Number 77. Thy Kingdom Come
Bradford Young


Like Jesus, the rabbis made frequent reference to "the Kingdom of Heaven." A familiarity with the way "Kingdom of Heaven" is used in rabbinic literature is essential for understanding its use in the Gospels.

A Hebrew benediction which appears quite frequently in rabbinic literature can help us grasp Jesus' understanding of the Kingdom. In his confession on the Day of Atonement, the High Priest spoke the sacred name of God. When he pronounced that name, the people fell on their faces and cried, "His honourable name is blessed and his Kingdom is for ever and ever" (Yoma 6:2). God reigns when his people recognize his kingship.

A passage from the Mishnah links the Kingdom of Heaven to ancient Israel's affirmation, "Hear O Israel, the LORD our God is one LORD" (Deuteronomy 6:4). This prayer is known as the Shema ("Hear"), and occupies a central place in the liturgy of the synagogue.

Rabbi Joshua ben Korha taught that anyone who prays the Shema has accepted the Kingdom of Heaven (Berachot 2:2). By reciting the Shema a person acknowledges the one true God, and this, in ben Korha's opinion, is the first step in accepting God's authority and entering his reign.

The word mal KUT, kingdom, is a verbal noun which is based on the Hebrew verb ma.LAK rule, reign. The Hebrew word for "king," ME.lek, is derived from the same root. "Heaven" refers to God himself. "Heaven" was used in place of the word "God" because of the special sanctity reserved for God's name. This substitution was already practiced when the book of Daniel was written (cf. Daniel 4:26) and was common in Jesus' day.

Receiving Torah

In Jewish literature, the Kingdom of Heaven often is related to the giving of the Torah or the redemption of Israel from Egypt. At the foot of Mt. Sinai, the Israelites received the Kingdom with joy.

The Mekilta, an early midrash that provides a running commentary on most of the book of Exodus, preserves a parable that elucidates Jesus' teaching concerning the Kingdom. This parable appears at the beginning of the Mekilta's treatment of the Ten Commandments, and follows the verse, "I am the LORD thy God..." which, according to Jewish tradition, is the beginning of the Decalogue.

"They told a parable: To what may the matter be compared? To one who came to a province. He said to the people, "May I reign over you?" They said to him, "You have done nothing good for us that we should accept your reign." What did he do? He built them a wall. He brought them water. He fought battles for them. Then he said to them, "May I reign over you?" They responded, "Yes! Yes!"

"Thus it was with the Omnipresent. He redeemed Israel from Egypt. He parted the sea for them. He brought them manna. He provided them a well. He sent them quail. He fought the battles of Amalek for them. Then he said to them, "May I reign over you?" They replied, "Yes! Yes!"

"Rabbi (Yehudah ha-Nasi) said, "This shows the merit of Israel. When they stood before Mt. Sinai to receive the Torah, they all determined in their hearts to accept the Kingdom of Heaven with joy." "(Mekilta Bahodesh 5; to Exodus 20:2)

This parable describes the liberation of God's people from Egypt and their acceptance of his authority by receiving Torah joyfully. The theme of the parable is the Kingdom of Heaven. God demonstrates he is King by his mighty redemptive acts of liberation. His people demonstrate their acceptance of his rule by joyful obedience to his Torah.

Realizing the Kingdom

Jesus' challenging call to repentance was an essential aspect of his proclamation of the Kingdom. But his dynamic ministry was the realization of the Kingdom.

Of course, the Kingdom also must be connected with the activities of Jesus' followers. All of his disciples were active members of the Kingdom of God. This is the meaning of Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:3, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven."

"Poor in spirit" refers to Jesus followers. The phrase "...for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven" is a poor translation, because it implies ownership. How can one own the Kingdom? It is impossible. The Greek words au.TON.es.TIN should be understood to mean "is comprised of such as these," and not "theirs is."

In Hebrew the verse would have been ash.RE a.ni.YE RU.ah ki me.HEM mal.KUT sha.MA.yim. Therefore it would be better translated, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for they make up the Kingdom of Heaven.” They are citizens in the Kingdom They have accepted the King's rule. The "poor in spirit" are Jesus' disciples who have accepted God's authority in their lives and become active in Jesus' Kingdom movement.

(This article has been condensed from Dr Young's "The Jewish Background to the Lord's Prayer", published by the Center for Judaic Christian Studies, PO Box 293040, Dayton OH 45429, USA. It was published in Jerusalem Perspective, Vol 2, No 1, October 1988)

(Reprinted from Tishrei Vol 4 No 3, Kingdom of Heaven, Summer 1996 / Jerusalem Perspective, Vol.2, NO.1, October 1988)