Sunday, June 23, 2013

Is the Kingdom of God Geographical or non-Geographical?

It is common in NT studies to state that the kingdom of God is a non-geographical concept. Rather, it relates to God’s rule. There is good reason for this. First, the Kingdom of God stands in marked contrast to the idea of a Kingdom based around the land of Israel and especially Jerusalem, Zion, and the temple. Rather, the Kingdom Jesus inaugurated is truly international and not localised geographically. Jesus did not fulfil the expectations of Israel in regards to and Israel-centred Kingdom. Rather, he sent the disciples from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth, the whole of the world, the four winds, every nation, to preach the gospel and make disciples. This is the establishment of a non-geographical kingdom, at least in a sense. That is, one can be a Christian (or subject of the Kingdom) in any time and place. The Kingdom then is truly impartial, “in Christ Jesus there neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female” (Gal 3:28). The Kingdom’s people are gathered from every nation, those who yield to Jesus as King and live under his reign wherever they are found. So, it is right at one level to resist the idea of a geographical locale for the Kingdom.

However, to me there is a patent weakness in stating that there is no geographical locus for the Kingdom and simply state the above. That is this, the Kingdom is in fact geographical in a very real sense—its geographical locus is the entire world (and one can say, all of creation). The Scriptures state, “the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it (Ps 24:1).” In royal Psalms, such as in Ps 99:1-3, God reigns over all the earth. This gives a very real geographical point of reference for the Kingdom, the world. However, no one part of that world has privilege. So, I would suggest that rather than say that the Kingdom is not a geographical idea, we should rather say that it is in one sense non-geographical, but in another sense, geographical—the whole world.

God’s mission in Christ is a restoration of a whole world. In the interim between the resurrection and consummation God is gathering a people from the whole world and the whole world is being transformed by God through his people. At the consummation when the King returns, the whole world will be set free from its bondage to decay (Rom 8:21). If we lack the cosmic perspective of the biblical story, we tend to play down the cosmic dimensions of the mission of Christ; things like ecology, the transformation of society, and social justice. On the other hand, if we play down the ‘non-geographical’ dimensions, we can tend to sell out to a social gospel, we falsely privilege a people or a culture. We threaten the radical egalitarianism of the gospel. 

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Why the Church in Philippi was Definitely Not the First European Church

It is time to get something off my mind. It is something I keep coming across that gets under my skin. It is the claim that is found often in New Testament literature, even among some Philippians’ specialists that the church in Philippi was the first European church (e.g. Hendriksen, 15; Hawthorne and Martin, xxxix; Vincent, xix, cf. Bockmuehl, 1). It is time to put this idea to bed for good. It is plainly wrong! The church in Philippi was definitely the first church Paul planted in Europe. But there were Christians and churches in Europe before Paul got there. How do we know?

We know because there is clearly a church in Rome from early on. There were Romans at Pentecost who came to the Lord and were baptised (Acts 2:10). There were enough Christians in Rome in a.d. 49 for the Emperor Claudius to expel the Jews from Rome (Suetonius, Claud. 25.4). The expulsion was based around contention among Jews concerned a certain Chrestus, who is almost certainly Christ. If so, there were enough Jewish Christians in Rome to cause conflict among Jews which caught the attention of the Emperor. This indicates a significant number of Christians among the 50,000 or so Jews in Rome. Interestingly , two of these were Priscilla and Aquila who had come from Rome to Corinth because of the expulsion and with whom Paul worked (Acts 18:2). The expulsion happened several years before Paul ever entered Europe. It shows that there were a significant number of Christians in Rome before Paul even got to Europe. We have no idea whether the church had spread from Rome into other areas in Italy and perhaps other regions, but it may well have done.  

Anyway, the upshot is that we have to put to bed finally and thoroughly that the gospel reached Europe with Paul in a.d. 50-51 when he preached among the Macedonians. What we can say is that the church in Philippi was the first Pauline church in Europe. It was the first almost exclusively Gentile church (Bockmuehl, 1). But it was not the first church in Europe.