p.ost

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

The kingdom of God: a down-to-earth explanation

Tomorrow in Nottingham we will be looking at the narrative skeleton of the Synoptic Gospels as an outworking of the history of second temple Judaism and as the ground for the emergence of the church in the third century. I shall quote Wright’s criterion of “double similarity”, though perhaps not quite to the end that he had in mind:

…when something can be seen to be credible (though perhaps deeply subversive) within first-century Judaism, and credible as the implied starting-point… of something in later Christianity, there is a strong possibility of our being in touch with the genuine history of Jesus. (N.T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, 132)

We should expect the New Testament to provide a plausible historical connection between the history of Israel and the history of the church. In simple terms the connection is the coming of the kingdom of God—what the God of Israel did to transform the condition of his people, not least in relation to their enemies. As Zechariah put it, the Lord God of Israel was raising up a “horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David”—that is, a king—and that as a result they would be “saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us” (Lk. 1:68-71). That already sounds like a very “political” hope, but this is not how the kingdom of God has typically been understood. Tomorrow I will suggest three ways in which the narrative about kingdom may be construed.

1. In the traditional understanding an announcement is made in first century Israel about the coming (or the already present) kingdom of God. Once Jesus has been raised and has ascended into heaven, leaving behind the sphere of history, the kingdom of God has become a transcendent reality. God reigns over his people or in the world in a very general sense, unrelated to the historical existence of the people of God. A rocket ship has been launched—whoosh!—into orbit beyond the gravitational pull of the real world of human history. The reason we now have such a hard time talking meaningfully about the kingdom of God is that it no longer has a historical frame of reference. This state of affairs lasts until the kingdom comes in its fullness at the end of history-as-we-know-it, which, confusingly, is also the new heavens and new earth.

2. New perspectives on Jesus in recent decades have emphasized the apocalyptic dimension to the kingdom of God and have tended to acknowledge that the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple was a significant factor in the fulfilment of Jesus’ predictions. But then the same theologically powered rocket ship carries us up above the clouds to the remote abstraction of the kingdom of God, and nothing more is said about human history. So the story of second temple Judaism has been brought to a historical end, but the story of God and the nations lacks a historical beginning.

3. My argument is that the kingdom of God envisaged by Jesus and the writers of the New Testament is no less historical than the kingdom of God in the Old Testament. It is all about how God manages the political existence of his people in relation to the nations. Management has been handed over to his Son, who is seated at his right hand, rather than to any earthly king. But it is still the concrete life of the community in the midst of other peoples and cultures that is being managed. From the New Testament perspective the coming of the kingdom of God entailed not only “judgment” or drastic management of the household of God but also “judgment” of the pagan oikoumenē, the Greek-Roman world, the blasphemous empire. And then it’s just more history.

Take your pick.

Comments

The rocket ship really makes it come alive. I hope you animated it in the slide deck.

From the New Testament perspective the coming of the kingdom of God entailed not only “judgment” or drastic management of the household of God but also “judgment” of the pagan oikoumenē, the Greek-Roman world, the blasphemous empire. And then it’s just more history.

If it did this (I’m not too sure about judgment on the pagan world as a climactic event), didn’t the kingdom also do much more in introducing the ‘transcendent’ life of God into the ‘concrete’ realities of history? ‘Transcendent’ of course means within but beyond ordinary realities. It doesn’t just mean ‘beyond’ and ‘above’. It means connecting heaven and earth, not taking earth out of orbit into an abstract heaven.

In this sense, the kingdom has been and still is constantly affecting the conrete realities of history, but in ways very similar to how it worked in NT times. It was a subversive influence. Jesus confronted the powers, and overcame them, but not in a simple historico-political way. Paul did the same - getting right up to the back yard of the Roman Emperor. Thumbing his nose at him, if you like. But he didn’t take up arms against the empire.

But the chief effect of the kingdom has been and still is to change history by circumventing the powers-that-be, often working in the lives of those disenfranchised by religious and political power. That’s how Jesus did it. That’s how it has continued to be. And it’s all solid history, though not of the Macaulay/Starkey/Schama kind. But go almost anywhere in the world today, and you will find kingdom history being written in this way - and chaing nations and continents in the process.

How is this in continuity with Israel’s history? It’s the worldwide outworking of the kingdom, just as it was prophesied in Israel’s history. Continuity. But it doesn’t look like anything seen in Israel’s history (just as Jesus the Messiah didn’t look like any previous leader of Israel). Discontinuity. Continuity and discontuity are both characeteristic of the trasnsition from OT to NT times.

‘Transcendent’ of course means within but beyond ordinary realities. It doesn’t just mean ‘beyond’ and ‘above’. It means connecting heaven and earth, not taking earth out of orbit into an abstract heaven.

That’s a curious redefinition of “transcendent”. According to the dictionary on my computer “transcendent” means:

1 beyond or above the range of normal or physical human experience: the search for a transcendent level of knowledge.
• surpassing the ordinary; exceptional: her transcendent beauty.
• (of God) existing apart from and not subject to the limitations of the material universe. Often contrasted with immanent.

Also, I wasn’t talking about heaven. The “remote abstraction” is not heaven—though I can see how the confusion arises—but “kingdom of God” as a theological concept detached from its historical frame of reference.

I have found it most helpful to consider the current manifestation of the kingdom of God – the Church era/age of the Spirit/New Covenant, having begun at the cross and launched at Pentecost – to be in continuity with Old Covenant Israel in this way: Formerly, God was expressing His spiritual kingdom thru the singular nation of Israel as the physical descendants of Abraham who were the initial fulfillment of the promise to/covenant with Abraham. But with the death and resurrection of Christ, God opened the floodgates of access to His spiritual kingdom to people from all tribes, nations, peoples of the world. This is not “replacement”, but expansion. Not a second people of God, but an enlarged singular group. Not in discontinuity with prior Israel, but next level. Not other-wordly, but continuing to bring heaven/life of God/power of the Spirit more powerfully than before to believers on earth, due to the immediacy/availability of the internally dwelling Spirit of God in the hearts of believers, based on the access to God provided by Christ’s mediatorial work.

The kingdom has always been essentially an internal, spiritual work of God on hearts, focused on relationship, as an enactment of whole life worship by a community of believers fulfilling the role of being God’s people. And it always shows up in history. The old covenant was limited to part of Abraham’s physical heirs. The New covenant is expanded to all of Abraham’s spiritual heirs, and takes physical form wherever a believing community is established and lived out.

This remains a form of already/not yet, but more robustly so than is usually envisaged. Jews apart from Christ are not “God’s people” in any meaningful way today, just as disbelieving, unfaithful Jews also were not under the old covenant. God previously worked within the sphere of Israel only. Now He works in the expanded sphere of the world. But faith, as always, is required, for inclusion and for benefits. The people of God now are the fulfillment of God’s many promises to be those kingdom beneficiaries – to know Him and to be His people among the nations. He reigns in and among us. This is already here, and richly so. But in the age to come, we will then know “as we are fully known”, experience “that which is perfect”, where there will be “no more night” and “no more tears” and we will “see Him face to face”, in the New Heavens and New Earth.