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The Politics of Scripture

The Unshakable Kingdom—Hebrews 12:18–29

The created heavens and earth–indeed all of God’s creation—are fleeting, temporal, and ephemeral, not permanent like God’s eternal Kingdom. Our worldly kingdoms aren’t completely worthless, but they are penultimate and ought to be despised in contrast to God’s eternal stable Kingdom.

18 You have not come to something that can be touched, a blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom, and a tempest, 19 and the sound of a trumpet, and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that not another word be spoken to them. 20 (For they could not endure the order that was given, “If even an animal touches the mountain, it shall be stoned to death.” 21 Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, “I tremble with fear.”) 22 But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, 23 and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, 24 and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.

25 See that you do not refuse the one who is speaking; for if they did not escape when they refused the one who warned them on earth, how much less will we escape if we reject the one who warns from heaven! 26 At that time his voice shook the earth; but now he has promised, “Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heaven.” 27 This phrase, “Yet once more,” indicates the removal of what is shaken—that is, created things—so that what cannot be shaken may remain. 28 Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us give thanks, by which we offer to God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe; 29 for indeed our God is a consuming fire.

Hebrews 12:18–29 (NRSV)

The kingdoms of this world and their economies are shaking. Whether it is due to mass shootings, political corruption, economic instability, war, diseases, or poverty, nations are vulnerable; tossed around by events beyond their control. With all life on earth depending on a relatively stable climate to grow food and have water, all of life on earth is being shaken by record temperatures and increasingly inhospitable living conditions as heat waves grip large parts of the world. Large part of California and the Arctic have experienced wild fires; the earth is burning.

A shaking earth is a common biblical leitmotif. God’s appearance is heralded by the shaking of the earth (Psalm 18:7). The shaking of the earth is also a sign of God’s wrath (2 Samuel 22:8; Jeremiah 10:10). There is also a prophetic and political nature to God shaking the Kingdoms. Haggai (2:20) is commanded by God to warn Zerubbabel, the governor of Judah who “obeyed the voice of the LORD” (Haggai 1:12), that God is about to “shake the heavens and the earth” and to “overthrow the throne of kingdoms.” Zerubbabel, who listens to the Lord, is saved this tumult.

Throughout the New Testament, shaking is a characteristic part of the coming of Jesus and the end of the world. In Matthew 24:29, “the powers of heaven will be shaken” just before Christ returns. Revelation 8:5 combines fire from heaven with a shaking earthquake: “Then the angel took the censer and filled it with fire from the altar and threw it on the earth; and there were peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning, and an earthquake.”

Until these end times there is no rest here on earth for Christians or anyone else. If even the best case climate change forecasts are true, then we are in for a turbulent time, ecologically and politically. William Bates, the seventeenth-century nonconformist, made these remarks, based on Hebrews 12: “The kingdoms of this world are not more properly compared to any thing, than the sea, which is always voluble and inconstant, and sometimes so violent, that he which expects rest there, must contradict both reason and sense” (The Everlasting Rest of the Saints in Heaven, Chapter 2). By contrast, Bates notes, God’s peaceable, unshaken kingdom is a place of true rest and calm, comparable to a sheet of glass (Revelation 15:2), with “no unquiet agitation” and “no disturbance.” God’s unshakeable Kingdom is built on the foundation of God’s rule. When the “The LORD is king!” reads Psalm 96:10, then “The world is firmly established; it shall never be moved.”

Our reading from Hebrews is a reminder that God’s Kingdom is not of this world. This is seen in more detail in our reading and the contrast it makes between Mount Sinai (verses 18–24) and Mount Zion (verses 25–29). Such a contrast is also between two groups of pilgrim people. The first group are the Israelites who, having being freed from bondage in Egypt, are pilgrims looking for their promised land here on Earth. The second group are those who seek the eternal city of Zion, which is searched for in vain on this restless earth, and is one’s reward only after the current earth and heaven are removed.

This contrast builds on the tensions earlier in the book of Hebrews between the earthly kingdoms and the gathered believers who could have been broken by their persecution. The Hebrews to whom this epistle was addressed had suffered “abuse and persecution” (10:32–33) and the “plundering of your possessions” (10:34). But they knew that they “possessed something better and more lasting” (10:34), would earn a “great reward” (10:35), and would ultimately, through their endurance, “receive what was promised” (10:36).

Part of this endurance was their perseverance in their faith and fearlessness in the face of political persecution, as seen in Hebrews 11. Moses is a great example of this for his fearlessness in the face of political oppression. First, he only survived infancy because “his parents … were not afraid of the king’s edict” (11:23). As an adult, Moses chose “ill-treatment with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin” (11:24–25), and disdained the “treasures of Egypt” because “he was looking ahead to the reward” (11:26). He then fled Egypt, “unafraid of the king’s anger; for he persevered as though he saw him who is invisible” (11:27).

Those who persevered are promised a heavenly reward of eternal rest in God’s Kingdom. Hence, Christians have no abiding city on earth. We are citizens of heaven (Philippians 3:20). This is an eschatological hope for a better life. Yet such perspectives about political and social allegiance can, in the opinion of some, have deleterious effects on social action for climate justice here and now. On the one hand, some Christians of the Pacific believe that God will save them from sea-level rise and other effects of climate change; on the other hand, they believe that this earth is temporary and that heaven awaits them. Neither is a spur to climate activism. According to Hebrews, they are more correct about the second position. The world is being shaken by anthropogenic (another word for “sin-caused”) climate change that is an existential threat to some nations.

How do we receive the unshaken Kingdom? We do not inherit it from our parents, for this generation can see that their inheritance is a polluted world going to hell in a handbasket. Can it be made through human efforts? This has been tried, and no utopia has ever existed. We cannot take the kingdom by force either. We cannot storm heaven, as the builders of the tower of Babel tried to do. No scalable wall separates us from the unshakeable kingdom, nor is there any key maker who can open a door into it for us.

The unshakeable kingdom is only gained by listening to Jesus (12:25). This is not only comforting to the oppressed recipients of the epistle to the Hebrews, it is a comfort to those who are oppressed everywhere. Oppression is never forever; all earthly kingdoms will be burned up. This relativizes earthly kingdoms, putting them in their place. As Origen commented: “And how will the mind that has contemplated the unshakeable kingdom of Christ fail to despise as worth nothing every kingdom on earth?” (Origen, On Prayer, XVII.2).

The created heavens and earth–indeed all of God’s creation—are fleeting, temporal, and ephemeral, not permanent like God’s eternal Kingdom. Our worldly kingdoms aren’t completely worthless, but they are penultimate and ought to be despised in contrast to God’s eternal stable Kingdom. At times, God’s victories can be won here on Earth. Consider the victories mentioned in Hebrews 11:32–34: “For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets—who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight.” These achievements of faith that inspired political action are here valued. Despite their temporal nature, they witness to the faith that inspired them for God’s glory and the reminder that these are God’s achievements.

To despise the earthly kingdoms means to appreciate the kingdom that is to come. To obey God now in God’s work for justice on earth is not to build heaven on earth, but to attain a more perfect Kingdom under the rule of Jesus. To obey Jesus’s message means to suffer our earthly rulers, to love our enemies, and to do justice here and now.

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