The Kingdom of God
This lengthy article is an attempt to outline a revised understanding of the story about the coming of the ‘kingdom of God’ that I think potentially constitutes a more accurate synopsis of New Testament teaching than traditional interpretations and may prove in the long run to provide a more appropriate narrative core for an emerging theology. However, please note that there are still gaps in the argument and that I have not included the necessary supporting material.
The perspective presented here is by no means novel: others have put forward similar reconstructions, most notably N.T. Wright. There is plenty of scope to discuss the exact form the story takes. My main concern is to make sure that we are telling the right sort of story. In any case, whatever the merits and demerits of this particular reconstruction, I think that a post-modern theology needs to start grappling more seriously with the narrative core of Christian faith and the manner in which we communicate it.
Overview of The Story:
The announcement that the kingdom of God is at hand in the Gospels has to do primarily with the fate of first century Israel. Jesus warned the people of impending national disaster but also offered a way of salvation for the nation if people would walk with him on the path that he was following.
This salvation is depicted in the first place in terms of the Old Testament hope of a final end to exile and the return of YHWH to a Zion set free from oppression. It becomes possible because Jesus suffered judgment in the place of others: the community which identified itself in faith with him, therefore, would not be destroyed but would survive to be the renewed people of God.
The process of restoration, however, would be painful for those who are saved. A second Old Testament motif is invoked in order to express the conviction that those who suffered during this period of tribulation would in the end be vindicated. In the prophetic drama of Daniel 7 a human figure representing the persecuted ‘saints’ of the Most High receives ‘dominion and glory and kingdom’.
The ‘coming of the Son of man’ is a defining moment in an historical process that saw the violent termination of temple worship, the scattering of Israel, the ‘defeat’ of Roman imperial power, and the emergence of a renewed international people of God; it is a prophetic motif signifying the transfer of sovereignty from Rome to the Christ and those in him.
Having received the kingdom, Christ now reigns at the right hand of the Father with those who suffered with him, who make up the ‘first resurrection’. The church is now, in effect, in a ‘post-eschatological’ situation, called to manifest the light of an authentic knowledge of God in the world, sustained by grace and unmediated by the structures of formal religious behaviour.
There remains the expectation of a final judgment, the overthrow of death, and the appearance of a new heaven and new earth.
Principles of Interpretation:
These, very briefly, are the main principles of interpretation – the distinctive hermeneutical presuppositions – that underpin this reconstruction of the story about the kingdom of God. They have to do especially with how we understand New Testament eschatology and read the texts associated with it. The reading offered here locates the teaching of the New Testament in a fundamentally eschatological framework in the sense that it deals with a decisive transition – an end but also a beginning – in the history of the ‘people of God’.
1. New Testament eschatology can be properly understood only from the historical and religious perspective of the New Testament authors. We must learn to look forwards from the first century rather than backwards from the twenty-first century. It is like writing on a glass door – the church has passed through the door and now struggles to decipher the cryptic text from the wrong side. In our minds we must go back through the door and read from the other side.
2. Apocalyptic language is highly allusive and must consistently be read against the colourful backdrop both of Old Testament prophecy and of the Jewish apocalyptic mindset. The argumentative context from which the ideas and images are drawn will frequently be seen both to clarify and to delimit their significance.
3. We should expect apocalyptic language, even in its more obscure and mythical formulations, to relate meaningfully to historical events as experienced or foreseen by the community which generated the apocalyptic visions. Prophetic and mythical language should not override or displace historical or literal language: it is the means by which the historical narrative is interpreted and redescribed.
4. Within the constraints of a proper literary-critical methodology, we should endeavour to construct an integrated eschatological narrative for the New Testament. This must be based on a proper understanding of both apocalyptic tradition and historical context. If we have become wary of attempts to develop a grand synthesis of New Testament eschatology, it is largely because this has too often been undertaken within the framework of a fundamentalist and literalist hermeneutic that has only served to generate arcane and fantastic end-time scenarios.
The Hope of the Kingdom of God
The New Testament picture of the Kingdom of God has not been painted on to a blank canvas; rather, we watch it emerge from the historical and religious circumstances of first century Judaism. Israel had failed to realize the potential inherent in its religious institutions and traditions, in its national identity and in its calling, to be a righteous, God-centred people and an authentic and effective ‘light’ to the peoples of the earth. This failure was apparent in various ways: creeping Hellenization, Roman occupation, the fragmentation of religious leadership and community, the loss of any prophetic voice, and the awareness that the return from exile in Babylon remained tragically incomplete.
John the Baptist, the last of the prophets, first articulated the belief that this state of religious failure was bound to culminate in national disaster: ‘Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire’ (Matt.3:10; Lk.3:9). At the same time, however, he is interpreted by the Gospel tradition as the messenger who cries in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight’ (Mk.1:2-3; Matt.3:3; Lk.3:4-6). The quotation from Isaiah 40:3 invokes a declaration of ‘good news’ to Jerusalem that the punishment of the exile is coming to an end, that her sins have been forgiven, and that the Lord God is about to return to Zion. The forgiveness of sins in the Gospels is not a matter of purely personal benefit: each instance is a sign of national restoration. Central to the prophecy is the description of a righteous ‘servant’, who is both an individual and Israel, who will suffer, but who will be ‘a covenant to the people, a light to the nations’ (Is.42:6). This is the context in which Jesus begins his ministry.
The Kingdom of God:
Jesus did not invent the idea of the ‘kingdom of God’. Behind the use of the phrase in the Gospels lie two distinct Old Testament motifs. Together they account for the eschatological narrative structure that gives shape to the New Testament concept of the kingdom of God.
The first entails the coming of the Lord to dwell once more amongst his people as king, which draws on prophetic themes of the restoration of Israel following exile in Babylon. It is acted out most powerfully in the carefully staged, and of course ironic, pageant of Jesus’ final entry into Jerusalem in the guise of the prophesied king of peace: ‘Tell the daughter of Zion, Behold your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on an ass…’ (Matt.21:5; Jn.12:15; cf. Zech.9:9). It is invoked in the numerous parables of a master who returns to his house after a long journey (eg. Matt.25:14-30; 12:35-40; 19:11-27). It speaks of the renewed and decisive presence (parousia) of God within Israel, which is a presence inevitably both for judgment and salvation. Jesus’ warning to the disciples that they must be ready for the return of the master (eg. Lk.12:35) has a particular historical frame of reference: the great crisis of judgment and salvation at the end of Israel’s age. If the disciples do not remain faithful to their calling, they will be put ‘with the unfaithful’ (Lk.12:46), ‘with the hypocrites’ (Matt.24:51), cast ‘into outer darkness’ where ‘men will weep and gnash their teeth’ (Matt.25:30) – in other words, they too will suffer the judgment that was coming upon Israel.
The second motif relates to the overthrow of Israel’s enemies and the vindication of the righteous – the saints of the Most High – in the aftermath of persecution. It emerges from the complex and dramatic prophecy in Daniel 7 concerning ‘one like a son of man’ who, as a representative, or better a representation, of the persecuted saints of the Most High, receives ‘dominion and glory and kingdom’ (Dan.7:14). This story may appear obscure and irrelevant (suffering is not one of the great post-modern aspirations), but it pervades much of the New Testament and must be made central to our attempt to understand the person of Jesus and the community that takes its identity from him. Only by recovering the significance of this story can we begin to appreciate the seriousness and realism of his vision.
In Daniel’s vision four great beasts, representing earthly kingdoms, emerge from the sea. The fourth beast is more dreadful in appearance than the others; on its head appear ten horns and in their midst a little horn with ‘eyes like the eyes of a man, and a mouth speaking great things’ (8), which ‘made war with the saints, and prevailed over them’ (21). Thrones are set up, the Ancient of Days takes his seat, and the court passes judgment on the beasts; dominion is taken from the first three beasts, and the fourth beast is slain and its body burned. The Son of man figure then comes ‘with the clouds of heaven’, is presented before the Ancient of Days, and is given ‘dominion and glory and kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him’ (13-14). In the interpretation of the vision, however, this single human figure is identified with the saints of the Most High who are oppressed by the king symbolized by the little horn. The angel tells Daniel: ‘the kingdom and the dominion and the greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven shall be given to the people of the saints of the Most High; their kingdom shall be an everlasting kingdom, and all dominions shall serve and obey them’ (27).
The prophetic drama of the overthrow of the four beasts and the transfer of sovereignty to the one like a Son of man originally had reference to the circumstances leading to the Maccabean crisis in the 2nd century BC. Jesus, following Jewish apocalyptic tradition, has taken this scenario and transposed it to the circumstances of first century Judaism. The ‘coming of the kingdom of God’ in the Gospels, therefore, should be understood principally as the imminent transfer of sovereignty from the political and religious forces represented by the fourth beast and the little horn to the Christ and those in him. This is the sense in which we must understand, for example, the prayer ‘Thy kingdom come’ (Matt.6:10; Lk.11:2) and Jesus’ promise that some of those listening to him would live to ‘see the Son of man coming in his kingdom’ (Matt.16:28).
The prophecy will be realized historically in the faithfulness of the disciples in the face of persecution, in the extension of the people of God beyond the boundaries of Israel, and finally in the victory of the gospel over Roman imperial ideology. It is an assurance that the new community founded on the confession of Jesus as the Christ will find its way through the dangerous years ahead; not even death will prevail against it (Matt.16:18). It is realized mythically in the affirmation of Christ’s lordship, but also in the assurance that those who suffer for the sake of Christ will reign with him. It is important to recognize that sovereignty is not transferred to the church – as though the conversion of Constantine put the final seal on the transfer of power. It is to those who have suffered, supremely to Christ himself, that ‘dominion and glory and kingdom’ are given.
A narrative logic connects these two motifs. The restoration of Israel as missionary community driven by the Spirit of God and committed to proclaim the universal lordship of Christ inevitably brings them into conflict with pagan belief and, above all, with the imperial cult. The ‘saints’, therefore, will be oppressed, as they were by Antiochus, and will cry out for vindication. The vision of the coming of the Son of man figure is the assurance that the church that is faithful to the gospel of Jesus will eventually overcome even the most overweening and brutal opposition. Here we see, too, the means by which the kingdom of God motif is transposed from the rule of God in restored Zion to the rule of the Son of man at the right hand of the Father.
The ‘good news of the kingdom of God’ as it is announced in the Gospels is not so much a universal message about personal salvation as the prophetic assurance that a renewed people of God would emerge through the fires of persecution and judgment. The basis of this hope is not found in the institutions of Jewish religion but in the willingness of the Son of man to take upon himself the suffering that would befall the nation as a consequence of its ‘sin’. Resurrection becomes important primarily as the means by which God will vindicate those who remain faithful in the face of extreme opposition. The Gentiles hardly enter into the picture here: it is the salvation of Israel that is at stake (eg. Matt.10:5-6).
The preaching of the good news of the kingdom throughout the world (Mk.14:9; 16:15; Acts 15:7) is the announcement that Jesus has been vindicated and that those who believe in him will be vindicated in the same manner; it is the announcement that not even the most virulent persecution will overcome the community of those who experience the power of the Spirit of God in the name of Jesus (cf. Rom.8:33-39). But that message is accompanied by a new possibility, emerging from a different set of prophetic texts – one that arises unexpectedly and almost despite the best intentions of the early Jewish believers. It is that non-Jews may also become part of the renewed, forgiven covenant people in the Spirit (cf. Acts 13:46-48; Rom.11:11-32; Eph.2:11-22).
The Binding of Satan:
The Satanic power that will manifest itself politically in opposition to the church in the form of the beast (Rev.13:7) is the same power that holds sway through sickness and demonic possession over the lives of ordinary Jews in the Gospels. Jesus tells the Pharisees that the casting out of demons by the Spirit of God is a sign that ‘the kingdom of God has come upon you’ (Matt.12:25-28). The coming of the kingdom of God is equated with the metaphor of binding the strongman in order to plunder his house (29), which appears to correspond to, or at least anticipate, the binding and imprisonment of Satan in the pit at the start of the thousand years of Christ’s reign (Rev.20:1-3). When the returning disciples declared that ‘even the demons are subject to us in your name’, Jesus assured them, ‘I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven’ (Lk.10:17-18). The imagery of plundering the house of a strongman is prefigured in Isaiah 49:24-25 with reference to the rescue of Israel from her oppressors: “Even the captives of the mighty shall be taken, and the prey of the tyrant be rescued, for I will contend with those who contend with you, and I will save your children.” The allusion reinforces the political dimension to Jesus’ statement. The struggle with Satan is not a universal conflict: it is a struggle – we might almost say a localized struggle – for the religious and spiritual freedom of the people of God.
A Matter of Life or Death
The End of the Age:
The ‘end of the age’ is not a remote prospect for Jesus. In effect, it is a reference to the Roman invasion of Judea and the destruction of Jerusalem, the ending of temple-based worship, the scattering of the Jews (Matt.13:39, 40, 49; 24:3; 28:20). The disciples’ question ‘when will this be, and what will be the sign when these things are all to be accomplished?’ is prompted by Jesus’ prediction that the temple would soon be reduced to rubble (Mk.13:2-4). Jesus had earlier told the disciples that some of them would not ‘taste death’ before they saw the ‘Son of man coming in his kingdom’ (Matt.16:28) or that ‘the kingdom of God has come with power’ (Mk.9:1; cf. Lk.9:27).
The numerous parables of watchfulness have the same frame of reference. The coming of the master or bridegroom has to do with the judgment and salvation of Israel. The time of the coming is uncertain – not even Jesus knows how long they will have to wait (Mk.13:32), though he is certain that it will happen within a generation (Mk.13:30). Jesus has the same time frame in view when he instructs his followers to make disciples of all nations, assuring them that he will be with them ‘always, to the close of the age’ (Matt.28:19-20). His statement here that all authority has been given to him is also an allusion to Daniel 7:14.
The law of Moses remains operative for Jesus and for Jewish Christianity until ‘heaven and earth pass away’ and ‘all is accomplished’ (Matt.5:18; cf. Mark 13:31; Luke 21:33; Matt.24:35). In the later chapters of Isaiah, however, the creation of new heavens and a new earth (Is.66:22) is made the symbol of a far-reaching restoration of Israel and renewal of the worship of God, following judgment on a rebellious people (65:2; cf. 66:24). Salvation will be extended to the Gentiles (51:4-6), and all flesh will come to worship before the Lord (66:23). It is this watershed in salvation-history that Jesus has in mind, not the disintegration of the time-space continuum.
From the perspective of the Gentile mission there is the same awareness that ‘the form of this world is passing away’ (1 Cor.7:31), that ‘the night is far gone, the day is at hand’ (Rom.13:12). The theological problem of the delay of the parousia in the New Testament is really the historical and very urgent problem of the delay of judgment on the enemies of God’s people, which would bring an end to their suffering. The question is raised explicitly when the threat of persecution is most acute (cf. James 5:7-11; 2 Pet.3:1-10).
The Two Paths:
Understanding that Israel’s history was coming to a climax, Jesus set before the people two paths – a wide path that led to destruction; and a narrow path that led to life (Matt.7:13-14; Lk.13:24). There is an echo here of Jeremiah 21:8-10, where the ‘way of death’ culminates in the destruction of Jerusalem by the king of Babylon and the way of life is escape from the city and surrender to the Chaldeans. Perhaps Jesus had this in mind when he told the disciples in Judea to escape to the mountains before the end (Matt.24:16-18; Mk.13:14). The choice, and the division in Israel that resulted from it, is also foreshadowed in the distinction in Daniel between, on the one hand, those who ‘forsake the holy covenant’ and, on the other, ‘the people who know their God’ – the wise, who will be refined through suffering and in the end raised to ‘everlasting life’ (Dan.11:30-35; 12:2).
Jesus was in no doubt that Israel was on a course that would lead to the destruction of Jerusalem, the slaughter of a large part of the population, and the shattering of Jewish religious life. When he created havoc in the temple, he angrily cited Jeremiah 7:11: ‘Is my house, whereon my name is called, a den of robbers in your eyes?’ The context is important and Jesus meant his hearers to recall it: the verse forms part of a prophecy of judgment against Jerusalem and the temple that concludes: ‘Therefore thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, my anger and my wrath will be poured out on this place, upon man and beast, upon the trees of the field and the fruit of the ground; it will burn and not be quenched’ (20). The ‘way of life’, on the other hand, meant a radical revision of religious, social, and personal priorities and a willingness to trust that the course which Jesus was charting through opposition and suffering towards resurrection and glory was Israel’s only real hope of salvation.
The same choice appears in Paul’s preaching to the Jews in Pisidian Antioch. The forgiveness of the nation’s sins was proclaimed through Jesus – the hope of avoiding catastrophic judgment on the nation (Acts 13:38-39). But if they rejected that forgiveness, they could not expect to escape the sort of national ruin prefigured in Habakkuk 1:5-11 (Acts 13:40-41).
Images of Mass Destruction:
The images of ‘hell’ that appear in the Gospels are prophetic depictions of the coming judgment on Israel. ‘Gehenna’, as Jesus uses the term, is not a place of universal, eternal torment. Jerusalem’s notorious rubbish dump, where perpetual fire consumed the corpses of animals and criminals, has been made an image for the devastation of the city by the Romans, which is conceived not as an arbitrary historical occurrence but as a predictable act of divine judgment. The Jewish War, as Josephus graphically describes it, was the ‘hell of fire’ for a people who persistently defied God and acted unrighteously (cf. Matt.5:22, 29, 30). Jesus concludes his condemnation of the scribes and Pharisees with the warning that the judgment of gehenna ‘will come upon this generation’ and a lament over Jerusalem: ‘Behold, your house is forsaken and desolate’ (Matt.23:36-38). The fact that the judgment of Gehenna is said to be ‘eternal’ or ‘unquenchable’ (Matt.18:8-9; Mk.9:43, 48) is indicative not of endless suffering but of the finality and irreversibility of the judgment. It is the fate of the nation, rather than of individuals, that is principally in view.
The parable of the weeds in the field (Matt.13:24-30, 36-43; cf. the parable of the catch of fish: Matt.13:47-50) describes not the final judgment of all humanity but the judgment of Israel at the end of the age, when the ‘righteous’ in Israel are separated from the unrighteous. Jesus concludes his explanation of the parable by saying ‘the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father’ (Matt.13:43). The allusion to Daniel 12:3 is unmistakable: ‘those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the firmament’. What Jesus has in view is an impending national crisis, comparable to the crisis provoked by the intervention of Antiochus into Jewish religious life: unrighteous Israel will be destroyed, thrown into ‘the furnace of fire’ (Matt.13:42); but the righteous – the wise who ‘shall make many understand, though they shall fall by sword and flame, by captivity and plunder’ (Dan.11:33) – will be raised to eternal life. But this is not a final and universal resurrection. It is the hope given (perhaps exclusively) to a particular group under particular historical conditions. Being the first to suffer, Jesus is also the first to be raised to life in advance of the group of those who will be raised with him (cf. 1 Cor.15:20-23; Col.1:18).
The Significance of Jesus' Death:
Christ's death at the hands of the Gentiles (Matt.20:19; Lk.18:32) is, in the first place, a death for Israel or in the place of the nation. As the Son of man figure he pre-empts the suffering of the ‘saints’ who are ‘in him’ or who belong to him. Jesus’ words in Gethsemane, ‘Let this cup pass from me’ (Matt.26:39), are a reference to the Old Testament cup of divine judgment on the people (cf. Ps.75:8; Is.51:17, 22; Jer.49:12; Lam.2:13; Ezek.23:31-34; Hab.2:16). It is not a universal judgment for a universal state of sinfulness that he faces but judgment for the particular sin of Israel’s persistent rebellion against God. But the ‘cross’ is also the means by which the separation of Jews and Gentiles is overcome: the ‘law of commandments and ordinances’, which enforced the separation, has been abolished ‘in his flesh’ (Eph.2:11-22).
Salvation as the Survival of the People of God:
We might suggest, then, that ‘Jesus’ death for us’ is effective in two particular respects. First, it is the basis for the salvation of the people of God during the eschatological crisis: Israel will not be completely annihilated by the coming judgment because Jesus has died ‘as a ransom for many’ (Matt.20:28; Mk.10:45). The disciples in Judea will be saved by fleeing to the mountains (Matt.24:16-18; Mk.13:14). Peter is conscious of the historical urgency motivating the preaching of the gospel when he exhorts the crowds on the day of Pentecost, ‘Save yourselves from this crooked generation’ (Acts 2:40). It is in this context of catastrophic judgment on Israel that he asserts, ‘And it shall be that whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved’ (Acts 2:21). When later he tells the council in Jerusalem that ‘we believe that we shall be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus’ (Acts 15:11), he has in view the impending judgment on the city and the fall-out from that event for the wider Roman world: it is not Jews alone who need to be saved from the coming wrath (Acts 11:12).
Those who do not ‘survive’ the ‘birthpangs’ of the new age, who die because they have chosen to follow the same path as Jesus, will be raised with him and share in his kingdom. The leading argument of Romans 5-8 is that those who have been justified by faith and therefore have peace with God (5:1), who can expect to be saved from the wrath of God (5:9), have a hope of sharing in the glory of God through the experience of suffering (5:2-5; 8:17, 18, 29-30). But prior to this historically limited eschatological hope, justification by faith provides the basis on which people become ‘descendants’ of Abraham (4:11-13; 9:8), members of a community drawn from all the nations, who will ‘inherit the world’ (4:13). Salvation and justification are essentially corporate categories: what matters is that there continues to be a justified people of God, not that individuals are approved for entry into heaven.
Salvation as the Inclusion of the Gentiles:
The second effect of Jesus’ death for us is that it brings about the reconstitution of Israel as a people of grace rather than of law, possessing the Spirit of God, including Gentiles. Paul’s critical statement in Ephesians 2:8-9 about salvation by grace through faith and ‘not because of works’ belongs to a larger argument about the reconciliation of Gentiles to God and their incorporation into a ‘holy temple in the Lord’, which is the ‘dwelling place of God in the Spirit’ (2:21-22). This argument needs to be taken seriously. Of course, by making themselves part of the redeemed community of Israel at a time of impending distress, Gentiles also associate themselves with the oppressed saints of the Most High and have the same hope of being glorified at the coming of the Son of man. But fundamentally, they are ‘saved’ not in order to get into heaven but in order to be part of a redeemed community, where the Spirit of God is active, which experiences the life of the age that will come after the crisis (cf. Acts 13:46), from which they had previously been excluded.
Salvation in the Old Testament is a very worldly notion. It describes God's intervention to rescue the people from a difficult or dangerous situation and restore them to wholeness: salvation is health, safety, peace, military victory, deliverance; it is the continuing well-being of the people. Only in extreme instances does salvation require rescue beyond death in the form of resurrection. The eschatological crisis that marked the transition between the old Israel and the new brought salvation as resurrection to the fore because the continuation of the community required faithfulness and steadfastness to the point of death. But we should not lose sight of the fact that salvation is the response of God to a particular set of concrete circumstances.
Most of what is said about ‘salvation’ in the New Testament, therefore, must be interpreted in relation to the eschatological watershed of the coming of the kingdom of God (the destruction of Jerusalem, the defeat of Roman imperial power, the emergence of the church) and the experience of God through the Spirit in the context of the ‘new covenant’ community. Beyond this, however, at the point when death itself is overcome (1 Cor.15:26; Rev.20:14), all people will be judged according to how they have lived their lives: ‘the dead were judged by what was written in the books, by what they had done’ (Rev.20:12). This is the final and universal judgment.
Faith and Works:
This understanding has some important implications. It may help us to resolve the tension between the principle of salvation by grace and texts such as Romans 2:6, which states that God ‘will render to every man according to his works’. Paul goes on to argue in this passage (12-16) that Gentiles who do not have the law will be judged according to conscience – not condemned out of hand because they have not believed the gospel. It may offer, therefore, a better way of settling the argument about exclusivism, at least inasmuch as exclusion from the covenant community does not equate directly with exclusion from heaven. In any case, it certainly shifts the emphasis from getting to heaven to being an effective people of God now. The church has become far too complacent about its participation in the cultured olive tree of Israel (cf. Rom.11:17-24). The argument reinforces a sense of ethical and spiritual obligation, not least for Christians: salvation simply gets the people of God to the point where they can start doing ‘good works’.
The Coming Crisis
The Build-up to War:
At the heart of Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom of God is the prediction that within a generation Israel would experience a devastating political and religious crisis. There would be a period of increasing disorder and anxiety (the eschatological ‘birthpangs’ which mark the onset of judgment and the inauguration of the messianic age) during which the disciples would find themselves persecuted, isolated, tempted by false hopes of security. 2 Thessalonians 2:3 (‘the rebellion comes first’) may suggest that Jewish revolt against Roman rule would set the chain of ‘end-time’ events in motion. The nation would be invaded; Jerusalem and its temple would be destroyed. The vivid apocalyptic language, echoing Old Testament texts, suggests both that this catastrophe would be the outworking of God’s judgment on the people and that it would constitute an irrevocable overthrow of Israel’s religious system. The destruction of Jerusalem is also prophesied, or perhaps described (depending on how we date the text), in the sequence of seven seals and seven trumpets in Revelation.
Those disciples who endure to the ‘end’ of this period of turmoil will be ‘saved’ – not least in the sense that the embryonic Jewish church will survive the war against Rome (Mk.13:13; Matt.24:13; cf. Mk.13:20). But this ‘end’ will not be reached before the gospel has been preached ‘in the whole world as a testimony to all nations’ (Matt.24:14; cf. Mk.13:10). This expectation, though commonly invoked now as a motivation for mission, must be interpreted historically: it is Jesus’ own disciples – the sect of the Nazarenes (Acts 24:5) – who will fulfil this prophecy as they bear testimony before governors and kings for the sake of Jesus (Mk.13:9-10). We must assume that, in the special and limited sense that it was intended, it has been fulfilled.
The climactic moment in the judgment on Israel is the installation of the ‘abomination of desolation’ in the holy place (Mk.13:14; Matt.24:15). The phrase originally alluded to the erection of an altar to Zeus in the temple by Antiochus Epiphanes in 167 BC, but it had become the archetypal act of desecration and readily finds fulfilment in the impiety of Titus’ soldiers, who offered sacrifices before their standards as the sanctuary burned. Paul describes the same event in the narrative of the man of lawlessness in 2 Thessalonians 2:3-4.
The Coming of the Son of Man:
The cosmic disturbances that precede the coming of the Son of man (Mark 13:24-25; Lk.21:25-26; Matt.24:29) must also be interpreted in relation to the circumstances of the war against Rome. They follow on immediately after the period of extreme suffering (‘in those days’, ‘immediately’: Mk.13:24; Matt.24:29) and will take place before the generation of Jesus’ contemporaries disappears (Mk.13:30). Such language is used in the Old Testament to designate the impending crisis as a final and irrevocable act of judgment. Isaiah 34, for example, is a proclamation of God’s anger against the nations and against Edom in particular. It includes the predictions: ‘All the host of heaven shall rot away, and the skies roll up like a scroll. All their host shall fall, as leaves fall from the vine, like leaves falling from the fig tree’ (v.4). But the world is not destroyed, and in the end Edom is depicted as a wasteland overgrown with thorns and thistles, inhabited by wild animals. Israel faces the same divine judgment that it faced in the past when Judah was invaded by Nebuchadnezzar. The difference this time is that there is no accompanying promise of the literal restoration of Jerusalem and the temple.
Jesus’ ‘prophecy’ about the ‘coming of the Son of man’ is less a prediction about what will happen, a description of future events, than a statement from within the purview of Jewish apocalypticism about the fulfilment of Daniel’s vision. He does not say that the Son of man will descend bodily from heaven to earth: he means rather that the drama of Daniel 7, in which the enemy of God’s people is overthrown and kingdom given to the saints of the Most High, will be re-enacted in the course of the coming crisis of the end of the age. This will be recognized beyond the boundaries of Israel: ‘as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of man’ (Matt.24:27). Not only the high priest (Matt.26:64) but also the tribes of the earth (Matt.24:30) will ‘see’ the vindication of Jesus – ‘the Son of man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory’.
After the final disappearance of Jesus, lifted up and carried out of sight by a cloud, the disciples are told by an angel that ‘This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven’ (Acts 1:11). This is probably better understood as a reference back to Jesus’ own statement about ‘the Son of man coming in a cloud with power and great glory’ (Lk.21:27) than as a direct echo of Daniel’s prophecy. The account of Jesus’ ‘ascension’, however, is introduced by a question posed by the disciples about the time of the restoration of the kingdom to Israel (Acts 1:6), which at least sets the coming of Jesus in the context of Israel’s immediate political and religious hopes. This is reinforced by Peter’s later statement to the Jews gathered in Solomon’s portico that heaven must receive the Christ ‘until the time for establishing all that God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old’ (3:21). The phrase ‘by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old’ is found elsewhere in the Greek Bible only at Luke 1:70, where Zechariah speaks of God redeeming his people, raising up a horn of salvation, ‘as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old’ (Luke 1:70). This cannot be a coincidence. Zechariah goes on to define this salvation as a deliverance ‘from the hand of our enemies’ so that Israel ‘might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all the days of our life’ (vv.71-75). Again, the coming of the Son of man has to do with rescue of Israel from her oppressors and the institution of a new freedom of worship and servanthood.
Paul has modified the prophetic schema of the coming of the Son of man in 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17 ‘by a word of the Lord’ in order to accommodate those who had died and to reassure the Thessalonians: the Lord himself will ‘descend’ prior to the ‘coming’ in order to guarantee the participation of the dead in the re-enactment of Daniel’s vision.
The Conflict with Rome:
Jesus’ apocalyptic vision appears not to reach beyond the destruction of Jerusalem and the establishment of the church in the Gentile world. Paul, however, foresees ‘wrath’ against both Israel and Rome (cf. Rom.2:9). The destruction of the fourth beast in Daniel’s prophecy, which appears originally to have been an allusion to Greece, is reused as an image for the defeat of imperial Rome: ‘the beast was captured, and with it the false prophet who in its presence had worked the signs by which he deceived those who had received the mark of the beast and those who worshiped its image. These two were thrown alive into the lake of fire that burns with sulphur’ (Rev.19:20). Paul’s description of the defeat of the ‘man of lawlessness’ (2 Thess.2:8) has the same reference. The interpretive key to this difficult passage is also to be found in the later chapters of Daniel. A detailed parallelism emerges between these two apocalyptic texts which suggests that Paul envisaged an ‘end-time’ dénouement centred on Jerusalem: the religious collapse of the Jews, the resistance mounted by faithful believers and their eventual removal, and the eruption of an extreme lawlessness from the heart of Roman imperialism, culminating in the parousia of the Lord Jesus. The power that brings about the overthrow of Rome, however, is simply the ‘word of God’, the preaching of the gospel (2 Thess.2:8; Rev.19:13, 15; cf. Eph.6:17).
Jesus told his disciples that some of them would live to ‘see the Son of man coming in his kingdom’ (Matt.16:24). At the time of writing 1 Thessalonians at least, Paul expected to be alive at ‘the coming of the Lord’ (1 Thess.4:15). His recommendation that the unmarried in Corinth should remain unmarried is based on the supposition that they would soon face considerable ‘distress’: the ‘appointed time has grown very short… the form of this world is passing away’ (1 Cor.7:25-31). He writes to the church in Rome warning them that it was time to ‘wake from sleep’ for ‘salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed; the night is far gone, the day is at hand’ (Rom.13:11-12; cf. 1 Thess.5:4:11); ‘the God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet’ (Rom.16:20). He tells the Philippians that ‘The Lord is at hand’ (Phil.4:5).
James urges the brethren to be patient ‘until the coming of the Lord’, for ‘the coming of the Lord is at hand…, the Judge is standing at the doors’ (James 5:7-9). The unrighteous rich, on the other hand, should ‘weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you’ (5:1). Peter writes that ‘the end of all things is at hand’ (1 Pet.4:7). The churches face a ‘fiery ordeal’ because ‘the time has come for judgment to begin with the household of God’ (1 Pet.4:12, 17). The phrase ‘household of God’ invokes the temple in Jerusalem at least as a figure for the community (cf. 1 Pet.2:5), but Peter also may have in mind the prospect of a final judgment on Jerusalem and its temple that will have repercussions for the whole Roman world. In his second letter he explicitly addresses the problem of a delay, but it is still appropriate to speak of believers as those who are ‘waiting for and hastening (being eager for) the coming of the day of God’ (2 Pet.3:12).
The writer to the Hebrews encourages his hearers not to neglect meeting together but to encourage one another, ‘all the more as you see the Day drawing near’ (Heb.10:25). A few verses later he quotes from the Septuagint translation of Habakkuk 2:3-4: ‘For yet a little while, and the coming one shall come and shall not tarry; but my righteous one shall live by faith, and if he shrinks back, my soul has no pleasure in him’ (37-38).
The Church and the Kingdom of God
The Reign of Christ and the Reign with Christ:
Christ’s reign begins when the kingdom is transferred to the Son of man figure. The theme appears in Revelation 11:5: ‘The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign for ever and ever.’ In 1 Corinthians 15:23 Paul argues for a separation of Christ’s resurrection from the resurrection of those who belong to him: ‘each in his own order’. Christ has been raised in advance of his ‘coming’ as the Son of man (and as the one who represents the suffering saints) to receive the kingdom. He is seated at the right hand of God, ‘far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in that which is to come’ (Eph.1:20-21). He will reign ‘until he has put all his enemies under his feet’ (1 Cor.15:25; cf. Heb.2:8; 10:12-13); then he will deliver the kingdom to the Father ‘after destroying every rule and every authority and power’ (1 Cor.15:24).
There is an important strand of teaching that relates to the situation of those who suffer because of Christ during the period of upheaval that marked the end of the age. This group will not merely experience resurrection but will participate actively in the reign of the resurrected Christ. This is prefigured in Daniel’s vision, in which it is the oppressed saints of the Most High who receive ‘dominion and glory and kingdom’ (Dan.7:14). The idea appears most clearly in Jesus’ promise that in the kingdom, or in the ‘new world’, those who continue with his in his trials will also be assigned a kingdom and will ‘sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel’ (Lk.22:28-30; cf. Matt.19:28). It may be implicit in the beatitude: ‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven’ (Matt.5:10). In response to aggression from the Jews Paul urged the new converts in Asia Minor to continue in the faith, saying that ‘through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God’ (Acts 14:22). He assures the Thessalonian believers that by their suffering they are ‘made worthy of the kingdom of God’ (2 Thess.1:5). At the coming of the Son of man those whose hearts are ‘unblamable in holiness’ (1 Thess.3:13) will be presented, as the saints of the Most High were presented in Daniel 7, before God: the dead in Christ will have been raised, the living snatched up ‘in the clouds’, to be with Christ at his coming (1 Thess.4:15-17) and to receive the kingdom with him. In Romans 8:17 Paul makes it clear that those who will be ‘fellow heirs with Christ’, who will inherit the same kingdom, are those who will ‘suffer with him’. He also differentiates between the resurrection of Christ, ‘the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep’, and the resurrection ‘at his coming’ (the Son of man motif) of those who belong to Christ’ (1 Cor.15:23).
Peter assures the ‘exiles of the Dispersion’ that they have the hope of an imperishable inheritance. For a little while they will have to ‘suffer various trials’, but because Christ was raised from the dead, they can be certain that a salvation will be ‘revealed in the last time’, at ‘the revelation of Jesus Christ’ (1 Pet.1:3-7). Those who endure the ‘fiery ordeal’ that will come upon them will ‘obtain the unfading crown of glory’ when the chief Shepherd is manifested (1 Pet.4:12-14; 5:4; cf. 5:8-10). It is in the context of opposition, reviling and persecution that the hope of resurrection and glory in the near future becomes operative: the ‘revelation of Jesus Christ’ will bring their sufferings to an end and they will obtain ‘the salvation of your souls’ (1:9). The same thought may lie behind Hebrews 2:10: ‘For it was fitting that [God]… in bringing many sons to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through suffering’ (cf. 6:11-12; 12:1-4; 13:12-14).
The idea that those who suffer will share in Christ’s heavenly reign is given greater clarity in Revelation by the distinction between a first and second resurrection. The first resurrection follows the overthrow of ‘Babylon the great’ (18:2), which is Rome, the revelation of the Word of God (19:11-16; cf. 2 Thess.1:7-8; 2:8), the defeat of the beast and false prophet (19:17-21), both of which are closely associated with Rome’s demonic hostility towards the people of God, and the imprisonment of Satan in the ‘abyss’ for a thousand years. At this point those who did not worship the beast, who were killed ‘for their testimony to Jesus and for the word of God’, are raised to life and reign with Christ for a thousand years (20:4-6). The second resurrection of all the dead takes place at the end of this period (20:12-15).
The Role of the Church in the Age Which Has Come:
This realignment of the apocalyptic narratives of the New Testament along a coherent and immediate historical axis leads us to suggest that the church now finds itself, in effect, in a post-eschatological situation. The apocalyptically conceived crisis that dominates so much of New Testament teaching is behind us: the age of temple-based worship has come to an end, those who suffered with Christ now reign with him, a renewed, international people of God has emerged, the beast which opposed the people of God, while paradoxically being an instrument of divine judgment, has been overthrown, and the satanic power that inspired it has been curtailed. We don’t have a lot of complicated end-time events to worry about.
There are indications in Paul that the church will have an existence after the ‘end of the age’. He speaks, for example, of a ‘Day’ that will test the work of those who have built upon the foundation of Jesus Christ. If the work survives the ‘fire’, the builder will receive a reward; if it is burned up, he will ‘suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire’ (1 Cor.3:14-15). The implication would appear to be that, whatever may become of the builder, the church that is properly built on the foundation of Jesus Christ will continue to exist after the eschatological crisis. Indeed, the whole point of constructing it from incombustible materials is to ensure that it will survive. In Ephesians 2:4-7 he explains that believers have been made alive with Christ, raised up to sit with him in the heavenly places so that ‘in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus’.
In a post-eschatological reading of the Bible there is at least a shift of emphasis from asserting an overarching meta-narrative towards a rediscovery of the role of the historical community in mission. On the one hand, the biblical narrative, even in its most highly ‘mythicized’ aspects, is seen to have a much closer relation to a particular historical context. On the other, we are presented with a more open-ended perspective on the future. The thousand years of Revelation 20 is not an indefinite period of time: eventually Satan will be released from the pit and the final cosmic dénouement will be set in motion. But the expectation of an imminent end, and the attitude of unworldliness that accompanies it, has been relocated in the past. The church has moved beyond that crisis: the persecution that threatened the church of Jesus Christ with annihilation has come to an end, an international community of believers has been established across the Roman world, sovereignty has been transferred from the demonically inspired imperial power of Rome to Christ: ‘Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brethren has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God. And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death’ (Rev.12:9-11).
So what can we now say about the mission of the church? The command to ‘make disciples of all nations’ (Matt.28:19) belongs in principle to the period of eschatological transition and to the same historical context as the earlier statement: ‘this gospel of the kingdom will be preached throughout the whole world, as a testimony to all nations; and then the end will come’ (Matt.24:14). The command is given in order to ensure that they there will be a renewed people of God in the post-eschatological world. Certainly that people needs to be sustained throughout the coming ages, but the emphasis now should be on being – being effectively – the people of God in the world rather than on saving souls.
There is likely to be a recovery of Old Testament patterns of religious life and mission. Forms of discipleship devised to enable the church to function during periods of crisis may give way to more settled, creative, life-affirming modes of being God-centred. The promise to Abraham that all the nations will be blessed through him and Isaiah’s image of Israel as a light to the nations (Is.42:6; 49:6; 60:3) will become central. The church will exemplify a God-centred righteousness (cf. Matt.5:14) and will be the means by which people discover for themselves the possibilities of forgiveness and life in the Spirit (cf. Gal.3:8-9). The church is the servant who will bring ‘justice to the nations’, who will be a ‘covenant to the people’, who will ‘open the eyes that are blind’, who will ‘bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness’ (Is.42:1, 6-7), and who will challenge the prevailing paganism of the world – the stories, myths and ideologies that exclude the living God (43:10-12). The church will be ‘a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light’ (1 Pet.2:9).
1 Corinthians 15:24-28 may suggest that during this period of Christ’s reign at the right hand of the Father his enemies are progressively subjugated. It is also worth noting how frequently the New Testament emphasizes the requirement of ‘good works’ (cf. Matt.5:16; Eph.2:10; Tit.2:14; Heb.10:24). Broadly speaking, a post-eschatological church will adopt a this-worldly orientation: the vision is of a community permeated with the presence of God, functioning as a sign of that reality, as a catalyst for goodness and integrity in the world, and as a reservoir of grace at the heart of mankind’s social and creative endeavour.
A Theology of Wholeness:
If a recovery of Old Testament patterns of religious life brings into focus the church’s responsibility to be an authentic and effective ‘light to the nations’, we should also expect to find a renewed interest in ‘prosperity’. This, of course, needs to be properly understood. The main point to be made here is that if we have in some sense (not absolutely) moved beyond the eschatological crisis that was so determinative for the teaching of Jesus and the early church, we may find that there is less need to cling to ideals of austerity and self-denial. In the New Testament there are two fundamental problems with wealth: one is that it was seen to be a major factor in the drift towards injustice (eg. the rich man and Lazarus: Lk.16:19-31); the other is that wealth was likely to keep people from following Jesus (eg. the rich young ruler: Matt.19:21-22; Mk.10:21-22; Lk.18:22-23). Although these problems remain, we must take into account two things. First, we cannot pretend that we face anything like the level of insecurity and uncertainty that made the possession of wealth problematic for the early disciples. Secondly, there are no good reasons for thinking that the renewal of the covenant excluded a renewal of material life. Outside of the eschatological context, and with the law now written on the hearts of the people rather than on tablets of stone, the dynamic of prosperity becomes a significant aspect of life in the Spirit.
Prosperity, however, is never an end in itself and must be dissociated from greed. Prosperity is more than, and may be other than, wealth: it is shalom, wholeness, the well-being of an individual or community reconciled to the creator. No less importantly, if we receive from God, we are under obligation to give.
New Heaven and New Earth:
Paul speaks of the end of all things in 1 Corinthians 15:24-28. When all Christ’s enemies – ‘every rule and every authority and power’, including death – have been subjugated, the kingdom will be delivered to God the Father, ‘that God may be everything to everyone’. According to Revelation, at the end of the thousand years of Christ’s reign Satan will be freed from his prison. He will gather the ‘nations which are at the four corners of the earth’ to fight against the ‘saints and the beloved city’. The threat is quickly dealt with: the armies are consumed by fire from heaven and the devil is thrown into the lake of fire and sulphur (20:7-10).
At this point there is a final judgment: the dead are judged according to what is written in the books. Those whose names are not found in the book of life are thrown in the lake of fire, which is the second death. Death and Hades are also thrown into the lake of fire (20:11-15). Then John describes the new heaven and the new earth and the new Jerusalem descending ‘out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband’. The dwelling of God is in the midst of humanity; there will be no more suffering and death; the glory and honour of the nations will be brought into the city; and the leaves of the trees of life that grow either side of the river that flows from the city will be for the healing of the nations (21:1-22:5)