The coming of a ‘new world order’: why Jesus wasn’t wrong

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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.

paulf | Tue, 07/13/2010 - 15:01 | Permalink

Andrew: Interesting post, but I think it misses the mark.

For one thing, I can't see how the overthrow of Jerusalem by the Romans could in any way be considered the coming of the kingdom as taught by Jesus. He was predicting Israel overthrowing the Romans, not the other way around. If he meant something different, he did a poor job of getting the message across.

Another thing is that I don't see any evidence that Jesus or Paul would have defined a "new age" as remotely what happened. Looking back through the lens of christianity, we claim that the destruction of the temple represented a new age (dispensation?), but Jesus and Paul were faithful Jews would have been horrified to think that the nation being routed was a good thing.

Another way of looking at it is that Jesus preached a message that taught ethics of the kingdom, best expemplified by the sermon on the mount. People were to act a certain way because that is what would be standard behavior in the coming kingdom. He didn't teach that people had to believe that he was going to die for their sins and that "works" were unimportant.

Also, I think it strange to think that the promotion of christianity as a state religion by a pagan emperor was a terrible event in the history of the religion, not a triumph or prophecy fulfilled. It ushered in awful changes in christian practice (physical violence decided who was right, explosion of relics and so on) and beliefs (trinity, etc.). You anticipate this argument, but it doesn't wash.

If people are people and never change, then there isn't much point to the kingdom. The whole point of the kingdom is that GOD IS IN CHARGE AND THE WORLD WILL BE TRANSFORMED!

Good try, though. At some point you have to come to grips with the simplest and most logical explanation. They were wrong and there is no "yeah, but....."

Paul, I understand your reservations. However:

1. The overthrow of Jerusalem is one side of the coin. It is consistent with prophetic thought to suggest that judgment is a first stage in God’s decisive intervention to demonstrate his righteousness; the second stage is to restore his people following judgment. Jesus looked to the destruction of Jerusalem as a sign both that his critique of official Judaism was correct and that he was right to propose an alternative ‘temple’, an alternative basis for being Israel, centred around himself. Both the negative and the positive aspects are important. He probably does not, however, speak directly of judgment on Rome, though it may be implicit in places.

2. Being a faithful Jew, inspired by the prophets, was entirely consistent with thinking that the ‘nation being routed’ by its enemies was the work of God, if not actually a ‘good thing’. Both Jesus and Paul clearly spoke about wrath or judgment against Israel as being a matter of historical inevitability. The question that preoccupied them was whether there was a way to survive this judgment.

3. I would argue that the ethics of the sermon on the mount (indeed the whole way of living as Israel recommended here) presuppose the coming judgment and the chaos that would accompany it (see these remarks on the beatitudes). The sermon concludes with the parable of the two builders, which I would suggest has its origins in Ezekiel 13:8-16. The Jews have built their house upon the sand, and it will be destroyed in the storm of judgment; Jesus calls people to build their house on the rock of his teaching, which will survive the coming judgment.

4. Yes, it is strange. But I disagree that the ‘promotion of christianity as a state religion by a pagan emperor’ was simply a terrible event. In the first place, we can hardly expect the ancient, persecuted church to have rejected the offer – not least because it fulfilled their expectation that YHWH would triumph over the fading gods of the empire. It’s easy for us to criticise, but we are not in their shoes. Indeed, as I think you have pointed out, there are many ways in which as moderns we misread the ancient perspective. Secondly, though this may not impress you, the church today is, whether it likes it or not, the product of 1700 years of Christendom. Thirdly, in our modern repudiation of imperialism we too readily overlook the political good of Christendom. It was not a wholly bad thing.

5. Much of this debate comes down to the decision as to whether we regard biblical language as essentially realistic or idealistic – and if realistic, what do we do with the residue of idealistic expectation? My argument is that the New Testament takes its historical setting, which includes a foreseen future, much more seriously and much more realistically than we allow. But the prophetic residue continually fuels the hope that God will in the end transform the whole of his creation.

So no, I don’t think they were wrong. Just a little misunderstood…