Kingdoms in Conflict: An Important, Yet Overlooked Theme in the Bible

God and Government

From beginning to end, the Bible continually shows that there is a conflict between the governments of this world and the Kingdom of God. The kingdoms of this world were established as a result of the fall of man, and God’s kingdom was established for the purpose of confronting and ultimately destroying these kingdoms (Dan. 2.44; 1 Cor. 15. 24-26). Christ came to rescue His world and to destroy the power of the evil one. To ignore this theme is to overlook the full significance of the cross and causes us to misunderstand the mission of God’s kingdom to confront the governmental powers of the world.

For some reason, this theme is often overlooked, but it shouldn’t catch us off guard. Throughout the Old Testament, God continually shows himself as superior to the pagan rulers and authorities (the Egyptians, the Amalekites, the Philistines, the Assyrians and the Babylonians). A major theme in the prophets is how God is more powerful than these political powers and will ultimately deliver His people from Babylon. If Jesus is to be understood as the fulfillment of the law and the prophets, we should read the New Testament with the expectation that this conflict between Israel and the pagan nations would somehow, in some way, be resolved.

When Jesus arrived on the scene, he came to announce a “kingdom” to a world where Caesar thought of himself as the only “Lord” and “Savior”. We can be sure that the early disciples gave serious consideration to the question of how our citizenship in the kingdom of God should impact our relationship to the governments under which we now live.

God and the Pagan Kingdoms of the Old Testament

The entire Old Testament, on one level at least, is a story of how God continually delivered His people from the political oppression of pagan nations and their rulers. Think back to the most significant stories of the Old Testament. After Cain killed Abel, he responded by building a city “in the east”, the part of the world that would eventually become nation of Babylon (Gen. 4 16-17). The continual rebellion of Genesis 1-11 culminates in the construction of the tower of Babel (the same word which is later translated “Babylon”), as the people organize to make a name for themselves in rebellion to the authority of God (Gen. 11.1-9). The scattering of the nations from Babel becomes the backdrop for the story of Abraham, as God calls Abram to leave his home in the east and to trust in Him to “make his name great” and bless all the nations of the earth through him. The promise to Abraham is thus given as the answer to the problem of human arrogance and nation building (Gen. 12.1-3). At this point we are only a few chapters in to the Bible, but we should already be noticing that there is going to be a some sort of conflict between God’s people and Babylon.

We soon find Abraham’s family in Egypt, oppressed by evil ruler, Pharaoh. In one of the most important stories of the whole Old Testament, God demonstrates His superiority over the Egyptian rulers and delivers His people through the blood of a lamb. The conflict between God and the pagan rulers continues into the Promised Land as God gives Israel victories over the Amelikites, the Moabites and the Canaanites. The book of Judges can be read as a series of “mini-exodus” stories, as God continually delivers his people from pagan authorities.

In 1 Samuel 8, Israel demands a king to be “like all the nations”, and so their king would act as a judge over them and fight their battles for them. Samuel then warns Israel of the disastrous results of having a king like all the nations (vs. 10-22). The books of 1 and 2 Kings prove Samuel to be right in his warning, as Israel’s kings continually lead Israel further and further away from God, ultimately resulting Israel going back to Babel once again, oppressed by yet another pagan government. During the fall and exile of Israel, the prophets continually reflect on the clash between the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of this world.

Isaiah, writing during this time of downfall, reminded Israel that God was still in control, and was using even the most wicked of earthly powers as His ministers to accomplish His will (Is. 10.5-15). Isaiah pointed to the Israel’s alliances with these earthly nations as one of the key reasons for their downfall (Is. 30.1-6). Isaiah encouraged Israel not to be enamored by the apparent strength of these nations, and encouraged them to view these nations the same way God views them: as “a drop in a bucket”, “meaningless” and “nothing” (Is. 40. 12-26). Isaiah looked forward to a day when God’s Servant would defeat these earthly powers (Is. 52).

Likewise Daniel looked forward to the day when God’s righteous people would be delivered (Dan. 9), exalted over the “beasts” of earthly governments (Dan. 7), resulting in a Kingdom which could not be shaken, through which all the other earthly governments would be dashed to pieces (Dan. 2).

This hope of victory over the pagan rulers of the world continues to be repeated time and time again throughout the psalms (See Psalms 2, 18, 20, 21, 45, 72, 89, 101, 110, 132, and 144). God reigns over the nations. God sits on His throne. God will raise up His King and will deliver His people. These are the songs that Israel continually sang for the centuries that followed the destruction of Jerusalem. These are the songs that Israel was singing when Jesus came and started proclaiming God’s Kingdom under “Lord” Caesar’s nose.

God and Caesar

So what did Jesus have to do with this story? Did Jesus simply use “kingdom” as a synonym for the church, establishing a nice and neat division of church and state, allowing Caesar to be the ruler the political world, while Jesus claimed rule over the spiritual world? Not so fast.

As Luke opens his gospel account by referring to a decree that went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered for a census for the purpose of taxation:

Now in those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus, that a census be taken of all the inhabited earth… And everyone was on his way to register for the census, each to his own city. Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David, in order to register along with May, who was engaged to him, and was with child. – Luke 2.1-5

This opening, which highlights Caesar’s dominion over the world, is usually passed over as a random bit of incidental history.  But if we read Luke-Acts from beginning to end, we should notice that the story which begins with Caesar’s decree which leads to the birth of  David’s offspring in the city where the Messiah was to be born, goes on to emphasize that Jesus was crucified precisely for challenging Caesar’s authority and proclaiming Himself to be king (Lk. 23.1-2). Interestingly, Luke’s second volume ends with Paul, in Rome, right under Caesar’s nose, “preaching the kingdom of God and teaching concerning the Lord Jesus Christ with all openness, unhindered” (Acts 28.31). Luke clearly intends his readers to recognize that in Jesus, God had defeated the pagan ruler.

Matthew’s equivalent of the opening of Luke 2 is found in Matthew 2, where Herod the Great receives a visit from some wise men from the east who are seeking the a newly born “King of the Jews”. The Jewish King Herod responds with the same kind of violence that you would typically expect from a wicked pagan ruler. Herod’s son, Herod Antipas, continually looms in the background of Jesus’s ministry, killing his cousin John and threatening Jesus’s own work (11.1-4; 14.1-12). In the end, God shows himself victorious over Caesar and Herod when the guards at the tomb are unable to prevent Jesus’s resurrection.

Mark is even more obvious. One passage which may be highlighted is Mark 10.42-45:

Calling them to Himself, Jesus said to them, “You know that those who are recognized as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them; and their great men exercise authority over them. But it is not this way among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant; and whoever wishes to be the first among you shall be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.”

Jesus thus makes it very clear that His followers are not to rule in the same way that Gentile rulers do.

In John, Jesus expresses a similar thought as he explains the significance of His upcoming death.

Now judgment is upon this world; now the ruler of the world will be cast out. And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself.” But He was saying this to indicate the kind of death by which He was to die. – John 12.31-33

There it is again. The world’s rulers will be overthrown through the death of Jesus. The rulers of this world flexed their muscles and condemned Jesus with the most powerful weapon they had: death. And yet it was in that death that that those world powers were ultimately disarmed.

There is much more that could be said about Jesus and His teachings in the gospels, but this should be sufficient to make the point: the gospel writers continued to embrace the theme that was introduced in the Old Testament. God’s kingdom is continually described as in conflict with, and victorious over the governments of this world.

The Christian and Political Powers Today

After Jesus’ victories over the political powers of His day, the New Testament authors continued to reflect on how Jesus’ death and resurrection should impact the way we relate to the human governments under which we now live. Paul recognized the kingdoms of this world as enemies of the Kingdom of God (1 Cor. 15.24-26), but He encouraged Christians not to fight against flesh and blood (2 Cor. 10.3-4; Eph. 6.12), but rather to pray for our rulers (1 Tim 2.1-2) and submit to them, recognizing that God is in control and will use them as His ministers (Rom. 12.29-13.5). John likewise recognized that the world was under the power of the evil one (1 Jn. 5.19), but knew that God’s kingdom would ultimately be victorious over the kingdoms of this world (Rev. 11.15-18). Peter embraced the idea that Christians were stranger and exiles in relation to their earthly country (1 Pet. 2.11-12), but like Paul, He encouraged Christians to submit to their earthly rulers for the Lord’s sake (1 Pet 2.13-17).

We must avoid concluding that the Bible presents the kingdoms of men as the ultimate enemy. The Biblical authors were very much aware that there was a darker, even more significant evil power that stands behind all the kingdoms of this world. This evil power is frequently referred to as “Satan” who is the “god of this world.” Jesus frequently reminded people, “Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both the soul and the body in hell” (Mt. 10.28; cf. Lk 12.4-5). But that doesn’t mean that we should conclude that the conflict between God’s kingdom and the kingdoms of man is a secondary or minor story line of the Bible either. From Genesis to Revelation, God’s kingdom is presented as in conflict with the kingdoms of this world. As students of Scripture, Christians should be mindful of this theme and allow it to impact the way they relate to the kingdoms of this world.