The Kingdom of God 4: The Kingdom Foretold
This is the fourth talk in our series on ‘The Kingdom of God’. So far, we’ve looked at the following:
(Click on the talks if you would like to review the whole article)
Distinct identity – 1 Peter 2:9f
‘But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God's people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.’
The Language of the Kingdom – 1 Corinthians 13
‘Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.’
In the early chapters of the Gospels, we read that crowds were drawn to John the Baptist and to Jesus, partly in response to the message they proclaimed: ‘ . . . the Kingdom of God has drawn near.’ (See e.g. Matthew 3: 1-2 and 4: 17; Mark 1: 15)
We get the sense that the coming of this kingdom represented the fulfillment of a longed-for dream for John’s and Jesus’ hearers. My task is to trace the development of that dream through the OT.
Not so fast!
‘Hang about,’ I hear you say! ‘The people listening to John and Jesus were mainly Jews! What has a Jewish dream got do with me?’
A good question! Let’s spend a moment looking at this point. We’ll begin by asking, ‘What is the OT anyway?’
In one sense, the answer to this question merely adds to our problem! There are lots of answers to the question, ‘What is the OT?’ Each answer could be the subject of a lengthy study. But for brevity’s sake, let me just say that in the intention of the writers of the books of the OT, who were what we today would call Jews, it is likely that they were writing for Jews about God’s plans and purposes, especially focusing on how the Jews were central to that purpose.
So once again, we are left asking a question. ‘If this is so, what’s it all got to do with me?’ And if the OT is mainly about the people we know today as Jews, why is it in our Christian Bible?
Again, a full answer to this is outside the scope of this talk; however, for brevity’s sake, we might summarise the answer in this way: from God’s point of view, something happened when we believed in Jesus and submitted to him as Lord of our lives.
In 1 Peter 2: 9, it is put this way:
‘But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.
And where did Peter get this passage from? Did he just make it up? Actually it is based on a statement from the OT, in
Exodus 19: 5-6, speaking to the Jews:
‘Now therefore, if you will obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples . . . and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the people of Israel.’
Something important has happened here. The promises of God that once applied just to the Jewish people are now applied to us because of our faith in Jesus. You could say that from God’s perspective, we are all Jews.
Now, if that’s true, then the story of God’s dealings with the Jewish people now becomes our story. The call of God to them becomes God’s call to us. Their hopes and dreams lie at the foundation of the hope that God holds out to us. The things they learned are things we can learn from.
So tracing the development of God’s plans through the OT is not just an academic exercise. The stories of the OT are our history. We have been given a baton in God’s great relay race and our job is to carry it faithfully until we cross the finish line or finish our leg of the race and hand it on to the next generation.
It’s no wonder that Paul, in 2 Timothy 3: 16-17, writes of the OT in this way:
‘All Scripture is God-breathed, and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of god may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.’
Again, this is crying out for elaboration, but I must ignore it and press on.
The Kingdom of God in the Old Testament
Let me begin by saying that the phrase ‘Kingdom of God’ is not really an OT concept. A casual reading of the Bible might lead someone to suppose that the idea originated with the NT. Actually, the phrase and a whole body of teaching associated with it grew and took shape in the period of time between the writing of the last book of the OT (possibly Malachi, possibly c. 400 BC) and the arrival of Jesus on the scene. Jesus gave a new twist to the idea – and I must leave to another the task of unravelling that story.
I have said that ‘Kingdom of God’ is not really an OT concept. However, the seeds to the idea are liberally scattered throughout the writings it contains. So let’s unpack some of the evidence.
The Ingredients of a Kingdom
Kingdoms are like people: they come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. But there are some things that all kingdoms have in common. And all of these ‘characteristics of a kingdom’ can be found in the OT in relation to God’s grand plans and purposes.
1. Characteristic #1: Kingdoms Need a King
(a) The Kingship of God is one of the foundation truths of the OT. We have no time to elaborate and go into the responsibilities of a king and how kings exercise their authority. But the fact that God is a king can be seen from scriptures such as:
Clap your hands, all peoples!
Shout to God with loud songs of joy!
For the LORD, the Most High, is to be feared,
a great king over all the earth.
God has gone up with a shout,
the Lord with the sound of a trumpet.
Sing praises to God, sing praises!
Sing praises to our King, sing praises!
For God is the King of all the earth;
God reigns over the nations;
God sits on his holy throne.
The princes of the peoples gather
as the people of the God of Abraham.
For the kings of the earth belong to God;
he is highly exalted!
(b) God’s rule derives from the fact that everything in the universe exists because of him and is controlled by him.
See e.g. Psalm 104
If you’re feeling very brave, you might like to also read Job 38 – 41.
(c) No on can successfully oppose his will
See e.g. Isaiah 46: 8-11
Remember this and stand firm,
I am God, and there is no other;
I am God, and there is none like me,
declaring the end from the beginning
and from ancient times things not yet done,
saying, ‘My counsel shall stand,
and I will accomplish all my purpose,’
I have spoken, and I will bring it to pass;
I have purposed, and I will do it.
(d) Another feature of God’s kingly rule is that God’s desire is the blessing of all people on earth.
We read this in:
Genesis 12: 1-3
Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
(e) Although God is King, he delegates his authority to others
See e.g. Psalm 47: 9, where we read, ‘The kings of the earth belong to God’.
(f) But this isn’t all. As we read through the OT we find that one king stands above the others.
· In Genesis 49: 10, we read that this king will be a Jew, descended from the tribe of Judah:
The sceptre shall not depart from Judah,
nor the ruler's staff from between his feet,
until he comes to whom it belongs
and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples.
· In 1 Chronicles 17: 7-14, we read this king will be a descendant of King David:
Now, therefore, thus shall you say to my servant David, ‘Thus says the LORD of hosts, I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep, to be prince over my people Israel, and I have been with you wherever you have gone and have cut off all your enemies from before you. And I will make for you a name, like the name of the great ones of the earth. And I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, that they may dwell in their own place and be disturbed no more. And violent men shall waste them no more, as formerly, from the time that I appointed judges over my people Israel. And I will subdue all your enemies. Moreover, I declare to you that the LORD will build you a house. When your days are fulfilled to walk with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, one of your own sons, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for me, and I will establish his throne forever. I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son. I will not take my steadfast love from him, as I took it from him who was before you, but I will confirm him in my house and in my kingdom forever, and his throne shall be established forever.’”
· In Micah 5: 2 we read that this king will be born in Bethlehem:
But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah,
who are too little to be among the clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
one who is to be ruler in Israel,
whose coming forth is from of old,
from ancient days.
· In Isaiah 9: 6-7 we read that the rule of this king will establish righteousness and justice and grow continually:
For to us a child is born, to us a son is given;
and the government shall be upon his shoulder,
and his name shall be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of his government and of peace
there will be no end,
on the throne of David and over his kingdom,
to establish it and to uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time forth and forevermore.
The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.
· In Daniel 2: 31-35 we read of a vision given to Nebuchadnezzar, emperor of the Babylonian Empire. In verses 36-45, we read the interpretation. God will set up a kingdom that will grow to become earth-wide in extent. (Those with good memories will remember that Tim spoke about this in the second talk in this series):
“You saw, O king, and behold, a great image. The head of this image was of fine gold, its chest and arms were of silver, its middle and thighs of bronze, its legs of iron, its feet partly of iron and partly of clay. As you looked, a stone was cut out by no human hand, and it struck the image on its feet of iron and clay, and broke them in pieces. Then the stone that struck the image became a great mountain and filled the whole earth.
“This was the dream. Now we will tell the king its interpretation. You, O king, you are the head of gold. Another kingdom inferior to you shall arise after you, and yet a third kingdom of bronze, which shall rule over all the earth. And there shall be a fourth kingdom, strong as iron. And as you saw the feet and toes, partly of potter's clay and partly of iron, it shall be a divided kingdom, partly strong and partly brittle. And in the days of those kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed. It shall break in pieces all these kingdoms and bring them to an end, and it shall stand forever. The great God has made known to the king what shall be after this. The dream is certain, and its interpretation sure.”
Who is the king that these scriptures point to? Any ideas?
Question (for personal reflection):
I say that God is my King and Jesus is my Lord. How does this show itself in my day to day life?
2. Characteristic #2: Kingdoms need People, or Subjects
In Genesis 12: 1-3 that we mentioned earlier we read that God chose Abraham to be the one through whom he would bring blessing to the earth and its inhabitants. Later, God made this promise to Abraham (see Genesis 17: 4-8):
“Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and kings shall come from you. And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. And I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God.”
So God has chosen a people for himself – the descendants of Abraham. And to become a member of God’s people, you had to be born into the family.
We saw earlier, in Exodus 19: 5-6, that God chose them to be his ‘treasured possession’ a ‘kingdom of priests and a holy nation’.
And why is this? Was it just so they could strut around the place feeling all superior? No. There was a job to do. In Isaiah 42: 5-7 we read:
‘Thus says God, the LORD,
who created the heavens and stretched them out,
who spread out the earth and what comes from it,
who gives breath to the people on it
and spirit to those who walk in it:
“I am the LORD; I have called you in righteousness;
I will take you by the hand and keep you;
I will give you as a covenant for the people,
a light for the nations,
to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
from the prison those who sit in darkness.’
What does this mean? Simply this:
God’s people are the means whereby the blessings of submission to the rule of God are transferred out to the whole world.
Does this sound familiar stuff?
What we haven’t got time to do is to go into detail about the tensions that arose between two tendencies:
1. To open the membership of God’s covenant people to ‘outsiders’. The danger here was that outsiders brought into the community ways of life and cultures that tended to dilute the distinctiveness of God’s people. They became indistinguishable from the people around them. And, to be honest, many of the practices of these outsiders were downright sinful.
2. To restrict membership to just Jews and cut off contact, as much as was humanly possible, with outsiders. A careful reading of books like Nehemiah and Ezra, written towards the end of the OT period, give the impression that this was the direction that God’s people were moving in.
Question: By the time of Jesus, which of these two attitudes was most evident amongst the Jews? Do the tensions just described show themselves in our Church? If so, how?
3. Characteristic #3: Kingdoms Need Laws, a Way of Life to which All Subjects Submit
How many people have set out to read the Bible from cover to cover? How many people found it easy to begin with because the early chapters are a succession of stories? How many people started to lose the will to live because they suddenly hit chapter after chapter of laws that seemed to bear no relation to life as we know it?
Yes, there are lots of such laws in the OT. We (or most of us) know the 10 Commandments and vaguely approve of them (although we don’t quite know what to do with the 4th one!).
But there are far more than just 10 laws in the OT. Jewish rabbis reckoned on there being 613 of them in all, and to be a good Jew you were expected to fully obey all of them.
We don’t have time now to go into the whole question of ‘Law and the Christian’, but there are some summaries that seem to get behind the laws that were compulsory for God’s people in OT times and talk about the heart attitude God’s people should seek to develop:
Deuteronomy 6: 4-5
‘Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.’
Deuteronomy 10: 12-13
‘And now, Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you, but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul.’
Micah 6: 6-8
‘With what shall I come before the LORD,
and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?’
He has told you, O man, what is good;
and what does the LORD require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?’
So the kind of life that the OT sets out as pleasing to God is one that demonstrates devotion to God and actively seeks the good of others. God is not necessarily overly impressed by observance of religious rituals.
Again, does this sound familiar?
What are the religious rituals we engage in week by week?
Is there a tendency to think that God is pleased with us because we do them?
If so, are we right to think like this?
4. Characteristic #4: Kingdoms Need Territory
A lot of the Old Testament is to do with God’s promise that Abraham’s descendants have the right of ownership to the land we today call Israel and Palestine. We must be honest and say that Christians debate hotly whether this promise still holds.
For our purposes, it suffices to refer back to Genesis 17: 4-8.
However, the OT also directs our attention beyond that. God’s people are encouraged to think beyond these boundaries.
See e.g. Isaiah 54: 1-3
‘Sing, O barren one, who did not bear;
break forth into singing and cry aloud,
you who have not been in labour!
For the children of the desolate one will be more
than the children of her who is married,” says the LORD.
“Enlarge the place of your tent,
and let the curtains of your habitations be stretched out;
do not hold back; lengthen your cords
and strengthen your stakes.
For you will spread abroad to the right and to the left,
and your offspring will possess the nations
and will people the desolate cities.’
As we have seen, God’s plans are that the whole earth should submit to his rule. In the OT, this is a certain outcome.
See e.g. Isaiah 11: 1-10
There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.
And the Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him,
the Spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the Spirit of counsel and might,
the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD.
And his delight shall be in the fear of the LORD.
He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide disputes by what his ears hear,
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
and he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
Righteousness shall be the belt of his waist,
and faithfulness the belt of his loins.
The wolf shall dwell with the lamb,
and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat,
and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together;
and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze;
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra,
and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder's den.
They shall not hurt or destroy
in all my holy mountain;
for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD
as the waters cover the sea.
In that day the root of Jesse, who shall stand as a signal for the peoples - of him shall the nations inquire, and his resting place shall be glorious.
For a similar picture of the time when God’s rule shall be universal, read Micah 4: 1-5
‘It shall come to pass in the latter days
that the mountain of the house of the LORD
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and it shall be lifted up above the hills;
and peoples shall flow to it,
And many nations shall come, and say:
“Come; let us go up to the mountain of the LORD,
to the house of the God of Jacob,
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.”
For out of Zion shall go forth the law,
and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between many peoples,
and shall decide for strong nations far away;
and they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war anymore;
but they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree,
and no one shall make them afraid,
for the mouth of the LORD of hosts has spoken.
For all the peoples walk
each in the name of its god,
but we will walk in the name of the LORD our God
forever and ever.’
(for personal reflection. I don’t feel this is necessarily for sharing in small group, but you may also want to discuss this is in your 1-2-1 sessions):
What are the boundaries I have in my life beyond which I am reluctant to go?
Why do I have these boundaries?
Are they godly?