Nov 7, 2010

Did Jesus Offer a Kingdom to Israel at His First Coming?

Tony Garland

Dr. Tony Garland

Q. Thank you all for your time and effort to teach us the Bible and the Lord Jesus Christ. Although I am a "reluctant/moderate" dispensationalist I still have lots and lots of questions even after reading several books and studying much in the Bible itself.

Can you please give me some clues or information on this question. Brothers who believe in covenant theology often accuse us of leaving the gospel out of the plan of God until Israel rejected their coming King.

Of course I see the transitions in Mat. 4:17 and Mat. 16:21. But what did the Lord proclaim when only after His rejection He talked about His death on the cross? Of course He knows everything, but what did He expect had Israel repented? What is this kingdom without His work on the cross? I do not see the connection from the Old Testament expectation of the kingdom with the gospel. And therefore I can understand the advantage of covenant theology.

And which book on this subject would you recommend? I have some books on dispensationalism (Ryrie and a lot of dispensational commentaries) but still miss the point.

God's Sovereignty and Man's Choice

God's Sovereignty and Man's Responsibility

A. The question you ask is a good one. In many ways, it is similar to a related question: why did God offer the tree of life in the midst of the garden of Eden if He knew that Adam and Eve would disobey and eat from the prohibited tree of the knowledge of good and evil? How could it have been a bona fide (good faith) offer of God to provide ongoing access to the tree of life providing eternal life for Adam and Eve when, in His foreknowledge, He knew that Adam would disobey?

This is similar to the question raised by covenant theology concerning dispensational teaching that Jesus came to offer the kingdom to Israel. How could Jesus' offer to Israel have been in good faith if He knew they would reject Him (Ps. 22; Isa. 53)? And how could Israel be held responsible for rejecting their predicted King (Zec. 9:9; Luke 19:30-44) if to accept Him would potentially bypass the cross?

Underlying these questions is an implicit belief on our part that moral possibility and historical necessity are mutually exclusive.

This is a subject which I like to refer to as "walking the knife edge" between man's responsibility and God's sovereignty. In our human understanding we are constantly drawn to one side of the knife or the other: on one side of the blade is man's responsibility, on the other side is God's sovereignty. Our human reasoning assumes them to be mutually exclusive: if God is truly sovereign, then man could not be responsible for what comes to be—or so we think. On the other hand, if man is truly responsible, then his will (choices) must be determinative in the course of history, able to even overcome God's sovereignty. But the Scriptures teach both human responsibility and divine sovereignty—even in cases where choices by man seemingly could have resulted in a path which change God's sovereign plan (Rom. 9:16-19).

Consider the following Biblical situations:

  • God knew that Adam and Eve would fall, yet He still made a good faith offer as if they may not have. Yet they were completely responsible for disobeying.
  • Jesus knew that the Jews would reject Him as King, yet He still made a good faith offer of the kingdom to Israel and the nation remained fully responsible for rejecting Him (Hos. 5:15; Zec. 12:10; Mat. 27:24-25; Rev. 1:7).
  • Jesus knew that Judas would betray Him (John 6:70), yet chose him as one of the twelve. His betrayal was a key step leading to His crucifixion, yet Judas remains fully responsible for turning Jesus over to the authorities (Mat. 26:24).

    ...the words of Christ regarding Judas raise the theological problem of divine sovereignty versus human responsibility in relation to the Kingdom...[Luke 22:22]. The rejection of the regal 'Son of man' and His Kingdom was no chance incident in the history of the world, for this matter was part of the counsels of the Eternal One. On the other hand, what Judas did in conspiracy with the leaders of Israel was something which morally the conspirators ought not to have done, and for which therefore they will be held personally responsible before the bar of God. Our Lord's terrible words...[Mr 14:21], underline this responsibility. But if the moral responsibility for rejecting the Messiah and His Kingdom was genuine, then so also the divine offer must have been genuine. [1]

One of the most powerful passages concerning this "knife edge" between God's sovereignty and man's responsibility is found in Peter's sermon to the Jews in the early part of Acts:

Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a Man attested by God to you by miracles, wonders, and signs which God did through Him in your midst, as you yourselves also know—Him, being delivered by the determined purpose and foreknowledge of God, you have taken by lawless hands, have crucified, and put to death (Acts 2:22-23, NKJV).

Notice two important points Peter makes: 1) Jesus' crucifixion was according to the determined purpose and foreknowledge of God (God didn't just know it would occur, but determined that it would); 2) Israel's lawless behavior, which Peter's listeners were fully responsible for, brought this about. The Scripture is walking along the "knife edge" which, in our minds, would separate man's responsibility from God's sovereignty. So we have to embrace both because this is the higher Scriptural truth—even though in our limited understanding we are unable to fully reconcile the two (Rom. 9).

There are aspects of the gospels which don't make sense if Jesus did not make a good faith offer of the kingdom to Israel at His first coming. We notice that Jesus initially restricted His ministry to Israel alone (Mat. 10:5-6; 15:24; Mark 7:27; John 1:11; Acts 10:36). This makes little sense if the content of His presentation concerned His future atoning work on the cross which was to eventually benefit people from all nations. The answer to this puzzle, of course, is found in recognizing that the kingdom promised in the Old Testament is uniquely Israel's. This also explains why Jesus went to so much trouble to ride into Jerusalem (the Jewish capital) on a donkey presenting Himself as Israel's king in fulfillment of Zechariah 9:9. (Notice too that God used a Gentile to make this as clear as possible—over the objection of the Jewish leaders themselves, John 19:14-22.)

Another question we might ask concerns how Jesus could send out His disciples doing the early work of the ministry preaching that the kingdom was 'near' and 'at hand' (Mat. 10:7) when they did not yet understand He was destined for the cross? As late as the 16th chapter of Matthew's gospel, we find Peter, who had earlier been among those who preached to Israel concerning the offer of the kingdom, completely out of touch with the destiny of Jesus on the cross (Mat. 16:21-22). If the gospel presented earlier by Jesus and the apostles concerned the atoning work of Christ, why is Peter so clueless concerning the necessity and benefit of the impending crucifixion? Clearly, whatever message Jesus and the apostles were presenting during their early ministry, it did not include a clear understanding of the necessary death of Christ.

There is also the puzzling matter of the disciple's question immediately prior to Jesus's departure preceding Pentecost. If Jesus did not offer a kingdom to Israel, then why did His disciples clearly expect this would still be the case—even after His crucifixion?

Therefore, when they had come together, they asked Him, saying, "Lord, will You at this time restore the kingdom to Israel? (Acts 1:6)

...their final question on the subject [Ac 1:6-7] should not be dismissed lightly as evidence of an 'unspiritual' and 'carnal' viewpoint, as some writers assume to do. Such treatment imputes not only inferior intelligence to the apostles but also, worse than that, incompetence to their Teacher. [2]

We'll also search the early gospels in vain for a clear indication that the gospel of the kingdom (Mat. 4:23; 9:35) was preached in a way which emphasized the death of Christ. (This is not to deny that certain Jews who were versed in the Old Testament knew from Psalm 22, Isaiah 53, and other passages that the Messiah was to suffer and die. Simeon and Anna were such: Luke 2:34-38. My point here is not that no Jews understood the impending death of Jesus and the atoning work of the cross, but that the initial gospel presented by Jesus and His apostles emphasized the arrival of Israel's predicted kingdom as manifest by its king walking in their midst.)

The idea that Jesus' offer of the kingdom to Israel couldn't be true because the possibility exists that the offer could have been received leading to the circumvention of the cross is really a distraction: it is not dispensationalism's view that Jesus offered the kingdom which leads to this theoretical conundrum. A plain reading of the gospels reveals that John the Baptist, Jesus, and His apostles, all came preaching repentance. If this message of repentance was in good faith, then it must have been morally possible for the people who heard the message to respond. And if they did, what would have become of the cross? Who would have been left to betray Christ? Whether the offer concerned a literal or spiritual kingdom doesn't change this theological possibility because the 'problem' we are dealing with concerns complete divine sovereignty and full human responsibility which is independent from the content of the gospel message itself:

Suppose that Jesus did offer a spiritual kingdom in the hearts of men, and that repentance was the condition for receiving that kingdom, and that the people did repent and were born again, what then would have happened to the cross? Since the crucifixion had not yet taken place, does it mean that there was in those days a way of salvation different from salvation through the death of Christ? [3]

Does understanding that Jesus came to the lost sheep of the house of Israel to offer the kingdom clear up every puzzle in the gospels? Most certainly not! Even so, understanding Jewish expectations (and omissions) derived from the Old Testament is critical to a deeper understanding of what is actually transpiring in the gospels. Despite how often one hears it taught, not everything the Jews expected when Jesus came was incorrect: God had promised a literal kingdom with the advent of Messiah. However, due to the rejection of the King, Israel would not see the King coming in His kingdom until His second advent (Mat. 23:37-39; 25:31).

For additional background on this question, I can recommend:

  • Tony Garland, The Presentation and Rejection of Messiah Jesus
  • Alva McClain, The Greatness of the Kingdom
  • George Peters, The Theocratic Kingdom (especially volume 1, propositions 24, 55, 57, 58, 59, 60, 67, 187, and 206)
  • Paul Lee Tan, The Interpretation of Prophecy, pp. 299-311
  • Stanley D. Toussaint, Behold the King: A Study of Matthew


[1] Alva J. McClain, The Greatness of the Kingdom, p. 373.

[2] Ibid., p. 393.

[3] Charles C. Ryrie, Dispensationalism, 166-168.