The Challenge of the Kingdom (Part 1)

In The Challenge of Jesus, N. T. Wright correctly points out that we need to understand the “Kingdom of God” in terms of first century Judaism, not modern conceptions.  For Wright, this means properly understanding the election of Israel as well as the eschatology of Israel (35).  Israel was chosen by God to bless the whole world (Gen 12:1-3).  But after centuries of exile and domination by foreign powers, some in Israel began to wonder how that blessing was going to happen.

In his more recent Simply Jesus, Wright compares Judas Maccabees (“The Hammer”) with Jesus.  Both begin their career with a revolution.  Judas’s revolution was quite literal, a rebellion against the Selucids in response the policies of Antiochus IV Epiphanes.  Jesus was no less revolutionary, although his preaching that the “kingdom of God is near” did not have a military component.  But would people have heard echoes of The Hammer in the preaching of Jesus?  Perhaps, and as Wright says, these echoes would have been even more clear after Jesus cleanses the Temple in his final week – the same sort of thing Judas did.

Wright suggests three ways at least some of Jewish thinkers understood the problem (Challenge of Jesus, 37).  First, for Jews like the Qumran community withdrawal from society was the best option.  Assuming the standard view of the Qumran community, it appears that this group went out in into the wilderness to “prepare the way of the Lord” by living an ultra-pure life in anticipation of the soon arrival of Messiah.  Second, the opposite was the case for Jews like Herod.  Herod was more or less a Roman, wholeheartedly buying into the a Roman worldview.  Perhaps I would include Josephus here as well, since he seemed to think that the Roman victory over Jerusalem was “God’s will.”  The third view was that of the Zealots, who did not meekly withdraw into the wilderness nor did the compromise.  Rather, like Phineas in the Hebrew Bible or Judas Maccabees, they burned zealously for the traditions of the Jews and took up arms against the Romans.

What was common between the Zealots and the Qumran community, according to Wright, was the belief that the exile would come to an end soon.  God was about to break into history and establish his kingdom in Jerusalem once and for all.  The nations would be converted (or judged) and the whole world would worship at Jerusalem.  While this eschatological view appears in slightly different ways among the various Jewish documents of the Second Temple Period, that God would establish his kingdom and end the exile is as much of a “standard” view as anything in this period.

How does the three-part description of Jewish Expectations help us to understand Jesus’ announcement that the Kingdom of God is “at hand”? Or better, how does this help us understand the idea of a “present kingdom” in Jesus Ministry?

20 thoughts on “The Challenge of the Kingdom (Part 1)

  1. This is not meant to be sarcastic or pointed, but an honest question looking for a good answer: Given the immensity with which the whole Jewish nation missed the intent and meaning of the work of Messiah when He finally came, why would we look to their understanding of what the Kingdom of God was supposed to be about? Wouldn’t it be likely that they missed on that, too? Jesus’ life and mission turned on its head everything they were looking for in Messiah. Why would it be different with “the Kingdom of God”?

    Or do you disagree with the premise of the question?

    • I love any question that begins…”This is not meant to be sarcastic or pointed…” Seriously, I think this is a great question, and one that I want to answer in a separate post (probably on Friday, since tomorrow’s is already in the queue). The short answer: I am not sure the “whole Jewish Nation missed the intent and meaning of the Messiah.” Sure, Jesus is rejected, but at least some elements of STP Judaism understood Jesus as Messiah *after* the resurrection (the Jews at Pentecost), and there are other elements that were close (Pharisees and at least some priests by Acts 15). I think that Qumran is not far, in some respects. The Sadducees and Herodians would be on the far end of the scale of “missing the point of Jesus.”

      More later, great question though.

  2. Both the Qumran community and the Zealots were waiting for God to come and rescue them. They waited for Him to come and set up His Kingdom the way that they wanted it. A third community was those who believed that they should just live as Romans, because God’s will was that Rome take over Jerusalem. But God had a different way of fulfilling the prophecy. He would come to establish His Kingdom, but in a way that any Jew did not expect. Although the Kingdom was not as the Jew expected, it was there with Jesus’ work on the cross when He opened the relationship between God and His people, and a final judgment and peace was near. I believe that Jesus bringing God’s Kingdom to earth was done in a Spiritual sense, more than a physical sense while Jesus was here, and more of the physical sense is yet to come. Jesus said, “It is finished,” (John 19:30) speaking about His work on the cross and it is said that “they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory,” (Mark 13:26) telling us that He is coming back.

  3. Understanding the expectations of the Jews for the Messiah helps us understand the idea of a “present kingdom” in Jesus Ministry. God worked in a way that none of the Jews were expecting, that is why it was necessary for Jesus declaration of the Kingdom to take place. Their hopes had been raised with the coming of Judah the Hammer, Simon Bar-Giora, and Simon the star, only to be dashed upon the failure of these false Messiahs. When Jesus sent out the seventy-two in pairs he told them to, “Whenever you enter a town and they receive you, eat what is set before you. Heal the sick in it and say to them, the kingdom of God had come near to you.” (Luke 10:8-9) I think that it is important to understand that the Jews were expecting a militant revolution, because it wasn’t they needed to be told verbally about the coming of God’s kingdom. Every person they believed to be the Messiah had succeeded in overthrowing the current government for only a short period of time. “He dressed himself in white, with a purple cloak on top, and emerged from hiding all of a sudden on the Temple Mount … He was taken in chains to Titus, the victorious general, and then shipped off to Rome along with thousands of other captives.” (Simply Jesus, pg. 115) Jesus went about it in a different way, a way that was much more potent and beautiful. He healed instead of inciting rebellion, understanding the Jewish expectations helps us to understand Jesus’ declaration that the Kingdom of God is at hand, because the Jews were not expecting the Messiah to come as he did.

  4. When Jesus on his way to Jerusalem to die the disciples anticipated all of Jerusalem bowing down before Him and paying Him homage; instead the Romans bowed before Him mockingly and spit upon Him. The disciples were anticipating a crown of gold; instead he received a crown of thorns. The disciples were anticipating a throne; instead he received a cross. They were looking forward to sitting on his right and left “in His kingdom” instead criminals were hung on His right and left. Such was the hope of Messianic expectations and the kingdom of God to come in full strength. The kingdom of God came, just not in the way the Jews expected. A “spiritual” kingdom came with the hope of the physical kingdom or “consummation” yet to take place in the future. The Jews had their hopes dashed on different occasions with men who were titled with “the king of the Jews” only to see their efforts come to naught. Jesus has ushered in a temporal kingdom but the fulfillment of the physical is yet to anticipated.

  5. Jesus’ message of “the Kingdom” being at hand must have been a strange thing for his followers to hear. Or perhaps it was what they wanted to hear, and some of the other things he said were more of the strange type. To the Jews of this time, waiting for a Messiah to come and conquer their enemies, and over throw their persecutors, at this time the Romans, I don’t think many of Jesus’ sermons would have led many who listened to thinking he was the true Messiah. With Christ preaching to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt 5:44) and to “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s” (Mark 12:17) many Jews probably tilted their heads in confusion. I’m sure that for many Jews, upon hearing Christ say things like this, their minds closed to any chance of him being the Messiah. In fact, like Chris Anderson states above, the disciples seem to have some selective hearing going on, as they do believe Christ is the Messiah, but until the soldiers take him away, it seems they still think Christ will be the conqueror who will over throw the Roman empire. I wonder if when Peter cuts off the ear of the guard in John 18 if he thought that would be the first blood shed in the Revolution that Jesus would start. I wonder how shocked he was when Jesus condemned his action and healed the man who he had wounded. I wonder how many of the disciples would still claim to believe that Jesus was the Messiah as they saw him taken away by guards that night. Or how many would claim it, when they saw him die upon the cross.

  6. “It was to be expected that any such campaign would have (at least) two key ‘moments’: first, the time when the flag was raised, the initial proclamation was made, and the movement was launched, and then the moment when the final battle was won and the Temple rebuilt” ( Wright 116). Wright also mentions when talking about Herod that being ‘king of the Jews’ meant victory. Jews expected the messiah to be the ‘king of the Jews’ who would bring them out of their exile and give them victory. In the same way, the present kingdom would be one of victory in which Jesus Christ raises the flag in victory.
    I would argue that this victory, this raising of the flag is found in Christ’s death and then His resurrection.

    Prophecy was fulfilled in Christ that the victory has been won. Luke 24:46-47 says, “This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.” Through Christ’s death and resurrection, victory has been won over sin. Although it is ironic that the ‘king of the Jews’ would die on a cross and then raise from the dead to proclaim that victory. Surely that would not be expected of the savior and messiah.

  7. “Through Christ’s death and resurrection, victory has been won over sin. Although it is ironic that the ‘king of the Jews’ would die on a cross and then raise from the dead to proclaim that victory. Surely that would not be expected of the savior and messiah.” (Josh B) I really like this quote from Josh, it is amazing that this man, Christ, would come and give himself for us, that we may be saved by Grace, not of anything we do, but by the work of God alone. (Ephesians 2:8)
    We have a savior who could have came and demolished the foes of Israel with the snap of a finger, and began His reign right on the spot, but no, he came, preached love, forgiveness, and died so that we could live. And yet he rose again on the third day and gave us the promise of His Kingdom.
    How much of a shock this must have been to Israel and all who witnessed this event. The way their world was rocked by love and mercy, and yet to reject the messiah. What a crazy event, and yet what a perfect way to set up Israel being those who proclaim the love of God in the End.

  8. I like what Scott says about the expectations of a militant savior. These expectations were made by Israel but Jesus is the ultimate expectations breaker. He always had and has a bigger and better plan. It is important to understand how the three parts went together. There was a thought of withdraw. There was a need for the savior to come and save. The expectations were set that Jesus would be similar to Judas the Hammer but this is not what happened. There was a desire for someone to come and step in right away. Instead Jesus took his time and developed disciples and shared his love with everyone and then did the unexpected of dying on a cross and then rising from the dead.

  9. This post was very interesting at the beginning talking about the relationship between Jesus and the Hammer. Reading the explanation the two sounds similar but that does not justify the fact that Jesus is probably taken out of context when he said the Kingdom is at hand. The three points of the kingdom being at hand was in my mind talking about the Kingdom of Heaven being closely at hand. When Jesus was born the kingdom was finished and a savior was needed to save the people. Jesus preached and healed people while showing them the way of salvation.

  10. Honestly, I find these separate and unique views less than helpful when understanding Jesus and His ministry. When He says, “The kingdom of God is at hand,” it appears, at least to me, that He is not being very clear. Knowing these widely held views about God’s will and Israel’s oppression during the First-Century, you would think He would choose His words more carefully. From reading the gospels we know that many of the Jews thought Jesus to be speaking of a literal revolt against Rome not a battle and victory over sin and death. So my question is: Why not be more clear? Then again, Jesus did speak in parables. All in all, I find it important to understand the different views and to understand that Jesus was very purposeful in what He said and did, I just don’t quite understand it all.

  11. “We must come forward from our earlier glance at the stories of ancient Israel and look very briefly at four men, two before Jesus and two after, whose careers embody something of the same present-and-future tension. That will clear the way to a fresh understanding of what Jesus was really all about” (106 Wright). The story of Israel gives a solid background and sets a good foundation in understanding the Gospels in their right correct context. But as Wright says, these four men (Judah the Hammer, Simon the Star, Herod the Great, Simon Bar-Giora) provide us of an even ‘fresher’ understanding of God. P. Long gave a three part description of Jewish messianic expectations, If you were a Jew in the 1st century, Jesus Christ didn’t exactly meet your initial expectations. These 1st century Jews were waiting for a Messiah who would be “king of the Jews” and they expected cleansing and rebuilding of the Temple. All four men either fought or wanted to fight to receive a worthy title and either restored the Temple or intended to. All these men failed, and according to some Jews, Jesus also failed. But Jesus didn’t conform to their expectations. The expectations he fulfilled were his own and the Father’s. He has a sovereign plan and will be proclaimed king of the Jews and of all peoples by everyone and although the true essence of the law still remains he has fulfilled it with his coming.

  12. “What was common between the Zealots and the Qumran community, according to Wright, was the belief that the exile would come to an end soon.” Even the second view from the Jews–that Rome was supposed to take over Jerusalem–all thought that the Kingdom was soon and they all had expectations or ideas as to how it would happen. This idea helps us realize that God does not always do things the way we expect them to be done but we must read the text and continue to learn and not have expectations or take things into our own hands on how the Kingdom of God is going to come about or when it is going to happen. It also helps us understand that God created a present Kingdom that could be done by no man but buy our God alone and that we can not be a part of that if it was not for Grace.

  13. I can’t get over how Jesus perfectly presents Himself at the perfect time in the best of ways. As Scott previously stated, “..the Jews were expecting a militant revolution..”. But Jesus shatters that expectation the Jews had of Him and gave them a better but more challenging expectation; love. A conqueror to the full extent of the word, but with an over-abundance of love. He came on this earth to free His people, yes, but in which way? In the way that Judah the Hammer did, by force? Or as Simon the Star attempted? Or maybe even how Herod the Great tried to. Though they created an immediate impact, their impact was merely temporary and was washed away within decades after they happened. Jesus, on the other hand, lasted until now and will last forevermore. Why? Because He didn’t come here to adjust Himself to our expectations of Him. He had a plan since the beginning to come and save His people. He could have swiftly brought his enemies down without breaking a sweat. However, He wanted to lead by example and love. The three-part description helps us better understand this since it completely shatters the expectation Jews had of their Savior and grants them the ultimate Savior of them all, Jesus.

  14. The three part description of the Jewish Expectations helps us understand Jesus’ announcement of the Kingdom of God is “at hand” because it can explain why people rejected or accepted Jesus as the true Messiah. In chapter nine of Simply Jesus, N.T. Wright looks at four men whose lives that helps gives us an understanding of Jesus’ life and the Jewish Expectations. N.T. Wright says, “The recitation of expectations has become almost monotonous with repetition; victory over the pagans and cleansing or rebuilding the Temple were high on the list” (116). Wright goes on and mentions that the part of the Jewish expectations was the idea of the temple being rebuilt. The four leaders that Wright mentions all had the idea of getting rid of pagan rule and establishing the temple. One of the four leaders, Simon Bar-Giora, tried to establish the rule over the Jews but failed and was captured. He was paraded around Rome and they celebrated victory the Jews “king” (Wright 115). I thought it was powerful how Wright used this story to explain why “king of the Jews” was put above Jesus’ head (115). Anyways the point is Wright gives four examples of leaders that help us understand the Jewish expectations. This also gives explanations to why and how Jesus was treated at the time. I think that when Jesus announced that God’s Kingdom is “at hand” a lot of people did not know how to react to what Jesus was saying. Take for instant Jesus in Luke 4:14-30. When Jesus said that the scripture was fulfilled and goes on speaking people became furious. Knowing the expectations can help us understand situations in the Bible and help us understand the concept of the Kingdom of God is “at hand.”

  15. I find it interesting with the comparison between Jesus and “the hammer” these are two different people but both were revolutionary and came to make a change. The people expected for Jesus to be a lot different then what he was. They thought he was going to be a militant leader, like said above. He came to be revolutionary, but he surprised everyone by being the opposite. Everyone had there expectations for what was bound to happen the Zealots and the Qumran new that the this exile would come to an end, like said in the article God was to break into history and establish his kingdom.

  16. Just wanted to say bravo Chris. Very nicely done.

    The revolving theme between the three groups presented, seems to be a bit selfish. For the Qumran, withdrawal from society seemed like the best option. Moving away,and separating themselves to live an ultra pure life in preparation for the Messiah. Shouldn’t it be a goal to live life in an “ultra pure” way? Why just in preparation for the Messiah? Kind of like they to catch up, and cut weight before the wrestling competition. Second Jew like Herod who bought into the Roman lifestyle because them thought victory over Jerusalem was “God’s will”. Seem shallow to me. Roman lifestyle, victory over Jerusalem… Alright I will become a Roman! And then the Zealots took up arms against the Romans to fight them. All of the people saw the coming kingdom in way a conquering king or military leader comes and conquers a land and the inhabitants and establish rule over them people and starts a new kingdom. In other words a physical kingdom establish by power and force. So the idea of a “present kingdom” in Jesus’s ministry was that of a spiritual kingdom. Preparing the people for a physical kingdom that has yet to come. God has never done things in the way we have thought them best to be done. Probably because just like the Qumran, the Zealots, and Romans, we are usually wrong.

  17. I liked the direction that David Steentra was going with his post. I want to elaborate a little more on where I think he was going. With the coming of the kingdom, how it was at hand and it was then there because of the Life of Jesus. I think that we get so focused on the gospel that sometimes we forget about how interesting it is that Jesus fulfilled the kingdom and we are now awaiting the returning of God to establish his final kingdom on earth. That fascinates me so much, just thinking about how God’s plan is already in motion to the point that his coming could be at any point!

    I think the more we study the life of Jesus, we can better understand the “kingdom which was at hand” in the moment where Jesus was on earth teaching and preaching. Jesus was saving people and raising them from the dead, I do not know how obvious he needed to be at that point to show that the kingdom was then there.

  18. With things like this, it is always important to keep culture and history in mind. We have to be careful about not allowing our current worldviews effect the meaning and how it was interpreted back then. The Jews at the time, were not expecting Jesus to come–at that time or in the way He did. They were anticipating an all out entry, basically to conquer and destroy and over throw the other powers. So when that did not happen, and they say Jesus healing the sick and loving the broken, they naturally assumed that even though He claimed to be the Son of God, He had to be lying because that was not the way He was going to come to establish His Kingdom. So even though Jesus said that the “Kingdom of God is at hand,” they could not believe it because He was not establishing the Kingdom in the way they thought He was going to. Instead He came humbly, serving the poor and eating with the sinners (Mark 10:45). I like the way Scott put it when he said that the way Jesus came was beautiful–it was even more beautiful because He did not come in the way the Jews were expecting; He came in a way that still showed us how we should act and live.

  19. The three-part description of Jewish Expectations help us to understand Jesus’ announcement that the Kingdom of God is “at hand” by giving us a clearer perspective on what the message would have meant to the people around Jesus at the time. It gives us an inside perspective into how Jesus fit into the world historically, politically, and culturally, and the implications his ministry had on all of those. The Jewish world that Jesus came into was divided into those three main expectations, and when Jesus says the Kingdom is at hand each of them would have understood it differently. Jesus was making a revolutionary announcement by saying God’s Kingdom had come. The parallel that Wright draws between Jesus and Judas Maccabees is a powerful one. The Jewish people undoubtedly saw the parallel in their own day with Jesus and Judas. Judas, however, had failed to bring in a utopia, and had set up a far from perfect kingdom. The Hasmoneans had failed to meet the expectations. When Jesus announced the Kingdom of God, it was very different. There was not triumphal battle, nor was there an end to the pagan kingdom. Yet, Jesus had proclaimed that the Kingdom of God was “at hand”. It was revolutionary, different, almost unbelievable, yet many followed him anyway, and the battle and victory had yet to come, When Jesus died, his disciples went away and it seemed as though their hopes were dashed. However, Jesus’ resurrection is a sign that it did not end with his death and the kingdom is here now but not yet fully.

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