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Part 3
Jesus: the ruler of the world
Simply Jesus
Who he was, what he did, why it matters

What on earth does it mean, today, to say that Jesus is king, that he is Lord of the world? How can we say such a thing in our confused world? If we do want to say it, what are we saying that Jesus is up to, in our swirling mix of modern, postmodern and other cultural movements? What is he doing, in the midst of the dangerous clash of the new secularisms and the new fundamentalisms? What does the lordship of Jesus look like in practice in the world where we bail out the big banks when they suddenly run out of cash, but don’t lift a finger to help the poorest of the poor who are paying the banks interest so the banks can get rich again?

All this is, of course, the subject for another book, or perhaps several. There are a thousand issues crying out for serious engagement. But part of the problem, I think, is farther back. Most Christians in today’s world have not even begun to think how calling Jesus ‘Lord’ might affect the real world. When I said ‘what on earth’ at the start of this chapter, I meant, of course, what Jesus meant in the Lord’s Prayer: ‘Thy kingdom come on earth as in heaven.’ How do we even get to first base in thinking about this today?

There are, broadly, four positions people can take as they face this question. There are plenty of local variations, but these four will do for a start. To help keep track of them, I’m going to invent four conversation partners: Andy, Billy, Chris and Davie. You can decide which of them are male and which are female (though that’s not the point).

For Andy, it is straightforwardly meaningless to talk of Jesus being king or Lord. He’s gone; the church has messed things up; nothing has really changed. It was a nice dream, but it’s over. If there is any truth in Christianity, it’s about a private spiritual experience. Nothing to do with the real, public world.

Billy disagrees. Yes, it doesn’t look much as though Jesus is running the world right now, but that’s because he is at the moment Lord of the upper world, of ‘heaven’, not of earth. ‘Now above the sky he’s king,’ as the hymn puts it. But one day, Billy believes, Jesus will return to sort it all out. Then, and only then, he’ll be truly the king of everything. Billy prefers to believe that Jesus will do this by establishing a new heaven-and-earth reality, but knows of some other Christians who think that the final kingdom-establishing act will be blowing creation to bits in a huge Armageddon moment and establishing a completely other-worldly ‘kingdom’ in a different sphere altogether. This reminds Billy of the soldiers in Vietnam who explained that they had to destroy the village in order to save it. But the point remains: Jesus will be Lord one day, but he isn’t really at the moment.

Chris and Davie are both convinced that neither Andy nor Billy is taking seriously the claims either of Jesus himself or of the New Testament. Jesus, as we have seen throughout this book, believed that God was indeed becoming king in and through his own work and that his death would be critical in bringing this about. After his resurrection, he really does seem to have taught and claimed that God’s kingdom was now becoming a reality in a new way. It really had been launched. This is the claim that Andy denies and Billy postpones.

Do Chris and Davie have anything better to offer?

Chris is excited about the vision of Paul in Colossians, according to which Jesus is already in charge of the world. Paul declares that ‘the gospel has been announced in all creation under heaven’ (1.23), and he can’t mean that every human being then alive had heard about Jesus. He must mean that with Jesus’ death and resurrection something happened to the very structure of the cosmos itself: a kind of deep-level earthquake running through all reality. So Chris declares that the lordship of Jesus isn’t a matter of church members going out and telling people about him, or working to improve the world. That, Chris thinks, is simply dualistic, as though the church is ‘outside’ the world and trying to ‘do things to it’.

Instead, it’s a matter of the church waking up to what God is doing in the world already. The signs of Jesus’ kingdom are to be seen, Chris suggests enthusiastically, in the movements of thought and belief that shape the lives of millions. Chris is old enough to remember the groundswell of horror that, in the 1960s, recognized racism for what it was, in America and South Africa in particular, and worked to eliminate it. (It took longer in South Africa, but the movements were clearly related.) Such movements may or may not have been initiated or led by Christians; some were, some weren’t. That’s not the point: God isn’t confined to the church. Chris is now inclined to see a similar God-given groundswell of opinion in the feminist movement and the green agenda. For Chris, God is at work in the world, and our task is to see what he’s doing and to join in, to do it with him. That is how the kingship of Jesus is to be worked out in the world today.

Davie pours cold water on Chris’s hot-headed enthusiasm. Chris is simply repeating what Hitler’s tame theologians said in the 1930s: ‘God has raised up the German nation to transform the world; the church must get in line and lend its support to what God is already doing.’ That, Davie recalls, is partly why Karl Barth uttered his famous ‘No!’ There are many times when the church needs to recognize quite other ‘forces’ at work in the great movements of ideas and beliefs, forces that worship the idols of money, military power, blood and soil, and not least the supposed ‘life force’ of sex itself. All these, Davie insists, drag the church down into a form of pantheism, where God and the world are simply confused with one another, and dark, deathly forces within the world are given a cheerful would-be Christian whitewashing.

Instead of that, Davie proposes, what we need is a fresh word from God, a word from outside, a fresh summons to worship Jesus and so to be fortified in our stand against all human power systems and idolatries. The church must not collude with the world! Jesus is driving the car, not merely steering a toboggan carried downhill by its own weight. And sometimes the car has to go in the opposite direction to the rest of the traffic. This isn’t dualism, Davie insists. This is how Jesus is claiming what is rightfully his own in the first place, but has been under enemy rule. This is what it looks like for Jesus to be king today.

Andy, of course, listens to this discussion and thinks it’s a waste of time. Billy, naturally, thinks it’s a category mistake, since, though Jesus does care about the way the world is at the moment, the only way he’s going to fix it is by coming back once and for all.

Chris, meanwhile, is uncomfortably aware of leaving open the question of which of the movements of history we claim as the work of God. Communism or capitalism? Rationalism or Romanticism? Modernism or postmodernism? Davie, similarly, is uncomfortably aware that, among those who look for a fresh word from God to say no to the idols of our time, some of those ‘fresh words’ sound like Christian versions of the ideology of the Right and some like Christian versions of today’s Left. Others, again, call for a plague on both houses and see the ‘fresh word’ as a summons to Christians to abandon the structures and to live a holy, detached, separate life. Chris and Davie are both convinced that Jesus is, in some sense, already Lord of the world. But they can’t agree on how that lordship, that sovereign, saving rule, is to make its way in the world.

Sharp-eyed readers will have spotted that Chris and Davie are playing out a much older debate. The ancient Stoics thought that God and the world were more or less the same thing, so that the inner workings of the world were the inner workings of the divine itself. The ancient Epicureans believed that the gods, having set the world in motion, had left it to its own devices and that they seldom if ever stepped in to redirect traffic, to perform strange ‘interventions’ or ‘miracles’.

The Stoics and the Epicureans were successful precisely because these are the two ‘natural’ positions towards which people who reflect about the nature of reality can easily be drawn. Either God and the world collapse into one another, or they are divided by a great gulf. Just as one of W. S. Gilbert’s characters declares, ‘Every boy and every girl / that’s born into the world alive / is either a little Liberal / or else a little Conservative,’ so it sometimes seems as though people naturally tend to be either Stoics or Epicureans. Either we see the world, and indeed ourselves, as full of signals of the presence of divinity, or we see the world empty of the divine, doing its own thing, with the gods now far away. We become, in other words, either pantheists or dualists.

Christians have tended to produce would-be Christian versions of these two positions, but, as I have argued elsewhere (particularly in Simply Christian1), the classic Jewish and Christian viewpoint does it all differently. In ancient Judaism and early Christianity, heaven and earth, God’s world and our world, overlap and interlock in various ways that put quite a different spin on all sorts of things. How does this, then, play out in relation to the absolutely central question: what might it mean, today, to say that Jesus is Lord? What would it look like if we took seriously the claim that in his death and resurrection Jesus really did complete what he had been doing during his public career, that he really did launch God’s sovereign rule on earth as in heaven? What does it mean, today, to say that Jesus is already ruling the world?

One additional note before we continue. As I stressed in Surprised by Hope,2 when we think about God’s kingdom in the present and the future, we must always be clear that the ultimate triumph is God’s work and God’s alone. Billy reacts rightly against any suggestion that we, in the present, are ‘building God’s kingdom’. Only God does that. We do not have God’s kingdom in our pockets, to dispense at will. But what Billy doesn’t realize is that we may be called, nonetheless, to build for God’s kingdom. What we do in the present, as Paul insists, is not wasted (1 Corinthians 15.58). It will all be part of the eventual structure, even though at the moment we have no idea how.

So what is Jesus up to in the present time? What does it mean to think of him as king, already, now? What will it look like, particularly, not only to think of him in this way, but actually to work for his kingdom?

God’s rule – through us

As usual, when a discussion reaches deadlock, it’s probably because one or more key factors have been left out of consideration. And in this case we don’t have to look far to see what’s missing. The crucial factor in Jesus’ kingdom-project picks up the crucial factor in God’s creation project. God intended to rule the world through human beings. Jesus picks up this principle, rescues it and transforms it.

Rescues it? Yes, because humans, of course, have messed the world up. Whatever you think of the much misunderstood doctrine of original sin (that’s a topic for another time), it would be extremely foolish to suppose that humans, left to themselves, have not done amazingly horrible things as well as amazingly wonderful ones. Humans make bombs as well as music. They build torture chambers as well as hospitals and schools. They create deserts as well as gardens. And yet the vocation sketched in Genesis 1 remains: humans are to be God’s image-bearers, that is, they are to reflect his sovereign rule into the world. Humans are the vital ingredient in God’s kingdom-project. When we ask about the way in which God wants to run the world and then focus on the sharper question of how Jesus now runs the world, we should expect, from the whole of scripture, that the answer will have something to do with the delegation of God’s authority, of Jesus’ authority, to human beings.

This is why several of the New Testament writers make a direct connection between Jesus’ rescue project, climaxing in his crucifixion, and the renewal of the human project. Jesus rescues human beings in order that through them he may rule his world in the new way he always intended. Thus the heavenly chorus sings the new song:

‘You are worthy to take the scroll;
you are worthy to open its seals;
for you were slaughtered and with your own blood
you purchased a people for God,
from every tribe and tongue,
from every people and nation,
and made them a kingdom and priests to our God
and they will reign on the earth.’
(Revelation 5.9 –10)

This, then, is how Jesus puts his kingdom-achievement into operation: through the humans he has rescued. That is why, right at the start of his public career, he called associates to share his work and then to carry it on after he had laid the foundations, particularly in his saving death. It has been all too easy for us to suppose that, if Jesus really was king of the world, he would, as it were, do the whole thing all by himself. But that was never his way – because it was never God’s way. It wasn’t how creation itself was supposed to work. And Jesus’ kingdom-project is nothing if not the rescue and renewal of God’s creation-project.

Nor was this simply pragmatic, as though God (or Jesus) wanted a bit of help, needed someone to whom certain tasks could be delegated. It has to do with something deep within the very being of God, the same thing that led him to create a world that was other than himself. One name for this something is Love. Another is Trinity. Either way, deeply mysterious though it remains, we should recognize that when Jesus announced his intention to launch God’s kingdom at last, he did it in a way that involved and included other human beings. God works through Jesus; Jesus works through his followers. This is not accidental.

Some things (like the crucifixion itself) had to be done by Jesus himself, alone. Other things (like the itinerant ministry around Galilee) could and should be shared. God and Jesus don’t do what they do by blasting a way through all opposition. They do what they do by working with the grain of the cosmos, by planting seeds that grow secretly, by calling humans to be co-creators. God’s kingdom comes like a farmer sowing a fresh crop or like a vineyard owner looking for workers to pick the grapes, bringing people on board to help. When God goes to work – when Jesus becomes king – human beings are not downgraded, reduced to being pawns or ciphers. In God’s kingdom, humans get to reflect God at last into the world, in the way they were meant to. They become more fully what humans were meant to be. That is how God becomes king. That is how Jesus goes to work in the present time. Exactly as he always did.

That is why Jesus answers his followers the way he does at the start of the book of Acts (where we left them at the end of the previous chapter). The disciples ask Jesus if this is now the moment for God’s kingdom to be ‘restored to Israel’. Jesus, answering obliquely, as he does so often when correcting the assumptions of questioners, tells them that they are to be his ‘witnesses’:

So when the apostles came together, they put this question to Jesus.
‘Master,’ they said, ‘is this the time when you are going to restore the
kingdom to Israel?’
‘It’s not your business to know about times and dates,’ he replied.
‘The father has placed all that under his own direct authority. What will
happen, though, is that you will receive power when the holy spirit comes
upon you. Then you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judaea
and Samaria, and to the very ends of the earth.’ (Acts 1.6 – 8)

We have to imagine the disciples here in a strange mixture of joy and bewilderment. Jesus’ resurrection had caught them gloriously by surprise. It didn’t fit at all into the game plan they thought they had been working with. It didn’t fit the plan they had assumed that Jesus himself had had. They were expecting him to become king of Israel, in some reasonable if revolutionary way. With that, he would become (according to the ancient scriptural promises about Israel’s king) Lord of the world. So what does Jesus’ answer mean?

Here once again we have to avoid the usual downgrading and domesticating of the apostolic mission. We have to train ourselves to see it with first-century Jewish and Christian eyes. It isn’t a matter of Jesus saying, in effect, ‘No, you’ve got it wrong. Forget the idea of me being some sort of a king. You just have to go and tell people to believe in me, and then you and they will all come and join me in heaven.’ That is certainly not how Luke, telling the story, sees it, and it wouldn’t fit with all that we have seen of how Jesus himself saw his mission during his public career. Instead, Jesus’ answer here is designed to say that, yes, the kingdom is indeed now being launched. He is indeed Israel’s king; he is therefore, indeed, the Lord of the world. But the way his kingdom is being implemented is, once more, through these human beings. Modern Christians use the word ‘witness’ to mean ‘tell someone else about your faith’. The way Luke seems to be using it is, ‘tell someone else that Jesus is the world’s true Lord’. The story of what happened next is written in such a way as to say, ‘This is how the kingdom is to come. This is how Jesus is starting to rule the world. This is what it will look like when God becomes king on earth as in heaven.’

We therefore have to reread the book of Acts with a relentless determination not to be drawn down into the usual categories, into stories of spiritual experiences, remarkable healings, strange divine promptings and leadings, conversions, and so on. All of these matter. They matter very much indeed. But they are the modus operandi of the thing that really matters, the fact that through Jesus’ followers God is establishing his kingdom and the rule of Jesus himself on earth as in heaven. Underneath the exciting ‘spiritual’ experiences there is a constant theme that emerges, for instance, when Jesus’ followers speak of having to obey God rather than human beings. The powers of the world do their utmost to stamp out the new vision, the new Way. But, despite the best efforts of chief priests and governors, of kings and mobs and courts and councils, Jesus is celebrated as Lord, even over the wild waves that shipwreck Paul and threaten to stop his getting to Rome to announce God as king and Jesus as Lord at the heart of the greatest superpower the world had ever known.

An additional theme in Acts ties this kingdom-work of the disciples with the theme we saw again and again in Jesus’ public career. Jesus, we remember, redefined ‘space’ around himself, so that the ‘holy place’ of the Temple in Jerusalem was upstaged by his own work, by his own person. (This was not an unnatural thing for a Jewish reform movement to do, as we know from Qumran, where the Essene community saw its own common life as the replacement for the Jerusalem Temple.) But now, with Jesus joining heaven and earth together in his own person, the Holy Spirit, which anointed and equipped Jesus himself for his kingdom-work, comes pouring out onto his followers, so that they become as it were an extension of that new Temple. Where they are, heaven and earth are joined together. Jesus is with them, his life is at work in and through them, and, whether in Jerusalem or out in the wider world, they are the place where the living God, the God who is reclaiming the world for his own, is alive and active and establishing his sovereign rule.

That is why, as we saw earlier, the great scenes of confrontation and conflict in Acts all focus on the question of temples, both Jewish and pagan, and on the role and claim of the Christian community in relation to them (chs 7, 14, 17, 19, 22—26). The Temple was the place, like the tabernacle in the wilderness, from which God ruled Israel. Now the new Temple – Jesus and his Spirit-filled followers – is the place from which and through which God is beginning to implement the world-transforming kingdom that was achieved in and through Jesus and his death and resurrection.

Let’s pause there and see how this short study of the role of humans in God’s plan and the opening of Acts have contributed to the discussion we listened to earlier.

Andy, grudgingly, can see that Acts really does claim that Jesus is now the Lord of the world, but he still insists that it’s really all wishful thinking. Nothing has really changed; it’s still just a few fanatics rushing around the world thinking they’re doing God’s will.

Billy is still looking for the final second coming when all will be fulfilled. That’s there in Acts 1 as well. But Billy too has to admit that Luke really does seem to have thought that Jesus’ resurrection and the sending of the Spirit meant the arrival – albeit not yet the full completion – of the kingdom of which Jesus had spoken during his public ministry. Perhaps it isn’t all postponed to the last day after all. But what sense can we make of this?

Chris is unsure, not wanting to say that God was simply at work in the Roman Empire, yet pointing out that without Roman roads and magistrates Paul would not have been able to do half of what he did. God does seem to have provided, as it were, the infrastructure through the work of people totally outside Israel and the church, even if then the good news had to be taken by the apostles themselves.

Davie is inclined to stress the ‘miraculous’ – the sudden rush of wind at Pentecost, the dramatic divine ‘interventions’. Yet even here Luke’s story seems to be one not merely of something new, but of the deep-seated renewal of the old order, the old world. The disciples are rescued from further persecution by a leading, and still unbelieving, Jewish rabbi, Gamaliel. Paul is rescued from certain death by a Roman centurion. God seems to be at work not only through the church, but also in the world outside. How, once more, can we make sense of all of this? What is Jesus up to?

All four, Chris and Davie especially, would do well to study Acts 17, where Luke gives a summary account of Paul’s speech to the philosophically minded high court in Athens. Paul’s speech is both a defence against serious charges (‘proclaiming foreign divinities’, which is close to what got Socrates condemned) and an explanation of the Christian worldview in which the fresh news of Jesus’ resurrection and of God’s upcoming judgment of the world completes, and does not destroy, the ancient Jewish wisdom of the creator God, who has remained as close as breath to his creation and to human beings. Somehow, if we are to speak wisely of God as king and Jesus as Lord, we have to speak of something radically new and the refreshment of something radically ancient, something fundamental in the way the world is. And if we are not just to speak of it, but to be part of it – to be among the humans who are enlisted in God’s project – then we need to understand the framework within which it all makes sense.

The centrality of worship

All kingdom-work is rooted in worship. Or, to put it the other way round, worshipping the God we see at work in Jesus is the most politically charged act we can ever perform. Christian worship declares that Jesus is Lord and that therefore, by strong implication, nobody else is. What’s more, it doesn’t just declare it as something to be believed, like the fact that the sun is hot or the sea wet. It commits the worshipper to allegiance, to following this Jesus, to being shaped and directed by him. Worshipping the God we see in Jesus orients our whole being, our imagination, our will, our hopes and our fears away from the world where Mars, Mammon and Aphrodite (violence, money and sex) make absolute demands and punish anyone who resists. It orients us instead to a world in which love is stronger than death, the poor are promised the kingdom, and chastity (whether married or single) reflects the holiness and faithfulness of God himself. Acclaiming Jesus as Lord plants a flag that supersedes the flags of the nations, however ‘free’ or ‘democratic’ they may be. It challenges both the tyrants who think they are, in effect, divine and the ‘secular democracies’ that have effectively become, if not divine, at least ecclesial, that is, communities that are trying to do and be what the church was supposed to do and be, but without recourse to the one who sustains the church’s life. Worship creates – or should create, if it is allowed to be truly itself – a community that marches to a different beat, that keeps in step with a different Lord.

Ideally, then – I shall come to the problems with this in a moment – the church, the community that hails Jesus as Lord and king, and feasts at his table celebrating his victorious death and resurrection, is constituted as the ‘body of the Messiah’. This famous Pauline image is not a random ‘illustration’. It expresses Paul’s conviction that this is the way in which Jesus now exercises his rule in the world – through the church, which is his Body. Paul, rooted as he was in the ancient scriptures, knew well that the creator’s plan was to look after his creation through obedient humankind. For Paul, Jesus himself is the Obedient Man who is now therefore in charge of the world; and the church is ‘his body, the fullness of the one who fills all in all’ (Ephesians 1.23). It is this vocation that gives the church courage to stand up in the face of the bullying self-appointed masters of the world, to resist them when they are forcing their communities to go in the wrong way, while at the same time demonstrating, in its own life, that there is a different way of being human, a way pioneered and now made possible by Jesus himself. ‘God’s wisdom, in all its rich variety’, is to be ‘made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places – through the church!’ (Ephesians 3.10).

This is the point at which a great deal of Jesus’ own kingdom-agenda comes into its own. His great Sermon on the Mount opens with the Beatitudes, which are normally read either as a special form of ‘Christian ethic’ (‘This is how you are to behave, if you want to be really special people’) or as the rules you must keep in order to ‘go to heaven when you die’. This latter view has been reinforced by the standard misreading of the first Beatitude. ‘Blessings on the poor in spirit! The kingdom of heaven is yours’ (Matthew 5.3) doesn’t mean, ‘You will go to heaven when you die.’ It means you will be one of those through whom God’s kingdom, heaven’s rule, begins to appear on earth as in heaven. The Beatitudes are the agenda for kingdom-people. They are not simply about how to behave, so that God will do something nice to you. They are about the way in which Jesus wants to rule the world. He wants to do it through this sort of people – people, actually, just like himself (read the Beatitudes again and see). The Sermon on the Mount is a call to Jesus’ followers to take up their vocation as light to the world, as salt to the earth – in other words, as people through whom Jesus’ kingdom-vision is to become a reality. This is how to be the people through whom the victory of Jesus over the powers of sin and death is to be implemented in the wider world.

The work of the kingdom, in fact, is summed up pretty well in those Beatitudes. When God wants to change the world, he doesn’t send in the tanks. He sends in the meek, the mourners, those who are hungry and thirsty for God’s justice, the peacemakers, and so on. Just as God’s whole style, his chosen way of operating, reflects his generous love, sharing his rule with his human creatures, so the way in which those humans then have to behave if they are to be agents of Jesus’ lordship reflects in its turn the same sense of vulnerable, gentle, but powerful self-giving love. It is because of this that the world has been changed by people like William Wilberforce, campaigning tirelessly to abolish slavery; by Desmond Tutu, working and praying not just to end apartheid, but to end it in such a way as to produce a reconciled, forgiving South Africa; by Cicely Saunders, starting a hospice for terminally ill patients ignored by the medical profession and launching a movement that has, within a generation, spread right around the globe.

These are paradigm cases. Jesus rules the world today not just through his people ‘behaving themselves’, keeping a code of ethics, and engaging in certain spiritual practices, important though those are. The Beatitudes are much more than a ‘new rule of life’, as though one could practise them in private, away from the world. Jesus rules the world through those who launch new initiatives that radically challenge the accepted ways of doing things: jubilee projects to remit ridiculous and unpayable debt, housing trusts that provide accommodation for low-income families or homeless people, local and sustainable agricultural projects that care for creation instead of destroying it in the hope of quick profit, and so on. We have domesticated the Christian idea of ‘good works’, so that it has simply become ‘the keeping of ethical commands’. In the New Testament, ‘good works’ are what Christians are supposed to be doing in and for the wider community. That is how the sovereignty of Jesus is put into effect.

What, then, does it look like when Jesus is enthroned? It looks like new projects that do what Jesus’ mother’s great song announced: put down the mighty from their seat, exalt the humble and meek, fulfil ancient promises, but send the rich away empty. The church made its way in the world for many centuries by doing all this kind of thing. Now that in many countries the ‘state’ has assumed responsibility for many of them (that’s part of what I mean by saying that the state, not least in Western democracies, has become ‘ecclesial’, a kind of secular shadow church), the church has been in danger of forgetting that these are its primary tasks. Jesus went about feeding the hungry, curing the sick and rescuing lost sheep; his Body is supposed to be doing the same. That is how his kingdom is at work. That is how he is at work. Acts begins by saying that in the first book (i.e. the gospel of Luke) the writer described ‘everything Jesus began to do and teach’ (Acts 1.1). The implication is clear. The story of Acts, even after Jesus’ ascension, is about what Jesus continued to do and teach. And the way he did it and taught it was – through his followers.

But of course it doesn’t stop there. When the church does and teaches what Jesus is doing and teaching, it will produce the same reaction that Jesus produced during his public career. A good deal of what the church has to do and say will fl y in the face of the ‘spirit of the age’, what passes for ‘received wisdom’ in this or that generation. So be it. The day the church can no longer say, ‘We must obey God rather than human beings’ (Acts 5.29), it ceases to be the church. This may well mean suffering or persecution. That has been a reality since the very beginning, and for many Christians it is still the case today. Some of the most profound passages in the New Testament are those in which the church’s own sufferings are related directly to those of Jesus, its Messiah and Lord. Kingdom and cross went together in his own work; they will go together in the kingdom-work of his followers.

The role of the church

This vision of the church’s calling – to be the means through which Jesus continues to work and to teach, to establish his sovereign rule on earth as in heaven – is an ideal so high that it might seem not only unattainable, but hopelessly out of touch, triumphalistic and self-congratulatory. One of today’s most-repeated clichés is that there are lots of people who find God believable, but the church unbearable, Jesus appealing, but the church appalling. We are never short of ecclesial follies and failings, as the sorrowing faithful and the salivating journalists know well. What does it mean to say that Jesus is king when the people who are supposed to be putting his kingship into practice are letting the side down so badly?

There are three things to say here, and each of them matters quite a lot. To begin with, for every foolish or wicked Christian leader who ends up in court, in the newspapers, or both, there are dozens, hundreds, thousands who are doing a great job, often unnoticed except within their own communities. The effect of perspective (we only notice the things that get into the papers, but the papers only report the odd and the scandalous) means that almost all of what is done by the churches goes unreported, allowing sneering outsiders to assume that the church is collapsing into a little heap of squabbling factions. Mostly it isn’t. The newspaper perspective is like that of someone who walks down a certain street on the one day a week when people put out their rubbish for collection and who then reports that the street is always full of rubbish. Christians ought not to collude with the sneerers. ‘Walk down the street some other time,’ we ought to say. ‘Come and see us on a normal day.’

Second, though, we must never forget that the way Jesus worked then and works now is through forgiveness and restoration. His spectacular conversation with Peter (John 21.15 –19), who would certainly have had his name in the papers after his appalling behaviour on the night Jesus was arrested, shows a depth of love and trust. The church is not supposed to be a society of perfect people doing great work. It’s a society of forgiven sinners repaying their unpayable debt of love by working for Jesus’ kingdom in every way they can, knowing themselves to be unworthy of the task. The moment any Christian, particularly any Christian leader, forgets that – the moment any of us imagine that we are automatically special or above the dangers and temptations that afflict ordinary mortals – that is the moment when we are in gravest danger. Peter’s disastrous, humiliating crash came an hour or two after he had declared that he would follow Jesus to prison and even to death.

I suspect that part at least of the cause of the scandals that have afflicted some parts of the church is creeping triumphalism, which allows some people to think that because of their baptism, vocation, ordination or whatever, they are immune to serious sin – or that, if it happens, it must be a ‘blip’ rather than a telltale sign of a serious problem. Nor will it do to refer to Jesus’ love and forgiveness as an excuse for sweeping things under the carpet. That’s just cheap grace; real forgiveness involves real confrontation with what has gone wrong. Nobody reading John 21 could doubt that Peter’s problem had been addressed and dealt with. The kingdom-message of forgiveness, healing and reconciliation applies as much to those who are now implementing it as to those to whom they minister. This is a vital part of the way in which Jesus operates right now, today, as part of his kingdom-project.

But the third point is perhaps the most important, and it opens up a whole new area at which we hinted earlier on and to which we now return. The way in which Jesus exercises his sovereign lordship in the present time includes his strange, often secret, sovereignty over the nations and their rulers. What does this mean? How does the kingship of Jesus, at work in the wider world, relate to the specific vocation of the church to be Jesus’ agents in implementing his sovereign rule?

Some, indeed, have been so overwhelmed by the failure, short-sightedness and sin of the church that they have trumpeted God’s work in the wider world as though to put the church in its place. To listen to some theologians, you might think that God was wonderfully at work everywhere in the world except in the church. This position is always in danger of the trap towards which, in our earlier discussion, Chris seemed to be marching: hailing movements of thought and opinion, the rise and fall of empires, as places where ‘God was at work’, so that one simply had to ‘do it with him’ to get on board with the forward movement of the divine purpose.

This point of view has had a huge boost, over the last two centuries, by the latent Whig view of history, according to which things are moving inexorably towards a more ‘open’, freedom-loving, Western, democratic kind of society. People even talk of being ‘on the wrong side of history’, as though they knew not only what the last twenty years had produced, but what the next twenty years were going to produce as well. The idolization of ‘progress’, of ‘moving with the times’, is part of the same movement. ‘Now that we live in the twenty-first century . . .’ people begin, as though it were obvious that one’s ethics or theology ought to change with the calendar. All this is a form of creeping pantheism, of looking at certain trends in the wider world and deducing that they are what ‘God’ is doing. (It’s also very selective; it cheerfully screens out all the inventions of modernism, such as guillotines and gas chambers, which do not exactly fit the picture of an upward journey into light.) Just as we must not be triumphalistic or complacent about what Jesus is doing in and through the church, so we ought not to be complacent about how ‘wonderfully’ God is at work in the world outside the church.

But we must give full weight to the difficult but important biblical vision of God’s sovereignty over the nations and his determination to shape their fortunes to serve his larger purposes. This belief is so important for any vision of what it means to speak of Jesus’ kingship in the present time that we must spell it out slightly more fully before drawing the threads together.

Once again, three things need to be said very clearly. The first is that God’s principle of operation (his intention to run his world through human beings) applies just as much here as elsewhere. God wants the world to be ordered, not chaotic. He intends to bring that order to the world through the work, the thought, the planning and the wisdom of human beings. Human rulers were God’s idea in the first place. The Bible insists that this was a good and wise plan.

This is so whether or not the human beings in question have any thought of God or any desire to serve him. If they have, so much the better, though that will by no means guarantee that all their decisions are either wise, good or correct. To be a Christian and to be a ruler does not mean that one can claim an infallibility that Christians believe belongs only to God (and that Roman Catholics believe that God shares, on certain occasions, with the pope). Likewise, if the rulers are not God-fearing, that does not mean they are not performing a task God wants to have performed. Precisely because God cares passionately for the weak, the vulnerable and the poor, God desires that in each society there should be rulers who will see to it that such people are looked after and given their rights rather than, as is bound to happen in a state of anarchy, left to the mercy of the unscrupulous and the bullies. Strictly speaking, in fact, there is actually no such thing as anarchy, or not for very long. Pretty soon those with money and muscle take over, and woe betide the helpless when that happens. No, God desires order, not chaos, and calls human rulers, whether they know it or not, to bring that order about. Just as you don’t have to tell people (unless there is something very unusual about them) that they are made for human relationships, on the one hand, and made to look after the natural world, on the other (friendship and gardening just happen; you don’t have to compel people to do them), so you don’t have to tell people that they are made to organize their world, whether it’s their personal space or a city council.

Second, even when the rulers are wild or wicked, God can bend their imaginings to serve his purpose. The Bible tells many stories in which God seems to take charge and overrule the intentions of pagan monarchs. He uses the Assyrians as a stick with which to beat his own people (Isaiah 10), even though he then punishes the Assyrians in turn, because they did what they did with a haughty arrogance. He raises up the Chaldeans, ‘that fierce and impetuous nation’ (Habakkuk 1.6), to bring his wrath upon his own wayward people. But it isn’t all bad: God also raises up a pagan king, Cyrus the Persian, to bring his people back from exile in Babylon (Isaiah 45.1–7, 12–13). Even when looking back at a fairly godless and arrogant set of regimes, the book of Daniel affirms again and again the sovereignty of God over the nations of the world, the kingdom of God over the kingdoms of the world. They are not necessarily doing what God would have wanted, but nor are they entirely outside his will and power. God will, sooner or later, bring about the final judgment of the powers that range themselves arrogantly against him. But, in the meantime, his ‘sovereignty’ works not by cutting them off the moment they do anything wrong, but by turning and bending them to his will. ‘The Most High has sovereignty over the kingdom of mortals and gives it to whom he will’ (Daniel 4.32).

Third, then, God will in the end call the nations to account. This is the further manifestation of his sovereignty over them. Daniel 7, with its great judgment scene, belongs with such seminal passages as Psalm 2 in declaring that, though the nations may rage and bluster, God will eventually have them judged and put in their place. He will do so, what’s more, in the same way that he has chosen to act throughout his creation: through a human being. In Psalm 2 it is the king. In Daniel 7 it is ‘one like a son of man’, representing God’s people. Not surprisingly, people in the first century, both Jewish and Christian, saw the two pictures as one.

The judgment scene in Daniel 7 serves as the backdrop for Jesus’ own sense of vocation. As we saw earlier, this is a key entry point for understanding what God’s kingdom as inaugurated in Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and ascension might actually mean. There can be no doubt that Jesus’ first followers believed that Jesus had fulfilled this vision of Psalm 2 and Daniel 7. Jesus himself had constantly hinted at something like this, though until the great events of Calvary and Easter nobody had worked out either what it might mean or how it would be put into effect. But these events, seen in this light, mean that we have to take very seriously the early Christian belief that Jesus was indeed now exalted; he was now in charge; he was already, now, calling the nations to account.

And he was going to do so through his followers, those to whom he had given his Spirit. This, whether we like it or not, is where we come in.

Yes, God can and does work in all sorts of ways outside the church. There are many movements of thought and energy totally beyond the life of the church in which wise Christians can discern and celebrate God’s sovereign and gracious presence. Paul, in a moment of visionary affirmation, looks out on a world full of things to celebrate: ‘whatever is true, whatever is holy, whatever is upright, whatever is pure, whatever is attractive, whatever has a good reputation; anything virtuous, anything praiseworthy’ (Philippians 4.8). We thank God for his wonderful work well beyond the borders of Christendom. God is the sovereign creator; he can and does do all sorts of things without our knowing, without our involvement.

But we do not, because of that, lose sight of one of the church’s primary roles: to bear witness to the sovereign rule of Jesus, holding the world to account. And when I say ‘bear witness’, I mean it in the strong sense I spoke of earlier. Like a witness in a lawcourt, we are not just telling about our private experiences. We are declaring things that, by their declaration, will change the way things are going.

This means that the church has a task that, in our modern Western democracies, we have attempted to replicate in other ways. We have tried to have some semblance of ‘accountability’. If the voters don’t like someone, they don’t have to vote for that candidate next time. We all know that this is a very blunt instrument. Here in Britain, the majority of Parliamentary seats are ‘safe’. In any case, even if you vote for ‘the other lot’, you are still voting for politicians, and many people now believe that politicians are, as a class, part of the problem rather than part of the solution. In the United States, whoever you vote for, you still get a millionaire. And so on. Accountability isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

So those who follow Jesus have, front and centre within their vocation, the task of being the real ‘opposition’. This doesn’t mean, of course, that they must actually oppose everything that the official government tries to do. They must weigh it, sift it, hold it to account, affirm what can be affirmed, point out things that are lacking or not quite in focus, critique what needs critiquing, and denounce, on occasion, what needs denouncing. It is very telling that, in the early centuries of church history, the Christian bishops gained a reputation in the wider world of being the champions of the poor. They spoke up for their rights; they spoke out against those who would abuse and ill-treat them. Of course! The bishops were followers of Jesus – what else would you expect? That role continues to this day. And it goes much wider. The church has a wealth of experience and centuries of careful reflection in the fields of education, health care, the treatment of the elderly, the needs and vulnerabilities of refugees and migrants, and so on. We should use these to full effect.

This facet of the church’s ‘witness’, this central vocation through which Jesus continues his work to this day, has been marginalized. Modern Western democracies haven’t wanted to be held to account in this way and so have either officially or unofficially driven a fat wedge between ‘church’ and ‘state’. But, as we have hinted already, this has actually changed the meanings of both words. ‘State’ has expanded to do some of what ‘church’ should be doing; and the churches themselves have colluded with the privatization of ‘religion’, leaving all the things that the church used to be best at to the ‘state’ or other agencies. ‘Religion’, as one recent writer says, then ‘dwindles to a kind of personal pastime, like breeding gerbils or collecting porcelain’.3 No wonder, when people within the church speak up or speak out on key issues of the day, those who don’t like what they say tell them to go back to their private ‘religious’ world.

But speak up and speak out we must, because we have not only the clear instruction of Jesus himself, but the clear promise that this is how he will exercise his sovereignty; this is how he will make his kingdom a reality. In John’s gospel Jesus tells his followers that the Spirit will call the world to account:

‘When he comes, he will prove the world to be in the wrong on three
counts: sin, justice and judgment. In relation to sin – because they don’t
believe in me. In relation to justice – because I’m going to the father,
and you won’t see me any more. In relation to judgment – because the
ruler of this world is judged.’ (16.8 –11)

And the point of this dense little promise is worryingly clear: the Spirit will do all this through the church. That is the mandate. That is how Jesus intends to operate. That is how the victory he won at Calvary is to be implemented in the world.

In particular, we must take seriously the early Christian belief that with the death and resurrection of Jesus something decisive happened to the ‘principalities and powers’. Paul, writing to the Colossians from a Roman prison, is under no illusions about the continuing actual bodily power of the pagan empire whose captive he is. But he can still speak of the great victory that Jesus has already won over the rulers. The crucifixion looked as though they were celebrating a triumph over him, but in fact the boot was on the other foot:

He stripped the rulers and authorities of their armour, and displayed
them contemptuously to public view, celebrating his triumph over them
in him. (2.15)

As a result, Paul can even talk about all the principalities, powers, rulers and authorities not only being created in, through and for Jesus, but about them now being reconciled. He has made ‘peace by the blood of his cross’ (1.20).

This cannot mean – it obviously cannot mean! – that all rulers and authorities are now kindly disposed towards the message of Jesus and its messengers. Paul, as we said, is writing this letter from prison. The early church knew all about authorities that got it wrong, that imprisoned, beat or killed Jesus’ followers. The early Christians were not living in a cloud-cuckoo-land, imagining that the rulers and authorities were really ‘on their side’. But, at the same time, they addressed the authorities, explained to them what they were doing, and appealed to them (you can see Paul doing it in Acts) to do their job properly. We can see the same thing going on in the second century, when bishops like Polycarp and apologists like Justin showed proper respect for the authorities, even though those authorities were obviously bent on killing them. Just as the early church refused to collapse its faith into a dualism in which the created order itself, the world of space, time and matter, was evil and to be shunned, so it refused to collapse its witness to Jesus’ kingdom into a political dualism in which the rulers and authorities were straightforwardly wicked and to be condemned (or, as in gnosticism and much modern Western spirituality, irrelevant and to be ignored). The only exception – which is obviously important – comes where the rulers actually divinize themselves; then they become demonic and shift into a different category altogether, as we see happening in Revelation 13.

Of course, the church will sometimes get it wrong. The church must exercise a prophetic gift towards the world, but this will require further prophetic ministries within the church itself, to challenge and correct as well as to endorse what has been said. And all would-be prophetic ministries are subject to further scrutiny; not for nothing does John warn his readers to ‘test the spirits’, since many false prophets have gone out into the world (1 John 4.1– 6). The rule of thumb, interestingly enough, is to look back to Jesus himself. Do the voices that are being raised confess him as Messiah, as having ‘come in the flesh’? Do these would-be prophecies, in other words, reflect the truth of Jesus’ kingdom really arriving ‘on earth as in heaven’, or do they lead the church away from that reality and into the seductively safe space of detached ‘religion’? There was, after all, plenty of ‘religion’ around in the ancient world, and much of it was of a sort that was deeply out of tune with the dangerous message of Jesus. The Roman Empire could tolerate any number of spiritualities, mysticisms and other-worldly hopes. They threatened nobody. John, in line with the other New Testament writings, was holding onto the confession of faith according to which the one true God had acted uniquely and decisively in the world, the material world, in and as Jesus, Israel’s Messiah. That was, and is, fighting talk.

This, then, is a central and often ignored part of the meaning of Jesus’ kingdom for today. Each generation and each local church needs to pray for its civic leaders. Granted the wide variety of forms of government, types of constitutions and so forth that obtain across the world, each generation and each local church needs to figure out wise and appropriate ways of speaking the truth to power. That is a central part of the present-day meaning of Jesus’ universal kingship.

Summing up

We can sum it all up like this. We live in the period of Jesus’ sovereign rule over the world – a reign that has not yet been completed, since, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15.20 –28, he must reign until ‘he has put all his enemies under his feet’, including death itself. But Paul is clear that we do not have to wait until the second coming to say that Jesus is already reigning. In fact, Paul in that passage says something we might not otherwise have guessed: the reign of Jesus, in its present mode, is strictly temporary. God the father has installed Jesus in power, to act on his behalf; but when his task is complete, ‘the son himself will be placed in proper order’ under God the father, ‘so that God may be all in all’. I do not think that Paul would have quarrelled with the Nicene Creed when it says, of Jesus, that his kingdom ‘will have no end’. That, after all, is what the book of Revelation states on page after page. But I stress this point in 1 Corinthians because it makes it very clear that the present age is indeed the age of the reign of Jesus the Messiah. We cannot, in other words, agree with Billy that this reign is postponed to the second coming. That, on the contrary, is when it will be complete.

In trying to understand that present reign of Jesus, though, we have seen two apparently quite different strands. On the one hand, we have seen that all the powers and authorities in the universe are now, in some sense or other, subject to Jesus. This doesn’t mean that they all do what he wants all the time, only that Jesus intends that there should be social and political structures of governance. Jesus himself pointed out to Pilate that the authority that the Roman governor had over him had been given to him ‘from above’ (John 19.11). Once that has been said, we should not be shy about recognizing – however paradoxical it seems to our black-and-white minds! – the God-givenness of structures of authority, even when they are tyrannical and violent. Part of what we say when we say that a structure is God-given is also that God will hold it to account. We have trained ourselves to think of political legitimacy simply in terms of the method or mode of appointment (e.g. if you’ve won an election). The ancient Jews and early Christians were far more interested in holding rulers to account with regard to what they were actually doing. God wants rulers, but God will call them to account.

Where does Jesus come into all this? From his own perspective, he was himself both upstaging the power structures of his day and also calling them to account, then and there. That’s what his action in the Temple was all about. But his death, resurrection and ascension were the demonstration that he was Lord and they were not. The calling to account has, in other words, already begun – and will be completed at the second coming. And the church’s work of speaking the truth to power means what it means because it is based on the first of these and anticipates the second. What the church does, in the power of the Spirit, is rooted in the achievement of Jesus and looks ahead to the final completion of his work. This is how Jesus is running the world in the present.

But, happily, it doesn’t stop there, with the constant critique, both positive and negative, of what the world’s rulers are up to. There are millions of things that the church should be getting into that the rulers of the world either don’t bother about or don’t have the resources to support. Jesus has all kinds of projects up his sleeve and is simply waiting for faithful people to say their prayers, to read the signs of the times and to get busy. Nobody would have dreamed of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission if Desmond Tutu hadn’t prayed, and pushed, and made it happen. Nobody would have worked out the Jubilee movement, to campaign for international debt relief, if people in the churches had not become serious about the ridiculous plight of the poor. Closer to home, nobody else is likely to organize a car shuttle to get old people to and from the shops. Nobody else is likely to volunteer to play the piano for the service at the local prison. Few other people will start a play group for the children of single mothers who are still at work when school finishes. Nobody else, in my experience, will listen very hard to the plight of isolated rural communities or equally isolated inner-city enclaves. Nobody else thought of organizing the ‘Street Pastors’ scheme, which has had remarkable success in reducing crime. And so on. And so on.

And if the response is that these things are all very small and in themselves insignificant, I reply in two ways. First, didn’t Jesus explain his own actions by talking about the smallest of the seeds that then grows into the largest kind of shrub? And second, it is remarkable how one small action can start a trend. One theologian has called it ‘cascading grace’. Word gets around that a church in the next town has begun a particular project, and the good news story invites people to try something similar for themselves. That’s how the Hospice movement spread, transforming within a generation the care of terminally ill patients. Jesus is at work, taking forward his kingdom-project.

He is, no doubt, doing this in a million ways of which we see little. He is, for sure, at work far outside the confines of the church. The cosmic vision of Colossians is true and should give us hope, not least when we have to stand before local government officials and explain what we were doing praying for people on the street, or why we need to rent a public hall for a series of meetings, or why we remain implacably opposed to a new business that is seeking shamelessly to exploit young people or low-income families, for instance by encouraging them to gamble with their limited resources. When we explain ourselves, we do so before people who, whether or not they know it, have been appointed to their jobs by God himself. Jesus has defeated on the cross the power that would make them malevolent. And, as we pray and celebrate his death in the sacraments, we claim that victory and go to our work calmly and without fear.

But Jesus is also at work in all sorts of ways in and through the church itself. We are to be, as Paul says, ‘renewed in the image of the creator’ (Colossians 3.10) – renewed, that is, by worship of God and the Lamb, so that we are able to serve as ‘kings and priests’, putting Jesus’ rule into effect in the world and summing up creation’s praise before him. This is what it looks like, today, when Jesus is running the world. This is, after all, what he told us to expect. The poor in spirit will be making the kingdom of heaven happen. The meek will be taking over the earth, so gently that the powerful won’t notice until it’s too late. The peacemakers will be putting the arms manufacturers out of business. Those who are hungry and thirsty for God’s justice will be analysing government policy and legal rulings and speaking up on behalf of those at the bottom of the pile. The merciful will be surprising everybody by showing that there is a different way to do human relations other than being judgmental, eager to put everyone else down. ‘You are the light of the world,’ said Jesus. ‘You are the salt of the earth.’ He was announcing a programme yet to be completed. He was inviting his hearers, then and now, to join him in making it happen. This is, quite simply, what it looks like when Jesus is enthroned.

Taken from Simply Jesus – by Tom Wright

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