I had the great honor of conducting an interview with Dr. Cherith Fee Nordling (of Northern Seminary, Chicago) regarding the kingdom of God and some of its everyday implications. This is part one of a transcript of an hour-long phone conversation (stay tuned for part 2). My questions are in bold.
The kingdom of God is a phrase that gets thrown around so often. Do you feel that it’s used in its proper sense, and in your mind what does Jesus mean by this?
Cherith: How about you give me some examples of conflicting ways that you feel it’s used?
Sure. Some view the kingdom of God more as social justice, whereas some might see it more as soteriology, and a certain dichotomy is created. I’m wondering if this dichotomy exists in the Gospels, or if it’s something that perhaps we impose on the Gospel texts?
Cherith: That’s a great question. I think probably having to pull back, Jesus’ talk about the kingdom is to talk about the King; the kingdom doesn’t exist apart from him. It’s that question then of ‘What are we trying to do when we are using ‘the kingdom of God’ as a phrase that is sort of dislodged from Christology or Trinitarian theology?’ In the sense of, what if it [the kingdom of God] actually takes seriously that Jesus of Nazareth as the Incarnate Son is still human, and still incarnate, and has a body, and is still Jewish (and he’s probably about four inches shorter than me), and he is the one who is reigning, and that everything is under his feet? That he’s busy? That he didn’t go back somewhere and drop his body and go back to unity with the Father in some spiritual sense and then pass on the Spirit with a baton saying, “Okay, now it’s your turn: go to the church and figure out how to enact ‘the kingdom of God’ with them?”
Jesus didn’t just die for people soteriologically, but he became like them so that they could become like him. And he has stayed like them forever. He does not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage, but becomes nothing, becomes like us, becomes human children, and without ceasing to be the Son. He does cease (by his own choosing in the triune life) to have access to his divine power, except by the power of the Holy Spirit. So, he has become like you and me, and the only way that we get to do the things of God is to do them by the Spirit. The Son (who is the Incarnate Son of God!) literally limits himself to live a truly human life in obedience to the father. And his way of obeying is empowerment.
Can you say more about how you see Jesus limiting himself in obedience to the Father?
Cherith: You read the Gospel and you see Jesus going about and doing the work of the kingdom. As he says, “I’m doing what the Father’s doing.” Jesus starts from a similar place we do in discerning the will of the Father, in prayer. It’s as if he’s saying: “I want you to pray. I could write a whole prayer book, but I’m going to give you one prayer and it’s going to be a reorienting-human-in-relation-to-God-and-the-rest-of-the-world prayer, and it’s going to reorder Genesis 3 and it’s going to reorient everything to my life, which is that when we wake up in the morning, we bless the Father, whose kingdom is cosmic. That it’s to be in this broken earth as it is in heaven, and so you are going to live into that today. And the will of the father is going to be done because you were empowered once by the Spirit and you are going to stand as forgiven ones with the Forgiver, and you are going to forgive those who have sinned against you so that you stay free in the Spirit to respond to the Father instead of be shaped by the brokenness that occurs in your life to you and through you; so you live as children in forgiveness. And then you are going to face the same temptations by the evil one that I do all day every day.”
You see Jesus reckoning with every single human temptation starting from his baptism. He gets baptized and God says ‘You’re the son of God, You’re the king, you’re the Messianic fulfilment.’ And then the first thing that happens is the Holy Spirit thrusts him, that’s the great key, he thrusts him into the desert to reckon with what happened to him. Jesus has to come into that place of submission to the Father since he knows that, actually this does not turn out really well for the Messiah if you read Isaiah 52 and 53. And he knows the text, he knows Israel’s history, he has this unique relationship to the Father, he knows from his mother and dad and his aunt and uncle and his cousins his crazy birth story, and he grows into a relationship with the Father in a way that you and I do not understand, but he still has to grow into that relationship. He does not have a Docetic or Apolinarian mind where he knows what people are thinking every minute. When he knows what somebody’s thinking—in the same way that when you or I know what somebody’s thinking when we are praying for them and God gives us a word of knowledge or wisdom, or a prophetic word, it’s because the Spirit is revealing that. So, you watch his life and realize, as he has to go into the desert, that the enemy is not simply saying to make bread out of stones or to jump from this pinnacle, exercise your authority and see if angels will come. The enemy is saying, ‘Why don’t you try that? Cause you really shouldn’t trust the Father. Because it’s not gonna turn out so well, but if you go with me I can give you all that power, without you having to suffer. We could do this in a different way, you know.’ Which is exactly what Genesis 3 is about! ‘You really shouldn’t trust God! He’s really not trustworthy, he lies, and he doesn’t really have your best interest at heart.’ And I feel like the enemy is doing it again but to our new Adam, to make him fall, but he doesn’t. And the text says “the enemy left him for a more opportune time,” which means all day, every day.
That’s truly incredible to think about. Can you say more about the ways that this impacts our understanding of soteriology?
Cherith: Sure. On one hand, here is Jesus who is our Incarnate King as the Son of God. But it says in Philippians 2 that as he poured himself out, that he gave his life—and even death—not just death, but death on a cross, which is saved for false kings, or runaway slaves. And right before that the text says “and he became a slave for all.” So, here he is, a person who ironically gets killed by the world for being precisely what he is; and yet because he does it out of obedience—by the Spirit and with the Father—this becomes the mechanism, the event, by which they save the world sacrificially. Philippians goes on to say that “Because of this the Father has exalted him to the highest place,” and suddenly Paul has the language of Isaiah for Yahweh–that this one who we all thought was just a man on whom the Spirit rested has in fact been exalted to the highest place in Yahweh. He truly is God, but also what happens is that as he ascends to the highest place, and seated at the right hand of the Father, humanity is seated at the right hand of the Father.
Human beings are finally in the proper place that they’re supposed to be, which is to exercise the dominion of God upon the earth. Now you finally have a true human who’s beginning to exercise that authority with and for us and on behalf of us, and he says ‘I’m the one who gets to baptize in the Spirit so that you too will participate with me in what I am doing.’ It’s like in John’s language of the Apocalypse, when he opens up the revelation praising the One who was and is, but then mentions “the Faithful witness” who is telling the truth about God and about humanity and about everything else in relation to God, by his life. Jesus is the faithful witness, he is the firstborn from among the dead, he is the first of a new race of humanity, and he is the ruler of the kings of this earth. Now that is not a passive word; that is an active word!
So the activity of the King—Jesus—is essential to understanding what it means when we talk about the kingdom?
Cherith: Absolutely. Ascension does not mean floating, and it does not mean raising up and disappearing. Ascension is the language you use for coronation. When Queen Elizabeth ascended to the throne of England in place of her father, that’s ascension. Ascension is to be coronated, to be exalted to your position of highest authority. And it’s from this position of highest authority now that the still and forever eternally incarnate Lord Jesus is busy being the ruler of the kings of this world, busy bringing forward his kingdom until its final completion, busy standing in the places of suffering for those who suffer.
Suffering is a huge question for lots of people. Can you say more about Jesus standing in the places of suffering?
Cherith: He has held their suffering in his own because he knew they would suffer. He is the one who is not worried about who won our presidential election. At the end of the day, whichever way the election went, it would still be a broken world over which he would have to exercise his beautiful cruciform lordship. At the end of the day also his would be the last word over every nation, and every leader, every oppressed marginalized fringe person who desperately needs social justice. When the rest of us don’t care at all about the poor, or social justice, Jesus is still the one who is standing in for the poor because he is the high priestly king. He is the king in the line of David but he is the king in the order of Melchizedek, and Melchizedek was a priest-king. Now the priestly office of the priest-king is not just that he ruled with the authority of God, but that he could mediate the presence of humanity before God AND turn around and pour out the blessing of God’s forgiveness and delight and love and flourishing. What’s so great is to have one friend among you who is really like you who can stand in for you, and Jesus is permanently (and ongoingingly) doing that work as a priest for a broken humanity. When the father looks at you and me he already sees us finished and beautiful because he sees his Son, and at the same time they love us in our place of deep desperation and brokenness because this is where relationship happens.
How have you seen or experienced this kind of high-priest mediation in your own life?
Cherith: So, I think that ultimately what I’ve been discovering in my own life and experience and theology is to start taking Jesus, just Jesus’ way more seriously so that I can refigure out how to learn my humanity from him. To learn my humanity from him as my ongoing elder brother, who happens to be the Lord of the universe. But he’s not just a spiritual elder brother, but he’s the firstborn of a new human race, and my salvation is ultimately the redemption of my body. I can live as a human being, restored and renewed, and get my life back eternally as a human being so that I can actually start being who God gave me before the creation of the world to be. How do I know what this looks like? Because I am being conformed into the image of the Son, the firstborn from among many brothers and sisters. I thought ‘Well, Jesus is still doing what the father is doing. They’re still connecting their lives on the margins and in the centers and everywhere else. And everything is under his feet; if He is the Lord and ruler of ALL things then all is his kingdom.’
In 1 Corinthians 15 Jesus doesn’t start saying “everything is done.” He stands and sort of offers that kingdom to the Father, but he stands with us. He doesn’t sit next to the Father and say, “isn’t it all great how it all turned out?” and then look over at us. He’s says: “I’m with them.”
I’m learning not to separate the kingdom from fulfillment in Jesus as our new beginning, which has not yet totally taken place yet, and which I don’t want to call the end. But if the eschaton, in that original sense of the word of eschaton, is the end of the present age so that we can have the beginning of the new age–which is the age of God and the age of the Spirit–then we are people who are practicing the future in the present by the power of the Spirit. We are manifesting what looks like, at least to a small degree, when things are made new.
Is it fair to say, then, that the Kingdom of God is to be both the person of Jesus, and the practice what the fullness of the Kingdom looks like, in small ways today?
Cherith: Yes, I think so. I feel that what Jesus is inviting each one of us to do is to wake up in the morning and to hear the joy in the voice of the Father and the Son and the Spirit. They are saying, “We are so glad that you woke up. We waited for you before the creation of the world and you wear our image, uniquely from any other child that we ever had, and we don’t need you. We didn’t need you to make our love complete. We are a beautiful, triune completion in our love for each other, so actually you’re our present to ourself. You are the overflow of our love, and we delight in you.”
So, wake up! Because today Jesus is doing the work and the purposes of bringing the future closer to consummation. Submit to him in the mundane, and in the extraordinary. As the Spirit wakes you up bit by bit, pay attention. As you’re reading the Gospel and seeing the days that Jesus did some pretty crazy stuff–like multiply bread and walk on water—think to yourself: how did he hear the Father tell him to do that? Ask him, “Jesus, you were exhausted, you were in the boat desperate to get out of there, and you were on your way out. And yet, you actually obeyed the Father. You would rest when he told you to rest, and unusually, on this day you turned the boat around to go back to this very hungry group of people who seemed to be hungrier for what you had to say than they were for food in their bellies.”
I read through Mark this way last year. Slowly, slowly, slowly reading this Gospel; just sitting for days on end with each story, until I could just smell it. I would think, and ask Jesus, ‘If you’re really like me and you’re asking me to become like you, then this is the thought that would go through my head in that situation.’ I would say, ‘Father, right here it says Jesus was filled with compassion that day.’ Okay, that’s the old Hebrew word hesed, or emet, and that’s the character of God. This is a God-moment, a moment steeped in hesed, that’s turning that boat around and getting him up on that hillside to teach, in his weakness.
As I was reading through Mark, I read the story of the feeding of the five thousand while I was on my little island. There are times when the ferries can’t come, and there really isn’t anything in the store. On the island, people really have to share stuff with their neighbors. And as I was reading this story, I’m thinking about all of this, and how when the food on this little island is gone, it’s gone, and here is the Father saying ‘Son, you can see they’re hungry; pay attention.’ And I wondered, at what point is Jesus hearing from the Father?
What Jesus did NOT do that day was say, ‘I’m going to pretend I’m tired, and pretend that I really don’t know what people are going to do, and then suddenly do a miracle that day and that’ll get them!’ That’s precisely what he’s not doing since he says he’s listening to the Father and he says, “I only do what the father tells me to do.” So, he multiplies the bread in this crazy scenario and then he is absolutely wiped out. He’s says, ‘Okay you guys take the ferry across the lake and I’ll see you tomorrow.’
Jesus goes off to pray, and as he’s praying, I wonder if he can see the storm come up on the lake, the same way I can see the storm come up over the water around the island. I think: “Okay, it says that you were up praying and now you can see that your disciples in some serious trouble, real trouble. You’re fearful for them.”
I walked as I was reading up to the rocks in front of our house where the water is, and I thought, ‘When you came down to the water that day, I don’t think you woke up that morning thinking “I think today I’ll walk on water.” In fact, maybe you were thinking “Oh Father, you’re there in times of trouble. Is this a moment that where by your authority and my authority in you I am to call the wind and waves into submission again?” Because he’s done that once. Instead, he hears the Father say ‘I want you to start walking.’
And I’m standing there with my feet in this freezing cold water up in Canada, thinking: Jesus, would I trust the Father like you do? You didn’t do that by being God. You did that because you ARE the God-man, and you did that because the Father asked you to. And you didn’t have a conversation with him about HOW. You just obeyed him. As I stood there by the water and thought about this, I thought about how God called Jesus to exercise his authority. It’s not very often in this sort of big right handed, even though it’s the right hand of the father. It’s a very left handed, sideways, curious, the-kingdom-of-God-is-like way that leave you thinking ‘What?!’
Think about some of the parables Jesus told. They’re so odd, so much more gracious, so different, and so much more about justice for the people than we want to pay attention to, right? Think about the parable of the day laborer, who you know got paid unfairly because he got paid a whole days’ wage! His family needed to eat too even if he only worked an hour. The generosity of God is abundantly generous, but we want equality and so we start thinking: “that isn’t fair.” You don’t really want it to be fair, do you? Because if it’s fair it’s going to be fair to you too, and you don’t want that. What we want is Jesus, and his gracious reign and rule and love.
How far do you think Jesus’ reign and rule extends? Should Christians be concerned about where the boundaries fall?
Cherith: I think if we try to define the kingdom and the boundaries of the kingdom to the church alone, or to the acts of God in the world, then we stop listening to the King by the power of the Spirit. When we stop listening to the Spirit, we may be tempted to think, ‘Jesus what you’re going to ask Paul to be today, you might not ask me to be today.’ But if we compared our family narrative around the dinner table, what we would hear is the character of God in what each of us did today. We would be able to bear witness to the kingdom of God because it looked and sounded like Yahweh, even though it was the weirdest thing, or the most mundane thing. And so even with the temptation to go write a book about the kingdom, I am really resisting that temptation.
Jesus is all about the fact when you think you’ve grasped it, the minute you think you know what it is, that’s precisely when you don’t know what you’re talking about. That all who think they know, don’t. It’s so much bigger, and so much more upside down. The kingdom is so much more gracious, and it’s so much more costly at the same time. We just want it to a part of our life, but it costs our whole lives, and at the same time it’s sort of lavish.
Any final thoughts?
Cherith: I would close with this. I feel like Jesus keeps saying to me: “Cherith, please keep pointing people to me, and not their idea of me and not their projection of me, but to take seriously my true humanity that’s given to them in the Gospel. And the fact that nobody in the New Testament ever wondered if I was a man. NO ONE.” That’s why the Apostle Paul is slaughtering people. The one thing he doesn’t wonder is if Jesus of Nazareth was truly human. What he can’t get his mind around is that they would say the word “Kurios” or Lord next to Jesus, because that is the name he reserved for Yahweh alone and it is the unspeakable name and they are putting that with Jesus of Nazareth. And Paul’s response is, ‘Over my dead body.’
The question is why is the New Testament full of the Lordship of Christ? And the answer is because it’s so astonishing that God has taken this man, who none of us recognized to be God, and not just brought him back to his truly divine position, but brought humanity with him into the very Triune life of God. He brought humanity to keep it there forever and to reign with him as the divine human who allows humanity to start entering to their call through him and through his power. That is an amazing thing.
The kingdom of God then is everywhere. And it’s more about paying attention to what the King happens to be doing or wanting us to do with him as a participation, than it is about a boundary that says ‘Am I in or am I out.’ It depends on your starting point. It depends on whether the kingdom has its own definition or whether the King, in the language of Ephesians 1 or Colossians 1, says that all things are being placed under his feet until such time as they are all finally made new in him. So, who am I to say in advance, what is the kingdom or not the kingdom? Paul says, ‘All things are Christ’s.’ All things are yours, because all things are Christ’s and Christ is God, so why would you start saying some things are yours and some things are not yours if everything is his and he’s renewing everything? Don’t make it smaller. Pay attention!
*Dr. Cherith Fee Nordling (Ph.D, University of St. Andrews) is the associate professor of theology at Northern Seminary. A sought-after speaker, she has taught and lectured at numerous colleges and seminaries in many different capacities. Having finished working with her father, Gordon Fee, on condensing his respected work Pauline Christology (the condensed version, now available as of January 2018), her most recent undertaking is a book on learning to be truly human—and Christian—from Jesus. She is also one of the authors of Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms as well as the author of Knowing God by Name: a conversation between Elizabeth A. Johnson and Karl Barth.