Restored and Restoring
The disciples did not know that it would be the last question they would ever ask of Jesus. “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” Many things had come to pass that this little band of dusty men would have never expected. The fresh wine of Jesus Christ had burst the old wineskins of their expectations. The Messiah was rejected. The Messiah was crucified. And the Messiah rose again. Now, with all of these unexpected detours finally accomplished, Jesus’ friends turn to him again and ask the one question that has dominated their thinking since the very beginning of their ministry with him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?”
The answer is yes. The kingdom has been restored to Israel. But the identity of the Israel to whom the kingdom has been restored is different than the disciples imagined. They have put together some pieces of the puzzle correctly. As they walk away from the temple, fresh threats of the rulers and elders ringing in their ears, they quote David in asking “Why did the Gentiles rage, and the peoples plot in vain?” (Acts 4:25). The lips breathing forth lies were not uncircumcised, but circumcised. The disciples identified the elders and the chief priests as Gentiles, as people in opposition to God’s purposes of redemption. The kingdom has been restored, but to the Israel of God, not the Israel of flesh.
The new identity of the kingdom is a work in progress for the early church. Ethnic enmities do not die quickly. Upon his return from the house of Cornelius, Peter finds himself immediately accosted by members of the circumcision party, contending that it was evil for him to have gone and eaten with the uncircumcised. Years later Paul would put into clear theological terms what those Jewish believers came to understand that day, that “we are the true circumcision, who worship in the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus, and put no confidence in the flesh” (Phil 3:3). Indeed the conversation between Peter and the rest of the apostles in Acts 11 marks a turning point in the book of Acts, for then it is discovered that, “[T]o the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life” (Acts 11:18).
Not only did the disciples misunderstand the identity of Israel to whom the kingdom was being restored to, they also did not grasp the nature of the kingdom itself. As Pilate investigates Jesus regarding the Jews’ charge that he claimed kingship over Caesar’s domain, he receives the reply, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36). It is telling that Pilate entirely believes Jesus’ words. He might be deluded, but he is not the kind of man who would lead an insurrection to overthrow the Roman empire.
But Jesus’ kingdom is not benign as Pilate would dream it. Though it is not of this world, neither is the ultimate kingdom behind Pilate’s own. When offered all the kingdoms of the world in exchange for worship, Jesus does not dispute Satan’s claim to dominion and possession of the nations. Satan is the “prince of the power of the air” (Eph 2:2) and “the whole world lies in the power of the evil one” (1 John 5:19). For the kingdom of God to advance, the kingdom of Satan must be beaten back. Jesus had given his followers a taste of their coming ministry in Luke 10. As they return triumphant from watching demonic oppressors melt before he declared, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven” (Luke 10:18). Through the work of the person of Christ the kingdom of God has been guaranteed victory. Satan has been unmasked as usurper and deceiver. What the disciples finally came to understand was their role in this victory: Go therefore, and be restoring.