The Political Nature of the Gospel

There is a page on this site where readers can submit questions or suggest topics. Recently I received the following question:

Is the gospel political?

The answer is: Yes, but not in the way that many people might think of the word “political.”

A King and a Kingdom. The City of God and the City of Man.

The fact is that the gospel is political because it has to do with a king (Jesus) and a kingdom (the Kingdom of God).

The word “politics” comes from the Greek term politiká, first used by Aristotle, which refers to “the affairs of a city (polis in Greek).”

The promise of the Messiah, through the Hebrew prophets, was the promise of a king, who would come, from the line of David. These promises of the Messiah being a savior-king go all the way back to Genesis 49, in the promise to Judah, that “the scepter would not depart from Judah until Shiloh comes.”

David then received a promise that this promised savior-king would come through his family line, and establish a kingdom which would have no end (2 Samuel 7).

Isaiah later made the promise that this son promised to David would actually be God himself, come to Earth to establish this eternal kingdom:

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore.
The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.

Isaiah 9:6-7

This is why the Gospels of Matthew and Luke begin with a genealogy, which shoes that Jesus is the rightful heir of King David. It’s the reason why the Magi came to pay homage to the new King of the Jews (Matthew 2), and why Herod the Great tried to kill Jesus as a baby.

However, Jesus made it clear in his Kingdom Parables (Matthew 13), for example, that His Kingdom was fundamentally different than a mere earthly kingdom – something he stated explicitly in John 18:36.

And yet, we are told that Jesus currently reigns from Heaven, where he is seated at the right hand of the Father.

What is the Kingdom of God?

A kingdom is a realm in which a king has authority and dominion. Thus, the Kingdom of God is the realm in which God is recognized and submitted to as king.

In this sense, Jesus rules and reigns from Heaven as King now, and he also reigns as King over the lives and areas here on Earth of those who recognize him as king and submit to him (see: Luke 17:20-21) – and the day is coming, when the Kingdom of God will come to Earth, and every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:11)

One day, the City of God will descend upon the City of Man – and the Heavenly City will come to Earth (see Revelation 21).

Jesus describes the “upside-down” values and culture of his kingdom in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7).

Thus, the gospel is political – in that it is concerned with the affairs of a King, a City (the new Jerusalem) and the Kingdom (the Kingdom of God).

The Political Language of the Gospel

Interestingly, when Jesus told Pontius Pilate that His Kingdom was not of this world (John 18:36), the word he used for “kingdom” is the same word that was used in the Greek language to speak about the “Roman Empire.” In other words, Jesus was contrasting his kingdom with the kingdom of Rome.

Further, early Christians and the biblical writers – who were inspired by the Holy Spirit – used the same political vocabulary to describe their “politics” as Rome did.

For example, as Christians, we tend to think that the words gospel, Lord, Savior, and Son of God are “Christianese” buzzwords that are foreign to the popular culture. But in the first century, these terms were not unique to Christianity; they were also used by Rome to refer to its own king and kingdom.

Two common titles used for the Roman emperor were lord (kurios) and savior (soter). And since the emperors were viewed as divine, they were also called “son of god” or in some cases just plain “god.” These divine lords were believed to have brought unprecedented peace to the world, which they referred to in Latin as the Pax Romana, or “peace of Rome.” Rome was known for securing such peace and justice through warfare. And whenever Roman leaders returned home from another military victory, heralds were sent throughout the empire to announce the “gospel”—the good news—that Rome had been victorious. 

All these terms were commonly used to praise the Caesars of Rome. Christians stole these titles and applied them to their Jewish Messiah, who was also killed by Rome because of the claims that he was king. Remember, this was the question that was asked of Jesus during his trial before his crucifixion: whether he was a king.

When the early Christians hailed Jesus as Lord and Savior, you need to hear a faint first-century echo: Caesar is not.

This is why, in Acts 17, when Paul proclaimed the gospel of Jesus in Thessalonica, the message created an uproar in the city – not because the people were offended at the thought of a new religion, but because they understood that the Christians were proclaiming a king other than Caesar!

“These men who have turned the world upside down have come here also…and they are all acting against the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus.”

Acts 17:6-7

If Paul was merely preaching about a privatized religious experience, the authorities wouldn’t bat an eye. But Paul announces that Jesus is Lord and Savior. And this means that Caesar is not. 

Imagine that in a town like Philippi, where the Roman flag waves high and stories of military victories are swapped in the streets, there was a small group of people who believe that a crucified Jew, rather than Nero, is the true Lord, Savior, and bringer of good news, justice, and peace. [1]

What This Means for Christians Today

As Christians, we still confess that Jesus is Lord and Savior – not any political leader or party today. Our primary citizenship is in Heaven, from which we await our Savior (Philippians 3:20).

And yet, like the people of God in exile in Babylon, we are called to engage in, bless. and pray for the place that we live in now (Jeremiah 29:4-7), that we may live godly and peaceable lives, and we are to pray for the salvation of the leaders and others around us (1 Timothy 2:1-4).

We are called to be salt and light, showing the world around us God’s love and truth through our actions and words (Matthew 5:13-16).

Our ultimate hope, therefore, is a political hope – but not in the sense of the politics of this world. Our hope is the cosmic politics of King Jesus, as we await the fullness of the coming of his Kingdom and its city: the New Jerusalem.

To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.

1 Timothy 1:17

Further Reading

See also: The Gospel of Caesar Augustus, & What It Tells Us about the Gospel of Jesus Christ

Reference

[1] Sprinkle, P.M., Fight (pp. 122-123).

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