Christ’s Kingship Over the Nations
There is no name in America with the power to provoke controversy quite like the name “Jesus.” Anyone who has quoted Jesus by name in a school classroom, or who has referred to salvation through repentance and faith in Him on the television, or who has named Him as His favorite philosopher has noted the instant hostility that the name Jesus evokes among unbelievers. (1) However, a reference to the present Kingship of Christ over the nations is even worse, bringing howls about the imposition of a theocracy and making even American Christians profoundly uneasy.
Here is a partial transcript of a TV question and answer session with Joseph Bottum, the new editor of First Things magazine, and the conservative Catholic writer George Weigel.
Caller: “The Catholics’ perennial position and commitment to the Kingship of Christ in America, for example, to a constitutional amendment, perhaps, declaring Christ King....”
Joseph Bottum: “Richard [Neuhaus, editor of First Things until his death] would have thought that this was a fundamentally un-American idea, precisely because America is not a Catholic country, and we’re a country born of the rejection of kings. Now Christ is the King, but He is the King over we [sic] the individuals, and thus we are called to something beyond the nation. He...would have seen the changes that happened from Leo XIII on in Catholic social teaching and Catholic understanding, particularly of Vatican II of democracies... I think Richard would have seen this sort of movement to have a constitutional amendment to declare Christ the King as a retrograde movement.”
George Wiegel weighing in: “I think he would also say...that that’s simply not the business of the state, and that the state is incompetent to make those sorts of judgments. A state that could say Christ is King is the state that could say that Charles III or George VII or Mohammed or Oprah Winfrey is Queen. The deeper point is that the state is incompetent to make theological judgments. The guys who can’t fix the potholes should not be saying theological arguments. This is important to recognize because it puts the state in its proper place. The state is important for certain functions, but it does not have the capacity to make the judgment that Christ is King.” (2)
Among American Protestants, influenced by pre-millenial and dispensational teachings, Hal Lindsay’s views are common. "Had the people received Him, He would have fulfilled the kingly prophecies in their day in addition to the ones regarding the suffering Messiah. But when the Jewish nation, as a whole, rejected Christ, the fulfillment of His kingship was postponed until the final culmination of world history." (3) Using a different approach than Hal Lindsey’s to avoid the implications for first Scottish and then American national life of the doctrine of the Kingship of Christ over the nations, the Associate Presbyterian Church (Seceders) argued that Christ as God is King over the nations, but not as Man. The Reformed Presbyterian Church (Covenanters) replied with the doctrine of the Mediatorial Kingship of Christ over the nations, suggesting that the Seceder doctrine implicitly denied the Chalcedonian doctrine of the union of the two natures of Christ in one Person forever. (4)
Most discussions of the Kingship of Christ over the nations deal with when Christ became (will become) King over the nations, how far his law and authority extend, and what implications his Reign has for nations. This paper instead will begin with what a look at what the Bible has to say about nations and their rulers.
Nations in the Old Testament
Before narrating the call of Abram, Moses records a Table of Nations, concluding, “These were the families of the sons of Noah, according to their generations, in their nations; and from these the nations were divided on the earth after the flood.” (5) The ancient Greeks and Egyptians knew they had neighbors; only the Bible remembers the unity of a single human race. Besides common descent, Moses records the division of the human race into nations on the basis of common language after the Tower of Babel. (6) Paul notes two more characteristics of a nation: it inhabits its own territory, and it has its own times, that is, its own history “[God] has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and has determined their pre-appointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings.” (7) God may move a nation to a new territory, bringing the Philistines from Caphtor to Canaan and Israel from Egypt to Canaan, for example. (8) Sometimes He brings a nation’s history to an end, as He did to the Amorites when their iniquity was full. (9) Nations usually had their own kings to rule them. Lastly, the Bible notes with disapproval that each nation has its own gods, which it has made.
Common language, common descent, common territory, common history, common rule, and a common religion make a nation. Sometimes only three or four of them are necessary to mark off a nation. The nation of Israel in Egypt did not yet have its own territory or its own rulers; the Swiss speak several languages; Americans do not share much in the way of common descent. Finally, the Bible recognizes that not all people belong to nations, hence the variety of groupings in Revelation: “After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could number, of all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb...crying...’Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.’” (10) Nevertheless, most people belong to what the Bible calls nations, and throughout the Old Testament God dealt with the nations both through Israel and sometimes in their own right, because the nations belong to Him.
After the call of Abraham and the growth of the children of Israel into a great nation, the main interest of the Old Testament in the nations is in their relationship to Israel and to Israel’s God. For example, God makes a distinction between Edom, Moab, and Ammon on one hand and the Canaanites and the Amorites on the other. The first three are related to Israel by a common descent, Moab and Ammon from Abraham’s nephew Lot, and Edom from Israel’s brother Esau. Therefore, God tells Israel not to dispossess these nations. (11) But the Canaanites and the Amorites they are to destroy utterly because they have become detestable to God and lest their foreign gods and foreign ways lead Israel away for their God and His law. (12)
As the centuries passed, Israel had to deal with neighboring nations. For a long time, the Philistines were their main enemy. Then under David and Solomon, they united all of the little nations around them in a Davidic empire that stretched from Egypt to beyond Damascus. Later they contended with the Syrians; then the Assyrians, Phoenicians, and Babylonians dispersed them wide and far. Under the Persians a small remnant returned to Jerusalem, later passing to Greek control and then to Roman.
Through it all, Israel had a mission to the nations because God had promised Abraham, “In you all families of the earth will be blessed.” (13) Even as Israel left Egypt, He reminded them that all the earth is His. (14) He told them that their law would evoke the admiration of the nations. (15) Through the centuries that followed, God brought foreigners to Israel, from the “mixed multitude” that came up our of Egypt with Israel, to Rahab the Canaanite, Ruth the Moabitess, the Philistines who served David, the Queen of Sheba who came to hear Solomon, and the leper Naaman the Syrian who came to Israel to be healed. (16)
Moreover, God continued to deal with the nations around Israel. He sent Joseph to Egypt and dreams to Pharaoh; then centuries later ten plagues on Egypt to teach them that He is God. He plagued the Philistines until they sent the Ark of the Covenant back to Israel. He sent Elishah to Syria to anoint a Syrian king, later letting the Syrians know that He knew their plans before they make them. He warned Ninevah of impending judgment. He pronounced judgment on Syria, Phoenicia, and Philistia for crimes against humanity. He astonished Babylon by destroying Sennacherib’s army near Jerusalem. He humbled Nebuchadnezzar, so that he acknowledged the God of Israel, and by protecting Daniel in a den of lions, He proved His greatness to the Persians. (17)
Through the prophets and in the Psalms, God repeatedly revealed His future plans not only for Israel, but for the nations. He would give His Servant as a light to the nations, bringing salvation to the coastlands and to the ends of the earth. (18) He would bring the nations to Jerusalem to pray before the Lord. (19) He would again raise up the House of David, to possess the Gentiles who are called by the Lord’s name. (20) The Psalms repeatedly call on all nations to praise the Lord. (21)
The Old Testament delineates nations by name, according to their language, common descent, rule by the same king, inhabiting a territory with boundaries, common history, and worshiping the same gods. It also notes that nobles and kings govern nations, that is, elites always rule. Psalm 2, in particular, describes the condition of the nations before God and His Anointed. They are in rebellion. Their kings and rulers, their governing elites, lead the rebellion. That rebellion puts the nations in great peril, because God has put His Anointed in power and given him authority to break all opposition to Him. Therefore, the Psalm advises kings to submit to God’s Anointed, lest they and their nation perish. (22) The prophets indeed foretell that kings will submit to God’s Servant. “Kings shall see and arise, Princes also shall worship.” “So shall He sprinkle many nations. Kings shall shut their mouths at Him.” “Kings shall be your foster fathers, and their queens your nursing mothers; they shall bow down to you with their faces to the ground.” (23) The prophets and Psalms anticipate not just lots of people from different nations serving the Lord, but nations and their kings submitting to God and His Anointed King. That anointed King is Jesus Christ, king of nations.
Nations in the New Testament and Christ’s Rule Over the Nations
By the time of Jesus’ birth c. 4 B.C., the nations of the Mediterranean basin had been incorporated into the Roman Empire. Each had a measure of home rule. The Edomite Herod the Great, successor to the independent Hasmonean Dynasty founded by the Maccabees about one hundred fifty years earlier, ruled the provinces of Judea, Samaria, Perea, and Galilee. He was a loyal ally of Rome, which gave him the title King of the Jews. He greatly enlarged the Temple, built the seaport Caeserea, but failed to win much popularity. Jewish families, meanwhile, named their sons after the Maccabee father Matthew and his sons John, Simon, Judas, Eleazer, and Jonathan. (24)
Three parties vied for support: Zealots who wanted to repeat the Maccabean revolt, Pharisees zealous for the Law and traditions of the Jews, and Saduccees zealous to control the high priesthood and the Jewish Sanhedrin. A Roman governor commanded minimal forces, mostly in Jerusalem and at Caeserea. All knew that the prophets had promised that God would send a descendant of David to save Israel; indeed, the expectation of a messiah had spread beyond the Jews into Gentile thinking.
In all the major cities of the Empire and beyond, there were large Jewish colonies. Jews and even some Gentiles thought of their world as made up of Jews and Gentiles. Jewish synagogues attracted many Gentile God-fearers and even some newly circumcised proselytes. Every Passover, many of these synagogue worshipers made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, often staying fifty days until the Feast of Weeks (Pentecost).
Thus, in the fullness of time, while Augustus was Emperor, Jesus was born in Bethlehem. His putative father, Joseph, belonged to the family of David, as perhaps did his mother Mary as well. (25) The angel who announced Jesus’ birth to Mary said, “...the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David.” The old priest Zacharias, father of John the Baptist, praised God because He “has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of His servant David.” The angels told the shepherds, “For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” In the Temple, aged Simeon took Jesus in his arms and blessed God, “For my eyes have seen Your salvation...a light to bring revelation to the Gentiles.” Magi came from the east, asking, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews?” Citing Micah 5:2, the scribes told Herod to direct them to Bethlehem. (26)
Jesus, called a prophet by some, addressed regularly as Teacher, appealed to for help in Jericho by blind Bartimaeus, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me,” accepted his disciples’ identification of him as “the Christ,” that is, the Messiah. (27) He rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, in deliberate fulfillment of Zechariah 9:9, “Tell the daughter of Zion, Behold, your King is coming to you, lowly, and sitting on a donkey,” accepting the accolades of the people, “Hosanna to the Son of David.” (28) In the subsequent Temple disputations with his scribal antagonists, Jesus directed them to Psalm 110 in a way that identified Himself with David’s Son, who is nevertheless David’s Lord. (29) On trial for His life, He admitting to being the Messiah. (30)
Despite all of the talk of His being Lord, the Son of David, the Messiah, Jesus resolutely refused the usual trappings of kingship. After feeding the five thousand, when the populace threatened to take him by force and crown Him king, He hid from them. (31) He said things like, “My kingdom is not of this world.” (32) He told parables which clearly indicated that He was like a king who went on a long journey, leaving his realm to others to rule in his absence. Given the chance to declare open resistance to Rome in a question about taxes, He replied mildly, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.” (33) He was sufficiently unlike a successor to the Maccabees, that Governor Pilate knew that Jesus was innocent of charges brought against Him by the Sanhedrin, their true motive being envy. When Jesus told Pilate that his power of life and death over him was his only because Jesus’ Father in heaven had granted Pilate that power, Pilate became even more afraid to convict Jesus. (34) The Jewish leaders had to bully Pilate into a verdict of guilty. (35) To irritate the Jews, Pilate posted the charge against Jesus in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin: Jesus of Nazareth, the Kind of the Jews. (36) After Jesus was crucified, Pilate made no effort to round up His followers, clearly showing that he understood that Jesus and His many followers represented no threat to Rome’s rule.
Fifty days later, Peter and the others announced at the Temple that Jesus had risen from the dead according to the Scriptures, they had seen Him many times, and He had ascended to heaven to sit at the right hand of God until He made His enemies his footstool. Avoiding the word “king,” Peter called Jesus “both Lord and Christ.” (37) About three thousand people were baptized that day and were added to the existing one hundred twenty of Jesus’ followers who had been meeting already in Jerusalem after Jesus’ Ascension.
The news of Jesus’ victory over sin and death was not just for the Jews. Jesus planned for it to go immediately to the nations. Therefore, He sent His Spirit at Pentecost so that the one hundred twenty spoke in many different languages that day. Not only people from the Roman world who understood Greek or Latin, but also Arabs from the south, people from Mesopotamia to the east, Medes from even further east than Mesopotamia, Parthians from the northeast beyond Roman rule, and Syrians who spoke Aramaic heard the message in their own languages. By granting the power to speak in different languages rather than the power for all to understand the Aramaic or Hebrew that Peter probably used, Jesus confirmed the place of nations in His Kingdom. Babel was not undone; it was transcended. Greeks come into Christ’s Kingdom and become its citizens, but they remain Greeks. No need for circumcision, the sign of Jewish identity. Likewise, Armenians come into Christ’s Kingdom, becoming Christians, but they remain Armenians, and so on. One point of Pentecost, therefore, is that the nations remain nations.
Nations, likewise, remain structured as nations. In the two thousand years since Christ’s enthronement, nations continue to be marked by a common language, territory, history, rule, descent, and religion. Christ the King claims them in their full identity for Himself, as an examination of the Book of Acts will indicate: their gods must give way to the worship of Jesus, their rulers should believe, when their law conflicts with Jesus’ Word, His Word prevails.
Acts begins in Jerusalem and ends in Rome (1:8). In chapter two, Jesus called men from many nations in their own languages (2:8-11). Chapter three ends with God’s promise to Abraham: in his seed all the families of the earth would be blessed (3:25). Chapter four quotes Psalm 2: the nations and their rulers rebel against God and His Anointed, so Herod and Pilate joined to kill Jesus (4:25-27), implying that the call in Psalm 2 for kings and rulers to obey God’s Anointed applies to rulers like Pilate and Herod. In chapter five, Peter boldly told the Jewish leaders that Jesus’ command trumps theirs (5:29). In chapter six, the Jews charge Jesus’ disciples with planning to change Moses’ customs (6:14). The same charges are later made in Philippi by Romans (16:21), in Corinth by Jews (18:13), and in Ephesus by Greeks about their inherited religion (18:26ff). God has appointed Jesus the Man as Judge of all nations (17:31).
The Book of Acts takes special note of how government officials, members of the elites who rule nations, react to the Gospel. A eunuch from Ethiopia of great authority believed (8:26-39). Jesus converted Saul of Tarsus, promising to send him to the Gentiles and to kings (9:15). The centurion Cornelius believed (chapter 10). Then the church accepted the truth that God is granting life to the Gentiles, not just as non-Jews, but as continuing members of their own nations: Luke immediately mentions preaching in Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch (11:18-20). When Herod Agrippa killed the Apostle James and accepted praise due to God alone, the Lord struck him dead (12:23). In Cyprus, the proconsul Sergius Paulus believed (13:7, 12). After Paul was arrested in Jerusalem and sent to Caeserea for safe keeping, Paul preached to Jewish leaders (22 - 23), to Governor Felix who was greatly affected but did not believe (24:25), to Governor Festus who was also affected (26:24), to King Agrippa and to Bernice (25:23) (later mistress of both Vespasian (emperor from 69 A.D. until his death) and Titus (emperor from 79 A.D. until his death). Paul challenged Agrippa, “’King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know that you do believe.’” Then Agrippa said to Paul, ‘You almost persuade me to become a Christian’” (26:28). Eventually, Paul reached Rome as a prisoner, writing from there to the church in Philippi about the believers in Caesar’s household. (38)
The Book of Acts with its interest in kings and government officials, with its insistence that Jesus’ word trumps local religious custom and government commands, with its universal interest in all nations in their own languages matches Jesus’ claim before His Ascension that all authority in heaven and in earth is His. (39) He sits at God the Father’s right hand until all enemies are subdued “that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow...and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord....” (40) Kings and rulers, the elites and the nations that they rule, should bow to Jesus. (41)Jesus is King of kings and Lord of lords, now! (42)
The Bible teaches that Christ is King over the nations. He is their judge. He claims the obedience of their rulers. When their law conflicts with His law, His law wins. Such teaching makes American Christians almost cringe. It summons all of the real and imagined failings of Christendom, both the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) and the Western, with its Emperor-Pope struggles, its corruptions, and its Wars of Religion. Of course, the results of attempts to run formerly Christian nations without God as in Soviet Russia, Nazi Germany, French Revolution France, and the Islamic countries of the Middle East, which were once Christian should make people less critical of Christendom’s sins. Nevertheless, in an age of democracy, to use the language of kingship sounds “retrograde,” as the Catholic intellectual Joseph Buttom said. And while Americans are still gripped by a myth of secular progress, who can bear to be thought retrograde?
Nevertheless, Christ reigns. And a nation that forgets God, that covers up its rebellion against God with the sociological label “secularization” and makes its own laws of life and death in defiance of God’s Law will deal with the fact that Christ sits at the right hand of God. He claims the nations for His own, and God has made Him judge of all nations. Christians who content themselves with individual, family, and church obedience, but who make their peace with national disobedience, will nevertheless find that our well-being in this life remains profoundly tied up with the well being of the nation where we reside. (43) If God had a word for Ninevah, that great city, surely now that Christ the King has come, He has a word for all nations now: Repent, and serve Him. If He raised one nation up and brought another one down in Israel’s day, how much more today when His Word is being preached to all nations. “Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord.” (44)
(1) I have sometimes quoted Jesus, especially his parables, in my public high school classes, often getting an instant outburst at mention of the name “Jesus,” “You can’t say that here.” When I quoted Jesus in a graduate seminar in history at the University of Pennsylvania, the pained and embarrassed silence was almost hilarious. The newsman Brit Hume knew how loudly he would be scolded when he publicly advised the golfer Tiger Woods that there was nothing in Buddhism for him, only in Christianity could he find repentance and a new beginning. And when George W. Bush named Jesus as his “favorite philosopher” he instantly lost any respect large numbers of Americans might ever have had for him.
(2) Partial transcript of video from EWTN interview May 3, 2009, posted on YouTube. Richard John Neuhaus died January 8, 2009.
(3) Lindsey, There's a New World Coming, 1973, p. 30
(4) Samuel E. Boyle, ch 10 “The Mediatorial Kingship of Jesus Christ Controversy Between Seceders and Covenanters Over Civil Government,” The Christian Nation, 1971. David Scott, Distinctive Principles of the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Albany, 1841, and William Symington, Messiah the Prince, Edinburgh, 1881, lay out the same arguments from reason and Scripture that the Covenanters used in their dispute with the Seceders.
(5) Genesis 10:32 All Scripture citations, unless otherwise noted, are from the New King James translation. “Nations” is for the Hebrew goi, an extremely common word in the Old Testament, meaning “a nation, a corporate body.”
(6) Genesis 11:1-9 God Himself has hindered the cooperation of the nations in rebellion against Him by giving them different languages.
(7) Acts 17:26, cf. Deuteronomy 32:8
(8) Amos 9:7
(9) Genesis 15:16
(10) Revelation 7:9-10
(11) Numbers 20: 14-21, Deuteronomy 2:19
(12) Deuteronomy 7:16, 12:29-32
(13) Genesis 12:3
(14) Exodus 19:5
(15) Deuteronomy 4:6-8
(16) Exodus 12:38, 48; Joshua 6:25; Ruth 4:13-17; II Samuel 15:19-21; II Kings 5:17
(17) Genesis 41, Exodus 7:5, I Samuel 6:1-6, I Kings 19:15 & II Kings 8:9-13, II Kings 6:11-12, Amos 1, Jonah 1-4, II Kings 19:35, 20:12, Daniel 4, 6:25-27
(18) Isaiah 49:1-7
(19) Zechariah 8:20-23
(20) Amos 9:11-12
(21) Psalm 67, 72, 86, 117
(22) Psalm 2
(23) Isaiah 49:7, 52:15, 49:23
(24) See the analysis of Jewish names in the first century A.D. in
(25) Galatians 4:4, Matthew 2:5, Luke 2:4
(26) Luke1:32, 69, 2:11, 30-32, Matthew 2:2-6
(27) Mark 10:47, Matthew 16:16
(28) Matthew 21:1-11
(29) Mark 12:35-37
(30) Mark 14:61-62, with a reference to a clear messianic prophesy in Daniel 7:13
(31) John 6:15
(32) John 18:36
(33) Mark 12:17
(34) John 19:11-12
(35) The Gospels are unanimous that Pilate found Jesus innocent. Matthew 27:24, Luke 23:4, 14, John 18:38, even though he was well aware that Jesus was charged with claiming to be the King of the Jews, and even though Jesus Himself accepted this title from Pilate. Matthew 27:11, John 18:33-36, 19:12
(36) John 19:19. The other Gospels have different wording, perhaps depending on whether they took the charge from the Greek, Hebrew, or Latin. Matthew 27:37, Mark 15:26, Luke 23:38.
(37) Acts 2:22-36
(38) Philippians 1:13. “All the saints greet you, especially those who are of Caesar’s household.” 4:22
(39) Matthew 28:18
(40) Psalm 110, Philippians 2:10
(41) Psalm 2
(42) Revelation 17:14, 19:16
(43) See Jeremiah 29:4-7
(44) Psalm 33:12