A new nation? Or eternal life in God's kingdom?
The Kingdom of God in the Old Testament
One of the main themes of the Old Testament is God’s promise to establish a powerful Jewish kingdom. The basis of God’s covenant agreement with Abraham was that the Jewish people would become a great nation:
“I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you. I will make you famous, and you will be a blessing to others… And all the people on earth will be blessed through you.” (Genesis 12:2-3)
After the overthrow of Israel and Judah by the Assyrians and Babylonians, the Jewish people in exile longed for the re-establishment of the Jewish kingdom in Israel. The prophet Ezekiel, writing after the fall of Jerusalem in 587BC looked ahead to a future time when God would re-establish his kingdom:
“This is what the Lord GOD says: I am going to take the people of Israel from among the nations where they have gone. I will gather them from all around and bring them into their own land. I will make them one nation in the land, on the mountains of Israel.” (Ezekiel 37:21-22)
The mountains of Israel - Hula Valley and Mount Hermon (Beivushtang)
While the Jewish exiles began to return to Jerusalem after the overthrow of the Babylonians by the Persians in 539BC, the settlement re-established by Ezra and Nehemiah was part of the Persian Empire, not an independent Jewish state.
Although the Jews regained their independence for a short time following the Maccabean Revolt in 165BC, by the time of Jesus’s birth the Jews were ruled by a non-Jewish ally of the Roman Empire – Herod the Great. When Jesus began his ministry in 26AD, the Jewish nation had once again become part of a foreign empire – the Roman Empire.
The Kingdom of God in the New Testament
Most Jews in Jesus’s day desperately wanted a new Jewish kingdom ushered in by God’s ‘Messiah’ – the ‘Christ’. They believed that this new ‘Kingdom of God’ would come when the Romans were overthrown and God ruled his ‘chosen people’ through a new king like King David.
Jesus, however, taught that what the Jews needed was not a new earthly kingdom, but a completely new relationship with God. Jesus said that this new kingdom would be within his people – a new living relationship with God as king in their hearts:
“Some of the Pharisees asked Jesus, ‘When will the kingdom of God come?’ Jesus answered, ‘God’s kingdom is coming, but not in a way that you will be able to see with your eyes. People will not say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or, ‘There it is!’ because God’s kingdom is within you.’” (Luke 17:20-21)
When Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish Council, came to question Jesus about the Kingdom of God, Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, unless one is born again, he cannot be in God’s kingdom.” (John 3:3)
"The kingdom of God is within you" (Luke 17:21)
Eternal life in God’s kingdom
Jesus’s teaching on the Kingdom of God, however, went much further than this. As well as turning the notion of a powerful earthly kingdom on its head, Jesus said that once this new relationship with God was established, it would continue for ever. This ‘new life’ (this new relationship with God) would begin in this life, but would continue after death.
This was a totally new idea to many Jews. The Old Testament concentrates on God’s blessings poured out on the Jewish people during this life, and there is no reference to life after death in the Old Testament. While the more radical Pharisees had come to accept the resurrection of the dead on the ‘Day of Judgement’, the more conservative and traditional ruling party in the Jewish Council – the Sadducees – did not believe in any form of life after death.
So to many, Jesus’s teaching that all who entered a new and living relationship with God would continue to enjoy this relationship after death, was quite new. In his conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus explained, “God loved the world so much that he gave his one and only Son so that whoever believes in him may not be lost, but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)
To the Samaritan woman whom he met near Jacob’s Well, Jesus promised “living water” (John 4:10). Jesus explained, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give will never be thirsty. The water I give will become a spring of water flowing up inside that person, giving eternal life.” (John 4:13-14)
Jacob's Well Greek Orthodox Monastery (Martin Handal)
When Jesus visited Mary at Bethany shortly after the death of her brother Lazarus, Jesus comforted her with these words: “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me will have life even if they die.” (John 11:25)
Shortly before his death and resurrection, Jesus comforted his followers with these words: “Don’t let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God, and trust in me. There are many rooms in my Father’s house; I would not tell you this if it were not true. I am going there to prepare a place for you. After I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me so that you may be where I am.” (John 14:1-3)
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