“…According to the Scriptures:” The Messiah’s Promised Kingdom

From part one it seems pretty clear that the new vision of the messiah portrayed by Jesus was quite different than what was expected by the culture. The Jews were anxious to bring back a king along the lines of King David, one who honored the religious roots of the nation — in the simplest terms, a Torah-based theocracy with the victorious Messiah as king.

The Torah was, in essence, the foundational literature for Israel’s culture and served as a guide for the nation for more than a thousand years. It is composed of the Old Testament books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. The core of the Torah, often referred to as “the Law,” was handed down to Moses on Mount Sinai after Israel escaped from captivity in Egypt. (Torah and “the Law” mean essentially the same thing although accompanying oral traditions are sometimes included in both.) The temple, the priesthood and the entire religious aristocracy existed to uphold the Law.

But Jesus has something different in mind when he talks about the Law. For one, the Torah-based temple administration was corrupt and self-serving to those in charge. It had become a money-making machine that distorted the very idea behind the Torah itself. In the days leading up to his crucifixion Jesus does something a messiah was expected to do to the temple — clean it up.

Judas Maccabees had done it when he reconquered Jerusalem in 164 BCE. Known as the Maccabean Revolt, Judas Maccabees and his brothers ignited an insurrection against the reigning powers and drove them out of Palestine. Israel enjoyed a brief respite from occupation in the following years before eventually being conquered by the Romans. The Maccabean cleansing is described in the apocryphal book of First Maccabees. (Note: the Roman Catholic Church includes First Maccabees as a part of the Old Testament while the Protestant Church does not.)

At that time Judas and his brothers said, “Look, our enemies have been crushed. Let’s go up to cleanse and rededicate the sanctuary.” All the army gathered together and went up to Mount Zion. They found the sanctuary deserted, the altar treated with disrespect, and the gates burned. In the courts, bushes had sprung up like in an open field or on one of the mountains. They saw that the priests’ chambers were in ruins as well. So they tore their clothes and mourned with great sorrow. They sprinkled their heads with ashes and fell facedown on the ground. When the trumpets sounded a signal, they cried out to heaven.

Then Judas chose some soldiers to fight against those stationed in the elevated fortress until he completed cleansing the sanctuary. He selected priests who were blameless and devoted to the Law. They cleansed the sanctuary and took the polluted stones to a ritually unclean place. They discussed what to do about the altar for entirely burned offerings, since it had been polluted. They decided it was best to tear it down so that it wouldn’t be a lasting shameful reminder to them that the Gentiles had defiled it. So they tore down the altar. They stored the stones in a convenient place on the temple mount until a prophet should arise who could say what to do with them. They then took unfinished stones, in keeping with the Law, and built a new altar like the former one.

They also restored the sanctuary and the temple interior, and dedicated the courtyards. They fashioned new holy equipment and brought the lampstand, the incense altar, and the table into the temple. Then they offered incense on the altar and lit the lamps on the lampstand, which illuminated the temple. They placed bread on the table and hung curtains. Finally, they completed all the work that they had started.
1 Maccabees 4:36-60

Jesus’ cleansing nearly two hundred years later was different. Whereas Judas Maccabees cleansed the temple from its defilement by the Gentiles, Jesus cleanses it from defilement by its leaders. From Matthew’s gospel:

“And Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who sold and bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you make it a den of robbers.””
‭‭Matthew‬ ‭21:12-13‬ ‭ESV‬‬

It was a very public criticism of those in charge and an act performed “according to the Scriptures.” Jesus was echoing the words of the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah written many centuries before:

““For if you truly amend your ways and your deeds, if you truly execute justice one with another, if you do not oppress the sojourner, the fatherless, or the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own harm, then I will let you dwell in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your fathers forever. “Behold, you trust in deceptive words to no avail. Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, ‘We are delivered!’—only to go on doing all these abominations? Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your eyes? Behold, I myself have seen it, declares the Lord.”
‭‭Jeremiah‬ ‭7:5-11‬ ‭ESV‬‬

Following the commandments in the Torah, worship in the temple and executing justice are all tied together. In Jeremiah’s day, the Israelites were paying lip service to the Torah — showing up at the temple but not really living according to the spirit of it. According to Jeremiah such “abominations,” in effect, corrupt the temple making it a “den of robbers.”

The previous post quoted Isaiah’s famous vision of a king that would uphold justice and righteousness — the true spirit of the temple and the Torah. Here it is again:

“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.”
‭‭Isaiah‬ ‭9:6-7‬ ‭ESV‬‬

This was not the sort of kingdom Jesus found in existence during his ministry. The temple aristocracy had made the temple and the Torah an end in itself rather than a means to other ends, namely, justice and righteousness. Like Jeremiah, Jesus accuses the leaders of making the temple a “den of robbers.”

Earlier in his ministry in the Sermon on the Mount (found in the Gospel of Matthew) Jesus describes what a citizen of the new kingdom would be like if people followed what the Torah truly intended. Rather than a list of “don’ts” to avoid Jesus outlines the “do’s.”

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.

Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.”
‭‭Matthew‬ ‭5:3-11‬ ‭ESV‬‬

The new kingdom’s citizens are not the rich or the powerful or the successful but the poor in spirit, the meek, and so on. Were all citizens of the new kingdom to practice these principles one would be hard pressed to find much fault in the society that came of it.

But, again, this is the polar opposite of the society Jesus encounters in his ministry. He clashes with the Pharisees and the temple aristocracy again and again referring to them as a part of “…this corrupt generation” because of their hypocrisy and corruption. The temple along with its corrupt priesthood and the aristocracy will be destroyed and in its place will be a new king and an eternal kingdom based on these new principles.

And yet, the new kingdom is not really something new but something old reborn. The new way of understanding the Torah is really what it was meant to be all along.

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
‭‭Matthew‬ ‭5:17-20‬ ‭ESV‬‬

The standards for membership in the new kingdom are impossibly high. Righteousness must exceed that of those corrupt Pharisees? Throughout the rest of the Sermon on the Mount Jesus ups the “righteousness ante.”

““You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.”
‭‭Matthew‬ ‭5:21-22‬ ‭ESV‬‬

Another example,

““You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
‭‭Matthew‬ ‭5:27-28‬ ‭ESV‬‬

And so on.

Later in Matthews gospel Jesus encounters one of the rich and powerful and successful of the corrupt generation — one who was following the Torah’s commandments to the letter but sensed it was not enough.

“And behold, a man came up to him, saying, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” And he said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments.” He said to him, “Which ones?” And Jesus said, “You shall not murder, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother, and, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The young man said to him, “All these I have kept. What do I still lack?” Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions. And Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished, saying, “Who then can be saved?” But Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” Then Peter said in reply, “See, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, in the new world, when the Son of Man will sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”
‭‭Matthew‬ ‭19:16-30‬ ‭ESV‬‬

The true meaning of the Torah pointed the way to the new kingdom but how could anyone get there? With such high standards it seems impossible for anyone — the first, the last, and everything in between — to become an citizen of the new kingdom. Something else is involved.

What the new kingdom was to bring about was not a political or social re-organization but a community of a people with changed hearts and minds. Writing in the sixth century BCE the prophet Ezekiel hints at it:

Therefore say, ‘Thus says the Lord God: I will gather you from the peoples and assemble you out of the countries where you have been scattered, and I will give you the land of Israel.’ 18 And when they come there, they will remove from it all its detestable things and all its abominations. 19 And I will give them one heart, and a new spirit I will put within them. I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh, 20 that they may walk in my statutes and keep my rules and obey them. And they shall be my people, and I will be their God. 21 But as for those whose heart goes after their detestable things and their abominations, I will[d] bring their deeds upon their own heads, declares the Lord God.”
Ezekiel 11:17-21

Writing in roughly the same time period as Ezekiel, Jeremiah calls it a new covenant. God had made a series of covenants with the nation in prior centuries through Abraham, Moses and David. Jeremiah promises a new one not like the others.

“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, 32 not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. 33 For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”
Jeremiah 31:31-5

For modern people this idea that the law would be “written on their hearts” makes little sense. What does this mean?

Writing in the first century CE, the Apostle Paul offers an explanation:

“For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.”
‭‭Romans‬ ‭2:12-16‬ ‭ESV‬‬

The precious post mentioned the “language of transcendence.” According to the Scriptures there is a transcendent world from which a new spirit can animate an individual’s heart and mind. In the above passage Paul suggests that this new spirit resides alongside person’s conscience and that the conscience bears witness to the spirit’s prompting.

The modern world acknowledges the idea that human beings have a conscience. But what, after all, what is a conscience? When someone says, “let your conscience be your guide,” what does this suggest? Taken at face value, it suggests that there must be another consciousness or immaterial spirit within each individual directing or influencing the person’s actions, desires or will that is, nonetheless, separate from them. Simply put, there is another “me” inside of me telling “me”what to do (or what not to do). I can choose to listen and obey my conscience or ignore it. In either case, it is independent and not merely a material property. So, conscience is a transcendent feature of human existence — something innate in humans that animates and directs our moral lives.

What the prophets predicted and what Paul suggests is that there is yet another “me” in me. But rather than an innate or intrinsic part of human nature it is “poured out” or “written on the hearts” by God. This is what the Bible refers to as Holy Spirit and it presents a dilemma for the modern mind. If one admits that human beings have consciousnesses and that they are not merely material properties, what is so hard about admitting the possibility of there being another form of consciousness in the form of the Holy Spirit?

Unable to fulfill the promise through an appeal to strictly human efforts (which Jesus showed was impossible), the kingdom that Jesus promised was one full of citizens animated and driven by this new Spirit of God.

But Jesus isn’t done describing this new king and kingdom. He adds yet another twist — the strangest of all.

Next, the suffering king.

2 thoughts on ““…According to the Scriptures:” The Messiah’s Promised Kingdom

  1. Interesting connection between Jeremiah’s words of writing a new covenant on the hearts and minds and that being manifested as an innate conscious. Begs the question though is this something new? What about those who lived before Jeremiahs prophecy?

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