The biblical story, part two

Read time: 11 minutes

The Old Testament story left us with a two-part eschatological expectation. During a period of great historical crisis the God of Abraham would demonstrate his righteousness or rightness, first, by saving and restoring his servant people, and secondly, by establishing his own rule over the nations in place of the old gods. This would be a political outcome—the climax to the centuries old story of Israel’s troubled relationship with the surrounding nations, which is the story of the kingdom of God. You should read part one if you haven’t already done so. There is no radical disjuncture between the sections of the Bible. They are telling the same story. You should also bear in mind that this is just my proposed reading, greatly simplified. You may want to disagree with it.

The kingdom of God is at hand

It is precisely this story that is picked up when Jesus enters Galilee following the arrest of John the Baptist and announces that the time is fulfilled, the “kingdom of God is at hand”, and calls Israel to repent and believe in this good news (Mk. 1:14-15).

In his mind, Israel is now entering this period of great historical crisis, when God would decisively resolve this long story of the conflict between Israel and the nations. John’s demand for repentance was not arbitrary: wrath was coming on the people, the axe was laid to the root of the trees, and every tree that did not bear good fruit would be cut down and thrown into the fire. Jesus carries on where John left off. The Jews are on a broad road leading to the destruction of the nation. A storm and a flood is coming that will sweep away the “house” that disobedient Israel has built on the sand. At the harvest the weeds that are sinful and lawless Israel will be separated from the wheat and burnt; when the catch of fish is landed, the bad fish will be separated from the good and thrown away, thrown into the fiery furnace of God’s judgment on his people, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. It becomes quite apparent in the course of the Synoptic Gospels that these are metaphors for a foreseen war against the Roman overlord, which would result in terrible suffering and loss of life and the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple.

So Jesus’ overriding concern is that this would not mean the complete annihilation of his people. His mission, as the anointed servant of YHWH, is to ensure that something is salvaged from the coming devastation—that some Jews will find an alternative narrow path that leads to the life of the age to come, that a new house will be built on the rock of his teaching which will survive the eschatological storm.

How does he go about this?

1. He gathers and trains a motley group of disciples who will continue his mission to Israel during the period leading up to the war against Rome. They will proclaim the imminence of the kingdom of God, they will heal the sick, raise the dead, and cast out the unclean spirits that oppress Israel. They will face the same opposition and persecution that Jesus himself will face; they will be “dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them and the Gentiles” (Matt. 10:18). But this is for a limited period of time: “you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes” (Matt. 10:23); for their sake the days of turmoil and suffering will be cut short (Matt. 24:22). Having faithfully completed their mission, the disciples will sit alongside the Son of Man, “on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Matt. 19:28; cf. Lk. 22:30).

2. He actively restores Israel from the margins. He is emphatic that he has been sent exclusively to find the lost sheep of the house of Israel: the poor and wretched, the sick, the demon-possessed and unclean, the tax collectors and prostitutes—the entire menagerie of “sinners” who were thought to have no share in the glorious age to come. In this respect at least, Jewish expectation is stood on its head, from beginning to end: the poor will inherit the kingdom of God; the crucified insurrectionist will be with Jesus in paradise (Matt. 5:3; Lk. 23:43).

3. He directly confronts the leadership of Israel with their failings: they are wicked shepherds who have pursued their own gain and have abused or neglected the sheep entrusted to them; they are recalcitrant tenant farmers who refuse to give the fruit of the vineyard to its owner.

4. When the owner of the vineyard sends his son to get the fruit, the tenants kill him, believing that they will have his inheritance. Jesus knows that his “messianic” mission to Israel will end with his death, but he is confident of two things: first, that his death will have redemptive effect for his people; secondly, that he will raised from the dead to receive vindication from God. In both respects his self-identification with Daniel’s “one like a son of man” figure is crucial for understanding the significance of his suffering. It is the Son of Man who will give his life as a ransom for many in Israel (Matt. 20:28; Mk. 10:45); and it is the Son of Man who, at a time of eschatological crisis, will be brought to the throne of the Ancient of Days to receive the kingdom, dominion and glory that had previously belonged to the pagan empire. So at his trial before the Jewish Council Jesus says to Caiaphas: “you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven” (Matt. 26:64).

The disciples as prophetic community

The task of the disciples in Jerusalem at the beginning of the book of Acts is to fit the resurrection into the message about the coming kingdom of God. This is the point of Peter’s address to the “Men of Judea and all who dwell in Jerusalem” on the day of Pentecost. The significance of the outpouring of the Spirit is found in Joel. When a great and terrible day of the Lord approaches, the Spirit will be poured out indiscriminately on Israel with the result that a whole community will prophesy and see visions and have dreams regarding what is about to happen to the nation. Peter declares that it is now not the isolated prophet or anointed messiah who warns that the kingdom of God is at hand and calls Israel to repentance, but this crowd of many Jews.

Peter then gets to the point about the “day of the Lord” coming. The man Jesus of Nazareth was sent to the vineyard of Israel (so to speak), where he did mighty works to show that God was with him. The wicked tenants (so to speak) had him killed, but God has raised him from the dead and has seated him at his right hand, and “having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing” (Acts 2:33). The significance of this for Israel is that “God has made him both Lord and Christ”. He has been given authority to rule at the right hand of God “until I make your enemies your footstool”, which in this context may mean “until the corrupt leadership of Israel has been overthrown”. In view of this, Peter calls on his audience to repent and be baptised in the name of Jesus Christ in order to escape the judgment that is coming upon “this crooked generation” (Acts 2:37-41).

This is all a direct extension of the ministry of Jesus with the same end in view, only now it can be said that the stone rejected by the builders has become the cornerstone for the renewed house of Israel (cf. Acts 4:11). God has given to Jesus the authority to judge and rule over the nations.

Well, we weren’t expecting that!

Things take a surprising turn: this very Jewish story about the judgment and salvation of Israel becomes of interest to the Gentiles. Having learned that the Gentiles are not innately unclean, Peter tells the Roman Cornelius the story about Jesus and Israel and is surprised when the centurion and his household respond by speaking in tongues and praising God (Acts 10:34-48). They too have received the Holy Spirit; they have become part of this eschatological movement. This is exactly what the Old Testament prophets had imagined: when YHWH intervenes powerfully in the history of his people to put things right, the nations will be so impressed that they will abandon their idols and join the movement.

From this point onwards a further eschatological horizon begins to come into focus, in the hazy distance, beyond the catastrophe of the war against Rome and the renewal of the covenant community. The supreme opponent of Israel’s God and of his people will be overthrown (cf. 2 Thess. 2:8-10; Rev. 18-19), and Jesus will be recognised as judge and ruler not of Israel only but also of the nations.

The mission to the nations of the Greek-Roman world

This, at heart, is the mission of Paul. His task is to proclaim to the nations governed by Rome, from Jerusalem, via Illyricum, to Spain that the one true living God, the creator of all things, has made his Son Lord and that at some point in the future that lordship will be realised as a concrete, historical rule over the nations. Jesus “became a servant to the circumcised to show God’s truthfulness, in order to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs”; the Gentiles will praise God for his mercy towards his people, as Cornelius did; and as a result, Israel’s king will rule over the nations (Rom 15:8-12).

This is the “good news” that the apostles have for the ancient world: the future belongs to a God-fearing and “righteous” people, obedient at all cost to Jesus as Lord and king. Jesus is, of course, the one who has saved and transformed this people by his death: he has suffered, quite literally, Israel’s punishment; he has removed the dividing wall of hostility that separated Jews and Gentiles. But this is really secondary: the leading message is that he had been appointed “Son of God in power… by his resurrection from the dead” (Rom. 1:4), and all eyes are fixed on the day when his kingship will become a historical reality.

This remains the controlling christological narrative of the New Testament, but it is developed in a number of different directions. For example, the rule of Christ at the right hand of the Father is given a cosmic dimension in Colossians. The writer to the Hebrews associates Jesus with the priest-king Melchizedek, so that he is not only judge and ruler but also a greater high priest ministering in the presence of God on behalf of persecuted Jewish-Christians. In John’s Gospel, notably, he is identified with the Word or Wisdom of God, through which all things were made and are remade, which became flesh and was spurned by his own people. This Wisdom christology will become the stepping-stone to the systematic accounts of the divine nature of Jesus developed by the post-Jewish church.

The task of the churches

The reality of the future rule has been anticipated in the existence of churches consisting not only of Jews but also of Gentiles, which are a concrete sign that the God of remote marginal Israel will become the God of the nations of the Greek-Roman world. Paul’s work with the churches is to ensure that they are fit for this purpose. He is a “minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in the priestly service of the gospel of God, so that the offering of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 15:16).

His practical instruction is directed towards this end: they must live according to the standards of the future kingdom, not as Gentiles live; they must demonstrate unity, particularly between Jewish and Gentile believers; their corporate life is to be a dynamic expression of the indwelling of the Spirit of the living God; how they do relationships within the community of faith must reflect the fact that they all have the same Lord; they must learn endurance in the face of opposition and persecution because a day of fire is coming, which will severely test their loyalty to Christ; they are to hold to the hope that eventually Christ will be revealed to the world and confessed as Lord by the nations, and that they will be vindicated for their persistent faith in this new future.

The ends

The parousia of Christ, I suggest, is not the end. It is not new creation. The distinction that we noted in the Old Testament story between new creation and kingdom remains in force. The parousia is the beginning of the age to come. It belongs to the history of the people of God. The apocalyptic vision is that Jesus will rule over the nations, in the company of the martyrs, throughout history, for the sake of the integrity and security of his people, as they go about their priestly-prophetic service of the living God in whatever manner history allows them (cf. Rev. 20:4-6). This vision, in effect, frames the mission of the church today. How we should extrapolate from the overall biblical narrative will be considered in part three.

The eschatological distinction between kingdom and new creation is backed up by Paul’s rough sketch of the trajectory of Christ’s reign in 1 Corinthians 15:24-28. The resurrected Lord will reign until all his enemies have been destroyed, the last enemy being death. At that point, Christ will deliver the kingdom to God the Father and will become subject to him again. Where there are no enemies, there is no need for a king. In the end, God will be all in all.

At this moment, creation will finally be set free from its “bondage to corruption” (Rom. 8:21). There will be a new heaven and a new earth, God will dwell in the midst of his people. “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Rev. 21:4).

James Mercer | Fri, 07/20/2018 - 17:57 | Permalink

Hi Andrew. I am enjoying your telling of the biblical story from a narrative perspective. Thank you. Have you seen Tom Holland’s conversation with Tom Wright re Paul’s as the inspiration and originator of western thought and philosophy? Tom Holland identifies himself as ‘Christian’ on the basis of Paul’s influence on his world view. Is this an example of the outworking of the biblical narrative? The interview can be viewed on YouTube here:

Not wanting to be too tangential with this, but listening to the much more revealing full conversation here: it occurs to me to wonder if Holland might not find Andrew’s direction to be a tad more amenable than Wright does. (Even if it has relatively little direct connection with this post)

I think Holland would have little interest in trying to figure out if ancient prophecies about God’s kingdom were partially fulfilled, fulfilled at the time of Constantine, or were yet to be fulfilled.

I could be wrong, but I suspect “In my morals and ethics, I have learned to accept that I am not Greek or Roman at all, but thoroughly and proudly Christian” does not mean, “I believe Jesus was the Jewish Messiah who was raised from the dead and made Lord.”