Scot McKnight and Jesus’ ethic of the kingdom

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I really like Scot McKnight’s book A New Vision for Israel. There are a couple of areas of “structural” disagreement, if you like. I touched on the question of the finality of Jesus’ understanding of the coming kingdom of God in a previous post, to which Scot helpfully responded.

I also have reservations about the rather sharp, though admittedly qualified, distinction between Jesus and Paul that surfaces in a couple of places. For example, Scot maintains that in the Gospels ‘ “faith” primarily means trust in Jesus to perform physical healing or deliverance”, which “clearly differs from Paul’s teaching on justification by faith—at least in emphasis” (168). I find this an unhelpful distinction. Whatever the exact use of the pistis word-group in the Gospels, Jesus called his followers to a lifestyle of radical faithfulness in light of the coming judgment and vindication. Paul’s language of justification by faith is a little different, his perspective has shifted, but he still has in view, I think, a concrete moment of vindication at the end of a long and painful journey of Christlike faithfulness.

In fact, it is the consistency with which Scot describes the radical lifestyle of faithfulness elicited by Jesus’ proclamation of the coming kingdom that, to my mind, makes this such a compelling account of Jesus as an eschatological figure. The last two chapters of the book look at the ethic of Jesus—first, as a matter of conversion to costly service as a consequence of his “call that Israel repent in order to avoid the coming disaster” (172); secondly, as a matter of eschatologically determined lifestyle. This is how Scot introduces the argument:

What Jesus said about ethics, about how people are to live before God and with others, remains the most misunderstood dimension of his teachings. The fundamental problem is that the ethic of Jesus has been ripped away from its moorings in what he affirmed about God and the kingdom. Reversing this process becomes all the more important: until God and kingdom are understood, there is no place for the ethic of Jesus. What Jesus said about ethics constitutes a particular application of his understanding of God and kingdom. There is no room here for pious sentimentalities. (156-157)

He gives the example of Jesus’ instruction to turn the other cheek, which is neither an exhortation to political passivism nor a “bland prescription for ethical conduct”, but a “pronouncement about how Israel is to interact with Rome in the light of Israel’s current political trouble and in light of Jesus’ call for the nation to repent in view of the coming judgment”.

I think Scot is right here, but if “Jesus’ teaching centred on the nation of Israel”, if he saw himself as the “last of God’s messengers to the nation, a charismatically endowed prophet who knew that Israel was facing its last opportunity to be reconciled to her Creator God” (237), does he have anything to say to us today? Scot doesn’t attempt to answer that question. Judgment came on Israel essentially in the manner which Jesus predicted (see Josephus), but hope “took on a life of its own”, overrunning the historical boundaries of Jesus’ vision. Scot concludes: ‘it is that very hope that sustains the vision of countless Christians who live under Jesus’ lordship in the prayer, “My your Kingdom come!”’

But that poses a fascinating hermeneutical puzzle. What does it mean now—does it even make sense now?—to pray Jesus’ prayer that the judgment and restoration of national Israel will come?