About Paul on the Kingdom
In the previous posts in this series my point has been to show that when Paul and Jesus used the term εὐαγγέλιον (gospel) they were referring to the same good news, to the beginning of the kingdom of God. For Jesus the reign of justice/righteousness, was about to commence. For Paul it had already commenced. The kingdom was anything but postponed because the kingdom was all about the whole world and all the nations pouring into the people, the children of God.
As promised, I use this post to look at the remaining texts where Paul used the Greek word, βασιλεία (kingdom). It is worth our time and attention to see how consistently Paul discussed the present and coming kingdom of God.
I Corinthians 15:22-24
For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, after that those who are Christ’s at His coming, then comes the end, when He hands over the kingdom to the God and Father, when He has abolished all rule and all authority and power.
Here Paul describes what he knows by faith about the end of the age in which we dwell. When the end comes and all imperial opposition has finally been abolished, the Son of God who has reigned over the kingdom from the right hand of his Father will return to the earth he created and redeemed. He will then give all kingdom power and authority back to his Father-God. Again, we see Paul describing the perfected kingdom, the people of God at the end of our age.
Notice, just as Peter claimed (when arguing with the temple leadership mere days after the birth of the church) this Jesus must remain in heaven until all things have been accomplished (Acts 3:19-21), so Paul writes that Christ Jesus will reign in heaven during the period of the growth and maturing of the kingdom on the earth. Then the king will return to earth with his entire people, the Bride of the Lamb (Revelation 21) and restore his great kingdom-people to his Father-God.
For he rescued us from the domain of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.
Here Paul describes his position and that of every Christian. They (and we) have been rescued from the domain of darkness (in whatever forms that domain presents itself in any given time and space) and they (and we) have been transferred, that is, legally made citizens of the kingdom of God’s son, the One who paid the goel-price for our sins. The kingdom here is meant in a legal/political sense, as regards citizenship. Most in the Roman Empire were not citizens and had no rights at all. Now they did, in Christ’s kingdom. Better than rights, they had the gifts of a clean slate and a fresh start!
Students of my long class may be reminded here of how ancient high kings would “rescue” a vassal state from a competing empire, only in order to make them equal or worse slaves than they had been before. God rescued Israel from the dominion of darkness in Egypt and transferred their stewardship to himself for their ultimate blessing. So, Paul declares, Christ Jesus has done for them (and for us)!
I Thessalonians 2:10-12
You are witnesses, and so is God, how devoutly and uprightly and blamelessly we behaved toward you believers; just as you know how we were exhorting and encouraging and imploring each one of you as a father would his own children, so that you would walk in a manner worthy of the God who calls you into His own kingdom and glory.
Here Paul again pictures the kingdom as both a present reality and a glorious goal, that for which these saved/rescued people may now strive, walking “in a manner worthy” of it. Again, as he often does, Paul has in mind the way God, after rescuing Israel from Egypt, exhorted and encouraged (and sometimes scourged, chastised and bully-ragged) the people of Israel on their way to their new land where he finally established the kingdom of Israel. They only got to the land because they were eventually faithful. Because they had balked and refused to “take the land,” (Numbers 13-14) they wandered for another thirty-nine years in the wilderness while the rebellious generation died off. Just so does the author of Hebrews exhort the first Jewish generation of the new kingdom to not again provoke God to anger by refusing to move on in their faith (Hebrews 3:14-4:3).
II Thessalonians 1:5
This is a plain indication of God’s righteous judgment so that you will be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which indeed you are suffering.
Paul exults at how this young Christian community, although they have had endless trouble from the day their little fellowship was born, have not failed to grow in their love – read their support, not just their good feelings – for each other. When Paul imagines the mature kingdom which will one day cover the whole earth, he sees these people and those who are like them there.
II Timothy 4:1-2
I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction.
Paul, in his very last words of exhortation to his protegé, Timothy, charges him in the presence of God and of King Jesus – you see, heaven is not off in some distant place – the judge and the one who will appear, the one who first proclaimed the kingdom which Paul and Timothy have served all their lives, to continue after Paul is gone the proclamation of the message which they have shared and to do the apostolic representative’s work to which Tim was years earlier assigned by Paul. Here the kingdom and the hope of the kingdom-come are the basis of Paul’s solemn charge. Far from being released from the apostolic charge, Paul hopes Timothy will press on.
II Timothy 4:18
The Lord will rescue me from every evil deed, and will bring me safely to his heavenly kingdom; to him be the glory forever and ever. Amen.
Perhaps the best has been saved for last. It is a shallow misreading of this text to imagine that Paul looks forward to a kingdom in heaven. Just as Jesus taught that we should do good on earth and thereby save up treasure in heaven, Paul sees heaven as the place where what is good shall be saved from loss until the great day. The kingdom starts in heaven, of course; it is the only safe place until the end.
Arguments occasionally pop up over whether the kingdom is now or later and whether we are all bound for heaven or earth at last. The Lord Jesus Christ answers, “Yes!” St. Paul responds, perhaps after his curmudgeonly fashion, “Fools! Yes, of course!”
The kingdom is now. The kingdom is on the earth now. The kingdom is in heaven now. We participate in and await the development of the kingdom. The kingdom is within our grasp!
In the end, the kingdom of God will have so filled the earth that if we were time travelers who came to visit from an earlier period and we met some denizens of the kingdom after the great and glorious day, we would ask them, “Are we still on the earth or are we in heaven?”
And smiling, they would answer, “Dear brothers and sisters… Heaven or earth? Why, we no-longer make that distinction.”
The Lord’s Prayer will be fulfilled; earth and heaven finally will be made one. That promise is secured in heaven!
Neither Paul nor Jesus imagined our truncated proclamation, that Jesus had died to save us from our sins so that when we died we could go to heaven. Jesus has no individual after-life fire insurance policies; there are no “get out of hell free” cards. In both the message of Jesus and the message of Paul, the deadly sacrifice of God’s anointed, his messiah, has everything to do with life in the here and now, not life elsewhere after death. Jesus most surely died to save us, to release us from sin and evil of all sorts, even from the powerful edifices and institutions which we erect in, through and because of sin; all the powers and principalities on earth, so that we can live, serve and be made worthy of our glorious coming future.
In a few days I will have a conclusion but let me hear from a few of you readers first: What does/has “gospel of the kingdom of God” mean/meant to you?