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(how to tell the biblical story in a way that makes a difference)

NT Wright and the confusion of kingdom and new creation

I came across a curious paragraph in Tom Wright’s Simply Christian, in which he highlights a ‘mystery’ in the social organization of God’s ‘new world’. He argues that the end of all things is not the emigration of the righteous to heaven but the reintegration of heaven and earth, when God will remake the world and ‘raise all his people to new bodily life to live in it’. I have a bit of a problem with the way he characterizes resurrection as ‘life after life after death’, but the basic assertion that we are summoned ‘to live in the present as people called to that future’, in the light of the believed in renewal of creation, is surely a good one. He continues, however:

To live in it, yes; and also to rule over it. There is a mystery here which few today have even begun to ponder. Both Paul and Revelation stress that in God’s new world those who belong to the Messiah will be placed in charge. The first creation was put into the care of God’s image-bearing creatures. The new creation will be put into the care of, the wise, healing stewardship of those who have been ‘renewed according to the image of the creator’, as Paul puts it. (Simply Christian, 186-187)

So in effect Christians will be both the inhabitants of this new creation and those who rule over it. It seems to me, however, that this is more of a muddle than a mystery. The whole business may appear to many too abstruse to be worth pondering, but I would argue that it takes us to heart of how we understand the biblical narrative and that we have to do this hard work of radically rethinking how the story works. The emerging church has wanted to affirm both a ‘kingdom’ theology and a ‘new creation’ theology, but there is considerable confusion regarding how these two concepts relate to each other biblically. The following observations touch on one aspect of this.

1. Wright’s implicit argument from creation is misleading. In Genesis 1 the man and the woman are given authority over the non-human world. In the New Testament passages that speak of a future reign of believers with Christ it is a reign over the human world that is intended (Matt. 19:28; Lk. 22:28-30; 1 Cor. 6:2; 2 Tim. 2:12; Rev. 20:6). It is the exercise of the kingdom and authority that is given to the Son of man; there is something more to this than stewardship.

2. The idea in Matthew 19:28 (cf. Lk. 22:28-30) may actually be quite specific. In the ‘regeneration’, which refers not to the final new creation but to God’s people restored following judgment (Josephus uses the word palingenesia for the ‘rebirth’ of the nation following exile: see Re: Mission, 86), those who literally and painfully (Luke describes them as ‘those who have stayed with me in my trials’) followed Jesus are assured that when the Son of man sits on his glorious throne, they ‘will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel’. The focus on Israel suggests that this is to be understood within the narrative of an impending historical judgment on the nation (in other words, the war of AD 66-70), which Jesus interprets in the light of Daniel 7. The disciples will be vindicated with Jesus for choosing the narrow path of suffering that leads to life and will (symbolically?) sit with him in judgment over rebellious Israel when it reaches the end of the broad path leading to destruction.

3. Something similar is found in 1 Corinthians 6:2: ‘Or do you not know that the saints will judge the world?’ The interpretive framework is less evident here, but I would place this in the narrative of judgment on the pagan world which I think underlies what Paul has to say about the ‘wrath’ of God in Romans 1:18-2:10, though the argument has been strongly contested (as no doubt this post will be). Jesus from within a first eschatological horizon imagined his suffering disciples participating in the judgment on Israel. Similarly, Paul from within a wider, second eschatological horizon imagines the faithful church, as it seeks to preserve its moral and spiritual integrity (1 Cor. 5:9-13) during a period of great ‘distress’ (6:26), being vindicated and participating in the judgment on the Greek-Roman world.

4. In 1 Corinthians 15:24-26 the reign of Christ comes to an end when the final enemy, death, is defeated, and the ‘kingdom’ is handed back to God the Father. The implication is that this reign is necessary only as long as hostile powers, among them supremely death, oppose the purposes of the creator God. Once those powers have been destroyed, it is no longer necessary for Christ and those who suffered and were vindicated with him to reign; and at that point the world is made new, uncorrupted by the power of death.

5. In John’s vision in Revelation it is not the whole church but a special subset of the church that is raised and reigns with Christ - those who directly refused to worship the beast, which I take to be an image of Roman imperial power, and were martyred as a result (20:4).

6. In Revelation 20:6 the reign with Christ is limited to the symbolic period of a thousand years and ends before the final defeat of death and remaking of creation.

7. I should point out that Revelation 22:5 says that the servants of God, gathered around the throne of God and the Lamb in the new Jerusalem, who look on his face and bear his name on their foreheads, will ‘reign for ever and ever’. I would, however, that this constitutes a restatement or echo of the idea that those who remain faithful in the face of suffering, who overcome death for the sake of Christ, will ‘reign’. Notice in particular Revelation 3:12:

The one who conquers, I will make him a pillar in the temple of my God. Never shall he go out of it, and I will write on him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which comes down from my God out of heaven, and my own new name.

Again we see a particular group of believers - those who remain faithful to the point of death during the trial that is about to come upon them (3:10), who conquer death - who become part of the worship of God in heaven and bear the name of God, of the new Jerusalem, and of Christ himself. Similarly, the martyrs who are raised and reign with Christ for a thousand years are called ‘priests of God and of Christ’.

It seems to me, therefore, to make better sense of the New Testament teaching to locate the idea that believers reign with Christ in an eschatological narrative that encompasses, first, the judgment on Jerusalem, and secondly, the judgment of God on Greek-Roman paganism. Those who concretely participate in Christ’s suffering and vindication then reign with him as long as wickedness, Satan and death continue to oppose the purposes of God - that is, in John’s symbolic schema, for a thousand years. This reign with Christ comes to an end once the final enemy has been defeated - it is no longer necessary for the one who overcame death or those who likewise overcame death in him to reign.