One thing that was pointed out to me early in my Biblical Studies course on the Gospels and Acts is that Jesus talks about some things that Paul never seems to mention. The primary example of this is that Jesus is always talking about the Kingdom of God, yet Paul never seems to mention it. In fact, Paul seems to talk only about how Jesus’ death on the cross “saves” us.
Is the Kingdom only a future thing that we are just spinning our wheels waiting for? Or are we missing something? Anglican Bishop N.T. (Tom) Wright seems to think that we are indeed missing the close relationship between the Cross and the Kingdom. What follows here is basically some of my impressions from a lecture he delivered at the Bristol School of Biblical Studies entitled Putting the Gospel Back Together: How We’ve All Misread Our Central Story It runs about 60 minutes and is well worth listening to. (You’ll be able to check for yourself whether my impressions are sound.) Just click the “play” icon on the link above.
His main point is that the Gospels tell the story of how the God of Israel reclaims His sovereign rule over Israel and over the whole world. He does so through His incarnation as Jesus Christ by means of Jesus’ public ministry from His Baptism to His death on the cross. Jesus resurrection to power and glory at God’s right hand declares His vindication to all the world, but the actual victory came on the cross.
Was Jesus’ mission to establish the Kingdom of God “on earth as it is in heaven” a failure? Is it in hiatus until Jesus return? Or had it already fully begun in Jesus’ time and therefore continues to build in our time? In other words, is Jesus Lord of the earth now, or not? Has God “exalted him to the highest place so that every knee should bow, in heaven, and on earth and under the earth” [from Phil 2:6-11, NKJV throughout] or not?
Many modern scholars see Mark 9:1 as a failed prophecy, because Jesus did not return from heaven with power to establish the Kingdom of God. I think we had been taught that the generation that experienced the power of the Beast and False Prophet would live to see Jesus’ return. Later we were taught (even by me!) that this statement referred to the Transfiguration account that begins in the next verse.
Wright has a different explanation: Just let God be true and every man a liar. It means exactly what it says. We just haven’t really understood what it says. It says that some standing before Jesus would not die before they had seen the Kingdom come with power. The answer is simple. Some of those people lived to see Jesus die and be resurrected. That was the Kingdom coming [“present” in the NKJV] in power!
Interestingly enough Jesus had just been telling them that he was about to die and come back to life, then they would have to take up their own crosses to follow Him, “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it.” [Mark 9:31-38] Jesus’ death was intended, from the very beginning, to be the means by which the Kingdom comes in power! Jesus’ obedient death is the very model of the power of the Kingdom, which is precisely why Jesus tells them to follow Him into death if necessary.
[As a side note: Matthew 16:28 and Luke 9:27 are parallel accounts. The passage in Matthew states “till they see the Son of Man coming in His Kingdom.” What most non-Greek readers don’t know is that the word for “coming” is also used for “going” depending on the context. According to Wright, they could just as easily have seen Him “going in His kingdom” at His ascension and still be true to the prophecy. This is the passage that most have understood to be futuristic rather than in Jesus’ present (our past).]
Getting back to the main point: In Mark 10:35-45 we find James and John wanting to have the top jobs in the Kingdom. Jesus starts by asking of they are willing to “drink the cup I drink.” Notice that the job prerequisite of a follower of Jesus is willingness to die in pursuit of God’s mission.
Only then does Jesus tell them that they are not to lord it over others as the Gentile leaders do. Instead they must serve all others as slaves, as Jesus Himself does. The Son of Man’s entire mission was to serve “and to give his life as a ransom for many.” That is the job description of a follower of Jesus. “Ransoming Lives” is the Mission Statement, if you will. It certainly was Jesus’ mission.
The statement about ransoming lives isn’t just tacked on so that theologians could create a “ransom theory” of atonement. The idea of ransoming is an integral part of Jesus’ Jubilee Proclamation of Luke 3:16-21. It was time to bring people out of slavery and restore all things. Somehow, the writers of the four Gospels believed that Jesus’ public ministry and His death achieved the start of that, and that it continues today.
The book of John is full of this paradox, too. John 13:3 notes that Jesus already had all things under His power, so He uses that power to wash His disciples’ feet. In John 18:1-11 even as Jesus is being arrested, he is definitely in charge. When he announces Himself the troops fall to the ground. He orders the troops to let the others go because they have Him instead. He orders Peter to put the sword away after he cuts the High Priest’s servant’s ear off. (In one of the other accounts He then heals the ear.)
In John 18:36 the statement that Jesus’ kingdom is not “of this world” in Greek is “εκ του κοσμου τουτου.” According to Dr. Wright, the “εκ” translated as “of” in the KJV and others really should be translated “from” to denote the origin of Jesus’ kingdom rather than its other-worldliness. Jesus is making a statement that challenges the claims of Caesar as ruler of the world, but the source of His power and the use to which He puts it leave Pilate at a loss.
Pilate cannot let this claim stand unchallenged, but Jesus is not offering armed resistance, either so Pilate defaults to letting the Jewish religious establishment get rid of the troublemaker for him.
If Jesus’ kingdom is not “from” this world, where is it obviously headed if He himself is here? To this world, of course.
At the end of Matthew, Luke and John, Jesus commissions His disciples and promises them power. Acts 2 clearly depicts them receiving power from on high. Ergo, the Kingdom has been inaugurated, and some of the people standing before Jesus have not only “seen” the Kingdom, they have experienced Jesus’ “coming” “in power” “among them.”
How is that power applied? Proclaiming the Kingdom. (e.g. Luke 7:18-23) Feeding the flock. (e.g. John 21:15-19). These are the basic things that power is to be used for: service.
The power is not applied by building empires or spreading a “Christian culture” around the world. It is not by creating a moralistic system of do’s and don’ts. It is not by claiming that Jesus would be a liberal or conservative if He ministered today. Jesus cut across political and religious lines in His day, why should His disciples be different now?
To begin with, we need to realize that Jesus is in charge of the universe, including this world in the here-and-now.
Then we have to figure out what to do about that realization.