A reader writes:
I teach biblical studies so I am interested in this topic. You are fundamentally right about the stark contrast between the prosperity gospel of the likes of Joel Osteen and the gospel preached by Jesus, but I take issue with your apolitical reading of Jesus’ proclamation.
In the ancient world under the rule of the Roman empire (basileus in Geek) where inscriptions read “Divine Augustus Caesar, son of god, imperator of land and sea, the benefactor and savior of the whole world,” running around proclaiming that the “kingdom of God is at hand” has a political resonance. There is no separation of church and state at this time. Caesar Augustus was not only the divine son of God and savior, his birth under the sign of a star was “good news” (euangelion in Greek) for the world (a claim that may sound familiar at this time of year).
When Jesus preached the “good news” (euangelion) of God’s kingdom (basileus) it could not have been heard by the Roman authorities as anything but the assertion that the reign of the God of Israel which was now breaking into the world in Jesus’ preaching, healing, and exorcisms superseded all other claims to kingship and power. From the Roman side of the equation this message constitutes sedition. Drawing upon the prophets of Israel, Jesus preached a kingdom that was breaking into this world as the culmination of God’s plan for Israel and the entire world (see Isaiah 40-55). It was both now and not yet at the same time. When the time came that God’s kingdom was complete there would be a new heaven and new earth in a mutual embrace where God now dwells with his people here, not up in heaven somewhere (Rev 21:1-4).
However, Jesus did not preach that this kingdom manifested itself in the manner to which the world subscribed: the use of power by might and social status. Rather, the exemplar for life in this kingdom was Jesus on the cross: self-sacrificial love for others that looks foolish to the world. Thus Paul writes, “we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Corinthians 1:23). Unlike those who grasped for might as power, Jesus “did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself (in the Greek this phrase literally means “divested himself of status”), taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death– even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:5-8).
Humility and death on a cross were not virtues in the ancient world, and yet they were to the early Christian movement and because of this “the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it” (1 Corinthians 12:22-26). Not easy stuff to preach to a world that craved social status as power then or now.
On the matter of “my kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36). The “of this world” part of this passage is often mistranslated. The phrase in Greek “ek tou kosmou toutou” can just as well mean that “my kingdom is not based on this world” (i.e., my kingdom does not function the same way that your kingdom does). That this is the meaning of this phrase is further supported by Jesus’ follow up, “If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over.” If Jesus’ message of the kingdom did not have a bearing on this world, why would he also proclaim “I have conquered the world!” in the same Gospel (16:33)?
My point is that it is not about worldly power as the world understands it. It is the assertion that there is a greater, deeper power: that of love. Jesus' message may have had a political impact, as that is how the Romans understandably heard it. But that is because they misunderstood it.