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From his book, “Jesus”, Chapter 7

The Kingdom of Heaven

One day they sent spies to watch and to catch Jesus in what he said, “‘Teacher,’ they said to him, ‘we know that you speak and teach rightly, and show no partiality. Is it lawful for us to give tribute to Caesar, or not?’ But he perceived their craftiness, and said to them, ‘Show me a coin. Whose likeness and inscription are on it?’ They said, ‘Caesar’s.’ He said to them, ‘Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s’.’’ (cf. Luke 20:20-26)

Once again Jesus had succeeded in evading capture, while at the same time making his meaning unmistakably clear. One cannot serve two masters, God and mammon. Money comes from Caesar, and so it must be handed over to him. Quite certainly the saying did not express friendship toward the Romans, but it also showed that Jesus was no supporter of revolt against them. His ethical teaching made that impossible. He was well aware of social reality, but that was not his most important concern. Once one has allowed oneself to enter the game, one must play according to the rules. “Settle matters quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison; truly I say to you, you will never get out till you have paid the last penny” (Matt. 5:25-26).

Zealots and Ceasar

It is hard to agree with those who maintain that Pilate was right when he executed Jesus because he was a political agitator, or the leader of a gang in the Jewish war of liberation against Rome. In addition to the trial of Jesus, the chief evidence cited in support of this view is that Jesus had preached the kingdom of heaven. “Heaven” is a circumlocution for “God” and people in general believed that when the kingdom of God came, Israel would be freed from the yoke of Rome. At that time most Jews hated the occupying Roman power. The party known as Zealots believed that armed struggle against Rome was divinely ordained, and their terrorist activists made the country unsafe. One of the twelve apostles had been a Zealot at one time.

The fundamental teaching of the Zealots was “the demand for the sole rule of God, which led to a radical breach with the Roman Caesar’s claims to sovereignty; it was linked with the expectation that, through battle with the Roman oppressor, the eschatological liberation of Israel at the end of time would be ushered in.” Although it is possible that the Zealots, too, spoke about the kingdom of heaven, at that time the phrase had in fact become an anti-Zealot slogan. Because there are clear similarities between the rabbinic idea of the kingdom and that of Jesus, we may assume that Jesus developed their idea. This concept did not appear among the Essenes.

The Rule of God

Among the Jews, the kingdom or rule of God meant that the one and only God presently rules de jure. Only in the eschatological future, however, will “the kingdom of God be revealed to all the inhabitants of the world” de facto.  Although Israel now languishes under a foreign yoke, at the end God alone will rule in Zion. The anti-Zealot parties, too, cherished this hope, and the disciples of Jesus thought likewise. According to Acts 1:6 they asked the risen Lord, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?”

In the Book of Revelation (chap. 18) we hear jubilation at the fall of Rome, but the “historical Jesus” of the Gospels is silent on this point. Could the friend of the poor and the persecuted be a friend to the Romans? It seems that Jesus indirectly hinted to the end of foreign occupation of his homeland. Yet, even if Jesus did foresee the fall of Rome, the evangelists might not have mentioned it, so as not to cast even more suspicion upon the founder of their religion.

The domination of Israel by a foreign power was seen as a punishment for her sins. “If the house of Israel transgresses the law, foreign nations will rule over her, and if they keep the law, mourning, tribulation, and lamentation will depart from her.”  In other words, “If Israel kept the words of the law given to them, no people or kingdom would rule over them. And what does the law say? ‘Take upon you the yoke of My kingdom and emulate one another in the fear of God and practice kindness to one another’.”  Thus, even at the present, there may be individuals who are, so to speak, living in the kingdom of God. “Every one who takes upon himself the yoke of the law removes from his shoulders the yoke of government and daily sorrows. But whoever removes the yoke of the law will be burdened with the yoke of government and daily sorrows.”

When Israel wants to do only the will of God, the kingdom of heaven will be revealed to them. “If Israel at the Red Sea had said, ‘He is king for all eternity,’ no nation or language would have ruled over them; but they said (Ex. 15:18), ‘the Lord will reign for ever and ever’.”  This saying was apparently not only directed against the futuristic hopes of the apocalyptist, but against the Zealots who wanted to take heaven by force. When the Zealots had forcibly assumed government and the rebellion had been bloodily suppressed by Rome, one of the scribes complained of “the rulers of the cities of Judah, who have put off the yoke of heaven and assumed the yoke of the government of flesh and blood.”  This view was shared by Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai. After the destruction of Jerusalem, when he saw the daughter of Nicodemus assuaging her hunger with grains of barley picked from the dung of an Arab horse, he wept and said, “As long as Israel is doing the will of God, no nation or kingdom shall rule over it. But if they are not doing the will of God, he will deliver them into the hand of the lowest nation and not only this, but under the legs of the beast of the lowest nation.”

According to rabbinic literature, the yoke of foreign domination would be permanently removed from Israel by the appearance of the kingdom of heaven. The apocalyptists believed that at that time Satan and his powers would also be destroyed, and so thought Jesus. In other respects, as we have mentioned, Jesus’ concept of the kingdom of heaven was related to that of the rabbis. According to Jesus, the coming of God’s rule, and hope in the eschatological savior were two different aspects of the expectation of the end. The idea of the kingdom of God and of the Son of Man were never confused in his mind. According to both Jesus and the rabbis, the kingdom of heaven emerges, indeed, out of the power of God, but is realized upon earth by men. Man, then, can and should work for the realization of the kingdom. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 4:17).

The Timing of the Kingdom

The first to point out the eschatological orientation of the message of Jesus through his preaching of the kingdom of God was Hermann Samuel Reimarus (1694 - 1768). G.E. Lessing, as we know, subsequently published fragments of his writings. Starting from Lessing’s text, Albert Schweitzer then elaborated his own “consistent eschatology”: “To be worthy of consideration, Jesus’ mode of thought must be either completely eschatological or completely non-eschatological.” Reimarus certainly would not have agreed with this. In the final version of his work, Reimarus distinguished between Jesus’ non-eschatological moral preaching of repentance and “his main purpose, which was to establish the kingdom.” Modern portrayals of Jesus, however, often trace his eschatology along a different line. The warning of the great Christian and religious socialist, Leonhard Ragaz, was in vain.

The notion is quite untenable, that Jesus built a kind of ethic and theology upon his expectation of the imminence of the kingdom of God. This sort of thing may well happen in the study of a theologian or a philosopher . . . . The relationship is quite the reverse from what the eschatological systematizers imagine. It is not the eschatological expectation which determines Jesus’ understanding of God and of man which determines his eschatological expectation . . . but, conversely, his understanding of God and of man which determines his eschatological expectation . . . To fail to see this one must have already put on a professor’s spectacles. (L. Ragaz, Die Botschaft vom Reiche Gottes [Bern, 1942], p. 280. See also Die Geschichte der Sache Christi [Hamburg, 1945], pp. 112-113.)

Schweitzer was still concerned with the painful truth, but the later eschatologists fell into a non-committal admiration of an alleged pan-eschatologism of Jesus. If we understand every saying of Jesus in a purely eschatological sense, so that eschatology becomes unrealistic and purely existential, then we arrive at the conclusion that the demands of Jesus are not morally binding. One New Testament scholar has said that turning the other cheek is only allowed because it is a “messianic license” otherwise, this sort of thing would be revolutionary. This is a correct assessment, for the preaching of Jesus is indeed revolutionary and subversive: and Jesus knew it! (Matt. 10:16).

For Jesus and the rabbis, the kingdom of God is both present and future, but their perspectives are different. When Jesus was asked when the kingdom was to come, he said, “The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed; nor will they say, ‘Lo, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ For behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you” (Luke 17:20-21). Elsewhere he said, “But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you” (Luke 17:20-21.

There are, therefore, according to Jesus, individuals who are already in the kingdom of heaven. This is not exactly the same sense in which the rabbis understood the kingdom. For them the kingdom had been always an unchanging reality, but for Jesus there was a specific point in time when the kingdom began breaking out upon earth. “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven is breaking through, and those who break through, seize it” (Matt. 11:12). According to Luke 16:16, “every one forces his way in.” Jesus’ words are based upon Micah 2:13.

This, then, is the “realized eschatology” of Jesus. He is the only Jew of ancient times known to us who preached not only that people were on the threshold of the end of time, but that the new age of salvation had already begun. This new age had begun with John the Baptist who made the great break-through, but was not himself a member of the kingdom. The eruption of the kingdom of God also meant its expansion among the people. ‘The kingdom of heaven is like leaven which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal, till all was leavened” (Matt. 13:33). On the growth of the kingdom Jesus also said, “It is like a grain of mustard seed which a man took and sowed in his garden; and it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches”(Luke 13:18-19).

A similar image is to be found in the Essene hymnbook. The poet compares the congregation to a tree, “all the beasts of the forest fed on its leafy boughs . . . and its branches sheltered all the birds, but all the trees by the water rose above it.” This is a symbol of the wicked world all around. The tree of life itself is concealed “the seal of its mystery remains unobserved, unrecognized.” God Himself guards its secret; the outsider “sees but does not recognize, and thinks but does not believe in the source of life.” This reminds us of the words of Jesus. “To you it has been given to know the secrets of God, but to them it has not been given” (Cf. Matt. 13:11-15). What is much more important is that the parable of the mustard seed resembles the Essene symbol for the community.

The Manner of the Kingdom

Thus, for Jesus, the kingdom of heaven is not only the eschatological rule of God that has dawned already, but a divinely willed movement that spreads among people throughout the earth. The kingdom of heaven is not simply a matter of God’s kingship, but also the domain of his rule, an expanding realm embracing ever more and more people, a realm into which one may enter and find one’s inheritance, a realm where there are both great and small. That is why Jesus called the twelve to be fishers of men and to heal and preach everywhere. “The kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 10:5-16). For this reason he demanded of some that they should leave everything behind and follow him. We do not mean to assert that Jesus wanted to found a church or even a single community, but that he wanted to start a movement. Stated in exaggerated ecclesiological terms, we might say that the eruption of the kingdom of heaven is a process in which ultimately the invisible Church becomes identical with the visible.

That which Jesus recognized and desired is fulfilled in the message of the kingdom. There God’s unconditional love for all becomes visible, and the barriers between sinner and righteous are shattered. Human dignity becomes null and void, the last become first, and the first become last. The poor, the hungry, the meek, the mourners, and the persecuted inherit the kingdom of heaven. In Jesus’ message of the kingdom, the strictly social factor does not, however, seem to be the decisive thing. His revolution has to do chiefly with the transvaluation of all the usual moral values, and hence his promise is specially for sinners. “Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you” (Matt. 21:31-32). Jesus found resonance among the social outcasts and the despised, just a John the Baptist had done before him.

Even the non-eschatological ethical teaching of Jesus can presumably be oriented towards his message of the kingdom. Because Satan and his powers will be overthrown and the present world-order shattered, it is to be regarded almost with indifference, and ought not to be strengthened by opposition. Therefore, one should not resist evildoers; one should love one’s enemy and not provoke the Roman empire to attack. For when the kingdom of God is fully realized, all this will vanish.  -