One of the greatest theological controversies in the last century concerns the meaning of the terms “Kingdom of God” and “Kingdom of heaven.” Because scholars have not given adequate attention to the fact that these are completely Hebraic terms, confusion has arisen concerning the period of time to which the Kingdom refers, who takes part in it and the exact nature of the Kingdom. Examining relevant Gospel passages in their Hebraic context will clarify what Jesus meant when he spoke of the “Kingdom of God” or the “Kingdom of heaven.”
Jewish sages were called upon constantly by their community to interpret scriptural commands. The Torah forbids working on the Sabbath, for instance, but it does not define what constitutes work. As a result, the sages were required to rule on which activities were permitted on the Sabbath. They “bound,” or prohibited, certain activities, and “loosed” or allowed, others.
The New Testament makes it clear that Jesus, like all observant Jews of the first century, wore tsitsiyot. These are the tassels that were attached to the four corners of one’s robe as commanded in Numbers 15 and Deuteronomy 22. Jesus’ observance of this commandment is dramatically illustrated by the story of the woman who suffered from a hemorrhage for twelve years.
Tithing is a biblical commandment set forth in Leviticus 27:30-33, Deuteronomy 14:22-29 and Deuteronomy 26:12-14. Most Christians would probably agree that Jesus observed this commandment since the New Testament clearly states, “having been born under the Torah, he committed no sin” (Gal. 4:4; 1 Pet. 2:22; Heb. 4:15). However, the question is, did Jesus observe the commandment to tithe as it was interpreted in the Oral Torah? The biblical commandment was to tithe only on grain, wine and oil. The sages extended this commandment to include tithing on “anything used for food.”
The original understanding of the third commandment, “You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain” (Exod. 20:7), was that one must keep one’s vows when swearing by God’s name. Israel’s ancient sages eventually came to interpret this commandment to mean using the LORD’s name lightly or frivolously. To avoid the risk of employing the divine name irreverently, the sages ruled that one should not utter it at all.
Jesus apparently attached great importance to the Oral Torah (unwritten in his day), and it seems he considered it to be authoritative. When Jesus admonished his disciples to “do and observe everything they [the scribes and Pharisees] command you” (Matt. 23:3), he was referring to the Pharisees’ oral traditions and interpretations of the Written Torah. The Written Torah itself could not have been in question, for it was accepted by all sects of Judaism, and Jesus himself said, “Heaven and earth would sooner disappear than one ‘yod’ or even one ‘kotz” from the Torah’ (Matt. 5:18).
It is not surprising to find the word “amen” attributed to Jesus in the Gospels. “Amen” appears elsewhere in the New Testament, notably in the epistles of Paul, who usually used it to conclude an expression of praise to God. Nor is it odd that “amen” was simply transliterated from Hebrew into Greek. Its use had become so common in Greek-speaking synagogues and churches that the New Testament writers generally felt translation unnecessary. What is unusual is to find “amen” used as the beginning of a statement rather than as a response.
Torah has always been the focus of rabbinic teaching. Unfortunately, the Hebrew word “torah” is usually translated in English simply as “law,” which has created the impression that it has to do only with commandments. This is not the case at all. The Torah was given by God as a guideline for a whole way of life. A better translation would be “God’s instructions.”
Jesus spoke of himself using many messianic titles from Scripture. Names such as “Son of Man,” “Green Tree” and “King” all have their origins in messianic passages from the Hebrew Scriptures. Jesus also was referred to by such messianic titles as “Lord” (Luke 5:8), “Son of God” (Luke 1:35) and “Son of David” (Luke 18:38). One title applied to Jesus is not so clearly messianic: “Prophet.” There can be little doubt that Jesus viewed himself as a prophet, and that many of his contemporaries concurred. Jesus claimed to be a prophet when he quoted the popular saying, “No one is a prophet in his own village,” going on to compare himself to Elijah and Elisha (Luke 4:24-27). He made the same claim when he said, “It cannot be that a prophet should perish away from Jerusalem” (Luke 13:33). But what did the people of Nain have in mind when they exclaimed, “A great prophet has been raised in our midst!” (Luke 7:16)?