Easter Without Hindsight: Kingdom Come? Which Kingdom?
Jeshua taught the Lord’s Prayer to his disciples and suggested that his disciples should pray, among other things, that God’s “kingdom come, God’s will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Read the gospels in a single sitting, or perhaps as we would now read a novel, and one sees how often Jeshua seemed frustrated that even his closest disciples found it so hard understand what God’s Kingdom might actually look like when it did finally come.
The fact that they asked him (e.g. Mt 13ff) why he taught in parables, and what the stories meant, suggests they were also aware they had yet to grasp his message. At least some of them were keen to understand him.
The disciples had been brought up with much the same hopes and expectations of God’s kingdom as most of their countrymen. Israel, they had been taught since childhood, was God’s kingdom. At least until they had met Jeshua they too had probably shared much of the popular vision of messiah. They too may have been expecting someone who looked like their perception of an ancient prophet (perhaps Elijah, since another tradition from the Bible suggested he would return in person) from scripture.
The arrival of messiah would probably be sudden and obvious. There would be an identifiable person, obvious to spot, and he would bring a judgement of fire down onto the heads of the pagan Romans and the sinners, including the collaborators, who were polluting the land God had given to Israel. Simultaneously they thought messiah would clean corruption from the Temple, as the Maccabees had famously done not many generations earlier. After that God would rest in the Temple, with themselves living in their promised land.
Other works, the prophecy of Daniel being one obvious example, may also have influenced the disciples pictorial thought-world. Daniel is a book of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) and may have been widely read by Jews of that period. The writer uses graphic imagery (e.g. Dan 7) of beasts and animals involved in the violent triumph of God’s kingdom. When Jeshua talks about “the kingdom coming” it may have been hard for the disciples to think outside the violent and fiery judgement imagery in books like Daniel.
We too are influenced today, often unconsciously, by religious imagery we have inherited, often from the Middle Ages. If we can’t imagine heaven and hell without seeing triple-deck pictures (heaven above the earth and hell below) of clouds populated with white-clad children and caves full of half-goats with horns and pointy tails perhaps, like Jeshua, we might cut the disciples a bit of slack.
Jeshua repeatedly offers the crowds following him, and his disciples, pictures of the kingdom coming not with sudden and overwhelming violence but almost by stealth. Given the pictures that his disciples had grown up with it is perhaps not surprising that even they, who genuinely wanted to understand and follow their master, had difficulty making the paradigm leaps. It wouldn’t have been easy for them to grasp Jeshua’s pictures of God’s kingdom growing with all the speed of a tree.