All posts by Peter Watts

Questions That Must Be Asked: the “Big Picture” questions

Upon coming to faith in Jesus and beginning what would become a regular practice of reading and studying the Scriptures, I began to be stirred to know God, walk with Him closely, and understand what He was asking of me. Along with the truth I was gleaming, I began being intrigued, and sometimes daunted, by the great many details within the pages of Scripture, its many stories (seemingly unrelated to me at first), and the cultural practices that were very different from us today. Overtime, I also began having a growing suspicion that the many, seemingly unrelated stories of Scripture were all part of one long grand narrative that God was intertwining, and I was determined to know how this Story had taken and was continuing to take shape in the present.

As I became more and more familiar with the Scriptures in general and continued seeking to understand its mainline story, I began to naturally compare what I had learned in private study, to what was being taught and shared in Bible studies, youth group messages, Sunday morning sermons, and casual conversations with friends and family. There always seemed to be certain core beliefs I shared. However, I began noticing that some of my interpretations of Bible passages differed. This, I have come to believe, is very normal and happens with most believers on some level. Having said that, while I would argue that having differences, even slight nuanced differences, is very normal, I would also argue that some interpretations are more appropriate than others. And by appropriate, I mean interpretations that are rooted more closely to the historical context(s)—including the literary, grammatical, political, cultural, socioeconomic, and geographical contexts—reflected in the many books and pages of the Bible. In addition, and equally important, studying God’s Word in this light should help the student of Scripture to more readily recognize the interconnectedness of the Bible’s many small stories as being part of one Grand Story driven by God’s purpose for the world which involved, front and center, the call of Israel.

Since gaining a better understanding (albeit this process is not done) of the Scripture in its historical context and the Grand Story it makes known, I have often wondered why not all Christians do the same? Much could be said on this matter as there are many multifaceted issues involved, but one reason must be addressed. It’s the matter of question asking. Studying and learning Scripture ought to involve asking questions, that is, questions that arise in our minds and hearts which are rooted in a deep desire to seek and understand what the Scriptures say and the truth they proclaim. This should be obvious as learning anything in life requires asking questions, but it is not so obvious to everyone. In fact, one of the main reasons why the Bible is not studied or read contextually is that certain questions are in fact stopped in their tracks before ever being asked. They are stopped, I believe, by the theological framework(s) Christians are currently working within and under. In other words, certain ways or systems of thinking about God (which is what I mean by theological framework(s)) and this universe keep people from learning more than they currently know and believe. These frameworks have signs attached to them (so to speak) that say things like “Do not ask questions that will comprise this foundation!” regarding questions and or critiques of a different particular theological point of view. They hinder people from accepting the very real possibility there is another way to interpret the Scripture that be true or more accurate than one’s current interpretation (i.e. including interpretations on particular verses, passages, books of the Bible, or what the overarching Grand Narrative is).

There’s been a trend in the Church since its beginning that if one’s questions do not work within the present theological framework of a particular church or Christian institution,—today this includes denominations, seminaries, Bible Colleges, and yes, whole branches of Christianity—they either won’t be addressed or they won’t be addressed appropriately. This isn’t to say that truth is now relative or that there is no truth to speak of. Rather, way too often, churches with established institutional structures and ministries assume that their written and spoken doctrines and theologies are completely adequate, in no need for critique, as if to say inerrant and God breathed (like the Scriptures) and not open to even the possibility that their present theological framework is lacking or in need of repair. In contrast to this pattern of living and learning, the follower of Jesus ought to be earnest in his or her pursuit of truth (and God) with confidence and humility, knowing that the theological structures of men and women should always be open to critique and at times correction or rebuke, if not from man, but from God’s Spirit himself. My own theology, doctrinal stances, and lens of interpretation are not an exception to this. In light of my rebuke of those not open to critique of their theology and or doctrines, if my interpretative lens is shown to be lacking, then I ought to be willing to listen to the reasons why by my critics. If a theology or doctrinal stance is true and adequate than it should invite any question and be open to any and all critique.

As I have pursued God and sought to learn what the Scriptures reveal, I have asked a great deal of questions and brought those to God in prayer, to His people in conversation, and to the Scriptures. In fact, I have spent a great deal of time searching the Scriptures for answers to those questions. At times, I have found answers to my questions, and at other times, I have not. Out of all the questions asked, there are a number of them that I believe are vitally and critically important for Christians to begin asking if they have not already. These have come to surface for me after years of study, listening to hundreds if not thousands of sermons, participating in hundreds if not thousands of conversations with other Christians on various Bible related topics, and simply attempting to live out the faith I profess in Jesus for the last twenty years, among Christians and those who are not (yet). These questions did not all come to me at once, but gradually over time.

Many of them were motivated and inspired by the discrepancy I began noticing in my early years of following Jesus between what was being taught in various Church gatherings (i.e. Bible studies, Sunday or Wednesday sermons, books, commentaries, and other resources, etc.) and what the Scriptures actually say. I found the discrepancy was largely due to two reasons: First, the Bible was not being taught in its historical context (as I mentioned above). Secondly, the basic theological framework held by the person, group, church, or Christian institution giving the teaching was (and for some, still is) not deeply rooted in the long and powerful Story of Ancient Israel, and particularly, God’s purpose to call and use Israel for the sake of the whole world. Instead it was rooted wholesale either in the entire theology (or theologies rather) of the Protestant Reformation, or that of Roman Catholicism, or the Eastern Orthodox, or some other recent contemporary theology (like that of rapture theology or other escapist theologies rooted in Plato’s “Theory of forms” and 2nd century Gnosticism). My contention is that unless a person’s theological framework and subsequent doctrinal stances are rooted deeply in Israel’s long story and their part to play in God’s overall purpose in and for this world, they are not rooted in the Scriptures, or the God whom they make known.

My desire and intention in making these claims is that others may also recognize those and similar discrepancies, and then ask the hard questions that will (with God’s help of course) point them closer to the truth. Asking hard questions when it’s not popular to do so will likely mean, as it has meant for me, that when push comes to shove you seek to please God rather than please people. This is why, in part, I have been able to explore answers to the questions I have been asking. To be of help, I included some (not all) of those hard questions below. My challenge to you, the reader, is to ask them to yourself, then take necessary time to think about your current answer(s), and why you believe them to be true or adequate. Writing your answers down can and does help tremendously to see your beliefs in front of you and will serve to be a resource to return to in the future, on your own and with other believers. The below questions are not necessarily in any particular order of importance. However, I did order them in such a way as to help those who have never given the long and powerful Story of ancient Israel serious attention, especially in terms of treating it (and treating them-the people) as a highly significant part of the Grand Story of Scripture. To put it another way, without recognizing Israel in the Grand Story of Scripture, the Story will simply not make much sense, and or your theology will end up being rooted in something other than the Bible. My questions are purposely leading, pointing toward a particular end, and some of them hint at or clearly indicate the answers (at least, what I believe them to be) within the questions.


The Questions

Does the Bible contain a Grand Narrative (a long interconnected Story)?
What is the Grand Narrative of Scripture?
What was and remains God’s purpose for this world (and universe) in the Grand Narrative?
What does it mean that humanity was created in the image of God?
What is the connection between the God’s overall purpose and humanity being created in His image?
Why does the Old Testament spend so much time on the history of the people of Israel?
What was Israel’s part to play in this Grand Story? In other words, what did Yahweh God call them to do?
(First, how did Yahweh intend to use Israel as the solution for Adam and Eve’s disobedience?
Second, how is Israel intended or called to restore the broken image of God? Third, and lastly, how is this calling to be understood as being for the sake of the whole world?—the Abrahamic calling and promise of Genesis 12:1-3)
What was the purpose(s) of the Law of the Covenant between Israel and Yahweh God enacted at Mount Sinai?
Did Yahweh expect Israel to obey Him by obeying His Covenant Law?
What were the blessings Yahweh promised if His people obeyed His Law?
What curses did He promise should they disobey His Covenant Law?
Did Yahweh expect perfection in obedience? And further, did He expect perfection in obedience in order to obtain the blessings of the Covenant? Was it all or nothing as some Christians today suggest?
If Yahweh forgave His people Israel via the regular sacrifices and the yearly sacrifices given on the Day of Atonement, then why did He include a promised curse within the Law in case they disobeyed Him? Again, was it all or nothing (i.e. this may be related to at least the previous four questions, but potentially to all the above)?
Did Israel accomplish their calling (i.e. the Abrahamic calling and promise of Genesis 12:1-3)?
What was the curse of the Law? (Hint: destruction and exile).
How does Yahweh view the promised exile should they disobey Him?
What were the main reasons that Yahweh sent Israel into exile? (i.e. Was it for breaking the Covenant Law in general? Was the formula “obey and get blessings and disobey and get curses”?
Wasn’t it for Israel’s grand scale consistent disobedience in at least three main areas?—idolatry, Sabbath breaking, oppression of their own people by their leaders and other Hebrews?
Didn’t the prophets attest to these three main areas? (see all of the Prophetic Literature in Old Testament).
What was life like for Israel during their years in exile?
What did Yahweh promise to Israel should they repent for the sins that led to exile?
Didn’t Yahweh promise to forgive Israel for the sins that led to exile by no longer holding them to their account, then blessing Israel, their land, and by extension the whole earth—recalling the Genesis 12 project, giving His Spirit to them who would write His Law on their minds and hearts; using a kingly Messiah He would judge the nations who had exiled Israel and exalted themselves over Yahweh taking credit away from Yahweh for only things He should be credited; and then extend covenant status to any and all Gentiles who repent; all of this speaks to new creation on a grand scale).
What were the signs that Yahweh’s Messiah had come?
Did the work of the Messiah not only have to do with Israel but also Adam and Eve’s disobedience in the garden?
Wouldn’t the Messiah work on behalf of Israel in order to be the solution for Adam and Eve’s disobedience and fulfill the Abrahamic calling of Genesis 12:1-3, not to mention, the restoration of the kingdom of Israel—which was, to begin with, originally intended to be part of the plan to set the world right?
How did Israel’s hope (in Yahweh’s promises) affect how they lived during 2nd Temple Judaism?
Why were there so many competing factions in Judaism during 2nd Temple Judaism?
When Jesus of Nazareth looked to a crowd and said, “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand?” what did he mean?
How are we to understand Jesus’ message of the kingdom (its content, its purpose, its fulfillment in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection)?
What did Jesus believe about himself? At what chronological point in his life on earth did he become self-aware of His calling?—What do the Gospels tell us about this?
What did his closest friends and disciples think Jesus was about and what he was doing when he was proclaiming that the kingdom of God was at hand?
What did they think about his forgiving the crippled man of his sins prior to healing him?
Did Jesus depend on the Holy Spirit (that is God’s Spirit)? For what? To heal? To obey the Law of Covenant? To abstain from sin?
Was Jesus of Nazareth able of sinning? If not, wouldn’t this diminish his obedience to the Father?
Wouldn’t not being able to sin mean then that the temptation of Satan really was no temptation at all since (in that view) he wasn’t able to sin to begin with?
However, if Jesus of Nazareth was able to sin (not that he did), doesn’t this magnify his obedience to the Father? Wouldn’t this also mean that when Satan tempted him, he really was tempted? (read each and every word of the following passages carefully: Hebrews 4:14-16; Matthew 4:1-11; Luke 4:1-13)
Did (and How did) Jesus obey the Covenant Law that Yahweh gave to Israel to obey?—the Law passages we find in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy? (Hint: Yes. But in his obedience, he also critiqued present day misinterpretations and misuses of the Law by teachers of the law and others).
Did (and How did) Jesus critique some of the current interpretations of particular spiritual parties and leaders in Israel? (such as the teachers of the law, Pharisees, Sadducees, and others).
What was Jesus doing? What was his main mission or priority? Wasn’t it for the lost sheep of Israel?
Again what do the Gospel writers tell us that can help answer the above questions?
How should we understand Jesus statement that he came for the lost sheep of Israel as first priority?
Wasn’t it due to the fact that Israel did not (and could not) fulfill the Abrahamic calling of Genesis 12 and the Mount Sinai Covenant between Israel and Yahweh, due to grand scale disobedience in the 3 areas mentioned above? In other words, wasn’t Jesus representing Israel as Messiah, both in Israel’s original calling and covenant, by his entire life, death, and resurrection?
How should we understand Jesus being a Jew? Of the lineage of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? In other words, does Jesus Jewish identity have anything to do with his mission on the earth to Israel?
And along with that last question, why did Jesus become a Jew if he was the word who was God (John chapter 1)? Asked differently, why did God become a Jewish man? And not a Caucasian in the 21st century? Or you name the ethnicity and race, why a Jewish man?
How should we understand Jesus life as a whole (not just his death or resurrection)?
How did the Gospel writers, Paul, and other New Testament authors understand Jesus death in light of his life lived? Also, what did this mean within the Long Story of Israel (from the Abrahamic calling/promise to the Sinai Covenant to the failure to obey the Law on a grand scale to the future hope of Israel as told by prophets)?
How should we view Jesus death as necessary and God’s will if human agents were involved? If Jesus believed it was God’s will (the Father’s will), then does this mean God forced the Jewish leaders and the Romans to crucify him? Doesn’t this conflict with other current theological paradigms? Could the crucifixion of Jesus been both God’s will and human will? How?
And doesn’t the Gospel writers (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John) paint the picture that human agents were to blame for Jewish death, namely hard hearted religious leaders, a large crowd of Judeans, and the Roman authorities (namely Pilate on behalf of Caesar—see in particular Matthew 26-28; Mark 14-16; Luke 19-24; John 18-21; and Peter and the apostles’ statements to the Jewish religious leaders in Acts 2-4)?
What did the Jews believe about a future resurrection (those who believed it would occur someday)?
How did the Gospel writers (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John), the apostle Paul, and other New Testament writers understand Jesus resurrection? (see NT letters and epistles).
What did they believe was raised?—his spirit alone? His body alone? Or his body and spirit (working against the notion of immortality of the soul)?
Didn’t they believe that God the Father raised Jesus from the dead, who had been completely dead for three days, by His Holy Spirit?
What did Jesus resurrection mean for the forward moving Story of Israel?
What did Jesus’ resurrection mean as a fulfillment of Israel’s (and God’s promises) hope foretold by the Hebrew prophets (Old Testament prophets)?
What did Jesus’ resurrection mean as restoring the image of God that was broken due to Adam and Eve’s disobedience in the garden?
What did Jesus’s resurrection mean as fulfilling the call of Israel (Genesis 12:1-3), the very call that Israel on a grand scale failed to accomplish?
What did Jesus’ resurrection mean as being a prototype for all humanity and all creation?
What did Jesus call his followers to do to continue his mission on earth?
What did he promise his Spirit would do in, through, and for them?
What did the coming of the Holy Spirit mean for the first Christian Jews in relation to the promises of Yahweh through the Old Testament prophets?
How did Paul and the other New Testament authors understand the saving work of Jesus death on a Roman cross?
What did they mean by Jesus death being first for the Jew and then the Gentile (hint: the above questions and their answers regarding the Story of Israel, their calling, covenant, and future hope will help to answer this).
How did they believe God was holding the arrogant nations—who held Israel in exile and all those who continued to have power over Israel following their return from exile—accountable by the cross and blood of Jesus?
Along with this, how did they believe God was holding Israel accountable for the sins that led to exile by the cross and blood of Jesus, as well as their present and future sins?
Along with this, how did they believe God was holding the whole world accountable for their sins by the cross and blood of Jesus? (i.e. How did they believe worldwide justice was accomplished by the cross and blood of Jesus?)
How did Paul (and other NT authors) view God’s purpose, work, and accomplishment to set Israel, and by extension, the whole world (and all creation) right by the man Jesus Christ whom they now called Lord?
How did Paul (& other NT authors) understand Jesus to be Lord (over the Jews, Gentiles, and all creation)?
How did Paul (& other NT authors) understand the Church in relation to the Old Covenant People of God (i.e. the church is the inclusion of Gentiles as the people of God but not to the neglect of Israel, nor a replacement of Israel)?
How did Paul explain God’s pronouncement whereby both Jews and Gentiles may obtain covenant status as the people of God (i.e. the Church, the Body of Jesus Christ)? In other words, how is someone declared in the right, justified by God?
How did Paul and other NT authors view the Spirit of God (echoing the question already asked)? And what is the work of the Spirit in the life of the Church?
What is the Church called to do by the Spirit in and for this world in light of what God has done in and through Jesus and will someday do in and for us at the future Resurrection?
How ought the Church to live in light of the future Resurrection of all things, when the dead are held accountable for their lives, when darkness will be no more, and heaven and earth will finally and fully join together? When, as Paul put it, God will be all in all (1 Corinthians 15:28)?
How do the above questions about Jesus and His Church intimately fulfill Yahweh’s call of Israel (i.e. the Abrahamic calling and promise) and purpose for the whole world?

Does the Bible contain a Grand Narrative (Story)?Yes
What is the Grand Narrative of Scripture?……
What is your part to play in it?……
Have you joined the Story?……

Kingdom of God Revisited

jesus artwork

For many Christians today, the phrases “kingdom of God” and “kingdom of heaven” refer to “heaven”—in other words, the place called heaven experienced after one dies. However, this is not what was originally meant when Jews (including Jesus) and early Christian Jews of Jesus’ day spoke of “the kingdom of God” or “the kingdom of heaven”. This does not then mean there is not a place called “heaven” but rather that those phrases refer to something different. Their misreading goes at least as far back as the Early Middle Ages. Unfortunately, it has led to faulty interpretations of passages both in the Gospel narratives (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), Paul’s many letters, and other New Testament writings. As with any reading of ancient literature (or for that matter, any literature, no matter the time period it came from), context is everything. Historical context must be considered because context determines the meaning of a passage in any piece of literature, including passages in the sacred text of Scripture. This will be the aim of the following article: to put the phrases “kingdom of God” and “kingdom of heaven” in their historical context.  The historical context of those phrases are set within the larger context of ancient Israel’s story and God’s purpose in calling and choosing this people. Once the context is better understood, the student of Scripture should then have greater clarity on the meaning of Jesus of Nazareth’s first announcement to his people, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Consequently, this clarity will help to instill a renewed sense (and even fuller sense) of meaning, passion, and motivation in how one follows Jesus today. Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.

The following article is structured by three sections. 1) First, a brief definition of “kingdom of God” and “kingdom of heaven” is provided in their 1st century context. 2) Second, a short overview of ancient Israel’s Story will give the broader historical framework. 3) Third, their Story is detailed further and set within God’s overall purpose for the whole world.

Definition of “kingdom of God” and “kingdom of heaven”: By the 1st century Palestine the phrase “kingdom of heaven” (for Hebrews, “heaven” was language referring to “God”) and its synonymous phrase “kingdom of God” referred to God’s rule, or reign over the people and land of Israel, and by extension, the world. It became part of the language the Jewish people used to refer to the much anticipated restoration of Israel as a theocratic nation under the leadership of Yahweh, no longer under occupation by a foreign power. They had already been under foreign occupation for over 700 years by the time of Jesus of Nazareth. What in fact that restoration would look like and how it would then transform our entire world and cosmos will be looked at in more detail below.  In order to get at those details, it is crucial then to investigate the context from which the phrase kingdom of God emerges, which then means getting familiar with ancient Israel and their long but forward looking story of God’s purpose–for Israel, and through Israel, the rest of the known world.

Short overview of ancient Israel’s Story: In the beginning stages of their Story, from 2000 BCE to 1000 BCE, Israel took shape as a theocracy, in which their god, Yahweh, led and guided them in all aspects of life (politically, socially, economically, and ritual purity). It later blended bits of theocracy and monarchy in a very dramatic and incredible story of salvation and covenant, victory and defeat, exile and the hope for deliverance.

Ancient Israel’s Story within God’s purpose for the whole world: At the start, Yahweh chose Abraham and his descendants (the Hebrew people) to be the agents through whom He would bless all the families and people groups of the earth. This followed humanity’s downward turn of events brought on by Adam and Eve’s disobedience and climaxed at the Tower of Babel when the known world exalted themselves above God their Creator. Yahweh’s choice of Abraham’s family was to establish His name and glory in His creation and world, namely by bringing wise order to it, through a people who might reflect Him in a way that their ancestors had failed to do and might reverse the effects of Adam and Eve’s disobedience (see Genesis 1:27-31 and 12:1-3 keeping in mind also 3:14-15). Yahweh demonstrated Himself powerfully and in various ways through Abraham, then through Abraham’s son Isaac, then his son Jacob, and then through Jacob’s son Joseph. These demonstrations of power were accomplished in the sight of many nations and people groups of the ancient Near East—notably, in front of kings and tribes of the people of Canaan as well as the Egyptians and their pharaoh. Among these displays of power was the favor Yahweh gave to Joseph with Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, whereby Joseph was able to rescue—from many years of life threatening famine—not only his entire Hebrew family (Jacob’s sons and their families), but also the entire populous of Egypt and tribal groups from Canaan land.

A period of time later, another pharaoh rose to power in Egypt who did not know of Yahweh or Joseph or how he—due to Yahweh’s favor—rescued Egypt from the famine. For fear of the Hebrew’s ever increasing population and the potential threat they posed in the land of Egypt, this new pharaoh made slaves of Abraham’s descendants. After being slaves for nearly 400 years, Yahweh rescued them by performing plagues against the Egyptians and their pharaoh, and then again by His dramatic salvation at the Red Sea. At Mount Sinai in the Arabian Desert, Yahweh affirmed His prior choice of the Hebrews, and established it further, by inviting them into a covenant that would grant them covenant status as Yahweh’s special people. This involved laying out His expectations (in the form of Covenant Law) for a covenant people, and the Hebrews accepted the terms. Obedience to the Law of the Covenant became for them the means whereby they would represent and reflect Yahweh as their god both within the larger community of Israel (now named) and to the wider world in order that His name and glory would be known to all (Genesis 3:15; 12:1-3; Deuteronomy 4:1-8; see Isaiah 49:6 for His broader purpose for Israel, and bits of the Law that command for the proper treatment of the visiting foreigner—Exodus 22-23 and other passages in Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy). Yahweh promised that should they fail to obey His covenant, He would not forgive them (Exodus 23:21), meaning He would hold Israel accountable for their disobedience; he would do this by bringing destruction to the land (the land Yahweh had given them to steward) and then forcing them into exile at the hands of a foreign nation (Leviticus 26:27-45; Deuteronomy 7:1-4; 11:16-17 & 28; 28:15-68).

While there were seasons of obedience as a people and had their share of godly leaders, Israel, as a people, consistently failed to obey Yahweh’s Law on a grand scale. At the top of the list of offenses was Israel’s repetitive idolatry, failure to keep His Sabbath, and wide spread oppression of fellow Israelites (see i.e. Isaiah 10:1-4; ch.57-58; Ezekiel 20-22; Amos 2-8; and other passages in the Prophets). Why were three offenses particularly grievous and frustrating to Yahweh? Let’s start with idolatry: Idolatry was to serve and worship a god or gods and the idols that represented the god or gods—often made of wood, stone, or clay. In the ancient Near East, the vast array of gods (depending on the god) were believed to hold certain power over regions or places and various aspects of life, such providing strength and favor in battle, healing to overcome sickness or disease, fertility for pregnancy, wisdom, and prosperity of land and wealth. Serving a god or gods (or goddess/goddesses) meant doing what those gods demanded in hopes that they in return provide any of the above list. Worshipping a god (or goddess) was to revere and acknowledge that god’s power through various ritual acts. In entering a covenant with Him, Yahweh expected His covenant people to depend on Him for their general welfare and no longer on other gods nor their idols—which interestingly enough was not, at first, a denouncement of the existence of other gods (that would come later in their history), but of dependence on them. His command to no longer serve nor worship other gods besides Him was the substance of the first two of the Ten Commandments when Yahweh introduced to Israel His Covenant Law. Not far into Israel’s history you will discover the sins of idolatry showing up frequently and often unquestioned (see 1 & 2 Kings and 1 & 2 Chronicles), and among some Hebrew families and kings, even the practice of making the firstborn baby pass through fire to please the god Molech (or Moloch), which was an abomination to Yahweh. Idolatry, at its core, was not only a demonstration of Israel’s lack of dependence on Yahweh as their god but a way of demonstrating sometimes greater loyalty to other gods over against Yahweh, and at the very least showing a sort of synchronistic loyalty. There is also reason to believe that at times Israel had given credit to other gods for things Yahweh himself had done for Israel (see i.e. Exodus 32—the creation or recreation of the golden calf). Idolatry was a slap in the face to all that Yahweh had accomplished in, for, and through Israel—from the time of Abraham up through the time of the Kings—and after 700 years of idolatry following the Sinai Covenant, He had enough (the Sinai Covenant likely happened in the 1400’s BCE and the fall of Israel and the first stage of exile at the hand of the Assyrians in the early part of the 700’s BCE).

Why was Sabbath keeping so important to Yahweh? Although in the fourth of the Ten Commandments, the Sabbath was established prior to the introduction to His Covenant Law (see Exodus 16 and 20). Sabbath meant “rest” understood as a day of rest. It was to be a day when Israel would not do work as usual, but instead rest from work. By resting from work, Israel was given time and mental space to reflect on Yahweh and His provision of the basic sustenance of life, food and water, as well as remembering what He had done in and for Israel in days past. By not working, it also meant Israel was relying on Yahweh and trusting Him that the basic sustenance of life (food and water) would be provided again the following week just as it had the week prior. Additional Sabbaths were added to the many yearly feasts (or festivals) Israel was commanded to celebrate—some centered on Yahweh’s provision of food during the season of harvest, while other feasts focused on one or more of the following: His deliverance from slavery in Egypt, dramatic salvation at the Red Sea, guidance toward the Promised Land, and atonement of collective sin in the community of Israel (see i.e. Exodus 23:14-17; 35:18-26; Leviticus 23:1-44). Every seventh year was to be a Sabbath year in which the land was not harvested as before, but was provided rest from men’s labors. Every fiftieth year was to be a Year of Jubilee—a yearlong Sabbath of sorts in which all human debts were cancelled and the land was given another year of rest from men’s harvesting of its crops (see Leviticus 25). These commands make clear that Yahweh valued rest both for His covenant people and for the land He provided them, and in these days or seasons of “rest” He valued His people taking time out to reflect and give thanks to Him for what He had done for them. It was intended to be a good and beneficial thing both for His covenant people and their land. Sabbath keeping, at one level, meant choosing to trust Yahweh’s promise to provide for them. At another level, it meant keeping the covenant they promised to Him. Unfortunately, they failed on both counts. While it is not clear from the historical narratives how much or how often Israel failed to keep the Sabbath during their weekly observances, yearly festivals, Sabbath years, and the years of Jubilee, their lack of being mentioned at least implies Israel did not keep it as a normative practice. However, it is clear from the prophetic literature (i.e. The Prophets), from Yahweh’s own mouth, that Israel had grossly neglected Sabbath keeping (as stated above, see i.e. Isaiah 10:1-4; chs.57-58; Ezekiel 20-22). The cancelling of debts every fifty years can hardly be imagined as normative Israelite practice by the time of Isaiah. Whereas the practice of keeping the Sabbath could have (and would have) fostered a climate of trust in Yahweh for provision during the land’s harvest season, which consequently would have cultivated honesty in business dealings and dedicated attempts to care for the poor and less fortunate, not keeping the Sabbath fostered instead a climate of self-sufficiency and blatant disregard of Yahweh’s past provisions, which then of course cultivated dishonesty in business dealings and financial oppression of their own people, including treatment of widows, orphans, and the poor in general. Not keeping the Sabbath became in the community of Israel a widespread demonstration of their selfishness—those in positions of authority and or with great wealth leading the way—to acquire wealth at the expense of the vulnerable and poor, which perpetuated their ongoing disobedience to Yahweh, both to His Law (the written down commands and instructions given to Moses) and His voice (i.e. “the word of Yahweh” which came through the prophets).

Widespread oppression of fellow Israelites, as just noted, worked in conjunction with Israel’s neglect of the Sabbath. Oppression hit on various levels. According to the would be prophet Amos—Amos himself wrote that he is not a prophet but “a herdsman and a grower of sycamore figs” in chapter 7:14-17 of his prophecy)—there were those in power that cheated fellow Israelites by changing the value of their crops for sale by selling smaller bundles for more than they were worth (or should have been worth), while raising the value of money (deflation—as with the shekel) in order to buy more from the less fortunate, the vulnerable, like widows and orphans, and the poor (Amos 5:10-13 & 8:5-6). It appears that certain wealthy Israelites owned two homes (summer and winter), even houses constructed with ivory (a sign of great wealth), while many of the poor in the land suffered with little (Amos 3:14-4:2). There was no doubt a direct connection between the financial oppression and disparity within the community of Israel and false prophecies that were rampant. People who have wealth and power to lose often, in their sinfulness, want to protect their wealth and power, and the false prophets spoke “Yahweh’s favor” toward the wicked priests and kings in order to maintain whatever power and favor they had with the kings and priests. The false prophets in turn also were protecting the wicket lifestyles of the kings and or priests, including their sexual impropriety and drunkenness; this climate of disobedience was not just a leadership issue, however, as it seems the above sins were reflective of many in Israel (see Amos 2:6-4:2 and Ezekiel 22:6-12 & 26-31 and any number of Israel and Judah’s kings whose memories are recorded in 1 & 2 Kings and 1 & 2 Chronicles). The rulers in power, including the priests and kings, made aims at keeping the true prophets quiet in order to continue living however they wanted, without sincere and honest regard for the Covenant Law (Amos 2:12; 7:10-17; and Ezekiel 22:6-12). Enough was enough and was only time before Yahweh would soon hold them to account.

Though a godly king would rise up from time to time, sometimes in conjunction with a prophet of Yahweh (and many times not, because Israel’s kings were often part of the problem), to rebuke the people and their leaders of widespread disobedience, calling them to repentance, the people and their leaders would often turn back for short seasons only (again, see 1 & 2 Kings, 1 & 2 Chronicles). It was primarily because of the grand scale disobedience in the three areas just dealt with above (idolatry, Sabbath breaking, and oppression), the Prophets tell us, that compelled Yahweh to take action against His people and send them into exile. It was not merely for breaking His Law in general that they were exiled (as many in the church today assert and assume) for the sacrificial system required in the Law had taken care of ritual purity and provided the avenue for Yahweh’s forgiveness of sin(s). Having said that, Yahweh eventually did judge His people for the above mentioned sins by sending (or prompting) the Assyrians and then later the Babylonians to wreak havoc on His people and land and take them into exile in the foreigner’s lands (2 Kings 17-25; 2 Chronicles 28-36; Ezekiel 20: 33-44; Amos 9:1-4; Isaiah 10; 13:1-9; 47:1-6). The broader effect of Israel’s grand scale disobedience was that in failing to obey Yahweh’s Covenant Law they also failed to reflect Yahweh (i.e. bear His image) to the surrounding nations, and so failing to establish His name and glory to wider world. Despite their massive failure, He anticipated a day when His people would in fact, by His own doing, accomplish the mission He gave to Abraham (recalling Genesis 12:1-3).

Exile felt to Israel as if Yahweh had abandoned them. Eventually, the people of God repented and cried out to Yahweh (see the cries and prayers from exile: Psalm 137; the whole book of Lamentations; Jeremiah 31:18-19; and possibly Psalm 42-43). Yahweh answered their cry for help and began sending them back to the Land of Promise by giving them favor with the foreign powers (see the continuing story of Israel in the books Ezra, Nehemiah, and Daniel). Although the people were permitted to return to their land, foreign powers remained in control of them. A series of five empires remained in control of Israel at different times from 721 BCE and on into the time of the 1st century CE and beyond (the Assyrians, Babylonians, Media-Persians, Greeks, and Romans). The Jews, however, did gain semi-independence over Judea and some areas surrounding Judea for nearly 100 years through the resilient and aggressive efforts of the Maccabean revolt. While there was a degree of freedom that the people had, religiously and socially, among the latter three empires, they were still under occupation and control, which gave them a gnawing sense that the period of exile was not over, that Yahweh had not returned to their community as before exile, actively working among them, speaking to them via the prophets and leaders, and blessing them.

This very real sense that exile had not ended (at least not completely) was in conjunction with the widespread belief that the Spirit of God was no longer at work in and through Israel as He once had been during the glory days of their past, and that this would remain a reality until the much anticipated future restoration of Israel at the hands of Yahweh (see Amos 9:11-15). The prophetic books spoke of a day when God’s Spirit would return to His people, even come into them and write Yahweh’s Law on their hearts (Ezekiel 36; Jeremiah 31:33-34, Isaiah 32:15). This future restoration of Israel was often believed to be working hand in hand with Yahweh’s judgment of the foreigner powers (or Gentile nations) which had occupied Israel and taken them into exile (see i.e. Isaiah 10 and 66; Jeremiah 30; Joel 3 and other passages in the Prophets). His coming judgment of these nations was for their arrogance in exalting themselves above Him (see i.e. Isaiah 10:5-34; 47:1-15; 51:22-23). Yahweh’s judgment came to be named the day of Yahweh (often translated into English as the day of the LORD). There were differing views on whether Yahweh would judge the nations Himself or act via a human agent, a Messiah (Anointed One) whom He would chose (see i.e. Deuteronomy 18:15 and Psalm 2); although there seemed to be widespread belief in Israel that He would indeed use a human agent. There was also differing views on the timeframe and quality of the future Messianic age. Would Yahweh’s judgment be prior the Messianic age or following it? Would the Messianic age be the final and ultimate age of Yahweh’s reign? Would the age be entirely earthly, entirely heavenly, or would it be a combination of both? It is clear, however, that many in Israel did in fact hope in and anticipate an earthly reign of the Messiah who would overthrow the foreign powers and usher in the restored kingdom of Israel, or kingdom of God.


During 2nd Temple Judaism (515 BCE to 70 AD) in particular, but likely beginning much earlier in Israel’s history, this future Messiah figure was widely believed to be a descendant of David, which meant he would be a king of Israel (see i.e. Micah 5:2; Isaiah 9 and 32; Jeremiah 33:17; 2 Samuel 7:12-13; 2 Chronicles 13:5; Zechariah 9:9; and Ezekiel 37). Others believed Yahweh would send a heavenly figure who would operate in His power (using Daniel 7:9-14 and apocalyptic literature), while some held that this figure and the Messiah were one and the same. Still, it seems that others may have wondered whether Isaiah’s Servant figure was the promised Messiah or simply representative of the whole nation of Israel (see i.e. Isaiah 42-43; 52-53).

The much anticipated restoration of Israel, not only included Yahweh’s coming judgment, the work of His Messiah, and the Spirit of Yahweh, but also the restoration of the land of Israel (i.e. Isaiah chapter 11; ch.35; 65:17-25; Jeremiah 31; Ezekiel 36:24-38), and this restoration seemed to have an effect not only in Israel but somehow making its way in all the earth (Isaiah 11:9; & 65:17). Not only this, but some prophets acknowledged that the restoration of Israel as a people and land would positively affect Gentiles coming into covenant with Yahweh (see Hosea 1:10, 23; Psalm 22:27-29). So as the day of the Lord extended from Israel to the whole world, it would affect all of humanity and all across Yahweh’s earth, harkening back to an earlier promise (Genesis 12:1-3). When these things eventually happen in the sight of Israel, the people of God would once and for all know that Yahweh their covenant god and King had returned to them and forgave them of the sins that led to exile, and extending out from Israel (the land) and through Israel (the covenant people), act as the rightful Lord of this world.

Other highly significant parts of the story are not mentioned here but are still very important, such as Yahweh’s creation, the importance and purpose of the Temple, the priesthood, the sacrificial system and other bits of the Covenant Law, the divided nation of Israel into the kingdom of Israel and kingdom of Judah, which myself and others have dealt with in other places (see the resources mentioned below). For now, returning to where we started, the long Story of Israel was the larger historical context in which the phrase “kingdom of God” (and “kingdom of heaven”) emerged; it emerged sometime during second temple Judaism (515 BCE to 70 AD). This is the time period that Jesus of Nazareth was born into and in which, when he began his public ministry, spoke of the kingdom of God. When Jesus said, “repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand”, we must take into account what the common Jew in Israel in the first century understood that to mean. Sadly and frustratingly, this has all too often not been the case and all too often “the kingdom of God” has come to mean something very different.

the kingdom of God today

Since the above Story is the historical context for Jesus’ proclamation of and teaching about the kingdom of God, then it raises at least a few questions regarding how the phrase “the kingdom of God” is commonly used today in many Christian circles. So first, what has “the kingdom of God” come to mean today? How does this new meaning alter the vision and meaning the New Testament authors gave to us? What are the resulting shortcomings today in Christian thought and values as well as in lifestyle when we embrace today’s popular alternate meaning rather than the one rooted in Israel’s history (as revealed in Scripture)? How will embracing the New Testament’s vision of the kingdom of God positively affect Christian thought, values, and lifestyle today? These are some of the questions, and much more, that my upcoming articles, “The Gospel Revisited” and “The Gospel Today: How Christians often miss the point,” will attempt to answer.


For further study on this topic

In addition to thoroughly reading and studying the Bible books and passages mentioned in this article, I highly recommend the following resources for additional historical background and context: the three articles “Kingdom of God/Heaven”, “Servant of Yahweh”, and “Revolutionary Movements” in the IVP Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels; also, my upcoming article “The Grand Narrative Begins: The Story of Israel in God’s purpose for the whole world” in a larger project yet to be titled (and still in the process of completing). I also highly recommend the following four books by New Testament historian and theologian N.T. Wright which set out the historical context of 1st century Palestine in great detail: How God became King: the forgotten story of the Gospels; Simply Jesus: A new vision for who he was, what he did, and why he matters; Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s vision; and his large scholarly work, The New Testament and the people of God (Volume 1 of a 4 volume series entitled Christian Origins and the Question of God).