Thursday, January 26, 2006

Heaven and the Kingdom of God: part 1

Many would agree that the Kingdom of God was the central component to Jesus message but few know what it really is. So many different things pop into our minds when it’s mentioned but have we ever stopped to ask if any of those things are true. Many would respond, when asked about the kingdom of God, with an answer that encompasses heaven, the place we go when we die. Others might say it’s heaven come to Earth, or the reign of God, these answers are true but how much do we know about that? Could there be more to it than that?

To best answer these questions it might be helpful, well, beyond helpful maybe even crucial, to ask what Jesus thought about it. What was a first century Jewish Rabbi speaking about when He said the Kingdom of God was at hand?

Now, Jesus entered into some dark times for the Nation of Israel. They were being ruled by the Romans who were oppressive, stern, but worst of all they were Pagans. Now this was a problem for common Jewish thinking. They lived in a time where they were surrounded by Pagan gods and various Tribal gods. Before the Jews were placed into bondage they had an understanding that “events in the world revealed the relative strength of the various tribal deities. The strong god was the one who could perform mighty acts.”[1] YHWH had been faithful to this traditional understanding. When the Jews were held captive by the Egyptians He was faithful to free them with the famous ten plagues[2] and the parting of the Red Sea.[3] You also might remember an incident on Mt. Carmel.[4] God time and again proved Himself to the world and to Israel that He was the mightiest through His great deeds. Now put this into perspective for Jesus’ time. What must it have been like to be oppressed by Pagan rulers? It was a slap in the face to the Jews. This meant that God, YHWH, was not as powerful as the Pagan gods, or that God was angry with the Jews. This put the faithful Jew into somewhat of a predicament.

There were four approaches that most Jews took, all of which were focused around this idea; The Kingdom of God. First there was the Zealot option. The Zealot believed in revolution by any means necessary. They believed that by slitting enough Roman throats they would bring about God’s Kingdom. They believed in holy war, that a victory for them was a victory of God over the Pagan gods, that their defeat of the Romans would also be a defeat of “the Son of Man over the monsters.”[5]

There was also another perspective, taken on by the infamous (yet very misunderstood) Pharisees. They believed that holiness would bring about the Kingdom. They believed that God would have released them from their oppression if it were not for their own misbehavior. They thought that if they separated themselves from all sin and made the entire nation of Israel holy, then God’s anger would be lifted and the Kingdom would come. This is why they hated the sinners and were so appalled by Jesus’ action of dining with the sinners.[6]

The third approach was the compromising approach taken on by Harod and the Sadducees. They believed that it was best to just do what they were told and get whatever they could out of it and hope that God would intervene in time. After all, if He never did, they would have lived a fairly pleasant life.

The fourth approach was that of the Essenes. They believed in literal separation, fleeing from their oppressors and living in their own societies or communities. They “sought to obey the law by withdraw from the rest of society, and often had a great expectation that the end was near.”[7]

So this is the world that Jesus entered into; one that was without much hope for salvation. His people were oppressed; sick, hungry, and poor. The Kingdom of God in a place like this was not just some place that people went when they died. It was a hope for their present situation; hope that God would somehow intervene and prove his sovereignty. The Kingdom of God was a place where Israel was safe under the just rule of YHWH. So if someone came along and said “the Kingdom of God is at hand” they would be saying something totally radical; that God was coming to save them, that He would bring His Kingdom of justice into history, not just into the afterlife. There are two important things that Jesus believed. First, that Gods’ intention was to restore the world through Israel. Second, that This would happen through a climactic event “in which Israel herself would be saved and trough which… God… would at last bring His love and justice, His mercy and truth, to bear upon the whole world, bringing renewal and healing to all creation.”[8] What Jesus hearers were hearing, when Jesus said “the Kingdom of God is at hand” was that “God was now unveiling His age-old plan, bringing His sovereignty to bear on Israel and the world as He had always intended, and He was doing so apparently through Jesus.”[9] Jesus was essentially saying that the climactic event was happening and it was happening through Himself. He was the climactic event, the eschatological hope of Israel.




End Notes
[1] Stanley J. Grenz, Theology for the Community of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans 2000) 31.[2] Exodus 9:14[3] Exodus 15:11-16[4] 1 Kings 18[5] N.T. Wright, The Challenge of Jesus (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press 1999) 37.[6] Luke 15:1-3[7] Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity: Vol.1 (Peabody: Prince Press 1984) 10.[8] Wright, 35[9] Wright, 37.

3 comments:

Mike Exum said...

Very exciting Wes!!! This is the kind of stuff that really turns my crank. I like it. I looks like you have been reading Wright. Keep it up.

I want to quibble over two things. Just asking you to look closer at them.

1. I, following Wright, put the Zealots and Pharisees a lot closer together. I am not sure that there was a specific group called "Zealots" and to be sure there were different schools of Pharisees. However, as a general class of political persuasion, I lump them pretty close together.

I have often likened zealots to Timothy McViegh (dont know how he spelled his name) and Pharisees to Rush Limbaugh/Gordon Liddy. (I hate to single out Limbaugh and Liddy speciffically as Pharisees because it shuts down a hearing with so many who like them and hold traditional views of Pharisees.) Actually, even Peter Jennings/Tom Brokaw fit the Pharisee mold in my analogy, just not as radical.

Anyway, these political commentators use rhetoric that stirrs passions in masses. Some like Timothy, take it several steps further and into some dark directions.

2. Check your use of the word Dualism. I think it is actually a very broad term, one I use often as well, but technically broader than my normal usage. Anyway it is loaded. And the basic idea it conveys with me, anyway, has to do with a very gnostic like view of heaven/earth/hell etc. I am not convinced that any Pharisees held such views.

These points, I hope, clarify. Actually, your post is the most exciting, to me, yet. I really am jazzed.

I wonder if we might find a couple of people who would be willing to form a team blog on which each one takes a different 1st Century Jewsish religio/politico perspective and argue about how to be faithful to God based on the research findings of each group - Essene, zealot/Pharisee, Herodian/Sadducee, etc... It could be enlightening...

Well, I am jammed up on time. Love the blog. Gotta run...

Blessings...

Ashley said...

WOW! I had never really thought about it before, but I am glad you go tme thinking. This is all so new and exciting to me! I am still taking it all in, but wow!!

WES ELLIS said...

I realize Wright emphasises their similarities and often lumps them together but I want to emphasise their differences. Where the zealots frustration was with the Roman governmet the Pharisees was with the sinner, either Jew or Roman. (This information comes from Wright and Gonzalez)

My use of the word dualism is intentional but I admit, not nearly clairified enough. I use the word to signify their view of holiness as ideal and the lowness of the sinner. It's a dualism of Torah law being the only substance in the world and everything else being material that will profit nothing and eventually burn away. I realize I'm using the word loosely so I will probably find a new way to make my point... thanks.

I had a much longer response but after I finished it I erased it (very frustrating).