About Paul, Jesus and the Kingdom
At the beginning of this series I asked of Paul: so if the kingdom has come and if it was not postponed then why does Jesus talk “the kingdom of God” and Paul talk mostly “gospel” and rarely “kingdom?” A good question. For one thing, it raises another question which has been asked before: when either Paul or Jesus says “gospel” are they talking about the same thing?
If you read the first post in this series you will remember I asked my youth leader “What is the kingdom of God?” I thought I knew what the gospel was but what was the kingdom of God; the same thing or something different? Gospel: Jesus died; we go to heaven. The kingdom…?
There are over fifty references to the kingdom in the gospels but only thirteen in Paul’s letters. By contrast, the term gospel is used one hundred-one times in ninety-six verses, total. Of those verses, nineteen are in the gospels, five of which are in direct or indirect connection to the kingdom, as in “gospel of the kingdom” or, as in Jesus’ words in Mark 1:5: “the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”
A Gospel about Entering into a New Kingdom
In Acts, “gospel” is used eight times and in only two of those cases “the gospel” is used in direct relationship to kingdom. In 14:21-22 this connection is especially instructive:
After they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying, “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.”
Here Paul and Barnabas explain to the folks at hand that accepting Jesus as their king and thus entering into his service, i.e., entering the kingdom, is a costly business. What then is the gospel which the apostles were sharing? These verses at least suggest Paul and the others were teaching the very same kingdom-gospel that Jesus died to establish on earth, the kingdom over-which he now reigns in heaven; the good news that the kingdom of God has come to the earth.
Yet, Paul rarely uses the term, “kingdom” and he never calls Jesus, “king” in his letters. If, as Acts 14:21-22 suggests, Paul proclaims a gospel in which we enter into the kingdom of God, why so little use of “kingdom” and why never call Jesus, “king?”
A Case of Context: So Important!
These questions really do disappear when we do what Christians have rarely done: read Paul in the context of his times. As I mentioned in the previous post, Jesus never called himself “melech” (king) and until his trial before the rump Sanhedrin, he never discussed his claim to be messiah except privately with his closest disciples. Why? Because to claim to be the king who will liberate Israel from Roman rule was a deadly dangerous act. Now we need to understand, Paul’s situation was no different. The apostle needed to be careful what he said and even more careful about what he wrote.
This issue came home to me with force during my first experience teaching Paul to inmates at the Rochester Federal Medical Center (RFMC) here in Minnesota. We were at the end of the third term of my survey course, A Year in the Bible and taking up Paul’s letters. (Meanwhile, I was fresh from a Graduate Seminar at the Institute for Christian Studies [in Toronto, Canada]. The subject: “Paul and Empire,” Sylvia Keesmaat [D. Phil., Biblical Studies, Oxford], Instructor.) As I discussed Paul’s writings with the eight men in the prison class that day, I said, “Another thing about Paul is that he engaged in covert writing, just like you do.”
The men glanced quickly and somewhat furtively at each other. I smiled and said, “You know what I mean; Paul was never sure who might read his letters so he laid stuff in-between the lines.”
Now the guys smiled openly; I knew and they knew. When someone other than the one to whom you are writing is going to read what you have written, you are careful about what you write. (I have never had less trouble teaching this point than I did that day in the prison.)
A Dangerous World for “Upstart Kings”
To see what happens when those in authority get a hold of information that had best be kept hidden, read Acts 17:1-9. In Thessaloniki, those who opposed the gospel of Paul put out to a mob that he was teaching people to “act contrary to the laws Caesar, saying there is another king, Jesus.”
Yes, there is, actually. There is another king! There is a new king and a new kingdom which will eventually destroy the Roman empire and every other self-important imperial illusion which comes along after it. This new kingdom was just growing up, right in the midst of the vaunted Pax Romana and quietly putting the lie to it, showing it up, proving it false and hollow. It would do so at every turn. And so when Paul proclaimed another king and kingdom he was very careful what he said and how he wrote.
Paul, the Fox
Paul was not only careful; like Jesus he was also shrewd. Take the term “messiah.” It means “anointed” and yet every Jew in Judaea, Samaria, Galilee, Idumea and in the far-flung Diaspora, knew what else it meant. However, the translation of “messiah” into Greek, Χριστός (kristos)… It also means to be anointed but unlike the Hebrew it had no secondary, special meaning. “Χριστός” was not short for “Χριστός βασιλεύς” (anointed king). So, when Paul wanted to emphasize the reigning-in-power kingship of Jesus, he simply reversed the usual word order: instead of Ἰησοῦς Χριστός (Jesus, the anointed one) he wrote “Χριστός Ἰησοῦς,” meaning King Jesus. It would look to anyone who did not know better, for instance, a Roman magistrate, like “anointed Jesus.” But to those who had taken a solemn oath to be Jesus’ disciples it meant, King Jesus and nothing less. Paul never calls Jesus “the king” and he never writes “βασιλεύς Ἰησοῦς” because, like Jesus before him, he is not finished with his work and he does not wish to be arrested yet.
Two Exceptions Point to the Rule
So what went wrong in Thessaloniki? The Jews from the local synagogue who had rejected Jesus knew what Paul meant when he said “Χριστός” (kristos). Even if Paul never said out loud, “Jesus is the new king of all the world,” if in arguing at the synagogue that “Jesus is the Christ of God,” the local people of the circumcision knew the messiah was to rule the whole world and as the text suggests, they reported Paul to the authorities: another king besides Caesar. It all happened again in a similar way in Corinth but with a much better outcome (I Corinthians 18:5-17). “Jews will have no God but Caesar:” that’s the law Paul breaks!
Analyzing Some Inventory
There are thirteen occasions when Paul does write “kingdom.” In two, Romans 14:17 and I Corinthians 4:20, Paul compares the pure, true, kingdom of God – the kingdom come – with petty and incidental issues with which the Romans and Corinthians are overly concerned (“eating and drinking” and “words”). He does not say such a perfect kingdom exists yet. He contrasts such a “kingdom of God” with “majoring in minors.”
Four of Paul’s remaining eleven uses of kingdom concern people who define their lives in this or that way which make them ineligible – they cannot “inherit” the kingdom in that state (I Corinthians 6:9-10, 15:50; Galatians 5:21; Ephesians 5:5). Just as in the first two instances, the focus in these passages is on the kingdom of God in its future perfection, not in its forming, storming, norming, transient condition prior to Christ’s final return.
In Colossians 4:10-11, Paul describes several persons as co-workers “for the kingdom.” This is as close as Paul ever comes to talking about the kingdom on the earth, in his “here and now.” He, Paul, is a worker for the kingdom on the earth and so are Aristarchus, Mark and Justus.
Seven Down, Six More…
We have a bit more work to do with Paul – the six remaining verses raise some fine issues – but at least tentatively, I think it safe to say that Paul sees himself as a worker for God and Christ Jesus toward the establishment of the kingdom on earth over which Christ Jesus reigns in heaven. His gospel, therefore, is that Jesus is the new ruler of all creation! He knows he will not see the kingdom full-grown or mature this side of glory but he has dedicated his life to seeing it firmly planted.
Next, finishing Paul and then one more post, I think, to tidy up loose ends.
Am I raising issues for anyone? (I should be.)