God’s coming kingdom: Islam and Christian versions

Years ago, I remember having a conversation with a Muslim man.  We had a wonderful mutual exchange of religious ideas.  We had a parallel concept of a belief in God’s kingdom in which God will come again on the last day, the day of judgment.  The trumpet will sound and the Lord will return in clouds.  He will judge the living and the dead.   However, as Christians, we believe that God’s son, who is Jesus Christ is the King of kings and Lord of lords, and his kingdom will last forever without end.  Other than the difference in who the Messiah is, the similarities actually encouraged me and opened an opportunity to share the gospel with my Muslim neighbor.

Despite some of our desires to see God’s kingdom come and his will be done on earth as it is in heaven, God’s kingdom is not revealed through any earthly political power, military strength, or even religious influence.  Despite how weak or strong we may be in this world, the Messiah will return in all his power and glory.

An enduring faith and trust in God’s power and sovereignty can give us peace, and rein in our fears and need to dominate and control others in the world.  If God is truly sovereign, all-powerful and all-knowing, shouldn’t God be able to usher in his own kingdom despite anything we do?

“Look, he is coming with the clouds,”
and “every eye will see him,
even those who pierced him”;
and all peoples on earth “will mourn because of him.”
So shall it be! Amen. (Rev.1:7)

For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. (1 Thessalonians 4:16-17)

Then will appear the sign of the Son of Man in heaven. And then all the peoples of the earth will mourn when they see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven, with power and great glory. And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other.  (Matthew 24:30-31)

The elusive kingdom: some of modern scholarship’s problem

I have a problem getting into books by Robert Funk, John Spong, John Dominic Crossan. Now I understand why.  A part of the reason is their eschatology and their understanding of the “kingdom of God”.  Jesus did not call his disciples to find their inner, mystical selves, or to form an egalitarian community.  They were called to proclaim a message of repentance of sins and seek the kingdom of God that would transform the world.

The Jesus Seminar of Robert Funk has misunderstood both eschatology and Jesus’ proclamation of the “kingdom of God”, and so it rejects eschatology and misinterprets what Jesus meant by “kingdom of God”.  “When the Jesus Seminar interprets Jesus in a non-eschatological way, the Seminar is rejecting the idea that in proclaiming the kingdom of God, Jesus was proclaiming the end of the world”, says Craig Evans.   If the Jesus Seminar’s rejection of the eschatological kingdom was a reaction to an “end of the world” type of imminent apocalyptic theology, then their reaction is wrong-headed.  However, Jesus’ eschatology involved God’s rule breaking into the present world.

The bible does express a sense of urgency in the words of Jesus; he did say that the time was ripe for spiritual discernment and for God’s righteousness and judgment to come into our world.  Modern liberal scholarship did not like this the imminent end-of-the-world type of eschatology, and as a result, they totally eliminated an eschatological Jesus for a non-eschatological Jesus.  This is like “throwing the baby out with the bath water”.  Bruce Chilton describes Jesus’ Seminar’s elusive problem of Jesus being eschatological:  “Unhappiness with eschatology as the primary reference of the kingdom is easily converted into an equation of the kingdom with whatever the going orthodoxy is: the kingdom is the Church (so Carmignac), the kingdom of the Christ (so Dodd), the kingdom is the mystical experience of the sage Jesus (so Borg), or his philosophy in a Hellenistic key (so Mack)”.

Proponents of a non-eschatological kingdom bear the burden of proof.  There are many references of a definitive future in Jesus’ sayings, and of final judgment in Jewish writings (Aramaic, Greek, and Hebrew).  Jesus scholars have been stuck in endless debate between the eschatological kingdom vs a non-eschatology kingdom.  Modern liberal scholars need to see the meanings beyond eschatology in Jesus’ proclamation.

Evangelical disconnect between Jesus and Paul

In Scot McKnight’s article in the December issue of Christianity Today [ HatTip: TC ] I think he is really onto something big here.  He is bringing up an issue that is just on the cusp of really becoming a major issue within evangelical Christianity, especially amongst younger evangelicals.  People are finding that they can resonate more with Jesus’ kingdom vision rather than Paul’s message of justification.  For those who don’t think so, just wait and see.  Today, there is a disconnect between our inability to connect Jesus’ language about the “kingdom of God” with Paul’s language of justification, says McKnight. What McKnight wants us to see is that the two can be reconciled.

This article has caused me to become more self-aware of the change in my own theology.  In coming out of a Lutheran seminary two years ago. I have been more storied in the justice/kingdom language in the gospels of Jesus rather than the justification language of Paul’s epistles.  As a result, I have been preaching more from the gospels–actually more than double the number of sermons on Paul’s epistles.  Why?  Perhaps I just feel more comfortable with Jesus’ kingdom of God, and less comfortable with Paul’s justification.  I am an evangelical, but am I a typical evangelical?  Perhaps…perhaps not.  However, I think this may be representative of many recent seminary graduates, especially those coming out from more liberal seminaries where social justice is sometimes over-emphasized.

During my seminary days, I have heard far more sermons in chapel on the gospels of Jesus rather than on Paul’s epistles….in church too.  What will be a consequence of this change?  Our sermons will become more justice-oriented rather than justification-oriented.  Perhaps this may have contributed to the mainline denominations emphasis on justice in their theology. .  Perhaps I need to be re-storied in Paul’s language of justification rather than Jesus’ justice language on the kingdom of God?  Where is the balance in my life?  Perhaps this is why I’ve decided to take continue education classes at an evangelical seminary because I feel that I am missing out on an evangelical slant on Paul’s understanding of the gospel.

In our evangelical minds, we may like to think of ourselves as pro-justification and on the side of Paul, but our theology may actually be more in line with the justice of Jesus’ kingdom of God.  Regarding gospelling, McKnight says in the video interview, that we have moved into a persuasive rhetoric, whereas, we used to use declarative rhetoric.  Persuasive rhetoric is open to manipulation so we should be more declarative in our gospelling.  [ video here…]

In your church, are you hearing more sermons based on the gospel text? Or on Paul’s epistles?