Wright, McKnight, and several others have brought to light that a massive concept has been missing from our teaching and preaching of the kingdom in the New Testament. The Jews shared a common expectation that God would resolve the problem of evil through the Messiah. However, that expectation was defined in different ways, none of them being defined as Jesus would. The Messiah was expected to rule empirically, not by suffering and neutralizing evil’s ultimate weapon, death, through His own death and resurrection, but by judging Israel for their unfaithfulness and the Gentiles for their paganism.
The major critique of the Jewish definition is that many expected a fierce nationalism to be the Messianic agenda. Evil was thought of as ethnic diversity. Abraham’s descendants were thought to be good and Gentile generations were without God and covenant, and therefore, evil. Gentile pantheism was that which corrupted humanity because of its obvious opposition to the god of Abraham which claimed to be the true and eternal divinity. The folly of idolatry is that which plagued Israel in eras of national rebellion and is also that which served as the reason for Israel’s exile into pagan empires which ruled the world, which believed their gods were the forces and powers that explained human life. Jewish prophets condemned the Jews departure from the Law which condemned the idols of the Gentiles. Naturally, the Jewish mentality would expect the expulsion of Gentiles from the world to be the answer to the problem of evil. Yet, this fierce nationalism became a galvanizing agent. This nationalism turned Israel’s original vocation of being a kingdom of priests for God to redeem all the nations of the world into a vocation of a hardness of heart and consequently, a hatred for those enslaved by the Satan, the ruler behind the powers of the world’s idols. Israel was originally created to save the world because the world stood condemned. Instead, Israel now saw itself as a people created as favorites for God and therefore, expected God to extinguish those who opposed Judaism. Israel’s nationalism was rooted in hatred. It, too, was evil. How could their nationalism solve the problem of the world’s evil when it was actually contributing to it wholeheartedly?
Paganism doesn’t have the solution to the problem of evil either. Paganism can’t produce the quality of life God intended for humanity. This forms the reason for the call of Abraham. Abraham is going to produce a nation that is supposed to embody the kingdom of the one true God over and against paganism and idolatry. Israel will be called to live as if heaven’s will was being done on earth and the surrounding nations could benefit from paying close attention, by becoming obedient to the one true God. Pagan nations could see the true nature of heavenly rulership as God acted in covenant relationship with Israel. They could gain a perspective of divine mercy, redemption, and forgiveness, all of which made kingdom life possible. Yet, again and again, Israel failed to live out their call. They couldn’t grasp heaven’s grand plan for the world around them. They looked to culture, to the idols of their era, to limit the pressures of evil. Their true nature reflected paganism and not heaven. Just as Adam and Eve’s vocation was ruined by the entrance of sin into the world so Israel’s vocation was ruined by the influence of paganism and it’s idolatry. This picture of history portrays the one true God without a faithful partner to reflect His glory into the world. Enter Jesus. Jesus will not only be able to rescue humanity (Israel and the nations), He will be seen succeeding in regard to humanity’s original vocation. Jesus will establish God’s kingdom on earth as intended, imparting forgiveness and defeating evil in death and in being raised from death. Paganism’s most powerful tool, death, will no longer be seen as having the potency it was thought to have had. Jesus, having overcome death, rightly becomes King of heaven and earth, having solved the problem of evil. Now, human life can eventually flourish as originally planned, through new creation. “Behold, anyone who is in Christ has become a new creation. Pay attention, the old has been done away with, the new life has come.” Paganism will continue to impose evil and death upon humanity until Jesus returns to rule with everlasting human life. Yet, a faithful partner should be found amongst the nations, the body of Christ, reflecting the quality of life God originally intended for mankind. This is resurrected life, which reflects Christ’s triumph over the power of evil.
Sometimes the focus of our teaching zooms in on Jesus’ behavior during his life and ministry, and by implication, we assume we’re supposed to be imagining ourselves modeling our lives after Jesus’ life. In principle, I would agree that we should ‘behave’ like Jesus, but that should include a renewal of the heart and mind as well. Our attempts to behave as Messiah followers should originate from a Messianic worldview. This worldview is something that must be learned according to the apostle Paul as well as the rest of the New Testament authors. This is no small challenge. Learning how Jesus thought about human life, not only as a Jewish man, (John 6:42ff; Luke 24) was revolutionary, eclipsing any supposed philosophically established norms of the ancient world, whether from Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, or whomever. However, we often hear well-intentioned preachers distilling Christian behavior into categories that seem to have reasonable expectations and goals for a convert, such as prayer, courage, inspiration, devotion, etc. Should we pray as Jesus prayed? Yes, obviously. Should we model his courage, inspiration, devotion, etc.? Again, obviously yes. Yet, preachers rarely define these virtues. They’re often axiomatic, self-evident. Which Christian disagrees that we should model our faith after Jesus? We should assume none. A rending of our consciences begins to happen in this repetitive reinforcement of well-established ideals. Hearers assume this kind of preaching and teaching is conclusive. Its as if Jesus becomes a religious reformer or an ethics teacher instead of the King of heaven and earth. Its as if Jesus completely ignores Israel’s vocation and covenant and decides that he just wants something different . . .mere orthodoxy, church. Where are the narratives of the Gospels being taught? Why are Jesus’ teachings categorized so easily when most of what we read of them is so foreign and cryptic?