It was a confused and confusing time.
The Ancient Greek empire had swept the world, bringing with it an almost irresistible wave Greek culture and influence.
As the Greek Empire broke apart after Alexander’s death, Israel found itself the plaything of two warring Greek empires. The Greek Seleucid empire was centered north of Israel. The Greek Ptolomaic empire was based south of Israel. As the power of the Seleucid and the Ptolemaic empires see-sawed, Israel found itself overrun, first by one side, then by the other. There were internal divisions within Israel. Some supported the Ptolomys; others supported the Seleucids.
Finally, as the Roman and Parthian empires emerged and became a competitors to the Seleucids and the Ptolomys, Greek power began to wither. Withering Greek power became a vacuum that allowed for the re-establishment of the kingdom of Israel.
The Hasmonean kingdom of Israel emerged from the chaos. Israel was recognised by Rome as an independent state in 139 BC. The Hasmonean kings styled their rule after the kingdom of David. And like the kingdom of David, they set about conquering the Transjordan, Samaria, Galilee and Idumea (Edom). The conquered peoples were forced to choose between conversion to Judaism (circumcision) and banishment. Most chose to convert.
Internal to Israel, there were many political factions. The Sadducees and the Pharisees were originally political parties. The Sadducees represented the wealthy, the nobility, the conservative priests. The Pharisees were a popular movement. Sadducees and Pharisees soon distinguished themselves on the basis of religion. The Sadducees only accepted the books of Moses, and saw no future beyond death. The Pharisees accepted the books of Moses, the books of history, and the wisdom writings as being inspired. The Pharisees also called for greater holiness in life, choosing to champion the temple ritual purity laws as applying to the whole of life.
The Qumran community emerged as a religious sect that seceded from the priesthood, and separated themselves from the world. They saw themselves as a holy and called out people. The Sadducees, Pharisees and Qumran formed three political and religious factions within Judaism.
Pharisaic mysticism is recorded in history during this period. Many Rabbis saw that Ezekiel had been transported in vision into the throne room of God, and they sought that for themselves. Pharisaic mysticism is replete with stories of Rabbis wielding the creative power of God, of attempting to traverse into the presence of the Holy, of attempting to harness spiritual powers to their own ends.
The Pharisaic movement also championed halakhic laws, which were later recorded as the Midrash and the Talmud.
Halakhic law started as a commentary on scripture; a way of interpreting scripture. For example, an halakhic interpretation of the Old Testament principle: “an eye for an eye” was not interpreted literally. The rabbis reasoned, “what good is there having two blind Jews?” So the text was interpreted as meaning: “the value of an eye, for the value of an eye.” In this case, the explanation is quite plausible. Yet as halakhic teachings mounted, Judaism began to focus more and more on the teachings and rationalisations of men. The philosophy and system of halakha began to overwhelm the value and importance of scripture. People’s view of scripture came to be distorted through an overriding interpretative infrastructure; for that is always what happens when scripture is taught and read through the lens of another teaching.
We know from scripture and history that aspects of halakhic, midrashic and talmudic teachings were opposed to God’s own intent. We know this from scripture, because Jesus said that their teachings rejected scripture (Mark 7:8, 9). We know this from history because we can today turn to the Talmud and find some absolutely abhorrent teachings. For example, the Talmud teaches that a child does not have a soul until the age of three; then from three until they are nine, they have a soul, but are below the age of accountability; then they observe that it is not lawful for two men to have intercourse; and reason that the guilt of the intercourse between men is transmitted when the man in the passive role is guilty of the sin; the upshot of this teaching is that it is not sinful for a Jewish man to commit pederasty when the child is below the age of nine, because the child cannot be guilty of the sin and therefore cannot transmit sin or guilt to the active man (Babylonian Talmud, Soncino Press, 1936, page 371). Now this is a positively devilish teaching; which is, of course, what Jesus said of these Pharisees, “You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father's desires” (John 8:44).
So, we have a popular movement that increasingly gains political power, teaches purity and holiness, chases esoteric mysteries and miracle working powers, supplants the intent of scripture with unnatural philosophies, and whose philosophy is deemed by Jesus to be of the devil. Is it any wonder that we meet so many demon-possessed people in first century Israel? Think about the number of demon possessions encountered within the Old Testament; now think about the number of demon possessions encountered by Jesus in just a few short years of ministry. Is it any wonder the devil had free reign over so many people’s hearts, when their leaders and teachers are pursuing other-worldly powers and supplanting the teachings of scripture with the rationalisations of men?
So, this was the confused state of Judaism, into which strode the might of the Roman empire. The Parthians had been chipping away at the Seleucids, from the east, and the Romans finished them off from the west. In 40 BC, Herod—a converted Idumean (an Edomite); a practising Jew—was appointed by the Roman Senate as the “King of the Jews”. By 37 BC, the Roman armies had expelled the Hasmonean kings from Israel, and were able to install Herod as “King of the Jews”.
For extra legitimacy, Herod set aside his own wife so he could marry a Hasmonean princess, so that his sons would descend from Jewish royalty. If the Hasmoneans had styled themselves after King David, then Herod styled himself after King Solomon. Herod began a massive civil works program, building fortresses at Masada and Herodium; the port of Ceasarea Maritima; and most famously, he dramatically expanded and rebuilt the Second Temple on Temple Mount.
Meanwhile, Roman military commanders began a practice of victory parades. They would return from conquest and be declared victors; the news of their conquests were spread as being “good news”—yes, “gospels”—the word gospel was the good news that would be spread about military conquest and victory. They would parade their defeated enemies. And the military commander would be declared to be a god for a day.
Naming a man a god was not something that stopped at a victory parade either. For the Roman emperors had learned from the Greeks, and the Greeks had learned from the Persians, and the Persians had learned from the Babylonians to name the imperial leader a god. So, beginning with Augustus, Roman emperors began styling themselves as gods, and the Roman Imperial cult was established throughout the Roman empire as a unifying religious factor across the Empire. All people groups across the empire were urged to adopt the cult of emperor worship, in addition to their worship of their own gods.
Only one people group were exempt from the worship of the Imperial cult—Jews. Jews were exempted from the Roman Imperial cult on the condition they pay “the Jewish tax.” Yet the Imperial cult took root within Judea among the non-Jewish populations. Herod even installed a pagan Roman Eagle at the entrance to his rebuilt temple.
When Herod died, the Romans broke the client nation of Judea into three tetrachies, giving each tetrarchy to one of Herod’s three sons. The Romans also installed a Roman governor to rule beside these Herodian kings. And beneath this governmental arrangement, was the Sanhedrin, which ruled supreme in regulating religious life.
So, we have rulership of Israel being held jointly held between quasi-Jewish kings and cultic Roman Imperial power; we have populist, legalistic and mystical Pharisees competing for power with wealthy, conservative Sadducees in the Sanhedrin; we have Qumran community who declared the world corrupt and attempted to withdraw from it; we have multiple claimants to the Jewish Messianic hope, some of whom had already been defeated and killed; and …
The true light
So, it was into this world, that Jesus came and said,
“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15).
Jesus didn’t say it just once. He went through the
“…cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God” (Luke 8:1).
When he spoke in person with Nicodemus, Jesus told Nicodemus the purpose of spiritual rebirth was so that one may “enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:5).
When Jesus sent the twelve disciples out on their training mission,
“He called the twelve together and gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal” (Luke 9:3).
When the Pharisees accused Jesus nefarious healing, Jesus declared,
“If it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you” (Matthew 12:28).
And when Jesus sent the seventy out on their training mission, he told them to
“Heal the sick … and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you’” (Luke 10:9).
“The seventy returned with joy, saying, ‘Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name!’ And he said to them, ‘I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. Behold, I have given you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall hurt you. Nevertheless, do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven’” (Luke 10:17–20).
And what was the declaration of the Apostles after the resurrection?
“[God] has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son” (Colossians 1:13).
“But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy” (1 Peter 2:9, 10).
“Grace to you and peace from … Jesus Christ the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings on earth. To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen” (Revelation 1:4, 5–6).
Can there be any doubt? Jesus preached that the time was fulfilled. He made the declaration of the kingdom of God the centre-piece of His ministry. It was the central to his teaching, and of his training of the twelve, and the seventy. Jesus declared that his authority and power to heal and cast out demons was a sign the kingdom of God had broken into the world in His day. The seventy discovered that the authority and power of the kingdom had been communicated to them. After Jesus’ ascension, the Apostles Paul and Peter and John declared that we are citizens of the kingdom of God; that Jesus rules on high; that He reigns and is the ruler over all the kings of the earth.
Can there be any doubt? Daniel prophesies:
“In the days of those kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed, nor shall the kingdom be left to another people” (Daniel 2:44a).
and the New Testament responds,
“Let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe” (Hebrews 12:28).
The rock that was cut out by no man’s hand is the kingdom of God. The declaration that God’s kingdom exists, that Jesus is enthroned on high and rules this world. The declaration that believers who have repented towards God, and have believed in His Son, and are regenerated by His Spirit have been transferred from the domain of darkness into the kingdom of light, and are now members of the assembly, citizens of the kingdom, holy to God, priests of the Majestic Glory is really, really GOOD NEWS.
“And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come” (Matthew 24:14).
The New Testament declaration of the establishment of the kingdom of God is absolute: Jesus pinned his very identity with God to the presence of God’s kingdom in this world. But if anyone were to be skeptical of this, they may ask, ‘but shouldn’t the kingdom:’
“… break in pieces all these kingdoms and bring them to an end … that it broke in pieces the iron, the bronze, the clay, the silver and the gold” (Daniel 2:44b, 45).
Are not these kingdoms still standing? Well, actually, no, the ancient empires of Rome, Greece, Israel, Media-Persia and Babylon are not still standing. They have long since passed into the annals of history. Whereas the kingdom of God exists and is unshakable.
But, some may still object, did not this idol represent something larger that the individual kingdoms being referred to? Does not this idol represent a larger principle that remains opposed to God? And is not this principle still evident in the world today?
The tree of knowledge of good and evil produces the fruit of the kingdom of darkness. It is true that this tree, representative of the King of Tyre and of Satan in Ezekiel 27, and representative of Babylon in Daniel 4, is parallel with this image. The principle that animates the idol is larger than these ancient kingdoms. Yet let us hear what Jesus said about this principle of darkness:
“Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out” (John 12:31).
What better way is there to destroy the one who stands against God than to judge the world and cast out the ruler who stands opposed to God? Jesus said that this judgment occurred “now”, in his day.
But, some may still object, we cannot see this kingdom. Its presence is not visible. Christ’s rule is not obvious in this world. Yet Jesus Himself has already answered this objection:
“Being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, he answered them, ‘The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed, nor will they say, “Look, here it is!” or “There!” for behold, the kingdom of God is within you’” (Luke 17:20, 21).
Jesus told us how the kingdom of God would operate. He said,
“The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches” (Matthew 13:31, 32).
“The kingdom of heaven is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened” (Matthew 13:33).
So, the kingdom is to start small, and to spread, and to grow. And so the Apostles baptised, adding members to the kingdom,
“But when they believed Philip as he preached good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptised, both men and women” (Acts 8:12).
The kingdom isn’t seen with eyes of flesh. It is seen through the eyes of faith, for,
“Judas (not Iscariot) said to him, ‘Lord, how is it that you will manifest yourself to us, and not to the world?’ Jesus answered him, ‘If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him” (John 14: 22, 23).
We are still waiting for the appearing of the kingdom of God; the time when the kingdom of God will break into our physical reality; but the Presence of the kingdom of God is within those of us who are born of the water and the spirit. For the kingdom of God is manifest in the Presence of Jesus and the Presence of the Father. And they are with us. They have made their home with us. To the very end of the age.
“Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of kings on earth. To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.” (Revelation 1:4, 5–6).
Grace and peace be with you.