How did Jesus’ disciples understand “the kingdom”?

Throughout the gospels the Bible records Jesus “preaching the kingdom”, but what did this mean, and what did the disciples following Jesus in the first century understand this kingdom would be?

This lesson based upon Acts 1:1-11 walks through a few key scriptures in the Old and New Testaments to give listeners a bit of perspective as to the first century Jewish understanding of the coming kingdom, and why their understanding was incorrect.

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In part 2 of this lesson (coming next week), we’ll examine a correct understanding of the kingdom based upon Peter’s sermon in Acts 2.
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4 thoughts on “How did Jesus’ disciples understand “the kingdom”?

  1. Daniel W says:

    I definitely agree that the purpose of the Kingdom is to bring people under the lordship of Jesus, but I really don’t think that meeting people’s physical needs and fighting injustices is simply peripheral. I think that social justice and evangelism are part of a false dichotomy caused by a tension between “liberal” and “conservative” Christians. Physical and spiritual service form an indivisible whole. If you truly love someone very deeply, you will not let them starve, but neither will you let them live in falsehood and serve a false king.

    I think I understand why you sort of distanced physical and material service from the concept of the Kingdom of God. It is true that drives for social justice are often exalted over drives to spread the truth of the Gospel. Many liberal Christians, finding abhorrent the idea that we would tell anyone that his or her sincerely held beliefs are wrong, see fighting for social justice as one of the few things the Gospel is really good for. However, there are good people from many religious traditions that help alleviate the material suffering of the needy. Oftentimes, these people serve the needy even better than the Church does (which is quite shameful). The point is, people do not need the Church to keep them from starving or to provide them with emotional healing. People really need the Church to tell them the good news of Jesus Christ, to save them forever from pain and death. However, I think the scriptures show us that we cannot simply toss asides concerns of social justice or the material well-being of others.

    It is just fact that the scriptures tell us that how we serve others in a material way in this age is extremely important to God. We can, of course, look to the prophets. Amos 5:23-24 says “Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.” It is our duty to promote justice on the earth. We also have Isaiah 1:15-17: “When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood. Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” I’m sure you can also think of many more verses like these from the prophets, but we can also look to the gospels. An example that especially sticks out is the parable of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-24. Here we have a caricature of a rich man who cares not at all for the poor and a description of his harsh damnation. We also have Matthew 25:31-46. Here Christ judges the nations based on how they served the hungry, the thirsty, the strangers, the naked, the sick, and the imprisoned. I’m sure I don’t need to go through more examples, as you can probably think of most of them. In the end, I think many “conservative” Christians end us shying away from social justice and material service because 1) it is part of a “liberal” agenda, 2) it is quite uncomfortable to give away your stuff, and 3) they have the erroneous idea that this world does not matter at all because Christ is going to usher in a new heaven and a new earth. Thus, evangelism can stand on its own. What is ironic is that many of these who would shun social justice for a focus on evangelism don’t really make themselves uncomfortable for the sake of the Gospel either.

    In the end, I think that both spiritual and material ministry need to go hand-in-hand. This is one way that people know that we are serious about loving them. Let’s take a classic example of genuine all-consuming love: the love of a father for his child. Out of love, the father teaches his child the truth, educates her, and shares his wisdom. However, to an equal extent, the father also provides his child with food and shelter and does everything he can to give her what she needs to survive. Would we believe that a father truly loved his child the way he should if he shared wisdom with her, but let her eat one meal every two days while he bought himself a new car? Material and spiritual service are both important fruits that stem from genuine love. In James 2:15-16, the writer asks us “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?” We cannot convince people that we are sharing the Gospel with them because we genuinely care about them if we are willing to turn a blind eye to their other pressing needs. And let us not forget how Jesus showed people he loved them. Not only did he forgive their sins, but he healed them from illnesses that wore heavily on their bodies. He fed them when they were hungry.

    • WesWoodell says:

      Never did I say those things were not important – the point I was trying to make is that we need to keep the main thing the main thing – not that we should neglect taking care of the poor and outcast.

      I grew up in and around a ministry that serves the homeless. In fact, my father still serves as the executive director of that ministry. Every year, thousands of meals are served, medicine and doctor’s visits are given out for free, eye and dental care are offered for free, and truck loads of clothing, shoes, and coats are given away not to mention a myriad of other social services that are available for free. This is all made possible by the generosity of area churches, and makes a tremendous impact on the lives of hundreds of people who are down and out on an annual basis.

      That being said, the main thing in that ministry remains calling all who come under the Lordship of Jesus Christ, and hundreds of people have given their lives to Him as a result and many continue to.

      That ministry serves as a great example of people taking care of Kingdom business, and I’m proud to have been associated with it in a small capacity, and proud my father and friends are still serving there. It’s a great example to follow.

      But I’m not hearing as many people nowadays talk about calling people under the Lordship of Jesus Christ. I’m hearing more and more talking about feeding the poor and social justice – which is great – but many of these folks almost make fun of those who would inquire about peoples’ souls being saved.

      In my study of the Bible including the prophets, I found first and foremost is their call of God’s people to First Commandment faithfulness. His lordship is stressed above all else, and those living under His lordship ought to be taking care of the poor and the outcast.

      In the prophets it’s God’s lordship that’s the main thing, and I’m convicted that’s still the main thing. Why did the prophets get irate with the people for not taking care of the poor? Because those people were supposed to be living under God’s lordship. Lordship comes first – taking care of the poor and outcast comes second. Don’t get the cart before the horse.

      When the people of God were moving from place to place in the book of Acts, first and foremost on their lips was the call to worship Jesus as King. The kingdom activity of taking care of the poor and downtrodden followed that inside the communities that served Jesus as King, but the main thing for those early evangelists remained calling others under His lordship. That’s a consistent message all the way through the Bible.

      Make sense? Hope that came out right.

      • Daniel W says:

        That makes perfect sense. The ministry that your father runs actually sounds like a great prototype for ministries to follow. And as I said above, I definitely agree that people are not taking seriously the mission of calling people to be under the lordship of Christ. I realize that it needs to be emphasized. I guess I just become concerned that some of us who really espouse the centrality of evangelism sometimes pit evangelism against taking care of the poor, etc. I think you put it well when you said that taking care of the needy is a part of being under the lordship of Christ. That definitely needs to be stressed. Though God’s lordship is primary, I don’t think you can have it without care for the needy, because, as you said, it is part of making Christ one’s lord. I only really have a problem with people sometimes separating the two, as if you could really promote one without the other. Becoming a Christian is not just saying that you accept Christ as lord, it is about going through a real transformation that affects behavior. Part of that transformation, among other things, is the drive to care for the needy. As James says, faith without works is dead. After all, how much does one really believe Christ is the way, the truth, and the life if one still does not obey his commands?

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