Kingdom Temptations

Kingdom Temptations April 23, 2012

Anyone who wants to explain the kingdom of God as taught by Jesus/NT is faced with temptations. Here’s the first one: to want that kingdom to be almost entirely spiritual — something between a person and God, a religious experience, some religious power now at work, something not belonging to this world, something getting someone ready for heaven. A second temptation is to make it some political party, or some political cause, or something so earthy it is not religious at all. Ecology, liberation from oppression, justice for some murderer. Let’s call these the vertical and the horizontal. They are inadequate. The first group fears the political; the second group fears the religious.

Neither of them is Jewish; neither of them biblical. Both are temptations to avoid.

Why do you think so many are against a political reading of Jesus? Is it possible to say “kingdom” and not be political?

In Tom Wright’s new book, How God Became King, the meaning of kingdom is discussed at length as the fourth speaker in the room (Israel’s Story, God’s Story, God’s People) — and Wright sketches it under the theme of the clash of (quite political) kingdoms.

The primary clash is between God and the satan, and that means where the satan is most at work — in Caesar, Rome, the powers — and where God is most at work — in Jesus and in Jesus’ people. The means of victory is through Jesus and the cross (and resurrection). This kingdom is both political and redemptive, it is both earthy and from God.

Anyone who wants a non-political kingdom message has avoided what the NT says; anyone who wants a non-political Jesus makes Jesus in their own image. The kingdom and Jesus are through and through political. A new kind of politics, to be sure, but still political. Now to some specifics from the chp.

1. The Bible’s story is often about God and the pagan powers and rulers and kingdoms: Babel, Egypt, Philistines, Assyria, Babylon, Greece and Rome.

2. The census of Augustus provides Luke with the opportunity to sketch a kingdom clash. Luke 1-2 (he doesn’t sketch how the birth scene of Luke 2 contrasts Jesus with Caesar: gospel, Son of God, peace, Savior are each political terms: Jesus is Lord, Caesar is not is at work in this passage).

3. Jesus’ power is not like Caesar’s: it is the way of the cross.

4. Wright sketches more fully how the clash of the kingdoms occurs in John, and it is a very suggestive sketch, worth your reading carefully. John 12, 14, 16 (through the church — he needs to emphasize this more often), 18, 19.

5. Render unto Caesar has nothing whatsoever to do with separation of church and state. The drive in Jesus’ day was political independence (read Benedictus in Luke 1, a text Tom does not mention in his Luke sketch). He sees “pay Caesar back in his own coin” to be a possible echo of 1 Macc 2:68 (pay the Gentiles back in full). Jesus is not colluding either with Caesar or the Zealots. His emphasis is on giving back to God what is God’s due.

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  • I thought that this was one of the best chapters in the book.

    I also like your sentence. “The primary clash is between God and the satan, and that means where the satan is most at work — in Caesar, Rome, the powers — and where God is most at work — in Jesus and in Jesus’ people.”

    Political power allows the forces of evil to leverage their power.

  • “The kingdom and Jesus are through and through political. A new kind of politics, to be sure, but still political.” Yes, indeed. “A New Kind of Politics.” That sounds like a great title for a future book, Scot.

  • CGC

    Wright reminds me of Yoder in the “Politics of Jesus” that Jesus gives us an alternative politics to the world domination politics. Or like the Anabaptist Kraybill’s “Upside-down Kingdom,” I would simply suggest it’s our world system powers and authorities that have things upside down and Jesus and God’s kingdom is about setting things right-side up again.

  • Stephen

    Hi Scot,

    I’m looking forward to your seminar in Australia on the King Jesus Gospel (great book btw). Wright’s book seems like a pre-seminar must-read.

  • you write

    “The primary clash is between God and the satan, and that means where the satan is most at work — in Caesar, Rome, the powers — and where God is most at work — in Jesus and in Jesus’ people. The means of victory is through Jesus and the cross (and resurrection).”

    How does that square with

    “Know therefore and understand that from the going out of the word to restore and build Jerusalem to the coming of an anointed one, a prince, there shall be seven weeks. Then for sixty-two weeks it shall be built again with squares and moat, but in a troubled time. And after the sixty-two weeks, an anointed one shall be cut off and shall have nothing. And the people of the prince who is to come shall destroy the city and the sanctuary.”

    Which seems to indicate that those who destroy the city and sacntuary (Rome, right? In 70 AD) are the ‘people of the prince’ (Jesus). That in some way, as assyria was the rod of God’s anger, and (pagan — or was it already converted under Daniel) Babylon was God instrument of destruction on Jerusalem, so Rome is the instrument of God’s judgment on the enemy of apostate Judaism?

    Or is there a superior interpretation of that part of Daniel that avoids that conclusion?

  • scotmcknight

    Paul, are you suggesting Rome was the “people” of the “prince” Jesus?

  • Yes. 1) because historically, it is Rome that destroys the city and the sanctuary. 2) because the text says the people who do this (historically, Rome) are the ‘people of the prince’.

    That does seem counter intuitive, so my references to Assyria and Babylon in that role before are a grasping towards a “how can that be” answer.

  • Amos Paul

    Why does it seem like Wright lays out two different mistakes here, and then appears to just go ahead and endorse the second thing he called a mistake? If calling it specifically political is a mistake, then so is saying that, “The kingdom and Jesus are through and through political.”

    Of course I’d just rather put a ‘both-and’ up there and call the Kingdom both the political and spiritual realizations of Christ’s authority throughout the cosmos. Easy enough.

  • Norman

    Yes God has often used the Nations as His instrument of Judgment. However in Daniel the instrument that becomes the 4th Beast from the Sea being Rome is smashed and scattered as well. The rock being Christ Judges the Nations as well as Israel. But Christ told Pilate that there would not be a physical army coming against Rome as He was not that kind of King. But Rome would be smashed as well in regards to the Kingdom authority of God.

    Dan 2:40 Finally, there will be a fourth kingdom, strong as iron—for iron breaks and smashes everything—and as iron breaks things to pieces, so it will crush and break all the others. 41 Just as you saw that the feet and toes were partly of baked clay and partly of iron, so this will be a divided kingdom; yet it will have some of the strength of iron in it, even as you saw iron mixed with clay. 42 As the toes were partly iron and partly clay, so this kingdom will be partly strong and partly brittle. 43 And just as you saw the iron mixed with baked clay, so the people will be a mixture and will not remain united, any more than iron mixes with clay.

    44 “In the time of those kings, the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed, nor will it be left to another people. It will crush all those kingdoms and bring them to an end, but it will itself endure forever. 45 This is the meaning of the vision of the rock cut out of a mountain, but not by human hands—a rock that broke the iron, the bronze, the clay, the silver and the gold to pieces.

    “The great God has shown the king what will take place in the future. The dream is true and its interpretation is trustworthy.”

    The gathering of the nations destroyed the Old City in AD70 but the destroyers were themselves destroyed in Judgment as well. Not physically mind you but covenantally, they like Physical Israel have been shattered by the Iron Rod in which the Government is set in Heaven and is out of reach of the physical Nations forever. The people of the saints rule with Christ as servants not as lording masters like the Gentiles or as corrupt shepherds of Israel who only feed themselves.

    Rev 20: 9 They marched across the breadth of the earth and surrounded the camp of God’s people, the city he loves. But fire came down from heaven and devoured them.

  • Paul. I do not believe that was Rome the people of the Prince, Jesus. Daniel distinguishes between the Messiah and the ruler.

    Four events are decreed for the last “seven” (Dan 9:26,27)

    1. “The Annointed one will be cut off and will have nothing”. This is a description of the death of Jesus. His life was “cut off”. At his death he was deserted by all his disciples, and left with nothing.

    2. “The people of the ruler who will come will destroy the city and the sanctuary. The end will come like a flood: war will continue to the end and desolations have been decreed”. This very vividly describes the destruction of Jerusalem. The people of the ruler was the Roman army. They destroyed the city and the temple. There was war to the end, which came like a flood of terrible desolation.

    3. “He will confirm a covenant with many for one ‘seven’, but in the middle of that ‘seven’ he will put an end to sacrifice and offering”. The person referred to here is not the coming ruler, who would destroy the city, but the Messiah mentioned in verse 26. Jesus established a covenant which has brought salvation to great numbers of people. During the last “seven” which covered his whole life, from birth to ascension, Jesus confirmed a covenant which would last for ever. The effect of the new covenant is to put an end to sacrifices and offerings. The perfect sacrifice of Jesus makes them unnecessary.

    4. “and one who causes desolation will come on the wings of abominations until the end that is decreed is poured out on the desolate”. This is a more literal translation than is usually given. Misleading translations have caused a lot of misunderstanding about this verse. The subject of this verse, the one who makes desolate, is not the one who made the covenant, but the Roman ruler, who would destroy Jerusalem. His coming was an abomination for the Jewish people. The desolation is not poured out on a person, but on those who are desolate. The Jews were a desolate people once they had rejected the Messiah. Jesus was referring to this when he told them that their house would be left desolate (Matt 23:38).

    This passage has been badly used over the years. I have discussed it in full at

  • TJJ

    I think many shy away from a “Political Jesus” because it is often not at all clear what one means by that. It has been used to mean many different things, many of those things being quite bad. Same goes for saying the Kingdom of God is, “political”. That is such an easy thing to throw out there, but again, not so easy to really nail down and define with any meaningful precision. I find Wright evades really defining in a precise way what a political Kingdom of God really is, or what Jesus as a real politic al King really is an earthly sense. Lots of what it is not quite, lots of genalalities of what it it, sort of, kind of, etc.

    I find you Scot do pretty much the same thing. IMHO. Write a post and just spell it out, this is what. I mean by Jesus being political, on The Kingdom of God being political and earthy. If it it so important, so revolutionary that almost everyone else in the past 700 years have gotten it wrong, then spell it out, with clear, concise unequivocal language.

  • Val

    I was wondering that too TJJ.

    When I think of the Church being political, I think of Rome in the Middle Ages. It didn’t go so well. The then-Pope’s illegitimate sons and friends were oppressive, the people were pawns in their schemes, their “Kingdom” eventually divided into Catholics and Protestants. Nations have all been much better off without a political church-state (Theocracy) running our lives.

  • TJJ I think it is a bit unfair to criticise Wright for not providing a detailed description of a political Kingdom in a book on the meaning gospel. He is an theologian and historian, so it would be going beyond his expertise. He does give a big picture in broad brush strokes which has got me thinking. I hope that people interested in political theology will take up the challenge of working what the intersection of the cross and the kingdom means for our political practice.

    On the other hand, I sometimes sense that Wright pulls back from following his ideas to their logical conclusion, because he is scared of where it might lead him.

  • nick

    One of the more modern and concrete examples Wright often points to when pushed on this point is the Truth and Reconciliation Commission after the abolition of apartheid.

  • Hi Scot,

    I have been reading Paul Barnett’s 1999 book “Jesus and the Rise of Early Christianity”. He has some statements in it which I think speak so ‘soterian’ problem you have discussed on this blog and in your book:

    ***We must recognise the problems for history created by Christian doctrine. From the beginning of the history of the earliest church, the followers of Jesus formulated statements of belief about him. That task continued through the eras of the fathers and the reformers and beyond, leaving a valuable deposit of creeds and confessions for the churches and their members. In consequence modern-day believers can easily perceive Jesus’ mission to have been quite straightforward, namely, to establish his identity and mission as articulated in the subsequent creeds. The reader of the Gospels will naturally expect to find Jesus teaching such doctrines: that he was the second person of the Trinity, One who was fully human and fully divine, whose mission was to die for sins and be raised to life to open the kingdom of heaven to all believers. But does reading the Gospels through these doctrinal lenses make sense of the Gospel accounts, apart from selected proof texts that support these doctrines? Did Jesus behave and teach according to the creeds historically?
    One immediate problem for this approach is that it has no explanation for Jesus’ mission to Israel, except to declare that she willfully rejected the Son of God and the salvation he offered her.

    Any historical reconstruction of Jesus, based on the Gospels, must answer at least two questions. First, is it a plausible version of Jesus’ mission to Israel? Second, does it explain the belief structure of the early church?

    So who was he and what did he come to do?***

    Is he asking the right questions?

    Cheers, Phil.