. Jesus came to expand God’s kingdom throughout the world by announcing forgiveness to all who would repent, rather than judgment on sinners.
The Critical Difference Between these Ideas
People often assume that Jesus was rejected by his listeners because they wanted a “political” messiah, as opposed to a “spiritual” messiah. But the reason many did not accept Jesus was because they were looking for a Messiah to come with judgment on the enemies of God, and he came with an offer of forgiveness and peace instead. It wasn’t that they hadn’t read the scriptures, but rather that Jesus didn’t fit their reading.
They expected the kingdom of God to be established by killing everyone who wasn’t righteous. But instead, God would gain a kingdom of pure-hearted followers, not by destroying all the impure, but by purifying sinners and atoning for their sins himself. The Messiah would indeed come again someday in judgment, but for now he was extending an invitation of forgiveness to everyone who would take it.
It is easy for us to condemn the people of Jesus’ time, but seeing more of the situation can give us empathy for them. The suffering of the Jews in Jesus’ day under the Roman Empire was as extreme as it was for those in Nazi Germany, according to historians. Torture and public crucifixion were commonplace, thousands were murdered, and taxes were overwhelming.
The Jews who were most faithful were persecuted most harshly, and only those who had “sold out” by serving the Romans prospered — the tax collectors and the corrupt Temple priests that colluded with them to exploit the faithful Jews.7
In their anguish, the Jews yearned for God to establish his kingdom of justice by purifying their nation from corruption and freeing it from their Roman persecutors. Even Jesus’ disciples were convinced that this was Jesus’ mission. After his resurrection they asked him “Lord, is it at this time You are restoring the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6). Jesus’ message was extremely difficult for his audience to hear — that only by letting go of vengeance could they enter God’s true kingdom.
The Challenge of the Kingdom
Ironically, the only people that would find a forgiving Messiah appealing were the “sinners” themselves. When prostitutes and tax collectors heard about a Messiah who didn’t bring judgment but rather forgiveness, it must have been the greatest news in the world to them.
The rest of his listeners must have felt just the opposite. As the innocent victims of Roman oppression, they saw themselves as the “righteous ones” who longed for vindication. They yearned for a Messiah who judged and defeated their enemies, rather than one who would forgive their sins but then demand that they forgive those who had wronged them.
The most profound thing about the “merciful kingdom” that Christ proclaimed was what it said about God. The ancient world believed that the gods of the nations battled against each other to expand their kingdom, but the true God came to suffer and die for the sins of his people instead. This God was a god of mercy and long-suffering love, who wanted sinners to be forgiven rather than being destroyed in judgment.
To truly grasp the kingdom message of our Messiah, we must be fully aware of our sinfulness and willing to ask for forgiveness, and to forgive those who have wronged us as well.
1 When God sent the plagues to bring his people out of Egypt, for instance, each was targeted at an Egyptian god to show that God was supreme (Ex. 12:12). Many other Old Testament stories display God defeating false gods, like the fall of the Dagon idol before the ark (1 Sam 5:2) and the contest between Elijah and the Baal prophets (1 Ki 18:21).
2 Revelation also includes this imagery of the final climax to history when it says, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ (Anointed One); and He will reign forever and ever.” (Rev. 11:15)
3 The Alenu prayer is recited three times each day at the end of the synagogue service. Ironically, even though Jesus may have prayed this ancient prayer, it is now recited silently because Christians persecuted Jews who prayed it, thinking it was said against them. For more on its history, read jewishencyclopedia.com‘s entry on “Alenu.”
4 Other stories in Jesus’ life are included to show that he was the Messianic king. The visit of the Magi fulfilled the prophecies that kings of other nations would bring tribute to him (Is. 60, Ps. 72). The Holy Spirit descending on him at his baptism was reminiscent of how God’s spirit fell on anointed kings like Saul (1 Sam 10:10) and David (1 Sam 16:13). Also, see the En-Gedi article, “What Does the Name Jesus “Christ” Mean?“
5 Especially during this time of great oppression under the Romans, the people looked for another Moses to set them free from their oppressors.
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 of God
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 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. (Zech. 14:9)
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, 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, for instance:
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. 2:2,5-6, 9)
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.
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 3:9, 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 conversation:
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 of 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.
Pray, then, in this way: “Our Father who is in heaven, hallowed be Your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven…” Matthew 6:9-10
Even though Jesus often talks about the kingdom, many of us struggle to understand what Jesus meant by “thy kingdom come.” 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 Jews show respect for God by not pronouncing his name. Matthew is preserving the culturally-correct quote “kingdom of heaven” while Mark and Luke are explaining to Gentile audiences that “heaven” is a reference to God.
The primary understanding of the kingdom of heaven was God’s reign over the lives of people who enthrone him as king. The rabbis knew that most of the world did not know God, but the scriptures said that one day, “The LORD will be king over all the earth; in that day the LORD will be the only one, and His name the only one” (Zechariah 14:9).
The question of Jesus’ time was when and how God would establish this kingdom. It was thought that when the Messiah came, the Kingdom of God would arrive all at once with great glory. But Jesus disagrees:
Once, having been asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, “The kingdom of God does not come with your careful observation, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is within you.” Luke 17:20
Jesus meant that a person is brought into the kingdom of God when a person repents and decides 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.
So what did Jesus mean by the phrase “your kingdom come”? He is talking about God’s reign over our lives, not about a future display of God’s power. He uses it in parallel with the next line in the text. The two phrases “your kingdom come” and “your will be done on earth” are synonymous. These phrases both mean, “May all nations of the earth enthrone you as king! May everyone on earth know you and do your will!”
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
The beatitudes in Matthew 5 are beautiful, but their meanings are not always clear to us. The first word of every statement is usually translated “blessed,” although some translations use the word “happy” instead. In Greek the word is makarios, and in Hebrew the word would have been “ashrei,” as it is found in many sayings the Old Testament, for instance:
Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked, or stand in the way of sinners, or sit in the seat of mockers. Psalm 1:1
Blessed is he whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Psalm. 32:1
In Hebrew, the word ashrei does mean “happy” or “contented,” but not in the sense of short-term, shallow pleasure. It means a sense of knowing deeply that God’s favor rests on you, because God approves of how you live. When the word is plural, as it is in both verses above, it is to express great intensity. It is like saying, “Oh how wonderfully satisified and pleased a person can be when…”
In the beatitudes Jesus highlights the heart-felt joy of God’s favor in light of many circumstances that we would certainly not expect to give a person pleasure in our world. Who would want to be poor in spirit, meek, mourning, or persecuted? But Jesus was teaching that it is precisely when we have the least amount of approval from the world, that God pours out his greatest approval on us. When we are living life as it was meant to be lived, we can then know we are pleasing our Father in Heaven. This will lead to a sense of contentment and joy like no other!
For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses [goes beyond] that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven…You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven;…You are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. Matthew 5:20, 43-45, 48
Jesus gives one of his most challenging teachings in the Sermon on the Mount. He frames it at both the beginning and the end with an exhortation to perfection. He says that those who do and teach others to do even the least of God’s commands will be called “great” in his kingdom. And then he says that “unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees” you are not a part of God’s kingdom. He continues by stating several rulings about divorce, anger and lust that each go beyond the laws of the day, and then ends with words about aiming to be perfect, like God himself.
Many people read this passage as saying that these are the qualifications for earning your way to heaven, and an extremely tough list of rules to follow. It’s easy to be overwhelmed by this interpretation.
It’s important to understand that the phrase “enter the kingdom of heaven” is idiomatic, not meaning “go to heaven when you die.” It means to be a part of God’s redemptive reign on earth right now—to live with God on the throne of your life and do his will. Rabbis from Jesus’ day used the phrase “kingdom of heaven” frequently in this way, and his Jewish context allows us to unlock this passage. Jesus is describing how to do God’s will, not how to earn your way to heaven. Our salvation is based on Jesus’ atonement for our sins and the trust we place in him, not that we “earn our way.”
Another thing that can help us understand this passage is insight on the difficult line: “unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees.” The verse sounds competitive – as if we are trying to beat certain people in their strict observance of regulations. But it’s likely that the idea of the phrase about “surpassing the scribes and Pharisees” is not about them as people, but about them as interpreters of the law. The passage isn’t about outperforming them in one’s stringent piety, but about seeking to do God’s will beyond the official interpretation of the law.
The word that we translate “surpass” is from the Greek word “perissos”, meaning “to abound, overflow, exceed.” One translation says “Unless your righteousness goes beyond that of the experts in the law…” (NET Bible).
We can interpret this line as, “do more than what the finest interpreters of the law say that you must do.” Then it fits the rest of the passage where Jesus points out various minimums set in the law, and instructs his disciples to go beyond that. The law says “don’t kill” but you should try not to even stay angry. The law says, “don’t commit adultery” but you should even avoid lust. Not only should you not seek revenge against your enemies, you should find ways to show them the love of God. Loan them money, carry their burdens. Anything.
This whole passage is not so much about a list of toughened rules, but about encouraging us to change where our aim is. It is easy to look for what is the minimum so that you can just do that. But in every case Jesus is saying, “Don’t live by the minimum!” Don’t say to yourself, as long as I don’t commit adultery, it’s fine to lust. Don’t say that as long as I don’t kill someone, I can be furious with them. If you want to be a part of God’s redemptive kingdom on earth, don’t ask how little you can do, but ask how much you can do, to please your Father in heaven.
But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. (Luke 2:10-11)
People who lived through World War II often say that there was no greater joy than on May 8, 1945, when the victory was declared in Europe. More recently, the scenes most remember in our lifetime with joy are the felling of the Berlin Wall, and recently, the toppling of the statue of Saddam Hussein. Iraqis were shouting for joy, and many who had lived in fear of torture and murder for decades said that they felt like they had been “reborn.” In all of these cases, the “good news” was that of the end of a war, or a removal of an evil political power. It was as if a nightmare was suddenly over, and a new morning had come.
Interestingly, the word in Greek that we translate “good news” or “gospel,” euaggelion, has exactly that connotation in Greek. It is great news of a victory in war, or the rise of a powerful new king. It is a translation of the Hebrew word besorah, which is wonderful news of national importance about a political change, or war won.
When we understand that the main messianic image of Jesus is that of a king, we see how this fits into what the angels were saying. They were proclaiming the news to the whole world that a new king had come, the one God had anointed (Christ) to be ruler (Lord) over all. When Paul called himself an “ambassador of Christ,” proclaiming the “gospel of the kingdom,” he was also really saying that the anointed king of the world had come.(1) Although Caesar may seem to be in power, Paul’s mission was to be a representative to the real king to proclaim his victory and invite people to enter under his reign.
Let us not forget that we serve a victorious king, who has won the war against sin and death. And may we spread the good news of his reign everywhere on earth.
(1) See the article “Paul’s Gospel and Caesar’s Empire” at this link by N. T. Wright.