Paul and his Kingdom Problem – Part 2

By: Jason Wermuth
Saturday, April 17th, 2010

Last week we discussed the fact that Paul rarely mentions the kingdom of God in his letters (read part 1 here), which is a problem precisely because this happens to be the central theme of Jesus’ whole earthly message. The natural question that arises from this problem is, why does Paul use the phrase “kingdom of God” so rarely?

In order to understand the problem one must first understand a little bit about the cultural climate in which Paul lived. The Roman Empire, in Jesus and Paul’s day, controlled everything from Spain in the west to the Arabian Peninsula in the east. Each territory of the Roman Empire was ultimately under the rule of the Caesar who appointed Governors to ensure order was maintained throughout the Empire. These governors were famous for using their vast military might to crush uprisings with brute force. Any hint of an uprising or any question of who the real ruler of the Empire was and the Governor was likely to squash you and your group with swift and decisive action. These were the likely events that surrounded Jesus’ own crucifixion, of which Jesus’ followers were all too familiar. Even Paul, who was not one of Jesus’ followers at the time of his death but who claims to have seen the resurrected Jesus (Gal 1:11-17; 1 Cor 9:1; 1 Cor 15:8-11), knew what happened when someone was proclaiming the coming of a new kingdom with a new king. It would follow then that Paul, cognizant of his surroundings, would have taken care not to write anything that might be intercepted and traced back to him as some kind of clarion call to begin a battle against Rome and inaugurate a new kingdom. Furthermore, Paul was often writing to a mixed Jewish and Gentile audience. It is likely that the Gentile audience would not have understood a discussion of the kingdom of God in the way that Paul would have intended it, and so in most instances, Paul refrains from talking about the kingdom of God. The question remains though, did Paul know anything about Jesus’ kingdom message?

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In his letters, Paul only mentions the kingdom of God twelve times (Rom 14:17; 1 Cor 4:20; 6:9, 10; 15:24, 50; Gal 5:21; 1 Thess 2:12; 2 Thess 1:5; [Eph 5:5; Col 1:13, 4:11].) In most of these instances, he is referring to the kingdom of God as an eschatological (end times, age to come) dimension that will be inaugurated at Christ’s second coming. There are two passages, though, where we can see something more happening. In Romans 14:17 and 1 Corinthians 4:20, Paul seems to be alluding to the kingdom of God as more than just a future hope that we will inherit later. Paul in these passages seems to think that the kingdom of God is, in some way, present now.

In Romans 14:17, Paul writes: “For the kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” Here, Paul is correcting the “strong” in the community who used their freedom in Christ to beat down those who were weaker in the faith, who still believed that they needed to strictly adhere to the Jewish food laws. Paul turns their world around and tells these supposedly strong folks that what matters is not food and drink (temporal things) but what really matters is the kingdom of God, which enables humanity to live a life of righteousness, peace and joy in the presence of the Holy Spirit (eternal things). Thus for Paul, the kingdom of God is present right now, through the Holy Spirit, who enables humanity to live the “new creation” life through ethical transformation.

In 1 Corinthians 4:20, Paul, again correcting a group that has gone astray, declares that “the kingdom of God depends not on talk but on power.” The Corinthians that Paul is writing to were apparently an arrogant bunch who looked down on Paul because, by his own admission, he wasn’t the most articulate preacher (1 Cor 2:1-4). What he did have, however, was the Holy Spirit and power (1 Cor 2:4). Paul, in 4:19, warns the Corinthians that he is coming soon and he is going to find out if they just run their mouths and fill the air with empty eloquence, or if they actually act out the Gospel in the Spirit, with power. Power here, I think, is not just strong actions or motivation, but is actually a reference to signs, wonders and miracles (see 2 Cor 12:12; Romans 15:18-19). Thus, when Paul proclaims the gospel, the kingdom of God is present through manifestations of the power of God. Apparently for Paul, it is not enough to talk about God, it is also important to be able to do the works of God, as we saw in Jesus’ own ministry. Jesus, before Paul, connected his working of miracles to the presence of the kingdom of God (Matt 12:28, Mk 9:1). In this connection, among others that I do not have time to mention, it appears possible to see a hint that Paul did know about Jesus’ teaching on the kingdom of God as a present, yet not fully actualized reality.

In your own life, do you preach the presence and nearness of the kingdom of God through the Holy Spirit with power? It seems to me that Jesus’ whole message is tied to this idea. Namely, that if we are in him and the Holy Spirit has come upon us, then the kingdom of God is “at hand” and “near” and the ethical transformation and wonder-working power that Paul speaks of in the two passages above are within reach for us as well. In Luke 9:1-2, Jesus prepared his disciples for their ministry and “gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases [...] and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal.” We who are in the Spirit, who are being transformed into His image, have also been given power by Jesus and thus I believe the burden is upon us to fulfill these words, by proclaiming the kingdom of God not only with words, but also through a live marked by righteousness, peace and joy and with power.

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Jason Wermuth
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7 Responses to “Paul and his Kingdom Problem – Part 2”

  1. Enoch says:

    Great post, Jason. I agree with your reasoning that Paul did not choose to use “kingdom of God” because of the gentile-jewish audience he was preaching to. His thoughts could have very well been misinterpreted by the gentiles in the Roman world and created trouble for him and the gospel.

    Also, you have shown clearly Paul demonstrated the power of God and thereby preached the same message of the kingdom that Jesus preached.

    I have a question. Under the same dynamics of the Jewish-Roman world of the first century, why would Jesus himself preach about the kingdom of God, even though it meant to serve primarily a Jewish audience? This question is more to understand the depth and significance of the Lord’s message about the Kingdom of God.

    • Jason Wermuth says:

      Enoch,

      Thanks for your comments. I think that it was easier for Jesus to talk about the kingdom of God in part because he was surrounded by a primarily Jewish audience. I am just thinking here, as I have not done the research on this particular question, but I wonder also whether the fact that he spoke in Aramaic could have been another reason he more easily navigated these difficult waters. While Paul is primarily speaking and writing in Greek, the common language of the day, Jesus would have spoken in a language foreign to the Roman authorities. As the story goes, however, they eventually did find out that Jesus was preaching about a new kingdom, which is why a plaque was nailed above him on the cross calling him “king of the Jews.”

      • Enoch says:

        Interesting…sounds reasonable. Can’t think anything else much now. thanks Jason for the reply!

  2. Enoch says:

    However, we need to note that it was the Jews who crucified the Lord, not the Romans… :)

    • Matt says:

      Actually it seems to be a combination of both the Romans and the Jewish leaders

      • Jason Wermuth says:

        Enoch,

        I agree with Matt here. I think Jesus was crucified because of both. Ultimately, “we” were the ones who crucified Jesus. But you don’t order a plaque be hung above a man on the cross that mocks him, if you don’t also want him dead, which I think Pilate may have been a part of ;) . “Pilate also wrote an inscription and put it on the cross. It was written, “JESUS THE NAZARENE, THE KING OF THE JEWS.” (John 19:19). That passage doesn’t sound like a man sad about having to kill an innocent man, unless of course he didn’t mean it mockingly, but actually meant it…

      • Enoch says:

        Matt and Jason, Interesting to see that way! thanks for sharing your perspective here