What exactly is this “Kingdom” Jesus speaks of?
On May 2nd, 2011, the news broke. Osama Bin Laden had been killed for his role in the September 11th, 2001, attacks on U.S. soil. The reception of this news for many was marked with euphoria, joy, and deep seated—decade long—emotions of revenge. The masses gathered in front of the White House in celebration with liturgy of song and chant. The singing of “God Bless the U.S.A” as well as the repetitious and synchronized yelling of “Rot in Hell.” Many interviewed in the streets were speechless in their attempts to communicate their relief. In watching these interviews, it was easy to see a disturbing and shocking trend woven throughout their thinking: God’s approval.
In the following months details began to come forward from the “situation room” where the president and other cabinet members watched the operation play out. We were told that if the mission were successful and Bin Laden was captured dead or alive a code word would be given, “Geronimo.” What was said through satellite communications to the President that night was, “For God and Country, Geronimo, Geronimo, Geronimo.” There it was again.
Following that night over ten years ago now I had many conversations with fellow brothers and sisters in Christ about the subtle tension I and others were feeling. It was a disturbing tension I could not remove myself from: rejoicing over the death of another while simultaneously invoking the name of God and His approval. It just didn’t feel right though I did understand it’s origin. I battled in my own flesh the emotions of satisfaction that this man received what my flesh felt he deserved. However, deep-seated within me is an ethic of love and non-violence formed by the teachings of Jesus which challenged those emotions.
Nonetheless, I struggled to see how invoking God’s blessing over this action differentiated us from those who also perpetrated these attacks in the name of their own god. But it was one comment from an individual that stands above everything I had seen on T.V. After graciously putting up with my long discourse regarding what I felt to be so un-Christlike and un-befitting for Jesus followers in celebrating the death of Bin Laden, a friend said to me, “I felt like what happened was just. It was a win for the Kingdom of God.”
Really? A win for the Kingdom? I could not believe that someone I had trusted and admired as a mature student of the Scriptures would say something like this. I was determined to seek out a fresh understanding of the Kingdom of God in response to his statement. Since that moment to the present, I have come to realize this may be the most important area to grapple with for the modern church. Judging from that one conversation to many others I have had as a leader in the Church I have also realized it might be one of the most diluted and misunderstood aspects of Jesus’ message. If the Church has any hope at all in displaying the awe-inspiring wonder, beauty, and creativity of the Gospel—we must go backwards before we can go forwards. We must do the hard work of recovering the width and depth of what the Kingdom of God meant to Jesus as well as those who came before him.
When looking at the New Testament it is beyond clear that the central fulcrum on which his entire message swings is this very topic. The Kingdom is, as Bruce Chilton says, “…the center of Jesus’ message both as a fact and as a mystery.” If this is true, which I believe it is, then how this message is understood and conveyed is of the utmost importance in our desire to bring profound hope and truth to an unbelieving world. These noble aspirations unfortunately will never come to fruition if this Kingdom message is not embraced in its right context. Failure to do so can and is already resulting in a crisis of identity for the Church and her mission.
Thankfully there is hope. A fresh re-understanding of the Kingdom opens the doors for both disciples and churches to reemerge as beacons of light and substantial hope in a weary and worn culture. Again, Chilton states, “But if it is true in general terms that we can know Jesus, then it must be possible to understand what he stood for…the Kingdom of God, is conveyed to us powerfully within the gospels. They invite us to share the power of that vision.” If our pursuit is to know Jesus and his central message thereby becoming faithful disciples and Churches, then our journey, as already stated, must go backward before it can go forward.
What did “Kingdom” Mean Before Jesus? Was it Original to Jesus?
Often where there is a lack of clarity in any topic the result is almost always due to vague and incomplete explanations. This same truth could be applied to our endeavor in seeking to understand what Jesus, in Mark 1:15 as well as John the Baptist in Matthew 3:1, are seeking to convey when they both respectively declared this coming Kingdom. We are wise to assume that this understanding of a kingdom was widespread at the time within early Judaism thus contributing to a lack of need to spell it out in detail. However, this does not mean we are left in the dark. We are still able to comb through the Old Testament as well as literature within Second Temple Judaism to ascertain a firm understanding of what this phrase meant as well as the emotion it evoked when declared.
Beginning first from the Old Testament we see a complete absence of the phrase “Kingdom of God” however there is present a certain “kingly” rule that is often mentioned. The language is used to describe earthly kingdoms throughout Judah and Israel to “denote a territory or politically organized unit under monarchial rule (e.g., Gen. 10:10; Num. 32:33).” Related but still an offshoot of this would be found in 1 Chron. 28:5 and 2 Chron. 13:8 where the phrase “Kingdom of Yahweh” occurs. However, to be fair we need to differentiate between the relationship of the two above. The implied “Kingdom of Yahweh” was not synonymous to the “kingdom of Israel.” Dennis C. Duling rightly communicates that even though Israel adapted near eastern ideas of divine kingship for the earthly king, God and the king were not identical; the god/king of the world was also the god/king over the people of Israel, and therefore superior to any earthly ‘divine king.’ Correspondingly, there was also tension between these two kingdoms.
This tension continued through Israel’s history through the time of the prophets and well into the era of Second Temple Judaism. This becomes especially clear when we leaf through the late prophetic book of Daniel. Though it is found within the canonical Old Testament it deserves to be treated in the next portion looking into the literature of the Second Temple period due to its dating of ca. 165 B.C.E.
The book of Daniel has long been used when talking about Jesus’ conception of the Kingdom and his own eschatology because of Daniel 7 and its corresponding usage by Jesus in Matthew 24:30 and 26:64 as well as Mark 14:62. It could be said that Daniel 7 and the “Son of Man” phrasing is a favorite saying of Jesus. But what exactly do these connections mean? Up to this time in history there was a clear separation between the secular kingdoms of humans and the Kingdom of Yahweh even if the former was led by a client king. But in Daniel 7:13 where it is prophesied that “One like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven… to the Ancient One and was presented before him.” we see a major shift. Obviously, this is a serious departure from a human client king.
What is represented in Daniel 7 can be described as a continuation of development regarding the eschatology from within Judaism. In his masterful study of the Kingdom of God, G.R. Beasley-Murray rightly summarizes that this vision of Daniel “accords a prime place to the coming of Yahweh to subdue evil and to deliver his people.” This coming and arrival of “one like a human being” should be kept in its proper category as a theophany. This is God showing up on the scene in both a redemptive and punitive sense. To the faithful within Judaism the one who is coming on the “clouds of heaven” is meant to symbolize consolation to the people of God. This is the ushering in of a heavenly Kingdom led by a “human-like” individual. Murray states that this individual is representative of God and his sovereignty over the world. The desire of Daniel is to place in juxtaposition both earthly and heavenly kingdoms. In doing so he makes it clear that the origin of this Kingdom is from above. Martin J. Selman synthesizes this prophecy of Daniel and its implication for how this era of Judaism viewed the coming Kingdom as something God will give his everlasting Kingdom to Men [and Women]. Although human kingdoms arising from the earth are doomed to failure, God does not in consequence keep his Kingdom for himself and his untainted angels…. The Kingdom of God will be given to ‘the holy ones, the people of the Most High’ (Dan. 7:18, 27), and to ‘one like a son of man.’
This development within Daniel 7 represents an emerging eschatology consonant with other examples in surrounding literature. Paying attention to a small sampling out of many will help our goal of understanding the development of the Kingdom of God theme from the Old Testament through to the time of Jesus in the first century C.E.
1 Enoch and the Book of Watchers (1 En. 1-36) contain clear statements which reflect a belief that the elect people of God, including those who are resurrected will live in a final state with God whose throne is situated upon a mountain. He will be known as a King of Kings, Eternal King, and King of the Universe. The core writings from Enoch which represent this are found in 9:4; 25:7; 12:3; 25:3-5, and 27:3. Outside of the Book of Watchers other elements of similar beliefs regarding the Kingdom can be found in the “Book of Dreams,” “Animal Apocalypse,” “Apocalypse of Weeks,” and the “Book of Similitudes.” As Duling makes clear, in 1 Enoch God is called King and the Son of Man is a king/messiah. The book of Enoch along with the prophecy of Daniel represent a unique turn from the Old Testament and it’s understanding of the Kingdom.
Another example can be found in the Testament of Moses which is dated around the Maccabean period down through to the time of Jesus. In 10:1,3-4 it reads as the following
And then His Kingdom shall appear throughout all His creation, and then Satan shall be no more, and sorrow shall depart with him…. For the Heavenly One will arise from His royal throne, and he will go forth from His holy habitation with indignation and wrath on account of His sons. And the earth shall tremble; to its confines shall it be shaken; and the high mountains shall be made low and the hills shall be shaken and fall.
This text holds three elements that give us a window into the apocalyptic nature of the Kingdom and how this points to Jesus’ own understanding. First, we see the appearance or revelation of a divine Kingdom impacting all the earth. Is this not the connotation we read from Jesus’ first declaration of ministry in Mark 1:15? The usage of ἤγγικεν regarding ἡ βασιλεία τοῦθεοῦ in Mark 1:15 gives the impression that this Kingdom has either arrived or is on the precipice of arrival. Could it be that Jesus is flowing in this same stream of thought regarding the arrival of God’s Kingdom? More on this verse shortly. Second, this apocalyptic Kingdom is one that will be in direct opposition with Satan. In Luke 11:18 Jesus gives a line of demarcation between the kingdom of Satan and the Kingdom of God. Joel Green communicates that “Jesus thus positions the work of exorcism within the larger matrix of the struggle between the dominion of Satan and the dominion of God.” Lastly, the phrase “high mountains shall be made low” is significant to our knowledge of what the Kingdom was expected to usher in. The immersion of Isaiah 40 in the messaging of John the Baptist in Luke 3 along with this verse from the Testament of Moses makes clear that there are kingly expectations of equity and justice being dispersed with the coming reign of the One from Daniel 7.
By only looking at three examples from this era of Second Temple Judaism we can be confident of a few things. There was an already implanted understanding of a coming King who would be other worldly as seen in Daniel 7. In addition to this was a deep hope that one day the righteous will experience a new Kingdom marked by justice and equity led by a transcendent Lord of lords and God of gods, and King of kings. Enoch seeks to capture all of this when speaking of Kingly rule or the Kingdom of God as a whole. The Testament of Moses showcases what can be found in many other writings of this time. Namely, a line between the righteous and the evil as well as Satan and God. All of these common expectations, hopes, and tensions were part of the economy of religion in this era where a definitive concept of “good vs. evil” is apparent.
Another collection of writings from this era which give us a glimpse into the cultural thinking of the Kingdom of God were discovered in the caves at Qumran commonly called the “Dead Sea Scrolls.” The importance of these diverse writings cannot be overstated enough in terms of their importance for understanding Jesus in his own context. Scot McKnight explains that Jesus’ life and thinking took place within a diverse Judaism where there “options were many and orthodoxies were few.” He further argues that Jesus and his thinking must be observed while keeping in mind the many complex societal communities of his day, especially the “sectarian Essenism of the Dead Sea Scrolls.” Another noted scholar who would agree is James H. Charlesworth. On the similarities between Jesus and the Essenes he writes that they possessed the following:
the same territory and race; they were devout, religious, conservative, and anti-Gentile. They struggled against common enemies…were close to some Pharisees, were animated by the belief that God was about to bring to fruition his promises and were apocalyptically and eschatologically oriented.”
Within the large collection of writings found at Qumran the language and context of the Kingdom of God is well attested. For the present study we will focus on two primary areas: The War Scroll (1QM) and the Rule of Blessings (1QSb) due to their apocalyptic and eschatological orientation. Both scrolls highlight the thinking of the Essene community as it pertains to the reign of God in their time and space as well as the ethical implications of this coming Kingdom.
In 1QM 12:8 we see God being called “King of Honor” and “King of Kings” in 14:6. Around the portion where King of Kings can be found there is also an eschatological focus on a future kingdom being within Israel which will be established by the priestly prince of the congregation. It is a kingdom where justice, peace, and a refined or renewed gathering of worshippers in a new Temple will manifest. 1QM 13:10 could easily have been the ideological atmosphere where many would be messiahs found their footing: “From of old you appointed the prince of light to assist us, and in […] and all the spirits of truth are under his dominion.” The scroll reads like an anticipatory piece of literature marking out clearly who is righteous and who is not. The focus is on the eschatological reign of God that will soon be breaking in with the fighting of the “Sons of light vs. darkness.” (1Qm 1:11) The similarities thus far ought to be evident. The lines of demarcation as well as polemical language found here can also be found in the tone of Jesus and John the Baptist.
The Rule of Blessings, though different from the War Scroll, gives a similar perspective on the eschatological Kingdom that is yet to break in. Our focus from this scroll is the “Prince of the Congregation.” In 1QSb 5:20-22 the prince will receive a special blessing from the Master which will confer upon the prince certain eschatological actions.
The prince of the congregation… and shall renew for him the covenant of the community for him to establish the Kingdom of his people forever, [to judge the poor with justice] to reproach the humble of the earth with uprightness, to walk in perfection before him on all his paths.
In this text we again see a focus on the ethical dimensions of the coming one. Both the War and Blessing Scroll illustrate something obvious: the time and era was ripe for an individual to come and dip their toes into the apocalyptic and eschatological pressure cooker which was continuing to grow by the day while Palestine was under Rome’s rule.
Part 1 in Summary
In summary we can confidently see that: (1) the Old Testament had an understanding of the Kingdom of God that was connected to earthly kingdoms and client kings. There was tension brewing within the desires of the Kingdom of Yahweh in comparison with the kingdom of man, however, these references are scarce. So where did this development arise of a Kingdom that was to break in apocalyptically or eschatologically? (2) While Daniel (especially Daniel 7) is found within the Old Testament, for our purposes we included it in the framework of Second Temple Judaism due to its late dating. Within Daniel we see an expectation of a savior who is coming to establish a Kingdom in the here and now. As stated by Murray above, the vision accords a prime place in the vision and expectation of Yahweh who will subdue evil and redeem his people. The juxtaposition Daniel creates between two kingdoms in the Old Testament continues until “One like the Son of Man” comes from above. (3) In examining the Pseudepigrapha we can observe similar imagery and language in that of Daniel.
There is a coming one, an establishment of kingly rule, and his name will be Lord of Lords, God of Gods, and/or King of Kings. (4) All of this is continued not as a progression per se but more like the deepening of a well when we come to the Essenes and the Dead Sea Scrolls. In both the War Scroll and Blessing Scroll there is all the above with the addition of ethical components regarding this coming Kingdom. To be fair, a full exploration of the Old Testament, Pseudepigrapha, Apocrypha, and Dead Sea Scrolls would yield a multitude of ethical expectations for the coming redemption of God’s Kingdom. However, for our brief study we have chosen only a few. Now let us turn to see how these influences had an impact on Jesus’ own understanding of the coming Kingdom. But what did Jesus, as a Jewish first century rabbi think about the Kingdom? To this we will turn next.
(The above is an excerpt from a doctoral paper I wrote in late 2021)
 Moving forward in this paper, any reference to the divine Kingdom of God (except when quoted from scholarship) will be capitalized while other occasions involving earthly kingdoms and kings will not be. The same will done with “Church” when in reference to the corporate body of Christ which is to carry out the Kingdom mission of God. Both are inherent in the title of this paper which focuses on a robust and healthy theology of the Kingdom understood in its context (going backward) which is the remedy the church needs for today (to move forward).
 Bruce Chilton, Pure Kingdom: Jesus’ Vision of God, Studying the Historical Jesus (Grand Rapids, Mich. : London: Eerdmans ; Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1996), ix.
 Ibid, Chilton, x.
 Joel B. Green, Scot McKnight, and I. Howard Marshall, eds., Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 417.
 A common parallel to this would be if someone were to comment on how well they did at something in saying, “Wow! You hit it out of the park!” Most in North America would readily understand this to refer to hitting a homerun in baseball which is a tremendous positive. Thus, there would not be a need to explain in detail how one hits a home run in the game of baseball.
 John J. Collins and Daniel C. Harlow, eds., The Eerdmans Dictionary of Early Judaism (Grand Rapids, Mich: William B. Eerdmans, 2010), 860.
 Duling, Dennis C. “Kingdom of God, Kingdom of Heaven: OT, Early Judaism, and Hellenistic Usage.” Ed. David Noel Freedman, The Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 4, Anchor Bible Reference Library (New York London Toronto [etc.]: Doubleday, 1992), 50.
 As confirmed by Scot McKnight in my first Doctorate seminar at Northern Seminary on the eschatology of Jesus.
 George Raymond Beasley-Murray, Jesus and the Kingdom of God, reprinted (Exeter: Paternoster Press, 1987), 35.
 Barrick, William D. 2012. “The Kingdom of God in the Old Testament.” The Master’s Seminary Journal 23 (2): 171. https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=reh&AN=ATLA0001924487&site=ehost-live.
 Duling, Kingdom of God, 51.
 Murray draws an interesting conclusion when analyzing the Book of Similitudes from Enoch. He states, “We are brought to the startling realization that the evidence points to the Similitudes as having been written at the same time as or during the generation after the ministry of Jesus. Does this suggest that the idea of the Son of Man as messianic representative was in the air, as it were, at that time?” He goes on to say that perhaps “we have the precipitate of two parallel movements of thought leading back to one source—namely, the vision of Daniel.” This statement by Murray furthers the mosaic of belief that was developing during and before the time of Jesus. (Murray, Kingdom of God, 68.)
 Duling, Kingdom of God, 51
 James H Charlesworth, The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha Volume One Volume One, 2016, 931–32.
 Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co, 1997), 455.
 Scot McKnight, A New Vision for Israel: The Teachings of Jesus in National Context (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1999), 2.
 James Hamilton Charlesworth, Jesus and the Dead Sea Scrolls, 1992, 9–10.
 Freedman, The Anchor Bible Dictionary, 1992, 4:52.
 Florentino García Martínez, ed., The Dead Sea Scrolls Translated: The Qumran Texts in English, 2nd ed (Leiden ; New York : Grand Rapids: E.J. Brill ; W.B. Eerdmans, 1996), 107.
 García Martínez, 433.