We should next consider what Jesus says about the entry of the Gentiles into the Kingdom. The difficulty, of course, is that Jesus said quite a lot about the Kingdom, and we often disagree as to when he was speaking about Gentiles.
For example, the Parable of the Prodigal Son is often taken to be about a lost personal relationship with God, but many scholars see the prodigal son as representing the Gentile nations and the older son representing the Jews. And so, the analysis gets complicated — but very interesting.
In Luke for Everyone (New Testament for Everyone), N. T. Wright explains,
This parable, like some of the others, points, for Luke, beyond the immediate situation of Jesus’ ministry and into the early church. There, Gentiles were coming into the church, and Jews and Jewish Christians often found it very difficult to celebrate the fact. Equally, as Paul realized when writing Romans, it was vital that the new communities never gave the impression to their older brother that God had finished with him. Somehow the balance must be kept.
The story is, of course, unfinished. We naturally want to know what happened next. How will the younger brother behave from now on? What arrangements will they make? Will the two sons be reconciled? Sometimes when a storyteller leaves us on the edge of our seats like this it’s because we are supposed to think it through, to ask ourselves where we fit within the story, and to learn more about ourselves and our churches as a result. Which role in the story do you and your church find comes most naturally to you? How can we move towards becoming people through whom ‘resurrection’ happens to others? How can we celebrate the party of God’s love in such a way as to welcome not only the younger brothers who have come back from the dead, but also the older brothers who thought there was nothing wrong with them?
Tom Wright, Luke for Everyone (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2004), 191–192.
Who repented and returned to God? We want to personalize this and imagine Jesus is telling our own story — and to some extent, that’s true. But we Westerners rarely think in terms of the church as community. We see our relationship with God as personal and not in community — and it’s both. We should discipline ourselves to read the text both ways, realizing that Jesus and his Eastern audience thought much more in terms of family and nationality than the individual. (This is really hard for Americans to even imagine, we are so individualistic.)
And one problem with an individualistic interpretation is that there’s no room for a older brother. Who would that be in most of our individual stories? I think God certainly has the loving, compassionate, rush-to-forgive personality that Jesus gives him even (especially) when our individual stories are being told, but I also think Jesus’ was thinking here primarily in community terms.
Read from a community perspective, the older brother would be the Jews, indeed, some of the Jewish scribes and Pharisees who had been questioning Jesus (15:2). They are “older” because God had a Father-son relationship with the Jews much longer than the Gentiles.
In Luke 15:12, rarely noted, the Father divides his property between both sons. The Jews had received their land, the Promised Land, from God generations before. The Gentiles had, of course, also received their lands from God (although they’d forgotten him).
It’s therefore the Gentiles who eat with the pigs and finally come to themselves to repent before the Father — a bold and shocking prediction by Jesus.
The older brother complains about the celebration for the younger son. In fact, the scribes and Pharisees had just complained,
(Luk 15:2 ESV) “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”
It was not just eating with sinners. It was also partying — enjoying their company. Therefore, Jesus’ immediate point is sinners are repenting and God is running to embrace and forgive them — and God is throwing a party with music and dancing (15:25).
But if you Pharisees and scribes have a problem with God inviting a few Jewish sinners in, just wait for when the Gentiles come pouring in!
The interpretation is controversial, but I think it’s right. Assuming it’s right, then Jesus pictures the Gentiles as the estranged brothers of the Jews, and God as Father of both. The Gentiles are restored to God’s family because they were originally part of God’s family and therefore welcomed. The Jews were always part of God’s family, and unlike the Gentiles, did not lose their memory of God. But their superior obedience led to their being far removed from the heart of God.
Jesus doesn’t say it, but he strongly hints that things won’t turn out so well for the older brother Jews, whose hearts have turned from God, in ironic contrast to the younger brother who have left sin and degradation to return to God.
And this way of explaining the entry of the Gentiles into God’s Kingdom is from a different perspective but entirely consistent with Paul’s explanation in Romans 11.
This is a much less familiar saying of Jesus —
(Luk 13:28-30 ESV) 28 “In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God but you yourselves cast out. 29 And people will come from east and west, and from north and south, and recline at table in the kingdom of God. 30 And behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.”
The Kingdom will include Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as well as people from all directions — Gentiles. But the language is clear that those coming from many different directions will be added. It starts with the fathers of the nation of Israel.
Tom Wright explains,
The promise, and warning, of Jesus is that the very people his contemporaries were eager to fight—the Gentiles from east and west, north and south, who had over the centuries oppressed, bullied and harried them—might at this rate end up in God’s kingdom ahead of them. The strange workings of God’s grace, in which, though some are chosen for particular roles, none is assured of automatic privilege, mean that some who are first will be last, and vice versa.
Tom Wright, Luke for Everyone (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2004), 169–170.
We could spend weeks and weeks on Jesus’ many parables and other Kingdom teachings, but the point should be clear: the Kingdom does not supplant Judaism. Judaism isn’t repealed. God’s covenants with the Jews aren’t voided.
Rather, the Kingdom fulfills and completes the covenants. It is a continuation of promises made going back to Abraham, and repeated and even expanded by the prophets. Therefore, in a real sense, the Kingdom that was just now coming extends back to include Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, because God made his promises to them and they will be part of God’s salvation.
The Gentiles come in, not because God has given up on the Jews or rejected them, but because it was always intended that the nations be blessed through Abraham’s seed. The expansion of the Kingdom from just the Jews (as at Pentecost) to later include the Gentiles was always planned and intended.
Maybe he was talking about communities and maybe not. He certainly seemed to be talking about individuals in many other cases. For example:
Mat 10:34 “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.
Mat 10:35 For I have come to turn “‘a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—
Mat 10:36 a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’
Mat 10:37 “Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me;
Mat 10:38 and anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.
Mat 10:39 Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.
Mat 24:40 Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left.
Mat 24:41 Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left.
Mat 24:42 “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come.
Again Wright pours meaning into the text that is completely subjective. Neither the text, the following texts, nor the context even hints that Jesus was contrasting Jews and Gentiles. How would tax collectors and sinners understand Wrights meaning? They wouldn’t.
The New Testament “tax collectors & sinners” seemed to refer to backsliders of Jewish descent. The Gospel writers and Jesus normally would highlight the fact when reference was made concerning a Gentile, whether in a parable or real life.
So, the Kingdom is churches (2 Cor. 11:28)?
Kingdom is wherever God’s reign is effective. It’s where God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven
Therefore, it includes true churches and, in many contexts, is the same thing as the church-universal. But the emphasis is on God’s reign — and so Lordship, submission, and sovereignty are emphases when we discuss the Kingdom, whereas when we discuss churches we tend to think in terms of membership, attendance, organization, and such. Nearly the same things but viewed from different perspectives.
It’s like saying that Jay is a human or Jay is a lawyer or Jay is an elder or Jay is a writer. Same person in each case, but viewed from a different perspective in each case and so leading to different conversations and understandings in each case.
In Churches of Christ, kingdom language has been largely rejected, with the result that we are far more likely to discuss organization of the church than the submission of the church.
Moreover, the NT uses “kingdom” in a not yet/already sense, so that the Kingdom is not here in its fullness, but it’s nonetheless here. This points us toward the end of time and gives an eschatological emphasis, which is absent from most CoC preaching/teaching.
And “kingdom” is a word borrowed from the prophets, not just Daniel but especially Daniel. But since we’re “New Testament Christians,” we see little value in studying the prophets, even though Jesus’ repeated use of “kingdom” begs us to go back and look at what he was referring to.
And “kingdom” was the expectation of Israel when Jesus came. He preached to a nation that had prayed for the kingdom to come for centuries. And this adds depth and texture to the Gospels that we usually miss.
And so there’s a genuine need for the Churches to learn about the Kingdom, even though they know so much about church.
Sorry for being so long winded, but the Olympics are showing ski racing, which is really boring.
Are you advocating that the “kingdom” is not here today? We are not members of the kingdom now?
– “even though Jesus’ repeated use of “kingdom” begs us to go back and look at what he was referring to”
“Jesus’ repeated use of “kingdom” begs us to go back and look at what he was referring to.”