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Chapter Twelve: Paul’s View of the Kingdom

 

The Apostles believed that the Kingdom of God would arrive soon after Jesus’ resurrection. Even so, there was an interval of time when that event was expected but had not yet happened. The Kingdom seemed to be perpetually delayed. Paul could not accept that view. Paul “could not do it because he was not only a believer, but also a thinker.” (Schweitzer, p. 154) Paul sought knowledge of the state of redemption.

The chief facts relevant to this knowledge were the death and resurrection of Jesus. “When the usual belief assumes that we can only wait for the Kingdom on the strength of the death and resurrection of Jesus, it is in error. Knowledge establishes that it must somehow have already come. In the resurrection of Jesus, we are shown that the resurrection era has already appeared. It does not, however, belong to the era of this world, but to that of the Kingdom of God. That too must therefore have come already.” (Schweitzer, p. 154)

It is a remarkable feat of logic to suppose that the Kingdom of God must already have come when the prophets and Jesus himself believed that the Kingdom would be a supernatural realm suddenly replacing the physical world. This notion defies common sense. Visible evidence after Christ’s death and resurrection suggested that the physical world remained intact. Far from coming under God’s complete direction, evil seemed to be increasing in the world as historical events moved towards Jerusalem’s destruction by Roman armies. In that context, Paul was arguing that the Kingdom is “already present”, but “its appearance is yet to come”. (Schweitzer, p. 155) What does that mean?

“Paul finds the solution of the problem given in the view that, from the death and resurrection of Jesus onward, the world is in process of transformation from its temporal state into the supernatural state of the Kingdom of God. At first the Kingdom begins to achieve its realization invisibly. It remains in this state during the short period until the coming of Jesus in his glory. When this occurs it will be visible in its complete reality. The new day is therefore on the point of dawning, only the sun has not yet risen.” (Schweitzer, p. 155) We find ourselves, then, in that period of twilight as the light of the sun slowly brightens to illuminate the landscape.

Paul sees the world moving from processes of corruption to an incorrupt state associated with the Kingdom. It is a movement from the visible to the invisible as Spirit gains increasing presence. He wrote in the letter to the Corinthians that “the whole frame of this world is passing away.” (1 Corinthians 7: 31) The transformation had gone furthest “with those who are called to the Kingdom of God. They possess a bodily nature which, like that of Jesus, undergoes in a special way the operation of the transforming powers that are at work in the age of the Kingdom of God. What has happened with the bodily nature of Jesus is on the point of being accomplished in them. From the moment of his death and resurrection, they too have begun to undergo death and resurrection, so that they may count as having died and risen.” (Schweitzer, p. 155-156)

This “mystical idea of dying and rising again with Christ” is the image which Paul puts forth to explain the condition in which the early Christian community found itself. Christian baptism, which brought a person into association with Jesus, meant that the person shares Jesus’ fate. “Because he belongs to Jesus Christ who died and rose again, the powers of death and resurrection are now at work in him (the baptized person).” (Schweitzer, p.156)

Paul states this plainly: “Have you forgotten that when we were baptized into union with Christ Jesus we were baptized into his death? By baptism we were buried with him, and lay dead, in order that, as Christ was raised from the dead in the splendor of the father, so also we might set our feet upon the new path of life. For if we have become incorporate with him in a death like his, we shall also be one with him in a resurrection like his ... In the same way you must regard yourselves as dead to sin and alive to God, in union with Christ Jesus.” (Romans 3: 3-5, 11)

Such words would be incomprehensible to one unfamiliar with Paul’s eschatological thinking. His mystical perspective arises, not from the Greek mystery religions, but “in an enhancement of hope for the Kingdom by which the temporal and supernatural worlds are already interwoven into one another.” (Schweitzer, p. 157) Like Jesus, Paul believes that Jesus’ death will bring about the Kingdom; however, their views were otherwise different. While still alive, Jesus foresaw that his own death would cancel the prescribed period of tribulation which was then the only obstacle left to the Kingdom’s arrival. Paul, on the other hand, cannot deny that Jesus’ death and resurrection has already taken place. Therefore, for Paul, the Kingdom of God has come already.

Satan’s Angelic Host

“As far as its outward course is concerned, Paul sees the Kingdom of God as meaning the overcoming through Jesus Christ of the angelic beings who exercise a dominion alongside of and contrary to God’s. In the late Jewish view these were responsible for the deplorable condition of the natural world. The Messiah was destined to put an end to their rule.” (Schweitzer, p. 157)

Recognizing him as an adversary, the evil one had tried to defeat Jesus by having him crucified. Christ’s subsequent resurrection from the dead showed that this angelic force led by Satan had no power over him. In fact, the crucifixion marked a turning point in God’s relationship with all who love Him. After the resurrection, the angels were no longer able to reproach men before God. In Jesus, humanity had a potent intercessor. “Who will be the accuser of God’s chosen ones?” Paul asks in his letter to the Romans. “It is God who pronounces acquittal; then who can condemn? It is Christ - Christ who died, and, more than that, was raised from the dead - who is at God’s right hand, and indeed pleads our cause. Then what can separate us from the love of Christ.” (Romans 8: 33-35)

Even so, the evil force tried to resist its decline by throwing obstacles in the path of those who would spread the Gospel. Paul believed, for instance, that it was Satan who prevented him from returning to Thessalonica. (1 Thessalonians 2: 18) At other times, an angel of Satan struck Paul with his fist. ( 2 Corinthians 12: 7) Satan himself propagated an adulterated version of the doctrine concerning Christ’s death and resurrection. (2 Corinthians 11: 13-15) The evil force would continue to have some power until death itself was abolished at the end of time. It would only be extinguished at the end of the Messianic kingdom when the resurrection of the dead took place and the Kingdom of God succeeded the Kingdom of the Messiah.

The Two Kingdoms

Paul’s view of the final days includes the two supernatural kingdoms which late Jewish prophets thought would come after the Messiah’s arrived on earth. The first was a kingdom ruled by the Messiah which would last for a certain time. The second was God’s kingdom which would follow the other one and last forever. A general resurrection of the dead would occur between the two reigns.

Paul differs from Jesus in this respect. “For Jesus, the Messianic Kingdom is identical with the Kingdom of God. This is shown in the fact that for him the elect not only of the final generation but of all generations belong to it ... Paul, on the other hand, presupposes the eschatology of the scribes, which we know from the Apocalypses of Baruch and Ezra. He distinguishes, as they do, between the Messianic Kingdom and the Kingdom of God, which follows it.” (Schweitzer, p. 159-160)

While Paul’s conception is based on scripture, he must adapt his scheme to the known teachings of Jesus. As a result, his eschatological view matches neither that of Jesus nor Baruch and Ezra, but is a hybrid. The two late Jewish apocalyptists had envisioned that only the righteous elect of the last generation would inhabit the Messianic Kingdom. Along with others, they would later be resurrected into a supernatural form to enter the Kingdom of God. Paul changes this scheme “to make the participants in the Messianic Kingdom exist in the resurrection state, either because they actually have risen from the dead or because they have been transformed. This Kingdom then ceases to be different in kind from the Kingdom of God. It differs only in so far as those who belong to the final generation of men possess in it a blessing in advance which other generations will only enjoy later.” (Schweitzer, p. 160)

Paul retains the view of Baruch and Ezra that in the Kingdom of God God alone is the ruler. That means that the Messiah must give back to God the power which he had held as ruler of the Messianic kingdom when the Kingdom of God arrived. In the Gospels, Jesus has nothing to say on this subject since for him the Kingdom of God and the Messianic kingdom are the same. His followers and the righteous dead are both resurrected into this Kingdom. What to make of the older view that the Messianic kingdom includes only those righteous ones who were alive in the last generation? Paul sees a continuation of the process which began with Jesus’ own resurrection. The elect still alive will be resurrected at the coming of the (Messianic) Kingdom as will those righteous persons who have died.

Paul’s views are expressed in a passage from First Thessalonians which describes an event known as “the Rapture”. Paul writes: “We believe that Jesus died and rose again; and so it will be for those who died as Christians; God will bring them to life with Jesus. For this we tell you as the Lord’s word: we who are left alive until the Lord comes shall not forestall those who have died; because at the word of command, at the sound of the archangel’s voice and God’s trumpet-call, the Lord himself will descend from heaven; first the Christian dead will rise, then we who are left alive shall join them, caught up in clouds to meet the Lord in the air. Thus we shall always be with the Lord.” (1 Thessalonians 4: 14-18)

Spirit Gradually Appearing

Prophetic tradition had always held that God’s Kingdom would come in a cataclysmic event bringing an end to human history. Jesus himself believed this. When the Kingdom of God arrived, his followers would be suddenly transformed into a supernatural state to become like angels. Jesus’ own resurrection from the dead seemed to demonstrate how that could happen. Paul, however, is compelled to face the fact that no such cataclysm has taken place in the world. Instead of happening suddenly, he sees the transformation into a supernatural state as “a process that takes time. He (Paul) is therefore able to see the time that intervenes between the resurrection of Jesus and his return as that of the invisible development of the Kingdom which has been in existence ever since his resurrection.” (Schweitzer, p. 162)

The outpouring of spirit prophesied by Joel was thought to be an event preceding the Kingdom, like Elijah’s appearance or the pre-Messianic tribulation. Paul is forced to recognize that the spiritual manifestations at the feast of Pentecost occurred after the resurrection of Jesus. If Jesus’ resurrection introduced the Kingdom, that meant that the appearance of spirit was occurring within the Kingdom rather than before it arrived. The Kingdom would then have to be something different than what was previously imagined. Most early Christians retained the earlier scheme. For them, the outpouring of spirit suggested that the Kingdom, however near, had not yet come. Paul, on the other hand, concluded that the Kingdom had arrived with Jesus’ resurrection and that Spirit, belonging to this age of the Kingdom, was evidence that it had come.

Because Paul assumed that the Kingdom had already come, he had now to “proceed to see the Spirit as a manifestation of the Kingdom as already present, and try to understand what this means.” (Schweitzer, p. 162) What about speaking in tongues? Paul saw this as a visible sign of spirit and cautioned against being unduly proud of such gifts. Everything constituting the now-present Kingdom of God must be a result of spirit. Spirit is that which drives the transformation of the physical world into the supernatural world of God’s kingdom. “Its activity begins in those (followers of Jesus) who belong to the Kingdom. The resurrection of Jesus is the work of the Spirit dwelling in him. As the Spirit of resurrection it gives believers the capacity to rise before their time.” (Schweitzer, p. 163) Christians as a community, who together belong to Christ, experience Christ’s resurrection. Paul said they are given “first fruits of the Spirit.” (Romans 8: 23)

Whereas Jesus had gathered a band of followers who gained entry to the Kingdom by virtue of being his companions on earth, Paul “assumes that believers belong to the risen Lord in a mystical body in a way that begins at baptism. (See 1 Corinthians 12: 13.) They have no longer any real existence of their own, but have their body in common with Christ and all other believers. Paul says that they are ‘the body of Christ.’ The expression he most commonly uses for this is being ‘in Christ’. Believers have a source of new vitality in the Spirit of God, which comes from Christ and flows over them.” (Schweitzer, p. 163-164) They partake both of Christ’s and God’s spirit. However, Christian believers must take pains to remain in a spiritual state and not lapse into worldliness and again be ones who “live in the flesh”; for then they would lose their claim to enter the Kingdom of God, including the power to rise from the dead.

As ones possessing the Spirit of God, however, Christians have a special kind of knowledge. It is knowledge, like Christ’s, which comes directly from God, and has been generally available only since the death and resurrection of Jesus. It was this knowledge which inspired Paul when he was writing the epistles. This Gospel, he wrote in a letter to the Galatians, “is no human invention. I did not take it over from any man; no man taught it (to) me; I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.” (Galatians 1: 11-12) Therefore, Paul was not drawing inspiration from memories of the earthly Jesus, or from any of his sayings, but from the spirit of the living Christ. Not “Jesus in the flesh”, but Jesus as the risen Messiah, was sending Paul this knowledge.

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