Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” They said to Him, “We are able.” And Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you shall drink; and you shall be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized. But to sit on My right or on My left, this is not Mine to give; but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.
Calling them to Himself, Jesus *said to them, “You know that those who are recognized as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them; and their great men exercise authority over them. But it is not this way among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant…
When the disciples were seeking power, Jesus reminds them that this revolution will be not be business as usual. This will not be just another cookie cutter kingdom where celebration gives way to control and control gives way to tyranny. The Christian revolution will not be an Arab spring that quickly turns to a winter of discontent and then a storm of chaos.
In a recent book, N.T. Wright has attempted to explain what he thinks Jesus was up to when he spoke of a kingdom not of this world. I picked up How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels with some trepidation. N.T. Wright, an Anglican Bishop, was once the darling of Evangelicals because of his ability to debate people like John Dominic Crossan with both the skill and grace usually only an Oxford don can achieve. Plus we Southern Evangelicals are suckers for an English accent. However his other recent book on justification has understandably ruffled some feathers. I’m also not a fan of his overly simplistic and occasional naive criticisms of free markets. However, when it comes to exegesis of the Gospels, Wright’s massive three volumes on the New Testament manage to be both definitive and captivating.
Having graduated seminary over ten years ago I had all but given up that a text about theology or even exegesis could excite me anymore. Sure I still enjoyed exegesis. Sure I still thought about theology. I’m too much of a Christian scholar to stop learning but I’ve been spending my time in the world of secular philosophy for so long. I had sort of resigned myself to the occasional raised eyebrow or quickened heartbeat at a sermon point at church. My Greek New Testament is a bit less dusty than my Greek skills if you catch my meaning. I picked up Wright’s Jesus and the Victory of God at the suggestion of a colleague in my theology dept. I felt something I hadn’t felt since seminary: being captivated by the New Testament world and the words of Jesus. No small gift.
Like someone who had just started dating after a long hiatus, I picked up How God Became King in hopes of feeling that loving feeling again. I wasn’t disappointed. The main theme of the book is that we have forgotten what Jesus was up to in the middle of his life between the words of the Apostle’s Creed “Born of a Virgin” and “Suffered under Pontius Pilate” In other words what is all that stuff about the kingdom Jesus was going on about? I have to admit “Kingdom of God” is one of those concepts that frustrated me in seminary. I would ask my professors and I would get as many answers as profs. Fair enough, no one said discerning New Testament theology was easy. However, the concept seemed so big and unwieldy. Wright’s answer is just another opinion but it seems sound. I’m still discerning.
His argument is that the middle parts of the Gospels are about how God becomes King, first of Israel and then the world and how he does it through Jesus. Wright situates Jesus’ movement among the gaggle be Messiahs of his day and passionately argues that one of these is just not like the others. Jesus’ revolution is unique. His call to follow him was no ordinary call like the myriad of revolutionary movements in the Judean countryside during Jesus’ lifetime. His kingdom really was not of this world. Not just because it came from God and not men but because it would be a kingdom unlike any other on offer this side of heaven. Here two key ideas I gleaned from the book.
The Revolution Will be Bloody but it Will Be Non-violent
I already mentioned one way the revolution was different. It wouldn’t be bloodless but it would be non-violent. Jesus would die and likely would many, many of his followers. When Jesus says, “Repent and believe in me.” Wright argues there is a cultural context that does include individual repentance but so much more. The phrase “repent and believe” were uttered by Jewish historian Josephus when he was trying to convince a leader of a violent revolutionary sect to give up their vendetta against Rome. Wright points out that when Jesus and John are calling for Israel to repent and especially when Jesus outlines his kingdom on the Sermon on the Mount, the implication was that he was setting himself apart from the violent revolutionaries calling for Roman heads to roll. Repeatedly Wright emphasizes Jesus’ warning that the path of violence toward Rome will end in disaster. Repent of that sense of vengeance and follow a different path one that leads to Israel fulfilling its intended role as salvation to the whole world. If Wright is correct, when Jesus’ command to “love your enemies” is a command born out of love for others but its more than that. It was a declaration to give up the path of the zealots and do something truly revolutionary: Love instead of hate.
The Revolution will be Communal but it Will Not Be Democratic
Did you know that some very famous New Testament scholars deny that Jesus had any kind of structured community in mind after his death? In other words, Jesus didn’t think he was founding a Church. The Church founded itself and then read this back into Jesus’ words? I didn’t either. Wright skewers this scholarly assumption. He argues that Jesus really did envision small communities that would represent the true Israel and spread throughout the earth. He was calling out from his nation a remnant that would be what Israel was always supposed to be all along with the Messiah as their king. And most importantly Jesus is in one sense on his way to being king and in other very real sense, he is already king of this world. The day is coming but it is also now here. This concept was startling for me. Yes, my premillenialism is still intact. The kingdom in its fullness is still to come but in a very important sense it is now here. Jesus is king of this world. There is a sense in which we are to defend this with our apologetics but we are also to announce this to the world. The world should be put on notice that Jesus really is king. This also uncomfortable because to borrow from Karl Marx, there is a specter haunting the West and its the specter of Theocracy. We don’t like that world given the violent theocracies now masquerading as God’s kingdom on earth. We erected liberal democracies to forever exercise this ghost. However, we could not banish our own warped human nature and only recently have we come to see that a democracy is often three wolves and a sheep deciding what’s for dinner. Democracies are no less susceptible the lust for power than our manmade theocracies.
As to just what it means for Christians to put the world on notice that Jesus is king and will come into his kingdom soon, is something Wright does not detail. I’m still thinking about it myself. In what sense is Jesus king on earth as he is in heaven? I don’t know and I’ve seen too much bad theology founded on knee jerk speculations to last a lifetime. I need to mediate on Jesus’ words before I can say anything about that. Like I said, no one said lving New Testament theology was easy. I invite your own meditations on this weighty question.