The term “kingdom of heaven” or “kingdom of God” meant different things to different people in New Testament times. What it meant to Jesus appears to me to be different from what it meant to the early church, the Gospel writers, and even the Twelve.
On the one hand, I will set forth below what it meant to everyone but Jesus. On the other hand, if the reader is content to accept what I just said without proof, the reader may be happiest to skip the rest of this chapter, and the next, and instead go straight to “Jesus’ words about ‘the Kingdom‘”. Some of this stuff gets really technical.
When I first conceived The Way of Peace, I set myself the task of accounting for every use by Jesus of the term “kingdom of heaven” or “kingdom of God.” Problems rose as soon as I set about actually doing this, and the task will remain unfinished.
Forms of the word “kingdom” occur 113 times in the Synoptics (Matthew, Mark and Luke). Half a dozen of these refer to a kingdom or kingdoms other than the kingdom of God. 17 references are not attributed to Jesus.
Ninety kingdom sayings are attributed to Jesus. I saw at once that many of these cannot be authentic — coming from the historical Jesus. They come instead from the early church or the Gospel writers themselves. I needed to identify which are which.
Candidly, I did not subject them to any rigorous analysis, nor did I consult the results of the Jesus Seminar. I went with my gut.
One criterion that seemed to work: in “Was there a Jesus? …,” I noted that “Jesus’ parables are of two kinds. Many, like the Parable of the Yeast and that of the Mustard Seed, are short and pithy, almost riddles. Others, like that of the Sower and of the Prodigal Son, are longer, elaborate allegories.” It has seemed to me all along that the former are more likely to be authentic, and the latter not.
Some of this sorting wasn’t easy. The historical Jesus had no need to tell the Parable of the Sower. In the midst, I became skeptical of the historicity of the Mission of the Twelve and the Mission of the Seventy. The hardest passages to deal with were the stories of the Last Supper. It’s hard to disbelieve the most emotionally charged episode in the Bible, wherein Jesus instituted the holiest of our rites. But the Gospel accounts all assume Jesus died for our sins, which I simply no longer believe.
Table 1, below, shows the results of this sorting.
Of interest: all the passages involving “weeping and gnashing of teeth” fall into the “Questionable” column. This was not at all by design, but may change one’s perception of Jesus.
In the following discussion of what everyone but Jesus thought, all Jesus kingdom sayings come from the “Questionable” column.
The common belief
Belief in the Holy Land in Jesus’ time appears to me to have been just as varied as in America today. Many different people believed many different things. Accordingly, as the Parable of the Sower indicates, people responded to Jesus’ message, or the message of the early church, in different ways. Those who became the early church tended to share one pre-existing worldview.
The world was going to hell in a handbasket.
Sin — meaning anything you take offense at — was out of control, and getting worse all the time. The very fabric of existence itself was being torn apart, and could not hold up much longer. Divine intervention was urgent — and imminent.
It was coming.
It was coming first, however, in the form of a global catastrophe, a great tribulation, wherein God would pour out God’s wrath on all sinners, all causes of injustice and evil, all those deserving of punishment.
In the midst, God would raise up a hero who would lead those destined to survive, those on whom God showed mercy, those who pleased God and whom God favored — into a new age or a new world in which sin would be no more, and people would live in prosperity, peace and joy forever.
|Jesus’ encounter with the rich young man is told at Matthew 19:16-26, Mark 10:17-27, and Luke 18:18-26. At its conclusion, Jesus astonishes his disciples. From Matthew:
23 Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Truly I tell you, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. 24Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.’ 25When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astounded and said, ‘Then who can be saved?’ 26But Jesus looked at them and said, ‘For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.’
The “revealed God” theology prevalent at the time, and prevalent among some folk today, held that a person’s material circumstances show exactly how much God loves that person. Thus the rich, of all people, should come safely through the great tribulation. Surviving the day of wrath: that was what “saved” originally meant. See also Matthew 10:22, Matthew 24:13, Mark 13:13 and Luke 21:19.
Such beliefs were widespread throughout the then-known world. The cry of the crowd when Jesus entered Jerusalem indicates the specific belief among Jews:
|“Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David.”|
|— Mark 11:10|
Note that “the kingdom” is coming, not now. The kingdom to come would re-establish that of King David, remembered as the time of greatest Jewish prosperity, peace and joy, under a just and charismatic king whom the whole world loved. This exactly parallels the way the English remembered King Arthur and his Camelot, and the way some Americans of a certain age may recall John F. Kennedy and his brief “Camelot.” The coming hero, called Messiah, would be a son (heir) of David, and thus rightly sit on David’s throne.
As with the Arthurian legends, there were different versions of the story, and one’s belief — just as with the beliefs of many Christians today — might shift from moment to moment, from one version to another, without feeling or recognizing any inconsistency. As to the great tribulation, for example, some identify it with the war of Gog and Magog foretold in Ezekiel chapters 38—39. (As it happens, I’ve never read those chapters, nor do I mean to, for reason that I find Ezekiel unreadable.) Others identify it with the process of Messiah’s establishing world peace, as discussed below. It could be either, neither, or both. In history, to also be discussed below, it proves to have been none of the above.
Foreign influences. Geopolitical changes beginning in 333 B.C.E. caused a vast increase in the exposure of common people to foreign influences, and of special interest now are influences from Persia. There was far more commerce and traffic between Palestine and Persia than we today can easily imagine, given the distance and the difficulty of the terrain. A trip from one place to the other took eighteen months. There were influences from Zoroastrianism, the religion of Persia, but also from religions of lands still farther east, Hinduism and Buddhism. There was actually some man running around Palestine in Jesus’ time claiming to be a Buddha.
Zoroastrian concepts that apparently found their way into the common mind include these:
- Cosmically, good and evil, darkness and light, are engaged in an eternal battle, every moment and everywhere.
- There exists an immortal, spiritual, arch-enemy of God, a “Devil” (Daeva), who can be blamed for every misfortune that falls on human beings, all evil and all sin.
- Many other evil spirits exist that harass, and often possess, human beings.
- The end-times savior will be born of a virgin. (The Zoroastrians actually anticipate three end-times saviors, all born of virgins.)
As prominent as these beliefs are in the New Testament, there is no evidence of them in TaNaKh (the Hebrew scriptures, or “Old Testament”).
The Pharisees thought differently
The expectations of the Pharisees in Jesus’ time appear to have been much the same as those of Orthodox Jews today, and differ from the common belief in several ways. Principally, they adhere strictly to the Hebrew scriptures, and eschew any foreign influence.
Messiah is to be an ordinary, mortal man, albeit one of exceptional righteousness, genius and courage. He will NOT be a biological son of God; he will NOT be born of a virgin. He will be principally a political and military figure — NOT a religious one. Accordingly, he will NOT be a preacher who
- casts out demons or
- performs miracles.
He will be an heir of David, and his first major accomplishment will be to re-establish the monarchy of David in Jerusalem.
Then comes the task of establishing world peace, to be discussed shortly below.
The messianic age will be, as in the common people’s belief, a time of never-ending prosperity and joy.
There is no “Devil” in Judaism. Rather, each person is endowed with a yetzer hatov, an inclination to good, and a yetzer hara, an inclination to evil. Unmitigated activity of the yetzer hara brings about sin. In the messianic age, the yetzer hara will (somehow) cease to exist; so, there will be no more sin.
Ultimately, Messiah is to rule a worldwide Jewish empire centered at Jerusalem; gentile nations will pay tribute. (Isaiah 61:5-6. There are many similar passages.)
Establishing world peace
Realistically, it’s not likely that everyone on earth will suddenly decide to get along.
More likely, world peace will require a central authority that no one dares challenge.
It is also unlikely that every leader, every people, will recognize Messiah as the God-sent just and righteous ruler whom one should just naturally obey. Some will; many won’t. Messiah will have to cause those who won’t serve him voluntarily, to serve him involuntarily; that is, by military conquest. For this reason, he must be a military leader, and military genius.
It could be tantamount to a world war.
1 Samuel records that, in unifying Israel, David went through such a process. The great film Excalibur portrays that, in unifying England, Arthur went through such a process also.
The Orthodox Jews with whom I happen to be in conversation today are reticent about this part of Messiah’s career. Not all are. TaNaKh is replete with references to, and descriptions of, this “Day of the Lord.” See Table 2, below.
The most famous reference may be Malachi 4:
1See, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble; the day that comes shall burn them up, says the LORD of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch.
5Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the LORD comes.
The New Testament identifies this Elijah as John the Baptist (Matthew 17:10-13, Mark 9:11-13).
The road to the Great Tribulation
The First Century of the Common Era spans the years from 1 C.E. to 100 C.E. The Cross occurred in 33 C.E. Paul wrote between then and ca. 60 C.E. The Great Fire of Rome, which Nero supposedly blamed on the Christians, occurred in 63. The Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) were written between 70 and 85.
70 C.E., as will be seen, was the crucial year.
In the Holy Land, the whole period saw vast social turmoil that the New Testament never mentions. The Jews chafed under continuous insults from the Romans, top to bottom, from incompetent Roman governors down to the surly Roman soldier conscripts one might encounter on the street. Crooked tax collectors — turncoat Jews who served as the Romans’ lackeys — could extort any amount they pleased from the population.
Uprisings and riots were constant and everywhere. As many as 50 Jewish factions, many of them armed, all called themselves meaning to throw off Roman rule, but actually inflicted most of their violence upon each other. Jews refer to this bloodshed as sinat chinam, “baseless hatred” of one Jew for another. As of 60 C.E., the situation had become one of open war. Rome tolerated this until its patience ran out. In 70 C.E. (Jewish sources say 68.), Rome sent its legions.
The bloodbath was beyond anyone’s imagination. The people saw it as Matthew has Jesus say (Matthew 24:21), “For at that time there will be great suffering, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be.” From the people’s view, the whole world was involved — their whole world, the whole world as they knew it.
It was as much as the end of the world.
The church of the time saw it as the Great Tribulation.
No one but Christians believed in the Rapture.
I don’t know when, why or how, but at some point the early church seized upon, became positively obsessed with, Daniel 7:13-14. Verse 13 —
13As I watched in the night visions, I saw one like a human being [literally, “son of Man”] coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him.
— is quoted at Matthew 24:30, Matthew 26:64, Mark 13:26, Mark 14:62, and Luke 21:27, and referred to at Acts 1:11. This description does not exactly match Paul’s descriptions in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 and 1 Corinthians 15:51-52, so it may be that the fixation occurred after Paul wrote those passages. The crux, however, is verse 14:
14To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.
The early church was convinced that this is Jesus’ destiny. Thus it was imperative that these events occur.
Note that, per Matthew 24:30, Mark 13:26 and Luke 21:27-28, and contrary to today’s popular belief, the Rapture is to occur not before the Tribulation, but after.
The Synoptic apocalypse
How could Jesus so accurately predict the events of 70 C.E. — except the Rapture, which hasn’t happened yet?
Simple: he didn’t.
The word “apocalypse” means “revelation.” The term “apocalyptic” refers to a genre of literature wherein an author poses as some ancient hero, to whom — via dreams, visions, and angelic visitations — God purportedly reveals the future; whereas the events foretold are actually those of the author’s own time.
Dozens of examples survive from ancient times; only two appear as complete books in our Bible, namely, Daniel and Revelation. In Daniel, an author who lived ca. 333 B.C.E. or later, has Daniel, who lived ca. 586-516 B.C.E., foretell the geopolitical events of the author’s own era. In Revelation, an author who lived ca. 90 C.E. or later, apparently has the apostle John, who lived perhaps ca. 1-50 C.E., foretell events of, again, the author’s own time. (The language of Revelation is so completely different from that of the Gospel of John, that the two cannot possibly have the same author.)
Similarly, the authors of the Synoptics attribute words to Jesus, who went to the Cross in 33 C.E., predicting events of their own time, 70 C.E. or later. This “Synoptic apocalypse” occurs at Matthew 24 (the whole chapter), with an additional portion at Matthew 10:16-26; Mark 13 (the whole chapter); and Luke 21 (the whole chapter), with an additional portion at Luke 17:20-37.
There are additional passages outside this “apocalypse” that may be apocalyptic. When Matthew 23:36 has Jesus say, “Truly I tell you, all this will come upon this generation,” it is not Jesus speaking to the people of his own time ca. 30 C.E., about the future, but the author speaking to the people of his own time ca. 72 C.E., about events of their recent past.
In their own time
|“But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed.”|
|— 2 Peter 3:10|
All these events were imminent. They would occur in their own time. They would see it with their own eyes.
Whether or not Jesus believed it, almost all the New Testament authors did.
Luke 3 provides the preaching of John the Baptist:
7John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? *** 9Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” *** 16John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
I do not believe the John the Baptist of history specifically anticipated Jesus, but he clearly did anticipate an imminent day of wrath and judgment.
Paul’s advice concerning marriage, in 1 Corinthians 7, anticipates an imminent Great Tribulation — and End. This is no pseudoepigraph’s insertion; this is Paul himself:
26I think that, in view of the impending crisis, it is well for you to remain as you are. *** 29I mean, brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short; from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none, 30and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions, 31and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.
Matthew, Mark and Luke all also believed it.
27“For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. 28Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”
And he said to them, “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.”
27But truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God.”
34Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.
30Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.
32Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place.
The Synoptic Apocalypse begins with Jesus’ purportedly telling the Twelve that the Temple is destined to be destroyed. They respond by asking him a question; which differs from one Gospel to another:
Matthew 24:3: When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?”
Mark 13:4: “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?”
Luke 21:7: They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?”
Matthew alone adds, “… of your coming and of the end of the age,” thus linking both of those things to the events of 70 C.E.
The Rapture still hasn’t happened.
Back to text
The most important, or best-known, appear to me to be these:
A few more:
|Amos chapters 8-9
Isaiah 22:5, 8, 12, 15
Isaiah 27:1, 12
Jeremiah 23:5, 7
Jeremiah 30:4, 8
Zechariah chapters 12-14