“Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword.”
— Jesus of Nazareth
Jesus came in the flesh not to bring the judgment, but to bear it; not to slay with the sword of his lips, but to receive the nails in his hands and the spear-thrust in his side. In no other way could his kingdom come and God’s will be done in earth as in heaven. The kingdom established by grace must be advanced in grace, then consummated in glory. Not by political power, but by the power of the Spirit, is the gospel carried to the nations.
— Edmund Clowney
In my previous post, I noted that if we are to make sense of the message of Jesus, we must put God’s intended meaning into Jesus’ announcement of the arrival of the kingdom. This means that the meaning was given before Jesus came.
In short, you cannot understand the kingdom of God unless you understand the Old Testament. Most of all, you and I do can only warp and pollute its meaning if we read into our morals, politics, and social agendas.
Let’s explore this more.
What kingdom must be displaced?
Jesus announced the imminent arrival of God’s kingdom. In saying this he assumes some other kingdom is present, a kingdom that he will displace.
Is that kingdom an enemy kingdom? or a failed kingdom due to corruption? Does God need to conquer or to reform? God’s view is told in the story of redemption.
The overthrow of God’s rule
Scripture tells the story like this:
God created the world and all that is in it. He intended it to be the place where man and woman rule with him. God squandered his goodness upon them. He made them to find joy in him, in his infinite and perfect goodness, beauty and righteousness.
Yet, in that place of lavish goodness, there was a rebellion against the rightful Creator and King. That rebellion involved an imposter. He infiltrated the rule of God and deceived our first parents into revolt.
The tempter suggested to them that God was not good.
He proposed that God was a hypocrite: he was “acting like” he was generous. In truth, he was holding back the best. If that was the case, the man and the woman needed to take matters into their own hands. Obligation fell to them to throw off the yoke of the stingy one. In its place, they sought their own path to fulfillment, to live independently of God. This they did.1
Not the way it’s supposed to be
They set up an alternative kingdom, crowning themselves as gods. But in doing so they severed themselves from all the gifts of the true God. To find joy, they rejected the fountain of joy. To find wisdom, they excluded learning from the all-wise. Thus they became willing to find pleasure in self-destruction and wisdom in folly.
If you have never done so, read the story in Genesis 3. For profundity of insight and relevance to our lived experience, it is unmatched. What it narrates is the universal experience of the human race.
Cut off from God, they became defensive, arrogant, accusing, and hypocrites. They left light for darkness, lost the divine restraint and purpose of their desires, and came under the power of malevolent and invisible powerful forces. 2
Unlike all the gods of other religions, the God of Scripture is morally precise. He does not merely want attention, he calls for obedience. 3 Therefore, he exiled them from his presence.
Life in the Kingdom of Self
Humankind now lived East of Eden. Genesis 4 begins the record what life is like under such conditions. 4
Again, reading the Bible’s record from this point on is an exercise in finding oneself and one’s life experience in its narrative. What the story makes clear, from the expulsion from Eden to the coming of Jesus, is this:
Evil is more than systemic, it is endemic to every member of the human race. And no one has the power to control it.
Isn’t that the case? Oh yes, humanity has continued to live out its unique and high identity as made for God, with capacities and worth beyond any other living thing. But corruption is everywhere.
Have you ever known (really known, in private and in public) a thoroughly good person, without flaws and twists of character? Isn’t all modern drama and literature intent to show exactly this — that there are no people worthy of emulation because everyone has deep flaws? 5
Light in the Darkness
In the face of this foul revolt, God immediately revealed his gracious purpose to unwind it. By itself, this is astounding. Why not start again? wipe out the image bearers he had made? Instead he tells of his eternal plan (Gen 3:15)
That purpose involved mortal combat, the death of the enemy, and the suffering of the one who would cause it. From that point to the end of the Hebrew Scriptures, in parts and portions, God announces that he himself will send a Savior King to restore his kingdom.
Accumulate these promises into one place and you will find they are breathtaking.6 God will restore justice to the world. He will put down oppressors of all kinds. Relationships that are broken he will heal. Natural disasters will cease. Disease will be no more. Wars will end. Death itself will be swallowed up in victory. The Savior King will put down the imposter and his rule of darkness.
Along the way, God also makes it very clear that humankind’s condition is beyond our ability to heal, even with the best of tools and motives. Therefore, God himself, and by himself, will restore paradise. And he will do it by striking at the root issue: our hostility to God and our guilt for the fruit of that hostility.
That fruit is called sin. Sin offends the true God and must be addressed with justice. God will do exactly that but not in a way that wipes us out. Rather he will work in a way that opens to us the doors to forgiveness and a new creation. This is the kingdom of God.
That is what Jesus meant by the kingdom of God
When John the Baptist and Jesus announced the arrival of the kingdom, he knew what he meant. God would bring about this kingdom — but not by policy changes or social-formation or even religious revival. All such efforts are futile. At best they are temporary measures to ease the misery of our lives for a season. At worst, they are arrogant utopian visions.
The kingdom promised would come through the sending of God the Son into the world, to assume a true human nature. In that body and soul he would live a life of obedience for us, and offer up his body and soul as a payment to himself for our sins.
There are no parallels to this in any religious or political system of thought.
What Jesus announced is unique. It is unlike all others politics, ideologies, or religious systems. Moreover, it is inclusive and accessible to anyone.
How he inaugurated the kingdom
What distinguishes Jesus kingdom from all our moral and social causes it how he brought it about. The means is as essential as the end.
God’s kingdom has certain counter-cultural characteristics. These include things:
- Not by power but by weakness
- Not by conquest but through apparent defeat
- Not by the sword of justice but by a cross of injustice
- Not by proud and charismatic leadership but by service and poverty
- Not by crushing his foes but by redeeming them from slavery
A death of shame and torture as a vile criminal would be the centerpiece of God’s re-establishing his kingdom with a new creation purpose. Christ crucified is the Christian message, a message that cuts against the grain of all our self-reliant methods of personal and social change.
Repentance is an opportunity
Looking back at Jesus words, notice that even the way the kingdom is announced shows its distinctiveness.
Commanding repentance is not narrow at all. This command was a gracious open door. How is that?
Jesus announced an invasion, an overthrow, and a takeover. He came to put down the rebellion and depose the evil pretend king. But he gives the willing citizens of the dominion of the usurper an opportunity to repent — to turn from their false king and embrace their God. Repentance meant switching sides. If we do so, he gives full amnesty. Jesus is that good.7
His entire life will demonstrate the absolute goodness of his own heart. That goodness is first heard of in his offer of amnesty to the rebels, in his call for them to come to their senses and return to their true Master.
We don’t get to make Jesus the mascot of our causes
As it was then, so it is in our day, people want to fill the word “kingdom” with their idea of what it would look like if God came to defeat his enemies.
- By “his enemies” we assume he means “our enemies,” the ones we think are the real problem.
- By establish righteousness, we think he means our moral or social justice cause.
- By power we think he means political power and charismatic leaders.
All of that is wrong-headed and perverse. Jesus was the fulfillment of God’s announced plans as given to prophets and kings. His announcement meant, “All that God has purposed and promised in happening now.” It also meant he would accomplish this by unthinkable means 8. You cannot read into it whatever you want it to mean.
In many cases, we have polluted his mission and work
It is safe to say that one of the reasons those who rejected Jesus did so because he he refused to accommodate his mission to their agenda. They thought they had the power to bring about their agenda by their own labors. Jesus consistently showed this was impossible and insisted they accept this assessment. He would achieve this kingdom by means unacceptable to the power-mongering and self-reliant. In God’s purposes, being despised and rejected was how he won our redemption. 9
Strangely, we have reversed all this. There are people of our day who despise Christians because we have presented a Jesus who is accommodated to our causes. His redeeming work as a crucified Lord has taken a back seat for many preachers and public leaders of the church.
Why this narrative?
Modern biblical studies have discovered that the story of redemption, as told in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament, was always a message in competition with other narratives. That is still the case today.
But God has presented this narrative with reasons to find it plausible. Both the salience of the narrative (the way it reads us rather than us read it) and the historical accuracy of its words make it extremely plausible. C S Lewis is the one who said it succinctly
“I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”
But there is more
Jesus reveals the true goodness of God. In his kingdom he produces a certain kind of citizen. Let’s look at these next.
- They became their own creators. A disposition to determine our own reality, morals, gender, and political agendas took hold in this moment. It has been raging ever since.
- I highly recommend a well written, almost page-turning reflection on this by Cornelius Plantinga, Not the Way Its Supposed to Be.
- Michael Gorman opened my eyes to this in his Apostle of the Crucified Lord. He notes on page 38 that pagan religions demanded sacrifices to soothe the bad moods of the gods, bad moods that came upon them if they were not getting the attention they wanted. Religion was a contract not a covenant relationship with moral requirements.
- The novel East of Eden by John Steinbeck contemporizes the record of such a life.
- Philip Johnson wrote an exceptional book called The Intellectuals. His purpose is to show that the revered and leading lights of modern ideology were vile and arrogant persons in their daily lives. No doubt, we could add to his chapters a full disclosure of the private evil character of our leading ideologues, on the right and the left.
- so much so that they have been co-opted, most famously in the cornerstone of the United Nations which boasts of a war-less world brought about by its powers of diplomacy rather than the Redeemer-King.
- a caveat here: do not separate his moral purposes from this means of achieving it. The policy is not amnesty to rebels, the policy is amnesty by a voluntary sacrificial death at the hands of his enemies, bearing their sin upon himself. I have yet to hear any think tank or politician advocate this.
- see previous footnote.
- Christ crucified is deeply offensive to those who want Jesus to adopt their ideas of power and triumph. But when the Spirit of God opens our eyes we see his weakness as the true power of God.