I suppose that one of the main oddities of my thorough-going narrative-historical reading of the New Testament, at least from a more or less orthodox evangelical perspective, is my contention that a significant part of its “eschatological” vision has in view the conversion of the nations of the Greek-Roman world as a matter of historical fact. I think, basically, that this is where the whole “kingdom of God” argument in scripture finally lands.
It’s not a retrospective argument. I’m not saying that the New Testament predicts Constantine or Christendom as we know them. But I do think that the early Christians held firmly to the conviction that at some point in a realistic future God would judge the pagan world, that their sufferings would be brought to an end, that they would be publicly vindicated for their faith in the Son of God, that Jesus would be confessed as Lord, in the place of Caesar, and that the nations of the empire as nations would learn the ways of Israel’s God. What happened next was out of sight—until we get to a final judgment and new creation. Here is a quick summary of my reasons for holding this view.
1. There is the general point to make that Jesus and the apostles had their own limited historical horizons. Our post-Christendom, post-enlightenment, post-colonial, globalising view of the world is very different. The historical horizon of the early church in the pagan world would have to be determined in some way by beliefs about Rome. That, I suppose, is simply a hermeneutical choice that I have made, but I think it is a sound one, borne out by the sense it makes of the biblical texts and by the realism that it brings to the self-understanding of the church.
2. If it may be argued that the prospect of a destructive war against Rome constituted a significant part of Jesus’ vision of Israel’s future (eg. Lk. 21:20), then it’s not unthinkable that the apostles envisaged a no less political outcome to their endeavours in the wider Greek-Roman world.
3. The expectation is widely expressed in the Old Testament that eventually YHWH would judge and rule over the nations. “Arise, O God,” the Psalmist says, “judge the earth; for you shall inherit all the nations!” (Ps. 82:8). The theology is straightforward: if YHWH really is who he claims to be, the God of the whole earth, then sooner or later he should rule over the nations in the same way that he has ruled over Israel.
4. The Old Testament passages most commonly used in the New Testament to explain the significance of Jesus’ resurrection and exaltation are ones which speak of rule over the nations. He is the Son who has been given the nations as his heritage; he will rule them with a rod of iron (Ps. 2:7-9; cf. Acts 13:33; Heb. 1:5; 5:5; Rev. 2:27; 12:5; 19:15). He has been seated at the right hand of God to rule over his enemies and “execute judgement among the nations” (Ps. 110; cf. Matt. 22:44; 26:64; Mark 12:36; Luke 20:42, 43; Acts 2:34, 35; 1 Cor. 15:25; Eph. 1:20-22; Col. 3:1; Heb. 1:3; 1:13; 2:8; 8:1; 10:12-13; 12:2; 1 Pet. 3:22). He is the Son of Man who, as the embodiment of the persecuted churches, will have dominion over the nations and peoples of the former beast-like Roman empire (Dan. 7:13-27; cf. Matt. 26:64; Mark 14:62; Rev. 1:7; 14:14).
5. Jewish apocalyptic writings of the period make a distinction between a penultimate judgment against the pagan nations, followed by a rule of the Hebrews, and some manner of final judgment of humanity and renewal of all things. For example, in the Apocalypse of Weeks righteous Jews overthrow both apostate Jews and the foreign invader, a new house is built for the “Great King in glory”, and the nations abandon their idols and learn Torah; then after a period of time there will be an “eternal judgment” and the final eradication of sin (1 En. 91:12-17; 93:3-10). I think that the New Testament follows the outline of this narrative but proposes a radically different agency.
6. Jesus imagines a judgment when the nations will be rewarded or punished, included in the coming reign of God or excluded from it, according to how people responded to the suffering of his disciples in the intervening period.
7. Paul tells the “men of Athens” that the God of Israel, who is the one true living creator God, has “fixed a day on which he will judge the oikoumenē in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:31). In Luke in particular the oikoumenē is the empire (cf. Lk. 2:1; Acts 11:28).
8. Not long before the episode on the Areopagus the Jews in Thessalonica had complained that the apostles had turned the oikoumenē upside down, “all acting against the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus” (Acts 17:7). It is Caesar’s world that is contested. Paul is not proclaiming a final judgment of the whole world at the end of history. He is prophesying judgment on—the end of—the whole idolatrous pagan system of the Greek-Roman world.
9. Paul speaks in Romans of wrath against the Jew first, then wrath against the Greek—not against the rest of humankind (Rom. 2:5, 9). It is God’s wrath against the idolatrous Greek-Roman world that is “revealed” in the narrative of Romans 1:18-32, whatever implications the account may have had for over-confident Jews. In Romans 1:17 Paul makes reference to Habakkuk’s prophesy of judgment on unrighteous Israel by means of the violent Chaldeans, followed by judgment on the Chaldeans, who were even worse than Israel (cf. Hab. 2:4). Romans, as I argue in The Future of the People of God: Reading Romans Before and After Western Christendom is not general theology. It is historical theology.
10. Paul explains his mission to the nations by quoting Isaiah 11:10 LXX: “The root of Jesse will come, even he who arises (anistamenos) to rule the nations” (Rom. 15:12). It seems not out of the question that Paul saw in anistamenos a verbal anticipation of Jesus’ resurrection: it was by virtue of his resurrection from the dead and his exaltation to the right hand of the Father that Jesus would come to rule the nations. The thought echoes Paul’s opening statement about Jesus, who was declared Son of God—that is, the king who would receive the nations as his heritage—“by his resurrection (anastaseōs) from the dead” (Rom. 1:4).
11. In the New Testament letters there is a consistent apocalyptic narrative about the suffering of the churches and the prospect of vindication in the foreseeable future. I think we should take the narrative-historical continuity seriously: the churches persecuted by the pagan nations and by Rome in particular would eventually see their enemies overthrown and would be vindicated. Historically speaking, it is absurd to imagine that we are still waiting for these things to transpire.
12. The end of persecution will come when the Lord Jesus destroys the man of lawlessness “who opposes and exalts himself against every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God” (2 Thess. 2:4). Interpretation of this passage is notoriously difficult, but I think we cannot avoid the conclusion that Paul had in mind a divinized pagan ruler such as Caesar.
13. The “Christ hymn” of Philippians 2:6-11 culminates in the declaration that every knee would bow at the name of Jesus and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. The passage recalls Isaiah’s vision of the nations abandoning their idols and turning to YHWH to be saved:
Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other. By myself I have sworn; from my mouth has gone out in righteousness a word that shall not return: ‘To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear allegiance.’ (Is. 45:22–23)
But this is not a universal, supra-historical proclamation. It is firmly located in the story of the conquest of Babylon by Cyrus and the liberation of the Jews from captivity. I suggest that Paul is making a similarly circumscribed affirmation in Philippians 2:9-11.
14. Jesus is the king—the Son, the firstborn, who will rule from the throne of God—to whom God has subjected the “empire” (oikoumenē) to come” (Heb. 2:5; cf. 1:5, 6, 8, 13).
15. The judgments in Revelation culminate in the fall of “Babylon the great”—that is, pagan Rome (Rev. 18). Then from the mouth of the Word of God comes a sharp sword “with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron. He will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh he has a name written, King of kings and Lord of lords” (Rev. 19:15–16). Previously Caesar was “king of kings and lord of lords”, ruling the nations of the empire with a literal sword. But his place has been usurped by Jesus, who will rule the nations with the Word of God.
16. Satan is confined to the abyss so that he can no longer “deceive the nations” as he did through the demonic power of Rome. Instead, Jesus will reign over the nations with the resurrected martyrs throughout the thousand years (Rev. 20:1-6).