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

Is “kingdom” in the New Testament the same as “kingdom” in the Old Testament?

I suggested in a recent post that the biblical “kingdom” paradigm was put in place when the people of Israel asked Samuel to appoint a king because they needed someone 1) to judge them and 2) to lead them out against their enemies (1 Sam. 8:20). Theologically, therefore, “kingdom” is YHWH dealing with 1) the internal integrity and 2) the external security of his people throughout history, both in the Old Testament and in the New Testament.

This claim has been questioned on the grounds that the incident constituted, in fact, the repudiation of God as king: “they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them” (1 Sam. 8:7). The Old Testament paradigm was a mistake from the start, so we cannot think of kingdom in the New Testament as a continuation of kingdom in the Old Testament. In his comment Peter argues that Jesus introduced something completely new. “The one was a kingdom of empire and violence, the other of servanthood and love.”

Don’t mess with history

Before we get on to discussing kingdom, I will make a general point about method. Historical study gives us a historical Jesus who is the solution to a first-century Jewish problem. There are elements in the story, and later New Testament perspectives on it, that are quite congenial to the modern religious outlook—for example, the emphasis on “servanthood and love”.

But we cannot—or at least, should not—unbolt or prise off the shiny bits that catch our eye and leave the rest of the antiquated first-century contraption to rust and become overgrown. We shouldn’t build a theology around pilfered souvenirs of a classic historical moment.

The phrase “kingdom of God” gets us to the heart of the historical problem, but it has to be understood in historical terms. I am not saying that there is no place for the miraculous or the resurrection or the direct engagement of God in the events—it remains an extraordinary and exceptional period in the story of the people of God.

But I think we are getting to the point where the only Jesus who will stand the test of time is the Jesus who believed that he was somehow bringing Jewish political expectations to a climax—not an “end’, but a decisive transformation and transition. The “evangelical” church, therefore—by which I mean the church that wants to take the Jesus of New Testament testimony seriously—needs to learn how to own and work with the story of the Jewish political Jesus.

So the kingdom of God…

My general view is that the New Testament and Jesus in particular are much closer in thought, outlook and intention to the Old Testament and the circumstances of Second Temple Judaism than our modern theologies recognise. We can make too much of the uniqueness of Jesus. We are dealing with one more or less coherent, but always ancient, story running from Babel, through the clash with Babylon, to the fall of Babylon the great, which is pagan Rome. He is an intrinsic part of that story.

Israel became a kingdom like the surrounding nations (1 Sam. 8:5) in rejection of YHWH as king over them. So before Saul became king, Israel had been a kingdom unlike the surrounding nations, acknowledging only YHWH as king over them (theoretically), who judged them and fought their battles (1 Sam. 8:20).

By and large, Israel’s human kings failed to rule well, and the nation suffered violence from God, in the form of warfare and exile, as a consequence. But having taken this disastrous path, they came to believe that an ideal human king would eventually be given to them, from the line of the one half decent king David (cf. Mic. 5:2), whose reign would not be brought to an end by foreign invasion, whose kingdom would have no end, and who ultimately would rule over the nations. There is no attempt to revert to the pre-kingdom situation; the prophets do not recommend reinstating the judges.

We are getting to the point where the only Jesus who will stand the test of time is the Jesus who believed that he was somehow bringing Jewish political expectations to a climax.

“Kingdom”, therefore, was the active governance of God’s people in history, leading eventually to a dramatic geopolitical reversal: the hostile, unjust, idolatrous empires would be overthrown, and the rule of YHWH over the nations in their place would be established. Psalm 82 encapsulates the hope perfectly: the gods of the nations have proved incompetent so they will die like men, and YHWH will judge the earth and inherit the nations.

This narrative, I think, is fully presupposed in the New Testament. The only question is how the geopolitical end would be achieved. Many Jews imagined that armed conflict might, with the aid of YHWH, lead to the overthrow of Rome and the establishment of Jerusalem as the glorious new capital of the empire, more or less according to Old Testament prophetic accounts of the restoration of Zion. There was indeed a violent revolt against Rome, inspired by prophecy and apocalyptic visions, but it ended in catastrophe.

Jesus, however, had proposed an alternative, dangerous path to the fulfilment of Jewish kingdom expectations. Drawing on a strand of tradition that reached back through the persecution of the righteous sons of God in the Wisdom literature, through the stories of the Maccabean martyrs and Daniel’s vision of the vindication of one like a son of man, to the suffering of the “servant” of God during the exile, he predicted that the Jewish Council would “see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power” (Mk. 14:62).

The central message of the New Testament, therefore, is that Jesus was raised from the dead and installed as Israel’s king not in Jerusalem but in heaven, and—this easily gets overlooked—that this would have enormous geopolitical consequences.

On the one hand, it confirmed in the minds of his early followers Jesus’ prediction that there would soon no longer be a Jerusalem on earth from which YHWH’s king might rule over Israel and the nations, there would no longer be a house of prayer where the Gentiles might learn the ways of Israel’s God.

On the other, it gave rise to the expectation that sooner or later the exalted Lord would be confessed by the nations of the pagan empire as Lord, to the glory of Israel’s God (cf. Phil. 2:9-11). Believers looked neither to Jerusalem nor to Rome for their citizenship, but to heaven, and were confident that their Lord and master, their king, would come to bring their present sufferings to an end and vindicate them in the eyes of the nations (cf. Phil. 3:20-21).

The means and the end

In the period leading up to the conversion of the nations and the parousia the church was bound to bear witness in the same way that Jesus had born witness—through patient, steadfast suffering, with love for enemies, leaving vengeance to the wrath of God (cf. Rom. 12:19), etc. New Testament ecclesiology and parenesis (spiritual and ethical instruction) are aimed at the formation of communities that would be strong enough and faithful enough to overcome persecution and bear witness through to the revelation of Christ to the nations. They embodied not so much the present reality but the future coming of the reign of God over the nations.

Modern theologies, however, tend to confuse the means with the end.

The means by which the kingdom of God would be brought about would be suffering and sacrificial love, pioneered by Jesus. That had some precedent in Judaism, but no one was seriously expecting a disgraced and crucified apocalyptic prophet to inherit the kingdom of David.

But in broad terms there was nothing novel about the end: YHWH would establish his king, defeat his enemies, judge and restore his people, judge the nations, and rule in the place of the old pagan gods through the Son who had been instructed to sit at his right hand.

In sum, there is a redefinition of the means by which kingdom would be achieved in the New Testament but not of the end itself.

Kingdom and beyond

How the rule of Christ was supposed to look in the more complex circumstances that arose following the conversion of the nations of the Greek-Roman world is harder to say. This appears to have been beyond the prophetic horizon of the early church.

My assumption is that the church as a priestly people of YHWH was meant to replace the old pagan priesthoods. The nations now confessed that Jesus was Lord, in the place of Zeus or Jupiter or Caesar, to the glory of Israel’s God, and they needed a new, properly qualified priesthood to facilitate the new political-religious arrangement. The task of the church was to hold the diverse societies that made up Christendom accountable to the “Trinitarian” confession that they had devised for themselves as the apocalyptic vision faded.

But this was history-as-normal, which meant that wickedness and war persisted. The security of the church was not so easily dissociated from the security of nations, and some manner of compromise—and some degree of failure—with respect to violence was inevitable. Even today, I imagine that most churches in the post-Christian West would think themselves entitled to forceful—to the point of lethal—protection under the law if the need arose.

Anyway, I argue that Western Christendom is best understood as the concrete historical fulfilment of the New Testament conviction that the God of Israel, who had raised his Son from the dead and had given him all authority and power, would sooner or later rule over the nations. That’s how we do justice to the historical Jesus.

The old political-religious arrangement no longer holds, but the original paradigm remains intact: Jesus is the Son of David who received an everlasting rule over his people, who 1) maintains their internal integrity and 2) safeguards their existence in a hostile world. We are not accustomed to thinking about “kingdom” in such terms, but given the way things are going, we might want to have a rethink.

Comments

Thanks Andrew. I was expecting a reply to a comment, and got a full blown post.

Israel wasn’t really a kingdom before Saul. It didn’t operate like a kingdom, according to the history. Becoming a kingdom was a way of meeting surrounding hostile nations on their own terms. But was it what God wanted?

Another way of looking at the OT is that God was constantly accommodating himself to the limited perspectives of his people, in which culture often played a greater role in determining their attitudes than might have been desirable. Did God really want a temple and sacrificial system? Some parts of the OT suggest not. Yet he worked through it. Did God want the genocide and violence which, apparently, he commanded in the OT? Some parts of the OT suggest a very different God.

If we observe these fissures in the OT, including the very obvious kingdom fissure (which never really worked well for Israel), it plays a part in preparing us for Jesus, and the way he redefined, I would argue, kingdom, in a way which picked up some aspects of the OT presentation of both God and kingdom, but repudiated others.

So Jesus, by this view, is certainly bringing the story of Israel to a climax and fulfilment. The question is, which aspects of this diverse and at times contradictory history? And how was he planning to do it?

Notwithstanding your clear and coherent argument, I continue to think Jesus did, and continues to do these things in a way that does not employ the means of violence and empire. When the church espouses these means, or approves them, it denies the teaching of the very one in whom it does them, and fails as a result, Christendom or no Christendom.

Would that amazing woman from UNHCR, clearly a muslim, shown on tonight’s BBC news, working among vulnerable women refugees from Myanmar, have been doing that work if there had never been a Jesus whose servanthood and compassion permeated history? I doubt it, and doubt that many aid organisations in the world today which have no connection with the Christian faith would be doing their work if it had not been pioneered by Jesus and the church, who made a revolutionary virtue of helping the suffering and vulnerable in ways which did not exist before his coming.

Despite this, the church today is a worldwide ambassador, I argue, for a kingdom of servanthood and love, which has influenced the world beyond those who adopt its allegiances in ways which I think we are scarcely able to imagine.

Israel wasn’t really a kingdom before Saul. It didn’t operate like a kingdom, according to the history. Becoming a kingdom was a way of meeting surrounding hostile nations on their own terms. But was it what God wanted?

Surely, if Israel was rejecting God as king over them in 1 Samuel 8, then they were a kingdom—a people ruled over by a king—before that? The Moses, Joshua and the judges were not kings, but they had the same political task of judging Israel and leading the fight against Israel’s enemies.

Also the idea of Israel as God’s kingdom is anticipated before we get to Samuel. Following the flight from Egypt, Moses says that the Lord will bring his people to his own mountain where he will reign forever and ever (Exod. 15:17-18). Israel will be a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exod. 19:6). Balaam prophesies that Jacob’s kingdom will be exalted, a sceptre will arise out of Israel to exercise dominion: “one from Jacob shall exercise dominion and destroy the survivors of cities” (Num. 24:7, 17, 19). The Lord was or became “king in Jeshurun” when the tribes of Israel were gathered together to receive the Law (Deut. 33:5).

This is all a digression from the central points, but clearly, Israel in the time of the judges up to Samuel was not a kingdom. Otherwise, why did the people demand a king? They did not ask to be restored to the time of Moses, but to something similar to the surrounding nations.

Yes, it’s stretching the point a bit, but it underlines the functional model of kingdom as the active governance of the people, ultimately by YHWH, in the midst of the nations, throughout time. Deuteronomy 33:5 in particular seems to point to a theocratic-kingdom conception of early Israel.

The kingdom theme is an interesting one in the OT. For instance, there is Exodus 19:6, which points to something different from kingdom as a geo-political power under a warrior king, which is what Israel wanted in Samuel’s time, and which YHWH took this as rejection of himself, according to the narrative.

I think it’s fair to say that the kingdom theme in the OT is not simply a geo-political issue, and that what Israel made of it turned out to fall a long way short even of what is suggested elsewhere in the OT. It’s also fair to say that Jesus brought a further redefinition which laid the basis for the NT understanding of kingdom. This is far removed from what Israel had made of it post Samuel.

Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. (Exod. 19:5–6)

The point here is that Israel will be both a “kingdom” and a “nation” in the midst of all peoples, which immediately gives us the geopolitical reality. The difference is that it will be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. Nothing is said about a warrior king one way or the other. You’re reading a New Testament construction back into it.

This is just after the destruction of Pharaoh’s armies by God to allow the escape of his people; and what it means to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation is defined in the laws of 20-23 (which includes the promise that YHWH will “give the inhabitants of the land into your hand, and you shall drive them out before you”: 23:31) and the instructions regarding the building of the tabernacle. This is clearly kingdom as a geopolitical reality—it’s just that the warrior king is YHWH.

1 Peter 2:9 interprets Exodus 19:6 quite differently, as describing an entire kingdom of priests. This doesn’t have to be what Moses meant in context, but it’s interesting to see how a New Testament apostle reinterpreted the OT in the light of what God was actually doing through Jesus. Maybe we should learn something from this about what was actually happening in NT history.

“Nothing is said about a warrior king one way or the other”. Well quite. But what Israel wanted when she asked for a king was a warrior king who would protect her from surrounding hostile nations, and meet violence with violence, “a king to lead us such as all the other nations have”- 1 Samuel 8:5.

In asking for such a king, Israel was rejecting God - 1 Samuel 8:7. If it is argued that the realpolitik of the day left Israel no option than to have a king and maybe trust God as well, this is nowhere conceded in the text. It’s also noteworthy that some of Israel’s more remarkable victories and deliverances were when she trusted YHWH without force of arms. The track record of king and kingdom were, however, more normally defeat and failure of her kings. That’s why the exile is such a big deal: it was where the OT paradigm of kingdom as actually practised by Israel led to.

The hope of Israel was for a king in David’s line like David who would defeat her enemies in battle. What she got was Jesus, who repudiated violence, and introduced a kingdom not based on force of arms and meeting violence with violence. What Israel also got was the end of her existence as a geopolitical reality, and a people of God existing throughout the nations.

This was what the kingdom of God introduced by Jesus looked like, and Jesus and Paul preached the same kingdom. Paul changed from being a zealous Pharisee who demonstrated his devotion by violence, to adopting the same non-violent principles as Jesus. This proved to be a more powerful kingdom than the OT paradigm. It has proved more powerful than Christendom, and continues to spread worldwide today, not least in parts of the world where it is most vulnerable and least able to resort to violence as a means of survival.

1 Peter 2:9 doesn’t interpret or reinterpret Exodus 19:6. Peter transfers the idea to the church, he sees the church as the proper continuation of the priestly function of the people of God, but that is a different thing. Peter didn’t think that Moses was talking about the church.

Surely, YHWH as king protected his people by violence when he destroyed Pharoah’s armies? It’s not violence that distinguishes the rule of YHWH as king from the rule of a human king. It is righteousness.

Jesus and violence are not so easily separated if he regarded the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple by Rome as an act of divine judgment. But otherwise, my argument with respect to kingdom in the New Testament is that even in the absence of violence it was understood as a geopolitical reality in continuity with Old Testament expectation.

As I said before, the means change, but the end remains the same—the rule of YHWH through his anointed king over the nations of the pagan oikoumenē, achieved not by means of the sword, or for that matter by love, but by faithful witness. The Christendom church understood that. The modern church has lost its nerve and spiritualised it.

This is becoming one of those ‘conversations’ again. Anyway, 1 Peter 2:9 is making Exodus 19:6 mean something different from what it meant in context. If that isn’t interpretation or reinterpretation, I don’t know what is. It’s significant because it tells us that ‘kingdom’ in the New Testament means something different from meeting force with force, which is how the OT saw kingdom.

There’s a debate going on at the moment about YHWH’s use of violence in the OT, and especially those passages where the most egregious kinds of violence are directly attributed to YHWH. There is more to the parting of the sea story than meets the eye. It is in some ways a reprise of the creation story (the dividing of the waters), and a reversal of creation (the waters ceasing to be held back). In some ways it could be seen as a fable which illustrates the special place in which Israel was held by YHWH. Evil, represented by the sea and the chariots of Pharaoh, destroys itself. This is an ancient story being told in the culture of an ancient people. Whether YHWH really was a God of violence, both here and throughout the OT, or whether this story and other acts of violence attributed to YHWH were an accommodation to the culture of ancient people, but not necessarily how YHWH was, is another matter. Jesus is “the image of the invisible God”, and “the exact representation of his being”. We should read the OT through the lens of how he represented YHWH, in character, teaching and deed. Jesus was much closer in history and culture to the Exodus than we are to Jesus, yet Jesus taught non violence and love of enemy. As they say, go figure.

In what sense was the destruction of Jerusalem a divine judgment - or in fact any act of judgment? In the case of Jerusalem, it was more like God stepping aside and letting the people choose. Israel chose a violent uprising against Rome. Jesus spoke against violence, and expressed God’s will. Israel chose violence and brought violence upon itself. It was a cause and effect judgment, a judgment in which YHWH did not intervene to prevent Israel’s choice, rather than a direct imposition of violence.

Your next statement is incorrect. The kingdom of God was no longer understood as a geopolitical reality after Jesus. That is obvious from the fact that the geopolitical reality of Israel the nation was destroyed and its geopolitical pretensions ended between AD 70 and AD 135. The kingdom that survived was not a geopolitical force, in that it existed across nations and kingdoms, was more powerful than nations and kingdoms, but did not operate on the geopolitical principles of nations and kingdoms. Even ‘Christendom’ didn’t dare to call itself God’s kingdom. The principles on which the kingdom of God operated were very different, and in the end more powerful and enduring than geopolitical kingdoms.

In your final paragraph, you say that the rule of YHWH was not achieved by love but by faithful witness. Actually it was both. One of the most powerful witnesses to the Roman empire was the care shown by the church to those who were uncared for by the empire: the poor, the sick, widows and orphans. That is a matter of historical record.

I don’t know what you mean by “the Christendom church understood that” (God’s rule over the empire “not by means of the sword, or for that matter by love, but by faithful witness”). Assuming you mean the last of these, I think many would say that Christendom severely compromised its “faithful witness” by resorting to the sword to impose its will both on its citizens and on its enemies, and certainly love was in very short supply in many of the historical actions of Christendom, and outstandingly between its own members.

In the case of Jerusalem, it was more like God stepping aside and letting the people choose. Israel chose a violent uprising against Rome.

Where does Jesus say that God would step aside and let the people choose? What would you make of Matthew 22:7: “The king was angry, and he sent his troops and destroyed those murderers and burned their city” (Matt 22:7)? This is a parable about a king who gives a wedding feast for his son. Is there any doubt that Jesus meant that God the king would destroy the city of the people who killed his Son?

Your next statement is incorrect. The kingdom of God was no longer understood as a geopolitical reality after Jesus. That is obvious from the fact that the geopolitical reality of Israel the nation was destroyed and its geopolitical pretensions ended between AD 70 and AD 135.

How was Christendom any less a geopolitical reality than national Israel? If the “kingdom of God” is God’s governance of his people in history, in the midst of the nations, as part of complex political processes, then there is every reason to say that the establishment of Christendom—the confession of Jesus as Lord by the nations of hte Greek-Roman world—was a kingdom event. That is not to identify Christendom with the kingdom in the sense that you mean. It is simply to recognise that the biblical God is always a God of history.

What I have described of the judgment of Jerusalem is exactly what happened. Jesus warned against violent opposition to Rome, longed to protect Jerusalem, yet said, “But you were unwilling”. His attitude was not anger, like the king in the parable, but.sorrow. Matthew 23:37-39.
He wept over Jerusalem.

Christendom was a geopolitical reality. It never described itself as the kingdom of God, and even if it had, it was not the kingdom of God.

Jesus, of course, was very angry at this moment. His attitude was not like the king in the parable because he was the son in the parable. The king in the parable is the father of the son, or the Father of the Son.

Jesus denounced the Pharisees in the strongest possible terms in Matthew 23:1-36. However, the tone of 37-39, which is describing the fate of Jerusalem, is quite different. I don’t think comparing himself to a hen wanting to protect her chicks describes someone who is angry with them. They represent those who are about to be ‘judged’, or to suffer ‘God’s anger’, according to the way you see things.

Similarly in Luke 19:41, when he is describing again the fate of Jerusalem, it says: “As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it”. It isn’t credible to say that Jesus was feeling sorrow while YHWH was feeling anger. Jesus was the closest reflection of YHWH that there had ever been, and was not set up as a contrast with an angry God.

The parable of the wedding banquet is just that: it’s a story, not a literal word for word allegory. The king’s anger would have been justifiable. But that is not the same as saying that YHWH judged Jerusalem with anger, and reacted to its inhabitants in the crude manner of the king in 22:13.

There is at the moment considerable reassessment taking place of “God’s wrath”, and not in the simplistic way which you caricature in the post you highlight in the previous comment. Greg Boyd’s monumental “The Crucifixion of the Warrior God” is an example of this amongst others. It’s time to take a fresh look at what exactly was meant by the wrath of God - in both OT and NT.

I don’t see why we can’t say that Jesus felt both anger towards the corrupt leadership of Israel that was bringing this catastrophe on the city and intense sorrow over the suffering that it would cause. I think you’d probably find the same ambivalence in the prophets, expressing both the wrath and compassion of God.

Hagner says with respect to Matthew 22:7:

These details, on the one hand, seem rather far-fetched for the story of the parable itself and, on the other hand, correspond remarkably to the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 so that it is easy (though hardly necessary) to see a reference to that event here. However that may be, it is virtually impossible for post-70 readers of the Gospel not to see the destruction of Jerusalem alluded to in these words. (Matthew 14–28, 630)

I’m aware of Boyd’s revisionism. I think his method is flawed and in effect a whitewash of the historical narrative.

I think there was a mixture of emotion as you say, and that we do see such a mixture in the prophets. However, the focus of anger and sorrow was different. Anger was directed towards the Pharisees and sorrow towards Jerusalem. The “wrath of God” is a stock phrase which becomes far more complex when you look carefully at how it is expressed, in both OT and NT.

The parable of the wedding feast has obvious resonances with AD 70, but has dissonances as well. Jesus was used to handling parables in ways which both reflected and contrasted with YHWH’s character. That’s why parables cannot be treated as simple allegories. The simplified reactions of a character in a parable cannot be transferred without qualification to reactions ascribed to YHWH.

Being aware of Boyd’s “revisionism” is different from having studied it. But then his ‘Warrior God’ is over 1000 pages, and I’ve only read the shorter version. I’m not convinced, but Boyd is only one of a number of critics reconsidering “the wrath of God”, and it needs to be reconsidered. There has been a conspiracy of silence (or salacious approval) on the subject since the church fathers, who did think it was problematic, along with the violence it entailed. A reconsideration is long overdue.

The “wrath of God” is a stock phrase which becomes far more complex when you look carefully at how it is expressed, in both OT and NT.

How do you mean?

That’s why parables cannot be treated as simple allegories.

Scholarship has shifted on that point. Interpreters are now much more comfortable with the idea that the parables, at least in part, required an allegorical interpretation.

The simplified reactions of a character in a parable cannot be transferred without qualification to reactions ascribed to YHWH.

Why not? What’s your reason for saying that—other than the fact that you would like to avoid some of the less relevant or less “enlightened” aspects of Jesus’ teaching.

Responding to your points:
1. Take a look at my comment on your latest post
2. “In part” is a very big qualification
3. The parables of the unjust judge and the wicked steward illustrate my observation. YHWH does not react like his equivalents in the parables.

I’m finding some of your offhand comments, like the final sentence, rather gratuitously spiteful.