The Student’s Desk

That we may know Christ

Jesus’ teaching on the Kingdom of God

Synopsis: The time and place of Jesus was on of political stability and religious zeal as the restoration of Israel was anticipated. Jesus teachings were radically different from his contemporaries. The following essay provides a brief summery of the expectations and political alliances so contrasts and comparisons may be developed between these and Jesus’ teaching. While this essay does recognise that Jesus’ teachings on the kingdom of God, it focuses on the parables given in Matthew 13 maintaining their prominence in the ‘kingdom of God’ theme. It concludes that Jesus’ teaching on the teaching of God does not ally him with any of the political or religious movements of his time and stands unique.

—– 

The Roman province of Judah in the first century was a place of political instability which eventually led to the sacking of Jerusalem in 70 A.D.. Many held hopes for an uprising of a Messiah to restore the kingdom of Israel, while others saw the Roman Empire as providing a future for Israel. It is within this mix of political and religious movements that Jesus emerges and teaches about the kingdom of God in a manner that was radically different from contemporary views, and yet at the same remained entirely consistent with Scripture.

Messianic expectations within Judaism leading up to the first century A.D. were not unique. These had been part of Israel’s heritage. At the centre of Jewish expectations concerning the kingdom is the office of Messiah. While the Greek equivalent of this title, “Christ” would be applied to Jesus (Luke 2:11; John 1:41, 4:25), it was also used of others in the Old Testament. The term ‘messiah’ most often meant ‘anointed’ and referred to kings (1 Sam 12:3, 5; 16:6; 24:6, 10 for example). It was through the office of King that an everlasting kingdom was promised as part of the Davidic Covenant (2 Samuel 7:13). It was this promise of an everlasting kingdom that formed the basis of hope for the restoration of Israel (Psalm 89; 132; Isaiah 9:5-7). The political situation in Israel leading up to the first century A.D. intensified expectations of the Messiah and the establishment of the kingdom of God.

Though Israel had indeed returned to the land after exile (Nehemiah), they did not regain their sovereignty. As such, by the end of the millennium, they were a Roman province in a strongly Hellenised region. For the most part Jews resented this foreign occupier, and the Hellenistic culture that had also come. However, the expression of this expectation differed between several movements. Metzger helpfully categorises four of these groups into two different categories with two different responses. He identifies religious movements as including Pharisees as extremists and Sadducees as moderates; and political movements as including Zealots as extremists and Herodians as moderates.[1] It is helpful to understand these movements as background of Jesus teaching concerning the kingdom.

•1)    Pharisees

The term ‘Pharisee’ has been taken to mean “the separated ones” and first appeared under the rule of John Hycanus (135-105 B.C.). The Pharisees had their origins in the Hasidim movement who were allied with the Maccabeans in their struggle against the Seleucids (early second century B.C.). However, this group was not interest in the contest for political supremacy after the struggle. The Pharisees turned their attention to strict observance of the law, prophets, writings, and oral traditions. They were zealous to apply the old law to contemporary situations and keeping the Sabbath. They also believed in the immortality of the soul, and the resurrection.

•2)    Sadducees

The Sadducees had their origins in the Zadok, the priest of King David’s time (2 Samuel 8:17). They held the Torah as being canonical, and had no place for oral traditions. They were also anti-supernatural, and did not believe in angels, or the resurrection. Politically, they did not resist Rome. They were more open to Helenisation than other groups, and were willing to ally themselves to the dominant political power.


 

•3)    Essenes

The Essenes were a Jewish community that resembled monastic communities in early Christianity. They held property in common, led simple lives, and like the Pharisees strictly observed the law, and were even stricter with the Sabbath. They lived apart from the rest of the community and did not partake in temple sacrifice believing the religious establishment to be corrupt, and with good reason. Herod, a foreigner, had rebuilt the temple,[2] and was served by priestly class, the Sadducees, concerned to keep the Roman authorities pleased since theologically and politically they were in agreement with the Herodians.[3] They also believed the promises of God were fulfilled in the history of there community.

•4)    Zealots

While not a religious group, Zealots opposed tributes being paid to a pagan emperor, and used violence as a means of liberating Israel from Rome. Hence their actions were extremist and disruptive.

•5)    Herodians

The title ‘Herodian’ was used in reference to Jewish supporters of the Herodian dynasty. It is likely that most Herodians were Sadducees, though the title could have also applied to other groups and individuals. Apart from being allied to the dominant political power, there were other reasons for embracing Herodian Rule. Herod had complied to the Jewish expectations of the Messiah by claiming his ancestors were exiles of David’s house in Babylon, ruled an area that equalled the kingdom of David, built splendid buildings, established a palace for himself in Jerusalem, and rebuilt the temple. Hence, there was good reason for supporting the Herodian dynasty.

It is also known a number of other individuals rose up claiming to be the Messiah. In Pilate’s time, a Samaritan prophet had led his followers to Mount Gerizim in search of the holy vessels. Theudas, mentioned by Gamaliel (Acts 5:36), ventured to split the Jordan River providing his followers a safe passage alluding to the time of Moses.  A Jew from Egypt anticipated the collapse of the walls of Jerusalem at his command allowing free access into the city. It may have been this individual for whom Paul was mistaken (Acts 21:38). Jesus himself also anticipated many false Christ’s and prophets (Matthew 24:5, 11, 23-26).[4]

It is against these expectations, politics and theologies of the fore mentioned groups that Jesus teachings about the kingdom of God must be considered. It is important to recognise that Jesus teaching on the kingdom of God is not reduced to one section of any one of the four gospels, Luke informs his readers that Jesus mission was to teach about the kingdom of God (Luke 4:43). Hence, all of Jesus’ teaching can be traced back to the kingdom of God theme. However, there does seem to be a concentrated section of Jesus’ teaching on the kingdom of God in Matthew.. These teachings are given as parables. The phrase “the kingdom of God (or ‘the kingdom of heaven’ in Matthew) is like”, or a phrase simular, occurs fifteen times as an introduction to a parable throughout the synoptic gospels (Matthew 13:24, 31, 33, 43, 44, 45, 47, 52; 18:23; 20:1; 22:2; 25:1; Mark 4:26, 30; Luke 13:18). The meaning of the term ‘parable’ is broad, though in the gospels it generally refers to a contrast (Luke 18:1-8), or a comparison (Matthew 13:33).[5] The purpose of the parable was to provoke a response by the hearer.[6] The fact Jesus used parables to teach the kingdom of God must say something about the kingdom itself and the ministry of Jesus. The rise of Jesus as Messiah could not be ignored as in the examples of those who assumed this office previously. Jesus and his teaching on the kingdom of God demanded a response. For this reasons, Matthew 13, contains several such parables, will be closely examined, and the manner in which Jesus interacts with Jewish expectations of the kingdom will be noted.

The parable that is of most likely importance is the so-titled ‘Parable of the Soils’ (Matthew 13:1-23; Mark 4:1-20; Luke 8:4-15), for in Mark’s account, the importance of this parable is stressed (v13). In Matthew account, the importance of this parable and the parables following is also stressed by Jesus asking his disciples, “Have you understood all these things?” (v51). Understanding this parable is prerequisite to understanding the other teachings of Jesus and his works. In explaining the Parable of the Soils to his disciples, Jesus quotes Isaiah to indicate that his words are preparing people for judgment – a theme that will occur twice in the chapter (vv30, 48-50). This is so the judgement is not on the account of God. The fact that Jesus’ hearers did in fact understand something of what Jesus said on other occasions when he spoke in parables is evidenced by their actions (Mark 12:12; Luke 20:19), though they did not accept his message. Hence, the fulfilment of Isaiah does not rest on Jesus. Rather, it rests on those who do not accept Jesus message (Matthew 13:14).

It is not co-incidental that Jesus is using the image of planting. In the Davidic Covenant, the image of planting is used in reference to Israel being established so they would no longer suffer their enemies as part of an everlasting kingdom. While Luke understands the seed that is sown as the ‘word of God’ (Luke 8:11), Mark simply understands the seed that is sown simply as the ‘word’ (Mark 4:14). However, Matthew understands the seed that is sown as the ‘word of the kingdom’. Hence, not only do Jesus’ words bring about judgement, they also inaugurate the kingdom of God as Israel is replanted in the person of Jesus in the people’s accepting of his word. There is nothing unusual about the imagery Jesus uses in the parable. Jesus’ listeners would have often seen seed being scattered by hand, or be allowed to trickle from holes in a sack. Neither is there anything unusual about the yield. Though tenfold was average for much of Palestine, returns of up to one-hundred fold were possible and considered to be a tremendously good harvest.[7] Jesus expectation is always for a good yield from those who respond to his teaching as the lowest figure nominated is thirty-fold – still very much above what would be expected. In relation to the religious and political movements of Jesus day, it is clear at this point that the kingdom of God would not be established by such programs. Rather, the kingdom of God would be inaugurated in the person of Jesus. Matthew’s record of Jesus discourse continues on to consider the nature of the kingdom over several parables.

In the so-titled ‘Parable of the Weeds’ (vv24-40), Jesus demonstrates his kingdom is not what his contemporaries would have expected. Jesus uses a normal scene of a sower planting his wheat crop (v24). There is nothing unusual about weeds growing up with the crop. What is unusual in this parable is the weeds on this occasion were as a result of sabotage (v25). So much so, the volume of weeds prompted the servants to enquire to their master (v26). For this reason it is unusual scenario, one that would have shocked those listening to Jesus. The particular weed is known as ‘tare’. Hendrikson notes in the early stages of development, the tare closely resembled the wheat crop, and hosted a fungus poisonous to both animals and humans if eaten.[8] When interpreting the parable for his disciples (vv37-43), Jesus identifies the wheat seed as being ‘the children of the kingdom’ sown by the Son of Man (v38), and the tares as being ‘the sons of the evil one’ sown by the Devil (v39). The fact that Jesus closely identifies the children of the kingdom with the sons of the devil in the points of reference of wheat and tares is a strong indication that he does not have in mind the contemporary political views of the Kingdom of Israel verses the Roman occupation – two entities easily distinguishable from the other. Instead, the seed of the enemy to which Jesus is referring to, though does not identify at this stage, has close resemblance to the seed of the children of the kingdom and has grown up with them. Hence, the enemy is not an external entity to Israel. Rather the enemy is already part of Israel to be removed at a later time of final judgement. To discuss judgement would imply resurrection which would place Jesus’ teachings on the kingdom as being very different from those of the Sadducees.

Another aspect to this parable is the removal of the weeds. Keener notes “…fields were normally weeded in the spring, but if the weeds were discovered too late … harvesters could cut the wheat just below the head, leaving the shorter tares to be cut separately.”[9] The offer of the servants to pull the weeds out perhaps suggests that the normal time for removing weeds had not yet past, hence the response of the sower to permit the weeds to grow would have come as a surprise (vv28, 29). This suggests that the kingdom that Jesus had in mind would be a mix of the children of God and the sons of the devil until the final judgement at the close of the age (vv30, 40-42). Such a teaching would have been contrary to the religious programs of the Pharisees who were intent on avoiding unclean people, and the Essences who separated themselves from the broader community.[10]

The so-titled ‘Parables of the Mustard Seed and the Yeast’ continue to demonstrate the kingdom of God as being different from people’s expectations (vv 31-33). Keener recognises that the mustard seed is not the smallest seed known in Palestine.[11] Nonetheless, it was a small seed capable of growing into a large shrub, normally only four feet, it could grow as much as fifteen feet. The unexpected element to the parable is not its size, rather its function. While birds could normally perch in a mustard tree, they were not able to nest in it as portrayed in the parable. In simular fashion, Jesus likens the kingdom to yeast in three measures of flour. As insignificant as the yeast may appear in such a large quantity of flower, it is nonetheless able to raise enough bread to feed one-hundred people.[12] By telling these parables, Jesus is identifying his kingdom as something small and insignificant, not a political or religious movement to be concerned about. Even still, the influences of this kingdom would gradually be recognised.

Despite the seemingly insignificance of the kingdom, Jesus asserts its worth. In privacy with his disciples, he tells three more parables. Two expressing the worth of the kingdom, so-titled ‘The Parables of the Hidden Treasure and the Pearl’ (vv44-46), and one reiterating the mixed nature of the kingdom, so-titled ‘The Parable of the Net’ (vv47-50), as Jesus had just taught in ‘The Parable of the Weeds’ (vv24-30, 37-43). In the parables of the hidden treasure and the pearl, both scenarios were possible within the culture. Keener remarks that “Treasures were often buried for safekeeping”, and consistent with Keener, Hendricksen perceives that this would have been most likely done during times of strife. It was possible that the owner of the treasure had died before telling anyone of its location, leaving a peasant or worker to discover it by chance.[13] The surprise in this parable is the one who discovers the treasure actually has the resources to enable the purchase of the land on which the treasure is hidden, and they are prepared to part with those resources to gain the land that they may have rightful claim to the hidden treasure. Similarly, the same method of thinking is applied with the following parable with a pearl. If indeed the initial three parables are given in contrast to the contemporary kingdom expectations, than it would follow that these two parables are a continuation of that contrast. The possessions forfeited serve as a point of reference for contemporary kingdom expectations, and the hidden treasure and the pearl serve as a point of reference for the Kingdom of God. By telling the disciples these parables, Jesus is clearly teaching his disciples their need to forfeit their Jewish expectations kingdom of God and embrace what he has been teaching.

In his final parable, Jesus reiterates the mixed nature of the kingdom of God, and according to Hendricksen, that is all he does.[14] While all the points of reference are simular, Hendricksen has overlooked the change in the listening audience which can drastically affect the manner in which a parable is understood. It is not until verse 36 that Matthew tells his readers that Jesus had left the crowd. Therefore, ‘The Parable of the Weeds’ is given to the crowds, including the disciples, while ‘The Parable of the Net’ is given to the disciples only. There is also a shift in the point of reference for the Kingdom of God. In the former, the Kingdom of God is portrayed as having to compete with the enveloping circumstances which have been going for some time. However, this is about to change as the Kingdom of God is inaugurated by Jesus will be a mixture of all kinds (v47), and this is the type of kingdom which the work that the disciples will be partaking in. The thrust of this parable would not have been lost on some of the disciples whom Jesus had told will be fishers of men (Matthew 4:18-19). This would drive home the point that the work that the disciples were to be involved with was not to be a separatist movement as they may have imagined. Separation would be at the initiative of angels only (v49). Again, this teaching would have been contrary to that of the Pharisees.

Jesus radical teaching on the kingdom of God places him outside the main schools of thought in first century Judaism, and thereby stands unique. Through the gospels, opposition to Jesus can be detected from all these groups, with the exception of the Essenes who are not mentioned in Scripture. Clearly Herod, the Pharisees, and Sadducees all conspired against Jesus (Matthew 2:13, 16; 16:1; 26:3-4), and the Roman guard had no respect for him either (Matthew 27:27-31). Though there is not any know opposition from the Essenes, it is known that Jesus considered his disciples to be in the world, not separated from it (John 17:14, 16). Jesus teachings concerning the kingdom of God stood apart from contemporary expectations for one very good reason as Jesus explicitly told Pilate “My kingdom is not of this world.” (John 18:36). According to Jesus’ teaching the kingdom of God demanded repentance from contemporary views, and would not be consummated by political or religious movements, or by any other human initiative. Rather, it would be consummated at the time of judgement by the initiative of God.

 

Bibliography:

Betz, Otto.              ‘Messianic expectations in the context of first century Judaism’, in Christology in dialogue, ed. Robert F. Berkley and Sarah A. Edwards, Cleveland, Ohio: The Pilgrim Press, 1993.

Caragounis, Chrys C.,     ‘Kingdom of God / Kingdom of Heaven’ in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, ed. J. B. Green & Scot McKnight. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1992.

Hendriksen, William.       New Testament commentary: Matthew. Edinburgh, United Kingdom: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1973.

Hoehner, Harold W.        ‘Herodians’, in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, ed. J. B. Green & Scot McKnight. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1992.

Metzger, Bruce M.  The New Testament, its background, growth, and content. Nashville, Tennessee: Abingdon Press, 1965.

Snodgrass, Klyne R.       ‘Parable’, in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, ed. J. B. Green & Scot McKnight. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1992.

Tenney, Merrill C.   New Testament Survey. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing co., 1961.

© The Student’s Desk, 2007.

 


 

[1] Bruce M. Metzger, The New Testament, its background, growth, and content (Nashville, Tennessee: Abingdon Press, 1965), 46.

[2] Otto Betz, ‘Messianic expectations in the context of first century Judaism’, in Christology in dialogue, ed. Robert F. Berkley and Sarah A. Edwards (Cleveland, Ohio: The Pilgrim Press, 1993), 35

[3] Harold W. Hoehner, ‘Herodians’, in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, ed. J. B. Green & Scot McKnight. (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 325

[4] Otto Betz, ‘Messianic expectations in the context of first century Judaism’, 37

[5] Klyne R. Snodgrass, ‘Parable’, in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, ed. J. B. Green & Scot McKnight. (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 593

[6] Klyne R. Snodgrass, ‘Parable’, 597

[7] Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible background commentary: New Testament on CD-ROM (Downers Grove, Illinios: InterVasity Press, 1993).

[8] William Hendriksen, New Testament commentary: Matthew (Edinburgh, United Kingdom: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1973), 563

[9] Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible background commentary: New Testament on CD-ROM.

[10] Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible background commentary: New Testament on CD-ROM.

[11] Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible background commentary: New Testament on CD-ROM.

[12] Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible background commentary: New Testament on CD-ROM

[13] William Hendriksen, New Testament commentary: Matthew, 575

[14] William Hendriksen, New Testament commentary: Matthew, 578

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October 24, 2007 - Posted by | Essays, Gospels, New Testament, Religious | , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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