Ch 9: God’s Arriving Country

The first speech that an American President gives, upon taking the oath of office, is viewed as a defining moment for every presidency. With the eyes and ears of the nation trained on them, the Inaugural Address gives the new leader an opportunity to lay out a vision of what their administration will be about, what their priorities will be, and what pitfalls and potentials they see in the coming years. Memorable quotes have emerged from many of these speeches, standing the test of time as definitive summaries of that president’s worldview. “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” Franklin Roosevelt stated confidently. John F. Kennedy’s words, “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country,” inspired millions. “With malice toward none and charity for all,” pleaded Abraham Lincoln in his second inaugural address, a month before an assassin’s bullet cut short that dream. Even darker visions of the world—Donald Trump’s “American carnage” line comes to mind—still stand as pillars of presidential policy throughout a leader’s term. You can learn almost everything you need to know, simply from listening to a President’s Inaugural Address.

The Inaugural Address of the universe’s King took place not on the steps of a global capital, but in a small synagogue in the dusty backwater town of Nazareth. It was not covered by the media, analyzed by the pundits of the time, or carried in newspapers across the world. In fact, when the synagogue ruler handed Jesus the scroll of Isaiah, he wasn’t expecting the proclamation of God’s arriving kingdom. He was expecting a simple Bible reading and maybe a short homily. And yet Jesus’ Inaugural Address to that crowd of confused and skeptical townspeople split history in two, as he announced to those in attendance, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” His speech, just like any other’s leader’s, defined the contours and priorities of his messianic administration:

The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:17-19)

This quotation, which we have seen before, comes from Isaiah 61, Isaiah’s announcement that, with the coming of the kingly “Servant of the Lord,” the long night of exile had been brought to an end and the ultimate Year of Jubilee had been ushered in. Russell Moore, in his book Onward, explains the significance of the Year of Jubilee pictured in Jesus’ Inaugural Address:

“In this reading, Jesus pictured the future to which God was drawing his creation. This future had been pictured in the Year of Jubilee, a time in which debts were canceled and prisoners were freed. The Jubilee year of Israel signified that the existing power structures would not always be as they are, that God would turn all things upside down… In the reign of the coming anointed ruler, the prisoners would find freedom, the blind would find sight, the poor would find hope, and, most important of all, the favor of God would rest again on his people.”

“God would turn all things upside down.” Perhaps a better way to put it would be, “God would turn this upside-down world right-ways up again.” The Jubilee described in Leviticus (although never actually carried out in Israel’s history) marked the canceling of debts, the liberation of slaves, the restoration of property, abundant celebration, and rest from toil. And, as we saw in the previous chapter, the prophet Daniel and the gospel writers put forward Jesus as “the Jubilee of Jubilees,” a restoration and celebration far greater than anything the Old Testament event imagined. As N.T. Wright said, “Jesus is the Jubilee in person.” Jesus had come to restore everything broken by Adam, setting free those held captive by death and sin, healing the physical maladies of a groaning world, and making humanity free again.

His Inaugural Address was the announcement of his arriving kingdom, the description of what it looked like now that God was returning to his people at last. The Jubilee had appeared in person, unlike anything his audience had anticipated. Indeed, the congregation were initially impressed with his speech—“And all spoke well of him and marveled at the gracious words that were coming from his mouth”—until he started defining that Year of Jubilee in ways that fell outside their comfort zone. The great reversal that he was bringing into the world, he warned, would not fall on them in ways that lined up with their cozy presuppositions about reality. And if they imagined themselves to be the sole recipients of “the year of the Lord’s favor,” they were sorely mistaken. He pointedly noted that, in the previous great workings of God’s kingdom, the Lord’s favor fell on those whom God’s people despised the most—widows in Sidon and lepers in Syria, for example (Luke 4:25-27). In reminding the congregation of these blatantly obvious truths, Jesus was pushing them to recognize something deeper: the great reversal was changing everything, even the very definition of God’s people.

The mood in the synagogue swung from acclamation to condemnation in a moment. “When they heard these things, all in the synagogue were filled with wrath. And they rose up and drove him out of the town and brought him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they could throw him down the cliff” (Luke 2:28-29). This startling change of disposition—from church service to lynch mob—previewed the darker opposition that Jesus’ kingdom would soon face from those who claimed to represent God’s rule on earth.

THE FUTURE BREAKING IN EARLY

But it becomes clear, as we continue reading the story, that Jesus is untroubled by such opposition. His vision is clear, his purpose is sure, and his kingdom marches on. And everything we see him doing is nothing more or less than acting out exactly what he laid out in his Inaugural Address: being the Jubilee, the kingdom itself, in person.

Matthew tells us that Jesus’ preaching ministry, beginning from this moment on, centered on “the kingdom of heaven.” “From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’” (Matthew 4:17). “Turn around and leave your upside down ways,” Jesus proclaimed, “for heaven’s great reversal is arriving!”

I have found that we often get things backwards when thinking about “the kingdom of heaven” (mentioned 33 times in Matthew alone), or “kingdom of God” (mentioned 52 times in the four gospels). From the sheer number of times Jesus talks about it, though, it is clear that the kingdom is the central theme of his ministry, so it’s important that we get this right. Sometimes we think of Jesus’ teaching on the “kingdom of heaven” as being about how to go to heaven when you die. But because his kingdom teaching centers so heavily on ethics and personal and collective holiness, this view leaves one with a moralistic Jesus preaching salvation by works. Other times we think of the kingdom of heaven as a strictly future or otherworldly reality, to be ushered in at the last day, but in the meantime we have to muddle along with the world as it currently is. This view relegates Jesus’ teaching to the realm of dreamy utopianism, without much practical impact other than “be a nice person.” But neither of these extremes gets to the heart of what all his talk about “heaven’s kingdom” really means.

What Jesus means by “heaven’s kingdom” encompasses both of those errant views, while going far beyond them. “Heaven’s kingdom” is the culmination of the whole story of king and country up until this point. The kingdom, as we have seen, is wherever God’s presence resides and God’s king reigns—both realities now united in the person of Jesus. “Heaven’s kingdom,” incarnate in Jesus, is the great reversal which dethrones the snake, raises God’s people to new life, installs God’s image-bearers to their proper place of regency, and overtakes the entire world with restoration, healing, and joy. It encapsulates everything that the prophets had trumpeted about the end of exile. “Heaven’s kingdom” is God’s presence with his people again, God’s king ruling over them again, the poor lifted up and the proud cast down, streams flowing in the desert, forests breaking into song, the dead raised to life, liberation announced to captives, and pardon preached to rebels. This is the great, triumphant end of the story, when God’s kingdom comes and his will is done on earth as in heaven.

When King Jesus was walking around in first century Judea, he carried the kingdom around with him. Because he was both the presence of God in person, and the perfect human King, he was the living embodiment of the kingdom. Everywhere he went, the kingdom went, overcoming darkness and despair and death in everything he touched. But because he was only one person, with a relatively small movement of clumsy, hapless disciples, his kingdom started microscopically small. During his earthly life, the “Jesus movement” seemed—and, in the grand scheme of things, actually was—fairly insignificant. This was the point of many of his parables about the nature of his kingdom. For example, in Luke 13, he used familiar images to get the idea across to the crowds, who were expecting a different kind of Messiah:

He said therefore, “What is the kingdom of God like? And to what shall I compare it? It is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his garden, and it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.” And again he said, “To what shall I compare the kingdom of God? It is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, until it was all leavened.” (Luke 13:18-20)

Jesus dashed cold water on the messianic hopes of the crowds, who were expecting a conquering king to immediately establish the global empire foreseen by the prophets. No, he told them; God’s kingdom starts off small. It’s like a mustard seed, so small as to be almost invisible. It’s like yeast, which looks like grains of sand, a tiny pinch of which are added to a big batch of dough. And yet those inauspicious beginnings yield surprising results; the diminutive mustard seed grows quickly, soon sprouting into a plant that overtakes everything else in the garden. The pinch of yeast added to flour, in the space of a few hours, works its way through the whole dough, completely transforming it in the process. What Jesus is saying is this: “My kingdom, which looks so small and insignificant now, will not always be that way. Under ground, behind the scenes, in small ways, it is spreading and transforming everything.”

And it really was transforming everything—more so than his audiences ever imagined. One future day, everything will be turned upside down (or, rather, right-ways up) by this kingdom. The news which the gospel writers announce with breathless wonder is that, in the person of King Jesus, this future had come early. Wherever he went, this future kingdom went around with him, interrupting the upside-down processes of death and decay with the future realities of life and restoration. This is what you see everywhere in Jesus’ ministry. Jesus touches lepers and—unlike the way the Levitical law lays it out—his purity doesn’t become corrupted by their infection. Their infection becomes corrupted, so to speak, by his purity. When he runs up against sin and brokenness, the future comes pouring in like a wave of mercy, and the repentant find life and freedom. When he runs up against the pompous pride of the spiritual elite, the future comes in like a wave again—except this time it’s a tsunami of judgment and reversal of all status quos. When he crashes a funeral—as he does three times—death starts working in reverse, and corpses begin breathing again.

His first miracle at a wedding in Cana was an example of this future kingdom bleeding into the present. When the wedding hosts ran out of wine—a shameful social faux pas that would have cut short the festivities—Jesus transformed water into wine. And it wasn’t just any wine; it was the best wine anyone at the feast had ever tasted, so much so that the master of ceremonies exclaimed, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and when people have drunk freely, then the poor wine. But you have kept the good wine until now!” (John 2:10) John remarks that this surprising miracle of taking a lame party and making it awesome “manifested his glory” (John 2:11). In other words, this act of injecting new life and joy into a celebration is what Jesus and his kingdom are all about.

Why? Because the kingdom of God is a party, a celebration of light and life and joy that overturns the present age’s darkness, decay, and despair. One future day, that kingdom will come in fullness, and the sons and daughters of the kingdom will sit down to “the wedding feast of the Lamb,” the celebration of which every earthly party has been a dim shadow. That future day came early in the person of the King, who made wine flow at weddings, turned funerals into parties, and had such a reputation for merriment that the staid religious people frowned and called him “a drunkard and a glutton.” And in the meantime—in between the first and second acts of the party—the kingdom of God advances today through celebration. Today, the kingdom comes on earth as in heaven through joyful worship (of all the world’s major religions, only Christianity is a singing religion), through the celebration of new life in baptism, through the proclamation of “good news of great joy,” and through the glad work of bringing hope and happiness and healing to the nations. The party which Jesus began in Cana and which will culminate in the new creation rolls on today, little by little making all things new.

This “in-breaking future” aspect of Jesus’ ministry is made explicit in John 11, during one of those times that Jesus interrupts a funeral. Confronted by his weeping friend Martha, whose brother Lazarus was not rescued according to her timetables, Jesus assures her that “her brother will rise again.” Martha, perhaps a little miffed by the cold comfort of seeing her brother at some distant future day, replies, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” To this, Jesus gently informs her, “Martha, I’m the resurrection” (John 11:25). In other words, “Martha, don’t put your hope in some future event. That future event is a Person, and I’m here now.” And to back up his audacious claim, Jesus walks over to the rotting corpse of Lazarus and, with a word, reverses the decay and calls him back from the dust—just as the prophet Daniel said would happen all over the world at the last day (Daniel 12:2). Scott Sauls, in his book Jesus Outside the Lines, writes about Jesus’ raising of Lazarus:

“Why did Jesus bring Lazarus back? Because Jesus came to bring God’s Kingdom to earth as it is in heaven, not only to imagine God’s future into the present but to bring glimpses and foretastes of God’s future into the present. In a world in which God’s reality is suspended for a time, Jesus zealously refuses to allow death, mourning, crying, and pain to dictate the story line.”

Ever since Genesis 3, God’s reality has been “suspended for a time,” and the serpent has held sway over this benighted globe. But in the arrival of the King, the first light of dawn began penetrating that darkness. Every miracle was a dim ray shining into the night, a fleeting vision of what it will be like one day when the sun of righteousness finally breaks over the horizon of the world, scattering darkness forever and ushering in heaven’s endless day. Thus, the shocking (and wonderful) claim of the gospels is that all the glory of Jesus’ earthly ministry is a mere preview of coming attractions, a promo trailer for the real event, the first domino in a chain-reaction that will eventually remake the universe. Jesus’ ministry is the kingdom coming early.

THE AGENDA OF THE KINGDOM: HUMILITY EXALTED

Another lens through which we can understand the kingdom is by looking at King Jesus to see the agenda of his arriving kingdom. What does he care about? What does he get mad about? What problems does he go out of his way to solve? Through this lens, we see that Jesus is the incarnation of Hannah’s song in 1 Samuel 2, the great reversal clothed in flesh and blood. In all his interactions, he is acting out and ushering in the restoration of all things.

Hannah’s song (and Mary’s Magnificat) speak of God finally “exalting those of humble estate.” And so everywhere Jesus goes, you see him rewarding humble faith, even when he finds it in the unlikeliest of places. In Matthew 8, a Roman centurion—the archetypal “bad guy”—falls on his knees before Jesus, pleading with him to heal his servant. This Gentile’s trust in Israel’s Messiah runs so deep that he doesn’t even need Jesus to come with him. He is confident that the words of God’s King carry such authority that Jesus only need speak and reality will respond. Jesus is amazed by his faith. “When Jesus heard this, he marveled and said to those who followed him, ‘Truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith” (Matthew 8:10). He then points to the coming great reversal, when those on the outside will find themselves welcomed, and those on the inside will be cast out, saying, “I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into outer darkness” (8:11-12). The centurion goes away with his servant healed, and we go away both sobered and encouraged. There is hope for “on the outside” Gentiles like us, but this great reversal truly will leave no one unscathed.

In a similar story, Jesus meets a Canaanite woman who is desperate for her daughter to be freed from Satanic oppression. Jesus resists initially, telling her that his primary mission in this season is “to the lost sheep of Israel.” But she so drastically humbles herself before him that he once again marvels at this Gentile’s faith—“O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire” (Matthew 15:28)—and grants her request. This is what it looks like for the humble to be exalted.

Jesus’ teaching is full of this radical value system. His famous Sermon on the Mount describes what life in heaven’s right-ways up kingdom looks like. Here in the kingdom, the meek inherit the earth, those who mourn are comforted, the persecuted are rewarded, and the spiritually poor inherit empire (Matthew 5:2-12). He repeatedly taught, with varied examples, that in his kingdom “the first will be last, and the last first” (Matthew 19:30, 20:16)

He stressed this lesson to his disciples, whose view of reality was so firmly entrenched in hell’s upside-down values that they simply did not absorb Jesus’ lessons or example. In one particularly face-palming episode, James and John approach Jesus on his final trip to Jerusalem and the cross, asking to be promoted to second- and third-command in his kingdom and to be given seats of honor next to his. Jesus, while not denying that such positions of authority exist in his kingdom, calls the whole crew together for an urgent lesson:

Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:25-28)

The Great Reversal, Jesus said, extends all the way up the chain of command to the King himself. The great Son of Man, pictured in Daniel receiving universal dominion so that “all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him” will inherit that greatness by undergoing the reversal himself. He had not come to be served, as Daniel said he would, but to serve and give his life away as a ransoming sacrifice instead. And if that “exaltation by means of humiliation” applied to the king, how much more to those who served in his messianic administration. Greatness in Jesus’ kingdom would hereafter be defined by lowliness, significance defined by servanthood. This is what the great reversal is all about.

THE AGENDA OF THE KINGDOM: PRIDE SCATTERED

Conversely, we also see another agenda of Jesus’ kingdom in how he responds to pride. Hannah and Mary’s songs speak of the proud being scattered and cast down from their lofty perches, and we see this lived out in every encounter that Jesus has with the Pharisees. The Pharisees themselves are a bundle of contradictions just waiting to be overturned by Jesus’ kingdom. On one hand, “they sit in Moses’ seat,” Jesus tells the crowds, “so do and observe whatever they tell you” (Matthew 23:2-3). It was not their doctrine nor even their practice that was wrong—they tithed fastidiously and were zealous to preserve the Torah and Temple at the heart of Jewish life. Rather, it was their hearts, and more specifically their pride. They loved the praise that comes from men (John 5:44) and looked down on those who did not measure up to their standards of external righteousness (Luke 18:11). They performed their religious deeds in order to be noticed by others (Matthew 6:1), preened themselves externally while neglecting the kingdom virtues of humility and selflessness (Matthew 23:25), and prided themselves on their devotion to God while disregarding the poor, oppressed, and vulnerable (Matthew 23:23).

And Jesus utterly castigated them for it. All of his rage was directed at Israel’s religious leaders. These powerful elite claimed the mantle of holiness while systematically siding with oppression, all the while patting themselves on the back for their supposed superiority to the unwashed masses. In the kingdom’s great reversal, the privileged and comfortable find themselves shut out (“the rich he has sent away empty”—Luke 2:53), while the hungry and helpless are lifted to new life. Jesus found the custodians of the kingdom enriching and exalting themselves, and so his devastating word of judgment to them was that “the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people bearing its fruit” (Matthew 21:43).

THE AGENDA OF THE KINGDOM: THE SERPENT CRUSHED

But the highest priority of Jesus’ kingdom, in and behind the exaltation of the lowly and the scattering of the powerful, was to engage and destroy the enemy who had first turned the world upside down. For behind the dishonored status of God’s servants and lofty perch of the proud was none other than the usurping serpent, who had overturned God’s reality when he seized the throne from God’s regents. Jesus, the seed of the woman, had come to do final battle with the snake and to reinstate a human rule over the universe. And so the entirety of Jesus’ earthly life was one of war against Satan’s kingdom.

Even the earliest years of Jesus’ life were marked by this epic struggle. Behind Herod’s brutal massacre of infants in Bethlehem in response to the perceived threat to his rule was the ancient dragon’s fearful response to the genuine threat to his rule. Revelation 12 uses symbolic language to look past Herod to the real battle that was playing out in the spiritual realms when Jesus entered history:

The dragon stood before the woman who was about to give birth, so that when she bore her child he might devour it. She gave birth to a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron… (Revelation 12:4)

The dragon’s unsuccessful attempt to snuff out the inception of heaven’s guerilla war continued, and we meet him again at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Before Jesus’ kingdom work could begin, he was driven into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil himself. Each of Satan’s strange temptations sought to deter Jesus from the path of the great reversal, away from exaltation by means of humiliation, to the wide and easy road of instant gratification. His first temptation—turn these stones into bread!—allured Jesus away from the road of sacrifice, encouraging him to use his power for his own benefit. His second temptation—throw yourself down from the temple!—promised Jesus the fame and popularity that would come with such a public stunt. And his third temptation—I will give you all the kingdoms of the world if you will bow to me—promised Jesus a shortcut to the universal dominion he sought, if only he would endorse the serpent’s status quo. Later, using Jesus’ friend Peter as a mouthpiece, Satan tried this strategy again, coaxing Jesus to abandon the road to the cross. Each time, Jesus rebuffed each Satan’s temptation, and continued to move forward on the path to redemption and restoration.

Throughout Jesus’ healing ministry, we see him in repeated confrontation with the evil spirits that are a part of Satan’s hierarchy of terror. Some biblical scholars have wondered, because demon possession never appears in the Old Testament nor the New Testament epistles, whether the flood of demonic oppression during the ministry of Christ was an aberration from Satan’s usual system of behind-the-scenes oppression. Pastor and theologian John MacArthur, looking at Jesus’ brief public work, sees a “dramatic escalation of demon possession and demon activity in response to the ministry of Jesus Christ.” It is almost as if Satan, failing to devour heaven’s rescuer and then failing to derail Jesus’ rescue mission, unleashes all of hell’s fury into first century Palestine. If the kingdom cannot be stopped by persuasion, Satan reasons, perhaps it can be overwhelmed by the shock-and-awe of superior firepower.

But Satan’s strategy falls apart every time Jesus confronts the rampaging demonic army. With the casual command of absolute authority, Jesus scatters the forces of hell and sends them fleeing in panic every time he interacts with them. Time and time again, frightened demons fly in terror and their captives are set free and immediately join Jesus’ insurgency against Satan’s empire. All of hell’s assembled firepower only makes Satan’s repeated defeats all the more humiliating.

Which is why, towards the climax of the gospels, Satan shifts his strategy. Try as he might, the serpent has not been able to deter the Savior from the path that will end with a foot on his head. So with growing desperation, Satan resolves to strike with all his malice and hate. If he cannot prevent the cross, then he will make it as horrible as possible. If he cannot stop his defeat, he will ensure that defeat comes at the highest possible price, with the greatest collateral damage. John Piper, in his exquisitely-titled sermon “Judas Iscariot, the Suicide of Satan, and the Salvation of the World,” comments:

“Satan saw his efforts to divert Jesus from the cross failing. Time after time, Jesus kept the course. His face was set like flint to die, and Satan concludes that there is no stopping him. Therefore he resolves that if he can’t stop it, he will at least make it as ugly and painful and as heartbreaking as possible. Not just death, but death by betrayal. Death by abandonment. Death by denial. If he could not stop it, he would drag others into it and do as much damage as he could.”

And so the snake’s plot begins to take shape. It will be betrayal by a friend, abandonment and denial by the disciples, justice twisted into bloodthirsty oppression, culminating with the most gruesome and tortuous murder that hell can imagine.

THE CLIMAX OF THE KINGDOM: THE SERPENT CRUSHED

But the cross, so central to Satan’s murderous strategy, is also central to Jesus’ saving plan. All of the priorities of his kingdom climax on this hill outside of Jerusalem. We see the ultimate expression of humility—“he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death” (Philippians 2:8). We see the extent to which the King will go to fulfill the promises of his Inaugural Address—“to proclaim liberty to the captives” (Luke 4:18). And we also see—as we will examine later—the in-breaking of the future judgment of God into history. This execution to which Jesus has been aiming for his entire life is also the solution to every tension in the storyline so far. It is the answer to the questions, “How will the serpent be crushed?” “How will the curse be overturned?” and “How will the new human king be enthroned?” All of these find their ultimate fulfillment in the bloody Golgotha hill.

Russell Moore describes the high-stakes cruciform nature of Jesus’ collision with Satan:

“The cross-shaped nature of this mission was already evident in Jesus’ refusal, right before his hometown sermon, to take from the devil the reins of the government of the universe. Satan was willing to surrender his authority over ‘all the kingdoms of the world’ for a moment of worship. A Christ-run universe would have reflected the values and ethics of Jesus; but there would have been a world-ruling Messiah and there would be no sinless sacrifice able to atone for the world. The devil recognized that his kingdom could only, ultimately, fall by the gospel. The devil did not fear bloodless moralism. He had nothing to fear but blood itself.”

Only blood could dethrone and defang Satan. To regain human dominion, Jesus must face off against the serpent in a final battle. Jesus sees all of Satan’s hate pushing him towards Calvary, and yet with deliberation and resolve he walks directly into the unleashed fury of hell. For this final showdown with Satan has been what his entire incarnation and ministry has been aiming towards. The whole purpose of his life was to usher in the kingdom by giving his life for rebels. This was the master strategy, planned before Adam and Eve ever touched the fruit, that would crush the serpent’s head and restore human dominion—and, along with that restored dominion, the entire universe.

In John 12:31-32, Jesus speaks of his execution as the means by which all the promises would be fulfilled. “Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out. And I, when I am lifted up, will draw all people to myself.” Satan’s seeming victory at Golgotha would actually be the decisive event that would cast him out. The cross is where the serpent would be crushed and Abraham’s blessing extended to the whole earth.

Later, the night before the crucifixion, Jesus told his disciples again that his impending death would destroy evil from the inside out, because the judgment against him would actually be turned inside-out to become the judgment against Satan himself. “The ruler of this world is coming. He has no claim on me… the ruler of this world is judged” (John 14:30, 16:11).

Stomping Satan’s head required being bitten by the snake. But by taking the serpent’s bite—absorbing the full poison of sin and its consequences—the perfect Man’s foot came down in victory, crushing evil at its source. The apostle Paul describes the decisive victory that Jesus wrought at the cross in Colossians 2, both in its liberating effect on us and its devastating effect on Satan:

God made us alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him. (Colossians 2:13-15)

The picture here is one of a conquering king leading his defeated foes, chained and enslaved, in triumphal procession through the city. Utter defeat and shame is what the cross has done to Satan and his minions, Paul says. When our record of debt was nailed to the cross, the nail was also driven through the serpent’s head. The tables have been turned, Satan has been cast out, the serpent at last defeated by the offspring of the woman. Like a defeated and enslaved enemy, evil has been bent to serve its own destruction.

It is fitting that Satan was finally impaled by his own sword, his own weapons turned back on him in a twist of divine irony. The most unspeakable evil in all of history—the murder of the Son of God—was the very means by which evil was undone. The curse of death was broken not by an invincible life but by a humiliating death. Hell’s gates were broken down from the inside out by means of a great reversal, victory won by the victor becoming the victim. This is the great reversal at its climax, as the tables are turned on Satan’s upside-down kingdom. Jesus was swallowed into the bowels of death and hell, and by his defeat swallowed up death in victory.

An old hymn celebrates the strange and glorious victory Jesus won in such a backwards way:

By weakness and defeat
He won the glorious crown;
Trod all His foes beneath His feet
By being trodden down.

 
He hell in hell laid low;
Made sin, He sin overthrew;
Bowed to the grave, destroyed it so,
And death, by dying, slew.
 
What though the vile accuser roar
Of sins that I have done;
I know them well, and thousands more;
My God, He knoweth none!
 
Jesus won the glorious crown by means of weakness and defeat—the perfect emblem of the great reversal, first pictured all the way back in 1 Samuel. Just as it was promised, “the bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble bind on strength” (1 Samuel 2:4) as Jesus becomes the victim. But being trodden down by evil is the very means by which he will tread down the serpent—“he will crush your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (Genesis 3:15). By his death he kills death; becoming sin, he overthrows it; laid in hell, he levels Satan’s kingdom to the ground.

Many have tried to argue that it was not actually the crucifixion, but rather the resurrection, that delivered the death blow to evil. The gospels and epistles, however, do not seem willing to give us that option. Jesus insists that his death is how “the ruler of the world is cast out.” Paul says that cross—not the empty tomb, as we might think—is what disarms “the rulers and authorities and puts them to open shame.” And the author of Hebrews says it most clearly of all: “through death he destroyed the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil” (Hebrews 2:14). The empty tomb, as we will see later, is Jesus’ victory march out of the grave, but the battle was fought and won three days earlier. On a Roman cross, our sin—and the serpent’s head—were definitively crushed.

THE CLIMAX OF THE KINGDOM: THE CURSE OVERTURNED

Another tension in the biblical storyline that finds its resolution at the cross is the shadow of the Genesis 3 curse hanging over humanity. That curse—which injected futility, heartbreak, pain, and death into the foundation of the human project, the cultural mandate—has been dragging humanity down to the dust for millennia, one broken soul at a time. For the cultural mandate to function properly, the curse must be rolled back and blessing restored. This restored blessing, first promised to Abraham, has been waited and longed for ever since. And at the cross, in the most surprising way imaginable, the King will bear the full weight of the curse himself, in the process turning it inside out and into blessing.

Romans 5 highlights the parallels between Adam, the first human king of creation, and Jesus, the new and better human king. “Just as one trespass led to condemnation for all men,” Paul writes, “so one act of righteousness”—that is, the cross—“leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous” (Romans 5:18-19). Jesus, the new and better Adam (in fact, Paul calls him “the second Adam” in 1 Corinthians 15:45), obeys where the first Adam failed, breaking the chains of the curse by his perfect life and death.

Biblical scholar Johannes Knudson elaborates on the profound world-restoring connection between Jesus and Adam:

“In the incarnation, Christ re-enacts the story of Adam. But it is the re-enactment in the reverse. Christ becomes that man which Adam was intended to be which had become corrupted after the fall. Christ therefore demonstrates first of all what the creation of Adam in the image and likeness of God had been.”

The cross is the climax of the kingdom because it enables a new humanity, united to the second Adam, to rise into the restored image of God, rebuilt by Jesus atoning death.

Galatians 3:13-14 gives this incredible life-giving solution to the curse’s death sentence:

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”—so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the nations, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.

“Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law”—the Mosaic law given at Sinai, which simply codified the previous decree of judgment from the garden—“by becoming a curse for us.” At Calvary, the King stepped into the place of rebels to bear the just punishment for our rebellion. All the wrath of God, all the futility of sin, all the suffering of a fallen world, all the death sentences that we deserve—were absorbed by the God-Man and borne completely. Where the curse decreed pain, the decree from the cross is, “By his wounds you are healed.” Where the curse inflicted a lifetime of heartbreak, the Man of Sorrows “bore our griefs and carried our sorrows.” Where the just judgment of God on our rebellion would have been to “give us over to the lusts of our hearts” (Romans 1:24), abandoning us to our sin, instead the cross turns the equation around as “Christ loved us and gave himself for us” (Ephesians 5:2). Every penalty that the curse encompassed was fully absorbed by the King on the cross for his people.

And the end result of this great exchange, Galatians tells us, is that in this restored kingdom the blessing first promised to Abraham—of Eden overtaking the whole world—has been unleashed to the nations. “All the families of the earth” (Genesis 12:3) can now enter into the blessing of the kingdom by joining together under the banner of the new human king of the cosmos, Jesus.

THE CLIMAX OF THE KINDOM: THE KING ENTHRONED

The third storyline that the cross resolves is the story of our need for a human king. Jesus, in his incarnation, has been ushering in the kingdom with every step he takes, but it is not until the cross and resurrection, as he tells his disciples, that “the kingdom of God comes in power” (Mark 9:1). The cross would be more than just the culmination of his ministry; it would be his enthronement as king. As soon as Jesus’ ministry was established, he began relentlessly trying to teach his disciples this truth. “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (Luke 9:22). Hear in Jesus’ prediction a blaring tension between what was foretold about the Son of Man in Daniel 7—that he would inherit an everlasting dominion—and the injustice and death that Jesus says will actually happen. The Son of Man’s exaltation would come in the last way his upside-down disciples ever thought: ultimate humiliation.

N.T. Wright explores this thread of the story in his book How God Became King. In it, he writes:

“The nations rage, as Psalm 2 said they would, rising up against the Lord and against his anointed, and God’s response is, ‘Yet I have set my king, my son, upon my holy hill’—no longer Zion, the ancient Temple mountain, but Golgotha, the ugly little hill a bit to the west.

The cross constitutes Golgotha as the new holy mountain. This is where the nations will now come to pay homage to the world’s true Lord. The one enthroned here, with ‘King of the Jews’ above his head, is to have the nations as his inheritance, the uttermost parts of the earth as his possession. His victory over them will not be the victory of swords and guns and bombs, but the victory of his people and of their derivative suffering and testimony. That is how the kingdom and the cross come together at last. That is how the darkest of the ‘powers’ are to be overthrown.”

To Jesus, the cross was not a defeat, but a victory. It was not the extinguishing of the kingdom; rather, it was the enthronement of the king. That’s why Jesus repeatedly speaks of his approaching death in terms of victory and exaltation. Three times in the book of John, he spoke of his crucifixion as him being “lifted up.” This phrase is a clever play on words alluding both to literally being lifted up onto the cross, as well as being “lifted up” in acclamation and honor. “The Son of Man must be lifted up,” Jesus said in John 3, “so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” The only way that broken humanity can be raised into the new life of the kingdom is for the Son of Man to be lifted up in simultaneous exaltation and humiliation. “I, when I am lifted up, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32). At the cross, the nations become the inheritance of humanity’s king because he has been lifted up.

Even Jesus’ forsaken cry from the cross—“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46)—is not the despairing voice it looks like at first. Even in this moment, as the Father did indeed forsake his Son and turn away in judgment from the wrath-absorbing sacrifice, Jesus saw victory. Jesus was not just crying out in anguish; he was actually quoting the first line of a messianic psalm, Psalm 22. The psalm, written by King David a thousand years before Calvary, described the suffering of God’s anointed king in vivid color, fulfilled at the cross in all its grisly details:

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?… All who see me mock me; they make mouths at me; they wag their heads; “He trusts in the LORD; let him deliver him; let him rescue him, for he delights in him!”… They have pierced my hands and feet—I can count all my bones—they stare and gloat over me; they divide my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots. (Psalm 22:1, 7-8, 16-18)

Anyone standing at the foot of the cross with any understanding should have picked up on what Jesus was saying, for all around was the exact scene that the psalm described, unfolding exactly as foretold. But the psalm does more than just describe the suffering of the King; it also turns a corner at the end of the song and describes the universal kingdom that this suffering monarch is ushering in:

All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the LORD, and all the families of the nations shall worship before you. For kingship belongs to the LORD, and he rules over the nations. (Psalm 22:27-28)

“All the families of the nations shall worship before you.” This bloody piece of wood is the strange, seemingly upside-down way that Abraham’s Edenic blessing will be extended to “all the families of the earth,” just as Genesis 12 said it would. The nations of the earth become a prize that the Messiah receives as a reward for his sacrifice, just as Psalm 2—another messianic psalm—says. “Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession” (Psalm 2:8). The forsaken hill of Golgotha is the new holy mountain where the new king of the cosmos is enthroned and receives the reward of his suffering.

The epistles of the New Testament make this case even more strongly. Hebrews 2:9 says that Jesus’ suffering is precisely the reason that he is now installed as king of the universe:

We see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death.

Hear the full impact of what Hebrews is saying: he is crowned because of the suffering of death. Because he disarmed and dethroned every rival power, because the serpent’s head and all of his people’s sin was nailed to the cross, Jesus is now crowned as unrivaled, matchless king. His enthronement ceremony, however, did not come with trumpets, but with torture. The inauguration of the kingdom arrived not a crown of gold, but one of thorns. His installment as king was not accompanied not the acclaim of his followers but the mocking of his enemies. And yet this was the plan all along, so upside-down to our way of thinking but so perfectly tailored to the kingdom purpose of exalting the humble.

The hymn of praise in Philippians 2 probably says it the best:

Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:5-11)

The holy God became perfect Man—humbled himself past servanthood all the way to sacrifice. And therefore—because of his humble sacrifice—the Father has exalted him to the restored throne of Adam, giving him the name above every name, so that he might exercise the global dominion that rightfully belongs to us. Because he died he is now crowned, and because he is crowned, every human, angelic, and demonic knee will bow and confess his universal lordship. Some will bow gladly, others will bow grudgingly, but his triumphant death guarantees the final outcome: all will bow.

THE FUTURE COMES EARLY AGAIN

At the climax of the kingdom, as the king of the universe was enthroned on Golgotha’s hill, strange things began to happen. As the God-Man suffocated in his own blood and then expired, the skies grew dark, as if the sun itself was being snuffed out. The ground trembled and then quaked, like the whole world was coming apart. And then the really weird stuff started happening:

The earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many. (Matthew 27:51-53)

 This episode, sounding like something out of a zombie apocalypse movie, is only recorded in Matthew, and leads us to wonder what in the world is going on. But we wouldn’t be the only ones to be amazed and confused by the spectacle:

When the centurion and those who were with him, keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were filled with awe and said, “Truly this was the Son of God!” (Matthew 27:54)

So what is happening here? Nothing less than the future final judgment day penetrating time and space and converging on a hill outside Jerusalem. The Bible speaks of the last day of this age as a day of “clouds and thick darkness” (Joel 2:2), “great earthquakes” (Revelation 16:18), and of “those who sleep in the dust awakening” (Daniel 12:2). It is also a day of final judgment against sin (Revelation 21:12). But at the cross of Christ, that final judgment came early, as the overflowing cup of God’s wrath was poured out on the King himself. All the everlasting fury of hell and the full scope of justice for the sins of all God’s people throughout all of history came blazing into this one location in space and time, until reality itself began to come apart—as one day it will again, when the judgment of God breaks across the entire world. The bizarre events reverberating out from the death of Jesus are the future judgment day bleeding through the chasm ripped in reality by the death of the Son of God.

And now, for those of us in Christ, the meaning of the strange spectacle is this: because Jesus passed through the final judgment of God, you and I have too. The final verdict in the case of The Almighty vs. me has been handed down early: not guilty. Judgment Day for me is no longer future. It is past and finished, my sin executed on a Roman cross 2,000 years ago. The doctrine of justification is simply the reality that, in Christ, the future came early for me, too, and I am a part of the future kingdom today.

Once the future had expended all its fury on Jesus, his body was laid in a garden tomb, but the in-breaking of the future was not done yet. Ezekiel had foreseen the day when Israel would rise from the grave into new and permanent life (Ezekiel 37:12-14). And thirty-six hours after Judgment Day landed on Golgotha, Resurrection Day broke into the garden.

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