N. T. Wright’s book Simply Jesus: A New Vision of Who He Was, What He Did, and Why He Matters is essential reading. Very readable and one of his most profound works. It concludes with an extensive reflection on what it means for Jesus to be Lord of the Universe right now.
The crucial factor in Jesus’s kingdom project picks up the crucial factor in God’s creation project. God intended to rule the world through human beings. Jesus picks up this principle, rescues it, and transforms it. …
Jesus’s rescue project, climaxing in his crucifixion, and the renewal of the human project. Jesus rescues human beings in order that through them he may rule his world in the new way he always intended. Thus the heavenly chorus sings the new song:
“You are worthy to take the scroll;
You are worthy to open its seals;
For you were slaughtered and with your own blood
You purchased a people for God, From every tribe and tongue,
From every people and nation,
And made them a kingdom and priests to our God
And they will reign on the earth.”
(Rev. 5: 9– 10)
This, then, is how Jesus puts his kingdom achievement into operation: through the humans he has rescued. That is why, right at the start of his public career, he called associates to share his work and then to carry it on after he had laid the foundations, particularly in his saving death. It has been all too easy for us to suppose that, if Jesus really was king of the world, he would, as it were, do the whole thing all by himself. But that was never his way— because it was never God’s way. It wasn’t how creation itself was supposed to work. And Jesus’s kingdom project is nothing if not the rescue and renewal of God’s creation project.
Wright, N. T. (2011-10-25). Simply Jesus: A New Vision of Who He Was, What He Did, and Why He Matters (p. 212-213). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
Wright next takes us to —
(Acts 1:6-8 ESV) 6 So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” 7 He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”
The apostles, just before Jesus’ Ascension, ask whether Jesus is going to “restore the kingdom to Israel.” That is, will Jesus overthrow the Romans and return Israel to independence?
Jesus, surely more than a little frustrated with their slowness to catch on, responds obliquely. Rather than promising them an earthly kingdom, he promises them “power” — but not military or political power: God’s own power, through the Spirit. And, in essence, Jesus declares that the Kingdom promised by the prophets will come by the testimony of the apostles. Just tell the world what happened! Jesus has been enthroned as King of the Universe!
Modern Christians use the word “witness” to mean “tell someone else about your faith.” The way Luke seems to be using it is, “tell someone else that Jesus is the world’s true Lord.”
Jesus is asking for a profound change in politics. Our hope is found in obedience to Jesus, not to a nation-state, not even a “Christian nation”-state. Jesus himself. We reign in power by refusing to bow to any other power.
Underneath the exciting “spiritual” experiences there is a constant theme that emerges, for instance, when Jesus’s followers speak of having to obey God rather than human beings. The powers of the world do their utmost to stamp out the new vision, the new Way. But, despite the best efforts of chief priests and governors, of kings and mobs and courts and councils, Jesus is celebrated as Lord, even over the wild waves that shipwreck Paul and threaten to stop his getting to Rome to announce God as king and Jesus as Lord at the heart of the greatest superpower the world had ever known.
The early church turned the world upside down just by insisting on obeying Jesus regardless of what the worldly powers wanted. By submitting to Jesus as King, they declared the other powers defeated.
Somehow, if we are to speak wisely of God as king and Jesus as Lord, we have to speak of something radically new and the refreshment of something radically ancient, something fundamental in the way the world is. And if we are not just to speak of it, but to be part of it— to be among the humans who are enlisted in God’s project— then we need to understand the framework within which it all makes sense.
So what does it mean to reign today?
All kingdom work is rooted in worship. Or, to put it the other way around, worshipping the God we see at work in Jesus is the most politically charged act we can ever perform. Christian worship declares that Jesus is Lord and that therefore, by strong implication, nobody else is. What’s more, it doesn’t just declare it as something to be believed, like the fact that the sun is hot or the sea wet. It commits the worshipper to allegiance, to following this Jesus, to being shaped and directed by him.
Wright now sounds like Hauerwas and Yoder, that is, a neo-Anabaptist. It begins with worship and the sacraments of baptism and communion — understood as an absolute pledge of loyalty to Jesus against all competitors.
It orients us instead to a world in which love is stronger than death, the poor are promised the kingdom, and chastity (whether married or single) reflects the holiness and faithfulness of God himself. Acclaiming Jesus as Lord plants a flag that supersedes the flags of the nations, however “free” or “democratic” they may be. It challenges both the tyrants who think they are, in effect, divine and the “secular democracies” that have effectively become, if not divine, at least ecclesial, that is, communities that are trying to do and be what the church was supposed to do and be, but without recourse to the one who sustains the church’s life.
Does it bother you that the 2016 South Carolina Republican and Democratic primary (just concluded) was largely about the ability of candidates to line up pastors in support of their platforms and programs? Now, tell me what any of the candidates promised that sounds anything like the Jesus of the four Gospels? The church has become a special interest group within the two political parties — more interested in being close to earthly power than having real power.
The black churches look for poverty relief from the government — which is false hope. We have half a century of proof that government poverty relief creates poverty. The white churches look for the government to guaranty “family values” and morality. And just how well is that working out? Again: false hope. Wrong lord. Wrong king.
The work of the kingdom, in fact, is summed up pretty well in those Beatitudes. When God wants to change the world, he doesn’t send in the tanks. He sends in the meek, the mourners, those who are hungry and thirsty for God’s justice, the peacemakers, and so on.
Jesus rules the world through those who launch new initiatives that radically challenge the accepted ways of doing things: jubilee projects to remit ridiculous and unpayable debt, housing trusts that provide accommodation for low-income families or homeless people, local and sustainable agricultural projects that care for creation instead of destroying it in the hope of quick profit, and so on. We have domesticated the Christian idea of “good works,” so that it has simply become “the keeping of ethical commands.” In the New Testament, “good works” are what Christians are supposed to be doing in and for the wider community. That is how the sovereignty of Jesus is put into effect.
Now, I hasten to add this thought from Scot McKnight’s critically important Kingdom Conspiracy: Returning to the Radical Mission of the Local Church, none of this is Kingdom work unless done in the name of Jesus and in connection with Jesus’ church. The goal isn’t merely to provide housing. It’s to provide housing in the name of Jesus through the good works of the church. Which the government simply cannot do.