Regaining the good news of Jesus’ kingship

Why did the early church de-emphasize the message of the kingdom of God, and how do we recover it?

As we saw, even blind people could see Jesus was the son of David (Matthew 20:30-31) as he made his way to the capital where people would recognize him as the Son of David … arriving in the name of the Lord (21:9, 15). He challenged Jerusalem’s rulers to recognize the son of David as their Lord (22:42-45). It’s blindingly obvious that Matthew presents Jesus as the restoration of the Davidic kingship, the ruler God has anointed (Christ).

When Paul wanted to summarize the gospel at the start of his letter to Rome, he described Jesus as the physical descendant of King David, raised up as the reigning Son of God by his resurrection. “Jesus Christ the Lord” names Jesus as God’s anointed and our ruler. This gospel transforms the world by bringing the nations to trust his leadership (faith) in obedience to his governance (Romans 1:3-5).

Yet the church moved away from this good news of Jesus’ kingship. The early fathers focused on Jesus’ divinity (Son of God) rather than his descendancy (Son of David). We are unbalanced and the gospel is diminished when we emphasize one truth at the expense of the other.

By the early 200s, Origen thought the crowd was right to silence the blind men who called Jesus such a contemptible name:

As if he said, Those who were foremost in believing rebuked him when he cried, “Thou Son of David,” that he might hold his peace, and cease to call Him by a contemptible name, when he ought to say, Son of God, have pity upon me.
— Origen, Matt. tom. xvi.13

Those that believed rebuked them that they should not dishonour Him by styling Him merely Son of David, but should rather say, Son of God, have mercy on us.
— Origen, in Thomas Aquinas, Catena Aurea (Oxford: John Henry Parker, 1842) 2:215; 1:699.

Origen’s comments are understandable, given the tension between Christian claims about Jesus and Judaism’s rejection of Jesus as Messiah. It was natural to disassociate Jesus from the Jewish political story, to downplay his regal Davidic heritage and focus on his divine identity.

By way of contrast, the Jewish hope was expressed in the Psalms of Solomon — not written by Solomon but yearning for the return of the reign of David’s son:

Behold, O Lord, and raise up unto them their king, the son of David, in the time which thou, O God, knowest, that he may reign over Israel thy servant; and gird him with strength that he may break in pieces them that rule unjustly. Purge Jerusalem from the heathen that trample her down to destroy her, with wisdom and with righteousness.
— Psalms of Solomon 17:23-25

In addition to this conflict with Judaism, persecution from Rome discouraged the proclamation of the gospel of the kingdom. You could be locked up for preaching “a king other than Caesar” (Acts 17:7).

Even after Emperor Constantine’s conversion, the church did not restore the kingdom message of Jesus as Son of David. Here’s how one author from the 300s (someone whose works were originally attributed to John Chrysostom) commented on the blind men calling Jesus Son of David:

They had indeed called Christ Lord, and they had spoken true; but by calling Him the Son of David, they obliterated this their good confession. For indeed by a misuse of words men are called Lords, but none is truly Lord, but God only. When therefore they say, O Lord, thou Son of David, they thus misapply the term to Christ, as esteeming Him man; had they only called Him Lord, they would have confessed His Godhead.
— Pseudo-Chrysostom, in Thomas Aquinas, Catena Aurea (Oxford: John Henry Parker, 1841), 1:700.

Since the founding centuries, the church has moved away from the gospel of the kingdom of God, the good news of Jesus as the Christ (God’s anointed ruler), Lord of all nations.

It didn’t help when the “Holy Roman Empire” made claims to be the earthly expression of the kingdom of God. Ultimately, their claims fared no better than Israel’s kingship in Old Testament times. The gospel of the kingdom sounded repulsive when Europe rebirthed itself in Renaissance and the Reformation challenged Rome’s monopolistic power.

Jesus was on-target when he warned us not to seek power as the kings and emperors of this world do. We proclaim as a different kind of king, the only ruler worthy of the name. Our king came not to be served, but to serve and to give his life for the emancipation of earth’s people, and the character of the king defines the character of the kingdom:

Matthew 20:25–28 (NIV)
25 You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 26 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—28 just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

No other leader can save the world. No other name. His kingship is our future. He is the only good news, the only king who can remake the earth as God’s realm — a kingdom of heaven.

Can we regain this gospel?

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Author: Allen Browne

Seeking to understand Jesus in the terms he chose to describe himself: son of man (his identity), and kingdom of God (his mission). Riverview Church, Perth, Western Australia

2 thoughts on “Regaining the good news of Jesus’ kingship”

  1. Thanks Allen, I have been enjoying your post lately. I love the part where you remind us that Jesus came to serve and we should do likewise. It is in building others up that we find unity.

    Liked by 1 person

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