Tikkun Olam and the Kingdom of God

The latest concept to cross my path while studying Judaism in terms of its connection with Christianity is the ancient but recently popularized notion of tikkun olam (literally meaning “world repair”).  Having been a member of congregations that were a part of the Association of Vineyard Churches for over ten years, I immediately recognized the connection with great excitement—this is describing the kingdom of God!  While neither phrase “tikkun olam” nor “the kingdom of God” explicitly appears in the Tanakh, the concept is fully represented and forms a central piece of both the First and New Covenants.  Tikkun olam is used in the Mishnah, and Jewish tradition tells us that the Aleinu (one of the thrice-daily prayers in Judaism) in which tikkun olam is mentioned was authored by Joshua—and no wonder: he was witness to the original pronouncement by God in which His kingdom was first mentioned in Exodus 19:

“…Although the whole earth is Mine, you shall be for Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation…” (Exodus 19:5b-6a)

Here is the translation of the Aleinu:

It is for us to praise the Master of all, to render the greatness of the Creator of the beginning; Who did not make us like the nations of the lands, and did not set us like the families of the earth. Who did not set our portion as theirs nor our destiny as all of them, for they bow to naught and emptiness and pray to a god who does not save.

But we bend, bow, and give thanks before the king over the king of kings, the Holy One, blessed be He, Who spans the sky and founds the earth, Whose dwelling of glory is in the heavens above, and Whose manifestation of might is in the supernal heights.

He is our God, there is no other. True! He is our king, there is none besides Him. As it is written in His Torah: “And you shall know today, and take to heart, that (YHVH) Adonai is the only God, in the heavens above and on earth below. There is no other” (Deut. 4:39).

Therefore we put our hope in You, (YHVH) Adonai our God: to see soon the radiance of Your might; to remove all idols from the earth so that all false gods will be totally eliminated; to establish the world as the kingdom of God (takken-olam) so that all the people of flesh will call upon Your name; to turn to You all the wicked of the earth (indeed) all the inhabitants of the world will recognize and know that to You every knee will bend and every tongue vow. Before You, (YHVH) Adonai our God, they will bend and kneel, thereby rendering glory to the honor of Your name. And they all will accept the yoke of Your kingship so that You will reign over them soon and forever, for kingship is Yours, and forever and ever may You reign in honor. As it is written in Your Torah: “(YHVH) Adonai will reign forever and ever” (Exod. 15:18). And it is said: “(YHVH) Adonai will be king over the whole Earth, on that day, God will be One, and His name One” (Zech. 14:9).

Now there is an interesting argument about the origin of the concept, the opposing sides of which lie roughly along the lines between conservative and liberal Jews.  You’ll notice in the Aleinu that the phrase is not tikkun olam (to fix the world), but takken olam (build, establish [on a foundation] the world).  The debate is fascinating to me because we are having the exact same quarrel in Christian circles.  It goes something like this:

On the more conservative side, it is argued that we cannot “fix the world;” this is God’s job.  What we can do is proclaim His sovereignty, live by His mitzvot (that is, His commandments or precepts), stay away from evil, and teach our children to do all the same.  Our living by obedience and the proclamation of his sovereignty builds the foundation; but the world will be finally “established” (takken olam) when God comes to reclaim what is His. On the more liberal end of the spectrum, this is not enough.  The world is in desperate need of “fixing”; social injustice, prejudice, greed, and all other sorts of evil run amok across our globe.  As the people of God, it is our duty to right these wrongs where we have the means; furthermore, for some, this value of tikkun olam is the highest value in all of Judaism—even to the exclusion of the rest of the Torah.

 The Christian version of this dispute naturally pulls Jesus into the discussion: did Jesus come into the world literally as an atonement for our sins, or was He an agent of revolutionary social change?  Is it our duty simply to live good lives and preach the Gospel, waiting for Jesus to return and make everything right, or do we grab the forces of evil by the horns and wrestle them to the ground for the sake of a more peaceable, civilized society?

The answer to these questions, obviously loaded for emphasis intended to lead us to the proper conclusion, is “yes.”  We have (as humans have a tendency to do) made this an “either/or” choice instead of a “both/and” statement.  Takken olam and tikkun olam are related and interdependent; no amount of our attempts to “fix the world” have any merit or effect without establishing those efforts under the sovereignty of God (and I would add the necessity of connection to the presence of God as well).  In the same token, it is precisely our submission to the sovereignty of God that compels us with the desire to “fix the world” in the first place.

The Judeo-Christian story tells us that this world was ejected from the shalom (peace, wellness, life, and absolute harmony wrapped into one) of God’s kingdom when our earliest ancestors chose to rebel against God in self-worship at the Garden of Eden.  Since that time, the longing of both God’s heart and our hearts was to see that kingdom restored.

Finding favorable hearts in Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and Moses, God raised up the people of Israel and established them as the root—the base people in which the kingdom of God would be made manifest.   It was always His intention to include the rest of the world in His kingdom, as the Aleinu asserts; and God called His people to be “…a light to the Gentiles.”  He gave them the Feast Days as a roadmap of His redemptive process; He gave them the moral part of the Law to reveal His own character and to set a standard marking Israel as His kingdom people; and He gave the priestly part of the Law to provide them a means of communication despite their sin.

He did these things because He wanted the whole world to see what it is like to be a citizen of His kingdom; to let us know that He would never stop pursuing us.  He knew, of course, that Israel would go off into idolatry and fail not only in being a light to the Gentiles, but by be being absorbed in darkness themselves.  So He found David, another man after His own heart, and made a promise to him that his Heir would sit on the throne of the kingdom of God forever.

When your days are fulfilled to walk with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, one of your own sons, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for me, and I will establish his throne forever. I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son. I will not take my steadfast love from him, as I took it from him who was before you, but I will confirm him in my house and in my kingdom forever, and his throne shall be established forever.’ ” (1 Chronicles 17:11-14)

The prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel in particular) spoke of a New Covenant and a Messiah that would finally bring the complete restoration of the kingdom of God:

“…For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us; and the government will rest on His shoulders; and His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace. There will be no end to the increase of His government or of peace, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and righteousness from then on and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will accomplish this.” (Isaiah 9:6-7)

“Then a shoot will spring from the stem of Jesse, and a branch from his roots will bear fruit. And the Spirit of the LORD will rest on Him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and strength, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD. And He will delight in the fear of the LORD, and He will not judge by what His eyes see, nor make a decision by what His ears hear; but with righteousness He will judge the poor, and decide with fairness for the afflicted of the earth; and He will strike the earth with the rod of His mouth, and with the breath of His lips He will slay the wicked. Also righteousness will be the belt about His loins, and faithfulness the belt about His waist. And the wolf will dwell with the lamb, and the leopard will lie down with the kid, and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little boy will lead them. Also the cow and the bear will graze; their young will lie down together; and the lion will eat straw like the ox. And the nursing child will play by the hole of the cobra, and the weaned child will put his hand on the viper’s den. They will not hurt or destroy in all My holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.” (Isaiah 11:1-9)

“The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them,” declares the Lord. “This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time,” declares the LORD:

“I will put my Law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the Lord. “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.” (Jeremiah 31:31-34)

“I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. Then you will live in the land I gave your ancestors; you will be my people, and I will be your God.” (Ezekiel 36:26-28; from the fuller passage of Ezekiel 36:22-38)

The sages studied these texts and postulated who this Messiah might be:  He is obviously the Heir of David, but also He is Almighty God, the Everlasting Father.  How could this be?  Some believed there would be two Messiahs:  Maschiach ben-Yosef (the Suffering Servant who would wipe away the sins of Israel) and Maschiach ben-David (the Conquering Hero who would sit on the throne of his father David and restore Israel to supremacy among the nations in the kingdom of God).

Christians believe that Yeshua HaNazrit (Jesus of Nazareth) was the One spoken of by the prophets.1 He came proclaiming the kingdom of God was near, and according to the B'rit Chadashah, the New Covenant Scriptures, he healed the sick, cast out demons, and raised the dead as a testimony to His message. He said this about Himself:

He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind,to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

Of course, Jesus did not read the entire passage.  This was on purpose.  In his life, Jesus fulfilled all the prophecies related to Maschiach ben-Yosef, but not any related to Maschiach ben-David.  If Jesus had fulfilled the role of the Hero Conqueror without first completing His work as the Suffering Servant, no one would be admitted into the kingdom of God.  So, there are not two Maschiachim, but one Messiah who fulfills two roles.  For the shalom of the kingdom to return, and for all of mankind to have the opportunity to become citizens of that kingdom, the salvation provided by the Suffering Servant has to come first, followed by the judgment meted out by the Hero Conqueror.  Jesus fulfilled the first role, and promised to return and fill the second; but in between, there had to be time for the world to see and accept what God has done for us in the New Covenant.  This is why it has taken so long for Him to return.

One day, the last half of the passage in Isaiah from which Jesus read will be fulfilled as well:

“…and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion—to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord for the display of his splendor.

They will rebuild the ancient ruins and restore the places long devastated; they will renew the ruined cities that have been devastated for generations. Strangers will shepherd your flocks; foreigners will work your fields and vineyards. And you will be called priests of the Lord, you will be named ministers of our God. You will feed on the wealth of nations, and in their riches you will boast. Instead of your shame you will receive a double portion, and instead of disgrace you will rejoice in your inheritance. And so you will inherit a double portion in your land, and everlasting joy will be yours.”

“For I, the Lord, love justice; I hate robbery and wrongdoing. In my faithfulness I will reward my people and make an everlasting covenant with them. Their descendants will be known among the nations and their offspring among the peoples. All who see them will acknowledge that they are a people the Lord has blessed.” (Isaiah 61:1-9)

When Jesus returns, Scripture tells us in the Book of Revelation 2 that the armies of enemies of Israel will be destroyed, and Jesus Himself will reign from the Temple in Jerusalem for 1000 years, fulfilling the promises that were made regarding Maschiach ben-David. After this, all evil will be burned up in the lake of fire, and heaven and earth will be remade with the New Jerusalem positioned in the middle. This will complete the full re-establishment of the kingdom of God; takken olam and tikkun olam will both be complete. This brings us to today, and back to our original conversation. If Jesus is going to complete all the work that is necessary, and if all the earth will be remade, what is the point of our involvement in takken/tikkun olam at all?

  1. We are made in the image of God. As members of the New Covenant, the nature of selfless love that God has within Himself is being restored in us; therefore, it goes without saying that to engage in takken/tikkun olam is our natural way of life. It is what marks us as His people. Jesus said, “The world will know you are My disciples when you love one another…”

  2. Consequently, it is a testimony to the world presenting God’s character. This is what it means to be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” While Christians believe that there is no longer a need for a priest between the people of God and God Himself, we are priests to a world who does not yet know Him; and we show this by engaging in takken/tikkun olam.

  3. We are the means by which God is increasing His kingdom. Anyone who will ever know the goodness of our God and have the opportunity to embrace Him will come to know this through their contact with us as we engage in takken/tikkun olam.

Shavuot is the Feast in which God kicked off takken/tikkun olam.  Orignially prescribed in Leviticus 23 as one of the annual Feast Days and one of the three main annual pilgrimage festivals where every Jewish man was to present himself to the presence of God as a God-worshiper, Shavuot holds an incredibly important place in the Judeo-Christian story:

  1. In the First Covenant, Shavuot is the place where the kingdom proclamation was first made, marking the Israelites as God's people. The Law was given on this day.
  2. In the priestly prescription for this Feast, the people were to count fifty days from Firstfruits3 (this is why in Greek and subsequently English, the Feast is known as Pentecost--lit. "fifty count"), and offer up two loaves of bread made from the field. This is symbolic of the people of God, having been made holy as a kingdom of priests and a holy nation by the offering of Firstfruits (Messiah Himself).
  3. The story of Ruth, often read at Pentecost, is an allegory of the 'marriage' that takes place between God and His people as He brings us into His kingdom. He Himself is our kinsman-redeemer.
  4. In the New Covenant, this is the day in which the Holy Spirit, Ruach HaKodesh, was released on the people of God, activating the New Covenant spoken of in Jeremiah 31:31-34 and Ezekiel 36:26-28. The first Shavuot declared the standard of holiness in the Law and proclaimed the people of Israel as God's kingdom; the fulfillment of Shavuot in the New Covenant released the Holy Spirit who produces holiness in us and empowers us to live the kingdom mandate--engaging in takken/tikkun olam.
  5. Related to the story of Ruth, Passover and Firstfruits (fulfilled in the New Covenant by the death and resurrection of Jesus, respectively) were like the betrothal of God to His people; Shavuot is like the marriage ceremony.

So what constitutes tikkun olam?  There are all kinds of opinions across the spectrum of both Judaism and Christianity.  The general consenus is some sort of service related to social justice:  feeding the hungry, healing the sick, helping the poor, defending the oppressed, etc.--though this is wide-ranging.  Some even feel (not my opinion personally) that smoking medicinal marijuana is somehow related to tikkun olam!  

The key goes back to the original discussion between takken olam and tikkun olam.  Activities that are truly part of the kingdom of God come always come from a desire to establish the world under His sovereignty.  You can't have tikkun olam without takken olam!  Simple philanthropy does not count--one can be 'good' for the sake of being 'good'--motivated from a desire to appear philanthropic, to feel good about oneself, or to earn brownie points with God--but these do not arise from the desire to see God glorified and His kingdom advanced.  True tikkun olam comes from being filled with the Holy Spirit--the result of which is a life connected to the active, living presence of God, hearing His voice, doing His will as a citizen of the kingdom of priests--a holy nation dedicated to making Him known.

Such a life resonates with the Aleinu prayer.  Rabbi Sha'ul (the Apostle Paul of Tarsus) repeated an early Christian prayer, which is a direct application of the Aleinu to Jesus:

[Because of Jesus humility and sacrifice vv.1-8] "...Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father." (Philippians 2:9-11)

If one reads the last part of the highlighted section in Hebrew, it would say "...that Yeshua Ha Maschiach is Adonai."  Not just a lord of something, but YHVH--Adonai specifically.  No doubt Paul believed that Jesus was the God of Israel, the King of the Universe, with whom we participate in tikkun olam.  Happy Shavuot!

1Discussion about the Trinity (how God can be One God in three 'Persons') and Christology (how Jesus can be both God and human at the same time) are separate conversations that digress too far from the conversation at hand, so we'll leave this alone for now; but belief in the Trinity and a high Christology are required to accept Jesus--or anyone else for that matter--as Maschiach.

2The Tanakh tells us all of these things generally as well; the B'rit Chadashah (The New Covenant Scriptures) simply apply these concepts to Jesus specifically.

3The Levitical offering of Firstfruits was a grain offering that was taken the day after the Shabbat after the Passover meal during the Feast of Unleavened Bread. The priest would wave the sheaf to the LORD, and this would declare that the rest of the field was holy. Jesus was resurrected from the dead on this day, and so was 'lifted up', declaring the rest of His people as a holy kingdom of priests. It was a consecration offering to make the field holy; Shavuot was a presentation offering showing what was made holy by Firstfruits; this is why the two are related and why the 'counting of the Omer' is based off of Firstfruits.