When I began this journey, I wanted to put these two phrases that were the core of Jesus’ teaching in a box. I soon started to see that this would not be so easy a journey, but that it would be a journey that led from one place to another. The journey of understanding “the kingdom of heaven/Kingdom of God” really starts with what this phrase would mean to the average “Jew or Hebrew on the street”…..and it ends with Jesus.
Let’s take a look at what these words, this thought, this phrase– “kingdom of Heaven/kingdom of God” –would mean to the average Jew when they heard it. Why the Jews? Because Jesus and His disciples were Jews. Because God clearly chose Israel to carry His message. Context is always important.
First, let’s look at this question from the eyes of one of the most respected New Testament Scholars and leading Christian thinkers alive today. N.T. Wright has taught New Testament studies for over twenty years at Cambridge, McGill and Oxford Universities in England and is currently the Anglican Bishop of Durham in England.
Quotes are from “Jesus and the Victory of God” by N.T. Wright (pages 202-204):
“The most important thing to recognize about the first-century Jewish use of kingdom-language is that it was bound up with the hopes and expectations of Israel. ‘Kingdom of God’ was not a vague phrase, or a cipher with a general religious aura. It had nothing much, at least in the first instance, to do with what happened to human beings after they died. The reverent ‘kingdom of heaven’, so long misunderstood by some Christians to mean ‘a place, namely heaven, where saved souls go to live after death’, meaning nothing of the sort in Jesus’ world: it was simply a Jewish way of talking about Israel’s God becoming a king.”
“The idea of Israel’s God being, or becoming, king cannot therefore be understood without a sense of what I have described elsewhere: the anguished longing of Israel for her covenant God to come in his power and rule the world in the way he had always intended.”
“God’s kingdom, to the Jew-in-the-village in the first half of the first century, meant the coming vindication of Israel, victory over the pagans, the eventual gift of peace, justice and prosperity.”
Next, let’s look at what Dr. David H. Stern, the translator of the Jewish New Testament says about this subject. Dr. Stern was born in Los Angeles in 1935, the great-grandson of two of the city’s first twenty Jews. In 1972, he came to believe in Yeshua [Jesus] as the Messiah, after which he received a Master of Divinity degree at Fuller Theological Seminary and did graduate work at the University of Judaism. Dr. Stern taught Fuller Theological Seminary’s first course in “Judaism and Christianity,” organized Messianic Jewish conferences and leaders’ meetings, and was an officer of the Messianic Jewish Alliance of America. Let’s look at what he says about the “kingdom of heaven/kingdom of God”. Quotes are taken from his book, the “Jewish New Testament Commentary”, pages 16 and 17:
“The word ‘Heaven’ was used in pious avoidance of the word “God”; and to this day Hebrew ‘malkhut-haShammayim’ (‘Kingdom of Heaven’) substitutes in Jewish religious literature for “Kingdom of God”, an expression found frequently in the new Testament,…”
“In both Yochanan’s [John the Baptist’] and Yeshua’s [Jesus’] preaching (Matthew 4:17) the reason for urgency to repent is that the Kingdom of Heaven is near. The concept of the Kingdom of God is crucial to understanding the Bible. It refers neither to a place nor to a time, but to a condition in which the rulership of God is acknowledged by humankind, a condition in which God’s promise of a restored universe free from sin and death are, or begin to be, fulfilled.”
“Today, the Kingdom of God comes immedietly and truly–but partially– to all who put their trust in Yeshua [Jesus] and his message, thus committing themselves to live the holy lives God’s rulership demands. As an example of the ‘partialness’, they have peace in their hearts even though there is not peace in the world. But in he future, at the end of the present age of history, when Yeshua [Jesus] returns, he will inaugurate the Kingdom truly and completely (Revelation 19:6); then God will fulfill the rest of the Kingdom promises.”
As we look at he Scriptures and as we apply this knowledge of what these words mean in the first century, we can see a picture emerging. There is much more to study on this subject. I believe that we cannot get a clear, or a full, picture unless we understand this in context, the context of not only historical thought, but of Jesus’ teaching on this subject in it’s entirety. Jesus had much to say! I am looking forward to continuing to look for clues and pieces to the puzzle……
Take the time to review the CLUE’S we have found so far, there are many more to come.
I am doing research on an upcoming message on Matthew 4:17 and was looking for a the Jewish understanding of Kingdom of Heaven. Very helpful. Thank you!
Thanks so much, studying the book of Matthew and wanted the Jewish perspective of Kingdom Of Heaven. This really helped me also!!!