Jesus and Four Competing Approaches to God’s Kingdom

When Jesus proclaimed that “the kingdom of God has come near” (Mark 1:15) He drew upon a powerful idea that pervades the Hebrew Scriptures. The prophets, particularly Isaiah and Daniel, spoke of God’s kingdom catastrophically breaking into the world. They described a figure – the Messiah or Son of Man – who would inaugurate God’s kingdom.  And they also spoke of God’s rule bringing renewal and change to earth. But even as He proclaimed the kingdom’s arrival, Jesus also offered a radically different understanding of what the kingdom was all about.

In their book, The True Story of the Whole World, Craig Bartholomew and Michael Goheen offer a quick overview of four other approaches to the hope of God’s kingdom that were prominent in Jesus’ day. [1] Let’s explore those other approaches as a contrast with Jesus.

  1. The Pharisees – The Pharisees were a religious group deeply concerned about compromising with culture. Because of this they advocated for strong religious separation from pagan corruption and radical obedience to God’s Word. They worked within the existing religious structures, the synagogues, to urge the people to influence culture by being different. The wanted to bring the kingdom by forceful separation.
  2. The Essenes – Like the Pharisees, a second group had a similar desire to be different from the culture but took a very different approach to that. The Essenes withdrew from society, forsaking even the existing religious structures to form entirely separate communities centered on God. It is likely that the area of Qumran, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found, was an Essene community. The wanted to bring the kingdom through withdrawal.
  3. The Zealots – A third group, the Zealots, were furious with the Roman occupation of God’s land. Like the Pharisees, the Zealots called for radical obedience to God’s Word, but took it to another level. They promoted violent revolution against Rome. While the Zealots were not really one organized movement, these groups took their religious commitment frightfully seriously, sparking revolutionary movements against Rome that eventually led to reprisals from Rome, culminating in the  destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. They wanted to bring the kingdom by violence.
  4. The Sadducees – A fourth group was known as the Sadducees. The Sadducees were largely a priestly group responsible for the maintenance of the Temple. They held positions of power with great influence under the Roman occupation, but often made politically compromises with the occupying forces of Rome in order to stabilize the country and maintain their power. They sought to bring hope and God’s kingdom through compromise.

Each of these groups wanted to bring forth the hope of God’s kingdom, but they each had different ideas as to how that would happen: forceful separation, withdrawal, violence, or compromise. But Jesus’ approach to the kingdom is distinct. In Luke 4:16-21, Jesus declares that He is the One who fulfills God’s promises in the prophets—the One who is to come and usher in the kingdom.


[1] Craig Bartholomew and Michael Goheen, The True Story of the Whole World: Finding your place in the biblical drama (Grand Rapids, MI: Faith Alive Christian Resources, 209), 102-103.

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