a non-linear story, by grace, Christian community, Paul's gospel, progressive revelation, Redemption of Creation, Spirit Power, the Christian story, the gospel of the kingdom, the kingdom of God, the story of God, what is the kingdom of god
About Redemptive History
I will look at the remaining texts where Paul used the Greek word, βασιλεία (kingdom) in the next post but first I will digress. I introduced an idea into my last post without comment, one which is critical to my understanding of all the periods of Christianity, also of the first and second-temple Judaism which preceded it and, before that, of the times of Seth, Shem, Moses and Abraham. I often refer to this as “the story of God.” Without the story of God, the Bible is not a book I can understand. Without the story of God I have trouble making sense of situations, now, then or at any time.
Within the story of God I see change, I see a progressive revelation and the unfolding of redemption. A few months back I published a post called, How Can God Have Blessed Such Evil, in which I traced the redemptive story through some very thorny moments. I pointed out a number of ways in which life today is a less evil experience for many people because others in previous and more evil times were faithful with what they had and with what they knew. This is the motif of scripture and thus, of the story of God: Creation, Fall, Redemption and Response. These four themes occur repeatedly to make up the history of redemption which culminates in the Bible with King Jesus and the present and yet still developing kingdom of God.
It is in that sense that I write in my last post about the kingdom of God on earth as it was in its first generation and I note that St. Paul refers on at least two occasions to a future, mature and thus perfect kingdom which did not yet exist. St. Paul knows well what the living expression of the kingdom looked like at that very moment. It was a mess of conflicting loyalties, divergent worldviews, doctrinal confusion and petty quarrels. What he could not possibly see except by faith was the kingdom of God on the earth when all pettiness and jealousy, all envy, smallness of mind and brokenness of heart will be melted, molded, filled and so used as to become the glorious kingdom, the spotless Bride of the Lamb, the people of God on the earth with their king.
Paul, Daniel and the Growing Kingdom/Stone
Paul understood the kingdom on earth was going to change and grow. Perhaps he had meditated on Daniel’s first apocalyptic prophecy, Daniel 2, the story of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream about a royal statue representing four great imperial ages, the last being an impossibly fused mix of iron and clay. Daniel says he looked and saw a stone not shaped by human hands which was tossed at the iron/clay feet of the entire imperial edifice, not just bringing it down but emulsifying it into particles of gold, silver, bronze, iron and clay dust, which like chaff are blown away. And in the place of the empires, the small stone begins to grow until it fills the whole earth.
I wonder if Paul had thought about that strange story, originally fitted out to explain the world of post-exilic Israel in the shadow of Greco-Syrian domination. I wonder if Paul was the first Christian to rework the story in Roman terms? Maybe so. It was not, I think, lost on Paul that the mountain which grows from the stone until it fills the whole earth was the stone which he, Paul, was carrying in his clay jar, the explosive charge which he was placing, the powerful, yes, the spiritual stone which would, as he writes on one occasion, “bring to nothing the things which are.”
Did Paul know he was setting a secure foundation for that living mountain, so small at first, which would eventually so fill the earth that there would be no place left for petty, violent imperial designs? Yes, I think Paul knows exactly what he is doing, what he was, in fulfillment of his God-breathed apostolate, setting in motion. By the time Paul was poured out like a libation, he knew the good news of the kingdom of God, established on the foundation of Christ’s atoning blood, had been securely fixed on the earth and had begun to mature and spread!
Paul and Jesus Differ Only in Temporal Perspective
Paul’s gospel and Jesus’ gospel vary only because of the slight but critical difference between the time of Jesus’ proclamation and of Paul’s. Jesus announces that the kingdom of God is so threateningly close as to be in their social space – right around the next corner; “Watch out!” Paul, working on the other side of the Crucifixion, Resurrection and Ascension events, proclaims a kingdom which had already come to earth and was still coming. Although Paul lived at the beginning of the tension which is our constant reality – the already and the not yet – he experienced the tension as surely as we do. For Jesus, during his ministry, it was all tantalizingly close but agonizingly not yet:
I have come to cast fire upon the earth; and how I wish it were already kindled!
“But I have a baptism to undergo, and how distressed I am until it is accomplished!
“Do you suppose that I came to grant peace on earth? I tell you, no, but rather division; for from now on five members in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three.
“They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.” (Luke 12:49-53)
Jesus knows what is coming; he knows what he must do. He also knows the division his life, ministry and death will create in Israel as families divide over his person and over whether he has or has not brought the kingdom of God to the earth. There will be troubles, serious trials. Half a generation later, Paul advises the Corinthians it is better not to marry. Was this “eternal teaching” on the greater holiness of celibacy over matrimony? Of course not, although some have misread the passage in exactly that way. Paul recommends that those who can should avoid marriage in their moment because Paul sees the storm which is coming and he knows that those who have a family will find the coming persecutions more difficult. Although the kingdom has already come to earth it is yet to be full-grown. It has beasts to face on the outside and as Paul’s co-worker John will soon write, there will be “antichrists” on the inside who will weaken the communities even before they have grown up.
(Did Paul know the growing and collapsing, the spread and fail, the joy and sadness, the pain and triumph which is the non-linear story of the kingdom coming would still be in process nearly two millennia later? What do you think?)
Paul Brings a Gospel of New-creation Possibilities
My point remains, Paul wrote about the good news of the kingdom. It was good news because the work of Jesus had made possible what had been impossible just a century before. Walls of false distinction had been brought down! Walls which had kept Gentiles away from the kingdom, which had put men over women, even inside the community, which had made slaves of all but a few in the world, they were all smashed by the blood of Jesus! The rulers of the world had been shamed by the failure of the cross to destroy the king of creation. Therefore everyone who would be, could be transferred from imperial domination to the kingdom of God, the restored tent of David!
In Conclusion, Again
Again, Paul sees himself as a worker of God and Christ Jesus for the establishment of the kingdom on the earth over which Christ Jesus reigns from heaven. Paul’s gospel, therefore, is that Jesus is the new king of all creation! He knows he will not see the kingdom fully grown in his time but he has dedicated his life to seeing it firmly planted in all the world.
Maybe I can finish Paul and “tidy up loose ends” in one more post. Ya think?
Am I raising issues for anyone?
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1 Back to Post I Corinthians 1:11-29 Paul understands that the entire community of faith, by their living and by their testimony, will “end the things which are.” The NEB translates 1:28b as “…overthrow the existing order.” No doubt that is what Paul, writing covertly means to say but the connotation of violence in that translation is all wrong. The kingdom can not be won through the violent overthrow of anyone or anything. Still, Paul means it is the faithful practice of the communities of faith which will transform the world through God’s Spirit-powered living.
2 Back to Post I Corinthians 7:7-40 None of this material has the tone of “eternal” anything. Paul is suggesting to the Corinthian community what will work out best for them in their current circumstances and given the troubles which are present vs. 26 and coming vs. 28-29.