Not getting much sleep these days. Wondering if I'll ever get to sleep through the night again. I've heard that having small children changes your life. Consider that confirmed. So what's been going on in my sleepless head? I've been thinking about the kingdom. You know, the one that Jesus talked about? The one that's not supposed to be of this world? What exactly is the kingdom of God?
For many, the kingdom of God is an inward spiritual condition, the joy and peace that transcends circumstances. There's some biblical justification for this, as Paul says, "The Kingdom of God isn't eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit" (Romans 14:17). But is an inward spiritual condition all that the kingdom represents? After all, I've met some pretty joyful and peaceful Buddhists over the years. While I'm certainly happy for people that find joy and peace through whatever faith tradition or philosophy helps them get through life, Jesus seemed to think that he was the only one qualified to reveal the nature of the kingdom to the world. While it may be fashionable to put Jesus on par with other philosophers and religious leaders, Jesus didn't leave a whole lot of wiggle-room for competitors when he said things like, "All things have been handed over to me by my [Lord]. No one knows the Son except the [Lord], and no one knows the [Lord] except the Son and anyone to whom the Son wishes to reveal [the Lord]" (Matthew 11:27).
For others, the kingdom of God is a set of moral and ethical principles designed to help people get along and to restore what is broken in our world. In this view, the kingdom of God is good news for everyone because it transcends religious distinctions. This also carries a grain of truth. If I as a follower of Jesus decide to make the Sermon on the Mount the moral foundation of my life, that's good news for my Muslim neighbor, Buddhist neighbor, Hindu neighbor, and non-religious neighbor as well. So when the kingdom of God is in operation, it's good news not just for people that call themselves Christians, but for people of all faiths. And, of course, it's also true that when people of other faiths follow the teachings of Jesus, whether consciously or unconsciously, everyone benefits.
Still, Jesus walked around like he owned the kingdom. He said my kingdom is not of this world. So while I respect people that decide to live virtuous lives based on their philosophy or faith tradition, it makes sense that only that which is done in Jesus' name can rightly be called the kingdom, at least in the biblical sense of the word. So the real question is, when Jesus announced the kingdom of God, what might that have meant to his Jewish listeners?
Now I think we're getting somewhere. I was reading the book of Daniel the other day. Daniel prophesied to King Nebuchadnezzar that his empire would be the first of four great empires, and that at some point during the fourth empire, a new kingdom made not with hands would arise that would crush all remaining kingdoms (Daniel 2:44). The Jews would have certainly known that the Roman Empire was the fourth great empire that Daniel prophesied about, so they must have been looking for someone that fit the following description:
"I was watching in the night visions, And behold, One like the Son of Man, Coming with the clouds of heaven! He came to the Ancient of Days, and they brought Him near before Him. Then to Him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve Him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and His kingdom the one which shall not be destroyed" (Daniel 7:13-14).
So when Jesus walked around calling himself the Son of Man and talking about his kingdom not being of this world, he was essentially telling his Jewish audience, "Remember the prophecies of old? They're talking about me! I'm the one you've read about that's going to take over the planet and crush the world's kingdoms. Follow me."
Sometimes I think we forget that the kingdom of God is about a real king with a real domain with real citizens. So my question is, how does understanding the Jewish context of the kingdom of God help us understand the nature of Jesus and his mission? I'm sure it must have been a shock that the long-awaited king acted more like a slave than a king, which is probably why a lot of people rejected Jesus and his claims, so what do we make of the earth shattering kingdom prophesied in Daniel? Perhaps more importantly, how should believers in Jesus relate to existing earthly kingdoms in light of the fact that we serve a king that seems more interested in "crushing" and "consuming" earthly kingdoms (Daniel 2:44) -- than fixing them?
Aaron D. Taylor is the author of Alone with A Jihadist: A Biblical Response to Holy War. To learn more about Aaron's ministry, go to www.aarondtaylor.com. To follow Aaron on Twitter, go to www.twitter.com/aarondtaylor. Aaron can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.