What does Jesus expect to happen in world history? We know what he told his disciples to make happen:
And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and disciple all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age”(Matthew 28.18-20).
This is quite clear. The disciples are to bring all national/ethnic groups (ethnoi) into submission to Jesus by teaching them everything Jesus commands so that they observe it. This involves not just teaching a moral code, but initiation into a new society through baptism.
With these marching orders come two assurances: First, that Jesus has gained cosmic authority and, second, that he will be with his disciples as they carry out his commands.
The claim to have now gained all authority was and is immediately recognizable as an appeal to a prophecy in Daniel’s visions:
I saw in the night visions,
and behold, with the clouds of heaven
there came one like a son of man,
and he came to the Ancient of Days
and was presented before him.
And to him was given dominion
and glory and a kingdom,
that all peoples, nations, and languages
should serve him;
his dominion is an everlasting dominion,
which shall not pass away,
and his kingdom one
that shall not be destroyed.
Daniel is immediately told what his vision, of “one like a son of man” being enthroned, means. It means that “the saints of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom forever, forever and ever.” Jesus is claiming that the prophecy has now come true. It is made all the more specific in that the next thing the twelve disciples witness is Jesus ascending into heaven in a cloud.
This kingdom is not intended to stay hidden in heaven with Jesus, nor is it a grand name for a few scattered disciples. This is plain from Jesus’ own orders. It is also clear in Daniel where the prophecy of Daniel 7 is a complement to prophesies given in Daniel 2 in which Nebuchadnezzar sees a vision,
As you looked, a stone was cut out by no human hand, and it struck the image on its feet of iron and clay, and broke them in pieces. Then the iron, the clay, the bronze, the silver, and the gold, all together were broken in pieces, and became like the chaff of the summer threshing floors; and the wind carried them away, so that not a trace of them could be found. But the stone that struck the image became a great mountain and filled the whole earth.
The stone cut out by no human hand, Daniel explains, is the Kingdom of God. Both in Daniel 7 and in Daniel 2 a timeline is given in which there are four empires until God intervenes. The four empires are the Babylonian, the Medo-Persian, the Macedonian, and the Roman. Jesus came under the Caesars and he was exalted over them. He told his disciples to preach a new king.
The Apostle Paul later refers to the Great Commission of Matthew 28, saying that it is his calling as an Apostle to bring about “the obedience of faith” (Romans 1.5; 16.26). He spells out the future course of world history in 1 Corinthians 15, writing:
But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. For “God has put all things in subjection under his feet.”
Here in addition to the prophecies of Daniel, we should also mention Psalm 110, the most quoted passage in the “New Testament”:
The LORD says to my Lord:
“Sit at my right hand,
until I make your enemies your footstool.”
This is related to Psalm 2:
Why do the nations rage
and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth set themselves,
and the rulers take counsel together,
against the LORD and against his Anointed, saying,
“Let us burst their bonds apart
and cast away their cords from us.”
He who sits in the heavens laughs;
the LORD holds them in derision.
Then he will speak to them in his wrath,
and terrify them in his fury, saying,
“As for me, I have set my King
on Zion, my holy hill.”
I will tell of the decree:
The Lord said to me, “You are my Son;
today I have begotten you.
Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage,
and the ends of the earth your possession.
You shall break them with a rod of iron
and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.”
Now therefore, O kings, be wise;
be warned, O rulers of the earth.
Serve the LORD with fear,
and rejoice with trembling.
Kiss the Son,
lest he be angry, and you perish in the way,
for his wrath is quickly kindled.
Blessed are all who take refuge in him.
Paul preached that the LORD’s begetting a son was a prophecy of the resurrection:
And we bring you the good news that what God promised to the fathers, this he has fulfilled to us their children by raising Jesus, as also it is written in the second Psalm, “You are my Son, today I have begotten you.”
Paul uses this Psalm and its relation to the resurrection to begin his letter to the Romans, showing Jesus to have been born again by the Spirit to be King of all:
Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations, including you who are called to belong to Jesus Christ,…
There is a parallelism here, as many scholars have noticed, between Jesus’ first birth from the line of David and his second by the resurrection of the dead. Thus Jesus royal stature involves the title “Firstborn from the dead” (Colossians 1.18; Revelation 1.5). Jesus is now a new king and he is taking possession of what he has won by his death and resurrection. That is the story of world history from his ascension until the resurrection when “The last enemy to be destroyed is death.”
Of course, Jesus didn’t win this kingdom for his own sake, nor does he call us to work towards its realization for his own sake. Jesus wants to save the world. That was the whole point of Israel, going back to the calling of Abraham in Genesis 12:
Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.
And God makes it clear that he hates the idea of only ultimately saving a small remnant out of the world:
Listen to me, O coastlands,
and give attention, you peoples from afar.
The LORD called me from the womb,
from the body of my mother he named my name.
He made my mouth like a sharp sword;
in the shadow of his hand he hid me;
he made me a polished arrow;
in his quiver he hid me away.
And he said to me, “You are my servant,
Israel, in whom I will be glorified.”
But I said, “I have labored in vain;
I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity;
yet surely my right is with the Lord,
and my recompense with my God.”
And now the LORD says,
he who formed me from the womb to be his servant,
to bring Jacob back to him;
and that Israel might be gathered to him—
for I am honored in the eyes of the Lord,
and my God has become my strength—
“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
to raise up the tribes of Jacob
and to bring back the preserved of Israel;
I will make you as a light for the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”
So amid all the power grabs of world leaders, God’s objective in Jesus is the release of the human race from slavery—not just slavery from death but slavery from every other tyrant as well.
That is the future Jesus wants, expects, and orders us to promote.