I last heard the above words a few weeks ago. If you’ve been a Christian any length of time – particularly if you move in charismatic or Pentecostal circles – you’ve most likely heard them, or something like them, plenty of times before.
You might think this is a fairly innocuous statement. My purpose in this post is to show you that, far from being innocuous, this statement betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of Jesus and his life and purpose.
Let’s back up a little and take a sympathetic viewpoint.
Q: When Jesus came to earth, did he not come as a helpless baby? And when faced with brutal torture and shameful death, did he not willingly submit?
A: Yes on both counts.
Q: As those who have pledged our allegiance to this Jesus, is not our hope that he will one day return to rule and reign over a kingdom in which pain, suffering, death and injustice will have no place?
A: Again, yes: I enthusiastically endorse this hope.
So, first time around we have Jesus as humble servant; second time around we have Jesus as conquering King. Where’s the problem?
The problem is that what we essentially have here is two different versions of Jesus. For many believers, the vision associated with Jesus’ first coming is that of gentle Jesus, meek and mild, while the vision associated with his second coming is that of ass-kicking, take-no-prisoners Jesus. How do we account for this quite dramatic difference? Did Jesus suffer a cosmic mood swing between his first and second comings? Or did he undergo some kind of total personality makeover? Are we, in fact, dealing with a schizophrenic Jesus who showed his best, Dr Jekyll face the first time around but who will be revealed as Mr Hyde Jesus when he returns?
We have to start from the premise that it is the same Jesus who came to earth two thousand years ago that will return to rule and reign over his eternal kingdom. If you disagree, take it up with the writer of the letter to the Hebrews: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8).
How, then, do we square this circle? How do we reconcile the apparently submissive Jesus of the Gospels with the conquering Jesus of the Apocalypse? The answer, in my opinion, lies in redefining our notions of kingship and rule.
Let me try to put it as plainly as I can. According to the Gospel record, Jesus’ central message was one of non-violent enemy-love. How anyone can read the Beatitudes (or, indeed, the Sermon on the Mount as a whole) and not come to this conclusion is, quite simply, beyond me. And not only did this form the central core of his teaching, but he lived it out by willingly laying down his life, proclaiming forgiveness for his enemies even as they executed him. Thus we can confidently say that non-violent enemy-love was the central plank not only of Jesus’ teaching but of his whole life.
That being the case, if our eschatology (in other words, our understanding of the “last things”) assumes that Jesus is going to come back and forcibly crush his enemies under his feet, then excuse me, but we have a major problem. Why would a Jesus whose very essence is always and only non-violent enemy-love come back to force his enemies into subjection?
I put it to you that there are, in fact, only two possibilities: either Jesus undergoes a fundamental psychic overhaul between his first and his second comings, or his second coming is not at all how we’ve often imagined it to be.
Hopefully I don’t need to convince you that we can discount the first possibility. Unless, of course, you’re a fundamentalist dispensationalist, in which case I don’t have the energy to argue with you right now.
If Jesus doesn’t change, then it follows that his fundamental nature will be the same at his second coming as it was at his first. Which means that he cannot have been a humble servant at the first but conversely a warrior king at the second. My contention is simply that the eschatological Jesus will be none other than the Jesus of the Gospels: not a servant in one age and a conquering king in another, but a servant king in both.
The problem, then, is one of language: we humans find it near impossible to conceive of kingship exercised through any other means than forceful subjection. We are so intrinsically wedded to violence (call it force, domination or coercion if you prefer) that we cannot imagine Jesus taking up his eternal throne in any other way than by forcing his enemies to bow the knee to him against their will. What we fail to see is that by the very act of coercing his enemies into subjection, Jesus would be denying the essential core of his life and teaching.
Jesus’ message has always been one of love, tolerance and inclusive embrace. There’s no way that’s going to change between his first and his second comings, unless he turns out to be just as fickle and unreliable as we mortals after all.
We can either make Jesus bow to our limited, violence-soaked understanding of kingship, or we can accept that we need to fundamentally redefine the meaning of kingship in the light of Jesus. Our choice.
[ Image: Gary Denness ]