Published on April 10, 2017 by Joshua R Monroe

Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016 | 188 pages


Reviewed by Matthew J. McMains

The nature of the kingdom of God. It’s a question that has bared the brunt of theological contemplation for thousands of years. While there has been much debate in this regard, a common consensus seems to be that the kingdom represents the concept of God’s sovereign rule, and only secondarily, if at all, has any spatial considerations. Even those who do affirm that the kingdom has a spatial aspect, rarely do they specify how or in what way. Patrick Schreiner’s, The Body of Jesus: A Spatial Analysis of the Kingdom in Matthew, helpfully pushes back against this common understanding and also provides a way in which to understand the kingdom’s spatial aspect as set forth in Matthew’s gospel.



Schreiner divided his work into three parts:

Part I: Space: The Final Frontier
Part 2: Jesus vs. Beelzebul
Part 3: Word-building with Words
Part 4: People, Presence, and Place

Schreiner’s argument has a clear progression. In part one, he presents an apology for the work, particularly the benefit to be had in a spatial analysis of Matthew. Part one concludes with an explanation of critical spatial theory. Schreiner then proceeds in the remainder of his work to apply critical spatial theory to the gospel of Matthew, focusing on both the deeds of Jesus (the Beelzebul Controversy and the Spirit in Matthew), and the words of Jesus (the five major discourses). Finally, in Part 4 Schreiner brings two major themes of Matthew together (the kingdom and the presence of Jesus) in light of critical spatial theory.

In this review I will give a brief summary and evaluation of each chapter. I will then conclude with some general observations of the work as a whole.

In Chapter 1, Schreiner discusses the “Eclipse of Space” in biblical studies, or more specifically, the general lack of consideration given to the spatial aspect of the kingdom in Matthew’s gospel. For several reasons, including the tendency to emphasize on the kingdom as God’s rule, the dominance of time, a dualistic tension within Christianity, and a constricted view of space, the realm aspect of the kingdom has been largely ignored, or pushed into the future eschaton (10). However, according to Schreiner, critical spatial theory provides a way to grasp the kingdom as realm and so bring balance to the study of this important theological concept. Schreiner thus states his thesis in two ways. First, “Theologically, Jesus’ mission is the reordering of the earth with his body as the nucleus” and second, “In metaphysical terms, the spatial aspect of the kingdom is located in the human body, and human bodies create ‘imagined’ kingdom spaces by social living” (14).

There is no doubt an emphasis on God’s sovereign rule in Scripture, as well as the temporal aspect of this rule. Jesus came “in the fullness of time” and in Christ the end of the ages has dawned. However, it is true that, as Schreiner will later discuss, a sovereign reign cannot take place without a place over which to rule. While this has generally been acknowledged, the spatial reality of the kingdom has not been given the attention it deserves. Schreiner’s work is an important step in that direction.

In Chapter 2 Schreiner gives his reasoning for choosing Matthew for his spatial analysis. He focuses here on the two themes of the heaven/earth distinction in Matthew, as well as Jesus as Immanuel. Both of these themes seem to be realm oriented, and thus call for a spatial analysis.

What makes Matthew particularly unique in this regard is that it clearly emphasizes the kingdom as the sovereign rule of Christ as well. I would argue that the entire narrative is about Jesus, the promised king, taking back God’s rule upon the earth through his obedient life, his death, and his resurrection. In Matthew 4 Satan offers Jesus all the kingdoms of the world because they were his to give. In Matthew 28, Jesus receives all authority in heaven and on earth. The resolution has Jesus on the throne and Satan displaced as the ruler of this world. We find the same idea playing out in the Beelzebul controversy of Matthew 12, a text which holds a central space in Schreiner’s argument. What makes his work important is that he demonstrates the importance of space when talking about sovereign rule. Jesus is actually wrenching a realm from the clutches of the Evil One as he gains his sovereign rule over both heaven and earth.

In Chapter 3 Schreiner explains “critical spatial theory.” Rather than understanding space as a merely physical phenomenon, Schreiner argues that space also includes ideological and imaginative aspects. Here we are introduced to the three categories of space which provide a foundation for understanding Matthew’s view of space and place. These categories are firstspace, or the dominant understanding of space as physical; secondspace, which refers the ideological aspect of space; and thirdspace, or the imaginative aspect of space. Schreiner argues that in expanding our view of space to allow for the second and especially third categories, we perhaps gain new and important insight into Jesus’ mission of bringing his kingdom to earth.

It is here that it becomes apparent that in what is perhaps the greatest strength of Schreiner’s work could potentially be found a weakness as well. Students of the the Bible will likely find critical spatial theory to be uncharted territory in their thinking and especially their understanding of Scripture. In this chapter Schreiner delves into topics such as the definition of space, the metaphysics of space, the history of thought regarding space, etc. If the reader is not careful, they may very well forget they are reading a book on Matthew. However, this chapter is vital to Schreiner’s work and is it is beneficial to read it carefully in order to grasp what exactly is being argued throughout the book. One important point it contains is that how we understand space (as physical) has not always been the dominant view. The church fathers had a more relational view of space that would fall into the second and thirdspace categories. This is important to note because the reader may be tempted to dismiss the argument as being an imposition of modern categories upon the text of Scripture which the authors never would have considered. While the categories presented are indeed modern ones, the ideas which they represent have been discussed and affirmed throughout history. Whether or not they are impositions on the text is not decided by this fact alone, but it at least provides incentive to hear the argument with an open mind. Therefore, while this chapter can seem tedious at times, it is quite interesting and indeed vital to grasping the Scriptural analysis which comes later.

Chapter 4 then applies critical spatial theory to Jesus’ confrontation with the Jewish leaders in the Beelzebul Controversy (Matthew 12). Schreiner draws on the name of Baal as well as the Ugaritic Baal Epic to show that this conflict is not just about the rule of Christ over against Satan, but the realm over which they rule. Critical spatial theory helps interpret this account “by showing that when Jesus speaks of boundaries and space he is reordering both physical and social space” (71). The “house” of Satan is not just physical, but includes the key elements of oppression and social ostracism, as illustrated clearly by the blindness and muteness of the demon oppressed man. Schreiner states,

Jesus’ household was contesting the seed of the serpent’s household in firstspace and secondspace terms. By doing so, Jesus was rejecting the household of Satan, and creating his own imagined place (thirdspace). He criticized the system of Satan by attacking Satan’s house and imagining new meanings or possibilities for spatial practices (71).

The application of critical spatiality to the Beelzebul Controversy is a unique and helpful way to analyze the passage. Particularly strong is Schreiner’s argument that the kingdom advances through the bodies of those whom Jesus frees from demonic possession through the power of the Spirit. The language of Jesus plundering Satan’s possessions and of gathering and scattering seem to make this point. I do question the strength of the argument made from the verb φθάνω. Schreiner argues the word should be understood in light of the spatial dimension of the kingdom as “extend, reach, or attain.” He then goes on to conclude that the kingdom is extending through bodies possessed by the same Spirit that is at work in Jesus. In light of the overall discussion this is an attractive view. However, I just wonder how the entire phrase ἔφθασεν ἐφ᾿ ὑμᾶς should be read in that regard. It seems more likely that the phrase indicates the arrival of the kingdom in Jesus’ ministry, rather than its extension through bodies. Schreiner’s reading is not impossible, but I’m not yet persuaded this is what Matthew has in mind. While I didn’t see this as a general pattern in Schreiner’s work, it may be that here is an example of a tendency in a work like this to squeeze a meaning from a text that fits the argument, but may not likely be what the author intended. I should say Schreiner is not dogmatic here, and only states that this is what Matthew “might be indicating…” (73).

In Chapter 5, Schreiner continues his discussion of the Beelzebul Controversy, focusing on the Spirit. He then expands his discussion to the role of the Spirit in Matthew as a whole. Before discussing the Spirit, Schreiner argues that exorcisms are bodily oriented and spatial. They are body oriented in that they necessarily involve bodies. The demon takes over a human body, and the exorcism frees that body from demon possession. They are spatial in the sense that the change that takes place in an exorcism involves the heavenly and earthly kingdoms. The status of the citizen is being transferred from one domain to the other.

In arguing for a spatial sense to the Spirit discussion in this text, Schreiner helpfully surveys the role of the Spirit in Matthew, arguing that Matthew ties the Spirit to the new exodus in significant moments in Jesus’ life. Schreiner looks at the genealogy, the birth of Jesus, the Baptism/Temptation account, the exorcism (the Beelzebul Controversy), and Jesus’ death. Regarding the genealogy, Schreiner argues for an allusion to the Spirit in the words βίβλος γενὲσεως (82-4). It is indeed true that these words likely allude to the creation account in Genesis, and since it is the Spirit who is moving in Genesis 1:2, it is perhaps appropriate to see an allusion to the Spirit’s work here at the beginning of Matthew’s narrative. On the other hand, while it seems likely that Matthew wants us to think new creation as we begin reading his story, I’m not yet convinced this text ought be taken as a connection in Matthew of the Spirit to the new exodus. Similarly, with regard to Jesus’ death, Schreiner argues for a reference to the Holy Spirit in 27:50 when Jesus gives up “His spirit.” He follows Charette in arguing that Matthew’s “unique language” coupled with the “extraordinary phenomena” that take place immediately following indicate at Jesus’ death the Spirit is released (86-7). Again, I think Schreiner’s argument makes sense and I could be convinced, but it seems more likely to me that Matthew is simply referring to the release of Jesus’ own spirit in death. Still, Schreiner’s discussion of the Spirit in the birth of Jesus and in his baptism and temptation set solid groundwork for his argument with regard to the spatial nature of the Spirit’s work in Jesus’ exorcism in the Beelzebul Controversy, which argument I find convincing and helpful in understanding how the kingdom has “come upon” the earth in a spatial sense. Particularly helpful is the spatial progression Schreiner points out with regard to the temptations, with the wilderness representing rejected space, the temple representing sacred space, and the mountain representing sovereign space (88-91). The wilderness, though ideologically rejected space (secondspace), become a place of possibility (thirdspace) as Jesus conquers where Israel failed. Similarly, the presence of Satan at the temple indicates its rejection as sacred space, yet Jesus’ victory over Satan at its pinnacle indicates that he has taken back authority over God’s dwelling place in his own body. He is the new temple. Finally, we see the extent of the Devil’s sovereignty over the earth in the third temptation, and yet again Jesus’ demonstrates his intent to seize all authority when he succeeds in resisting the Devil’s temptation by refusing to bow to his authority. So in the temptation account, Jesus indicates his mission to seize back the space of the entire earth, so that all authority in both heaven and on earth will be his.

In Chapter 6, begins discussing the words of Jesus in his first three discourses. Through his words, Jesus is building worlds. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ words call the disciples to be salt and light upon the earth, and so change their world. In the missions discourse, Jesus sends out his disciples as space changers, bringing peace by healing the sick, casting out demons, and even raising the dead. Finally, in the parables Matthew tells of enacting of the kingdom upon the space of the earth.

Chapter 7 continues analyzing the words of Jesus in light of spatial theory by examining the final two discourses in Matthew. In the community discourse of Matthew 18, Jesus is creating “meek space” by disrupting the natural response to tension and conflict by commanding forgiveness and humility. In contrasting the community of Jesus with the communities of the world, both secondspace and thirdspace are created, which will in turn impact firstspace. In the last discourse, Jesus “contests the most important sacred space in the ancient world, the temple” (19). With words Jesus predicts the destruction of the temple, and in its place “sets himself up as the axis mundi, where heaven and earth collide” (121).

In chapters 6 and 7 Schreiner sets forth a fascinating and I think helpful way to read the discourses in Matthew. They are not simply words, rather they are words that create new space. They are vital in our understanding of how Jesus’ is bringing about his kingdom upon the earth. Jesus’ words build worlds as they create imagined space, thus changing minds and actions, which in turn changes the physical space in which his people live as they put his words into practice.

In Chapter 8, Schreiner examines Matthew 19:28 and 18:20, arguing that both taken together speak of the New World as having spatial significance connected to communal themes. Jesus’ physical presence with his people is accomplished through his communal body. His people have become his family, and their physical presence upon the earth create new spaces and ultimately will create a new place wherein heaven and earth meet.

Chapter 9 argues for the kingdom of God as thirdspace. Thus, “In Jesus’ words and his deeds, he evokes images of the kingdom. They speak not only to the intellect, but to the imagination” (158). Through the imagination, Jesus words change his people internally, and their words and actions in turn change the world externally, thus creating new space. Those who receive and act upon Jesus’ words “critique the social structures of the day with their own expanding world” (159). In Chapter 9 Schreiner also ties the categories of critical spatiality to the temporal concept of an already/not yet kingdom, first and secondspace being linked to the “already” and thirdspace being linked to the “not yet” (161).  


Final Thoughts

On the whole, I found this work insightful and instructive for the interpretation of Matthew’s Gospel. Schreiner has provided a new way to view the expansion of the kingdom in Matthew through the utilization of critical spatiality. My only criticism would apply to anyone endeavoring to read the Biblical texts through a new or unfamiliar grid, and that is the tendency to squeeze texts into that grid that perhaps don’t belong. I saw very little of this in Schreiner’s work as a whole, and pointed out the few cases where I think it could have been the case.

The spatial understanding of the kingdom has indeed taken a backseat in Biblical studies, and Schreiner has provided a way of bringing it to the forefront of the discussion. I would recommend this work to any student of Scripture who has wrestled with questions regarding the kingdom of God, questions which have been asked throughout church history. Schreiner’s spatial inquiry into Matthew’s story of the kingdom provides new (yet also ancient) answers to these questions which move the conversation forward in a unique and most helpful way.


Matthew J. McMains is a PhD student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

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The Body of Jesus: A Spatial Analysis of the Kingdom in Matthew

Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016 | 188 pages

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