In Kingdom Conspiracy: Returning to the Radical Mission of the Local Church Scot McKnight takes aim at two broad misconceptions of what the kingdom of God is: the “skinny jeans” reduction of kingdom to social activism, and the more conventionally religious “pleated pants” approach, which regards the kingdom as primarily an expression of God’s redemptive presence in the world.
The church should not be doing mission on the basis of a false view of this central biblical concept. The “kingdom of God” belongs to the story of first century Israel and what it became, and McKnight argues strenuously that how we think about and do mission today must take this historical narrative into account.
The skinny jeans vs. pleated pants conceit is a little too American for my taste. but I think that the basic contention is right and highly pertinent. I tend to go for straight jeans myself, which I think is probably the best you can do hermeneutically.
The thesis , however, raises the question of the relation between Israel and the church. McKnight maintains that the church is not “Israel Replaced” but “Israel Expanded”: “The church is the kingdom called Israel now expanded to include gentile believers” (89).
He points out that in his parable of the olive tree (Rom. 11:16-24) Paul does not say that the old tree of Israel was chopped down and a completely new one planted in its place. God remains faithful to his promises. He won’t push Israel off the cliff. “The unfaithful of Israel are clipped from the same trunk called Israel, and gentile believers are grafted onto that tree trunk called Israel.”
The principle seems correct: the story of the church is an integral continuation of the story of Israel. But I would suggest that a narrative-historical reading of the parable exposes a more complicated transition.
In the Old Testament the expectation is that in the latter days some Gentiles will be included in Israel (e.g., Is. 66:21), but the nations will come as nations—not as “expanded” Israel—to a splendidly restored Jerusalem to pay homage to and learn from, etc., the God of Israel (e.g., Ps. 86:9; Is. 2:2-3; Zech. 8:22-23; 14:16-19). It is a thorough-going geopolitical vision centred on Mount Zion.
That is not what Paul sees. His argument in Romans starts from his fear that Israel—his own people—will not repent of their disobedience and confess that their God has made Jesus Lord and Christ. He is deeply troubled about the fate of “all Israel” (Rom. 9:3; 11:26).
A relatively small number of Jews remain attached to the rich root of the patriarchs—the church in Judea, the apostles, and a small number of converts from the synagogues of the diaspora. But many have been cut off—or have cut themselves off by their often violent rejection of the apostles’ message (cf. 1 Thess. 2:14-16). The video tells the basic story (it looks better on YouTube).
Paul is hopeful that the lopped Jewish branches will be grafted in again, if not before, then after judgment, which I think is the point of the quotations from Isaiah in Romans 11:26-27. But this will not happen if Israel does not repent, if the Jews “continue in their unbelief”, if they do not change their minds about Jesus.
If they are not shamed into repentance en masse by the faithfulness of the engrafted Gentiles before judgment, and if they are not persuaded after judgment by the concrete demonstration of God’s wrath towards Jerusalem, then there was nothing more that could be done. All Israel would not be saved.
This bleak outcome was not foreseen in the Old Testament. Paul is reluctant to contemplate it. But it now becomes a distinct historical (and theological) possibility that such a large number of wild Gentile branches will be added that the tree becomes a Gentile tree. The patriarchal root of the cultivated tree is still in place, but to all intents and purposes the tree ceases to be Jewish. This is a massive disruption of the biblical narrative.
Does it mean that YHWH has, in fact, not remained faithful to his promises?
No, because the promise was not to Israel, it was to the patriarchs, to Abraham. Israel had been entrusted with the promises (Rom. 9:4), but having the promises, in Paul’s view, any more than having the Law, was no guarantee of salvation. There is no automatic entitlement. “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion” (Rom. 9:15). The re-engrafting of the cut branches of Israel was always contingent upon repentance (Rom. 11:23).
If in the end the destruction of the “vessels of wrath” was unavoidable, God has nevertheless ensured that Abraham will still have a family, in the midst of the nations, to be blessed and to be a blessing: “it is not the children of the flesh who are children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring” (Rom. 9:8).
So the church, as it turned out—it might have been very different—is not quite “Israel Replaced” but it is not “Israel Expanded” either. The Israelite identity of the people of God was finally lost when the Jews did not repent after the punishing events of AD 70 and confess that YHWH had made his Son Lord and Christ—though Paul did not live to see the outcome.
It is the rich root of the patriarchs that ensured continuity in Paul’s argument, not Israel as a nation. The church has been “the family of Abraham reimagined” as a Gentile community. That is a matter of historical fact. It is not a development that the Old Testament predicted or that Paul embraced, but it can be grafted quite easily on to the parable.
We then might wonder what has happened to the tree in the modern era.