Monday, April 21, 2014

The Kingdom Then

Life of Christ 69

          One of the phrases we find again and again in the Gospels (97 by my count) is 'the kingdom of heaven' or 'the kingdom of God'. What did the people of Jesus' day understand that to mean? What did John the Baptist mean when he used it? What did Jesus mean when He used it? What does it mean for us today?
          To answer these questions let me take you back to Genesis 12, and what is commonly known as the Abrahamic Covenant. In the beginning of this chapter God makes Abraham, the first Jew, some promises, and later passes those promises on to Abraham's descendants, the nation of Israel. Amongst other things, God promised Israel through Abraham eternal deed to the land of Palestine, indeed to a geographical area larger than any they have ever yet controlled.
          This is not the only covenant in the Old Testament by any means, and another one that has a direct bearing on the idea of 'the kingdom' is the Davidic Covenant. This set of promises made by God to David and his descendants can be found, amongst other places, in I Chronicles 17. In it God promises David that one of his descendants will sit on the throne of Israel forever.
          In these two covenants, then, God promises Israel an eternal deed to the land of Palestine, and its environs, and He promises that a descendant of David will sit on Israel's throne forever. Neither of them have ever been true in the years since David and Abraham and they aren't true now. It is my belief in this, and in a literal fulfillment of God's promises that drives much of my doctrinal position as a premillennialist. But beyond that, it drives my understanding of the arc of the life of Jesus Christ.
          To the Jews of Jesus' day these were precious promises indeed. Their theology understood this like mine does in the sense that they believed it to be a literal fulfillment, and to be ushered in by the coming of the Messiah. Thus, when John the Baptist came blazing out of nowhere to shake up the system just prior to the beginning of Jesus' ministry his message needs seen in this light: 'Repent ye, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand' (Matthew 3.2). The Baptist was preaching that the fulfillment of these promises was right around the corner, and that to prepare for them Israel corporately and individually needed to repent of her sins.
          Jesus Himself, when He came on the scene, interacted much with John the Baptist, and indeed preached a very similar message toward the beginning: 'From that time Jesus began to preach, and to say, Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand' (Matthew 4.17). When we read this we must understand that since He clearly claimed to be the Messiah from the beginning, and since all the Jews knew that when the Messiah came the kingdom came too, then He was here essentially proclaiming Himself to be Israel's sovereign King and offering Himself as such to the people.
          In the Old Testament there are many prophecies regarding the coming eternal King of Israel, one of which is found in Isaiah 60 and 61. It was precisely from this passage that Jesus read the first time He went back to preach in Nazareth. 'And he began to say unto them, This day is this scripture fulfilled in your ears' (Luke 4.21). In other words, Jesus reads one of the prophecies regarding the long promised king and says, 'It's me'.
          So what was Israel's reaction to this astonishing claim? Well, we already saw that in Nazareth that day they tried to kill Him by throwing Him off a cliff, but Israel as a whole hardened her heart against those claims. Jesus, in an effort to prove His credentials, did miracle after miracle. In response, the Pharisees advance the unforgivable theory that He does these in the power of Satan, and when Israel chose to follow the Pharisees in believing this in Matthew 12 she chose to reject her King. There, Jesus told them that for this rejection of Himself they would be condemned. 'But I say unto you, That every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment. For by thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned' (Matthew 12.21-22).
          Not only is it my understanding that this eternal throne of David is what Jesus claimed for Himself, but it was also the understanding of the Jews of His own day as well. We see this clearly at the crucifixion when Pilate wrote 'the King of the Jews' (John 19.21) and hung it over Jesus' head on the cross. The Sanhedrin got upset about it, and asked Pilate to rewrite it as 'he said, I am King of the Jews'. Pilate, of course, refused, but the point is that Israel's religious leadership clearly understood that Jesus claimed to be that king, and that He claimed to be coming to usher in the kingdom long promised via the Abrahamic and Davidic Covenants.
          The reality is that Israel didn't reject Him at Calvary. She rejected Him over a year before in Matthew 12 when she chose to believe the Pharisees unforgivable assertion that Jesus was possessed by Satan. It is for this reason that Jesus would later tell the Jews that the kingdom had been taken from Israel and given away. 'Therefore I say unto you, The kingdom of God shall be taken from you, and given to a nation bringing forth the fruits thereof' (Mathew 21.43). 
          He did not mean by this that the land and throne were taken from them in a literal, permanent sense, but that His own generation had lost their opportunity and it would take an entirely different Israel, purified of her stubborn rejection in the awful fiery armageddon of the Tribulation period, to be receptive enough of her King to bring in the kingdom.

          That was what the phrase 'the kingdom' meant as John the Baptist used it, as Jesus used it, and as the Jews of His day understood it. In the next  post I will discuss how that changed with the hinge pivot rejection of Christ in Matthew 12, and what Jesus would mean by it as He explained it to the Apostles in Matthew 13, and how that impacts us very much still today.

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