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existential crisis

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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)


series
What is the kingdom of God? Part 6: how God is retaking Adam’s kingdom from Satan

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. Part 6 traces how God used the collapse of his kingdom and the death of his king on a cross to disarm Satan and start inexorably transforming Adam’s ruined kingdom into Jesus’ restored one.

Continued from part 5, on when God began retaking Adam’s kingdom

In Acts 8:12, Philip preaches the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ. Once again, we see the gospel described as being about the kingdom and its ruler, Jesus. Most evangelicals I have met don’t think about the kingdom as being central to the gospel; they talk in terms of justification for the purpose of going to heaven. We’ll see how this perspective emaciates the gospel soon; for now, I mention it in passing. The point I want to focus on here is not the content of the gospel, but the events which accompanied its preaching. In Acts 8:7 we learn that the gospel message was accompanied by:

  1. Unclean spirits being cast out;
  2. Many paralyzed and lame people being healed.

In the same way, we read in Luke 9:1–2 (par. Matthew 1:1, 5–8) that Jesus “called the twelve together and gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal.”

Notice the interesting parallelism here. He gives them authority over demons and to heal, and then sends them out to proclaim the kingdom and to heal. It is almost like Luke is rhyming the two phrases, so casting out demons becomes virtually synonymous with proclaiming the kingdom.

Why would that be?

Exorcism as annexing kingdom territory

I think the answer is quite obvious. Demons represent the worst of Satan’s occupying force in Adam’s kingdom. They are his footsoldiers, keeping a thumb on the human beings he rules. Demons are a clear and unmistakable sign that Satan is in charge—that this territory belongs to him. So casting them out literally is the same as proclaiming, or demonstrating, or proving, that the kingdom of God is at hand. It is an obvious, unambiguous way for people to see that God is taking back Satan’s territory for himself. That he has, in the words of Colossians 1:13, “delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son.”

We see in this that the kingdom is not abstract. It is not that we have merely had our names moved from one column in a database to another; that God has added us to the kingdom in the sense that he has reserved us a seat for later. I’m afraid many Reformed Christians might think of our membership in the present kingdom as purely forensic, but it is far more than a legal declaration or a promise of a future reality. It is, in fact, a present reality which awaits a future consummation. A genuine ontological change has taken place. We have moved from one kingdom to another in a territorial sense, and indeed this is what the gospel is all about.

The movement of people from one kingdom to the other is how the gospel’s power is manifested. This requires some explanation:

How the kingdom of God manifests today

We know that a kingdom has a king, a people, and a territory. The king of the domain of darkness is Satan; its people are those who have not believed the gospel; its territory is everywhere those people live—but it is a disputed territory. Indeed, it is a territory over which Jesus has all legal claim—we have seen this already in the fulfillment of Daniel 7:13–14 and Psalm 110:1, and shortly I will explain the mechanism by which this works. For now, note that Satan still possesses much of that territory (pun somewhat intended), and he may therefore still exercise power in it—but his claim to it has been superseded by the second Adam.

That is bad, bad news for him, because without a legal claim, all he has is occupation by force—and as it turns out, he lacks the force required to prevent the gospel from spreading. Every time the Spirit of Christ regenerates a heart, his territory gets that little bit smaller.

Jesus is fulfilling Psalm 82 right now. He has been fulfilling it for two thousand years; he will continue to fulfill it until he comes again; and he will complete its fulfilment on that day. God has already sentenced the corrupt gods, and he is now busy inheriting the nations. When that is done, he will execute the final judgment on the gods and all those who follow them, in the lake of fire.

It started at the cross, for as Jesus said shortly before he was crucified, “Now is the judgment of this world! Now the ruler of this world will be thrown out!” (John 12:13) How? Colossians 2:15 tells us that God disarmed Satan and the other gods, and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in the cross of Christ.

And this gets us to the heart of the genius of God’s redemptive plan, in which he combines the three elements of kingdom together in Christians themselves: a king, a territory, and a people. Tracing this out takes careful thought, but it’s worth it…

1. A king

The problem since the fall has been that men, by nature, cannot represent God. In our natural state we are enemies of God; we stalwartly refuse to rule on his behalf; we will always choose to rule for ourselves instead. We choose injustice over justice, vice over virtue, divisiveness over shalom—because every thought and inclination of our hearts is only, always, toward evil (Genesis 6:5; 8:21; Jeremiah 17:9).

For God to restore Adam’s kingdom, to make it his own kingdom again, he needed to find a loyal human viceroy to rule on his behalf. Someone who, in the words of Jesus, would do nothing on his own authority, but only speak and do what the Father gave him to do, in a manner pleasing to him (e.g. John 5:19; 8:28–29). But since the human nature is corrupted and defiled, it does not—and indeed cannot—submit to God’s law (Romans 8:7). The only way for God to find a human ruler who would perfectly represent him…was for him to become that ruler.

This is what the incarnation was all about—and why the rulers in the heavenly places were so eager to execute Jesus. By killing God’s perfect human king, they thought they would bring his plans of reclaiming and restoring the human kingdom to a swift end. But they hadn’t thought it through…

2. A territory

You hopefully recall that the worship of God could only take place in sacred space that was set apart for, and inhabited by the pure, life-giving God. As one got closer to God, the space became more sacred—we’ve seen that with the divisions of the temple. But Israel itself was also sacred space. That’s why you have the kherem commands when they enter the land: Joshua devotes certain tribes to complete destruction, at least in part because some of these were descendents of the Nephilim, the seed of Satan (e.g. Joshua 11:21–22). They therefore threatened God’s own seed and defiled the sacred space of Israel. In the same way, many of the more puzzling laws around uncleanness were intended to maintain this sacred space, to keep it pure and free of any hint of death or aberration which would pollute it, contaminate it, violate it. Once again, this is physical imaging of spiritual realities: it was not the ritual uncleanness that mattered, but the moral pollution it represented. If you wanted to remain part of the sacred people, to live in the sacred space—and especially to worship in the temple—you had to image the purity and holiness of God.

The problem is, by our very nature we are separated from God by moral uncleanness. We cannot come into sacred space because of our sin (e.g. Psalm 5:4–5; cf. Habakkuk 1:13). We are forever excluded from God’s presence. Israel’s laws ultimately did not make anyone actually sacred, nor allow them to approach God—the Levitical cultus rather imaged how unapproachable God was because his people were not sacred; while simultaneously illustrating his great condescension in overlooking their sin and not destroying them.

But for God to overlook sin at all, there must be some basis on which he does so (Romans 3:25). For God to allow us into sacred space—into the territory of his kingdom in other words—he has to make our moral defilement as nothing. He has to actually provide a way to unite us to him, both morally and ontologically. Justice demands consequences for sin: namely, separation from his goodness, and punishment under his wrath. Citizenship in his kingdom demands changed hearts that love him loyally, rather than our natural hearts which hate him treacherously. The exact problem is that we only merit being cast from his presence into the darkness outside the walls of his kingdom (e.g. Matthew 8:11–12), and we cannot become loyal citizens.

3. A people

It is in the cross of Jesus that this separation is finally collapsed. This is what the rulers in the heavenly places had not thought through: the very mechanism by which they hoped to end God’s kingdom was the consequence of being excluded from it. But how could God be excluded from his own kingdom? How could he be separated from himself? God can never merit death; John 1:4 tells us that Jesus has life in himself. So when the one who is life takes death into himself, what happens? Well, Paul would say that “death is swallowed up” (1 Corinthians 15:55). The problem of our fallen natures continually violating the sacred space of God, of the dishonored being incompatible with the glorified, of the perishable not mixing with the imperishable—the problem of sin, in other words, that ultimately led to God disinheriting the nations—is dealt with ingeniously by God himself becoming perishable, being treated as dishonored, of suffering in himself the consequence of a fallen nature, of being made sin.

God extends his sacred space into the human nature itself, by taking on the form of a man in his Son, Jesus. He then allows Jesus to suffer the penalty of sin, treating him as if he himself were morally defiled, cursed, and cut off from God. But because Jesus is the one man who is not morally defiled—he is indeed infinitely more powerful than the power of sin, infinitely more pure than we are impure—this separation, this death cannot hold him (Acts 2:24). It is as if he is wrapped up in it, and because he is a holy fire, it simply burns up, turns to dust, and falls away.

Jesus is therefore vindicated by the Spirit as not cursed; he is raised from the dead as proof that God will not permit him to be cut off (1 Timothy 3:16; cf. Romans 1:4). The resurrection is the Father testifying, as Pilate put it, “I can find no guilt in this man” (Luke 23:4; cf. Acts 13:28–30).

Now, this would be bad enough for the wicked gods, because it means there is a perfect human ruler with a perfect claim to authority over Adam’s kingdom. Their delegated authority is superseded by his. The only reason they were given any authority in the first place was because of man’s failure. Now that there is a perfect man who has not failed to represent God, they are done. Even worse, because that man is Yahweh himself, he has not only taken away their right to rule, but he has put them in subjection to a human being! Thus Adam’s kingdom is no longer under the authority of Satan and his angels; it is under God. Power has changed hands: the kingdom of Satan has become the kingdom of God—at least in terms of legal claim.

If that were the extent of it, the situation would be bad enough for the lesser elohim—but not especially promising for us. Fortunately, the gospel is not about them; God is not interested in taking back his kingdom from the gods if it contains only one man—even if that man is Jesus. He is interested in establishing a kingdom of billions; a great multitude that no one can number, from every tribe and language and people (Revelation 7:9).

The real problem for the gods, and the truly good news for us, is that a king’s representation works upward, to God, and downward, to the rest of his people. A king stands in the place of his people in the same way he stands in the place of God. A captain stands in for his crew; and Adam, as the viceroy of God, stands in for all his descendents—thus all his descendents are counted guilty before God. By the same token, Jesus—the new and perfect human king—stands in the place of any member of God’s kingdom. This is critical, because he has suffered the penalty of sin; therefore, the legal demand against anyone he represents is nullified. God looks to our representative to satisfy the demands of justice against us—and he has.

But there is still a chicken-and-egg problem: we must be members of God’s kingdom to have our sin dealt with by Jesus’ representation…but…we cannot become members of God’s kingdom until our sin is dealt with by Jesus’ representation.

And this is where the true genius of the gospel is—and how God brings kingship, territory, and people together in us:

Christians as God’s kingdom

When God dealt with the defilement of human nature on the cross, he did not make any particular sinner undefiled. He did not undo the curse universally. He did not make any or every human being immortal and sinless. Rather, he made the human nature itself imperishable—and redeemed the human dominion over the world—in Jesus. It is the man Jesus who was raised imperishable. It is the man Jesus who had all things put in subjection to him (1 Corinthians 15:27). It is the man Jesus who became a life-giving spirit (1 Corinthians 15:45). The human nature is made sacred in Jesus.

The mystery of the incarnation establishes an ontological connection between the human nature, and the divine nature. Jesus is the greater temple (John 2:21) because God resides in a human body: that body is itself sacred space; the physical location of the presence of God. And since all people share this human nature, all people may in principle now share in God’s nature also. We can do this not by becoming God in the way that Jesus became man, but rather by having Jesus’ divine nature extended to us; by being joined to him in such a deep and intimate way that he becomes part of our very beings. We cannot be represented by him, we cannot become imperishable like him, unless we partake of him. If we wish to have life in ourselves, we have to take life into ourselves—and the life is Jesus. This is what the bread of life discourse in John 6 is all about.

It is also why Paul says that we have the “mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2:16): it is the Spirit of Christ which we have received (v. 12). He is joined to us in some mysterious way when we are born again (John 3:3–8).

And this in turn is why Paul describes us as temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19). The physical temple has passed away because the spiritual archetype in Jesus has come. He was the reality which the temple had imaged—and because we are in him as he is in the Father (John 17:20–23), we become mini-temples ourselves. Or, to vary the metaphor slightly, we are “living stones” (1 Peter 2:5) building up the true temple, and indeed the true city of God, the New Jerusalem, which the physical Jerusalem pointed to. We ourselves are sacred space. Wherever we go, we are walking on holy ground. Our very presence sanctifies the earth. No wonder Paul can speak of the spouses of believers being made holy (1 Corinthians 7:14). We are not merely made loyal citizens of God’s kingdom through regeneration—we are made dwelling places of God himself (Ephesians 2:22), and so we become his territory also. This is how Jesus becomes our king.

We are God’s kingdom: by joining himself to us through the Spirit of Jesus, he makes our bodies his territory, changes our hearts to be loyal people, and dwells with us as our king.

And this is why Paul writes in Ephesians 6:12 that “our struggle is not against blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.” Since every Christian is literally a little piece of God’s kingdom, wherever we go we are a threat to Satan’s rule. It is our job to annex more pieces of his kingdom for God, through preaching the gospel—“for the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:4–5).

Healing as inaugurated eschatology

This brings us full circle to the two signs I noted as being indicative of the gospel going forth: exorcism and healing. If we are temples of the Holy Spirit, and if we ourselves are sacred space, the very kingdom of God on earth, then that explains why these particular signs always accompany the gospel. When you read accounts of missionaries, it’s always these two things: demons being cast out, and people being healed.

They are not unconnected. As I’ve said, the demons have to go because they are not welcome in the kingdom of God—as it expands in this present age, the demons’ own kingdom shrinks by comparison. And sickness itself, like so many other physical things, images a spiritual reality. It represents the power and bondage of sin. It is a precursor to death, which is what you get when sin is fully grown (James 1:15). Since the kingdom of God is defined by the presence of the Holy Spirit, and the Spirit gives life (Job 33:4; John 6:63; 2 Corinthians 3:6), so as bondage to sin in the spiritual realm is overturned through exorcism, it is also confirmed by the sign of healing. The point is to show in the physical person what is happening in the spiritual arena. The physical healing is not resurrection, because the kingdom is not yet perfected. It is, rather, what theologians call inaugurated eschatology. Already and not yet. The kingdom has been ushered in, but it has not yet been fully realized. Inaugurated but not consummated. Here—but not fully here. It has started, but it is not finished. So healing is a taste of what is to come. The resurrection of life from the dead is what will herald in the eternal kingdom, so it makes sense for the kingdom in this present age to be heralded by a lesser but similar sign. People are restored to full health, to point to the restoration to full life in the coming age.

This should also give us confidence to pray for healing within the established kingdom. If the Spirit is really active among us, then healing is hardly too difficult for him. Healing is actually a natural effect of his presence! Not that he will always heal; but certainly we should hope for him to heal. We simply have to…

…ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.James 1:6–8

Unfortunately, when you don’t have to rely fully on God, you often end up doubting him. When you aren’t continually, intensely needing him, when you don’t feel utterly helpless without him, you end up doubting him. So I’ve read accounts of Western missionaries who could not cast out demons, yet the local converts could. The West has sapped us of a robust, dependent faith in the supernatural power of God. Just as Western missionaries can’t cast out demons overseas because it all seems so remote and abstract to them, I think most of us lack the confidence in God’s power to ask for healing in the way we should. Medical technology has made us spiritually dull, because so often prayer seems redundant: “You don’t need prayer; you need a doctor.” Medical technology is certainly a great blessing, but because we are so used to seeing healing happen in mundane, scientific ways, we have lost that confidence in it happening in remarkable, supernatural ways.

If we want the kingdom of God to stand firm in the West, we must work to overcome our culturally-induced dullness. We must work to truly depend on and have faith in the power of God through his Spirit. We must not become crazy Pentecostals. But we must regain our vigor and our boldness in trusting our God to work powerfully. The Spirit of God is mighty to work—when we don’t try to make ourselves mighty, and end up doubting him.

This wraps up the arc of redemptive history into the present. We’ve seen how the kingdom of man was ruined by Adam, how it was refused at Babel, and how it is now being reclaimed by Jesus. But what about the future? What will the restoration look like? This is the last, and most important question—because answering it reveals the very hope to which we have been called.

Continued in part 7, on what we can look forward to

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