How God Became King: The Clash of the Kingdoms

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Chapter 7 is the last of Wright’s four harmonies found in the gospels. This one, like the first but quite unlike the second or third, is almost completely muted among Western Christians today. Anyone paying attention to N.T. Wright over the last couple decades will already be attuned to this last “speaker,” because he’s been harping on it for some time. This is the political element to the gospels, the confrontation between God’s kingdom and Caesar’s.

We can already, before we begin, hear the objections from both sides. The right has consistently swept the political element under the rug, since we all know Jesus really came to fight Satan and the powers of darkness. The left, on the other hand, has often thought that politics was all there was to it. Indeed, Jesus was facing off against dark powers that animated, as it were, Caesar and others, but Jesus did anything but ignore the real oppressive political powers of his day.

This should not surprise us. Politics are at the heart of the biblical narrative throughout. Israel is called specifically to be a nation under the Creator. Their entire existence was supposed to demonstrate to the world what a kingdom of God might look like (though of course they failed). Prophet after prophet condemns the brutal and oppressive kingdoms surrounding Israel. In fact, that is the heart of the prophetic material that depicts the fulfillment of God’s purposes for Israel (Ps 2, 110; Dan 7; Isa 40-55).

But the shocking thing about the gospels in this regard is the way in which thee oppressive kingdoms (epitomized in Rome) are defeated. The way to overcome oppressive rule is the way of Jesus himself. In Wright’s words, Jesus “not only theorizes about the difference between pagan power and the kind of power he is claiming; he enacts it” (139). The overthrow of unjust power, which is typified in the aggressive use of force, that is the sword, is accomplished precisely in the kind of godly sacrifice that leads Jesus to the cross.

There is truly remarkable material in this chapter. Too much, I suppose, to summarize. But we’ll say this, at least. All four gospels are intentional about writing this same story, which is not, by the way, simply a sub-plot. The gospels are about the ultimate defeat of political powers, the kingdoms of this world, who use their might, whether through the sword (or missile) or coercion or the party or propaganda, to overpower the people of this world. And they are defeated even as they (both Rome and the Jews) do their worst to the most peaceful of men ever to walk the earth.

We’ll leave this chapter with this quote from Bishop Wright:

The difference between the kingdoms is striking. Caesar’s kingdom (and all other kingdoms that originate in this world) make their way by fighting. But Jesus’s kingdom – God’s kingdom enacted through Jesus – makes its way with quite a different weapon, one that Pilate refuses to acknowledge: telling the truth (144).

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