Messianic Expectations and the Kingdom

In order to understand how a first century Jewish audience might have understood the phrase “kingdom of heaven” or “kingdom of God” is to examine messianic expectations from the Second Temple Period. This background should shed some light on the phrase “kingdom of God.”

A former student of mine once asked something like, “If the Jews misunderstood Jesus completely why would we care about their understanding of what the “kingdom of God” was supposed to be about?” If Jesus’ life and mission turned everything on its head, perhaps Jewish expectations are the opposite of what Jesus means by the kingdom. I find this an intriguing question, especially since N. T. Wright gives the impression that the Jewish leaders had many things correct and only slightly misunderstood Jesus announcement that he was the Messiah.

Not the Messiah

One possible way to answer this objection is to properly understand Judaism in the first century.  Like modern Christianity, the list of items “all Jews agree on” is fairly short. Hopes for a future Kingdom and the role of the Messiah in that kingdom varied greatly among the various sub-groups within Judaism. I heard students say things like, “all Jews believed the messiah would be a military leader who would attack Rome.” I suppose that is true for some Jews, but not all. At Qumran the Essenes appear to have expected a “military messiah,” but also a priestly messiah who would reform the Temple.

Pharisees seem to have expected a messiah and they were certainly the most interested in Jesus’ preaching of the Kingdom in the Gospels. It is likely that the Psalms of Solomon reflect the view of the Pharisees. Psalms of Solomon 17 serves as an indication of messianic expectations which were current only shortly before the time of Jesus. Rome is viewed as a foreign invader who will be removed when the messiah comes. If these sorts of messianic expectations were popular in Galilee in the early first century, then we have good reason to read Jesus’ teaching as intentionally messianic and we are able to understand some of the confusion and disappointment among the Jews who heard him teach.

Consider the motives Judas may have had when he betrayed Jesus. If he believed things similar to Ps.Sol 17, then it is possible he was trying to “force Messiah’s hand” into striking out against Rome and the Temple establishment. Jesus seemed to be claiming to be the Messiah, but he did not seem to be the Davidic messiah expected in Ps.Sol 17.

On the other end of the scale would be the Sadducees, a group that (as far as we know) had no messianic expectations. The fact that they limited their canon to the Torah also limited their expectations of a future restoration of the Davidic kingdom. What would a Sadducee think when Jesus announced “the kingdom of God is near”? Perhaps that was enough to identify him as Pharisee or an Essene, and therefore not very interesting. (I would guess that the Herodians were even less interested in a coming kingdom, since any Jewish messiah would probably start their judgment with a thorough smiting of Herod and his family.)

This is all to say that there was a wide range of belief about Messiah, Kingdom, restoration of David’s rule, or a future reign of God in the Judaism of the Second Temple Period. I think it serves to show that Jesus did not fit neatly into any first century conception of Messiah or Kingdom, which is exactly why audience struggled to understand him, both disciples and enemies. But are there additional benefits to understanding the “Kingdom of God” in the light of the Jewish literature of the Second Temple Period? Perhaps there are other elements of Jesus’ life and teaching that would benefit from this contextual approach.

11 thoughts on “Messianic Expectations and the Kingdom

  1. Good article. It took Jesus to explain the true meaning of the Torah prophets oracles concerning the rule of Messiah. We now know that the Kingdom of God/Heaven is spiritual, it is within the heart, it is universal without physical borders, and its Temple is made of “Living Stones”. The throne of David is in the New Jerusalem (spiritual) on Mt. Zion which is in heaven and on which Jesus sits at the right hand of the Father.

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  2. We benefit greatly from understanding that Jesus does not match any expectations perfectly that different groups, religious or not, had in the first century about the coming Messiah. I want to look deeper at what you pointed out in your third paragraph, Professor Long. You mentioned Essenes seem to be looking for both a military and priestly messiah to come; two messiahs. This seems to be the case, as Strauss does an excellent job expanding on this subject, “the Qumran sectarians looked for two messiahs, a military-political one from the line of David and a priestly messiah from the line of Aaron” (Strauss, 140). He goes on to describe the different characteristics of these messiahs on the same page.
    Because of these expectations, the Jews didn’t realize what was going on or who Jesus was. This confusion is observed in John 10:30-33, where the Jews are threatening the stone Jesus for claiming to be God. Many of these expectations came from the prophets before Jesus. It is admirable how diligent they were in seeking the Messiah and comparing who He would be like in accordance with scripture. But when the Messiah came He was not who they expected. It begs the question: how would have History unfolded had Jesus fulfilled the expectations of the Jews?

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  3. I believe that we can benefit from understanding the expectations of the Jewish people, religious leaders, and romans. From your last paragraph, “I think it serves to show that Jesus did not fit neatly into any first century conception of Messiah or Kingdom, which is exactly why audience struggled to understand him, both disciples and enemies.” I believe that it puts who God truly is into perspective. Every Christian has an idea of the nature of God, and who He is. In a similar way to the times of Jesus, they all had tradition and their own personal belief of what the Messiah might look like, and then Jesus came totally destroyed all of their expectations.
    On page 140 of Strauss it explains what the different religious groups expected of the Messiah. The Sadducees were not expecting a Messiah, the Samaritans were expecting a Moses like deliverer, the Qumran were looking for two deliverers; a military and a priestly, and other groups had other expectations. They all had access to study the Law, and yet they all had misinterpretations. Jesus came and explained in Matthew 5:17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have not come to abolish them, but to fulfill them.” Which infers that the people of His time simply had a misunderstanding of what the Law and the Prophets were saying about the Messiah. Even though we have more resources today, there are still so many opinions on the Kingdom of God, and everyone thinks there opinion is right. I believe that when Jesus does return we are going to be in a similar state. We’re going to be in complete awe of God’s true nature.

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  4. I think it is increasingly important to understand what the religious leaders of Jesus’ time were expecting Him to be. If we are given these examples then we are better able to understand what He is not and what He actually is without having to make that mistake ourselves. We learn from the past and thus we can have greater faith for what we do believe in! It seems understandable that they would assume that Jesus was going to be a military or at least a present messiah, meaning that he would save the people in a physical way, instead of a spiritual way. This is especially true after reading the Psalms of Solomon 17:21-25. After reading that it’s hard not to think of Jesus as a physical king, leading his people out of their “bondage” to the Romans. Yet, even then, like you’ve said Professor Long, their views of the messiah even varied amongst the religious leaders. Strauss states that, “while the expectation of a messiah from David’s line was widespread among first-century Jews, it was not universal. Even, like you said, the Sadducees weren’t expecting a messiah (which is a sad thought, if you ask me). Thank God, that he did not live up to these people’s expectations, but rather chose to die for us and save us from our eternal judgement for our sins. Even today, we can see that mankind varies in their view of Jesus and those views define who we are and the faith we have. Perhaps that is a big reason why we have different denominations and so many different churches. Many of us haven’t learned from the past religious sects and have chosen to be stubborn in our ways (which I admit at times is a good thing based on the theology of people). To conclude, regardless of what the religious sects believed about Jesus, we need to be sure that we understand who Jesus actually was amongst the conflicting views and more importantly understand what that means for us today as we seek to glorify and follow Him.

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  5. It is interesting reading your post and what Strauss had to say too about what people thought the Messiah was going to look like. Reading Strauss he said, “The most widespread messianic hope in the first century was for the Davidic Messiah the coming king from David’s line who would destroy Israel’s oppressors, reestablish her independence and reign forever on David’s throne” (Strauss 139). Really thinking about it and putting myself in their shoes I would have thought the same way. Being under the Roman government and hearing about this Messiah who will come and release my bondage from the Roman government I would except someone that would destroy the Romans and have myself and my group, rather that be Samaritans, or Pharisees, would set us free by being physical and literally destroying the Romans. I would have never guessed that the Messiah would be more spiritual than physical way. With knowing that now it is able to help us grow in our faith more and leaning on Jesus more during our struggles and know that Jesus was not a one-time Messiah, but that he will be back.

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  6. Jesus certainly did not fit the cultural expectations or, “conception of Messiah or Kingdom, which is exactly why audience struggled to understand him, both disciples and enemies.” (P. Long, Messianic Expectations and the Kingdom) In turn this DID confuse many of the first century Jews in their understanding of the Kingdom of God, but this concept has many benefits in understanding the Gospel. In Matthew 12:28 Jesus states that, “But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.” So this Kingdom then is not just a physical kingdom but a spiritual one that can be inhabited into the heart. Jesus is often confusing when referring to the KOG but we can pull out many universal truths from this concept as it helps us get back to the basics of the Gospel.

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  7. I think what you said in the last paragraph of Jesus not fitting neatly into any first century conception of the Messiah or Kingdom was very important in understanding this. The people listening to Jesus speak had a hard time understanding him, there is a lot of room to speculate, but it just seems to make sense that they did not understand because Jesus did not fit what they were expecting or thinking. I think there are additional benefits to understanding what the Kingdom of God in the light of the Jewish lit of the Second Temple Period was. Understanding context and where people are coming from is so important, I think the benefits of knowing are great.

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  8. If we think about the expectations that the Jews had, we realize that they kind of put the coming Messiah into a box. They believed that He was going to be the Messiah that ‘they needed’. Also, their interpretation of what the coming Messiah was going to be like was completely based on the interpretation of scripture and prophesies. Obviously if a large amount of people are reading through scripture and are listening to prophecies of the coming Savior, there is not going to be a general consensus of what the Son of God is going to be like. There will be several different interpretations, ideas, and expectations due entirely to who we ask and what their background is… Needless to say, when Jesus came, people were hesitant, afraid, not necessarily happy, because He was not what they expected or desired.

    I believe that there is some merit to approaching the “Kingdom of God” from the Jewish perspective of the Second Temple Period. By delving into the different perspectives from differing people groups, (i.e. the Pharisees, Sadducees, Herodians, etc…) , we can gain a greater understanding of the weight behind what Jesus said to the people in that time period. The severity of the words that were preached, and also a more in depth look at the reason for the conflict between Jesus and the people.

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  9. With some exceptions, most Jews in the first-century had an anticipation “for the coming of an ‘anointed one’ or a ‘messiah’ who would act on God’s behalf to set up a just and righteous kingdom on earth” (Strauss, 139). Many Jews anticipated this would be a Davidic Messiah that would crush those who oppressed the Jews and would reign over the unified nation of Israel once again. Others expected a “Moses-like deliverer” or a “priestly messiah from the line of Aaron” (Strauss, 140). Yet many were puzzled by Jesus, who seemed like He could be the Messiah, yet did not usher in the kind of kingdom that was expected.

    When we understand what the first-century Jews were expecting in a Messiah (or Messiahs), we can more intelligently understand why Jesus spoke about the Kingdom the way that He did. Knowing that those around Him had an inaccurate view of the Kingdom (at least to an extent) would have motivated Jesus to help change their perspective. Jesus uses phrases such as “the Kingdom of God is like…” (Mark 4:26,30) to help paint a new picture of what His ministry was all about.

    It is interesting to see how, regardless of the pressures from the culture around Him, Jesus did not conform Himself to the expectations that others placed upon Him. He certainly knew that many of the Jews around Him grossly misunderstood His purpose and mission and what exactly it meant for Him to be the Messiah.

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