Q. I’m teaching a Bible overview course on the Old and New Testaments. Please help me understand the progression of the teachings from Jesus and the apostles to Paul. How do they complement each other, and how do they differ? Thank you.
In my first post in response to this question, I suggested that Jesus’ teaching represented a “transformed dualism.” He redefined the “kingdom” as something that included people of all backgrounds, that was based on faith rather than law-keeping, and that was a present reality as well as a future one.
In this post I’d like to show that the apostles are portrayed in the book of Acts as affirming the understanding that Jesus taught of the “kingdom.” I will include Paul among the apostles here, since Acts shows how he worked alongside the ones whom Jesus chose and appointed during his earthly ministry. But I’ll discuss Paul’s writings separately, in my next post, and show how he transformed a further dualism. At the end of this post I’ll also look briefly at the general epistles and show how the letters of some of the other apostles confirm the impression we get from the book of Acts. (I’ll treat the letters of John, however, in my discussion of the Gospel of John in my final post.)
Acts suggests that even after Jesus’ resurrection, his disciples were still expecting a kingdom that would belong to the Jewish people. They asked him just before he ascended to heaven, “Is this the time when you are going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” Jesus responded that it wasn’t for them to know such dates or times, but that instead they should be his witnesses “in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
Already that discouraged a Jewish-only understanding of the kingdom. And as the disciples fanned out to be witnesses as Jesus commanded, they found that first Greek-speaking Jews, and then Samaritans, and then even Gentiles were receptive to the faith they were proclaiming. Peter, to whom Jesus had given a leading position among the apostles, expressed the discovery this way: “Now I truly understand that God doesn’t show favoritism, but in every nation the person who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.”
But even after the apostles and the whole Christian community accepted that non-Jews could be part of the “kingdom,” many still thought that everyone’s participation needed to be based on the law. This issue created such a controversy that a great meeting was ultimately held in Jerusalem to settle the matter. At this meeting there was much debate, in which many argued that the Gentiles did need to keep the law. But Peter finally stood up and insisted, “God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He did not discriminate between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear? No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.”
By the time of this meeting, Paul, who had previously opposed the church violently, had been converted and sent out to bring the good news to the Gentiles. He came with his co-worker Barnabas, and the whole meeting listened in rapt attention as they told about “the signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles through them.” Finally James, the brother of Jesus and a respected elder of the church in Jerusalem, suggested that the Gentiles be welcomed into the community on the basis of faith, but that they also be asked to observe a few specific provisions of the law. His reason was that “the law of Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.” In other words, the Gentiles were being asked this in order not to scandalize people who knew about the law and would have expected followers of Jesus, who was still seen then as a Jewish teacher, not to do things like eating blood or eating food that had been offered to idols.
So the apostles ultimately upheld the ideas of a kingdom that was open to everyone on earth and that was based on faith. They also proclaimed the kingdom as a present reality, not just a future one. For example, at the end of his first missionary journey (into the Roman province of Asia), after nearly being killed himself by a hostile mob, Paul told the new believers in Jesus, “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.” Paul didn’t mean they had to suffer hardships now in order to enter the kingdom in the future; he meant that they were entering the kingdom now, and suffering for it.
We see this same understanding of a present kingdom in the general epistles, even though they also envision a future kingdom. James, for example, says that the commandment to “love your neighbor as you love yourself” is a “royal law.” That is, it’s the law of a kingdom, or a law made by a king, or perhaps even the law on which this kingdom is based. So life in this present community is actually life in a kingdom—and it’s a kingdom of mutual love, not one governed by a code of laws that must be meticulously observed.
For his part, when Peter writes his first letter to believers throughout the western part of the Roman Empire, he tells them that they are “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession.” This is language that was applied specifically to the Israelites in the Old Testament. Here Peter applies it to a community that consists of both Jews and Gentiles, and like James he invokes the “kingdom” concept inherent in the term “royal.” But Peter also tells these same believers, in his second letter, “Make every effort to confirm your calling and election. For if you do these things, you will never stumble, and you will receive a rich welcome into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” So the kingdom is future as well as present.
The apostles, therefore, came to share and proclaim Jesus’ own transformed vision of the kingdom. As I said in my first post, your question deserves a much more extensive treatment; I’ve offered only a very brief sketch here. But I hope I’m tracing out an outline for you, and that you’ll be able to see where you can plug in your own insights and those of others.
In my next post I’ll show how Paul transformed a further dualism to arrive at an identical vision of what God was doing in the world.