We may therefore safely conclude that Jesus habitually went from village to village, speaking of the kingdom of the God of Israel, a celebrating this kingdom in various ways, not least in sharing meals with all and sundry. These actions and words must therefore be seen not as incidental behaviour, irrelevant to his worldview or mindset, but as part at least of the praxis through which we can bring his worldview into focus N. T. Wright Jesus and the Victory of God (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1996) 150.
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.
Wright suggests three ways at least some of Jewish thinkers understood the problem (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 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.
Jesus appears in Galilee announcing the kingdom of God is at hand.” (Mark 1:14-15). The “Kingdom” is so commonplace those of us in the church that it has lost any rhetorical “punch” it once had. “Kingdom” has become an overworked metaphor or a theological fighting point. But we are not the people to whom that announcement was originally addressed. In the synoptic gospels, John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness, using language drawn from the great kingdom passages of the Old Testament, then Jesus preached that the Kingdom was at hand – and that it was actually present! To those Jews living in the first century, under the oppression of Roman rule, especially in Galilee — the Kingdom of God was a radical, even revolutionary idea. It was the hope of many Jews that God would establish the kingdom immediately, and the Messiah would come to end the long exile of his people.
Is Wright’s view of the “kingdom” different than the use of the phrase in popular preaching? What do people mean when they use phrases like “building the kingdom” or “working for the kingdom”? How is this related to what Jesus was teaching? (Or, is it related at all to the teaching of Jesus?)