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What Did Jesus Mean by Kingdom?

All sorts of people have weighed in on this question and I have not read them all nor do I mean to suggest I have understood all I have read. However, I think I see what Jesus was up to when he declared, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe the gospel” (Mark 1:15). Of the fifty-one times the term “kingdom of God” is used in the gospels, chronologically this would be the very first. John the Baptizer had been arrested and Jesus is described by Mark as having come “into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God.”

“…the gospel of God.” Why that phrase? We just say, “the gospel.” Although there is nothing like unanimity on the subject, many scholars – maybe even most – hold that Mark was the first gospel writer and that the book was addressed to a Roman, i.e., a Latin/Italian audience. Even if the book was written in Greece or Macedonia, the modifier “of God.” was needed because there were so many “gospels” around, including the popular and dominant gospel, the good news of the Pax Romana, the universal belief that the first Caesar Augustus, Julius Caesar’s adopted son, Octavian, had saved the whole world from chaos by defeating Marcus Antonius in battle and by becoming the emperor of the whole civilized world.

So in Jesus’ day, if you said, “the gospel,” everyone would assume you meant the cult of the emperors, the rulers who had brought “peace and security” to the world. So Mark’s new gospel needed modifiers to distinguish it, like, “of God.”

Can you see why Jesus’ proclamation of the glad tidings of God was good news in Israel? Can you see why most Jews would be attracted to the news that after waiting for centuries, all the prophecies were due to be fulfilled in their time and the kingdom of God was coming at last? What had been a very good deal for a handful of Romans had been just propaganda for everyone else, just promises of the sort Herbert Hoover made in the U.S. Presidential Campaign of 1928. Hoover had promised “…a chicken in every pot!” But, in the stage version of the musical Annie, a group of homeless people, circa., 1933 disagree. They sing as they warm themselves around a small fire:

In ev’ry pot he said “a chicken”
But Herbert Hoover he forgot
Not only don’t we have the chicken
We ain’t got the pot!

The imperial Pax Romana was a good deal for the elite few, for the 5% who were Roman citizens and the upper-class clients of the emperors. But for “barbarians” like those away out in Israel? Not so much. So, yes, the people of Israel would be excited to hear that their God, after centuries of waiting, was about to act! That was good news, for sure!

Jesus Was Marketing His Message

Except for what…? Except that what Jesus was saying about the kingdom and what the people were hearing were essentially two different messages. When the average Jew in Galilee heard that the time was up and God’s kingdom was right there, in their faces, he thought about David, the conquering king who fought everyone from Philistia to Moab, David, who had killed his ten-thousands! When they thought, “Good news! The kingdom of God is coming!” they were thinking of a long-awaited Melech – that’s Hebrew for king – who would raise a massive resurrection army of heroes, who would throw out the corrupt Jewish officials in Jerusalem and then drive those Roman losers into the Adriatic Sea!

Was that what Jesus was thinking? No. Did Jesus know what they thought he meant by “Good news, the kingdom is in your face! So, get happy!”? Did Jesus know? Sure he did.

Which means Jesus was marketing, he was shaping his message to match his audience, using a phrase that would attract maximum immediate attention. Does that mean Jesus was being dishonest? No, he was just following his own fine advice:

Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves. (Matthew 10:16)

In this passage, Jesus sends his disciples out to proclaim the kingdom, to heal people of diseases, to drive out demons and to prepare the people of Galilee for his own visit to their towns. But Jesus cautions his guys to be very smart about what they say and do not say.

Jesus Was on the Down-low

Notice, Jesus cautioned people not to tell others of his healing. And he proclaimed the kingdom but he never called himself the “melech.” To do so would have gotten him arrested way ahead of schedule. Jesus did not even call himself “messiah” (anointed), the Hebrew word which referred to anyone who had been set aside to an important office, usually that of prophet, priest or king, by pouring oil upon the head in a ceremonial fashion. The Jews used the word “messiah” to refer to the great king who was coming who would make things right in Israel but they used the word in secret because the authorities knew what it meant. John’s people cannot even ask Jesus if he is the messiah. They must ask, “are you the expected one?”[1]

Under the Shadow of an Empire… Again!

Why was it so dangerous to even whisper about the messiah? Because a full generation before Jesus, a man who was favored by the Romans and who wanted to be the king of the Jews had made a pact with Rome. As king he would recognize the lordship of Rome over Israel. He would be the Roman’s vassal, their client. His name was Herod; he called himself “the Great.” When Herod died and his son Archelaus turned out to be an even worse king than Herod, the Jewish leadership of Jerusalem accepted direct Roman rule if the Romans would get rid of Archelaus. That meant, of course, that Judea and Samaria, the areas directly ruled by Archelaus, became a part of the Roman empire and the Jews promised to have no king but Caesar. And even if a person was in Galilee, ruled by Herod’s son Antipas, no one talked out loud about anybody becoming an anointed (messiah) king (melech). To talk like that was treason. We have to understand; the danger was very real.

Jesus Knew a Storm Was Coming Soon

Jesus knew what the people hoped for. He also knew he meant more by the words, “kingdom of God” than they did and he knew he had only a short time in which to reeducate them about the values and priorities of the kingdom which God was actually establishing very soon. And he had to do all that without attracting too much official attention. And so Jesus taught them strange stories about the kingdom, parables they often could not understand. He also warned that if they did not sign up with this strange new kingdom they were going to seriously be brought low with the old kingdom idea still trapped in their heads.

In Jesus and the Victory of God N. T. Wright lays out a long list of the truly dangerous and subversive statements and stories which are attributed to Jesus in the three synoptic gospels. He then remarks, “This, by any reckoning, is a pretty devastating catalog of threats and warnings.”[2] I personally have wondered how Jesus lasted so long in his ministry in Galilee, given the things he was saying. I suspect Jesus managed to survive by staying one step ahead of his enemies, by never staying too long in any one place, by ducking across the Lake of Tiberius (Sea of Galilee) now and then and by getting out of town entirely whenever his message brought his opponents to a boiling point. All these actions show up in the gospel accounts.

Jesus Brings a Sharp, Two-Edged Sword

Jesus was preaching a kingdom which would either mean the restoration of Israel to glorious days surpassing those of David and Solomon or it would bring Israel crashing down to nothing at all. In a certain sense, his message accomplished both.

No Conclusion!

I feel like I have gotten about half-way through a big point here but I have already written enough for one post. I am nowhere close to getting to Paul’s use of the term “kingdom” or Paul’s use of “gospel.” That may take a while but it is where I will head eventually.

Next time, let’s see if I can just finish what I have started on what Jesus meant by the kingdom of God and why he called it “good news.”

Comments? Suggestions? Questions? I am all ears!

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Endnotes

1 Back to Post Matthew 11:3; Luke 7:19
2 Back to Post Wright, N. T. Jesus and the Victory of God (Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 1996), page 184.

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