God’s Government

God’s Government October 18, 2015

It seems that I have reached the point in my life where I am doing scholarship even in my sleep. A few nights ago I had a dream in which I was looking into the possibility that “God’s government” would be a good way to translate the New Testament phrase “the kingdom of God.” I was working through the parables, noticing many where the first impression one gets is that the rendering simply doesn’t fit, and then discovering that on closer inspection it just might work.

I suppose, after this experience, I have two questions. The first is what you think of “the government of God” as a way of rendering “the kingdom of God” for modern audiences, and as an attempt to capture the essential points of the phrase’s meaning in Jesus’ time. Poking around just a little on line (after waking up from the dream), it seems to be a rendering that some religious groups like (such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses), but I did not find much scholarly discussion of the concept. It does seem to me worth discussing – if only to bring into focus the ways that such a rendering is inadequate, and thus to highlight the differences between modern governments and ancient kingdoms for modern readers. But given that “government” has overlap with the range of meanings of both “kingdom” and “reign” or “rule,” and given that the latter two words have been proposed as alternatives to the former as renderings in English of the Aramaic word that Jesus would have used, I’m not sure that my dream would have been better spent doing something else.

The second question is whether anyone else has ever practiced their profession in their sleep – or is this a sign of how much I love what I do, since engaging in hobbies, like music or sports, is not uncommon in one’s dreams…?

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  • Jehovah Witness

    Jehovah’s Witnesses version of God’s Government is a false Gospel. (Gal. 1:8)
    Straight up doctrinal facts on Jehovah Witness.
    The Jehovah’s Witnesses teach preach that Jesus had his return aka second coming October 1914,then they spin all sorts of doctrinal embellishments on that date.
    Jehovah’s Witnesses promotion of their Watchtower sect has the net effect of stumbling and turning people off to the real Gospel.
    Jesus said: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel land and sea to win one proselyte; and when he is won, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves” (Matt 23:15)

    • charlesburchfield

      so…you were a witness? grew up in a sect? vent buddy vent! I’m listening.

  • Jon-Michael Ivey

    Almost everyone likely dreams about their jobs fairly often. The dreams we are most likely to remember are the exciting or terrifying ones that happen during REM sleep, but we know that that humans dream in all phases of sleep. During deep sleep, we dream almost exclusively of very boring, mundane, tedious tasks. Common topics for such dreams include practicing penmanship, filing index cards alphabetically, and basic arithmetic.

    • charlesburchfield

      yeah mang! I hear ya!

  • Michael Wilson

    I think government is an ok translation of kingdom, kingdoms are governments after all. It doesn’t stike me as, ahem, Majestic enough though. Some have postulated a heaven where prayers go unanswered and dead set free to haunt the earth because some idiot is asleep at the wheel just like real government, but I don’t think this is what the prophets have in mind. While kings don’t sit well with our current liberal philosophies it only because on earth our kings are human (if you like something gender neutral, I recommend Monarch). By nature God us an ultimate being however and really does have a divine right to rule. Being uncomfortable with God as monarch is like saying your not comfortable with someone that always knows how to get the right thing to do done in charge. Can we have a vote between the best guy for the job and someone else?

    On the meaning of kingdom of God to Christians now and then, I’m fairly curious on your thoughts, James, on the subject. Jesus seems to have couple of perspectives on it, one of his followers executing the kingdom by their example and another of the kingdom being brought by Gods supernatural will. Despite embracing a physics that dismisses supernatural intervention, I’m still intrigued by the notion of a universal kingdom of God, and I’m still perplexed by the age old Christian dilemma of how pacifist Christians are expected to do governments work of wielding a sword of terror against evil doers.

    • This is a key point. I just wrote another blog post about the depiction of God as absentee landlord. There is, on the one hand, the expectation that the kingdom of God will dawn, but on the other hand, language which suggests that rule by God is not simply a future expectation. And so there is ambiguity here, to be sure, and it does intersect precisely where government meets kingdom. Is Jesus hoping for a divine intervention that will install him as king, or God as king? Or is he hoping for slow grass-roots change? Or can it be both/and rather than either/or?

      • John MacDonald

        I think, up to the end, Jesus thought God would intervene and install him as king. This would seem to be why Jesus becomes terrified when he begins to realize his death is immanent, and he calls out in terror and confusion the Cry of Dereliction – “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”

      • jekylldoc

        It seems as though Jesus had in mind at the same time both the radical eschatology of Isaiah, with lion lying down with lamb, and the inward kingdom of many of the prophets, including even Amos, with a famine for the word of God. I don’t have the scholarship to pin down the sequencing of messages in the NT, but these both seem to me to be integral parts of the strange and dramatic preaching of the kingdom which I associate most strongly with the synoptics’ character of Jesus.

        Divine intervention? Yes. Supernatural? Yes. But spiritual as well, and at the same time.

        That is why, for me, it is vital to keep Jesus the exorcist in mind. I don’t think Jesus saw any line separating spiritual power from inner peace and healing. Demons are created by social pressures that are against wholeness, and Jesus had experience, IMO, overcoming them with a radical spiritual presence.

    • Nick Gotts

      By nature God us an ultimate being however and really does have a divine
      right to rule. Being uncomfortable with God as monarch is like saying
      your not comfortable with someone that always knows how to get the right
      thing to do done in charge. Can we have a vote between the best guy
      for the job and someone else?

      The evidence of the real world shows quite clearly that if God is in charge, he’s either a sadistic psychopath or a blundering incompetent. High time he was called to answer to the electorate! But I bet he’d rig the vote.

      • Michael Wilson

        Well, I’m using the ideal view of God here, who by definition is not an incompetent psycho. You know all knowing all good so on.

        Maybe God is a dumb psycho, but don’t judge someone unless you’ve walked a mile in their shoes.

        • Nick Gotts

          But since there is overwhelming evidence that there is no such God as the ideal view portrays, what’s the point? After all, every tyrant has and had their sycophants, eager to describe them in similar terms.

          • Michael Wilson

            I think the question is about how Christians might refer to God and how to translate their terms regarding God. It’s no good to use atheist assumptions since that wouldn’t accurately reflect Christian views.

  • charlesburchfield

    Yes! his kingdom is not of this world I have heard it said. so far as I have been able to disern it is a head/heart thang. IMO this awakeness & aliveness comes as a consequence of one’s brokeness & having no or low status (perhaps lowest status as in being a slave or a low cast servant) Yikes! these are nobodies whom no one wants to know bc of one’s illusion one can control outcomes & they don’t seem to be able to! I think as the world inches it’s way to what it is becomming under the influence of empire & the minions of empire one will have to make a decision either by default or by intention to be a servant or a minion.

  • arcseconds

    I’m kind of with Michael on this one. ‘Kingdom’ has always had notions associated with it that we’d now call ‘romantic’: the idea of everyone linked in together as one under one rule, some great impressive monarch who defends the orphans and widows, leads the army into battle, etc, arrives in a coach, accompanied always by soldiers in full regalia and choirs and bands, who sums up the whole nation in one person.

    And actually now absolute monarchs are rare and few people live in genuinely feudal societies any more, that gives us more free reign (so to speak) to focus on the romance of kingdoms, undisturbed by the fact that in reality they were often arbitrary exercises in power, negotiated of course with other power-brokers, who on the few occasions were the monarch actually wanted to act in the interests of the people were often enough agin’ the idea.

    Governments, on the other hand, are boring, mundane, and bureaucratic, and can be (at least they’re often perceived as being) an imposition: they quibble, balance books, pass legislation about food labeling, raise taxes, etc.

    Is our romance about kingdoms really a good idea, though? I know fairy tales are fun, but absolute monarchy is a terrible form of government, and feudalism a terrible way to organise society. I wonder whether Prince Charming and Aragorn and pining for kingdoms set us up to fall in line behind Our Glorious Leader a bit too quickly, seeing them as someone who commands us, rather than someone who serves us.

    • Perhaps one thing that substituting “government” would accomplish is precisely to make it a reference to something mundane, albeit connected with God, rather than something that is merely the stuff of stories?

      • Michael Wilson

        In a sense though I feel that the Kingdom of God is a fairy tale. Not that it is foolish kid stuff, but it is not something we will see happen in totality. I think it means perfect justice, and I don’t any one is wise enough to know what that even is, much less implement. Saying the church is the Kingdom of God must come with a big big * because it borders on blasphemous to suggest that the accomplishments of Christianity at any time are the manifestation of God’s perfect kingdom. Instead I see it as goal to compare what is accomplished against. Only a fool thinks that their liberal democratic government is any thing more than a bunch of power hungry knobs out to pull a fast one. Not that we should throw them out, they are really the best we can do. Trump or Sander’s aren’t going to change that, believe me.

        • Nick Gotts

          Why should we believe your knee-jerk cynicism?

          • Michael Wilson

            Because all previous politicians have failed to live up to our dreams and ideals. They really want to cultivate the messianic image to fool marks, but we shouldn’t fall for it, presume the worst, make them prove otherwise.

          • Nick Gotts

            “Failing to live up to our [I think you mean your] dreams and ideals” is very different from “a bunch of power hungry knobs out to pull a fast one”, which is absurdly over the top. Politicians are mostly fairly ordinary people, more ambitious than average, but neither saints nor psychopaths, rather with the usual mix of selfish and altruistic motives. You’re making a similar ridiculous assertion in your response: “They really want to cultivate the messianic image”. Really? All politicians? Did Gerald Ford, for example, cultivate a messianic image? John Major? Helmut Kohl? (I’m deliberately choosing politicians I both disliked and profoundly disagreed with here.)

          • Michael Wilson

            Yeah, it’s hyperbole, but again we should be skeptical of their pretense of selfless servants of the people. They are pretty regular, not super people.

            Ford was way to dull to imagine any one would see him as the savior of the nation, and generally I guess right wing politicos don’t need to convince the wealthy that vote for them that their going to make the tides recede and heal the planet and what not. Though Trump is doing well on the conceit that his genious will send all the Mexicans back.

    • jekylldoc

      arcseconds – given that the law was to be written on our hearts, I think its establishment by power might be counter to the main flow. “Government” to me is not so much bureaucratic as mutual – we agree what laws we will follow and then, because we agree with them, we more or less follow those laws.

      It is a kind of romance of the philosopher-citizen.

    • Nick Gotts

      Actually, as far as I am aware, no-one lives in a feudal society any more. “Feudalism” means a lot more than an undemocratic or pre-capitalist society: cultivators tied to the soil (but not usually liable to be bought and sold), and the supply of military contingents to the ruler in return for grants of land, are minimal requirements. And for all its many faults, feudalism was possibly the most innovative type of pre-capitalist society. I recommend Perry Anderson’s Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism and Lineages of the Absolutist State as a starting point for anyone who actually wants to understand feudalism, and its complex relationship to absolute monarchy.

  • Dave Again

    God and government don’t mix. To maintain freedom of belief or not, a government should be wholly secular. Your rights to these freedoms are written in the constitution. Leave God out of the mix.

    • This is good advice for the present – but it wasn’t the viewpoint, as far as we can tell, of anyone in the first century.