The Challenge of the Kingdom (Part 2)

One of the things that has always annoyed me about N. T. Wright’s description of the Kingdom in the Gospels is that he seems to be guarding the idea of the Kingdom on two separate fronts. On the one hand, he frequently denies that Jewish expectations were looking for the “end of space and time,” or the end of the world.  Here has in mind the typical American view of the end times as channeled through the Left Behind series.  Wright usually uses words like “lurid” to describe these apocalyptic fantasies. (While I do believe in a future rapture, I think that pop-media goes too far, turning what was a “blessed hope” into a post-apocalyptic movie of Schwarzenegger-ian proportions.)

On the other hand, Wright wants to invest the Kingdom with a fair amount of radicalness in the first century.  This means he must avoid the rather bland descriptions of the Kingdom as doing good and loving your neighbor popular in liberal Christianity.  In Simply Jesus, for example, he compares Jesus to several messianic movements in the Second Temple period.  Jesus is in many ways more radical than these, but obviously less militaristic.

I think both sides have a cause to be annoyed at Wright’s regular characterization of their positions.  For example, while Left Behind is one representation of Dispensationalist thinking, it is in fact fantasy, a fictional “what if” story and not at all a reasonable presentation of a theology.  To me, judging Dispensationalism by Left Behind is life judging Catholicism by the movie Dogma.  This is a strawman argument at best and an ad hominem argument at worst.  Wright regular points out that the Jews expected a real kingdom in this world, not the end of the world whether (post-apocalyptic or eternal state).  This is exactly what Dispensationalist have always said about Jewish messianic hopes. It disappoints me that wild speculation in bad fiction is used to judge a theological system.  (There are many good reasons to attack dispensational theology, the popularity of the Left Behind series ought not be one of them).

On the second front, Wright is correct that protestant liberal interpretations of the Kingdom are bland and not at all what Jesus would have meant.  Nor would Jesus have been understood if he tried to present a Kingdom which was based on the “Golden Rule” alone.  There are far more political and social issues in the teaching of Jesus which have to be dismissed if he was just telling us to be nice to each other.  What is more, why kill someone who was encouraging us to love one another?  What harm could Jesus have done if that was all he really taught?  No, there is something more in the teaching of Jesus, something which was a challenge to the worldview of the people who heard him teach and watched him “act out” the Kingdom of God.

Wright is certainly correct when he states that Jesus was offering a critique of his contemporaries from within, “his summons was not to abandon Judaism and try something else, but to be the true, returned-from-exile people of the one true God” (Challenge of Jesus, 52).  Jesus is presenting himself as the voice of Isaiah 40-55 – calling his people out of exile to meet their messiah and to enjoy a renewed relationship with their God.

21 thoughts on “The Challenge of the Kingdom (Part 2)

  1. It is true that Jesus must have been teaching something other than simply loving others in order to be killed. I wonder if the people following Him felt as though they had been tricked. Is is possible that his disciples, not the 12 but everyone else, had believed that Christ was going to lead a revolution that would destroy Rome and lead the Jews to their rightful place; and when He didn’t do that, they were furious with Him. Their anger and embarrassment at being “tricked” may be why they wanted Him crucified.

    I know that whenever I feel as though I have been tricked by someone, that I want nothing more than to hurt them in some way. So sin and human nature could be the reason they decided to kill someone who simply taught them to do the exact opposite.

  2. Indeed the “best” of Dispensationalism looks to a Jewish Kingdom within this world, and is part of the New Creation for St. Paul! Christ will fully “redeem” God’s Creation! It is here btw, that one thinks of the theology of an Irenaeus of Lyons! Sadly, the many satirical caricature’s of Dispensationalism, don’t come from Dispensational theology for the most part. And as I have noted, the PD or Progressive Dispensationalism, is itself still in a rather good biblical flux, indeed how any theolog today cannot see ‘the signs of the times’, with Modern Israel, and the whole Holy Land, Muslim extermism, etc., is quite beyond me! One thing is certain, the Free World is in great jeopardy, both from within and from without! And those in ministry that cannot see that, are no doubt locked-up in their Ivory-Towers! But then I lived and taught in Israel in the late 90’s, and fought in Gulf War 1. Indeed that was a “formation” for me, both! WE can never escape either human experience or history, both seem to repeat themselves! And of course as even Luther felt, that Holy Scripture always related to personal existence, this was the essence of his hemeneutic, and teaching concerning Scripture (as to salvation for the person anyway).

    • Btw, the so-called gift of the Land to Israel, has seen three dispossessions and restorations (Gen. 15:13, 14, 16 / Jer. 25: 11-12 / Deut. 28: 62-65 ; 30: 1-3). Two dispossessions and restorations have been accomplished. And the third dispersion, is parcel.. seeing Israel in her land, but yet in unbelief, but ending in full restoration and salvation at the visible Coming and Return of the Lord Jesus, as King, (Deut. 30: 3 / Jer. 23: 5-8 / Ezek. 37: 21-25). Yes, this is certainly “Dispensational” and Covenantal! (Rom. 11 etc., and noting verses 26-29). But oh the woes and great trials for National Israel before they get to the last! (Zech. 13: 8-9)

    • Prog Dispensationalism is dispensationalism with a healthy dose of Ladd. Not like that is a bad thing.

  3. Jesus was doing more than just teaching the people to be nice to one another, or for that matter just teaching about God or “religion”. He was threatening the control and power of not only the political leaders but that of the religious leaders. He was killed because He had a following. The ones in power saw that He was effecting people, and trying to change things. Chris A, it’s interesting that you say that it may be possible that Jesus’ followers thought that they were “tricked”. If the Jews were looking for a Kingdom on Earth to happen at that moment, and not for just a “renewed relationship with God” with the return of Jesus in the near future, some may have felt betrayed, as if they didn’t get what they expected. But obviously that wasn’t the case for all of them, or we wouldn’t even have Christianity today.
    As far as the end times, I believe we have to look in the middle, between the media’s portrayal and a simple “blessed hope”. Obviously Jesus was radical, and I believe the end times are going to be something that none of us can even imagine. Yes, maybe the Left Behind series has taken things a few steps too far, but we really have no way of knowing exactly how extravagant it will be.

    • “how extravagant it will be” – I love describing the return of Jesus as “extravagant”! Especially since Jesus used the metaphor of a wedding banquet for his return several times. It will by like the most extravagant royal wedding imaginable!

  4. In Wrights book Simply Jesus, he attempts to give us a glimpse into the Jewish mindset of what the coming King would resemble in order to give us a better understanding of why they reacted the way that they did during the ministry of Jesus on earth. The Jews were constantly looking for a pattern in their anxious await for a King who would establish His kingdom reign on earth. First, a wicked ruler followed by a time of great suffering which would be overruled by some sort of hero or deliverer who would beat the pagans, rescue the people from the wicked rule, and would rebuild the Temple. Wright introduces two rulers before the time of Jesus, Judah the Hammer and Simon the Star, whom the people held in high esteem as their possible awaited king, yet ultimately discovered that they were mistaken. After times of great hope and expectation followed by great sorrow and feelings of hopelessness when the earthly kings did not fulfill their expectations, it makes sense that the Jews among others would be skeptical of Jesus and his claims about the kingdom of God. As Wright points out, “It takes little imagination to see that Jesus of Nazareth, nailed to a Roman cross with the words ‘king of the Jews’ over his head, must have been seen by many in exactly the same way as Simon bar-Giora. Here is a would-be rebel king, and this is what the Romans always do to such people” (115). However, it is interesting to note that as P long pointed out, Jesus was not merely preaching love and peace. He continually challenged authority and claimed that the kingdom of God was near. The uprisings and disputes that arose as a result of his ministry and his teachings most likely caused the Jewish people to question and even doubt his claims about the kingdom of God as well as who He himself was. How could someone who caused so much division and confusion possibly be the Messiah, and how could his ministry possibly be the beginning of God’s future kingdom?
    Chris, I enjoyed reading about your perspective that the Jews felt that they were being tricked. After their hopes were crushed by the previous two rulers who seemed in their eyes to be the king who would deliver them, it only makes sense that the Jews would have a skeptical attitude toward Jesus and even doubtful especially when He did not fulfill things in a way that fit with their mentality of what the coming king would do for them. I wonder if we were Jews living in that time if we would have just as easily fallen into that category. After reading about the teachings of that time and the mindset that was so driven into their very being, I fear that we so easily could have been in the same boat had we been living during that time!

  5. I see that there are 2 conceptions of the Messiah in the O.T. One of a warrior coming back to overthrow the oppressive rulers and two, that of the suffering servant (Isaiah 53). Because of the centuries of repression the Jews did have rightful expectations of a coming King who would at last remove the oppressors and establish Israel’s kingdom as that of David. What they received was a a man of humility and servitude who turned their conceptions of “kingdom” upside down. The Jews “anointed” others as their Messiah who had come to set them free, only, this Jesus was a different breed altogether. He taught humility, not violence, he taught about being a servant, he had no armies, he carried no weapons other than that of love. The concept of armed resistance was foreign to him. Yet, he caused a revolution that has set captives free for over 2000 years! His weapons were his crucifixion and resurrection! .Oh, he will come again to establish an earthly kingdom and for now we should rejoice over the “spiritual kingdom” that has been given to us now with the hope of the future.

  6. “To me, judging Dispensationalism by Left Behind is life judging Catholicism by the movie Dogma.” I completely agree. So often when people do not fully understand a theological view or simply disagree with it, they are quick to unfairly compare it or view it at either face-value or the media’s twisted view of the belief or ideal. And while I do not necessarily agree with Wright’s views on the matter, I do appreciate the questions he raises. The Kingdom of God and the end-of-the-word narratives in general are either underrated or overrated. May I suggest we place their importance somewhere in the middle? When Jesus spoke of The Kingdom of God I believe He was speaking of something that began with us here on earth but I also believe it was the promise of something even greater to come. Whether or not we will ever understand these things now in this life, I think it would be well for us not to make generalizations or assumptions about something so important and vital to our faith. Though, we must also remember that worrying about things outside of our control is a waste of time.

  7. “Judging Dispensationalism by Left Behind is like judging Catholicism by the movie Dogma.” Should I not have found that hilarious?

    Moving on…

    I have this tendency to like agreeing with Nicholas T. Wright. And I’m going to do that a little now. Wright, as stated above, “frequently denies that Jewish expectations were looking for the ‘end of space and time,’ or the end of the world” (Long). But, I do not see much solid biblical support for a Jewish eschatology (I’m willing to be shown the light) that expects an end of the world. That said, I do not see much support for a Christian eschatology that says that. But I would not go as far in my Wrightian fanhood as to deny the rapture, a point Wright is very clear in establishing in his writings. According to Wright, in a passage that sums up both of his expressed views here, says, “… there [is not] the slightest suggestion of anybody flying around on a cloud. Nor is there any hint of the imminent collapse or destruction of the space-time universe” (Wright, Surprised By Hope, 129). The latter of these points I agree with, but the former (regarding the rapture) I disagree with. While his thoughts are brilliant, I think his over conclusion on the rapture matter are a bit off. But overall, I would stand right next to Nicholas and deny any position that affirms the majority of the Jewish nation to be expectant of an “end times”as some westerners have begun to support. My eschatology is a study of ‘last’ things, not an ‘end’ time. Nothing in Genesis, the account of creation, seems to affirm it’s destruction. I think Adam was tasked in Genesis (2:15) to tend a garden. Had sin not come into play, would God have eventually rapture all people to make a new world? No, I think not (my humble opinion). I think God would have guided them to the building of Jerusalem as expressed in scripture; to an eschatology where earth remains very good. And I don’t think the world has lost its tov.; it’s goodness. Sin is here. But Christ has redeemed all of creation.


    Sorry if that was a bit off topic.

  8. (Random thought/question.) Is there not also a religious group who believes that the kingdom of heaven began when Jesus ascended and that his kingdom is here and now? Anyway, more on topic. Jesus being killed simply for teaching people to love each other simply does not make sense. There have been plenty of other “good teachers’ throughout the history of the world and few of them were actually killed for what they were teaching. Jesus was killed for more than that, Jesus was more than that, the previous false messiahs gathered crowds and had followings but once they died their movement would end. Jesus’ impact only grew once he died. He changed people’s hearts and complete life style. That’s what scared people and why he was killed.

    • “Is there not also a religious group who believes that the kingdom of heaven began when Jesus ascended and that his kingdom is here and now?”

      Yes, I would say that is the historical view of the church! The idea that the kingdom is wholly present in the Church is the opinion of most writers until after the reformation, and even then it is still a popular idea.

  9. I really hate the “left behind” movies and books, because of the fantasy and ‘scare effect’ they are trying to induce. Because yes, when Christ comes there will be the 7 years of the ruling of the Anti Christ, then 7 years of complete tribulation and horrible wars and complete disaster; but I am not sure that making those movies or writing those books truly show the love and Grace and beauty of God and the Gospel of Jesus.

    P-Long you wrote this… “his summons was not to abandon Judaism and try something else, but to be the true, returned-from-exile people of the one true God” (Challenge of Jesus, 52). Jesus is presenting himself as the voice of Isaiah 40-55 – calling his people out of exile to meet their messiah and to enjoy a renewed relationship with their God.
    I love that, I love how you worded it and how you used that quote from the Challenge of Jesus. When I was doing my reading I wanted to use that in a post but you beat me to it. The way Jesus made a new relationship with God, with his father is beautiful and wonderful. Everything he went through in his life, just so we can all have a personal relationship like he has with his father. I think that Judaism is not something that should be abandoned or thought about abandoned, because Jesus called for all people of every group and asked them to follow him. And today we are all doing the same thing as before, we have different dispensations and denominations, yet the true heart of that matter is we all believe in the same Jesus, the same Gospel. God is good, all the time.

    • I was quoting N. T. Wright, but people get us confused all the time

  10. I also agree that Jesus came and did what was contradictory to what they were expecting. They were expecting Jesus to lead them in a now and physical revolution, and not a future revolution that would change the world. They wanted a fierce warrior, one that would come and make His kingdom known using violence, not saying, “I tell you do not hate, if anyone hates his brother then he has already committed murder.” No, they wanted a king that was for eye for an eye. They didn’t want someone that would up the standard and set the bar on how to love others. They wanted to rule over the others and be lifted higher by the messiah, not be humble. This through them off and they were not expecting one to come and serve them and teach them, but rather someone that they could serve, and someone that they would follow into battle, not non-violence.

  11. Yes I believe Jesus came doing something that was contradictory to what the Jewish people had expected. This is why the crucified him on the cross. But for what they thought was punishment was actually a revolution for mankind. God used this sacrifice of his son to bless and redeem all mankind. Jesus came as a humble servant, who cam to serve, and teach. The Jews believed in a sort of warrior Messiah like the old testament who would rescue them for there oppressors and there current state of well being. They had every right to believe so. But to kill someone who was teaching against killing of others and against what they wanted showed that they were scared of the power of Christ’s word’s and actions. The cool thing is that Christ gained even more followers after his resurrection and was gone. Christ was teaching things controversial to the lifestyle and thoughts of the Jewish culture, and they were scared of his impact.

  12. I think sometimes we get so caught up in the way the Jews acted or how they handled situations. But at the same time, I feel like it is important to put ourselves in their situations–to be able to know how they would have felt or what they would have thought. It seems like it is a common response to say that we would have done things differently or acted in a different way–but that is because we have more of an understanding now and we see how things worked out. So instead of focusing on that, I feel like it is more important to focus on the relationship and who Jesus is and who we are in Him. We should be seeing Him as our example and continually striving to live toward that. But He was not all about peace all the time, either. Still, as our perfect example, Jesus often challenged and questioned authority and other people. He taught with authority and was someone people looked to. Because of this, people were drawn to Him and they wanted to follow Him and His teachings.

    • You are right that we cannot know for sure how ancient people would react, but it seems to me that we have to be somewhere between so skeptical we do no historical reconstruction and the other extreme of creating a fantasy world for Jesus to live in. (I suspect Christian romance novels do this when they create a little world for the “biblical characters” to live in. I say “suspect” because I really do not read that sort of thing!) Our goal here is to discover as much context as we can so that we are able to read the words of Jesus as intelligently as possible.

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