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Introduction to the Addendum

Although this passage from my (unpublished) A Year in the Bible lesson materials is not directly aimed at the relationship between “kingdom” and “gospel” in Paul’s thinking, it does set those themes in the larger context of Paul’s overall outlook and sheds light on Paul’s understanding of how Jesus the Messiah conquered the nations while simultaneously blessing them: crucifixion, baptism, empire, adopted son, kingdom, gospel, freedom, obligation, etc. I hope you find this to be a valuable addition to the conversation about the gospel of the kingdom.


Intro: Early Letters in the Context of Paul’s “Gospel”

…From how [Paul] addresses the concerns of these early Christian communities in these letters, we can see his convictions about Jesus and the crucifixion. They shaped his responses. First and foremost was the relationship between the gospel of the kingdom of Christ Jesus and the “gospel” of the imperial cult. If Jesus was really the son of God, come in the flesh to bring peace, what did this do to everyone’s allegiance to Caesar, who many years before had proclaimed the gospel that he was the son of a god and he had brought peace and stability to all the world?[1] Paul’s answer to this question has everything to do with the centrality in his thinking of the crucifixion. Much Christian teaching on the crucifixion has missed the point here. The crucifixion of Jesus has in some quarters become encrusted with layers of often grotesque sentimentality. The key to understanding this tendency is the many centuries-old, escape theology which has Jesus dying on the cross for us so that like him, we can escape the earth and follow Jesus to heaven. Early Christian expositors borrowed this approach to the cross from the first great Christian heresy, full-blown in the second century, ad, known as Gnosticism. (We will look hard at Gnosticism while studying the letters and gospel of John.)

The Cross of Jesus: Paul’s World Turned Upside Down!

Here is a an approach to the cross which avoids the dualisms of Gnosticism. Paul, when he speaks of the power and victory of the cross has something other than escape from the world (society) in mind. Paul realized at the time of his experience of Jesus on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:2-19) that Jesus was, after all, the long-awaited messiah of Israel. He also saw at some very early point that the hope of Israel, the fulfillment of the prophetic promises to and for Israel, had been accomplished in and through Messiah Jesus. He was, therefore, forced to acknowledge that the crucified messiah had risen from dead and that Jesus’ followers were correct in all that they claimed; that Jesus was indeed, sitting with all power and authority at the right hand of his father in heaven. This Jesus, then, whose followers he had been persecuting, was now literally enthroned as the king not only of the Jews but of the whole world. In accordance with the teachings of his own (Pharisee) sect, that meant “the age to come” had already begun, though not at all as he and that sect had expected it would. It had happened through the defeat, the shaming, of the ultimate instrument of political terror, the cross.

Paul, remember, came from a tradition which saw all gods other than Yahweh as “not-gods,” as wood and stone (Isaiah 44:9-20). It was also his tradition’s understanding that the king of Israel would be adopted (begotten) by Yahweh to be his son, a priest-king to vanquish and rule all the nations (Psalms 2:6-9, 89:14-37, 110). All the kings of the earth would someday bow before God’s appointed suzerain son. Therefore, if Jesus was that “adopted son” and had accomplished his primary priest-king-nation-vanquishing work by dying on the cross, then Israel’s great mission, promised to Abraham, that his seed would bless all the families of the earth (Genesis 12:1-3) had been completely accomplished by King Jesus (but in a way which set aside the traditional nationalistic Jewish aspirations which had been so much a part of Saul’s worldview in his former life).

Moreover, if the kingdom of God, “the last days” had truly begun, as evidenced by the resurrection, ascension and reign of the king himself, then the yoke of pagan bondage to the “no-god-idols” of the various empires had also been broken! And if that was so then the nations, the Gentiles, were no-longer under the authority of the Prince of Darkness, as expressed in that day by Roman rule, but were free to be blessed, because the true king had paid their ransom price and he now reigned in glory, empowering Jews and Gentiles to ally themselves with their reigning-in-power, savior-king! All that was needed was for someone to tell them! This “telling” was what Paul meant when he referred to the “gospel.” This was the essence of “the gospel of King/Christ Jesus,” the good-news proclamation which all the world needed to hear. The Gentiles needed to be told that their long servitude to the powers of darkness, under Assyria, under Babylon, then under Persia, then Greece, then Rome, was finally over. It was over because their new king had gone to the cross!

The Terrible Peace of Crucifixion

Crucifixion was the political means by which Rome had secured its empire. Originally used by Egyptians and even the Greeks against their enemies, the Romans did not invent crucifixion, but as with all things which they borrowed from other cultures, they improved upon it and so made it their own. In crucifixion, the Romans combined shame, torture, terror and death. An excruciating means of execution which required many hours to die, the practice was usually preceded by whipping, maiming and the burning out of the eyes. Its primary use was as a deterrent against trouble from the rabble.

Not only did the Romans, by means of the cross, eliminate many undesirables. They terrified surviving would-be insurgents into submission. Crucifixion was not used on citizens unless they had forfeited citizenship through treason. It was used on the eighty percent within the empire who were subjects, those with no legal rights. It was especially used on those groups whose development of subversive opposition groups needed to be nipped in the bud for the sake of the peace and security, the good order of the state. Crucifixion was loved and heralded by the upper class of the empire as the second vehicle, after conquest itself, by which the empire had been won and was maintained. It was but the most terrible of several means by which the non-citizen masses were subjugated, the others being the gladiatorial games, military processions and the ubiquitous propaganda of the imperial cult in statuary, temples and plaques everywhere. All of these together overwhelmed the populace of each conquered province with the unassailable “naturalness” of Roman “global rule.” As John writes of this Roman hegemony,

In amazement the whole earth followed the beast. They worshiped the dragon, for he had given his authority to the beast, and they worshiped the beast, saying, “Who is like the beast and who can fight against it?”          Revelation 13:3b-4.

The Implications of Jesus’ Violent “Baptism”

Indeed, who would be foolish enough to purposely place himself in a situation where he must face crucifixion, this terrible instrument of Roman control? Yet that is precisely what Jesus had done. Slowly, purposefully, he had marched on Jerusalem, conquering by his word of power all who would hear his glad kingdom-message along the way. Then, he had challenged Rome’s chief-priestly puppets to an authority duel, daring them to either submit to him or turn him over to their boss for execution. As he had predicted at least three times along the road, they had chosen to do the latter.

When Paul considers this series of events, he declares that this crucifixion has spelled the doom of all those powers, rulers and authorities who have opposed Jesus (I Corinthians 2:6-8). The cross, for Paul, is the beginning of the end of all injustice, all conquest, all lust and hatred (Galatians 5:17-21). It is the beginning of a process which will culminate in the physical return of Jesus to the earth after he has, through his Body, the church, destroyed all the earthly powers that have opposed him                  (I Corinthians 1:26-28, 15:12-28).

Paul claims to preach only “Christ and him crucified” (I Corinthians 2:2). And, as Jesus intimates in Luke 12:46, this crucifixion which he is under great stress to complete is for him, “a baptism.” Paul agrees. He understands all this from within his radical, Pharisaical (meant in a good sense here) understanding of baptism as death-to-the-former-life. (You go under the water and you drown! You come up out of the water as a new person, with a “clean slate!”).

Jesus has submitted to this baptism, not only for himself, but for the whole creation. His willing death is therefore also the death of our former lives. Paul builds from the idea that the one who has died has no obligation to anything that bound him when he was alive. Since we die, Paul reasons, when we believe on and enter into obligation to the reigning Christ, we are completely free of obligation to any thing and to any one except Christ; all other covenants are broken.

After the Baptism: The New Covenant Life

Then, asks Paul, what does it mean to live in Christ? In many cases, it means to re-assume former obligations, but now as unto, for the sake of and under the new Lordship of King Jesus. Our ultimate allegiance is to King Jesus alone because Jesus has ransomed the life of every believer; therefore every believer owes his or her life to Jesus. The obligations of slavery to sin and death (and thus to the empire) are dissolved through the death of baptism (not merely with water, but with the Spirit). The obligation of the one who is saved from death is total: baptism makes the believer a “doulos,” a slave or servant, of the Messiah. Moreover, Jesus, as our high king/conqueror, has pledged, as every high king always did, to protect those under obligation. Only this king of kings does not lie.

Notice: this is all covenant language. It is derived from the covenant tradition that God, having delivered Israel from bondage, then binds his people to himself through the Law. In the same way, having freed his people from the deadly bondage of a life in sinful servitude to Roman masters and Jewish rules, Messiah Jesus binds every believer to himself in the new law of life in grace. Again, we may hear the Exodus tradition speaking. The result of Christ’s finished work is a new community, a newly freed nation who have citizenship in a counter-empire, an alternative kingdom, a new creation, right in the midst of the old empire, but dead to it and its demands. The vast majority of Paul’s teaching is based on Paul’s vision of Jesus as the crucified, reigning priest-king and on the implications of this death and new life premise. He shares this gospel of the kingdom at every opportunity.

Was this material helpful to the Paul and kingdom and Jesus and gospel discussion? (I need a reality check if it was not!)

Next (and quick) the last six Pauline “kingdom” texts and then, in a bit, a conclusion.

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1 Back to Post In our post-modern world we might want to return to the conclusions of the 17th and 18th centuries of our era and say that Jesus’ authority was of a “spiritual” sort and that Caesar was a “secular” ruler, so there really was no conflict between them. However, we know by now that no such division of reality into two legitimate realms of life would have been possible for Paul. Surely old Elijah echoed in the former Pharisee’s ears, “How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him” (I Kings 18:21). Were we to ask Paul our frequently repeated question, “How many covenants can one keep at one time?” he would surely answer, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone” (Deuteronomy 6:4). Israel’s compromise which let it serve Caesar at the same time as it served Yahweh was an impossible bargain which would spell its demise in only a few years. Paul wants nothing to do with that dualistic, sacred/secular, devilish deal, not for himself nor for his Asian, Galatian and European churches.