I had set out to respond rather briefly to some remarks made by paulf in a comment on my “The kingdom of God: not ‘now and not yet’” post, but in the excitement that response has swollen to the proportions of a whole new post. Paulf stated:
The imminent kindgom of God, which was a new world order ruled by Israel through YHWH, is a simple concept that would have been a staple of Jewish thought in the time of Jesus. It was promised in the Hebrew Bible and was what Jews would have hoped for, whether they believed in an afterlife or not. It was the key to the message of both Jesus and Paul.
But, he argues, ‘it never happened, which was a big problem’. Jesus said that people standing with him would see the kingdom come; and Paul advised against marriage because the world was ‘on the verge of being transformed by this new kingdom’. So either they were wrong or this coming ‘kingdom’ has to be treated as a metaphor for something else, something essentially spiritual and invisible in nature. That seems to me a too restrictive dichotomy. I think we can take seriously the public, political form of the ‘kingdom of God’ as it is described in the New Testament without dismissing the clear sense of urgency that is widely attached to it. In other words, both Paul and Jesus spoke of imminent and foreseeable events and were right to do so.
The Jewish expectation was, as paulf rightly says, roughly that the pagan empires of Greece and Rome would be overturned by YHWH and a ‘new world order’ (the phrase has unfortunate modern overtones) would be established in which the people of YHWH would no longer be marginal and oppressed by the pagan régime but would ‘reign’ under the righteous kingship of the Messiah. I would argue that this is exactly what happened when the empire was converted in the fourth century to Christianity – as Wikipedia puts it:
Theodosius promoted Nicene Trinitarianism within Christianity and Christianity within the Empire. On 27 February 380, he declared “Catholic Christianity” the only legitimate imperial religion, ending state support for the traditional Roman religion.
In the process, of course, the traditional Jewish expectation has been transformed in certain crucial respects. First, the Messiah overcame his enemies not through violence but by means of a faithful obedience that leads to death. Secondly, the ecumenical (that is, the oikoumenē-wide or empire-wide) extension of the reign of YHWH entails the incorporation of Gentiles into the family of Abraham’s descendants, so that it becomes a genuinely ecumenical rather than nationalist community. Thirdly, this renewed transnational community becomes the vehicle of eschatological transition by willingly participating in the story of Jesus’ death, resurrection and vindication. The God of Israel will be justified before the nations through the Christ-like faithfulness of the churches that believe that the one true God, the maker of heaven and earth, who called a people for himself in Abraham, has raised Jesus from the dead and given him the name which is above every name.1
If we are willing to treat the language of biblical prophecy realistically rather than idealistically, as referring, albeit in hyperbolic terms, to events that had an immense bearing on the experience and fate of the people of God, then it seems to me entirely appropriate to think that the New Testament hope in the coming ‘kingdom of God’ was fulfilled in the recognition by the emperor that Jesus is Lord. There is no justification for spiritualizing this process of political-religious transformation. It is a simple fact of history that with the elevation of Christianity to the status of imperial religion the God of the small cantankerous nation of Israel came to be confessed as the God of the whole Greek-Roman world in place of the many gods (and man-gods) of classical paganism.
Whether Jesus himself looked this far ahead is unclear. From his perspective, given his intense preoccupation with the fate of Israel, the horizon of his future was dominated by the foreseen destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. As I pointed out in the post on the ‘now and not yet’ of the kingdom of God, when he says to his disciples that ‘there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God after it has come with power’ (Mk. 9:1; cf. Lk. 9:26), he has in view prophetically the powerful vindication of his teaching that the events of AD 70 would constitute. The disciples were to understand the predicted national catastrophe as a sign that God was intervening sovereignly, as king, to judge his people, on the one hand, and to inaugurate a new age, on the other. So I think Jesus was not at all mistaken when he said that some of his disciples would be alive to see the kingdom of God come in power.
As the community of his followers spread out into the empire to make these facts known to the nations, a further ‘eschatological’ horizon appeared. When Paul says on the Areopagus that the true God, YHWH, is no longer willing to overlook the ‘ignorance’ of the pagan world, and that he has ‘fixed a day on which he will judge the oikoumenē in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed’ (Acts 17:30-31), he has in mind, I would argue, a day of ‘wrath’ or of judgment when concretely and historically the old pagan system will be overturned and Jesus instated as Lord. This conviction is implicit in passages such as Romans 1:4 which presuppose the Old Testament idea of the victory of Israel’s king over the nations; it is entailed in the widely used Son of Man narrative; and it surfaces vividly in apocalyptic texts such as 2 Thessalonians 2:5-10; 2:1-12, and in passages in Revelation which associate the fall of the oppressive city of Babylon (that is, Rome) with the climactic fulfilment of the kingdom of God (Rev. 11:15; 12:10-12; 19:6; 20:4-6).
This victory did not happen in the life-time of the first disciples, and it is not as sharply depicted as the fall of Jerusalem; but it seems to me, nevertheless, that the New Testament is pervaded with the conviction that the resurrection of Jesus has immense consequences not merely for the salvation of individuals but for the historical transformation of the standing of the descendants of righteous Abraham in the ancient world. The early churches had to endure sporadic but on occasions horrific persecutions for three centuries, which is basically what Paul had in mind when he warned of the ‘distress’ that would accompany the passing away of the ‘present form of this world’ (1 Cor. 7:26-31). But they had the assurance, warranted by the resurrection of Jesus and the gift of the Spirit, that through their suffering they would eventually overcome the oppressor and would be brought (symbolically) on the clouds of heaven with Jesus, the pioneer and completer of their faithfulness, before the throne of God to be vindicated, to receive the kingdom that had been promised to them.
I don’t think that as a matter of biblical interpretation this is affected by the fact that we now look back on 1700 years of Western imperial Christendom with some misgivings. Just like first century Israel, the church shares in the ingrained sinfulness of all humanity. We are no better than everyone else. All that sets us apart both from Israel and from common humanity is that we always have access to the grace of God, to the Spirit of God – and it is on that basis alone that we may aim to fulfil our vocation to be God’s just new creation in the midst of the peoples and cultures of the world.
- 1. For more on this argument see my The Future of the People of God: Reading Romans Before and After Western Christendom.