The OT Backdrop to Jesus’ Good News of the Kingdom

[This is Part 2 of a series on the Kingdom of God. See Part 1.]

The Backdrop to Jesus’ Good News of the Kingdom
At the very outset of Genesis 1 there is kingdom language for both God (as High King of all) and Adam (as God’s representative king on earth). The language of “image” parallels other Ancient Near Eastern customs when a king would set up his image throughout the kingdom as a representation and reminder of who ruled.[1] God gives Adam a place (kingdom land) and tells him to exercise dominion (kingly rule) and spread (kingdom expansion) throughout the whole earth. Adam and Eve fail to protect the kingdom and even try to stake their claim to God’s throne so they’re exiled from Eden.

Throughout the OT this kingdom theme remains an important part of the storyline.[2] Israel becomes dissatisfied with God alone being their king so they cry out for a physical king to rule over them. This becomes a source of struggle as throughout their history Israel is largely governed by corrupt kings—both from within and without. Along the way, there are sparks of light pointing them to the need for and promise of a great King, a son of David who will rule forever in righteousness and justice, punishing God’s enemies and bringing salvation to His people (2 Sam. 7; Ps. 2, 110). As the OT storyline begins nearing its end (or the beginning), the Prophets voice the ever-increasing rumble of the remnant wanting their King (Is. 11:1; Jer. 33:15; Zech. 6:9-14; 9:9). “The coming of the King…would thus be the focal point of the great deliverance.”[3]

Although the NT phrase of “kingdom of God” isn’t used in the OT it should be clear by now that the ideas were fundamental to Israel’s theology and are a key stream in the Bible’s storyline. Richard Gaffin highlights two dimensions of kingdom in the OT, which parallel two dimensions in the NT. First, there is a “general and eternal kingship”, where God is King over all since He is Creator of all (Ps. 47:2; 103:19; 145:13).[4] Second, there is a “covenantal kingship,” where “God is the king of his covenantal people, Israel” (I Sam. 12:12; Is. 41:21; 43:15).[5] The Jews, therefore, anticipated a coming King who would rescue Israel from exile and reestablish Israel as God’s light to the nations. This Kingdom would bring in the new age and the OT prophets see it as the dawning of a new creation.

Clashing Views of the Kingdom
With this OT history in mind, when Jesus and John the Baptizer speak about the kingdom of God it is not something new and unheard of but something old and hoped for. There wasn’t a birthday party one year where the cousins got together and came up with framing Jesus’ ministry around a clever concept they created, kingdom. “Our Lord did not come to found a new religion, but simply to usher in the fulfillment of something promised long beforehand.”[6] Part of the clash between Jesus and the Jews is what the proper understanding of kingdom is and what it should look like. Jesus brings a kingdom that is not first political but spiritual. The conflicting views on what kingdom should be points us to the reality that first-century Jews had a concept of kingdom, so when Jesus and his followers preached the kingdom of God it is expected that their audience would have OT expectations and categories in their minds. Thomas Schreiner summarizes what those expectations might have been.

“Those hearing Jesus did not ask for a definition of the kingdom. They understood him to be proclaiming the dawn of a glorious new era in which Israel would be exalted and the nations made subservient to Israel’s God. The Lord would reign over the whole earth, the son of David would serve as king, and the exile would be over. The new covenant would be fulfilled, God’s people would keep his law, and the promised new creation would become a reality. The Lord would pour out his Spirit on all flesh, and the promise to Abraham that all nations would be blessed, to the ends of the earth, would become a reality.”[7]

As we move forward in looking into the NT teaching on the Kingdom of God we must remember this backdrop so we don’t think Jesus speaks on the kingdom in a vacuum. The OT anticipates the coming of the King and a Kingdom. The Jews who reject Jesus not only refuse the King but they repudiate his understanding of the kingdom itself. Jesus and the NT authors, however, describe the “mystery” (secret)[8] of the kingdom of God which came to us in Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ascension as fulfilling the OT expectations while doing so in a way most Jews might not have expected. This shouldn’t surprise us, since time and time again we see the Jews misunderstanding the fullness of the Scriptures as they replace the agenda of God’s kingdom with their own agenda.

In light of the notion of kingdom being fraught with political, earthly, and material expectations Jesus could have chosen a term less prone to confusion or misunderstood expectations. However, kingdom theology belongs to God and is at the heart of Scripture’s story and Jesus’ identity and mission. It could even be that Jesus also uses the term exactly to undercut and change their misguided assumptions on what they’re waiting for and what God promised in the Scriptures. As we make our way through the pages of the Bible’s story we’re often pleasantly surprised as God’s ways of bringing about his promises goes beyond what we had imagined or expected. So, while OT and Jewish understandings of kingdom are helpful, it is through their Christological fulfillment in the NT that we have greater clarity on its meaning. As John Flavel wrote, “Even so the right knowledge of Jesus Christ, like a clue, leads you through the whole labyrinth of the scriptures.” [9]

In order to keep things brief I won’t be unpacking a lot of direct application as we move forward. However, two immediate applications can be mentioned here for why what’s been written even matters. First, since the kingdom of God is a primary theme in the Bible it will help our understanding of the Scripture, God’s ways, and Christ’s person and work if we better understand the kingdom of God. If we simply choose to ignore the kingdom of God or to allocate it wholly to future things to come then we’ll miss out on our reading of both testaments. Second, this is a good reminder that all of life is lived with the tension of who will be king. God creates us to live under His rule and then to mirror Him to the world. The temptation for man in the Garden of Eden and ever since has been to live under no one’s authority but our own—to crown ourselves as king. Everyone will live with someone as king, and a deeper understand of the kingdom of God under Jesus will help us live faithfully with him and under his gracious rule.

[1] T. Desmond Alexander, From Eden to New Jerusalem (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2008), 76-79.
[2] For a good survey of kingdom in the OT, see: Graeme Goldsworthy, Gospel and Kingdom (Crownhill: Paternoster Press, 1981), 58-103; Peter J. Gentry and Stephen J. Wellum, Kingdom through Covenant (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012).
[3] N.T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 320.
[4] Richard B. Gaffin, “Kingdom of God,” in New Dictionary of Theology, ed. by Sinclair B. Ferguson, David F. Wright, and J.I. Packer (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1988), 367. See NT parallels to this dimension of kingship: I Cor. 15:27; Eph. 1:22; Heb. 2:8.
[5] Ibid., 367. See NT parallels to this dimension of kingship: Mt. 21:5; 28:18; Acts 2:24-36.
[6] Geerhardus Vos, “The Kingdom of God,” in Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation, ed. by Richard B. Gaffin Jr. (Phillips: P&R Publishing, 1980), 304.
[7] Thomas R. Schreiner, New Testament Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008), 45.
[8] See Mark 4:11. Geerhardus Vos writes, “This mystery, this new truth, we may find in the revelation that the kingdom is realized gradually, imperceptibly, spiritually, for in comparison with the Jewish exclusively eschatological expectations this was so novel and startling a thought that it might be fitly called a mystery.” Vos, “The Kingdom of God,” 307.
[9] John Flavel, The Fountain of Life in The Works of John Flavel, volume I (Carlisle: Banner of Truth, reprinted 1997), 34.

Jesus, the Davidic King

“Being therefore a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would set one of his descendants on his throne, he foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption. This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing. For David did not ascend into the heavens, but he himself says,‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.”’” (Acts 2:30-35)

It’s hard for me to believe that Dispensationalists would claim that Jesus is not the Davidic King reigning right now on the Davidic throne over the eternal Kingdom of God promised to David’s Son. That view has however become a minority as classical and revised dispensationalists are either on or nearing the theological endangered-species list (at least in academic and biblical-theology circles). Among the numerous responses that I’ve found helpful, here are some quotes from Progressive Dispensationalism (which on a spectrum is closer to Covenant Theology than Dispensational Theology) by Craig Blaising and Darrell Bock.

Craig Blaising and Darrell Bock bring up three of the most common classical or revised dispensational objections to Jesus’ reign as Davidic King. I’ll mention the first two and quickly summarize their response (although I recommend reading this section in their book in its entirety).

In sum: “Beginning in Acts 2, Jesus’ apostles began to preach that His resurrection was the fulfillment of the covenant promise to ‘raise up’ David’s descendant. The promise to raise up a descendant, in 2 Samuel 7:12, is connected with the promise to establish His kingdom or, putting it another way, to establish His throne. Peter argues in Acts 2:22-36 that David predicted in Psalm 16 that this descendant would be raised up from the dead, incorruptible, and in this way, He would be seated upon His throne (Acts 2:30-31). He then argues that this enthronement has taken place upon the entrance of Jesus into heaven, in keeping with the language of Psalm 110:1 that describes the seating of David’s son at God’s right hand.” (p. 177)

Objection 1. “The throne Jesus received at His ascension was not the throne promised to David.”.
“First of all, the objection fails to observe the fact that every New Testament description of the present throne of Jesus is drawn from Davidic covenant promises….In Acts 2:30-36, the resurrection, ascension, and seating of Christ in heaven at the right hand of God (Ps. 110:1) are presented in light of the prediction ‘that God had sworn to him [David] with an oath to seat one of his descendants upon his throne’ (Acts 2:30). No other throne is discussed in this text except the Davidic throne.” (p. 182)

“The second problem with the objection is that it fails to comprehend the relationship between God’s heavenly rule over Israel and the rule of His chosen king….Because of the covenant orientation of the heavenly throne to Israel, Jesus’ enthronement there makes Him the Christ, the anointed king of Israel. And because God, the King of Israel, had covenanted to David that his descendant would rule Israel and all the nations, this installation of Jesus (the son of David whom God has raised up from the dead) in heaven by the divine King of Israel portends an imminent descent to the Jerusalem throne.” (pp. 184-85)

Objection 2. “Jesus’ present activity is best understood as divine sovereignty, not Davidic kingship.”
“First of all, we note that the Bible explains Jesus’ present activity in Davidic as well as divine terms….Repeatedly through the Book of Acts and the Epistles, it is as the Christ (that is Messiah, the anointed Davidic king of Israel), seated at the right hand of God (the Davidic position) that He is active today.” (p. 185)

Craig A. Blaising and Darrell L. Bock, Progressive Dispensationalism (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1993), 174-283. Pages 182-187 are worth reading in their entirety.