The history of Judaism is very important to us as Christians. We learn a lot, not only about the context of the New Testament, but about the early Christian movement that extends beyond the first century and about how and why Jesus, Paul and the early disciples did and said the things they did.
We learn, for example, that ancient Israel believed that their God was the one true God, the maker of heaven and earth. We learn that because they had such a stubborn conviction about their God that they took a different approach to being conquered than other ancient peoples.
We know that the ancient cultures understood their gods mostly in terms of their geographical rulership. When, for example, Babylon rose in strength and prominence Babylon’s head god, Marduk, also rose in strength and prominence among the gods. He was seen as being the most powerful god because Babylon was seen as the most powerful nation. There was a direct correlation between the prominence of a nation and the prominence of its god.
So when ancient Assyria defeated ancient Babylon in the twelfth century BCE, and captured the statue of Marduk, the Assyria god, Assur, replaced Marduk as chief of the gods.
But Israel’s story was somewhat different. Their cosmological text does not begin with a war amongst the gods in which different deities rise and fall. Their cosmology begins – quite in-your-face like – “in the beginning God…” who goes on to create order in the universe and mankind as co-regents here on earth. It is this very God who called Abram, a man who lived in the region of Marduk, and declared that He – Yahweh – is the “Maker of the Heavens and the Earth” (Genesis 14:19).
This context is important because it explains why later in its history Israel did not interpret its defeat in the way other ancient people did. Israel did not believe its God was defeated by the gods of other people. Rather because they believed their God was the Almighty God, they concluded that their subjection to foreign nations was a result of the will of God because of their rebellion. So when Assyria conquered Israel and later when Babylon conquered Judah, their prophets spoke as though those nations were mere puppets in the hands of God.
But the idea that the other nations were governed by spiritual forces was one that Israel had not completely abandoned. The book of Daniel is the most clear canonical expression of this idea. In the tenth chapter when a spiritual being is en route as a result of Daniel’s prayer, he is met by “a prince of the kingdom of Persia” and then is assisted by “Michael, one of the chief princes.” The idea is that there are powerful spiritual forces behind the pagan nations, such as Persia.
Late Judaism and early Christianity are largely a response to these spiritual forces. But only in an indirect way. For they stood behind the nations that oppressed the people of God and the people of other nations. Rome, the most powerful of all nations, is empowered, according to an early Christian apocalyptic letter, by none other than Satan himself. “Rome was the Beast, the Harlot, the Dragon, Babylon, the Great Satan” who is also identified as “the Serpent of old,” a clear reference to Eden.
By opposing Rome the early Christians were, in effect, opposing the forces behind Rome. And they did this while simultaneously loving the people of Rome. They were able to separate Rome as a corporate engine driven by evil, spiritual forces, from the individual who was caught up in that system. At the same time someone like Paul would take advantage of his down-to-earth citizenship of Rome, and use it for his advantage whenever he felt the need, while those who had material prosperity such as Lydia or Priscilla or the ladies who contributed to Jesus’ ministry, would utilize their wealth advantageously for the people of God as a means to travel and to house gatherings.
I like the way Richard Horsley and Neil Silberman describe first century Rome:
“The early Roman Empire… was a society where gleaming cities were rising in some places and children went hungry in others. It was a world where no luxury was enough for some great aristocrats and public celebrities, and where even the basic necessities of life lay beyond the grasp of the urban and rural poor. It was a world where dreams of limitless material wealth and technological progress danced in the heads of the great entrepreneurs and in the rhetoric of ambitious politicians – and where the looming nightmares of family breakdown, crime, sudden loss of livelihood, and untreated and untreatable illnesses plaqued the minds of the vast majority. It was, in short, a world that should seem ominously familiar.” (The Message and the Kingdom, p.2)
From this brief overview there are a few points about our world, our nations and politics that we can glean from:
1.We need to remember that our battle is not against flesh and blood, but against the spiritual forces that dominate this world.
2. Our allegiance is to a Kingdom that is not of this world, but at the same time that Kingdom is breaking into this world through the actions of those who bear its message.
3. No nation (not American, Canada, Israel, England, Yemen, none!) should be seen as a Christian nation. The end of the story is clear enough: the kingdoms of this world do not become the Kingdom of our God until the King – the Messiah, the Christ – returns in triumph.
4. In the meantime we are called to establish Kingdom communities on earth so that the will of the King is being done here, now, through those who have pledged allegiance to him.
5. How this looks and plays out various from location to location, while the ideology remains consistent and the same. Some are called to surrender all of the comforts of this world, others are called to utilize what they’ve been blessed with to further God’s Kingdom. Some have been called to abandon their national citizenship (in a way) by travelling abroad and tenting among tribal’s. Other’s are called to embrace their citizenship in their democratic nation and to utilize it for the advantage of the Kingdom – but never for the sake of establishing a political Kingdom.
6. By standing against the injustices of this world – of these nations of ours – we are, in effect, opposing the spiritual forces behind this world.
7. In so doing we are living out the message of the Messiah, reflecting that light and inviting all to join this subversive Kingdom.
In my opinion, one of the greatest disservices to the Christian faith occurred in the fourth century when the Kingdom of our God became associated with the kingdom of Rome. It wasn’t a victory for Christians, but for the evil one. It was a time when Christians celebrated their defeat while thinking they had won. And the Evil one sat back with a smirk, relaxed, sipping his champaign while we danced among our confetti.
It is the worst type of defeat.
It is an experience we should never aim for again.
Whatever political party governs us, we should save our celebrating for the day when Christ becomes King at the end of the present evil age.
And until then, we Christians should be united in our one single focus of living together and working together for God’s Kingdom as a community of love and unity in the image of Christ.
Tell me what you think by leaving a comment in the comment box below.