I suggested in a recent post that the biblical “kingdom” paradigm was put in place when the people of Israel asked Samuel to appoint a king because they needed someone 1) to judge them and 2) to lead them out against their enemies (1 Sam. 8:20). Theologically, therefore, “kingdom” is YHWH dealing with 1) the internal integrity and 2) the external security of his people throughout history, both in the Old Testament and in the New Testament.
This claim has been questioned on the grounds that the incident constituted, in fact, the repudiation of God as king: “they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them” (1 Sam. 8:7). The Old Testament paradigm was a mistake from the start, so we cannot think of kingdom in the New Testament as a continuation of kingdom in the Old Testament. In his comment Peter argues that Jesus introduced something completely new. “The one was a kingdom of empire and violence, the other of servanthood and love.”
Don’t mess with history
Before we get on to discussing kingdom, I will make a general point about method. Historical study gives us a historical Jesus who is the solution to a first-century Jewish problem. There are elements in the story, and later New Testament perspectives on it, that are quite congenial to the modern religious outlook—for example, the emphasis on “servanthood and love”.
But we cannot—or at least, should not—unbolt or prise off the shiny bits that catch our eye and leave the rest of the antiquated first-century contraption to rust and become overgrown. We shouldn’t build a theology around pilfered souvenirs of a classic historical moment.
The phrase “kingdom of God” gets us to the heart of the historical problem, but it has to be understood in historical terms. I am not saying that there is no place for the miraculous or the resurrection or the direct engagement of God in the events—it remains an extraordinary and exceptional period in the story of the people of God.
But I think we are getting to the point where the only Jesus who will stand the test of time is the Jesus who believed that he was somehow bringing Jewish political expectations to a climax—not an “end’, but a decisive transformation and transition. The “evangelical” church, therefore—by which I mean the church that wants to take the Jesus of New Testament testimony seriously—needs to learn how to own and work with the story of the Jewish political Jesus.
So the kingdom of God…
My general view is that the New Testament and Jesus in particular are much closer in thought, outlook and intention to the Old Testament and the circumstances of Second Temple Judaism than our modern theologies recognise. We can make too much of the uniqueness of Jesus. We are dealing with one more or less coherent, but always ancient, story running from Babel, through the clash with Babylon, to the fall of Babylon the great, which is pagan Rome. He is an intrinsic part of that story.
Israel became a kingdom like the surrounding nations (1 Sam. 8:5) in rejection of YHWH as king over them. So before Saul became king, Israel had been a kingdom unlike the surrounding nations, acknowledging only YHWH as king over them (theoretically), who judged them and fought their battles (1 Sam. 8:20).
By and large, Israel’s human kings failed to rule well, and the nation suffered violence from God, in the form of warfare and exile, as a consequence. But having taken this disastrous path, they came to believe that an ideal human king would eventually be given to them, from the line of the one half decent king David (cf. Mic. 5:2), whose reign would not be brought to an end by foreign invasion, whose kingdom would have no end, and who ultimately would rule over the nations. There is no attempt to revert to the pre-kingdom situation; the prophets do not recommend reinstating the judges.
“Kingdom”, therefore, was the active governance of God’s people in history, leading eventually to a dramatic geopolitical reversal: the hostile, unjust, idolatrous empires would be overthrown, and the rule of YHWH over the nations in their place would be established. Psalm 82 encapsulates the hope perfectly: the gods of the nations have proved incompetent so they will die like men, and YHWH will judge the earth and inherit the nations.
This narrative, I think, is fully presupposed in the New Testament. The only question is how the geopolitical end would be achieved. Many Jews imagined that armed conflict might, with the aid of YHWH, lead to the overthrow of Rome and the establishment of Jerusalem as the glorious new capital of the empire, more or less according to Old Testament prophetic accounts of the restoration of Zion. There was indeed a violent revolt against Rome, inspired by prophecy and apocalyptic visions, but it ended in catastrophe.
Jesus, however, had proposed an alternative, dangerous path to the fulfilment of Jewish kingdom expectations. Drawing on a strand of tradition that reached back through the persecution of the righteous sons of God in the Wisdom literature, through the stories of the Maccabean martyrs and Daniel’s vision of the vindication of one like a son of man, to the suffering of the “servant” of God during the exile, he predicted that the Jewish Council would “see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power” (Mk. 14:62).
The central message of the New Testament, therefore, is that Jesus was raised from the dead and installed as Israel’s king not in Jerusalem but in heaven, and—this easily gets overlooked—that this would have enormous geopolitical consequences.
On the one hand, it confirmed in the minds of his early followers Jesus’ prediction that there would soon no longer be a Jerusalem on earth from which YHWH’s king might rule over Israel and the nations, there would no longer be a house of prayer where the Gentiles might learn the ways of Israel’s God.
On the other, it gave rise to the expectation that sooner or later the exalted Lord would be confessed by the nations of the pagan empire as Lord, to the glory of Israel’s God (cf. Phil. 2:9-11). Believers looked neither to Jerusalem nor to Rome for their citizenship, but to heaven, and were confident that their Lord and master, their king, would come to bring their present sufferings to an end and vindicate them in the eyes of the nations (cf. Phil. 3:20-21).
The means and the end
In the period leading up to the conversion of the nations and the parousia the church was bound to bear witness in the same way that Jesus had born witness—through patient, steadfast suffering, with love for enemies, leaving vengeance to the wrath of God (cf. Rom. 12:19), etc. New Testament ecclesiology and parenesis (spiritual and ethical instruction) are aimed at the formation of communities that would be strong enough and faithful enough to overcome persecution and bear witness through to the revelation of Christ to the nations. They embodied not so much the present reality but the future coming of the reign of God over the nations.
Modern theologies, however, tend to confuse the means with the end.
The means by which the kingdom of God would be brought about would be suffering and sacrificial love, pioneered by Jesus. That had some precedent in Judaism, but no one was seriously expecting a disgraced and crucified apocalyptic prophet to inherit the kingdom of David.
But in broad terms there was nothing novel about the end: YHWH would establish his king, defeat his enemies, judge and restore his people, judge the nations, and rule in the place of the old pagan gods through the Son who had been instructed to sit at his right hand.
In sum, there is a redefinition of the means by which kingdom would be achieved in the New Testament but not of the end itself.
Kingdom and beyond
How the rule of Christ was supposed to look in the more complex circumstances that arose following the conversion of the nations of the Greek-Roman world is harder to say. This appears to have been beyond the prophetic horizon of the early church.
My assumption is that the church as a priestly people of YHWH was meant to replace the old pagan priesthoods. The nations now confessed that Jesus was Lord, in the place of Zeus or Jupiter or Caesar, to the glory of Israel’s God, and they needed a new, properly qualified priesthood to facilitate the new political-religious arrangement. The task of the church was to hold the diverse societies that made up Christendom accountable to the “Trinitarian” confession that they had devised for themselves as the apocalyptic vision faded.
But this was history-as-normal, which meant that wickedness and war persisted. The security of the church was not so easily dissociated from the security of nations, and some manner of compromise—and some degree of failure—with respect to violence was inevitable. Even today, I imagine that most churches in the post-Christian West would think themselves entitled to forceful—to the point of lethal—protection under the law if the need arose.
Anyway, I argue that Western Christendom is best understood as the concrete historical fulfilment of the New Testament conviction that the God of Israel, who had raised his Son from the dead and had given him all authority and power, would sooner or later rule over the nations. That’s how we do justice to the historical Jesus.
The old political-religious arrangement no longer holds, but the original paradigm remains intact: Jesus is the Son of David who received an everlasting rule over his people, who 1) maintains their internal integrity and 2) safeguards their existence in a hostile world. We are not accustomed to thinking about “kingdom” in such terms, but given the way things are going, we might want to have a rethink.