The Kingdom of God has long been a matter of primary importance for the people of God. God’s rule come on earth was what the Hebrew prophets longed to see. Jesus taught his disciples to pray with this request superseding all others: Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. True believers want God to rule the world—for him to take his rightful place as the King of kings—and they pursue his kingdom rule with their lives. But how? How do the people of God pursue the kingdom of God? In order to answer this question, let’s look back at first-century Palestine and see how Jesus’ contemporaries pursued God’s kingdom.
There are four general ways that first-century Jews sought to bring about God’s kingdom. (For a full treatment of this, read N.T. Wright’s The Challenge of Jesus, or if you’re feeling adventurous, his large volume The New Testament and the People of God.) Those four ways are: Separatist, Zealot, Compromise, and Purification.
The Essenes were a community of believers who had finally had enough of the corrupt society in which they lived and decided to move out into the desert to form their own community. They were fed up with the Jewish leaders, the Roman occupation, and the corrupt temple worship, so they just disappeared and waited for God to do whatever he was going to do. The separated themselves from the corruption of the culture and pursued God’s kingdom by being faithful within their own community and waiting for God to act in judgment against the larger world. If you’ve ever seen the movie The Village, you may be able to understand the separatist community.
You may have heard of a group of Jewish revolutionaries called The Sicarii. They were zealots who pursued the kingdom of God through violent uprising against the Roman overlords. They believed that God would bring about his rule on earth through a freed Israel, and that the Messiah would achieve a military victory over Rome that would be the symbol of God’s theological victory over the forces of evil. God’s kingdom comes about, therefore, through the violent uprising of his people and the military defeat of the pagan Roman Gentiles who ruled the land. The mantle of oppression must be thrown off through military might, and only then will God’s promises come true.
Many of Israel’s most powerful leaders came to and held their positions of power through compromise with the Roman authorities. The mindset of these politicians was that you had to go along to get along, and if Israel wanted any semblance of nationhood, any hope for the future, then she would have to work with Rome rather than seek a violent revolution. Israel’s path to sovereignty and greatness (and, therefore, the future of the kingdom of God and the hope in the fulfillment of his promises) was compromise with the powers-that-be. You get what you can get while you can get it and hope that God will bless it in the end.
Unable to do anything about the impurity of the pagans who occupied the land, the Pharisees sought to achieve purity through careful obedience to Torah and the traditions of the elders. They wanted to change Israel from within, and in so doing, hope that God will recognize the faithfulness of his people and send his Messiah to rescue them. There was some thought that if all Israel could keep Torah perfectly for one day, then Messiah would come. The Pharisees hoped that, by remaining pure, God would mark them out as the True Israel, and whenever he decided to act, he would do so for the sake of those who had kept themselves pure.
When faced with corruption and sin within the church and debauchery and idolatry from the culture, we can all be tempted to respond in one of these four ways. Some of us separate into our own tiny group and watch everyone else go to hell. Others get angry to the point of violence, whether through word or deed. Still others reach a point of compromise, convinced that there’s no other way forward but to lay down certain principles. And others try the path of purity, hoping to compel God to act by their own faithfulness. But there is a fifth way—the way of incarnation.
Jesus didn’t pursue the kingdom through either of the previous four methods. He came and said, “The Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe the good news.” Jesus’ claim was that the kingdom was coming about in and through his work and preaching. You might say that Jesus incarnated the kingdom—he made the rule of God come about on earth through everything he said and did, which ultimately led him to the cross and, through that, the empty tomb.
This fifth way is now our way—we are the body of Christ on earth. Jesus’ commission to us is to continue his work (that’s what it means to make disciples), and to see the rule of God come about on earth even as we wait for this to be ultimately accomplished when Jesus himself returns. We are not to be idle while he is away. We are to be about our Master’s business. And maybe the best place to start is to read, again, our Lord’s word to his disciples from the Sermon on the Mount.