Ross Douthat, columnist at The New York Times, had a great column this past Sunday that was part review of two important books on religious sociology and part longing for the church to recognize that in its current cultural context (weak, marginalized, and under fire) it has its greatest opportunity for renewing its marks and mission. Ok, that last bit was more me than him, but I encourage you to read the entire column for yourself. Here’s his conclusion:
But both books come around to a similar argument: this month’s ubiquitous carols and crèches notwithstanding, believing Christians are no longer what they once were — an overwhelming majority in a self-consciously Christian nation. The question is whether they can become a creative and attractive minority in a different sort of culture, where they’re competing not only with rival faiths but with a host of pseudo-Christian spiritualities, and where the idea of a single religious truth seems increasingly passé.
Or to put it another way, Christians need to find a way to thrive in a society that looks less and less like any sort of Christendom — and more and more like the diverse and complicated Roman Empire where their religion had its beginning, 2,000 years ago this week.
If this leaves you depressed, you may have to recognize that your vision of Christianity is severely limited by your hope for Christendom. But if this leaves you hopeful, then you understand why we do what we do here at White Horse Inn.
Democratic Congressman Jim McDermott recently complained about the lack of Christmas spirit amongst his Republican colleagues who threatened to vote against a further extension of unemployment insurance. McDermott said in a televised interview, “This is Christmas time. We talk about good Samaritans, the poor, the little baby Jesus in the cradle and all this stuff. And then we say to the unemployed we won’t give you a check to feed your family. That’s simply wrong.”
This inspired Bill O’Reilly to write an opinion piece. In his December 9, 2010 column titled “Keep Christ in Unemployment,” the Fox News commentator opined as follows:
By invoking the baby Jesus, Congressman McDermott puts an important question in play: What does a moral society owe to the have-nots? How much public money should go to those in financial trouble? Every fair-minded person should support government safety nets for people who need assistance through no fault of their own. But guys like McDermott don’t make distinctions like that. For them, the baby Jesus wants us to “provide,” no matter what the circumstance. But being a Christian, I know that while Jesus promoted charity at the highest level, he was not self-destructive. The Lord helps those who help themselves. Does he not?
O’Reilly’s column caught the attention of Stephen Colbert. On the Dec. 16th edition of The Colbert Report aired on Comedy Central, the faux news anchor sarcastically responded by saying:
Good point Bill. Jesus said we only have to love those who deserve it. Now what I like best about Bill’s argument is its complete factual inaccuracy, because it would be inconvenient to guys like us to repeat what Jesus actually said. For instance, if someone wants your coat, given them your cloak as well; rich people should sell all their possessions and give the money to the poor…And I love how Bill closes with “The Lord helps those who helps themselves,” kind of implying Jesus said that, when it was actually Ben Franklin…
Colbert’s broadcast in turn irritated O’Reilly. On the Dec. 20th edition of The O’Reilly Factor, he devoted a number of segments to the discussion of Colbert’s remarks:
I am not a theologian, but I do have 12 years of Catholic school under my belt…As part of my learning experience we read the Gospel of St. Matthew, where Jesus tells the story of a man who gave three of his servants some money. Two of the servants went out and multiplied the cash, paying the man back with interest. But the third servant buried the money, doing nothing with it. That man was chastised, with Jesus saying, ‘cast ye the unprofitable servant into outer darkness where there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ If Mr. Colbert takes time to read that parable, he might begin to understand the Judeo-Christian tenet of personal responsibility; Jesus saying people have a responsibility to develop their god-given talents, and if they refuse to do that, they will be held accountable. Charity is a cornerstone of a good life…but Judeo-Christian tradition does not require blind largesse. We are not mandated to buy people gin, or cocaine, or to pay someone else’s bills if they refuse to work.
Later in the program O’Reilly went on to say that according to Jesus, “it’s harder for a rich man to get into heaven than a camel to pass through the needle’s eye which was a gate in Jerusalem, and he was warning people that if you throw in with money as your God you’re going to have a tough time.”
Now, while it is not inappropriate for Christians to inquire about the implications of various biblical texts upon issues of public policy, it is dangerous to interpret these texts as if they are about these public policy matters directly. All parties in this debate have read politics into the various biblical narratives, and my task for the remainder of this blog piece will be to clear away some of the theological and interpretive mistakes that have been made.
1) Unemployment Benefits & Immorality
The way congressman McDermott framed the issue, those who oppose the extension of unemployment benefits are in the wrong. It is simply unethical to stop the checks from coming so that the unemployed can feed their families. But by this logic, unemployment checks should never stop; ever. Interestingly enough, I can’t recall a single text in which the baby Jesus (or the grown up Jesus for that matter) even hinted at his view of 21st century American unemployment insurance policy. This is where Christians need to be especially careful, whether we incline toward the right or the left. It is easy to label as immoral those who oppose our favorite public policy initiative. But there may be legitimate reasons for opposition, no matter how just the cause. Even if a person agrees with your view of right and wrong, they may refuse to support your bill because a) it is poorly written, b) it will cause more problems that it will fix c) it will cause us to go further into debt which could lead to economic catastrophe, etc, etc. It’s easy to say , “Problem X requires the immediate passage of solution A, and all those opposed to solution A are immoral.” But what about solution B, C, D, or non-governmental solutions E, F, and G. Therefore don’t be quick to call your political opponents immoral. Resist the temptation to be a pharisee, and work on becoming a good listener.
2) The Lord Helps Those Who Help Themselves
Colbert was right, this phrase does not actually appear in the Bible, but comes from the pen of Ben Franklin (Poor Richard’s Almanac, 1757). Interestingly enough, few people seem to know that this is actually an ancient proverb that Franklin merely passed along. It actually originates with Aesop in his famous fable “Hercules and the Waggoner.” The moral of this tale as Aesop tells it is, “The gods help them that help themselves.”
The point is that the proverb is pagan rather than Christian. In the Bible, God is depicted as a helper of the helpless. Lazarus did not help Jesus with his resurrection (John 11), and similarly, we who were dead in sin have been made alive in Christ (Eph 2:5-9). In this respect, God is in the business of helping the helpless (Matt 9:36, Rom 5:6). This is why Christians insist on salvation by grace, because grace itself means “undeserved favor.” But I concede the fact that this was not actually O’Reilly’s point. He was not thinking in terms of salvation before God in heaven, but of earthly blessings here and now. In other words, he suggested that God helps those here on earth to be more successful and prosperous, if they work hard at it. So what of this idea? Is it compatible with Christianity? Well, with regard to earthly wisdom, Proverbs 10: 4 does state that “A slack hand causes poverty but the hand of the diligent makes rich.” However, proverbs are general truths that should not be applied to all circumstances of life. This verse does not apply, for example, to the diligent work of a slave. And it does not apply to the circumstance in which a person is reduced to poverty due to theft, fire or calamity. But in general, if you work hard and if you’re not lazy, you’ll be better off than the next guy.
So this is basically the point at which Colbert sarcastically asserts, “Good point Bill. Jesus said we only have to love those who deserve it.” Caricature is of the essence of good comedy, and clearly this particular exaggeration is intentional, but to be fair, it’s also not exactly what O’Reilly was arguing. The point he was making was that, again from the perspective of earthly wisdom, sometimes you can make a problem worse by rewarding bad or self-destructive behavior. The Apostle Paul says that “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat” (2Thes 3:10), because feeding a person who refuses to work only encourages further sloth. So is the Apostle Paul guilty of Colbert’s charge of choosing to love only those who deserve it? No, because actually the loving thing to do in the case of a person unwilling to work would be to exert some discipline. “God disciplines those whom he loves,” and therefore so should we (Heb 12:5-11).
3) If Someone Wants Your Coat
In order to show that O’Reilly is out of step with Jesus, Colbert cites a verse from Matthew: “For instance, if someone wants your coat, given them your cloak as well…” The line is from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, and in context has nothing at all with giving to the poor. Rather, it’s about a court case: “You have heard it said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, don’t resist a toilsome person. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well” (Matt 5:38-40). When Jesus mentions “an eye for an eye,” he’s quoting from Exodus 21 which deals with the accidental injury or death of an unborn child. If the accident was due to negligence or irresponsibility yet the child is unharmed, then a fine may be settled upon. “But if there is harm, then you shall pay life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot” (Ex 21:22-24). So in other words, Jesus is not giving general advice for getting along with people, but has in mind our obligations to those who we have injured or wronged in some way. Moses had set a limit. If I have injured someone’s foot, I should not be hung for it, but the punitive damages should equal the value of my own foot. In this text Jesus is teaching his own followers that they should go above and beyond the call of duty. So if someone slaps you on the right cheek (which would be a backhanded slap for most people) “turn to him the other also.” Based on the context, the assumption here is that you deserve the slap, just as the person deserves the punishment coming to him in Exodus 21. We find further proof of this in the next line, “And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic…” The context is not of a homeless person asking for your coat; it’s a lawsuit. Here’s what to do when you’re being sued by someone you have wronged. Followers of Christ are told to voluntarily go beyond what Moses called for. If a person you have wronged sues you for your tunic, give him your cloak as well. “If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two” (Matt 5:41). Amazingly though, what Jesus demands of us in this text, he also provides. He played the role of the lawbreaker for us on Good Friday. He never retaliated when he was slapped, and he walked the extra mile to Golgatha. He took our sin, and we receive his righteousness as a free gift.
4) Rich People Should Sell Their Possessions
Colbert also alluded to the story of the Rich Young Ruler when he said that “rich people should sell all their possessions and give the money to the poor.” Here is the full citation from Matt 19:16-26:
And behold, a man came up to him, saying, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” And he said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments.” He said to him, “Which ones?” And Jesus said, “You shall not murder, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother, and, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The young man said to him, “All these I have kept. What do I still lack?” Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions. And Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished, saying, “Who then can be saved?” But Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”
First of all, you will notice that Jesus did not tell all rich people to sell their possessions. Rather, he told one man in particular to sell all that he had, and he was making a point. This wealthy young man claimed that he loved his neighbor, but Jesus knew this was not the case (for he had just finished explaining that God alone was good). So the point was that if the man had really loved his neighbors, he wouldn’t have had a problem sharing his possessions with them. And so after hearing Jesus’ remarks, the man went away sad. This was Jesus intention for his earthly ministry was to humble those who exalt themselves, and to exalt those who humble themselves (Luke 18:9-14, Luke 14:7-11).
Jesus then goes on in the passage to say, “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” At this point, even the disciples begin to get a little nervous, saying to Jesus, “Who then can be saved?” Bill O’Reilly, like many people today, tried to argue on his broadcast that “the eye of the needle” was the name for the gate in Jerusalem where camels were forced to kneel if they wished to pass through. As O’Reilly put it, “he was warning people that if you throw in with money as your God you’re going to have a tough time.” In this interpretation, rich people can make it to heaven, but if they do so, it will be with great difficulty due to the power of wealth and pride. But this is far from the true meaning of this text. First of all, there is no proof that such a gate in Jerusalem was ever called by this name. Secondly, when the disciples ask, “Who then can be saved?,” Jesus does not say only the poor, or the poor along with only a few rich men. Rather he says “With man this is impossible.” In other words, he’s not talking about a gate that camels must kneel through, but an actual needle. Just as it is impossible for a camel to go through that small needle hole, it is impossible for any man to be saved. At first it was only the rich young ruler who was sorrowful, but now with these words the entire listening audience begins to feel a little uncomfortable. Jesus didn’t leave it there however. He hinted at something gracious and wonderful to come when he concluded “…but with God all things are possible.” Though man cannot save himself, God can save, and “he will have mercy on whom he will have mercy” (Rom 9:15-16).
5) The Parable of the Talents
Another biblical story that was misinterpreted was the Parable of the Talents (or Minas). According to Bill O’Reilly, “If Mr. Colbert takes time to read that parable, he might begin to understand the Judeo-Christian tenet of personal responsibility; Jesus saying people have a responsibility to develop their god-given talents, and if they refuse to do that, they will be held accountable.” So is this really the point of the parable? Let’s take a look at Matt 25:14-30:
For it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted to them his property. To one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. He who had received the five talents went at once and traded with them, and he made five talents more. So also he who had the two talents made two talents more. But he who had received the one talent went and dug in the ground and hid his master’s money. Now after a long time the master of those servants came and settled accounts with them. And he who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five talents more, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me five talents; here I have made five talents more.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’ And he also who had the two talents came forward, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me two talents; here I have made two talents more.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’ He also who had received the one talent came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed, so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ But his master answered him, ‘You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I scattered no seed? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him and give it to him who has the ten talents. For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
In the first century, a talent was the name for a coin of high value. In Luke’s version of this story, the word used for the coin is a mina, which is why this parable is sometimes referred to as the Parable of the Minas. O’Reilly’s first mistake is to assume the parable is about us. But the Parables of Jesus should not be read as timeless eternal principles like Aesop’s fables. They are riddles and cryptic words of judgment spoken to the unfaithful shepherds of Jesus’ own day (see Matt 13:10-15). Jesus regularly confronted these religious leaders about their self-righteousness (Luke 18:9), and hypocrisy (Matt 23:13-39). Another illustration he often used was that of fruitlessness. For example in Luke 13:1-9, Jesus tell the story of a man who planted a vineyard but found that it produced no fruit. This parable is almost identical to Isaiah chapter 5, which itself is about the unfaithfulness of Israel before the time of the Babylonian Captivity. Because of their unfaithfulness, God allowed the Babylonians to destroy Jerusalem in 586 BC, and this is exactly Jesus’ point. If the vineyard continues to remain fruitless in his day, he will let it be raided again, this time by the Romans (70 AD). The Parable of the Talents should be read in this same light. Those who invested the money and produced various kinds of returns were commended by the master because they were “producing fruit.” But the man who buried his coin and failed to produce a profit for his master is like the fruitless vineyard of Isaiah 5 and Luke 13. Just as the vineyards are given over to be destroyed, the unfaithful servant is cast into outer darkness.
So as you can see, this is not a parable about taking “personal responsibility” or “developing your god-given talents.” Those ideas are not absent from the Bible, but this text in particular is not about these things. Rather, this parable is a word of judgment against the unfaithful and fruitless shepherds of Israel.
If you’re interested in reading further about some of the cultural forces involved in our misreading and misinterpretation of the Bible, I’ve written an essay for Modern Reformation that explores this topic at some length (“Reflecting on Scripture: You’re So Vain, You Probably Think This Text Is About You“).
Then, from the “so sad, it’s funny” realm comes this holiday must-have: the Jesus Tree (also available in patriotic red, white, and blue)!
Igniter Media has put a clever 21st century spin on the first Christmas story as if it unfolded via Facebook. If you are not familiar with Facebook and its lingo then this video might not be for you. If you do have a Facebook account, have you become friends of White Horse Inn?
Last Friday, Modern Reformation unveiled our new digital edition. This electronic version of the magazine can be accessed on our site and is also mobile-ready. If you’re already a subscriber, this new edition is an added benefit of your subscription.
In order to see the digital edition you must be a current subscriber and have successfully logged into your MR account. If you are not logged in, you cannot see the issue, but will be told to either login or subscribe. In the chronological index there are flags pointing to which issues are available digitally. Also on that issue’s table of contents there is a “mini-flip” version which is the link to the actual digital issue.
If you have not yet subscribed, you can get this new digital subscription for just $25 per year. You can also gift a gift subscription to someone you love.
Check out a preview of this new digital edition below.
Is it more important to “be the gospel” to others or to “preach the gospel”? To our surprise, 69 percent of the Christians we polled sided with the idea of “being the gospel.” On this broadcast, the hosts continue to interact with the results from our recent survey of Christians at a conservative evangelical convention; this time dealing with issues relating to the theme of the Great Commission.
Once again we are featuring a treat for Christmas from Dr. Rosenbladt. Listen to Dr. Rosenbladt preach a Christmas sermon borne of Martin Luther’s writings, constructed by Dr. Roland Bainton, who taught history at Yale University from 1936 to 1961. Though Luther never wrote nor preached this sermon, it is assembled from his writings as a series of parts, as Dr. Bainton envisioned Luther could have written a Christmas sermon. This audio was dug up from the archives and has been converted from audio tape.
Once again, enjoy, and Merry Christmas!
Every day NASA updates a webpage entitled “Astronomy Picture of the Day.” There is a photograph/image that is in some way related to the field of astronomy either from the ground or from a satellite followed by an explanation from an astronomer about what you are seeing. The title of the December 13 image was “Contemplating the Sky.” The image shows four people in Iran looking up at a crescent moon with Venus above. The explanation for this particular image begins “Have you contemplated your sky recently? Tonight will be a good one for midnight meditators at many northerly locations…”
What I find amazing about this statement how ingrained it is in the mind of humans (created in the image of God) to be drawn to the night sky and to meditate and contemplate. I actually did that on Monday night as I sat in my backyard and looked at the sky for a few moments as I watched half a dozen or so Geminid meteors streak through the sky. While I sat there I couldn’t help but be in awe (again) at the wonderful/amazing/beautiful/awesome universe our Creator God has put into place—giving God praise and adoration was at the forefront of my mind.
As I was being a “midnight meditator” contemplating these things I knew the object of my contemplation—the creator God. Psalm 8:1, 3-4 immediately came into my head, “O L
Because God created all things, his creation reveals true knowledge about who he is. The Belgic Confession puts it beautifully in Article 2 when it states that the “universe is before our eyes as a most beautiful book, wherein all creatures, great and small, are as so many letters leading us to perceive God’s invisible qualities…” (emphasis added). Even more beautifully stated is Psalm 19:
The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words, whose voice is not heard. Their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world. In them he has set a tent for the sun, which comes out like a bridegroom leaving his chamber, and, like a strong man, runs its course with joy. Its rising is from the end of the heavens, and its circuit to the end of them, and there is nothing hidden from its heat (Ps 19:1-6 ESV, emphasis added).
There were probably millions of people across the planet who became “midnight meditators” on Monday, December 13 to watch the Geminid meteor shower, and there are millions (billions?) of contemplators who look up at the sky on any given night. Every single person on planet Earth every single day comes into contact with God’s creation whether they realize it or not. And that creation is speaking to them, it is revealing knowledge, it proclaims God’s handiwork, it tells them truth about who God is. Paul tells us in Romans 1:19-20, “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made” (emphasis added). But this passage of Scripture is only a portion of Paul’s point in Romans 1:18-25:
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.
Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen (ESV, emphasis added).
The scary thing when we think of Paul’s words compared with what the NASA author wrote is that when non-believers become “midnight meditators” and contemplate the heavens they are actually condemning themselves because they are “suppressing the truth in unrighteousness” and are giving glory to and worshipping either themselves, the universe’s energy, “Mother Nature”, or anything else but the Creator God to whom alone belongs all the glory.
However, believers have further revelation given to us by God that gives us the rest of the story. It tells us how we are reconciled to this Creator God whom we know to be powerful and divine because of Jesus Christ coming to earth to propitiate God’s wrath (Rom 3:21-26). We have all the more reason to praise and glorify God when we look at “the works of his hands” because of the “Son of Man which he has crowned with glory and honor.”
So next time there is a clear night sky above you, take a moment to read all the letters that are arrayed above you and be a Cosmos Creator Contemplator.
Pitting Jesus against Paul used to be a hobby of liberal Protestants. As this story has it, Jesus proclaimed a kingdom of wide-scale world-transformation, while Paul proclaimed a gospel of personal salvation. The liberal Catholic writer Alfred Loissy once quipped that Jesus announced a kingdom, but instead it was a church that came. So on one side is Jesus, with his invitation to humanity to participate in his kingdom by bringing peace and justice, and on the other side is Paul who spoke instead of the church and personal salvation by belonging to it.
Today, however, it has become a critical question in evangelical circles. In the latest Christianity Today cover story (“Jesus vs. Paul”), New Testament scholar Scot McKnight relates, “Many of us have made a move from Paul to Jesus, and an increasing tension remains among evangelicals about who gets to set the terms: Jesus or Paul? In other words, will we center our gospel teaching and living on ‘the kingdom’ or ‘justification by faith?’” In short, “Evangelicalism is facing a crisis about the relationship of Jesus to Paul, and many today are choosing sides.”
This conundrum shouldn’t surprise us. Evangelicalism—especially its Anglo-American variety—is a confluence of Reformation, Anabaptist, and pietist streams. Even the Reformation is largely mediated through pietism in the land that Bonhoeffer dubbed “Protestantism without the Reformation.” So it’s no wonder that the Reformation gets saddled with all sorts of views that are actually more accurate descriptions of pietism. Many of us were raised in pietistic backgrounds, where the kingdom of God was basically heaven and you get there by dying. So a lot of younger Christians are reacting against this sort of privatized spirituality. Some are rediscovering the Reformation, but most are drawn toward Anabaptistism—that other stream that has shaped American evangelicalism, at least indirectly. “While some Protestants seem to let Jesus be Savior, but promote Paul to lord and teacher,” writes Brian McLaren in A Generous Orthodoxy, “Anabaptists have always interpreted Paul through Jesus, and not the reverse. For them the Sermon on the Mount and the other words of Jesus represent the greatest treasure in the world. Jesus’ teachings have been their standard” (206).
What are we to make of this contrast?
First, we should acknowledge the obvious fact that Jesus uses the term “justified” only once, in his parable of the tax-collector who cried out for mercy, while the Pharisee thanked God for his piety (Lk 18:14). McKnight notes, “We could add Matthew 12:37, and perhaps Luke 10:29 and 16:15, but we can’t find much in the Gospels that shows Jesus thinking in terms of ‘justification by faith.’”
Second—and here’s where I’ll be camping out for the rest of this reflection, only a crude biblicism would determine the importance of a particular biblical teaching by a word-count. Otherwise, we’d have no basis for a doctrine of the Trinity, the hypostatic union, or a host of other doctrines that are clearly revealed when we interpret Scripture in the light of Scripture. The unfolding story of the Bible generates doctrines. It is from the history of God’s covenant faithfulness to his people who call on his name that we learn that he is faithful, merciful, loving, and righteous. “Original sin” summarizes what Scripture tells us about what happened when Adam, representing all of us, transgressed the covenant. The doctrines of the incarnation and redemption don’t come to us first of all in ready-made propositions, but in events that are interpreted in the light of the history of promise and fulfillment.
God’s deliverance of Israel from Egypt in the exodus was the founding event upon which God gave the nation his laws, institutions, doctrines, and sanctions to be observed. Similarly, the Gospels relate the actual unfolding of the drama, while the Epistles unpack the significance of those events for us and for the world: in other words, the doctrine. Of course, there is doctrine in the Gospels and there is narrative in the Epistles, but for the most part this generalization works.
So what happens when we look at the unfolding events that ground the new covenant in the drama of redemption? Front-and-center is the kingdom, which remains the wider eschatological horizon for Paul as well as Jesus, as we will see. There is an “already” and “not yet” aspect to the kingdom. John the Baptist announced that “the kingdom of heaven is near” (Mt 3:2) and Jesus announced that it had arrived, as he healed the sick, raised the dead, and declared after the return of the seventy disciples from their mission, “I saw Satan fall from heaven like lightning” (Lk 10:18). “But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons,” Jesus said, “then the kingdom of God has come upon you.” The strong man (Satan) has been bound, so that his house may be looted (Lk 11:20-22). Above all, sinners and outcasts are being forgiven directly by Jesus, without any connection to the Temple machinery. With Satan bound, the apostles are called to go into all the world and unlock the prison doors and free the captives. They are given by Christ the keys of the kingdom, to bind and loose on earth what has been bound and loosed in heaven (Mat 16:19; 18:18; Jn 20:23). This “binding and loosing”—the keys—is clearly identified by Jesus with the forgiveness of sins in those passages.
In his Olivet discourse, Jesus taught that he will come on the clouds of glory with all of his elect, but there are stages to be realized before this final event. First, the Temple then standing will be completely destroyed (Mat 24:1-2), as indeed it was in 70 AD. Then the disciples asked, “What will be the sign of your coming and of the close of the age?” (emphasis added). Jesus replied that there will be imposters, coming in his name, leading many astray, along with wars, “but the end is not yet.” “For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are but the beginning of the birth pains” (Mat 24:4-8). There will be persecution and martyrdom for his followers, with many deserting Christ’s flock. “But the one who endures to the end will be saved. And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come” (Mat 24:9-14, emphasis added). On the last day, Jesus will return on the clouds of glory to “gather his elect” from the whole earth and to judge the living and the dead (Mat 24:29-31). “But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only.” It will come when people least expect it (Mat 24:36-44).
Contrary to the expectations of most of Jesus’ contemporaries (including John the Baptist and his own disciples), this single event will not happen all at once. It will unfold in a series of fulfillments, and the space that we now occupy as the church today is the parenthesis in which the final judgment is postponed, so that the gospel of the kingdom can be proclaimed to the whole world. The exodus is past, but now is the era of conquest through the witness of the gospel to the ends of the earth. Only when Jesus returns will the conquest be consummated as the kingdoms of this age are made the kingdom of our God and of his Christ.
So we must be careful not to fall into the same misunderstanding of the kingdom that was shared by Jesus’ contemporaries. We want to see the kingdom in all of its visible power and glory. We have seen harbingers of that day, with various healings and victories over the demonic forces in Jesus’ ministry, but we want to see fully realized here and now the consummation to which these signs pointed. If necessary, we will bring about the consummation of this kingdom ourselves! This is a danger that we have to resist, because it misunderstands that the most crucial vocation of the church in this present age is the proclamation of the gospel. “Being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, [Jesus] answered them, ‘The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed, nor will they say, “Look, here it is!” or “There!” for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you’” (Lk 17:20-21).
The kingdom of God in this present phase is primarily audible, not visible. We hear the opening and shutting of the kingdom’s gates through the proclamation of the gospel, in the sacraments, and in discipline. Taking no notice of the kingdom of God, the nations will be going about their daily business, engaging in violence and immorality as in the days of Lot, “eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building,” when Jesus will return suddenly (Lk 17:22-30).
United to Christ, the church shares now in his humiliation and suffering, but one day it will share in his glory. In his resurrection, Christ has inaugurated the final resurrection of the dead. He is the “firstfruits” of the whole harvest. Already, the verdict of the last judgment is being rendered in the present. Those who believe in Christ are already declared righteous and those who do not are already condemned (Jn 3:16-19, 36). “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom 8:1). The decisive verdict of the Last Day is already known for all who believe the gospel. That is why we are inviting—indeed, pleading with—our neighbors to come to the wedding feast.
When we return to Jesus’ teaching and actions in the Gospels, we can see that everything that was promised through the prophets (including John the Baptist) is indeed part of the kingdom that Christ brings. In fact, it is true that they belong to one and the same event. However, it becomes clearer as the Gospels unfold that the manifestation of this kingdom occurs in two phases. At present, this Spirit is raising those who are spiritually dead and giving them faith, uniting them to Christ for present justification and sanctification as well as future glorification. The Spirit brings conviction of sin and unrighteousness, opening hearts to understand and to embrace Christ and all of his benefits. Yet believers, like unbelievers, still suffer common ills as well as blessings. They eventually die, but believers die with the hope of the resurrection in a renewed heavens and earth. By his Word and Spirit, Christ is now gathering a people for himself. Only when he returns, however, will the angel proclaim with a loud voice, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever” (Rev 11:15).
Until then, the kingdom of the world is common, not holy. It is “east of Eden.” Even the work of Christians in their secular callings is a temporal gift of God’s common grace, not a means of cultivating, guarding, and keeping his holy sanctuary. Thus, the Great Commission is qualitatively different from the mandate that God gave to Adam and Eve in the garden and to Israel in Canaan. In fact, the Great Commission is given to the church only because the Last Adam has fulfilled that creation mandate, fulfilling all righteousness, bearing the curse, and being raised as the first-fruits of the new creation. Now, the command to “be fruitful and multiply” is fulfilled by the Spirit through the raising of a worldwide spiritual family, the true offspring of Abraham. This is God’s holy commonwealth in this age (1 Pet 2:9-10), the true “Israel of God” (Gal 6:16).
No longer “at hand,” the kingdom is “here,” Jesus announces (Mk 1:15; Mat 11:5-6; Mat 12:28; Mat 13:1-46; Lk 11:5-6; Lk 11:20; Lk 17:20-23; Lk 15:4-32). The king is present, inaugurating his kingdom. At the same time, he speaks of its full realization in the future (Mat 6:10; Mat 16:28; Mk 9:1; Lk 6:20-26; Lk 9:27; Lk 11:2; Lk 13:28-29). The kingdom is coming, but also has come (Mt 12:28-29; Lk 11:20).
The manner in which the demons respond to Jesus shows his authority over them, but not just a raw power: it is his coming in his kingdom of grace and forgiveness that they fear most. Satan and his emissaries are busiest not with plotting wars and oppression; these are symptoms of the sinful condition that human beings are capable of generating on their own. However, Satan knows that if the Messiah fulfills his mission, and the elect not only believe but take this gospel to the nations, the curse is lifted, his head is crushed, and his kingdom is toppled. All of Jesus’ miracles are pointers to this saving announcement; they are not ends in themselves. The kingdom comes with words and deeds. In the miracles, it is said that Satan has bound these people (viz. ,Lk 13:11, 16). Christ is breaking into Satan’s territory, setting history toward a different goal, bound to his own rather than to demonic powers.
In Luke 16:16, redemptive history is divided between the time of the law and the prophets and the time of the kingdom. N.T. scholar Herman Ridderbos writes in The Coming of the Kingdom,
Here the dispensation of the law and the prophets is opposed to the preaching of the gospel of the kingdom of God. In other words, in the preaching of the gospel has been realized that which was only an expectation in the law and the prophets. This is why Jesus can call the disciples blessed not only for what they see, but also for what they hear. In this respect they were favored above the Old Testament believers even in their most important representatives (Mt 13:16-17; Lk 10:23-24). The preaching of the gospel s no less a proof than the miracles that the kingdom of heaven has come. (71)
Jesus is not just preaching a promise, but in his preaching inaugurates its fulfillment: “His word is not only a sign, it is charged with power…For the new and unprecedented thing here is not that forgiveness is being announced, but that it is being accomplished on earth.”
Christ’s Word brings the kingdom with it and it is founded in his blood. Thus, only as prophet and priest is Jesus Christ also the king. In all of his words and deed, Jesus is most self-conscious of his sacrificial death and resurrection. He is purpose-driven to Golgotha. It is his passion, his vocation, the whole point of his ministry. This is clearly seen in the way in which he prepares the disciples for his crucifixion, followed by his institution of the Supper in the upper room, and in his high priestly prayer.
It’s not that the horizon of Jesus’ contemporaries was too broad, but that it was too narrow. While they were settling merely for a messiah who would restore geo-political theocracy, Jesus Christ was bringing a universal dominion—not just overthrowing Gentile oppressors, but casting out the serpent from heaven and earth forever: “for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you” (Lk 17:21).
Not surprisingly, then, the key sign of the Spirit’s descent at Pentecost was Peter’s proclamation of Christ, centering on his redeeming life, death, and resurrection; repentance and faith in Christ, along with baptism “for the forgiveness of your sins” (Ac 2:14-38). While individuals—“about three thousand souls” were “cut to the heart” by this message, repented, believed, and were baptized, they were organized by the Spirit into a human community. “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Ac 2:42). From this shared union with Christ, these pilgrims from faraway regions were so united with each other that the worshiping community itself was a witness to the world. “And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved” (Ac 2:47). This is the kingdom! In its present phase, the kingdom expands by grace and humility, in weakness before the world; yet it conquers the earth.
The forgiveness of sins and the new birth are at the heart of Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom. Proclaimed first to the Jews, this gospel will be preached to all nations. This is the fulfillment of the prophet vision of a remnant from every nation—even those nations that had persecuted Israel—seeking the Lord where he may be found. “In those days, ten men from the nations of every tongue shall take hold of the robe of a Jew, saying, ‘Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you’” (Zech 8:23).
Jesus’ message of the kingdom as the forgiveness of sins and the dawning of the new creation was inseparable from his promise to build his church and to give his apostles the keys of the kingdom through the ministry of preaching, sacrament, and discipline. It comprises the elements of the Great Commission: preaching the gospel to the world, baptizing, and teaching them everything he commanded.
So Was Paul a “Kingdom” Preacher?
This motif of the kingdom was hardly lost in the apostolic era. It was this gospel of the kingdom that Peter and the other apostles proclaimed immediately after Jesus’ ascension (Acts 2:14-36; Acts 3:12-16; Acts 17:2-3). And this is also the heart of Paul’s message (1 Cor 15:3-4). Paul begins his Letter to the Romans (in the first few verses) with a richly compact summary of the story (the drama) that he then unpacks in doctrine and doxology all the way to the “reasonable service” (discipleship) that flows from it.
The apostles typically interpreted these prophecies as being fulfilled now in Jesus Christ and his gathering of a remnant from Israel and the nations by his Spirit. Amos 9 speaks of the final restoration of Israel, in concrete terms. Yet James interprets this prophecy as now being fulfilled in the kingdom of Christ, through the ingathering of a remnant of the Gentiles into the true Israel (Acts 15:14-18). James’ interpretation is typical of the Christocentric reading of the whole of Scripture that Jesus Christ himself taught his disciples (Lk 24:25–27; Lk 24:31–32; Lk 24:44–49).
Hebrews 1:1–4 hails the ascended Christ as “heir of all things” and the ruler of all, “though we do not yet see all things in subjection to him.” The ascension of Christ to the place of dominion and rule assures us that although we do not yet see everything in subjection to him, the kingdom is present and will one day be universally manifested. Contrasting the kingdom with the church is another way of saying that the main point of Jesus’ commission consists in our social action rather than in the public ministry of preaching, sacrament, and discipline. In other words, it’s another way of saying that we are building the kingdom rather than receiving it; that the kingdom of God’s redeeming grace is actually a kingdom of our redeeming works.
If the preaching of the gospel, no less than the miracles, is the sign that the kingdom has come, Paul’s message and ministry can only serve as confirmation of the kingdom’s arrival. All of the realities that the gospels announce as evidence of the messianic kingdom—judgment and justification, forgiveness, a new birth, the gift of the Spirit, and the gathering of a people for the end-time feast—are central in Paul’s preaching in Acts and in his letters. Only if we have a different sort of kingdom in mind will the kingdom motif be thought to have fallen off of Paul’s horizon. Only if we mistake Sermon on the Mount for the gospel rather than for the law that Christ delivered specifically to his disciples can Jesus be set over against Paul.
Nor can Jesus and Paul be contrasted in terms of a this-worldly kingdom and an other-worldly realm. Jesus announced the kingdom—more than that, founded and inaugurated the kingdom—that Paul and the other apostles proclaimed. The kingdom was present even as Caesar remained Israel’s oppressor. In fact, Jesus said famously concerning taxes, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mk 12:17). Over against the Jewish authorities indicting him, Paul invoked his Roman citizenship by appealing his case to Caesar (Ac 25:11), yet he also submitted and called Christians to submit to secular authorities (Rom 13). It is not a kingdom that arises from any place or program on earth but descends from heaven. Wherever the King is present, his kingdom is present also. Yet he was present in weakness and humility, for us and for our salvation. Before Pilate, Jesus affirmed that he was a king, but said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world” (Jn 18:36-37).
When he comes in glory, his kingdom will be glorious in power and might. Paul too teaches that the new creation/kingdom has been inaugurated in Christ’s conquest: the righteousness of God has been revealed from heaven (Rom 1:16-17), including justification of sinners and new birth, the Spirit and his gifts poured out (Rom 5:5). In Matthew 28:18, the climax is that all kingdom authority is in Christ’s hands, which Paul also emphasizes (Rom 1:3-4; Eph 1:18-22; Phil 2:9-11; Col 1:15-20). The “already” / “not yet” view of the kingdom that we find in Jesus’ teaching dominates Paul’s horizon, as well as that of the other apostles. As the writer to the Hebrews declares, Jesus Christ is already now “heir of all things” (Heb 1:1-4). Our riches today are the spoils of Christ’s triumph that are poured out by his Spirit upon people “from every tribe, kindred, tongue, and people,” being made into “a kingdom of priests to our God” (Rev 5:9).
Since Christ’s ascension and the descent of the Spirit at Pentecost, we have been living in “the/these last days” (Ac 2:17; 1 Tim 3:1; Heb 1:2; Jas. 5:3; 2 Pet 3:3; Jude 18; 1 Pet 1:20; 1 Jn 2:18), before the “last day” (Jn 6:39, 40, 44, 54; 11:24; 12:28). Christ appeared “at the end of the ages” (Heb 9:26), yet spoke of “the coming age” that even now is breaking in upon us through preaching and sacrament (Heb 6:5). Paul says that “the end of the ages has come” (1 Cor 10:11), yet “the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night” (1 Thes 5:2). This is precisely how Jesus described his second coming in the Olivet discourse. And one could hardly find better confirmation of Jesus’ promise that “this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come” (Mat 24:14) than in Paul’s mission and message.
Paul understood Christ’s reign as “already” and “not yet”: “For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Cor 15:25–26). The presence of the Spirit in our hearts as a pledge (arrobōn) of the consummation assures that what he has begun in us he will complete. The Spirit brings the blessings of the age to come into the present, which not only fills us with unspeakable joy but also with unutterable longing for the “more” still up ahead (Rom 8:18-25). Furthermore, the renewal of the whole creation has already begun with the new birth. Not only our souls, but our bodies, and not only we but “the whole creation” will share in this “glorious liberation” (Rom 8:20-23). “For in this hope we were saved.” Yet we do not yet see these full effects of Christ’s kingdom, Paul reminds us. “But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience” (Rom 8:24-25). “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised…up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus” (Eph 2:1, 4-7). We are chosen, justified, and adopted. We are being sanctified. And one day we will be glorified.
At present, the kingdom of Christ is not a geo-political, economic, or cultural force. Just as Jesus said that his kingdom is not of this world, Paul writes, “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph 6:12). Our only weapons are the Spirit and the Word of the gospel. Through faith in Christ we have “the breastplate of righteousness,” “the belt of truth,” “the shield of faith, and “shoes” ready to run with “the gospel of peace” (Eph 6:13-14).
Jesus’ announcement that he has bound the strong man so that the veil of unbelief may be torn from the eyes of Satan’s prisoners is elaborated by Paul (2 Cor 4:3). Christ has triumphed over Satan at the cross (Col 2:13-15) and in his resurrection and ascension led captivity captive (Eph 4:8-10). The apostles with one voice declare with their Lord that Christ is now reigning (1 Cor 15:25; Heb 1:3, 8, 13; 8:1; 10:12–13; Ac 2:24–25; 3:20–21). For this reason, Jesus can assure his persecuted saints, “Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades” (Rev 1:17–18).
In this interim period, the kingdom advances alongside the suffering and even martyrdom of its witnesses. Yet Christ “will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him” (Heb 9:28; cf. 10:37). The regeneration of fallen creation works in concentric circles, beginning with the inner person and then, at the consummation, including the resurrection of the body and the complete renewal of creation. Wherever the New Testament treats the complex of Christ’s return, the resurrection, and the last judgment, no intervening raptures, resurrections, or judgments are mentioned.
The Gospel is the Kingdom and the Kingdom is the Gospel
The “gospel of the kingdom” (Mat 24:14) and the “keys of the kingdom” (Mat 16:19) are really synonymous. They both refer to the proclamation of the forgiveness of sins and the renewal of all things that has begun even now with the in-gathering of outcasts to Zion. Furthermore, both of these phrases are synonymous with the Great Commission. If John the Baptist could proclaim with seriousness, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Mat 3:2), it is all the more urgent that we repent and believe now that the Messiah has come. The foundation of this repentance is the forgiveness of sins, as John Calvin in Harmony of the Evangelists observed: “From this doctrine, as its source, is drawn the exhortation to repentance. For John does not say, ‘Repent ye, and in this way the kingdom of heaven will afterwards be at hand;’ but first brings forward the grace of God, and then exhorts men to repent. Hence it is evident that the foundation of repentance is the mercy of God, by which he restores the lost.” Forgiveness is “first in order,” “…so it must be observed that pardon of sins is bestowed upon us in Christ, not that God may treat them with indulgence, but that he may heal us from our sins” (179).
Often as a corollary of the alleged Jesus/Paul contrast, there is a tendency sometimes today for Christians to talk about the gospel of the kingdom over against the gospel as the forgiveness of sins. In other words, it is suggested that the kingdom itself (regarded as a gradual improvement of temporal conditions) is the gospel, more than the quest for personal salvation. However, this was the mistake of Jesus’ contemporaries: namely, collapsing the kingdom of glory, manifested on the last day, into the kingdom of grace, which is present now. As Calvin observes, in its present phase, the kingdom is the gospel and the gospel is the kingdom. “Now the means is His Gospel. Also that is why Jesus Christ spoke so often of the Gospel, calling it the Kingdom of God. ‘The Gospel of the Kingdom’ can also be translated ‘the Gospel, which is the Kingdom.’ It is not, then, without cause that the Gospel is called ‘the Kingdom of God.’…Jesus Christ always has some company wherever the Gospel is preached. For He is not a King without subjects.”
CNN has its own list of headlines. In the West, history is divided into periods: ancient, medieval, modern, and postmodern. More recently, it has been said that the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 “changed everything.” For believers, however, the most decisive turning point was the year 33, when a Jewish rabbi—the Messiah—was raised from the dead in Roman-occupied Palestine. Vindicating his claim as God incarnate, Savior, and Lord the world, Jesus of Nazareth proved that these titles traditionally invoked by Caesar belonged exclusively to him. This turning-point is not only celebrated but is deepened and widened in its effects every Lord’s Day. Wherever this gospel is taken, a piece of heaven—the age to come—begins even now to dawn in the dusty corners of this passing evil age.
For more on a New Testament theology of Jesus and Paul, be sure to listen to these White Horse Inn programs:
The Parables of Jesus (in 6 parts):
Part 1 –
Part 2 –
Part 3 –
Part 4 –
Part 5 –
Part 6 –
Jesus, James & Paul:
The Theology of N. T. Wright: