How Jesus the Messiah Conquered Rome

It is no secret that one of the major reasons Jesus got crucified is because He wouldn’t do the #1 thing that the Jews were expecting their Messiah to do: overthrow Israel’s Roman oppressors. Time and again they sought this of Him, but He refused to align Himself with not only any existing revolutionary movements but even any revolutionary sentiments. This certainly would have seemed to some of them as a dead giveaway that He couldn’t be the Messiah, for everyone knew that the Messiah’s most important job would be to topple pagan empire.

Of course, any doubts as to Jesus’ qualifications as Messiah had to be laid to rest when He was raised by God from the dead and therefore publicly vindicated. By no means could this happen if He was not who He claimed to be. So it would seem to be that the requirement to overthrow Israel’s enemies, especially Rome, was not actually necessary for His Messianic role.

Or was it?

The truth is that, although He redefined every element of that story in doing it, Jesus did in fact conquer His people’s pagan oppressors. When all the dust settled, the Lord Jesus stood victorious over Lord Caesar. What precisely do I mean by this?

The Jews expected from their Messiah a quick military conquest rescuing the nation of Israel from Roman rule. Jesus did not fulfill these expectations at all, but He nonetheless won the Messianic victory they were looking for. This victory was prophesied in Revelation, in which the Kingdom of Christ overcomes the kingdom of the beast, which (at least in the original instance) is Rome. This was fulfilled by reorienting each component of the Jewish expectation.

The very first reorientation was the nature of Israel itself. The ethnic Israel alive at that time was not suitable to be Kingdom people, for they were natural and fleshly. They had only a heart of stone, a word written on tablets, and needed a heart of flesh, the Word made flesh. They were bound to their natural lusts and needed the freedom of the Holy Spirit. So Jesus formed Israel anew around Himself. He made a new, reborn Israel beginning with Himself and His resurrection and expanding to the Apostles and their hearers, and He baptized them into the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. This people, the Israel of God reborn in Christ, would be the one to stand victorious over Rome, not the original, dying, fleshly Israel cursed by the Law. Jerusalem fell, but so did Rome, and only the Church of these three remained.

Following this change was a change in the means of conquest. The Jews expected the Messiah’s conquest to be a military victory, in which by God’s power He would lead a new Israelite army like those of old to march on Rome with weapons of war. Jesus won, however, in a different way. His army did not win by killing, but by being killed as martyrs. They did not fight with swords of steel, but with the sword of the Spirit, which is the Gospel. By the power of the Spirit this unconventional warfare slowly overturned the forces which sought to crush Christ and His people. Millions of Romans found themselves crucified with Christ and then raised to newness of life through the proclamation of His Word.

Naturally, such a radically different conquest did not take place publicly in the short span of time which the Jews had anticipated, but rather worked slowly and secretly. Like a mustard seed, the Kingdom of Christ grew as person after person was baptized into a new allegiance which trumped their allegiance to Rome. It took hundreds of years, but eventually the rule of the beast fell to ruin while the rule of God continued to advance, and indeed still advances. The empire which crucified Jesus in the first century came to be ruled by His Church (albeit in a very imperfect way) in the fourth and fell to only a memory behind it in the sixth. Today, the Roman Empire is of but historical interest, whereas the Kingdom of God continues to march and claim a massive citizenry.

In the end, then, Christ did conquer Rome. That famous empire eventually submitted itself to His Church, and finally died while the Church lived on. Granted, the Church ran into problems of its own in both of these scenarios, but it lives on, unlike Rome, and the Gospel of Christ continues to be a powerful weapon conquering peoples of every tribe, tongue, and nation.

But what does it matter to notice this? Why should we care that, technically speaking, Jesus did defeat Rome? Two things come to mind. On the one hand, it is a reminder that no world system, political or cultural, will last forever, but God and His Kingdom in Christ will. His reign will never end. No matter what any government, military, or institutions throw at us, God reigns and will not be defeated. Rome proved it. Our currently immoral, broken, and failing American culture, for example, is no worse than Rome’s was, but in the long run its vices will perish while the will of God stands.

As another point, I think this conquest of the Roman Empire by Christ is actually a useful concept in Biblical interpretation, because I believe that it is a major prophetic focus in Revelation, and possibly even in the letters of Paul. If you understand the kingdom of the beast and Babylon the Great Whore as Rome, which is highly supported by both the text itself and the historical/cultural context of Revelation, then seeing this conquest is helpful in following along the point of the book, which to some extent parallels the point made above.

So remember: Jesus is Lord, and He wins every time. He even toppled the Roman Empire.

How Jesus the Messiah Conquered Rome

Using Psalms: Psalm 2 and the Sovereign Son

Why do the nations rebel and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth take their stand, and the rulers conspire together against the LORD and His Anointed One:
“Let us tear off their chains and free ourselves from their restraints.”
The One enthroned in heaven laughs; the Lord ridicules them.
Then He speaks to them in His anger and terrifies them in His wrath:
“I have consecrated My King on Zion, My holy mountain.”
I will declare the LORD’s decree: He said to Me, “You are My Son; today I have become Your Father.
Ask of Me, and I will make the nations Your inheritance and the ends of the earth Your possession.
You will break them with a rod of iron; You will shatter them like pottery.”
So now, kings, be wise; receive instruction, you judges of the earth.
Serve the LORD with reverential awe and rejoice with trembling.
Pay homage to the Son or He will be angry and you will perish in your rebellion, for His anger may ignite at any moment. All those who take refuge in Him are happy.

Psalm 2

Psalm 2 is relatively well-known, and I think it will be very fun to go over, because it has some cool layers. So let’s get right into it.

The first question I want to look at is: “Who is this psalm about?” Historically, this psalm was written about the king of Israel, which is specified most clearly in verse 6. There is a temptation to assume, based on terms like “son,” that this psalm was written about Jesus, but this is unlikely. There are no obvious reasons to assume the author (presumably David or a member of David’s court) had a prophetic vision about Christ, and everything the psalm says is understandable in the language of divinely chosen kings. Kings were considered “anointed” (v. 2) by God1, and the imagery of the king as God’s “son” was also common2.

So this psalm was written about the king of Israel (probably David), possibly to celebrate his coronation. It starts off with a challenge to the surrounding pagan world. They are fighting and striving, especially against Israel and its king (and thus also against its God!), but it is vain. God laughs at them because they cannot succeed against Him and His anointed king.

Then the psalm moves on to God’s support and exaltation of His chosen king. God announces that He has set up His king in Jerusalem, and even says of him, “You are my son; today I have become your father.” This was, as I’ve mentioned, not unusual language for the relationship between God and His appointed king, the king being imagined as adopted into the royal divine family to share in an inheritance of power and blessing. In verses 8-9, God blesses His king and promises Him power, dominion, and victory over enemies.

Finally, in 10-12 God issues a warning to all of Israel’s enemies: submit to God and His king, or else you will be in danger of judgment. But those who trust in God will be protected.

Several important themes can be seen here, some working in the background and some in the foreground. One important concept is the role of the king to Israel and to God. To Israel, the king represents God. He stands in God’s place of authority and must be obeyed in order to obey God. Yet to God, the king represents Israel. He stands in the place of His people before God and must be held responsible for the entire nation. This double-sided representation makes the king function as a unique mediator-like figure.

Understanding this representative layer helps see some of the broader ideas in this psalm. God’s choosing of His king in Israel parallels His choosing of the nation Israel within the world. God’s promises to bless and protect His king, exalting him above his enemies, also parallel His promises to Israel as a whole3. The fate of Israel is bound up with the fate of the king, and the fate of the king is bound up with the fate of Israel, and God has by electing them both bound His own name and purposes up with their fate. God’s glory is now to be achieved not by itself, but by exalting and blessing His elected people and king.

Of course, we know what happens after this psalm. God did indeed grant these prayers, exalting King David and the whole nation of Israel under his reign. He gave military victory and great glory to His people, and by this means made quite a name for Himself as well. But soon things changed. David was not an entirely faithful king, and introduced a break between Israel and their God. Soon he was judged, and indeed the entire nation was split in half two generations later because of his sin. David failed, and the promise appeared to be voided.

Yet God is relentlessly faithful. Years later, a descendant, an heir, of King David was born. He had a rightful claim to His ancestor’s throne, and unlike David remained faithful unto death. He was Himself the representative of Israel, and as their representative suffered but was raised and vindicated. He has been given authority over all nations, and the ends of the earth are His possession. God is putting and has put all of His enemies under His feet. Jesus Christ, the King of Israel, now reigns on high in fulfillment of this promise. Being unswervingly faithful Himself, the promise will never lapse again, but will expand and work until fulfilled completely.

Moreover, even we Gentiles now can share in this blessing, because we “take refuge in” and “pay homage to” Jesus, the King of Israel and Son of God. The blessings promised to Israel are now for all who believe in Him, whether Jew or Greek. Jesus has replaced David as the hope of God’s people, and represents God to His people in a way that David never could, for He is the image of the invisible God, the exact expression of His nature.

This now for us reorients the psalm. If we pray this or sing this, Jesus is the King whom we exalt. The world around us still rages and plots in vain to overthrow Him, but God has pledged to vidicate and bless Jesus and His people no matter what, up to and including raising us from the dead! Therefore we need have no fear, for we are secure if we trust in the King Jesus. But the world must be told to repent and submit to the Son, if they wish to escape the judgment coming on His enemies. Therefore let us pray this psalm in honor of King Jesus, confident in God’s promise that no matter what our enemies do and say, He will vindicate and resurrect us just like He has done to His Anointed One.

Using Psalms: Psalm 2 and the Sovereign Son

The Real Heavens of God’s Word

In my previous post Heaven Is a Myth. Sort Of. I began the question of what the Bible really teaches about heaven. I suggested that most popular ideas of heaven are myths, though I did not specify exactly what is mythical and what is real. Finally, I listed the three Biblical “places” people call “heaven.” My goal in this post is to continue explaining what each place is for real and give Scripture to back up what I’m saying.

Heaven #1: God’s World

The place in Scripture most often called “heaven” is the place where God and His angels dwell. The Bible says that God is in heaven 1, as well as the angels 2. Yet it does not appear to be some kind of uncreated, purely spiritual presence of God, like some people imagine. Instead, despite the ambiguity created by the use of the word “heavens” also to refer to the sky/space, it does appear to be the case that heaven is a place created by God alongside of “earth,” our physical world 3.

It is at this point we can see a concept of twin realities made by God in creation: earth as man’s place and heaven as God’s place. In heaven we see God and his subject angels 4, and on earth we see man in the image of God and their subject animals 5. God reigns in heaven directly, and His will is always done there 6. On earth, God rules through human beings 7, and because of that weak link His will is not always done here.

Nowhere in Scripture are believers said to go here after death. Indeed, if this heaven actually does have some kind of space, but the dead no longer have spatial bodies, then they cannot “go” there. In fact, they can’t “go” anywhere.

Heaven #2: Paradise

So what happens to believers when they die? They go to Paradise, which the Jews sometimes called Abraham’s bosom 8. We should not think of this place as somewhere physical. It isn’t, because we go there without bodies. After we die our bodies lie in the ground, and our spirits/souls/whatevers, which are not physical, experience whatever happens next. They are not our bodies, so they do not have eyes, noses, ears, skin, or tongues. They do not have senses. Moreover, they lack brains, which largely control the kind of consciousness we experience in our bodies.

What does this mean? Paradise is not at all a normal state that we could imagine. We do not have normal consciousness there, seeing and hearing and feeling and thinking. It has something in common with sleep, but is nonetheless different. This can be proved throughout the Scriptures 9.

Paradise is a peculiar state. It is, on one hand, somewhat abysmal and empty, due to our existence without the bodily half of our nature 10. We’re meant to be in bodies, not without them. Yet it is also blissful and in fact better than our current state of tension with sin and weakness 11. Once we’ve died, the last of the old man will be completely gone, which means we will be with Christ in a better way than now 12. At present we are incomplete and have sin, but then we will be incomplete and without sin.

Heaven #3: Resurrection and New Earth

The final and ultimate reality often called “heaven” (but not by the Bible) is the new creation coming at the last day. This is mostly testified by Isaiah and Revelation, though of course the hope permeates the Scriptures. In the end, when Christ returns to judge the world, everyone will be raised from the dead. Those who are in Christ and have His Spirit will be resurrected to eternal life 13, while the rest will be raised for condemnation 14.

This resurrection will be the second stage of new birth. What God did for our spirit when we first believed He will do for our bodies: a new creation, not starting from scratch but incomprehensibly transforming the old 15. Jesus’ resurrection body is the prototype of our future bodies, and His was not a brand new creation. It “used up” the matter of His original body, leaving an empty tomb 16. It still bore the scars of His saving death 17. God didn’t scrap the original body and make a brand new one; He renewed, restored, and glorified the first physical body. 18

Of course, even though these bodies will remain truly physical and tangible, they will be different than our current bodies. Apparently they can bypass certain normal spacetime restrictions 19. No longer mortal or subject to decay, they will be immortal and incorruptible 20. In some way, even though our bodies will be still physical human bodies, they will be radically changed and new as well 21. C. S. Lewis captured the picture well when he suggested we should “remember that the dullest most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship.”

As to the new earth, the same pattern of death and resurrection follows. Isaiah and John both wrote about the “new heavens and earth” 22. This world will die in fire 23, but the same Spirit who raised Christ from the dead will similarly raise the entire creation 24. Again, we’re not dealing with God scrapping the old creation and making a new one from scratch. It is recreation, restoration, renewal. It is resurrection, just like Jesus, who is the firstfruits of the new creation 25.

This place, our final destination, will be a completely physical world, somehow connected to the current one, for it will be where we live in our resurrected physical bodies. Its crowning capitol will be the New Jerusalem, described beautifully by John in Revelation 21-22. There God’s heaven (the #1 listing) and our earth will become one 26, since we see that there “God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them” 27. The new creation, not the Paradise where we go when we die, will be home to the “streets of gold” 28 and other beauties, though more than likely these are not literal details but a fanciful and symbolically loaded description meant to give off a particular picture of glory and wonder. It will be our home for all eternity.

Everything beyond this point becomes somewhat speculative. I do think that, since this will be a resurrection world and not some start-from-scratch creation or spiritual plane, there will be lots of stuff remaining from our present age. Art, architecture, music, and such made by Spirit-led believers to glorify God may well surviving the purification by fire. Church buildings hallowed to God’s glory where He has touched many lives may stick around. Natural wonders are sure to remain and be even more glorious than before. The world will dazzle with God’s brilliance, “for as the waters fill the sea, so the earth will be filled with an awareness of the glory of the Lord” 29.

So What?

Having said all of this, why does it matter? What difference does the Biblical picture of heaven make compared to the popular ideas? Much in every way. On the one hand, it is always worthwhile to speak Biblically instead of following unbiblical traditions (the same reason we Protestants pointedly reject certain Catholic doctrines about Mary, even though they’re unimportant). But there is more to it than that.

Framing the issues this way keeps our focus clear. God’s heaven is what we want to emulate and bring to earth, anticipating the way that they will become one in the new creation. Understanding Paradise reminds us how much God cares for our bodily existence, so that we will not neglect or undervalue them. If the physical world will be renewed for our eternal home, there is reason to get out and do real things, knowing that our labors can be preserved. Resurrection brings hope and a certainty towards the defeat of death. Honestly, I could go on, but it would be easier to simply point you to the book Surprised by Hope by N. T. Wright, who covers all of this and the practical applications in much detail.

I’ll close with this:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the old heaven and the old earth had disappeared. And the sea was also gone.

And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven like a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.

I heard a loud shout from the throne, saying, “Look, God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.” And the one sitting on the throne said, “Look, I am making everything new!” And then he said to me, “Write this down, for what I tell you is trustworthy and true.” And he also said, “It is finished! I am the Alpha and the Omega—the Beginning and the End. To all who are thirsty I will give freely from the springs of the water of life.

Revelation 21:3-8

The Real Heavens of God’s Word