Stress-testing the
mind of Christ

Where a recovering ex-atheist rams the Bible into other worldviews to see what breaks (note: Scripture cannot be broken)

What is the kingdom of God? Part 1: representation and rulership

Why do the gospels represent the good news as being about the “kingdom of God”? What is this kingdom, and how does it relate to us today? In this series I trace the surprising biblical narrative of kingdom, from Genesis 1 to Revelation 22, starting by showing the importance of representation: what the Bible calls imaging.

God stands in the divine assembly;
    he holds judgment in the midst of the gods:

“How long will you judge unjustly
    and lift up the faces of the wicked?
Judge on behalf of the weak and the fatherless;
    vindicate the afflicted and the destitute.
Rescue the helpless and the needy;
    deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”

They neither know nor care—
    they stumble in darkness;
    all the foundations of the earth are shaken.

I, I have said, “You are gods,
    sons of the Most High, all of you.
Yet you will die like man,
    and you will fall like any other prince.”

Rise up, O God—judge the earth,
    for you shall inherit all the nations.

John Piper is the first notable evangelical I’ve seen to unambiguously acknowledge what the text of Psalm 82 straightforwardly says. In his article, Putting the Gods in Their Place, he affirms that God is here “talking to the ‘gods,’ not to mere humans.” More recently, Doug Wilson makes the same point in his review of Unseen Realm:

Scripture does not teach us that the pagan gods were non-existent. Paul tells us that there were in fact “gods many and lords many” (1 Cor. 8:5–6), and he tells us that genuine demonic forces were involved in idol worship of the pagans (1 Cor. 10:20).

I am encouraged to see evangelical leaders recovering this view, because Psalm 82, accurately read, is a prominent nexus and anchor-point for a key biblical theme—a theme that stretches as far back as Genesis 1, and as far forward as Revelation 22; a theme that affects every Christian today, in many different ways.

It is a cosmological theme—which is to say that it’s about the ordering and running of the world. It is a geographical theme—which is to say that it’s about the territories or domains into which the world is divided. And it is an evangelical theme—which is to say that it’s about how God is saving a people for himself through the gospel of the Lord Jesus.

These three ideas—cosmology, geography, and evangelicalism—are drawn together in the Bible into the theme of kingdom, since they reflect the three elements required for any kingdom:

  1. A king—who is doing the ruling?
  2. A territory—where is he ruling?
  3. A people—whom is he ruling over?

Let me summarize how these all fit together through the gospel, and then I’ll spend the rest of this series tracing the threads in Scripture, so we can see the big picture and understand how it works:

The Bible views the spread of the gospel as God’s transforming of Adam’s kingdom, ruled by Satan, into his own kingdom, ruled by Jesus. This new kingdom is a spiritual territory of restored human hearts, no longer separated from God by rebellion, but rather annexed from their previous rulers by God himself to dwell and govern there.

With this thesis established, let’s set about explaining and proving it.

The original kings as the image of God

From the creation of man, we have been defined by our kingship over the world. Genesis 1:26–28 couches our imaging of God in terms of rulership. This is especially clear if we abbreviate each instance of “dominion” with the word “rule” to emphasize the point:

And God said, “Let us make man as our image, and let them rule, rule, rule, rule, rule.” So God created man as his image, male and female, blessed them and said, “Be fruitful and fill the earth, and rule, rule, rule, rule.” Genesis 1:26–28

The term translated “rule” or “have dominion” means to reign—it refers to kingly authority. God is giving man a kingdom on earth in Genesis. This is actually how man images God; how he reflects God. The likeness of God is kingly. Genesis explicitly couches the image of God in terms of representative rule.

This is the original biblical cosmology. I am not talking physics here—the word cosmology is broader than that. I’m talking about the ordering and running, not of the material world, but the human and also the spiritual world.

Cosmology in the Bible is all about rulership—about who is in charge of whom, and what kinds of judgments they enforce. Do they accurately image God by loyally representing him, thus bringing about shalom—harmony and peace—or do they act corruptly in pursuit of their own goals, thus shaking the foundations of the earth (Psalm 82:5)?

In Eden, God established a kingdom, ruled by his viceroy Adam, with a people who included all Adam’s descendents, and a territory encompassing the whole earth (Genesis 1:28).

This was the original kingdom of God, and much of the Bible is concerned with tracing its decline, division, reunion, and eventual restoration.

You probably don’t tend to be looking for this theme in Scripture, and so you probably don’t often notice it. But once you know it’s there, and indeed that the Bible presupposes it, you will begin to notice that it’s surprisingly important. For instance, biblical cosmology is crucial to a clear understanding of the most well-loved verse of the Bible: John 3:16 contrasts the world—Greek kosmos—with the kingdom of heaven; and does so in such a way that we can only understand it to mean the kingdom of man. Most Christians read “world” simply as “all people”—but in John, at least, it is a kingdom. In fact, when we work through the logic of it, and when you understand what love is all about, John 3:16 can well be translated as follows:

For God desired onetogetherness with the kingdom of man in such a way that he gave his unique son, so that whoever believes in him should not perish, but enter the kingdom of God. For God did not send his son into the kingdom of man to condemn it, but in order that the kingdom of man might be saved through him. John 3:16

My aim here is not to rehearse what I’ve said about this passage elsewhere; rather, it is to demonstrate up front how the theology I will articulate in this series is right there on the surface of the text, if we only have the framework within which to articulate it. The narrative trajectory of the Bible begins with the kingdom of man, and ends with the gospel promise that God will save that kingdom by transforming it into his own; until in Revelation 11:15 a loud voice in heaven finally declares:

The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he will reign forever and ever.

Simply put, the whole arc of Scripture is a story about how the kingdom of Adam, the ruined kingdom, eventually becomes the kingdom of God, the restored eternal kingdom. But to understand exactly how this works, we need to understand how extensive the idea of imaging is in the Bible…

If this sounds rather postmillennial to you, I think you have a point. I prefer Ben Askins’ description: “optimistic amillennialism.” That said, there is also a repeated emphasis in the New Testament on believers one day ruling the nations alongside Jesus, which sounds rather like premillennialism (2 Timothy 2:12; Revelation 2:26–27; 3:21; 20:4). So I am, for now, noncommittal on the question. The one point that is clear is that the elect will one day replace the sons of God as rulers of the cosmos. But we are getting way ahead of ourselves.

The created world as the image of the spiritual

If man images God by representing him, the rest of the world also images spiritual realities in various ways. One God created both, and it is no coincidence that when that God becomes incarnate, he has a habit of referring to spiritual things by using their physical images. Knowing how the physical world reflects, and is based on, the spiritual realm turns out to be important for understanding a great deal of what Jesus has to say, because he often takes the spiritual meaning of words as their primary meaning—in confusing contrast to every other human being ever. A prominent example is food, which to Jesus first describes partaking of God through faithful service, assimilating his very nature by the joining of the Spirit—and only second refers to ordinary physical eating (John 4:31–35; 6:27–35, 48–58). Similarly, water means spirit first, and stuff you drink second—e.g. John 3:5; 4:10–15; 7:37–39.

This is just a simple illustration for the broader concept I want to focus on: that the physical and spiritual realms are linked in unexpected ways. Water is not merely like spirit, but spirit is the original water—what mundane water images or represents. Spirit is the archetype of water. In the same way, we see the tabernacle and temple are constructed according to a heavenly archetype revealed to Moses (Exodus 25:9, 40), where the mercy seat images the throne of God, and the cherubim statues image (literally) the heavenly throne-guardians (Exodus 37:7–9; 1 Kings 6:23–29; cf. Isaiah 6:2; Ezekiel 1:22–28; 1 Kings 22:19).

Imaging and geography

The reason this is important for us is because the same kind of imaging or representation takes place with geography. What happens in the “heavenly places” (Ephesians 3:10; 6:12) is linked to what happens in earthly places.

Deep places

A helpful example of this in the New Testament is the story of Legion and the pigs (Mark 5:1–13; Luke 8:26–33; Matthew 8:28–32). You’ve probably wondered why Jesus let the demons go into the pigs, and why they then rushed into the sea. The answer would probably have been obvious to an ancient reader, which is why the gospel authors don’t explain it: in their world, water was believed to be a natural barrier to spirits. For instance, deceased spirits in ancient lore often had to cross a river, like the Styx, to enter the land of the dead—the water functioned to confine them in their proper domain. In Luke, Legion begs Jesus not to send him into the abbussou, “abyss.” Now, in Revelation 9:1; 11:7 etc, abbusou is often translated “bottomless pit;” but it is also the word used in the Septuagint to translate the “great deep” in places like Genesis 1:2 and 7:11.

Mark’s account is a little different. There, Legion begs Jesus not to drive him out of the chora, which most translations render “country” or “region.” But chora also simply means the land, as opposed to the sea; it is used this way in Acts 27:27. Given the seaside location of the encounter, understanding it this way nicely harmonizes Mark with Luke: when Legion says he doesn’t want to be driven out of the land, he is equally saying that he doesn’t want to be driven into the sea—the abyss.

So he asks to go into the pigs instead. Why does Jesus allow this? Because he intends to get rid of Legion for good, and letting him go into the pigs first gives a convenient physical form to what’s going on. His disciples can’t see demons go into the abyss. But they can see the pigs go into the sea. So this gives a physical proof of Jesus’ power not just in expelling the unclean spirits, but also in dealing permanently to them. The physical events image the spiritual events.

Now, this isn’t to say the abyss in the spiritual world is somehow identical with the ocean in the physical world. If it were, then exorcism would be as simple as throwing a demoniac into the water! The Bible isn’t out to establish some kind of “map,” but rather to represent the spiritual realm through the physical world.

High places

By contrast, while the sea represents the abyss where demons are confined, mountains represent a place where earth and heaven meet. They are therefore associated with the presence of gods. In vast numbers of religions, mountains are where gods reside, or where they presence themselves on earth. The transfiguration of Jesus happened on a mountain—probably Mount Hermon (Matthew 17:1–8, Mark 9:2–8, Luke 9:28–36; 2 Peter 1:16–18). In Ugarit, just to the north of Israel, the high god El was thought to meet in the palace of his vice-regent, Baʿal, on Mount Zaphon. In Greece, the gods met to hold council on Mount Olympus. In Israel, of course, Yahweh presenced himself first on Mount Horeb or Sinai (Exodus 3:1; 19–31), and later in the temple on Mount Zion (Psalm 9:11; 48:1–2; 74:2; 132:13; Joel 2:1; 3:17). The encounter between Elijah and the 450 priests of another Baʿal takes place on Mount Carmel (1 Kings 18). The Samaritans believed God presenced himself on Mount Gerezim (John 4:20). For the Greeks it was Mount Olympus. Altars were routinely built to pagan gods in high places (Deuteronomy 12:2; 1 Kings 12:31–32); and these could include man-made high places, built to function as artificial mountains (e.g. 2 Kings 17:9)—this is the idea behind ziggurats, which is what the Tower of Babel almost certainly was (Genesis 11:1–9).

Sacred space

The presence of deity was important to the ancient worldview in another way, which returns us to the concept of kingdom: there was a territorial aspect to it. We see how this cashes out with the story of Naaman in 2 Kings 5. In verse 17, Naaman says:

…please let a load of soil on a pair of mules be given to your servants, for your servant will never again bring a burnt offering and sacrifice to other gods, but only to Yahweh.

Understanding why Naaman does this gets us to a key concept in understanding the kingdom of God itself.

What’s happening here is fundamentally the same as what’s happening in, say, Exodus 3:5 and Joshua 5:15, where God tells Moses and Joshua to take off their sandals, because the place where they are standing is holy ground. It is fundamentally the same as what’s happening in Exodus 19, when the Lord says to Moses,

Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow, and let them wash their garments and be ready for the third day. For on the third day Yahweh will come down on Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people. And you shall set limits for the people all around, saying, “Take care not to go up into the mountain or touch the edge of it. Whoever touches the mountain shall be put to death. No hand shall touch him, but he shall be stoned or shot; whether beast or man, he shall not live.” When the trumpet sounds a long blast, they shall come up to the mountain. Exodus 19:10–13

It is fundamentally the same thing that is happening in the threefold structure of the temple: the courtyard, the holy place, and the holy-holy place. And it is also fundamentally the same thing that is happening with Israel’s laws about ritual cleanness, and restoring it when a member of the covenant community becomes ritually impure or defiled.

Certain space is sacred. It is set apart by and for the presence of God. The land of Israel was sacred, because it was God’s land—he dwelt there, in the temple in Jerusalem. So in order to live in the land, you yourself had to be set apart for God by observing the ritual purity laws. And the closer you got to God, the more sacred the ground was. The holy-holy place in the temple, the holy of holies, was so sacred that only one man could enter once per year on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

The land of Israel was sacred. Naaman knew this. So he asked for enough dirt to make a mini-Israel in Syria—a small space set aside for Yahweh, where he could be worshiped.

Where cosmology and geography intersect

When we put cosmology and geography together, we start moving in a straight line toward the gospel. This is because the intersection between cosmology and geography is kingdom. Cosmology is about the order and running of the world. Who is ruling? Geography is about the division and features of the world. Where are they are ruling? (We’ll get to the question of people—whom are they ruling over—in due course.)

Now that we have a basic grasp of how these elements fit into the Bible, we are faced with a rather intriguing question:

If Israel was the sacred space of Yahweh—if Israel, in other words, was the part of the world ordered and run by the God of the Bible—then…what about the rest of the world?

To start answering this, let’s go back to John. I’ve noted that John views the world (kosmos) not just as humanity, but as a kingdom. This comes out when you follow the threads in John 3:16 and Revelation 11:15, but it is even more obvious in a repeating phrase he uses later in the gospel: “The ruler of this world” (John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11).

If the world has a ruler, then it is a kingdom; a dominion. John takes this for granted. Throughout his gospel we see two warring kingdoms: the world, which is the kingdom of man—at war with the kingdom of heaven, the kingdom of God.

I don’t think it is too difficult to work out who the “ruler of this world” is. For one thing, John himself elsewhere states that “the whole world lies in the power of the evil one” (1 John 5:19). And in Luke 4, we learn that just before Jesus began his ministry,

the devil took him up and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time, and said to him, “To you I will give all this authority and their glory, for it has been delivered to me, and I give it to whom I will. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” Luke 4:5–7 par. Matthew 4:8–9.

We see here in very clear terms that the world, the dominion of man, is divided into smaller kingdoms—and that the whole lot has been handed over to Satan. This isn’t to say he controls everything single-handedly; just as human kingdoms are organized with a hierarchy of princes or other rulers beneath the king, so Satan’s kingdom is organized similarly. There are individual spiritual rulers who control specific nations, as the Bible shows in several places:

  1. In Daniel 10 we learn of the prince (or ruler) of Persia (v. 13), and the prince of Greece (v. 20): these are spiritual beings who are engaged in battle with the spiritual being who visits Daniel—and with Michael, the prince of Israel (Daniel 10:13, 21; 12:1. Given that Israel is ruled by Yahweh, I take Michael to be the proper name of the Angel of Yahweh.)
  2. In Ephesians 6:12 we learn that we ourselves are engaged in this battle, not against flesh and blood, but against the “rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (cf. Ephesians 3:10).
  3. In Psalm 82, as we’ve seen, there is a whole assembly of these spiritual rulers who God calls to account.
  4. In 1 Corinthians 2:8, Paul observes that “none of the rulers of this age understood” God’s hidden plan of salvation through the gospel—“for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.”

These beings are so much in charge of the human world that Paul can speak as if they themselves crucified Jesus. But Satan has authority over them all. Geographically, all the lands of the earth are his. Cosmologically, he is in charge, he is ruling, he is calling the shots. The world is his kingdom. Hence Paul, in 2 Corinthians 4:4, calls him the god of this world/age (cf. Galatians 1:4; Luke 8:12).

On 2 Corinthians 4:4, some commentators demur, interpreting Yahweh as the god of this age; e.g. Donald E. Hartley argues that there are no semantic parallels for Satan as a god in Paul’s thinking, and that he is instead drawing on Isaiah 6:9–10 where Yahweh is the active agent. But this supposes, in the teeth of the evidence, that Paul cannot also be drawing on other material. The error manifests in several ways: (i) Claiming that there is no precedent for calling Satan the god of this world, when in fact Psalm 82 is excellent precedent when combined with Ephesians 2:2, where Paul is plainly speaking of Satan as the ruler of all spiritual powers; (ii) Discounting the instrumental role in salvific blindness explicitly attributed to Satan by Jesus in Luke 8:12 (par. Mark 4:15; Matthew 13:19) and strongly implied by Paul in Ephesians 2:2; (iii) Ignoring the relationship between moral depravity and intellectual inability, and thus the connotations of Satan’s power as described in places like 1 John 5:19. Given these factors, along with the awkwardness of taking Yahweh as the god of this age when Satan fits the label so aptly and straightforwardly, I stand by the majority of modern exegetes on this point (though little changes if I am wrong).

The sacred space of Israel was the sole exception—God dwelt there and he was in charge. You can probably see how this lends a great deal of import to the first two commandments, and the problem of idolatry: worshiping other gods effectively overturned Israel’s status as sacred space by rededicating the land to beings who didn’t own it. Hence the punishment of exile. But there’s no need to rabbit-trail on that here, since we live on the other side of the cross; the point is that ever since Jesus said, “It is finished,” and the curtain of the temple was torn in two—and actually, since at least the exile—God has not dwelled in Israel. The covenant that made the land and the people his was abrogated (Hebrews 8:13).

So, does that mean that there’s now no longer any part of the world that isn’t Satan’s?

Yes…and no.

Yes in the sense that, if a kingdom is a human kingdom, it is Satan’s kingdom. The kingdom of man is his.

But no in the sense that God is doing something about this. He is taking back Satan’s territory for himself since the cross, where he “disarmed these rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in it” (Colossians 2:15; cf. Ephesians 1:21).

To understand how this works, we first need to understand who Satan and his cronies are, and how they came to be in charge of Adam’s kingdom in the first place…

Continued in part 2, on the divine council

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