JEWISH INSIGHTS OF

THE LORD’livepage.apple.comS PRAYER

 
JEWISH INSIGHTS ON THE LORD’S PRAYER

Excerpts from Chapter thirteen of “Sitting At The Feet Of Rabbi Jesus” by Ann Spangler and Lois Tverberg, Published by Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michingan 49530, 2009 ISBN 978-0-310-28422-2

Realizing how Jesus would have practiced the customs of his own religious culture can yield many insights into his teachings on prayer.  Think for a moment about the Lord’s Prayer.  As beloved as it is, many of us scratch our heads over phrases like “hallow be your name” or “your kingdom come.”  These lines are at the same time familiar but strange.  We struggle to understand them not because of any thick-headedness on our part but because Jesus’ words are so Jewish.  His teaching on prayer relies on classic themes that still resonate with Jews today.

It has been suggested that the Lord’s Prayer is a summary of the Amidah because it encompasses several of its themes.  Other rabbis of Jesus’ time taught summary versions of the Amidah in order to illustrate what prayer should be like at it essence.  Furthermore, the early church prayed the Lord’s Prayer three times each day, just as the Amidah was prayed.  Whether or not Jesus had the Amidah in mind when he taught the Lord’s Prayer, the fact that it shares similar themes shows that Jesus’ prayers exemplified the wisdom of Jewish prayer.

Even the first two words of the Lord’s Prayer — “Our Father” — can teach us a lot.  The Lord’s Prayer reflects Jewish tradition by using the phrase “our Father” rather than “my Father.”  Unlike our tendency to focus on our own individual needs, Jewish prayers tend to involve community prayer for the needs of the whole people.  Even today, some prayers cannot be offered unless a minyan (ten adult male Jews) are present to represent the people as a whole.

Notice, however, that while Jesus taught his disciples to address God as “our Father,” he himself spoke to God as “my Father,” in the singular.  In Jewish prayer, God was sometimes called “our Father,” but “my Father” was daring, almost unheard of.  Many would have marked this as evidence that he was the Messiah because several prophecies describe the Messiah as someone who would be in an especially close relationship with God.  Every time Jesus referred to God as “my” Father, his listeners would have heard it as a bold claim.

Remarkably, Jesus spoke of God as “my Father” when he was only twelve years old.  Remember his response to his parents when they discovered him conversing with scholars at the temple:  “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?  (Luke 2:49).  It seems that the boy Jesus was well aware of his identity and mission.

What about the phrase “give us today our daily bread”?  Why does Jesus tell us to pray for “bread”?  Why not tell us to pray for roast beef or bananas?  In Hebrew, the word for bread, lechem, can also mean food in general.  When Jesus held up bread, broke it, and thanked his Father in heaven, he was giving thanks for the entire meal, just as a Jewish father would have done.  Lechem represents not only all the food by God’s sustenance as a whole.  When we pray this way, we are asking God to provide for all our needs.  Grasping this can broaden our understanding of what Jesus was saying when he said, “I am the bread of life” (John 6:35).  Jesus himself is the deepest sustenance of all.

Even today, bread has special significance in Jewish thinking.  Some people believe that bread should never be discarded because doing so show ingratitude for God’s gracious provision.  Josa Bivin, an American who has lived in Israel for many years, writes: Instead of dumping their bread along with the rest of their garbage into the garbage carts parked along the streets, the (Israelis) save the bread in plastic sacks and hang it from the metal projections of the sides of the carts (used to hoist the carts into the garbage trucks).  That way, the bread is potentially available to the poor.

This sensitivity to the poor and gratitude for God’s provision is admirable.  Lois remembers chatting one day with a Ugandan pastor who had become a good friend while he was studying at a nearby seminary.  “I asked my friend what he would remember most about America when he returned home, and his answer shocked me,” she says.  “’All my life,’ he replied, ‘I will never forget having this one year when I did not need to worry about food.”  I could hardly believe that a friend of mine had lived for most of his life worrying about not getting enough to eat!”  Jesus’ prayer for “daily bread” makes complete sense in light of the basic anxiety shared by most people throughout human history.  

What about the line “deliver us from evil”?  What kind of evil is Jesus talking about?  We can find clues both in the Scriptures and in Jewish prayer.  Several places in the Old Testament speak of God “delivering (someone) from evil.”  But the Hebrew word for evil, ra, is broad, meaning danger or misfortune as well as sin.  The rabbis realized that the word ra can encompass many things, so one prayer from around A.D. 200 asks specifically:  “Deliver me … from a bad person, a bad companion, a bad injury, an evil inclination, and from Satan, the destroyer.”  Four times the Hebrew word ra is used, first as a way of asking for physical protection, but then to ask for protection from being tempted to do evil by others, as well as by one’s own desires, and even by Satan.  This prayer asks God’s help both physically and spiritually to avoid those things that will ultimately destroy our lives.

Perhaps this ancient rabbinic prayer can help us better understand our own Rabbi’s teaching.  It parallels Jesus’ words “lead us not into temptation,” which is a Jewish way of saying, “Don’t let us succumb to our own evil inclinations.  Help us avoid temptation and sin.”  We certainly won’t go wrong if we hear Jesus’ words as a plea for God to protect us from the evil that is both within and without.


THE MYSTERIOUS KINGDOM OF GOD

Let his name be glorified and sanctified throughout the universe which he created according to his purpose.  May he bring about the reign of his kingdom in your lifetime, in your days, and in the lifetime of all of the house of Israel, speedily and soon!  (From the Kaddish, an ancient Jewish prayer)

In the back seat of her family’s station wagon, Lois used to pass the time on the four-hour rides through the rolling, wooded hills of Wisconsin to her family’s cabin by playing “Twenty Questions.”  Is it animal, vegetable, or mineral?  Is it bigger than a deck of cards, smaller than an elephant, larger than an aardvark?  With each yes or no answer her confidence would grow.  She could feel herself honing in on the mystery object.  But occasionally, just as she as about to declare the mystery solved, a surprising “yes” or “no” would get tossed back at her and she would realize she had been heading down the wrong track all along. 

Sometimes, it sounds as if Jesus was playing a kind of “Twenty Questions” with his disciples to pass the hours on their long walks from town to town discussing his mysterious kingdom.

It’s like a mustard seed
It’s like a fisherman’s net
It’s like a farmer who had a weedy field.


















Jesus seemed always to be dropping clues rather than providing a flat-out definition for his disciples.  Reading these, you may wonder whether there isn’t a key, something simple to help us understand what Jesus was saying.  Perhaps you’ve heard sermons that say, The kingdom is the church,” or “It’s heaven,” or “It’s the reign of Christ when he returns,” or “It’s already but not yet.”  But then along comes another of Jesus’ parables that makes no sense in light of the latest hypothesis – just like “Twenty Questions.”

Honestly, many of Jesus’ sayings about the kingdom have been head-scratchers for Christians over the centuries.  What does it mean to “receive” the kingdom, or what does it mean that the kingdom comes “upon” someone?  Is the kingdom something right now, or something in the future, or both?  Why does it even mater?

For one thing, some interpretations of the kingdom have caused considerable anxiety among Christians.  In The Jesus I never Knew, Philip Yancey tells about the annual prophecy conferences he attended at his childhood church, in which silver-haired men would stand up and preach about the end times.  Yancey writes: 

“I listened in fear and fascination as they drew a straight line sound from Moscow to Jerusalem and sketched in the movements of million-strong armies who would soon converge on Israel.  I learned that the ten members of Europe’s Common Market had recently fulfilled Daniel’s prophecy about the beast with ten horns.  Soon all of us would wear a number stamped on our foreheads, the mark of the beast, and be registered in a computer somewhere in Belgium.  Nuclear war would break out and the planet would teeter on the brink of annihilation until at the last second Jesus himself would return to lead the armies of righteousness.” 2

In high school Philip took courses in Chinese while his brother studied Russian so that one of them could communicate with whatever army invaded.  Over the years that followed, his views of the kingdom changed profoundly as he realized that “God is working not primarily through nations, but through a kingdom that transcends nations.” 

Reading what Jesus has to say bout the kingdom doesn’t always clear things up.  Take this well known passage; “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Mk. 10:25).  If Jesus is defining the entry requirements for heaven, it’s hard to see how any rich person can ever be saved.  Since most people in the developed world would be considered “rich” compared to the rest of the world, it sounds as though we are all headed toward an uncomfortable hot eternity.  But is that what Jesus is saying?

Talk of kings and kingdoms can often seem irrelevant and archaic conjuring pictures of autocrats and dictators or of the fairytales we read as children.  Why can’t we be content to simply think of God as a loving father or as a good friend?  Because, even though the phrase “kingdom of God’ may sound outdated to us, it was of the utmost importance to Jesus.  In fact it was at the very heart of his mission, the reason he came to earth.  

Modern readers find Jesus’ words confusing precisely because his way of talking about the kingdom is so thoroughly Jewish.  In fact, Jesus was not the only one talking about the kingdom.  A larger discussion about it was taking place around him.  Without access to what was being said, we are like people who overhear only one side of a telephone conversation trying to piece together the rest of it through guesswork.  Turning in to this two-thousand-year-old Jewish conversation will bring us greater clarity.  It may even transform our understanding of Jesus’ ministry and of the nature and character of God himself. 

Let’s listen to the kingdom saying again through the ears of first-century Jews.  As we do, we will begin to connect the dots, realizing that Jesus was building on certain Jewish ideas while rejecting others.  We will also see just why he was so driven to share his message.  As we join the conversation we may even find that it speaks to our lives today.

Another Look at the Words

First, let’s look at the words themselves.  The gospels use two different phrases — the “kingdom of heaven” and the “kingdom of God.”  “Kingdom of heaven” is the phrase used in Mark, Luke, and John.  Why the difference?  Because in Jesus’ day and even now, Jewish people show their reverence for God’s name by not pronouncing it.  Instead they substitute a respectful euphemism like “heaven.” 4

Jesus did this too.  For example, in his parable about the prodigal, the son says, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight” (Luke 15:21).  We do the same thing when we say, “thank heavens” or “goodness knows.”  By using “kingdom of heaven,” Matthew’s gospel was preserving the culturally correct expression.  The rest of the gospel writers used “kingdom of God” in order to communicate more clearly with their Greek audiences, who would not have understood that “heaven” meant “God.” 5

But there is yet more to be learned by looking beyond the English translation and examining the Hebrew phrase that Jesus probably used: malkhut shamayim (mahl-KOOT shah-MY-eem), an idiom common in rabbinic teaching in his day.  6  Malkhut, which we translate as “kingdom,” sounds like a place or a government of some sort.  But it really refers to an ancient sense of the word that describes the actions and dominion of a king — his reign and authority, and anyone who is under his authority.  Shamayim is Hebrew for “sky” or “heavens.”  “Heaven,” in “Kingdom of heaven,” always refers to God, not to a place.

In other words, a simple way of translating “kingdom of God” or “kingdom of heaven” would be God’s reign, or how God reigns, or those whom God reigns over.  This Hebrew phrase is a right, multifaceted idiom that the rabbis used in ways we might find surprising, even though many of their ideas were similar to what Jesus himself taught about the kingdom.  It’s enormously helpful to realize that the rabbis used this idiom in several different ways, just as Jesus did.  7  At times, Jesus agreed with and built on certain ideas that were already in circulation.  At other times, he disagreed with prevailing ideas.  At such times, his parables and sayings about the kingdom would have surprised or even shocked his Jewish listeners, designed as they were to reorient and expand their thinking.

Though the Jewish people believed God was going to redeem the world by bringing it under his reign, most didn’t understand what kind of king he would be.  That was the essence of Jesus’ message — to explain that God was different than any king they had ever seen or imagined and that his Messiah was different as well.

Thy Kingdom Come

One of the most familiar phrases in the Lord’s Prayer is this:  “Thy kingdom come” (KJV).  But what did Jesus mean by it?  You might be surprised to learn that Jews have been praying in a similar way for thousands of years.  Listen to the words of the Alenu, an ancient prayer that is still on the lips of Jews today.

Therefore do we wait for you, O Lord our God, soon to behold your glory, when you will remove the abominations from the earth and idols shall be exterminated; when the world shall be regenerated by the kingdom of the Almighty, and all humankind invoke your name; when all the wicked of the earth shall return to you.  Then all the inhabitants of the world shall perceive and confess that unto you every knee must bend, and every tongue swear…  So will they accept the yoke of your kingdom and you will be King over them speedily forever and ever.  For yours is the kingdom, and to all eternity you will reign in the glory, as it is written in your Torah:  “The Lord shall reign forever and ever.”  And it is also said:  “And the Lord shall be King over all the earth; on that day the Lord shall be One and His name be One.” 8

Even though ancient Jews believed that God already reigned over them, they prayed that the whole world would one day know and honor God.  They wanted every nation on earth to repent and worship the true God of heaven. This can help us understand the Lord’s Prayer.  To many of us, ‘thy kingdom come’ sounds as if it’s about Christ’s second coming.  But the Alenu shows us what it’s really about — that all the world will come to worship God.  The first three lines of the Lord’s Prayer, then, voice our desire for God to expand his loving reign, bringing all people into relationship with him so that they might revere him and do his will.  In effect, we are praying for the gospel to go forth.  Instead of passively waiting for Jesus to return, we are asking God’s help in making disciples of all nations.

Still, Jesus’ prayer as well as many other Jewish prayers point out a gap between the ideal reign of God and the way he actually reigns in the present.  They seem to be saying that God isn’t king of the world just yet.  Of course as creator, God is ultimately sovereign. But in rabbinic thinking, evil still fills the earth because the world has refused to acknowledge that God is its true King.

The Kingdom Is Here

Yet, Jesus claimed the God’s reign had definitely come to earth in his ministry.  Jesus healed or cast out demons and then declared that the kingdom of God was “near” or “at hand” (Luke 10:9).  This way of speaking of God’s kingdom was unique to Jesus and essential to his message. 9  One thing might confuse you — the English word ‘near’ can be misleading, because it sounds as though Jesus is telling his friends that the Kingdom is “close, but not quite.”  But it is likely that Jesus was using the Hebrew verb karav, which means intimately close.  The prophet Isaiah, for instance, “came near” (karav) to his wife in Isaiah 8:3, and she conceived a son.  How much nearer could the prophet get than that?

To make the point another way, some of Lois’s Danish friends used to write her, warmly inviting her to “Come stay by them.”  It sounded as though they wanted her to fly all the way to Denmark just to pitch a tent in their backyard.  On the contrary, her fiends were really inviting her into their home.  In a similar way, nuances of language can make it sound as if Jesus is talking about God’s reign being “not quite yet,” when he is actually stating that it is already revealing itself on earth through his ministry.

But what exactly does it mean to say that God’s “kingdom” had arrived in Jesus’ ministry?  It means that through Jesus, God was revealing his sovereignty.  He was stepping into history and taking charge, defeating the gods of this world through the life, death, and resurrection of his Son.

Every week in their Sabbath liturgy, Jews recall Israel’s miraculous redemption from Egypt with these words:  “Your people saw your kingdom as you cleaved the sea before Moses.”  By this they are saying that when the Red Sea parted, God’s power burst in upon creation in an astonishing way.  It was as though a giant hand had suddenly reached out of the sky and parted the waves, allowing God’s people to walk across while their enemies were swallowed up.  By performing this great miracle of deliverance, God was showing his people (and his enemies) who is really in charge of the universe. 

Similarly, when Jesus walked through the land healing and delivering people, God’s kingdom was visibly breaking into history, just as it had in Exodus.  But now God’s reign was revealing itself in a greater way than ever before as people experienced his saving, redeeming love.

After one dramatic incident of deliverance, Jesus’ opponents accused him of using demonic powers to cast out demons.  Listen closely to his response:  “If I drive out demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has come to you” (Luke 11:20, italics added).  Jesus was making a not-so-subtle- reference to Exodus, to the scene in which the Egyptian magicians, after witnessing God’s power in the plagues, exclaim, “This is the finger of God” (Exodus 8:19.  It is at this moment that Pharaoh’s hireling realize that have been beaten.  God’s power is utterly beyond any demonic force they can conjure.  In the same way Jesus is saying that now is the moment when people should realize that his own power over demonic forces reveals his spiritual authority. 11
Already Christ has stormed the beaches of Satan’s kingdom, initiating his great defeat.  Jesus is taking back prisoners, setting them free one life at a time.  No wonder Jesus’ words were so shocking to his accusers.

Let’s go back for a moment to that scene at the Red Sea.  Imagine that enormous crowd of people beginning to panic as they realize their peril.  They are trapped between Pharaoh’s advancing army and the roiling waters of the sea.  With no way out, they know they are about to be slaughtered.  Suddenly, everything changes.  The winners become the losers and the losers the winners.  For one dramatic moment the curtain is parted and everyone sees who is really on the throne.

Something similar can happen to us, though on a far smaller scale.  For a time we may feel threatened by some kind of darkness, and life may seem to be swirling out of control.  Then something happens to show us that God is with us. Ann remembered having that sensation when her father finally stopped drinking after living most of his live as an alcoholic.  “Along with other family members,” she says, “I had begged God for years to help him.  If only God would reveal himself in some unmistakable way.  If only he would give my father the desire to quit drinking.  But the more I prayed, the worse he got, until he nearly dies for alcohol poisoning.  Then, when it was nearly too late, something remarkable did happened and my father stopped drinking.  In the years that followed, as I saw a life in ruins being graciously rebuilt, I knew who was really in charge of the universe.”

The Messiah and the Kingdom

Why was Jesus so focused on proclaiming that the kingdom of God had arrived on earth, and why did he link it to his ministry of physical healing and spiritual liberation?  Jesus did this because everyone expected the Messiah to bring God’s kingdom to earth.

Remarkably, some theologians have completely missed this point, mistakenly concluding that Jesus never claimed to be the Messiah.  But Jesus’ audience would have immediately recognized what he was saying — that he was making the shocking claim to be the fulfillment of God’s great promises.  Jesus employed a Jewish way of saying that he was the Christ, the Anointed King whom God has promised.

From the very beginning, in Genesis, God has promised to anoint a king from the people of Israel to reign over the whole world (see Genesis 49:10).  Listen to this beautiful messianic passage from the prophet Isaiah:

For to us a child is born,
To us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, 
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of his government and peace 
There will be no end.
He will reign on David’s throne
And over his kingdom,
Establishing and upholding it
With justice and righteousness
From that time on and forever
(Isaiah (9:6-7)

Jesus is all of the things Isaiah prophesied even though he is not yet reigning in his full glory.  Though he is the Might God, the Gospels introduce him to us as the humble Prince of Peace.  One day, though, he will be revealed as the King of kings and Lord of lords.

How can Jesus both bring God’s reign to earth and yet speak of it as coming in the future?  Listen to how Charles Colson explains it:

Probably the most significant event in Europe during World War II was D-Day, June 6, 1944, when the Allied armies stormed the beaches of Normandy.  That attack guaranteed the eventual destruction of the Axis powers in Europe.  Though the war continued with seeming uncertainties along the way, the outcome was in fact determined.  But it wasn’t until May 8, 1945 — VE Day — that the results of the forces set in motion eleven months earlier were realized.

Colson goes on to write: Christ’s death and resurrection — the D-Day of human history — assure His ultimate victory.  Be we are still on the beaches.  The enemy has not yet been vanquished, and the fighting is still ugly.  Christ’s invasion has assured the ultimate outcome, however — victory for God and His people at some future date.  The second stage, which will take place when Christ returns, will complete God’s rule over all the universe; His Kingdom will be visible without imperfection.

A Different Kind of Kingdom

One after another, Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament promises about the Messiah.  Why, the, didn’t everyone immediately recognize him as such?  Part of the reason was thee Jesus disagreed with his contemporaries in significant ways.  The Zealots and the Essenes expected the Messiah to be a military conqueror who would swiftly establish God’s kingdom on earth.  They were looking for a mighty king who would not only defeat Israel’s enemies but who would destroy sinners within the nation itself.  Even Jesus’ disciples were convinced that his goal was to defeat Israel’s enemies.  After his resurrection, they asked him “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel? (Acts 1:6).

It is not hard to understand the people’s longing for God’s judgment to fall on their enemies.  Faithful Jews found many passages in their Scriptures about the great and dreadful “day of the Lord,” a day in which he would come to judge their enemies.  They longed for that day as any oppressed people might.  Of course there were hints of a “suffering servant’ and a “Prince of Peace” in the prophetic thread, but a mighty king who judged the wicked and defeated Israel’s enemies was the image that captured their imagination and fired their hopes.

Under Herod’s rule, public crucifixion and torture were commonplace and taxes were oppressive.  The only Jews who prospered were the tax collectors and the corrupt priests, who had sold out to the Romans.  James Carroll, the author of Constantine’s Sword, describes the Roman Empire as “the world’s first totalitarian regime,” asserting that “Jesus and his movement were born in the shadow of what would stand as the most grievous violence against the Jewish people until Hitler’s attempt at a Final Solution.”

In their anguish, many Jews yearned for God to establish a kingdom of justice by purifying their nation from corruption and by freeing it from their Roman overloads. Jesus’ message must have offended many of his listeners; how hard it would have been to hear that only by giving up vengeance could they enter God’s true kingdom.  No wonder so many failed to follow him.

Essenes: The Essenes were an ascetic group that existed during the time of Christ.  Some withdrew into the Judean wilderness, where they lived with great ceremonial purity.  Many of their first-century writings were discovered among the Dead Sea Scrolls.  Some believe John the Baptist may have associated with an Essene community.

We shouldn’t, however, make the mistake of assuming that all Jews thought this way.
The desire for God’s judgment to come was characteristic of the Zealots and the Essenes, who longed for war.  The teaching of Pharisees and later rabbis about the kingdom of God seem to be intended to refute their ideas.  Like Jesus, they saw God’s reign as something here and now, and yet coming in the future.  But they said the Messiah would only arrive when Israel lived according to God’s law.  Jesus used their ideas and built on them, yet said a new thing — that God’s reign had come through his ministry of healing and his atoning work on the cross.

Jesus’ Teaching about the Kingdom

Even John the Baptist echoed the understanding that the Messiah would bring God’s judgment when he said:  “The axe is already at the root of the trees; and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire” (Luke 3:9).  John was saying that the ace is no longer lying idle in the shed; it’s about to begin swinging and woe to the person who had not been living for God.  John portrays Christ as coming with “fire” to destroy the wicked.

Apparently Jesus surprised John by not coming in the way that he and others had foreseen.  In fact, some of Jesus’ parables seem intended to redirect these expectations.  Jesus told one parable in particular that seems like a response to John’s prophetic words.  While John spoke of the axe that was ready to chop down all the fruitless trees, Jesus said this:

“A man had a fig tree, planted in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it, but did not fine any.  So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, ‘For three years not I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any.  Cut it down!  Why should it use up the soil?’
“’Sir,’ the man replied, ‘leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it.  If it bears fruit next year, fine!  If not, then cut it down.’” (Luke 13:6-9)

Like John, Jesus describes a tree facing judgment.  But unlike John’s tree, the one Jesus speaks of will not be immediately chopped down but will be given another chance.  Judgment will not come then, but later.  Other parables of Jesus’ about the kingdom have a similar theme, about the kingdom growing and prospering, but them judgment coming at the very end.

Seeing the difference between how John and Jesus understood God’s timeline reveals why John sent his disciples to ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?”  (Matthew 11:3).  Jesus responded by quoting Scripture after Scripture to reassure John that he was the one, but he was completing God’s mission in a very different way from what John had ever imagined.

Was John the Baptist wrong, then, about Jesus?  Not at all.  His timing was just premature, as was the case with Jesus’ own disciples.  John knew that Jesus was the Christ, and that he would come in judgment.  He just didn’t know when.  Jesus confirmed his role as judge when he spoke of his second coming, saying that at that time he would separate the sheep from the goats, judging the world for eternity (Matthew 25:31-46).

Transforming Our Understanding of God

Not only did Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom change expectations regarding the Messiah.  It also transformed his followers’ understanding of God.  Instead of a wrathful God intent on annihilating the opposition, Jesus revealed a compassionate God who was eager for mercy.  The appeal to Judgment would have seemed right by human standards — a logical response to the problem of evil.  Of course, those who were most looking forward to God’s judgment assumed that they were the righteous ones who would survive the judgment.

Jesus utterly disagreed with this point of view.  Instead of linking God’s reign to the violent overthrow of the Romans and to the destruction of sinners within the nation of Israel, he linked the kingdom of his works of healing and forgiveness.  His would be a kingdom built up not by destroying the impure but by forgiving and atoning for their sins himself.  In that way he would gain a kingdom of pure-hearted followers.

Once we understand the kingdom Jesus was describing, many of his sayings begin to fall into line.  His kingdom is composed of the “poor in spirit,” those who admit their guilt and ask forgiveness.  “Blessed are the merciful” because they do not want to see God’s judgment come on others and are shown mercy themselves.  Though Christ’s kingdom would at first seem hidden, like a tiny mustard seed it would grow to an enormous size, sheltering all kinds of people in its welcoming branches.

Ironically, some of the most faithful Jews had the most trouble embracing Jesus.  They wanted a Messiah who would offer relief from their enemies, not one who could expose their own need for forgiveness and then demand that they extend forgiveness to their oppressors.  Little wonder that the “sinners” — the prostitutes and tax collectors — flocked to Jesus, drawn by his message of mercy.

It would be easy to look at the evil that still disfigures our world and conclude that Jesus was merely a dreamer.  But that would mean misunderstanding both his strategy and his mission.  Instead of using the blunt instrument of judgment, Jesus inaugurated his kingdom with mercy.   And mercy can have its own side effects, one of which is that it allows evil to grow right alongside goodness.  But mercy is also what makes possible the greatest of all victories, defeating God’s enemies not through the use of outside force but by the inward power of grace, transforming our hearts from within.  In the end, it is God’s mercy that determines the timetable for the final judgment.

Listen to what the rabbis said about the relationship between God’s mercy and his justice:  “Greater is the day of rain than the resurrection of the dead, because the resurrection of the dead benefits only the righteous, but rain benefits both the righteous and the unrighteous.”  Every Day that God sends rain to provide food for people who hate him shows his great love for humanity.  His mercy is even greater than his justice!

Jesus tells his own followers that they should share God’s love for sinners, and he does this also by pointing to the gift of rain:  “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.  He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:44-45).

How to Enter the Kingdom

But the kingdom is not inevitable for everyone.  Because he is a merciful king, Jesus issues an invitation, not a command.  He will never force anyone to join but waits patiently for us to repent and follow him.  When Jesus spoke about receiving the kingdom of God (Luke 18:17) or entering the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 7:21), he wasn’t talking about how to get into heaven after we die, as many people have thought.  He was speaking about having the greatest life possible.  How?  By living under his reign through the power of his grace.  And, once again, he was using a Jewish idiom to communicate his message.

One of the earliest and best-known sayings about the “kingdom of heaven” is one that commented on the Shema— the prayer of every faithful Jew, uttered morning and evening.  As we have seen, the Shema begins with Deuteronomy 6:4-5:  “Hear (Shema), O Israel:  The Lord our God, the Lord is one.  Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.”  The rabbis taught that anyone who prays this prayer with a sincere heart “receives upon himself the kingdom of heaven.”

Why did the rabbis associate the “kingdom of heaven” with this particular prayer?  They understood that people who made this daily commitment were mentally bowing down before God, “enthroning” him as their king.  Such people were proclaiming their faith in God and pledging to live under his reign.  To make this commitment had nothing to do with taking part in a political movement but everything to do with making an individual, spiritual decision.  This understanding fits completely with Jesus’ words that “the kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:21).

So for both Jesus and the rabbis, to “receive” or to “enter the kingdom of heaven” could describe making a personal commitment to loving God with all your heart.  The rabbis understood it as worshiping God the Father as one’s king, but Jesus expanded it to mean worshiping God in light of the authority Christ was given to rule over it.  That was why he spoke of it as “my” kingdom.

No wonder Jesus spent so much of hi ministry proclaiming the kingdom.  This is why he came into the world:  to open the way for all people to come back to God by atoning for their sins.  Entering into that relationship can be described as “entering into God’s reign.”  We use similar language when we talk about “accepting Christ as Lord” — a phrase that captures the idea of enthroning Christ as our king.

Jesus’ teachings about the kingdom become so much clearer when we understand this.  Listen to his words, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3).  People who are “poor in spirit” are those who feel crushed by circumstances beyond their control, or those who are sick and tired of their lives under their own bad management.  Hungry for God’s leadership, they accept his guidance with humility, realizing the impossibility of life without Christ.

Jesus also declared that “anyone who will not receive thee kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it” (Luke 18:17).  Notice that he didn’t say we are to receive it like teenagers testing the boundaries and pushing the envelope.  Nor are we to receive it like self-reliant adults, people who think they have it together.  No, we are to have the attitude of a small child responding with trust, dependence, delight, and a desire to please.

Remember what Jesus said of the wealthy young man who turned down a chance to become one of his disciples:  “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!” (Luke 18:24).  Jesus wasn’t talking about what the man needed to do to get into heaven after he dies.  He was saying that the proud young ruler was refusing to accept God’s kingship over his life right then.  How difficult it is to choose God’s will over our own.

Of course, belonging to the kingdom means pledging our obedience to the king.  Jesus himself, who was hardly a legalist, said: “Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 7:21).  One again, Jesus wasn’t speaking about a heavenly afterlife.  He was talking about enthroning God here and now, showing our love by doing what he asks.

Many of us long to experience God in deeper way.  Be we forget that obedience is the key to spiritual vitality.  Ann has a friend who is the mother of two young boys who are on opposite ends of the obedience spectrum.  The eldest loves to help his mother whenever he can while the youngest has to be dragged kicking and screaming to do the simplest task.  He friend loves both of her boys but admits that her youngest is a constant source of frustration.  This mother understands completely why Jesus once said to his disciples: “IF you love me, you will obey what I command” (John 14:15).  In fact she finds herself saying something similar, asking, “Why do you say you love me but don’t do what I say?”  Like most mothers, my friend cherishes all the kisses and hugs her young son showers on her, but what she treasures most is his obedience.  It’s the same in our relationship with the Lord.

If you recognize yourself in that story, take heart.  Disobedience is a problem but it can also be an opportunity.  If half-heartedness has been stunting your growth, you can reverse its downward pull by repenting and asking God to help you respond to him with renewed trust and obedience.  As you do, you may find yourself enjoying unprecedented spiritual growth as God opens up new channels for grace to flow into your life.

The way we understand Jesus’ words about the kingdom is critical to the kind of life we will live.  If we think that the “kingdom of heaven” is simply about Christ’s second coming or about going to heaven when we die, we’ll be tempted to become passive and complacent.  But if Jesus’ kingdom is a living, dynamic reality — a reality that is right now steadily advancing against the kingdom of darkness — that’s a different story.  As followers of Christ, our obedience is vital because it is a catalyst for the Spirit’s work, making us more like Jesus so that his reign can spread across the whole earth.

Jesus’ message of the kingdom is Jewish to the core.  It is also at the very heart of the gospel, revealing a God of tenderness and mercy, who postpones final judgment until as many people as possible can be gathered into the kingdom of his Son.

Having learned so much about the Jewishness of Jesus and the Jewish roots of our faith, it seems right to ask ourselves some important questions.  How much of Jesus’ Jewishness should we take on?  Which aspects can enrich our Christian faith, and which should we resist?  Furthermore, how can we maintain balance and discernment as we seek to learn from the Jewishness of Jesus?  Let’s explore these questions together.

At the Feet of the Rabbi

1.	Pray these words from the Kaddish every day this week:  “Let His name be glorified and sanctified throughout the universe that he created according to his purpose.  May He bring about the reign of his kingdom in your lifetime, in your days, and in the lifetime of all of the house of Israel, speedily and soon!”
2.	The Lord’s Prayer should sound utterly different to you in light of what you’ve learned about the kingdom and about Jewish prayer in chapter 6.  Write out a modern version based on how you hear it now, in light of all you’ve learned.
3.	Think of a time in your life or in the life of someone you know when you saw “the finger of God” at work redeeming someone in an unmistakable way.  Spend some time blessing God for the way he is building up his kingdom right here and right now.