In This Sign, Conquer

Cross in sky smallOne of the weirdest stories from early church historians is the story of Constantine’s conversion. The reports differ but Eusebius says that Constantine had a vision of a cross of some sort and heard a voice say, “In hoc signo vinces” translated as “In this sign, [you shall] conquer.” Constantine took this as a sign that he would rule Rome. And indeed he did by defeating his enemies in a bloody war of succession. He went on to declare in the Edict of Milan that Christianity was legal in the Roman Empire which, by and large, ended Christian persecution. He would become a powerful ally of the established church until his death.

Many scholars and skeptics have wondered if Constantine’s conversion was genuinely faithful or politically expedient or a little bit of both. However, I begin with Constantine in order to contrast these ideas of ruler-ship with the New Testament and especially one scene I’ve been pondering lately.

So let’s set our scene: Pentecost. Peter is preaching, explaining about the significance of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. These events weren’t just miracles. They were signs. They were proof that, just as Jesus said, the Kingdom of God was now breaking in. By picking out scripture from Psalms and Joel and Isaiah, Peter weaves together a story of how God has become King.

Now the difficulty that is hard to see from this side of history is what this story meant: Peter sums it up in Acts 2:36.

Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.”

If we are see this with 1st century eyes (as best as we can) that statement was a mind bender. God was announcing to all Israel that He had made Jesus Lord and Christ. He did this through Jesus’ death and especially his resurrection. The term “Resurrection” heretofore had meant the resurrection of all the righteous when God finally brings Heaven and Earth together. To 2nd temple Jews, history was divided into two eras. The present age and the age to come. The present age was one of suffering and oppression. It was an age of Roman guards a few hundred feet from God’s holy temple. It was an age of vigilante/terrorists hiding in the Judean hills sharpening swords. The age to come was one where the righteous knowledge of the glory of God would cover the earth as the waters cover the sea (Hab. 2:14) Say “resurrection” to a 1st century devout Jew and you would get descriptions of righteous martyrs resurrected by God in the age to come. You might get a wistful longing for the Maccabeean kingdom nearly two hundred years before when Judas Maccabeus was told by his mother that the righteous of God would live again in God’s kingdom.

But Peter is saying something different. The resurrection that marks the beginning of God’s rule on earth has come but not to everyone at once–at least not yet. Rather it has come through Jesus. The kingdom of God is here now and it is because of Jesus. But wait it gets stranger. This Jesus was crucified. Now many failed messiahs were crucified. So how could Jesus not just be another failed messiah since he was crucified? Where’s the reign of this Christ? A question asked by many many devout Jews confronted with the gospel have asked.

But even stranger is the claim that Jesus is right now Lord. Some people take this statement “Lord and Christ” to be a statement of divinity. I don’t think that’s the primary significance. This is not to say that there aren’t statements that logical entail divinity in the Gospels. I’m just saying I don’t think “Lord” is directly referring to the LORD in the Old Testament. Instead I think its a claim to sovereignty over the whole earth. It was a title reserved for rulers, of late only of Caesar Augustus. Even Herod the Great wasn’t called Lord. So when Peter says “Lord and Christ” he’s making a political statement. Jesus is Lord and by implication, Caesar Augustus is not. But consider further how absurd that sounds. Jesus was crucified. For many similar movements before and after Jesus’ ministry, that was the end of any talk of this person being ruler or messiah or anything really. But Peter stands up and says the Jesus who was crucified is now, at this moment, Lord of all the earth.

I’ve been toying with a sort of parallel analogy. Suppose you backed a presidential candidate who, in the process of running for president, was exposed for committing treason and not only lost the election but was executed. Now suppose someone stands up 50 days after “long national nightmare,” and declares that our candidate is not dead at all but risen and ascended to be with God and that several people have seen him. Now this strange person goes further, not only did the state fail to kill him, by virtue of rising from the dead, he is not only president of America but is de facto ruler over the whole world and the will of this executed traitor will eventually take over the whole earth. That’s either totally insane or a fantastic truth.  Peter recalls the promise that God’s kingdom will be for everyone,

39 For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” 40

So Peter is announcing that a new kingdom has just arisen from the house of Israel. It is the long awaited kingdom of Yahweh but it comes in a way most Jews never thought. It does come with resurrection as Ezekiel foretold but not of all the righteous, not just yet, but rather with the resurrection of Jesus. Furthermore, it seems that he is even now ruling over the earth. His resurrection is the sign of his conquest over all the powers of the earth.

Questions must have abounded to the average reader of Acts. How is a resurrected king who has gone to sit at the right hand of God going to reign over the earth? After all, Caesar is still on his throne. Pilate is still governor and the Praetoriam still teems with Roman soldiers. The temple is still run by corrupt Sadducees who bribe Rome with tribute. Where is the glory of the knowledge Lord and how is it going to spread throughout the earth?

Alas Luke, the author, doesn’t answer those questions straightforwardly. Instead he gives us a snapshot of what became of the 3,000 people baptized into Christ that day,

42 And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43 And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. 44 And all who believed were together and had all things in common. 45 And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46 And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.

Put yourself in the place of typical Roman citizen soaked in palace intrigue, war, and an endless succession of Caesars, tetrarchs, and “first among equals.” Does this sound like the rule of a new king? If you are trying to convince gentiles that Jesus rules and reigns over the earth–again, not in the future but now–why describe the day to day minutiae of the lives of ordinary followers? Where’s the description of Jesus coming down from Heaven ousting Caesar and creating the Pax Christiana like Constantine’s story suggests he ousted his enemies. Where is the decisive battle between the powers of earth and this new king? Going from Peter’s speech about the Kingdom of God to the description of the Church is jarring and perplexing

Unless, that’s how Jesus reigns. The kingdom of God conquers very very differently. It conquers slowly and daily by Christians meeting together, worshiping, praying, and enjoying communion. That was the mystery.

All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me. Go therefore into all the world, making disciples of all men. . .

This is the invasion. The church meeting and loving and caring for one another. Sometimes when a meager few people meet together in a home or a rented out building we forget we are not just biding time til Jesus comes. We are advancing the kingdom with every hymn, with every chorus, with every cup of coffee brewed in His name. The kingdom invades with each child’s prayer at bedtime, each prayer spoken over the sick and dying.  The kingdom comes slowly, inevitably with each person who refuses to blaspheme at the barrel of an ISIS gun, smiling and rejoicing in their death knowing that they will soon be resurrected just as their lord and savior did.

In this sign we conquer.


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