Salvation By Allegiance Alone (4): the best bit so far

Read time: 6 minutes

From pre-existence and incarnation Bates works swiftly through “died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures”, “was buried”, “was raised on the third day”, and “appeared to many”, to the climax of the chapter and the best bit of the book so far: “is seated at the right hand of God as Lord, and… will come again as judge” (52, his italics).

The shape of the story supposedly reflects a reconstruction of apostolic preaching in Acts, though how he accounts for pre-existence and incarnation on that basis is not made clear. For example, Paul tells the Jews in Pisidian Antioch only that God brought to Israel from the seed of David a saviour, Jesus, whose “coming” was after the preaching-beforehand (prokēruxantos) of John the Baptist (Acts 13:23-24). The language as good as rules out any thought of pre-existence.

I would also quibble over the casual assumption that according to the Gospel story Jesus died for our sins. I agree that when Jesus says that he has come to give his life as a ransom for many, “the substitutionary idea is foregrounded” (61), but I would argue that the redemptive logic only works in the Jewish narrative.

The claim made by the Synoptic Gospels is that Jesus died for the sins of Israel, and I would go so far as to suggest that when Paul says that “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3), he is speaking as a Jew, on behalf of Israel. The apocalyptic-kingdom narrative uses a different logic to explain the significance of Jesus’ death for Gentiles.

Quibbles aside, I think that Bates then gives us a well-developed and mostly convincing exposition of the “seated at the right hand of God” theme.

This is the most important part of the story, he argues, for two reasons. First, Jesus’ reign at the right hand of God is a “nonnegotiable” part of the good news:

Jesus’s reign as Lord of heaven and earth fundamentally determines the meaning of “faith” (pistis) as “allegiance” in relation to salvation. Jesus as king is the primary object toward which our saving “faith”—that is, our saving allegiance—is directed. (67)

Secondly, this is the part of the story that directly concerns us here and now:

The church age—the age we find find ourselves in now—is defined by the Christ’s dynamic rule as he serves as king of heaven and earth at the right hand of God the Father while his enemies are being subdued. (68)

I think that the theme should be tied more closely to historical developments, but the basic point is right: the church needs to get to grips with the dynamic rule of Jesus—the king who manages and safeguards the life and witness of his people under the present historical conditions.

There is no exegetical warrant for the common trick of dissociating the revelation of the Son of Man from the preceding historical narrative in order to save dogmatic face.

Bates goes on to highlight the importance of Jesus’ self-identification as the Son of Man who would bring to “fulfillment the reign of God in the future” (69), and notes how Jesus’ confession before the Council fuses the Son of Man story with the “seated at the right hand” motif of Psalm 110:1: “you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven” (Mk. 14:62). So there is a “deep irony” in the trial scene:

For if those who are trying Jesus… find him guilty, then Jesus has insinuated that they will in fact be acting not as the Ancient of Days would desire, but rather in collusion with the fourth beast and its arrogant horn by attacking Jesus. (71)

In the final section Bates considers what it means to say that Jesus will come again as judge.

He notes, first, that when Jesus says at his trial that his accusers will see the Son of Man “coming on the clouds of heaven”, he is speaking not of a coming to earth but of a coming to the throne of the Ancient of Days in heaven.

Perhaps, but I think this is questionable, for a couple of reasons.

Since “seated at the right hand of Power” comes before “coming with the clouds of heaven”, and since Jesus has spoken of the Son of Man coming in glory to gather and vindicate his followers, etc. (Matt. 16:27; 24:30; 25:31, and parallels), it may be that this is a coming after the Son of Man has received the kingdom. What Jesus is saying to the Council is that they will “see”—not literally— the Son of Man, who has been vindicated, glorified and authorised by the Ancient of Days, “coming” to judge Israel and gather his followers.

But also the throne of God in Daniel’s vision has wheels (Dan. 7:9), like Ezekiel’s chariot, which suggests to me that the intervention of the Ancient of Days in Daniel 7—to defeat empire and vindicate the righteous saints of the Most High—happens on earth. Either the figure in human form is Israel’s angelic champion, who comes from heaven to be given sovereignty, or, more likely, he is a symbolic representation of persecuted Israel brought to God to receive judgment.

Still, Bates is candid about the fact that the “coming” of Jesus will specifically “be directed at executing judgment on his recalcitrant compatriots” (72). Jesus says that the woes of Matthew 23 will be “brought to bear on this generation, and the immediate context makes it clear that a near-range judgment is coming” (73). We are on good historical ground here.

Unfortunately, he then goes on to insist that “Jesus clearly announces that ultimately his return will have not merely a local but a universal scope” (73). This seems to me a concession to tradition, a failure of nerve. There is no exegetical warrant for the common trick of dissociating the revelation of the Son of Man from the preceding historical narrative in Jesus’ prophesies of invasion and destruction in order to save dogmatic face.

The separation of the sheep from the goats (Matt. 25:31-46) is not a universal and final judgment of humanity. It is a judgment of the nations specifically on the basis of how they have treated the messengers sent out to proclaim the coming kingdom of God.

The “elect” who are gathered “from the end of the earth to the end of heaven” (Mk. 13:26-27) are the same “elect” who must proclaim the good news that Jesus is Lord to the nations in the period leading up to the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple (Mk. 13:13, 20). The gathering happens “in those days, after that tribulation”.

So again, Bates makes an impressive case for rethinking the “gospel” as a statement about kingdom rather than about salvation. But I think that the argument becomes more persuasive—and more urgent—when the limited historical purview of the New Testament is taken into account.

Richard Worden… | Fri, 05/05/2017 - 07:00 | Permalink

Too often we tend to dichotomize issues when a both and kind of thinking might more accurately reflect the thinking of NT authors. When you say “The separation of the sheep from the goats (Matt. 25:31-46) is not a universal and final judgment of humanity” you may not be thinking as the author, but as an historical-narratival dichotomizer. While it is primarily, as you say, “a judgment of the nations specifically on the basis of how they have treated the messengers sent out to proclaim the coming kingdom of God,” that doesn’t in any way preclude the possibility that it is in Jesus’ mind also about a final judgment (When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne”). Even your interpretation usually sees the NT texts in light of 2nd Temple apocalyptic frames of understanding, so why not here?

@Richard Worden…:

A good comment, Richard. Thank you.

The question is whether Jesus thought that the Son of Man coming with all his angels to sit on his glorious throne marked the end of history.

My view is that he got the Son of Man narrative from Daniel 7 and tied it closely to the foreseen judgment against Israel that would take place within a generation. So his vision was of the vindication of the righteous at the time of God’s intervention to judge disobedient Israel and set up a new “kingdom”.

At the judgment described in Matthew 25:31-46 some righteous Gentiles, who had taken care of the needs of his messengers, would be invited to “inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (25:34).

What second temple apocalyptic literature teaches us is that the coming kingdom is not inherited at the end of history. Rather it is the historical climax to the troubled story of Israel and the nations. Inheritance of the kingdom presupposes a continuing political reality in which YHWH, through his king or through his royal people, rules over the formerly pagan nations.

I don’t see this as dichotomising the issues. I see it as correcting the perspective of the later church, which had lost sight of the Jewish-historical framework. The both/and approach serves the interests of modern interpreters, not of the New Testament authors.