The Kingdom of Heaven, the Rule of God

An illustration of John the Baptist preaching ...
"Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!"

I recently read an article over at Christianity Today by Scott McKnight entitled, “Jesus vs. Paul.” It’s a fairly interesting delve into the apparent contrasts between the Messiah and the Apostle.  In particular, I noted the following admission:

I grew up with, on, through, and in the apostle Paul. His letters were the heart of our Bible. From the time I began paying attention to my pastor’s sermons, I can only recall sermons on 1 Corinthians—the whole book verse by verse, week by week—and Ephesians. I don’t recall a series on any of the Gospels or on Jesus.

There were two annual exceptions to our Pauline focus. At Christmas, we heard a sermon on one of the narratives about Jesus’ birth, and during Holy Week, we got something on Jesus’ death and resurrection. We were Pauline Christians and not one bit worried about it. I learned to think and believe and live in a Pauline fashion. Everything was filtered through Paul’s theology. Justification was the lens for the gospel, and “life in the Spirit,” the lens for Christian living.

Mr. McKnight’s discovery of Yeshua is not unlike that many of us in the Messianic movement made, though it led him to a different path.  However, about midway through the article it becomes very evident that most of the problem the author has experienced in reconciling the teachings of Yeshua and Paul was a lack of understanding of the meaning of the term, “Kingdom of Heaven”:

An even more fatal flaw resides in this approach: kingdom means more than the “dynamic” reign of God at work in Christ. The emphasis on “dynamic” leads me to think that we evangelicals want “kingdom” to refer to the personal experience of conversion, so that it can fit with our evangelical Paul. The roadblock here is insurmountable: kingdom for any and every Jew in the first century had at least four components: a king (Jesus or God), a people (Israel), a territory (the land of Israel), and a law that governed the people (the Torah or law of Moses).

Actually, that’s not quite true, though it’s a common misconception.  In truth, Judaism does teach about a “Kingdom of Heaven” or “Rule of God” that is, to use George Ladd’s definition (quoted in the article), the “dynamic reign of God.”  This dynamic rule of God in the hearts of the faithful, as conceived by Judaism, is separate from but a necessary prerequisite for the Davidic Kingdom promised by the prophets.

This may sound strange, but it’s true.  In the Talmud we read that one must first accept the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven before accepting the yoke of the Torah’s commandments. What does that mean?  R. Akiva says that one accepts the Kingdom when he recites the Shema, the central creed of Judaism (m. Berakhot 2:2, b. Berakhot 61b and 13b).  The Talmud further explains:

And R. Yochanan said, “He who wants to accept upon himself the yoke of the kingdom of Heaven in a full way should first empty his bowel, then wash his hands, put on his phylacteries, recite the Shema, and say the Prayer, and this constitutes accepting the kingdom of Heaven in a full way.”  (b. Berakhot 14B-15a)

So we see that the Kingdom of Heaven is not to be mistaken with the Davidic/Messianic kingdom or the ‘Olam HaBa, the Age to Come, nor is it to be mistaken with keeping God’s commandments in a rote fashion.  Rather, it is accepting God’s rulership, which is the prerequisite for both obeying His commandments and entering into His promised blessings.  And how does one accept God’s rule?  To the ancient rabbis, the answer was to

  1. Empty one’s self of uncleanness
  2. Wash one’s hands to tend to external purity
  3. Bind God’s Word on one’s arm and between one’s eyes
  4. Recite the Shema, the confession of faith that there is only one God,
  5. And to say the Amidah, the Eighteen Benedictions which simultaneously praise the Holy One and entreat Him for His mercy and provision.

This is not so different from the Renewed Covenant view of coming under the Kingship of Heaven.  There is, however, a new and incredible benefit that the Holy One has made available to us:  Yeshua places His Ruach within us to write His Torah on our hearts and help us to truly walk under His rulership (Jer. 31:31-34, Ezk. 36:27, cf. Joel 2:28-29). Without this new birth and indwelling, we cannot see the true Rule of God, only the visible assemblies, which can and are infiltrated by the Adversary and his children to cause disruption, chaos, and wickednes, as described in Matthew 13’s Kingdom Parables (“The Wheat and the Tares” in particular).  Heaven’s true dominion is not to be found in the institutions and rules of Man, but is now realized by the gift of the Holy Spirit, which writes the Torah on our hearts and supernaturally empowers us to walk in the Holy One’s ways (Jer. 31:31-34, Ezk. 36:26f).

Understood in this light, there isn’t a substantial distinction between the messages of Yeshua and Paul, only in their terminology.  Yeshua, speaking to a Jewish audience, uses a distinctly Jewish term to describe the imminent rule of the Holy One by His Spirit.  Paul, writing primarily to an audience of Gentiles and Hellenized Jews, eschews the possibly confusing term–they, like McKnight, would likely try to understand this Kingdom as a King, a people, a territory, and a law–and explains the same concept in different terms.  For example, he refers often to the giving of the Spirit, which his audience knew experientially.  Or he speaks in terms of being joined to or unified with Yeshua, which his audience could understand from their knowledge of the teachings of the various pagan cults.  But the essential message is the same:  The King of Heaven is ruling His people through His Spirit.

Sadly, for centuries Christianity has not understood its unity or its and Israel’s destiny because of a false dichotomy:  Either the Kingdom must be the “dynamic rule of God,” in which case there is no place for a national Israel, or the Kingdom must refer to the Davidic reign, and we in this present age do not experience it.  On the contrary, the Rule of God is present among us (Luke 17:21), but it will be made manifest to the whole world in the eschatological Davidic Kingdom.

Come, Lord Yeshua!

Shalom

Learn more about the Kingdom of Heaven in our two-part podcast here and learn more about the Amidah on Hebrew Root.

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7 Replies to “The Kingdom of Heaven, the Rule of God”

  1. Some interesting stuff, but I’m a little unclear what is wrong with the four points. I could preach, right out of Paul (and the gospels), a king, a people, a territory, and a law. You might want to explain what you see wrong with that paradigm.

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    1. Well, you do get a King (God/the Messiah), a people (the Ekklesia, or Body of Messiah), and a law, but the territory is noticeably absent, which I think was McKnight’s point of confusion. My point is basically that the rabbis understood the lack of sovereign territory to be a punishment for our many sins, but nevertheless believed in the Kingdom of Heaven, the rule of God in the hearts of the faithful, which would lead into the territory being restored to sovereignty and supremacy in the Davidic Kingdom but which was not disproved by the present lack.

      Did that help, or did I just muddle it further? :)

      Shalom and Merry Christmas to you and yours.

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  2. Oh, I think there is a territory as well. Scott McKnight is a post-modern and reality itself confuses him :)

    I didn’t object to your point, just didn’t see the contrast (still don’t).

    (still waiting for your reply to some of my earlier comments, BTW)

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