Kingdom and Cross

Kingdom and Cross April 30, 2012

It is too easy to want kingdom and forget the cross, or make it part of one’s agenda; and it is too easy to want cross, and not know what to make of the kingdom. But Israel’s Story, Israel’s God, the people of God, and the clash of the forces of evil with the ways of God always combine kingdom with cross.

I see the temptations this way, and I see them too often: for some the kingdom is about justice and the first thing that disappears when folks get tied into social justice too often is a weakening of the atoning cross (the cross becomes the story of sacrifice for others or the greatest injustice). For others the cross is so central, and by that I mean substitutionary atonement and the mechanics of how that cross works, that kingdom becomes little more than those who have experienced personal salvation or justification or reconciliation.

Why do you think it is so hard to keep kingdom and cross together for so many in the Christian tradition? What separates them?

But the Story of the Bible combines kingdom with cross, cross with kingdom. The guiding theme of that Story, however, is not as simplistic or reductionistic as it is often made out to be.

Atonement theories distort the story; kingdom theories distort the Story. Tom Wright is seeking, in many of his writings, to right these two wrongs. The big issue is that God’s intent is to rule in this world; to rule God must do away with evil. Cross and kingdom are part of that big Story.

The thesis of How God Became King is that God became King through Jesus, and being king is about kingdom and God became King and brings that kingdom via the (life) and cross (and resurrection, and vindication) of Jesus who represents Israel and the church. Tom Wright pushes in this chp (9) again against the creeds’ absence of this kingdom story.  But the singular point of this chp is not the creedal pushback but instead to show how the four themes of this book all connect kingdom and cross.

Israel’s Story emerges in Psalm 22 and Isaiah 40–55 (one of the major portions of Scripture Wright constantly finds at work in the New Testament and in Jesus in particular). So that the Story of God ruling in this world entails entering into suffering, sometimes of Israel and sometimes of its representative (like the Servant, but also the Son of Man), because of sin.

This means the Story of Israel’s God involves entering into that Story of kingdom and cross. Tom has some emphasis here on the shepherd theme — God as shepherd, or is it David? (that’s the dynamic of the Gospels) — who rules (see Ezekiel 34 and John 10 and 2 Sam 7 and back to Isaiah 40–55). And the Son of Man — who represents, who is vindicated and who sees kingdom’s arrival.

The people of God, Israel, is not abandoned or replaced but transformed. (By the way, this is important because Tom has been criticized for supersessionism by some, and he’s pushing away from that at times in this book — but it will lead now to what “transformed” means?) The major theme here: the church is defined not by Caesar or the world but by the Messiah’s life and death and vindication and rule, so the church is the people of God who suffers and who will be vindicated and who will rule. Their suffering is part of the redemptive process (Col 1:24). [I’d like to have seen more ecclesial themes of Acts and Paul’s letters developed.]

Again, the clash of the kingdoms: the cross is the path to winning the victory over Rome and the powers at work behind Rome. Kingdom and cross again.

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  • This has been a good revelation for me, I mean the positioning of kingdom and cross. This post hits me to bring me along a bit further in seeing or sensing more how they both interplay.

  • Peter

    There are a lot of worthwhile things to wrestle with here. Thank you. May I ask what the problem with supersessionism is? When I read definitions of it I am unsure of why this is not supported by scholars like yourself (and therefore unsure of why NTW would want to defend himself against such accusations). Thanks.

  • scotmcknight

    Supersessionism, at least at some levels, Peter, denies what Paul says in Rom 9-11 about the inviolability of the covenant promises God has made with Israel. The word also connotes replacement instead of fulfillment, so that it radically frames a discontinuous story instead of a story of continuity.

  • CGC

    Hi Everyone,
    Replacement theology at its worst has led to anti-semitism and the persecution of the Jews throughout history. Supersessionism seems right only because it seems like the only alternative (after reading the Bible in a thoroughly Gentile way not seeing the Jewish influences or even the Jewish highlights like the Messianic fullfillment of the New Covenant in the book of Hebrews is still to Israel) to two covenant theology like Jews are saved under the Old Covenant and Gentiles under the New Testament (certainly this is a misreading of the Bible which Wright has previously tackled head on). I think their are huge theological implications and practices of the church today that are so problematic because of supersessionism because this is like a large blindspot or another elephant standing in the room of the church that most Christians do not see. I remember hearing somebody say once, “We see as we are.”

  • Peter

    Excellent. Thanks for the clarification. Really appreciate this blog spot: seems like lots of well educated and articulate folks who don’t mind a question about distinctions like this. Thank you.

  • chris

    This post gets a little technical, so I may be missing the point. However, as I have tried to present the Kingdom-Cross balance I read in NTW, I have simply said you can’t build the kingdom without the King. Being a kingdom participant means either working as one needing to be perenially equipped by the king or working as one who is an instrument in the hands of the King. Both postures must recognize a dependence on the king’s power because of sin. That sin is dealt with by the cross that gives us access to a now and not yet kingly power.

  • Scot,

    I was just writing about this with Romans 5 in view when I saw your tweet. When Paul gets to talking about Adam (after talking about Abraham [ch. 4], Israel [ch. 2-3], and David [ch. 1]…it seems Romans 1-5 goes through the story in reverse), when Paul gets to Romans 5 he drops justification/faith language and begins using reconciliation language, and also “rule/reign/kingdom” language. The problem of Adam is that sin and death reign (Rom. 5:12, 14). The word for “reign” used here comes from the Greek word basileuō, which is a cognate of “king” and “kingdom”. Paul is reminding us that instead of the kingdom of blessing that was supposed to extend through humanity (Gen. 1:26), through Adam comes a kingdom of death (physically, socially, and spiritually). But now through Jesus comes a kingdom of life (5:17) or a kingdom of grace (5:21). But this kingdom of life and grace comes not just because Jesus is a good example of “kingdom love,” but because while we were still sinners, Christ died for us (5:8).

  • Cal

    Peter, I think most of the issue has to do with semantics. Just as the law was not destroyed but fulfilled and passed away to make way for the Perfect Law, the Royal Law of Love (that is following the Command of Lord Jesus) so Israel has been fulfilled. The old way was about Torah and blood and Paul makes clear that underneath both of these was always promise. A promise of something better, a promise to be a light to the gentiles (yours truly!). A promise of the Kingdom of Heaven and the Resurrection.

    So while dual covenantship is totally wrong, replacement is a poor choice. It wasn’t that the Jews were disowned. Rather it was that they were broken off from the fulfilled covenant because of disobedience and Gentiles were grafted. Our hope should be with Paul that they will be grafted back onto the Tree of Life, that is Lord Jesus, HaMeshiach.

  • Jon Hughes

    I think the main reason why it has been so hard to keep Kingdom and Cross together is that the narrative of the modernist/fundamentalist controversy and its resultant divides of liberal and conservative have made people too suspicious of corrective voices and suggestions that seem to take onboard language or ideas from “the other side.” As a pastor, I find in my preaching and teaching that people want familiar “bells” rung repeatedly, whether that concerns a view of the atonement or Scripture et al. The challenge is to help people enter into the ancient world and see the Scripture in a way that moves beyond these old ingrained narratives. Wright has been the most helpful to me in his suggestion that the Kingdom of God is established in the cross. It is refreshing to some and helpful for my non-Christian friends, but the challenge is to help the veterans get it. From birth, I grew up hearing, “Jesus died on the cross so I can go to heaven.” Just like everything else, if we want to help people see how kingdom and the cross fit together, I think we have to keep saying it until we are sick of saying it.

  • I like the John holds social justice and cross together through love. Check out 1 John 3:16-18

  • joey

    “…so the church is the people of God who suffers and who will be vindicated and who will rule. Their suffering is part of the redemptive process (Col 1:24).”
    This is the most radical idea in this piece and one with which I agree. I think it is one of the most misunderstood and least discussed aspects of our function.

  • Dana Ames

    “The major theme here: the church is defined not by Caesar or the world but by the Messiah’s life and death and vindication and rule, so the church is the people of God who suffers and who will be vindicated and who will rule. Their suffering is part of the redemptive process…”

    When I finished reading “Jesus and the Victory of God” about ten years ago, two things overwhelmed me. One was that I wanted fall down and worship Jesus as *both* Man and God – as God, yes, but also as the True Human Being Who had actually been and done what God created humans to be and do. The other was that one thing Jesus is saying to his followers over and over again is that following him means precisely suffering, and likely actual physical loss of life – so, martyrdom, for his name’s sake.

    I was just thinking this morning about how some people present a Christianity that simply does not allow for struggle or suffering of any kind; it is inferred or even declared outright that when a person converts, Jesus will solve all their problems. Sometimes it is allowed that after conversion, struggles get worse, variously ascribed to God’s testing and the devil’s fury. Perhaps some people struggle with so many real issues in their lives that they need a place – or need to construct a “place” – church service, church culture, etc. – where everything is “just fine”, or a “Heaven” far away where there will be no more struggle. Many think that having to struggle with or suffer anything is some sort of sign of God’s displeasure with some aspect of their lives (Job’s friends). Some surely think that anything like “redemptive suffering” is “too Catholic”. The “health and wealth gospel” can be very attractive to people who otherwise see no way out of their difficult lives. I’m sure there are other things at play.

    The long and the short of it is, in our -relatively- affluent Protestant Christian culture, and though there is plenty of commentary on suffering in Scripture, and though Jesus seems to be calling is to suffering as an actual component of the redemptive process, there is precious little theology and teaching addressing the reality of suffering in life, whether “ordinary” issues or for Jesus’ sake. Jesus healed the physical illnesses of lot of people, but he didn’t heal everyone, and even Lazarus ended up eventually dying again. In difficult situations, pastors are somehow supposed to come alongside and say something to make everything better. (So many of them do, whether by saying or doing things, or by simply being with. God bless them.) But what if things are not going to “get better”? What can they give from a dry well? And why has this aspect of the message of the NT – it’s there in the letters, too – been generally ignored, except by those calling attention to persecuted Christians?

    This was a huge frustration for me as an Evangelical.


  • davey

    I don’t understand the ‘Israel ‘transformed’ idea. Which Israel? Not all Israel are Israel. Was the not Israel transformed, well not as far as I can see. Was the true Israel transformed? They didn’t need to be. Were Abraham and Moses and David and Isaiah and others like them in need of transformation? It doesn’t look like it. What is the transformation supposed to be? Was it the giving of the Spirit? But the Spirit was present in the Old Testament. Did Abraham not have the Spirit? If he didn’t, how was he accepted as righteous? Let’s have some exposition in detail about such things as ‘transformation’ and ‘story’. Wright doesn’t give detail, but constantly deals in generalities.

  • joey

    Dana: Outstanding! (We must have been typing at the same time.) You are right, the idea of believers’ suffering is everywhere in the NT, but not spoken about by moderns. And if it is spoken about, it’s only with reference to suffering in the form of persecution. We have been forgiven. Suffering is not our inheritance. But, like our Lord, we suffer on behalf of the world, constantly rehearsing the Gospel Story. We are the continuation of the Incarnation. So, more precisely, Jesus continues to suffer in, through and as us (Saul, Saul, why do you persecute ME?) As Scot said, our suffering is part of the redemption of the world.

  • Dana Ames

    I wonder if you have read Wright’s “big books”, or his Paul commentary or “Climax of the Covenant”? He gives a whole lotta detail in those. Scot’s posts are a review, and so are more general to start with, and this book is indeed more of an overview. But “constantly deals in generalities”? Most definitely not so.


  • Dana

    I realize there is potentially a lot of irony in suggesting this on a blog about N. T. Wright’s recent book, but John Piper has written and preached extensively on the subject of suffering, and all that I have heard is well worth considering. One of his annual conferences focused on the subject (2005: “Suffering & the Sovereignty of God”), and all that the various speakers had to say was very edifying. And it’s all freely available for listen or download on his site: Btw, where they differ I prefer NT Wright’s theology, but I also thoroughly enjoy Piper’s very serious preaching.

  • davey

    Dana, I’ve read Wright (including those things you say). He is stuck. He hasn’t said anything different over the years than he said forty years ago in his first writings. He has never gone into detail on the things that would really matter in any proper attempt to establish his thesis. But, if he went into detail on the things that matter, his thesis would collapse.

  • davey

    joey, when we stub our toe and suffer all sorts of the common distresses of the world, are we redeeming it? How would that work?

  • joey

    Davey, I mention again that our inheritance, as the Body, is not suffering. We have been redeemed. We are citizens of Heaven. Our inheritance is life eternal. Our suffering is not our own.
    In chapter eight, Matthew quotes the atoning text of Isaiah 53 and applies it to an aspect of Jesus’s life that was not persecutory in nature and was not the cross. Matthew quotes the masoretic text and says that Jesus “took our illnesses and bore our diseases.” (The Septuagint says “bore our sins”) This, of course, does not mean that our cancers, schizophrenias, and broken bones were transferred from off of us onto Jesus. That is not what “bearing” means. It means that he shared in the consequences of our sin (note in chapter 9 how Jesus links sickness and sin) and he bore the hurt of the world. Jesus bore the hurt of the world right along with us; as one of us; because of us; and on our behalf. Note that it was not instead of us. This is the role of Isaiah’s servant. It is worth noting again that Matt 8 is not persecutory suffering.
    Then, with nail-pierced, outstretched hands, Jesus said, “AS the Father sent me into the world, even so now I send you.” We have become the Body of Jesus and he sends us in the same manner that he was sent. We rehearse Jesus in the Supper, Baptism, and in our (collective) lives lived. In Acts 13, Paul quotes a Servant text – the fullness of which is Jesus – but he applies it to believers. (see also 2 Cor 6:2, 2 Tim 2:24 and Rom 8:17&36, where Paul echoes Is 53 and applies it to believers). The Story of Jesus is lived out in each new generation by those who are the continuation of his life for the world. Jesus continues to live through his Body (Acts 9:4). Pursue me further if you wish.

  • joey

    Davey, Here is something I wrote last summer about my then 14-year-old daughter who’d suffered a head injury requiring a craniotomy.

    It’s 3 a.m. and she’s been holding my hand in the dark while I’ve been
    watching her sweet face. Does anyone have prettier lips than my Ashlyn?
    She’s been so brave. When I told her that she was going to have
    surgery, I could see her disappointment and her eyes were a little
    tearful. But there was no sobbing; no whining; no self pity. She was
    reserved, quiet and brave. She has been that way after the surgery, too;
    all weekend, actually. Though she is clearly hurting, she describes her pain
    minimally. She is pretty and pretty tough.

    Quoting an atoning passage, Matthew says that Jesus bore the hurt of
    the world (“He took our illnesses and bore our diseases”). The text
    equates the bearing of the world’s hurt with the bearing of sin.
    Elsewhere, Paul told the Philippians that not only had it been granted
    unto them to believe, but also to suffer. He was not only talking
    about persecution. He had other types of suffering in mind as well.

    My Ashlyn has been redeemed. The suffering she is going through right
    now – NOBLY going through – is not her inheritance and not her own. As
    a part of the Body of Christ, she bears the hurt of the world. That
    is, HE continues to bring about the atonement of the world through the
    ongoing suffering of His Body. Though the world doesn’t know it and
    although she is not conscious of all of this as she lies quielty in
    the ICU, Ashlyn is rehearsing for the world what her Lord has done for
    all of us. And one day, Kings will shut their mouths (Is 52:15) when
    it is revealed that Ashlyn defied the darkness and said, “The
    steadfast love of the Lord never ceases.”

    Was all of this merely “random chance?” Hmmm…I don’t know if I can fully
    answer that. Was it MEANINGLESS random chance? Absolutely not!

  • Dana Ames

    Joey, thank you. Hope Ashlyn is well.

    Davey, please forgive my wrong assumption. We’ll just have to agree to disagree. I find Wright does go into a great deal of detail about things that matter, and his way of looking at things is nearly as seamless as that of EOrthodoxy…

    Dana, hey, good name! Though we will have to agree to disagree about Piper’s way of looking at things.


  • davey

    joey, you seem to be asserting that the ordinary distresses of life are redemptive of the world. The grounds for your assertion seem to be that it says so in the Bible. That’s fair enough. I was just wondering if you felt this was at least a little other than a mystery revealed, that it could actually be made sense of by people to a degree, that something could be said about how it works!

  • joey

    Davey, “How” it works? Scripture tells us little to nothing about “how” the (life and) death (and resurrection) “work” to bring about redemption/atonement/salvation. Scripture says THAT these things bring about redemption, etc. This despite the tendency of the past few hundred years to find a mechanism or formula to explain “how” these things work. If there is a “how” for the Church’s part in bringing about redemption, it would be the same “how” as that of the Christ. The Church is the continuation of the Incarnation.
    If I were forced to say “how” I’d be inclined to speak in terms of narrative. Watch the movies Meet Joe Black and Second Hand Lions and see what Life does to Death.
    Thanks for the question.

    Dana – Ashlyn is doing well. Thanks for asking.

  • davey

    Is there then a mechanism unknown to us how these things work, and all that’s given to us is a story that is the result of the working out of the mechanism? Or is there no mechanism, but ‘only’ a story? (I don’t here want to denigrate story, but I’ve just found it hard to come up with an adequate expression!) Perhaps it’s even left unknown to us which, or what combination of these is so! Whatever, I don’t find Wright or the story gospellers tell a story that makes sense. Happily, there are other approaches that I do find congenial.

  • I had more to say than would be appropriate as a comment, so please see this link.

  • davey

    Paula, you don’t write that much!
    “My issue is with the question, “Did Abraham not have the Spirit? If he didn’t, how was he accepted as righteous?” Yet we are told explicitly how Abraham was accepted as righteous: his faith; see Romans 4, especially the quote of Gen. 15:6. The operation of the Spirit in the OT was not to indwell all righteous persons as is the case for the church, but to work externally— with a few notable (and sometimes temporary) exceptions.”

    What is ‘regeneration’, then? Was Abraham unregenerate? Not as much was revealed in the Old Testament as in the New, so just because it wasn’t said in his case, that doesn’t prove Abraham was not regenerate and hadn’t the indwelling Spirit. How else could he have faith and be acceptable to God as righteous?

  • @davey,

    Since scripture explicitly states that Abraham was declared righteous, and since the OT is silent about ‘regeneration’, then it seems reasonable to draw the conclusion that ‘regeneration’ was not an issue. Scripture never puts Abraham’s righteousness in question, yet there is never any statement in either Testament saying there was a ‘regeneration’ event at any time in his life. All we have is the simple, clear statement: his faith was credited to him as righteousness. So whatever meaning one attaches to ‘regeneration’, it would seem to have no bearing on Abraham’s having been righteous.

    But to argue that “it doesn’t say he wasn’t” is to argue from silence. It also becomes a circular argument, if one first presumes that ‘regeneration’ must precede any declaration of righteousness. The burden of proof for Abraham being indwelt by the Spirit thus falls upon those who make the claim. To even ask, “how else could he have faith”, is to presuppose that regeneration must precede faith. Without this presupposition the difficulty evaporates.

  • davey

    Paula, all sorts of things were issues and not issues for the Old Testament people that are shown in completely different lights in the New Testament. The idea that those with faith are regenerate looks to have much justification in the New Testament.

  • davey, this is still an argument from silence, especially since not even the New Testament mentions any such regeneration before Abraham was credited with righteousness. There is simply nothing but presupposition to suggest otherwise.