If the kingdom is so central to the Biblical narrative, why do we miss it?
In the last few hundred years, we’ve developed a culture where the spiritual is separate from the natural, where faith is separate from science, where the church is separate from state. I grew up in this world. When I was a child, an elder of our church taught me not to worry about people’s physical needs. “Leave it to the Salvos and the do-gooders to feed their bodies now,” he said. “What really matters is to save their souls so they go to heaven when they die.”
This way of looking at the world (body versus soul) comes from Greek philosophy (Plato), not from the Bible. Once we accept that view—separating the spiritual from the natural—we put God into the “spiritual” compartment, disconnected from what’s happening in the physical world. Consequently, our faith has no relevance to politics, or crime, or the way nation states abuse their power (war). The gospel is reduced to a message of relief from inner guilt (personal forgiveness), with little relevance for the physical world. Little wonder that many people perceive the church as irrelevant!
Do you realize what this approach has done to our view of God? When we reduce God to the “spiritual” compartment, we have denied his authority over the material world. If we sang about God’s reign at all, we sang, “Reign in me.” If we mentioned God’s throne, it was about inviting Jesus onto the throne of my heart. If we discussed God’s sovereignty, we argued about whether God chooses individuals to be saved or whether individuals make their own choice. We didn’t really talk much about the kingdom, except to say “the kingdom of God is within me” (a misunderstanding of Luke 17:21).
By shrinking God down the spiritual dimension, within me, we no longer understand God as the ruler of the entire world. He became my personal god. We invented new language to talk about this shrunken god—reducing Jesus to my “personal Saviour” and reducing the gospel to my “personal relationship with God.”
This way of speaking about Jesus is a recent invention. It is not the language of the New Testament. It is not how the gospel has been understood throughout the centuries. Joel Miller researched when the phrases “personal relationship with Jesus” and “personal saviour” came into vogue. They’re the blue and red lines on the graph below, with the years along the bottom. Miller says:
It smelled suspiciously like the 1970s. So to test my assumption I immediately ran a Google Ngram on the phrases “personal savior” and “personal relationship with Jesus.”
As you can see, the phrases barely exist before the 1970s, at which point they take off like pair of rockets, trailing rank fumes of sentimental egotism. This is, importantly, the same period of time labeled by Tom Wolfe as “The Me Decade” in a now-famous article for New York magazine.
Please do not misunderstand. I’m not saying that God is uninterested in you as a person, or that your relationship with God does not matter. What I’m saying is that by reinterpreting the gospel through the lens of our culture so it’s all about me, we’ve lost the bigger picture of God as sovereign over the earth and the call to submit to his kingship and operate as his kingdom.
We must regain the gospel of the kingdom. Yes, it’s about God saving individuals, but it’s far bigger than that. It’s about God saving his whole creation. It’s about God reigning in justice, bringing an end to war, bringing every evil that resists his reign under his authority. It’s about every rebellion against his appointed ruler being quelled, every enemy against his Christ being brought under his feet.
The gospel of Jesus does not call individuals to a quietist relationship with God, isolated from the irrelevant world. It calls us to be the community that demonstrates by example what it’s like when God runs the world: the embodiment of reconciliation, the practice of his justice, the expression of how he cares for his world, a living sculpture of what it’s like when God reigns over everything.
What others are saying
N. T. Wright, The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’ Death due for release 11 October. Michael Bird shared this quotation from Tom in advance:
We have swapped our biblical heritage of new heavens and new earth for a form of Platonism (‘going to heaven’ – which you find in the first century in Plutarch, not in Paul!); we have swapped the biblical vocation of humans (to be ‘a kingdom and priests’) for a moral contract in which the most important thing is whether or not we’ve passed the moral exam, and if we haven’t what can be done about it; and we have therefore swapped the rich biblical account of what Jesus’ death achieved for a slimmed-down version which can easily be ‘heard’ to say that an angry God took out his bad temper on his own son . . . which is the sort of thing a pagan religion might say. So, as I say in the book, we have platonized our eschatology, as a result of which we have moralized our anthropology, and have therefore been in danger of paganizing our soteriology. Fortunately, the Bible itself will help us get back on track.
Update 2016-10-15: Mike Bird’s full interview with Tom Wright is now available at Christianity Today.