The Kingdom and the kingdoms
The precise definition of the kingdom of God continues to allude interpreters. Is it the church? Is it a state of mind? A spirit-led mode of living? Is it an earthly kingdom that comes at the end of history? All of the above? Support for each theory can be readily found.
Fortunately for us, Paul’s engagement with the kingdom in 1 Corinthians 15:24-28 may be of more help in understanding the kingdom than is usually acknowledged.
Then comes the end, when the Son hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power. For the Son must reign until God has put all the Christ’s enemies under the Christ’s feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. For “God has put all things in subjection under his feet.” But when it says, “All things are put in subjection,” it is plain that this does not include the one who put all things in subjection under him. When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to the one who put all things in subjection under him, so that God may be all in all.
According to Paul, the kingdom of God is not any of the above answers at its root; rather, the kingdom is the process by which every ruler, authority, and power is destroyed at the behest of Christ. In other words, the kingdom is the deconstruction of the international political arrangement as it exists on earth and as it is reinforced in heaven. It is the dissolution of every authority (whether spiritual or human) such that only the dominion of Christ remains.
In accord with Jesus then, the coming of the kingdom for Paul is the establishment of God’s will on earth as it is in heaven (Matthew 6:10). But to be more exact, the kingdom is the establishment of God’s will on earth by means of destructive judgement against the world’s political order. It is a process of political nullification.
The kingdom and the son
Paul’s view of the kingdom and the son’s place in it is therefore drawn heavily from Jewish scripture, particularly Psalms 2 and 110. For the psalmist, as for Paul, the kingdom constitutes God’s wrathful response to rebellious nations and kings by which he installs his son as king and gives him ownership of the nations as an inheritance (2:1-8, 110:1). This divine kingdom is established over the nations through a process of destructive political judgement. The nations are “broken with an iron rod” and the kings must submit to the son in trembling or perish (2:9-11, 110:2-7). In this the son is the agent of God’s judgement of the geopolitical landscape.
Within this political-theological narrative lies the primary significance of Christ’s sonship for Paul: Christ inherits what God possesses—sovereignty over creation—as a son inherits his father’s estate. Christ’s status as son springs forth not from a divine nature but from his status as God’s appointed king (Matthew 16:16, Luke 1:32, John 1:49). Just as Caesar was popularly thought to be divi filius (son of god) and thus vice-regent of the gods, the early Christians believed God had bestowed upon his obedient-to-death son ius gladii (the right of the sword): the authority to bring all powers on earth into subjection at the threat of destruction (cf. Philippians 2:6-11). For Christians the son’s parousia would be the climactic moment of this punitive wrath against Caesar’s hegemony (cf. 1 Thessalonians 1:10).
In light of this political-historical conceptualization of the kingdom, we might reconstruct early Christian eschatological expectations like so.
- Christ is exalted to the right hand of God: From heaven the Son prepares to judge the nations while making war on their demonic benefactors.
- Christ comes in power from heaven: Babylon, the ruler of the nations, is judged and put to the sword (Revelation 18-19).
- Christ’s church inherits the authority over the nations once maintained by pagan Rome. The obedient church is given the ius gladii that had belonged to the emperor. In conjunction with this public earthly vindication of the church, the faithful dead are raised to heaven in order to rule (Revelation 20:1-6).
- Christ and the faithful continue to make judgement upon the earth from heaven through the authority of the politically exalted churches for a symbolic millennium.
- The son’s kingdom eventually overcomes Satan and death. All the dead are raised bodily and judged. At this point judgement and kingdom are no longer necessary: Christ therefore submits to God, the kingdom is disbanded, and God becomes “all in all.”
Why a kingdom?
The kingdom then is God’s political answer to a particular political problem: “Why do the kings and rulers plot against the Lord and his anointed?” (Psalm 2:1-3, cf. Acts 4:23-31, Revelation 11:15-18). The reign of God’s son is the Biblical solution not for sin in general, as many believe, but for the pagan corruption of the nations and their oppression of God’s people. In other words, the kingdom is a theological rebuttal to the troubling pagan propaganda exemplified in Horace: “Jupiter, father and protector of the human race… may you have Caesar as vice-regent of your kingdom” (Odes 1.12.49-52). If, as the pagans say, the gods gave Alexander and Caesar authority over the nations as a filial inheritance (Revelation 13), then the true God must one day hand over those same nations to his true son. The reign of pagans must one day be replaced by the reign of a good king (Revelation 11:15, Daniel 7).
So why was it necessary for God to give a kingdom to his son and in effect to his son’s earthly body, the church? For the Biblical authors the kingdom of God not only provided a solution to the problem of rebellious rulers, authorities, and powers, it also provided the means by which the nations of the earth could be healed. Through the kingdom, that is, through the continual victory of Christ’s judgements on the earth, people everywhere would learn God’s ways: justice, mercy, and truth (Isaiah 60, Revelation 21:24, Matthew 8:11). God’s people would finally be an effective priestly kingdom, living safely in the land as they mediated between God and the nations until the final defeat of death (Luke 1:71, Revelation 5:9-10). In the end then, the kingdom was to be an extension of God’s favor beyond the scope of Israel, outside the bounds of his people.