12 June 2003

there is another king: vi

(once again, continued from below)


We can begin by considering the term “Gospel”, which, as is commonly recognized, not only finds its way into the New Testament from the prophetic literature of Israel, but also would have significant resonances within the Roman world to which the New Testament addressed itself.

From the perspective of Isaiah 40 and 52, the “Gospel” was the message of Israel’s God returning, enthroned in his holy city on behalf of his people, to redeem them, to judge their enemies, and, in so doing, to set the whole world aright. This vision of Israel’s restoration was one that, elsewhere in prophetic literature, was filled out in terms of Israel’s anointed king and representative, the messiah, in whom her destiny was set and who would be the agent of Yahweh’s justice, establishing true order. In either case, it challenged Israel’s ultimate allegiances to any other gods or sovereigns and called her to trust her God and his justice, even in the midst of exile.

From the perspective of the wider world of the New Testament, a “Gospel” was the proclamation and celebration of an emperor or king, whether his birth or his rule, and, in Paul’s day, it would have had particular relevance with regard to news of the Caesars. Like Israel’s “Gospel”, this royal summons was intended to elicit a response of allegiance and fidelity.

When the New Testament presents a Gospel about Jesus, then we must see both perspectives in play, giving us a prophetic message that is irreducibly and immediately political. The proclamation of Jesus as messianic king, savior, and Lord constituted not only a theological message, but also a political confrontation both with Israel’s aspirations and collusions as well as with a wider empire, especially where rulers expected worship and sacrifice as well as taxes. And the “obedience of faith” which this message engendered represented not only a personal appropriation of some “private” religious truth, but also a very public shift in political allegiances, that “there is another king, this Jesus.”

The remarkable content and implications of this New Testament Gospel, however, need to be explored further, so that the precise significance and contours of its politics can be better appreciated.

In focusing the Gospel upon Jesus, the New Testament presents the man of Nazareth as the fulfillment of both Yahweh’s return and Israel’s messianic expectations, the two prophetic threads intertwined and each deepening the meaning of the other. Thus, when Paul says in Romans that the “Gospel” proclaims that by Jesus’ resurrection the Spirit declared him to be messianic “son of God”, this points through and beyond the title of Israel’s king and representative (1 Sa 7:14; Ps 2:7; 89:4, 26-27; cf. Ex 4:22), to Jesus’ divine sonship as Yahweh in the flesh (see, e.g., Rom 10:13, quoting Joel 3:5). As such Paul’s Gospel subverted not only Israel’s understanding of her own God, her political hopes, and her messianic expectations, but also the imperial good news of Caesar and his claims to divine sonship. We will examine the Jewish and imperial contexts in turn.