Christians typically ground their vision of the kingdom of God on Jesus’ words in John 18:36: “my kingdom is not of this world.” The decision to give primacy to this particular text comes as part of a thoroughgoing prioritization of the personal and abstract over and against the political and concrete. So, according to this vision, God’s kingdom, unlike the kingdoms of the world, has no material or political manifestation; it has no territory, no sword, no purse, no subjects. Instead, God’s kingdom reigns inside the hearts of those who believe. It is, for all intents and purposes, an ethical and theological system—not an actual earthly kingdom. Better yet, the kingdom as so conceived is the process by which eternal salvation transforms the inner lives of sinners through God’s spirit.
That this vision of the kingdom of God—emptied of its apocalyptic and political weight, as it were—would conform to Jesus’ own understanding of God’s reign is highly suspect; not least because the Jesus of Synoptic memory often spoke of the kingdom in socio-political terms. According to the parable-tradition, for instance, the kingdom that would soon descend on the world “in power” would achieve sweeping political realignment: tenants would be exchanged, cities given new governors, rebels slaughtered, towns destroyed, houses crushed, and debts forgiven or reckoned.1
Although the Christian mind has been trained to automatically convert these concrete images into mere spiritual and/or otherworldly realities, evidence from the book of Daniel—the progenitor of Christian apocalyptic—suggests that Jesus may have envisioned God’s kingdom in much more mundane ways than Christians usually admit. For, as we see in the book of Daniel, the heavenly kingdom functioned not as an alternative to the kingdoms of the world, but as their replacement. God’s kingdom was designed, in fact, to supplant the political and social authority once held by rival kingdoms. Apart from God’s ability and intention to bridle the nations according to his will in this way,2 there is truly no kingdom of God in the book of Daniel.
The heavenly rock
The first mention of a divine kingdom in the book of Daniel comes in Daniel’s interpretation of king Nebuchadnezzar’s dream concerning the statue smashed by a rock “not made by human hands” (2:31-35). Daniel claims that this statue represents the various pagan empires that will dominate the known world. The rock, on the other hand, represents the kingdom God will establish over the earth, thus bringing to an end to all other empires (2:44-45).
The politically-charged logic of the dream, I think, is clear: God’s kingdom—the rock from heaven—will “crush” the kingdoms of the world just as the kingdoms represented by the statue “crush” the empires that came before (Daniel 2:36-45). This new heavenly kingdom will not exist within the kingdoms of the world or among the peoples of the nations, it will bring those pagan polities to a miserable end in the fullest sense—as rock pulverizes rock. The triumphant heavenly rock then, as if the tallest mountain, will demand the reverence once given to the pagan emperor.
A transferal of power
The second mention of a heavenly kingdom comes in Daniel’s vision of the one like a son of man. Whereas in the dream, pagan kingdoms had been represented by the different metals making up the statue, here the empires of the world are terrifying beasts which arise out of the abyss and are given dominion over the earth.
As in the dream of the statue, God does not permit this state of affairs to continue forever. Instead of sending a rock from heaven, though, the Ancient of Days (i.e. YHWH) summons the fourth and final beast to court. Standing before his maker, the beast is justly incinerated.
After this Daniel sees another figure, this time one that looks like a human being. To this human being the Ancient of Days gives “dominion and glory and kingship” in order that “all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him” (7:14).
Following this, an angel reveals to Daniel the meaning of what he has seen. The last king of the last kingdom3 (i.e. the final beast) will be “consumed” according to God’s judgement and “his dominion will be taken away.” Once this is accomplished, “the kingship and dominion and the greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven shall be given to the people of the holy ones of the Most High” such that “all dominions shall serve and obey them” (7:26-27).
The symbolic function of the “one like a son of man” is thus revealed: he represents “the people of the holy ones” of God, that is, those faithful Jews who suffer under the tyranny of the pagan kings (cf. Daniel 7:7-25). They, like the son of man, will be rewarded with the power once wielded by those idolatrous kings who “spoke words against the Most High” (7:25). The earthly dominion once maintained by these pagan kings will be transferred to God’s chosen such that now the nations and the peoples will “serve and obey” them.
A kingdom not of this world
These two Danielic visions of God’s kingdom demonstrate that apocalyptically-minded Jews of the second temple period expected the kingdom of God to drive pagan empire into the abyss of history. The pagan states that ruled Israel were to be destroyed not in some abstract or metaphorical sense, but rather as stones shatter idols or as fire devours monstrous beasts. In this singular political vacuum, God’s newly-erected kingdom, led by his saints, would acquire the submission of all the peoples in concrete fashion. Kings, aristocrats, priests, elders, and commanders would all abandon their idols to serve the living God and his son (cf. 1 Thessalonians 1:9, Philippians 2:9-11). The nations as nations, not just individual believers, would serve God and his righteous regents as they once served the Persians, the Greeks, and the Romans. Greeks and Romans, even barbarians on the outskirts of the empire, would honor YHWH in their personal and civic lives.
While it remains fashionable in Christian circles to speak of God’s kingdom as a new way of living, as a better ethical system sprouting from the margins of an oppressive dominant culture, Daniel’s divine kingdom was set to replace the worldly kingdoms in as much as it secured the obedience from the “dominions” of the earth. Daniel’s heavenly kingdom then, though “not of this world” in the sense that it is established by God and not by man, was to be earthly in its outworking.
What all this means for the Galilean prophet who appropriated Daniel’s language of God’s kingdom and identified himself with Daniel’s son of man, I would argue, should not be understated.
1—Jesus’ parables are reminiscent of the prophetic speeches that warned of Israel’s looming exile under Assyrian and Babylonian regimes. See the symbology of Isaiah’s song of the vineyard, Amos’ visions, and Ezekiel’s parables in particular.
2—This divine power should not be confused with the Reformed understanding of God’s all-encompassing sovereignty. In the Biblical writings, God’s supreme sovereignty has to do specifically with his control of geopolitics and history. God can save a helpless Jerusalem from Assyrian assault or humiliate Nebuchadnezzar, the king of kings, into submission.
3—Antiochus Epiphanes, Seleucid king and Hellenizer of Israel.