The phrase “kingdom of God” is quite rare in the Bible Jesus used (Old Testament), so why did he think it was the main message? Most people today don’t understand the kingdom to be the main message, probably because we don’t really understand what it means. But what if Jesus was right? Shouldn’t it be the primary goal for us as well? Why did he want his followers to seek first the kingdom of God?
Those were the thoughts that led me to dig into the literature that was popular among Jews prior to Jesus, to see what “kingdom of God” meant to them. While they had diverse expectations of how the kingdom story would play out, they all knew what it was: it was their story, the troublesome story of God as sovereign, Israel as his collapsed nation, and the hope that one day God would still somehow sort out this incongruity. The kingdom of God was their unfinished story, their whole messy unresolved history—everything that had happened, was happening, and was yet to happen. So, when Jesus said, “Good news! It’s happening!” they pricked up their ears and their long-dashed hopes (Mark 1:15).
When I realized that the kingdom of God was the whole story—everything that has happened and is happening and will happen on God’s watch—I felt like a child who just discovered how big the world is! I realized I needed to go back and re-read the whole Bible narrative as the story of the kingdom of God.
Reading from this perspective, the Bible came together in a way I’d never seen. Previously it had seemed like a series of disconnected anecdotes: independent cameos of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and the animals, the tower of Babel, and Abraham’s wanderings. With the kingdom perspective, the central plotline came sharply into focus. It’s the story of God’s reign over his world and the conflict his human agents introduced when we grasped at his power. Taking power over each other (Cain and Abel) inevitably led to a society of runaway violence that the sovereign had to replant (Noah and the animals), yet we kept trying to take God’s role as ruler of the world (tower of Babel). So God founded a nation under his governance through Abraham, as the means of restoring his reign over all nations. Jesus was right: the whole story, every plot twist, is the engrossing narrative of the kingdom of God.
That’s why we’ve taken so long to cover only half of Genesis. It won’t do to pull together a bunch of Scriptures from different passages to show that the kingdom is an important theme. There are many important topics that recur throughout the Bible: covenant, faith, justification, salvation, new creation, and so on. People have made each of those topics the central lens through which they interpret the rest of Scripture, and some of those systems have been helpful. But to demonstrate that a topic is the lens that makes sense of the whole Biblical narrative, it won’t do to show that it’s a recurring motif. We need to show that it’s the theme that glues the whole story together. It’s a bit like a jigsaw: if you make the wrong picture, you have bits left over, but when you get the picture right, even the pieces that seemed odd and disjointed fit into place and contribute to the whole. You know you’ve got the picture right when even the strange bits like Noah lying drunk in his tent become important elements of the picture, or the reason for God’s strange test of Abraham suddenly becomes obvious.
Five months ago, we began this blog. We’ve covered 25 of the Bible’s 1189 chapters. At this rate it will take us 20 years to demonstrate that the kingdom theme is the core message of the Bible. I fear that I, like Abraham, will be dead before the story’s done.
So would you grant that we have established a methodology now, a way of reading from the kingdom angle that anyone can apply? If this methodology is right, others will come after me who will do a much better job of reading from this perspective, and they will continue the project throughout the Bible’s narrative.
But if you will grant that the kingdom perspective is what makes sense of the whole story (not just a system that can be laid over the story), perhaps we can zoom out now and overview how the kingdom story continues through the rest of the Torah and the history of the OT.
What others are saying
Martin J. Selman, “The Kingdom of God in the Old Testament,” Tyndale Bulletin 40:2 (1989) 161–162:
While there seems little doubt that the kingdom of God is the central tenet of Jesus’ teaching, in the Old Testament the role of the kingdom is much more problematic. For many scholars it remains a marginal element in Old Testament thought, though others regard it as a major concept, found in a wide range of Old Testament authors and contexts. …
Understandably, it has had a large place in some Old Testament theologies, though mainly those of a former generation. Even for Eichrodt, the centrality he attached to the notion of covenant did not obscure the significance of the kingdom of God. Indeed, Old Testament covenant was for him almost the equivalent of the New Testament kingdom of God. The major failing of these larger enterprises, however, is that they are only loosely based on the actual occurrences of the terms, ‘king, kingdom, kingship’ in the Old Testament. Although John Bright, for example, rightly wished to avoid artificially transposing New Testament ideas of the kingdom of God into the Old Testament, his understanding of the term still ‘involves the whole notion of the rule of God’. A more promising recent attempt to provide securer textual support for this approach, however, has concluded that references to Yahweh’s kingship ‘come from all segments of the canon and from all eras of Israel’s history’. The kingdom of God may therefore be regarded as a comprehensive Old Testament scheme, and the teaching of Jesus as a genuine and natural development of it.
For all its attractiveness, however, this approach has not proved widely convincing.