In recent New Testament scholarship a debated issue has been whether Jesus and early Christians proclaimed their message about God’s kingdom with a subtle but intentional critique of worldly rulers and powers. In other words, to what degree was the Christian gospel intended to be subversive against other authority structures?
On the one hand, passages such as Romans 13:1-7 (“submit to governing authorities”) and Mark 12:17 (“give to Caesar’s what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s”) suggests that Jesus and his apostles had no interest in challenging the political kingdoms of the world. Jesus’ followers are also told quite clearly to love their enemies and pray for those who persecute them (Matthew 5:44).
But on the other hand, the very language that was applied to Jesus by New Testament writers (savior, salvation, gospel) was already in use with reference to Roman emperors (one famous instance of this is an inscription found in Priene in Asia Minor, from just a few years before Jesus’ birth, describing the “good news/gospel” of the appearance/”epiphany” and world-changing effects of the “savior” Augustus).
Recently Daniel 7 has given me additional appreciation for an anti-imperial perspective. In that passage, “one like a son of man” is given an eternal kingdom over all of the world. This eternal kingdom is portrayed in contrast to powerful worldly kingdoms that had already been destroyed or undercut by God (Daniel 7:11-12). God’s reign, appointed to the son of man (Daniel 7:13-14), rises against the backdrop of the fallen political kingdoms of this world. When Jesus at the outset his public ministry in Galilee proclaims the kingdom of God and calls himself the Son of Man, he carries out the kingdom vision so strikingly revealed in Daniel 7. Jesus affirms a view of God’s reign that will involve the establishment of God’s kingdom over all other rival kingdoms. One can understand why Herod the Great felt threatened by Jesus’ status as King of kings.
When our family visited the beach on a trip to see family recently, my son and I spent several hours building an elaborate sand castle (with multiple moats and layers of walls) that we hoped would be able to withstand the approaching tide of the Gulf of Mexico:
Of course, our castle’s defeat was inevitable. The waves were much too powerful for our carefully built structures. In the same way, worldly kingdoms rise and fall. But God is establishing the kingdom of his Son, Jesus Christ, that will stand forever.
What helps resolve the tension between the exclusive authority and power possessed by Christ and the call for Christians to live peacefully under worldly rulers? I believe that the key is in distinguishing between the “already” and “not yet” aspects of God’s agenda. Because Daniel 7 pictures ultimate victory only in the age to come, after a period of suffering under worldly powers, believers are reminded that the fullness of God’s power will be demonstrated only at a future time. In the meantime believers should not take matters into their own hands by contending against worldly authorities. The final victory will be won by Christ one day. He will take care of things as the rightful king. While waiting for this blessed hope Christians are to love their enemies and pray for those who persecute them. And we are to honor legitimate leaders and governments, who serve with God-given authority (Rom 13:1-7).
As the apostle Paul reminds the Philippians, many of whom would have been Roman citizens, we should locate our true citizenship in heaven (Phil 3:20), from where a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, is ready to return to the world to claim his rightful dominion for his people. As citizens of heaven, we represent God’s love and mercy to the world around us, while we wait for our victorious king to arrive. May God sustain us and give us love and wisdom for this task.