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The biblical story of the kingdom of God: a thought for election day

Samuel had judged Israel all the days of his life, doing the circuit from Bethel to Gilgal to Mizpah to Ramah. In his old age he appointed his two sons as judges over Israel, but as is sometimes the case with public officials, they turned out to be corrupt: “They took bribes and perverted justice” (1 Sam. 7:15-8:3). So the elders of Israel came to Samuel and demanded that he appoint a king in place of his worthless sons. Samuel was reluctant to do so, but God made it very clear that he was to give them what they wanted.

This is the point at which the story about the kingdom of God begins in scripture. The episode gives us two of the three main components of the concept. It also teaches us that the kingdom of God is not a spiritual or theological or, for that matter, cosmic abstraction—it belongs to the narrated historical experience of the biblical community.

The popular demand for a new system of government was very much a case of “be careful what you wish for!” Because Israel had rejected God as their king, he would give them over to a human king who would oppress and exploit the people for his own ends. Their sons would serve in his armies, plough his ground, reap his harvests, manufacture his weapons. Their daughters would work in his palaces. He would expropriate the best of their fields and vineyards, he would impose taxes, he would take their servants and livestock. They would live to regret their decision: “in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves, but the LORD will not answer you in that day” (1 Sam. 8:18).

Undeterred by this gloomy socio-political prognosis, the people nevertheless insisted on having a king, so that they might be like all the other nations. Here we get to the point of the story. They expected their king to do two things: he would judge Israel and he would go out before the people and fight their battles (1 Sam. 8:19-20).

This gives us, I think, a simple but precise paradigm for understanding the kingdom of God. The task of the king was to safeguard both the internal integrity of the people (by judging them) and the external security of the people (by defending them against their enemies). Since much is made of the fact that in pursuing this political innovation the people had rejected God as king over them, it’s clear that the kingship of God with respect to Israel consisted, in the first place, in the same two basic functions.

At a later stage a third element was added to the paradigm. Out of the experience of domination by foreign powers there emerged the conviction that God would not merely defeat Israel’s enemies in order to preserve his people; at some point he would establish his own rule over the nations, either through Israel’s king (e.g., Ps. 2; 110) or through a faithful, persecuted minority (Dan. 7:13-27).

It seems to me that this simple narrative paradigm makes excellent sense of the New Testament data. The “kingdom of God” in the New Testament is what happens when, at a moment of great crisis, the God of Israel acts to do what a king must do: he judges his people, he defeats their enemies, and he establishes his own rule over the nations.

He scatters the proud, he brings down the mighty from their thrones, he exalts those of humble estate, he fills the hungry with good things, he sends the rich away empty (Lk. 1:51-53). He saves his people from their enemies, “from the hand of all who hate us” (Lk. 2:7). In Paul this becomes wrath against the Jew followed by wrath against the Greek (Rom. 2:8-9). The man of lawless, who proclaims himself to be a god, will be brought to nothing at the appearance of Jesus’ parousia (2 Thess. 2:3-8). In Revelation—so I argue in The Coming of the Son of Man—judgment against Israel is followed by judgment against Rome: “he has judged the great prostitute who corrupted the earth with her immorality, and has avenged on her the blood of his servants” (Rev. 19:2).

The New Testament does not offer us a vision of kingdom disengaged from the Old Testament narrative. Rather it tells us how that narrative is fulfilled: in the first place, through the faithful suffering and death of the one who is then put in a position—at the right hand of God—to rule as Israel’s king throughout the coming ages; but also through the suffering of the churches that would faithfully bear witness to his name until the tipping point was reached, when the nations rejected their idols and publicly confessed Jesus as Lord, to the glory of Israel’s God.

In John’s fiercely apocalyptic vision, following the overthrow of pagan Rome, Jesus is seen on a white horse. His robe is “dipped in blood” to signify that he has attained his authority through suffering. From his mouth issues a sharp sword—presumably the Word of God—with which he will strike down the nations and rule them with a rod of iron (cf. Ps. 2:9; Is. 11:4). On his robe and on his thigh is written the name “King of kings and Lord of lords” (Rev. 19:11-16).

This is a vision of political-religious conquest—a quite extraordinary vision given not only John’s personal circumstances but also the spiritual condition of the churches to which he wrote. Against the dull soundtrack of modern secular political discourse (that reminds me, I still have to go out and vote) the apocalyptic dénouement may sound outlandish, outmoded, intolerant and imperialistic. But it is fully in keeping with a coherent and core biblical narrative that goes all the way back to Israel’s demand for a king, and if we claim to be a kingdom people, then we have to accept it as part of our story. The kingdom of God is not just how things are. It is how things have become what they are, which is unavoidably a story about ancient Israel and the nations.

Image of The Coming of the Son of Man: New Testament Eschatology for an Emerging Church

On Amazon (US):

Andrew Perriman
Wipf & Stock Pub (2012), Paperback, 282 pages, $31.00

Comments

You always make me think, Andrew. You’ve been a big help to me, especially in recent weeks.

Thanks, John. Nice to know you’re still around.

Hi Andrew.

It also teaches us that the kingdom of God is not a spiritual or theological or, for that matter, cosmic abstraction—it belongs to the narrated historical experience of the biblical community.

You probably already know from my conversation with Phil Ledgerwood that I don’t agree with this statement (which btw Phil I haven’t replied to your last comments to me so consider this as an attempt to answer part of it, and if you have more questions we can continue it over there on that thread). To say the kingdom belongs to the narrated historical experience of the biblical community is one thing (which I wholeheartedly agree with, but would track differently than you on the timing of it), but to say it is not spiritual or theological is quite another, and one which I believe is contrary to the narrative told.

I see the kingdom of God as all three - historical, spiritual, and theological. Jesus depicted his kingdom (the one he rules, from the right hand of God in heaven), as being “not of this world.” The bit about Solomon and the kingdom of Israel is interesting, but I think it proves the point that the kingdom of Christ is NOT like that kingdom. The prophecies of Isaiah for example, where the wolf dwells with the lamb, is already fulfilled in the Messiah’s kingdom we now live in, and is descriptive of the nature of that kingdom. That is both spiritually and theologically descerned.

I can appreciate the desire to make the historical a priori due to the horrible confusion of reformed theology over the years (e.g., justification, personal salvation, heaven/hell, etc), but that certainly doesn’t mean there isn’t an equally important spiritual and theological component to the kingdom (and maybe you agree with that and I’ve misunderstood you). I think Hebrews 12:18-29 is a critical text here, and interestingly one which is framed with the destruction of Jerusalem as the historical event in which this kingdom is received (cf. Luke 21:31).

The other quibble I have with this post is how you have John’s vision being about the overthrow of pagan Rome. That has been a popular view in history no doubt, but I find it contradictory with several critical details in the text. First, it is confusing to have the harlot (Babylon) who is riding the sea beast (Rome) as actually Rome itself. Second, it makes better sense of the text to see the harlot as Jerusalem, primarily because Babylon was found with the blood of the prophets and saints of all who had been slain on the earth, which is a verbatim hyperlink back to Jesus’ own words in Matt. 23:35 where he said that Jerusalem was guilty of all the blood of the prophets on the earth since Abel. It doesn’t make sense to have two cities both drunk on all the blood shed on earth (how can that even be?). Third, the only city ever to be called a harlot in the OT narrative is Jerusalem (e.g. Ezekiel 16). This is connected with her covenant identity in marriage with God, for someone who isn’t married in covenant with him cannot become a harlot towards him. Fourth, to call Jerusalem “Babylon” is actually keeping with the use of role reversal so common in the prophetic narrative. Whenever Jerusalem screwed up in the OT, she was likened to Sodom, or Egypt, or as the Philistines or Assyria for example (e.g. Isa. 1:9,21; Jer. 23:14; Ezek. 16:22ff). This is exactly what Rev. 11 does by calling “the city where our Lord was slain” as “spiritually, Sodom and Egypt” (notice the word “spiritually”). Fourth, the fall of this very city in Rev. 11 is the time of the arrival of the kingdom of God, vs. 15, which is also a hyperlink back to Dan. 2:44 and 7:14, 27 and as I showed above is connected elsewhere with the siege on Jerusalem. Fifth, one would be very hard pressed to find any of the city-siege details in Revelation as descriptive of the historical events of the so-called “fall” of Rome and ascendency of Constantine. To make them such would be to engage in the very “theological” interpretation you decried, as some of the contemporaries of Augustine and such did.

I don’t know if you’ve ever checked it out, but Don Preston’s book “Who is This Babylon” is a very tightly argued book for the identity of Babylon as Jerusalem. I recommend checking it out if you haven’t already.

…but that certainly doesn’t mean there isn’t an equally important spiritual and theological component to the kingdom (and maybe you agree with that and I’ve misunderstood you).

Yes, I think you may have misunderstood me, at least in this respect. What I said was that the kingdom of God is not a spiritual or theological abstraction. My argument is that the spiritual, theological and cosmological dimensions to the kingdom belong to the historical narrative, they interpret the historical narrative, they are informed by the historical narrative.

As for the identification of “Babylon” with Rome, I simply don’t understand why Preterists have a problem with it. I’m not going to get into a discussion of the details here—perhaps another time—but Revelation 17-18 describes a thoroughly pagan city, comparable to the fourth beast of Daniel 7, constructed not on one mountain but on seven mountains, which rules over the kings of the earth, has corrupted the nations with its sexual immorality (a standard Jewish critique of Greek-Roman mores), has extensive commercial influence as a maritime power, will suffer the plagues of Egypt, and a whole lot more.

What is the problem with supposing that John intended also to bring an arch pagan opponent of YHWH into the picture in typical Old Testament fashion?

Hi Andrew, just an observation as I understand it… it makes every sense to view “the Woman” of Rev 17-18 as OC apostate Israel – Paul’s Hagar (Gal 4:21-31). She was the one who “drunk with the blood of the saints and with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus” 17:6; pretty standard fare with regards to those who led Israel (Mt 23:29-38; 10:23; Acts 8:1; 9:1-2, 14; 22:3-5; 26:10-11; Gal 1:13, 23).

Thus the “scarlet beast” (17:3 Rome) upon which “the woman” aka “the great harlot” (17:1 apostate Israel) sits (17:9 seven mountains = Rome) is indicative of the fact that those of Israel sitting in power did so only at the imprimatur of Rome. The OT prophets are replete with maledictions against the wanton harlotries of faithless Israel.

Rev 17:16 then shows the beast (Rome) turning on the woman (apostate Israel) i.e., the chickens were coming home to roost, as per Jesus’ prophetic words…

O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing! See! Your house is left to you desolate.

Mt 23:37-38

I simply don’t understand why Preterists have a problem with it.

Andrew, you make it sound like we have some person grudge against the position. Not so. We (I, anyway) don’t accept if because it doesn’t fit the Biblical narrative nor any of the text. Personally I can’t for the life of me figure out how you do accept such a position, but just never said anything nor challenged you. Perhaps you could write a small article on the subject to provide an on-topic form to discuss it.

Maybe if you were to read Don Preston’s book “Who is this Babylon” you wouldn’t hold such a position. While there are many books that demonstrate the correct picture and position, I’ve found, like Jerel, that Don’s book is probably the best. Heck, I’d even send you a free copy if you’d read it. :)

-Rich

Hey Jerel,

No worries. Online communication is subject to coming and going. I don’t assume long periods of silence mean anger or “defeat” or whatever. I assume it means you have other things going on, probably involving crops and poultry and things that require a bit more time and attention.

When Jesus says in John that his kingdom is not “of the world” (ek tou kosmou), one way to understand that I suppose would be that Jesus’ kingdom was spiritual and not earthly. However, you know better than most that kosmos, especially in John, generally refers to the present evil age Jesus labored under and everything that went along with that system. I think, given the rest of the verse, that Jesus isn’t saying his kingdom is transpolitical - I think he’s saying that his kingdom doesn’t come from the source as other kingdoms. It doesn’t come from him raising an army and overthrowing other kingdoms. Rather, he is delivered up to unfaithful Israel and Rome so that he might be given the kingdom from the Father. Note how, in that passage, Jesus says that if his kingdom were from the world, his disciples would fight to prevent him being delivered to the Jews.

Are their spiritual and theological implications here? Absolutely. It isn’t just that Kingdom 5 replaces Kingdom 4, but life pretty much goes on as intended. Jesus overthrowing Rome in the specific manner that he does (faithful martyrdom on behalf of the nation, resurrection by God and bestowal of the kingship, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, and the growth of the church) vindicates both the faithful and God, forgives sins, unites the elect, overthrows Satan, and swallows up death. But as Andrew pointed out, these are not transhistorical phenomena as if they occur at some abstract, transcendent, spiritual level with no earthly grounding (pun intended).

I admit the language of Hebrews is very heavy on the spiritual dimension and can give the impression that the earthly events are basically tangential to “spiritual realities,” but taken as a whole, it appears to me the author is trying to establish the superiority and finality of what Jesus has done over and against the old covenant economy, not to establish one as earthly and the other as spiritual. One thing the author makes clear, for example, is that Jesus’ high priestly service in the heavenly temple was effected by his physical death. But I admit the emphasis in that particular epistle is pretty otherworldly.