Kingdom Uprising

Reclaiming Jesus' Hope, Gospel, and Way

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The Kingdom of God

The Kingdom of God

by Matthew Elton

“Do not worry then, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear for clothing?’ For the Gentiles eagerly seek all these things; for your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” -Matthew 6:31-33

What is the kingdom of God? Jesus talked about the kingdom of God more than anything else. He never specifically defined it. His mostly Jewish audience would have already understood what it is from the Old Testament. Unfortunately, many Christians today do not understand the kingdom of God even though it is the central theme of Christ’s teaching. If we are to seek it first, we must understand what it is, using scripture as our guide.

The Importance of the Kingdom

From the day he began his ministry until he ascended into heaven, Jesus preached this message everywhere: “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand” (Matthew 4:17). Jesus highly valued the kingdom of God and compared it to a treasure in a field or a pearl of great value that a person would sacrifice everything to obtain (Matthew 13).

Christ’s view of the kingdom of God was deeply eschatological in nature. In places like Matthew 24, Luke 21, and Mark 13, Jesus went into detail about the end of the present age and the beginning of a new, messianic age in which the messiah (meaning “anointed king”) would overthrow the governments of the world and rule as the king over the entire world forever. Almost all of Christ’s parables deal directly with this vision of a final judgement that is coming soon to the earth (see Matthew 25:1-13, Matthew 22:1-14, Matthew 25:14-30, Matthew 20:1-16).

The Prophets Envisioned the Kingdom

“I kept looking in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven One like a Son of Man was coming, And He came up to the Ancient of Days and was presented before Him. And to Him was given dominion, glory and a kingdom, that all the peoples, nations and men of every language might serve Him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion which will not pass away; and His kingdom is one Which will not be destroyed.” -Daniel 7:13-14

Identifying himself as the messiah whom Daniel had prophesied about, Jesus took upon himself the title “Son of Man.” In a verse often quoted at Christmas, Isaiah also prophesied about the messiah receiving a kingdom and power: “For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us; and the government will rest on His shoulders” (Isaiah 9:6a).

The prophets foresaw a coming messianic age in which the messiah would rule over the whole world and establish peace on the earth: “And He will judge between the nations, and will render decisions for many peoples; and they will hammer their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not lift up sword against nation, and never again will they learn war” (Isaiah 2:4, see also Isaiah 60:18).

In this messianic age, there will even be peace in the animal kingdom – “And the wolf will dwell with the lamb, and the leopard will lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little boy will lead them” (Isaiah 11:6).

Knowledge of God will fill the earth (Jeremiah 31:34, Habakkuk 2:14) and rather than the sun, God himself will be the light of the world (Isaiah 60:19).

Everything Wrong Made Right

We see all of this fulfilled in Revelation 21-22, which is a vision of the age to come – what it will look like when the messiah rules the world. Comparing Revelation 21-22 (the very end of the Bible) to Genesis 1-2 (the very beginning of the Bible), the parallels are amazing. What God originally intended the beginning is what he gets in the end.

In the beginning, God created the earth “very good” (Genesis 1:31). Prior to sin, there was no death, disease, crying, or pain. God dwelled on the earth with man, walking and talking with man in the garden (Genesis 3:8). It was only after they sinned that Adam and Eve hid from God and felt ashamed. Sin caused a separation between God and man. Because of sin, the earth was cursed (Genesis 3:18). This curse affected the whole world and brought about thorns and thistles infesting the ground, disease infecting the world, and unrest in the animal kingdom.

But there’s good news: God has not given up on the earth! He is a God of restoration who has a plan to make what is wrong right. We see in Revelation 21-22 that in the end, God will get what he wanted in the beginning. Sin will be no more, and man’s relationship with God will be fully restored. God will once again dwell on the earth with man – “Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He will dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be among them” (Revelation 21:3b).

The tree of life will be restored (Revelation 22:2) and “there will no longer be any curse” (Revelation 22:3a). In fact, there will be “there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:4b).

The kingdom of God can be summed up in this one simple sentence: Everything wrong with the world made right!

God’s Covenants with Abraham and Isaac

“Now the LORD said to Abram, ‘Go forth from your country, and from your relatives and from your father’s house, to the land which I will show you; and I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great; and so you shall be a blessing; and I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse. And in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.” -Genesis 12:1-3

The story of the kingdom of God begins with Abraham. God called Abraham (originally named Abram) to leave the land in which he was living and travel to the land of Canaan, which God promised to give to Abraham and his descendants forever. From Abraham would come a kingdom that would last forever.

“The Lord said to Abram, after Lot had separated from him, ‘Raise your eyes now, and look from the place where you are, northward and southward and eastward and westward; for all the land that you see I will give to you and to your offspring forever.’” -Genesis 13:14-15

God later extended the territory to include all the land of Cannan.

“And I will give to you, and to your offspring after you, the land where you are now an alien, all the land of Canaan, for a perpetual holding; and I will be their God.”-Genesis 17:8

God’s covenant with Abraham was renewed with Isaac, the son whom God had promised to miraculously give to Abraham in his old age.

“The LORD appeared to him and said, “Do not go down to Egypt; stay in the land of which I shall tell you. Sojourn in this land and I will be with you and bless you, for to you and to your descendants I will give all these lands, and I will establish the oath which I swore to your father Abraham. I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven, and will give your descendants all these lands; and by your descendants all the nations of the earth shall be blessed; because Abraham obeyed Me and kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes and My laws.”

-Genesis 26:2-5

God’s Covenant With Moses

Isaac’s son Jacob (later renamed Israel) became the father of twelve sons from whom came the twelve tribes of Israel and the “Israelites”. But there were some bumps in the road. The rest of Genesis explains how the Israelites ended up in Egypt rather than Canaan, the land that had been promised to them. In the next book, Exodus, God calls Moses to free the Israelites from slavery in Egypt and lead them to the promised land.

God made a covenant with Moses. If the Israelites kept the commandments, they would possess the land forever and be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation:

“Now then, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is Mine; and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” -Exodus 19:5-6a

God’s Covenant With David

The Israelites entered the land and took possession of it. Their first king, Saul, eventually turned away from God. But their next king, David, was “a man after God’s own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14, Acts 13:22). God made a covenant with King David in which he promised that one of David’s descendants would reign as the king over the whole world for all eternity!

“I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever.” -2 Samuel 7:12-13

In Jeremiah 33, God tied this promise to the sun and the moon – as long as the sun and moon continue to rise, this promise can never be broken.

“Thus says the LORD, ‘If My covenant for day and night stand not, and the fixed patterns of heaven and earth I have not established, then I would reject the descendants of Jacob and David My servant, not taking from his descendants rulers over the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. But I will restore their fortunes and will have mercy on them.’” -Jeremiah 33:25-26

Bumps in the Road

The Israelites eagerly awaited the promised king who would rule forever. But once again, there were bumps in the road. Israel became divided into a northern kingdom (Israel) and a southern kingdom (Judah). Then, the divided Israel faced serious threats from foreign nations.

First, the Assyrians invaded and conquered the northern kingdom of Israel, which accounted for ten out of the twelve tribes. Then, the Babylonians invaded Judah and took the remaining two tribes into exile in Babylon. At this point, the Temple lay in ruins and the Israelites no longer possessed any of the land.

But God was faithful. In a verse frequently quoted out of context, God promised that the Babylonian captivity would only last for 70 years, and after that, the Israelites would return to the land:

“For thus says the LORD, ‘When seventy years have been completed for Babylon, I will visit you and fulfill My good word to you, to bring you back to this place. For I know the plans that I have for you,’ declares the LORD, ‘plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope.’” – Jeremiah 29:10-11

Sure enough, the Persians conquered Babylon and allowed the Israelites to return to the land of Canaan. But it was a still a rocky road. Under Alexander the Great, the Greek Empire conquered Israel and occupied the land. Under the leadership of Judas Maccabeus, Israel was briefly re-established during the Maccabean Revolt, which is commemorated every year in the celebration of Hanukah. But it didn’t last, and the land eventually fell to the Roman Empire.

The Messiah They Didn’t Expect

At the time of Christ, the land of Israel was under military occupation by the Romans. The Romans were polytheists with no respect for the one true God. Roman soldiers could force Jews into slavery by making them to carry gear for up to one mile.

It is in this historical context – a context of oppression and despair – that the Christmas story takes place. The Jews eagerly awaited the fulfillment of God’s promise to David – the soon coming king who would overthrow the Roman Empire and rule the world forever. This is why Matthew and Luke both open their gospels with long genealogies. They may seem boring to us, but they are actually incredibly exciting because they prove that Jesus is both a descendant of Abraham and a descendant of David, and therefore eligible to fulfill the prophecies.

Jesus identified himself as the Son of Man whom Daniel had prophesied about, but his approach to establishing the kingdom of God was totally opposite of what most people expected. The Jewish zealots were expecting a military leader like Judas Maccabeus who would liberate Israel by military force. Jesus, on the other hand, taught nonviolence: “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44). Rather than fighting the Roman soldier who could force you to carry his gear for a mile, Jesus said to carry it for two miles (Matthew 5:41) and if a soldier slaps you on the cheek, “turn the other to him also!” (Matthew 5:39).

The Jews expected the kingdom to be established by military force, but Jesus said: “do not resist an evil person” (Matthew 5:39) and “all those who take up the sword shall perish by the sword” (Matthew 26:52).

Most shockingly of all, Jesus was crucified. To the Jews of that day, it seemed totally unimaginable that the promised king who was supposed to rule the world forever would be executed on a stake. But this had all been prophesied (e.g. Isaiah 53) and was part of God’s plan. Understandably, it was a hard truth to accept. Thus, Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1:23, “we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews”.

Sin had to be atoned for so that all people – including non-Jews – could enter the covenant promises that God made to Abraham, Moses, and David. Paul declares in Romans 9-11 that, like wild branches grafted onto an olive tree, we too are now counted as descendants of Abraham through our faith in Jesus Christ. This means that all of the promises God made about the kingdom now apply to us! The kingdom promises are received not through ancestry or ritual (e.g. circumcision) but through faith and love.

“For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.” -Galatians 5:6 (ESV)

The Kingdom Lifestyle

The ethics of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7, see also Luke 6) make absolutely no sense, unless you view them in light of the kingdom of God as a soon coming reality.

For Jesus, it was okay to suffer injustice in this present age because he foresaw a soon coming kingdom in which everything about the present world would be flipped upside down. “The last shall be first, and the first last” (Matthew 20:16).

In the present world, it is the rich, the powerful, the popular, and the happy who everyone considers blessed. But in the coming kingdom, the poor, the lowly, the despised, the weeping and mourning, the humble, those hungering and thirsting for justice – these are the ones who are blessed (Matthew 5, Luke 6)!

Jesus began his public teaching with the radical words: “Blessed are the poor… blessed are those who weep… blessed are you when men hate you” (Luke 6:21-22). He foresaw a coming kingdom in which the poor, hungry, and persecuted would receive blessing, but the rich would be “sent away empty” (Luke 1:53).

The ethics of Jesus are directly tied to this vision of the kingdom of God. He will judge his followers on whether they helped the poor and needy: “to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me” (see Matthew 25:31-46).

For Jesus, the kingdom of God flips the world upside down. “If anyone wants to be first, he shall be last of all and servant of all” (Mark 9:35b). “Whoever wishes to be first among you shall be slave of all” (Mark 10:44).

Count the Cost: The Good News of a Challenging Gospel

The kingdom of God is everything wrong with the world made right. It is good news, but it is also incredibly challenging. It’s good news because there will be no more death, pain, sin, or evil when the kingdom comes. It’s challenging because seeking the kingdom means denying one’s self, taking up one’s cross, and following Christ. This is not a decision to be taken lightly. Jesus warned us to count the cost before we even begin to follow him.

“Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple. For which one of you, when he wants to build a tower, does not first sit down and calculate the cost to see if he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who observe it begin to ridicule him, saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’ Or what king, when he sets out to meet another king in battle, will not first sit down and consider whether he is strong enough with ten thousand men to encounter the one coming against him with twenty thousand? Or else, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace. So then, none of you can be My disciple who does not give up all his own possessions.” -Luke 14:27-33

There are many false gospels in the world. We must always stay focused on the true gospel that Jesus preached: “Repent for the kingdom of God is at hand” (Matthew 4:17). Jesus was not introducing a new idea when he preached the gospel. He preached the same gospel that the Old Testament prophets preached when they foretold of an everlasting Kingdom that will be established on the earth with justice, peace, and righteousness forever.

In a world filled with war and terrorism, we have the hope that a king is coming who will establish peace on the earth forever (Isaiah 2:4). In a world filled with death and sorrow, we have the hope that a king is coming who will throw death into the lake of fire and destroy death and sorrow forever (Revelation 20). We share this message with others through words that tell them about the kingdom of God, and through actions that show people what the kingdom will be like by meeting real needs in the world with the love of Christ. “Let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action” (1 John 3:18b).

As ambassadors for Christ (2 Corinthians 5:20) and citizens of heaven (Philippians 3:20) we represent the kingdom to the world by being peacemakers and demonstrating the radically sacrificial love that Jesus demonstrated – we love enemies, turn the other cheek, and forgive the unforgivable (Matthew 5-7). This kind of lifestyle is considered radical in the present day world, but it will be commonplace when the kingdom of God comes. By living it out, we represent the kingdom on the earth until it is fully established in the future and all evil is eliminated.

The kingdom message is both good news, and a serious challenge. It is good news because it promises everything wrong with the world will be made right. It is challenging because it demands repentance and obedience to Christ. In the same way that Jesus warned people to repent before the kingdom comes (Matthew 4:17), we should also preach repentance, “speaking the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15).

The kingdom message is the gospel. The word “gospel” means “good news”. The gospel message is the message that the kingdom of God is coming, that Jesus – the king of the kingdom – is coming back to rule the world. It’s the hope that anchors our souls (Hebrews 6:19) so we can endure the challenges of this present evil age and shine as lights in a dark world (Philippians 2:15).

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An Immortal Longing

by Carlos Xavier

The Apostle Paul warns the reader not to “receive a different spirit from the one you received [nor to put up with] a different gospel from the one you accepted…because even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed [anathema]…for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light” [2Cor 11.4, 14; Gal 1.8]. The Apostle John likewise exhorts his reader not to “believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God [since by testing] those who call themselves apostles and are not, [we may find] them to be false” [1John 4.1; Rev 2.2].

The purpose of this article is to call on the reader to further “search and examine the scriptures” with a ‘Berean’ spirit [Acts 17.11; Isa 34.16], in order to “fight the good fight of the faith [so that we might be able to] take hold of the eternal life” that awaits us [1Tim 6.12]. As Christians, founded on Peter’s confession [“Son of God” Mat 16.13-20, and not God the Son], we should not be afraid to question what we have been taught[1] or whatever personal experience [no matter how vivid and real] we may have had in our lives. And although space may not allow me to fully tackle all the passages used by those who believe in the immortality of the soul[2] doctrine (i.e. Parable of Lazarus, Lu 16.19-31), my aim is to prove (as per sola scriptura) not only how this aberrant interpretation contradicts the gospel message, but how it is a stumbling block to our taking “hold of the eternal life” as promised by God.

In John 3.13 Jesus affirms that “no one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man”[3]. This explains why Jesus later says to his apostles “where I am going you cannot come—follow” [Jn 8.21; 13.33]. We know that the writings of John remain the source for most of the false doctrines that have developed over the ages [Trinity; Hell etc.], this is also true for those who share a [over] realized eschatology, from which the immortal soul doctrine originates:

“The assumption that John dispenses with [a literal] future resurrection [of the dead] would mean that he has significantly altered the view of ‘resurrection’ found elsewhere in the documents of the NT or in the Judaism of the period[4] [where] the dead are raised, not ‘spiritually’ or metaphorically, but bodily…the data of the Gospel [of John] do not bear out the assumption that John has collapsed the future resurrection into a present quality of life, even a divinely given life…Language of being raised up remains resolutely attached to the future, to the ‘last day’ [thus bringing] to fruition what the Father offers through the Son, the gift of life.”[5]

The belief “of the period” the writer alludes to here is the one that is founded on the prophetic visions experienced by men like Daniel [12.2] and Ezekiel [37], where a literal reanimation of dead bodies by the power of God’s spirit is in view. This unchanging understanding at the centre of what ultimately the gospel message promises [eternal life to be attained only in the KOG], is maintained by Peter at Pentecost in Acts 2.29-35:

“Brothers and sisters, we all know that the patriarch David died and was buried and his tomb is here to this day. But he was a prophet and knew that God had promised him on oath that he would place one of his descendants on his throne. Seeing what was to come, he spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah, that he was not abandoned to the realm of the dead, nor did his body see decay…For David did not ascend to heaven, and yet he said, ‘The LORD [YHWH] said to my lord [adoni, human superior]: Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet’ [ref. Psa 110.1].” [TNIV]

A closer look at this key passage reveals that not only Peter knew of David’s death[6] but everyone else within earshot was also aware of this fact. But, like Daniel and Ezekiel, David was also a prophet who saw “what was to come…the resurrection from the dead of the Messiah”, a sort of prelude to the core promises that the gospel message of the KOG can only provide.

So what does this mean? No one, including prophets, patriarchs or kings, is said to be currently alive [conscious and active] in heaven, where only Jesus is said to be at the present because he is the “firstfruits [first to rise from the dead] of those who have fallen asleep [dead]” [1Cor 15.20-23; cp. Acts 26.23]:

“1Cor 15.20: …If God raised Christ from the dead, then Christ truly was the firstfruits (Ex. 23:19; Lev. 23:10; Deut. 18:4; Neh. 10:35) or the first of many others who would also be raised from the dead. (See also Rom. 8:29; 1 Cor. 15:23; Col. 1:18.) The term “firstfruits” (Gk. aparchē) refers to a first sample of an agricultural crop that indicates the nature and quality of the rest of the crop; therefore, Christ’s resurrection body gives a foretaste of what those of believers will be like.” ESV study Bible[7]

If this isn’t clear enough for the reader, Paul reiterates Peter’s message in Acts 13: “when David had served God’s purpose in his own generation, he fell asleep [died]; he was buried [laid] with his ancestors [fathers] and his body decayed” [v. 36]. The second part of this verse is variously translated as “slept with his fathers”. When you do a ‘phrase count’ [36 times in all] you will discover that all of the kings registered in the book of Kings [cp. Chronicles] are said to have “died [and laid to rest with their fathers]”, from Solomon to Jehoiakim; all of them[8]!

In a beautifully composed piece of poetry, Job mentions this fact when, in his distress, he wishes he had joined all who were already in this state of rest [and not enjoying the glories of heaven] rather than being born:

“Had I died at birth, I would now be at peace. I would be asleep and at rest. I would rest with the world’s kings and prime ministers [counselors], whose great buildings now lie in ruins. I would rest with princes, rich in gold, whose palaces were filled with silver. Why wasn’t I buried like a stillborn child, like a baby who never lives to see the light? For in death the wicked cause no trouble, and the weary [righteous] are at rest. Even captives are at ease in death, with no guards to curse them. Rich and poor are both there, and the slave is free from his master.” Job 3.13-19 NLT

If not one of the kings is said to be presently alive and conscious in the heavens [or under it], we have to surmise that the same applies to the “fathers [ancestors]” of David, which includes those patriarchs who came before him. How do we know? The OT testifies that Abraham was laid with his “fathers in peace” [Gen 15.15; 25.8], the same for Isaac and Jacob [Gen 47.28-31], Moses [Due 31.14-15; 34.5], King David and his son Solomon [2 Sam 7.12; 1K 2.10; 11.21; cp. 2Chro 9.21]. The NT again verifies the unchanging nature of their current state:

“All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance [via prophetic “utterances” and covenant promises]…Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.” Heb 11.13-15 [TNIV]

So I ask you, faithful reader, what sets us [or our dearly departed] apart from all the faithful? Why should we attain an immortal soul that is clearly not available to them, thus bypassing not only “the last day” but judgment itself? This will be a judgment that, according to Paul, even Christians like himself will come under [Rom 14.10[11]].

FOOTNOTES:

[1] “The doctrine of the faith affirms that the spiritual and immortal soul is created immediately by God…” Catechism of the Catholic Church, Sec. 2, Ch. 1, Art. 1, Par. 6, Man, 2.366, 382; Art. 12.4.1035. 1992.

“The bodies of men, after death, return to dust, and see corruption: [Gen 3.19; Acts 13.36] but their souls, which neither die nor sleep, having an immortal subsistence, immediately return to God who gave them: [Lu 23.43; Eccl 12.7]…” Westminster Confession of Faith, 32.1, 1646AD.

[2] The Bible presents the soul as the whole, individual person and not a separate “living entity [part]”. This is in lieu of the wrong interpretation of what Paul says in 1Thess 5.23, where he is simply using several terms [“spirit and soul and body”] to describe one and the same entity for greater emphasis.

[3] That some of Jesus’ sayings [not only in this verse but in others] include a figure of speech known as prolepsis, where a future event is referred to in the present tense [or in anticipation], is verified by the fact that some manuscripts add “who is in heaven”.

[4] Ed. Note: Cp. Gen 2.17; 3.19-22; Job 7.21; 34:14-15; Ecc 12:7; Psa. 6.15; 13.3; 30.9; 88:10-15; 103.14; 104.29; 115:17; Job 10.18-19; Jer 51.39; Ezek 18.4, 20; Eccl 3.19-20; 9.5, 10.

[5] The God of the Gospel of John, Marriane Meyer Thompson, p. 82-83, 2001.

[6] In the Bible sleep means “death” [koimao “asleep”, Mat 9.24; 27.52; Mar 5.39; Lu 8.52; Jn 11.11-13; Acts 7.60; 13.36; 1Cor 11.30; 15.6, 18, 20; 1Thess 4.13-15; 5.6, 10; 2Pe 3.4]. The OT equivalent is “slept with his fathers” (as shown throughout 1–2 Kings; 1–2 Chronicles). This is described as a deep sleep from which people will one day be awakened (cp. Dan. 12:2).

[7] WARNING: As good as most of the biblical commentaries sometimes are, they also get it wrong. The ESV Study Bible commentary for the following verse [1Cor 1.23] reads: “Until that time, those who have died exist in heaven as spirits without bodies.”?!

[8] 1 K 11.21; 14.20; 15.8; 16.6; 22.40; 2K 8.24; 10.35; 13.9; 14.16; 13.7; 16.20; 20.21; 21.18; 24.6; cp. 2Chro 9.31; 12.16; 14.1; 16.13.

[9] Luther’s Works, Vol 25, p 321, cited in Morey, p 201, Death and the Afterlife, Bethany, 1984.

[10] Commentary on Acts, ibid. p 209.

[11] “Rom 14.10-12: everyone will stand before God, who will judge all on the last day. The future day of judgment is prophesied in Isa. 45:23. Every person will give an account of his life to God at the judgment. Though justification is by faith alone, what Christians do will affect God’s evaluation of their service to him and the rewards they will receive (cf. 1 Cor. 3:10–17; 2 Cor. 5:10).” ESV Study Bible.

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How the Kingdom Was Lost 3: Too Jewish

by Sean Finnegan

Why do so nearly all Christians today believe that the people of God will spend eternity living in heaven with God? Although the bible clearly and in many places teaches just the opposite, one is hard-pressed to find any Christians who believe that God intends to fix the planet rather than evacuate it. In investigating this question, I have arrived at three major reasons why some early Christians rejected God’s coming kingdom on earth in favor of a heavenly hope. They thought the kingdom idea was too crude, too hedonistic, and too Jewish. In previous conferences I have addressed the first two reasons and the papers I wrote are available online. However, today I intend to explore this third motivator for jettisoning the biblical hope.

The issue is tied up with two main sub issues: how one interprets scripture (hermeneutics) and combating the fear of losing people to Judaism (apologetics). Before I turn to explain these two main issues and how kingdom deniers beat down their opponents with the alloy forged from their combination, we need to first establish that early Christians really did consider the kingdom idea as too Jewish.

Evidence that Millenarianism Was Considered Jewish

Origen appears to have been the first one to make the connection between Christian millenarians and a Jewish style of interpretation. He writes, “[T]hey understand the divine scriptures in the Judaistic sense” and they “extract from them nothing that is worthy of the divine promises” (Princ. 2.11.1-2). To read Scripture literally was, for Origen, to read it like the Jews, and this was precisely what the millenarians were doing.

His great admirer, Eusebius, took on Origen’s ethnic hermeneutical categories. While mentioning Nepos, the millenarian Egyptian bishop, he wrote, “[he] taught that the promises made to the saints in holy Scripture should be interpreted in a more Jewish way” resulting in his belief that “there would be a kind of millennium of bodily luxury on this earth” (H.E. 7.24). Here we see the polemic of hedonism combined with the accusation of hermeneutical Judaizing. Eusebius also executed this Origenistic maneuver in his Commentary on Isaiah, especially when the text involved promises about inheriting the land of Judea. For Eusebius the grand vision of Isaiah 2 referred not to the eschaton, but rather to the Roman Empire itself.[1] However, the Jews understood the prophecy to refer to their own land because they interpreted it corporeally, that is, in a literal sense. Once again we find the confluence of literally exegesis associated with a distinctly Jewish heremeutic. Later interpreters like John Chrysostom and Basil of Caesarea followed in Eusebius’ footsteps arguing for a past fulfillment of Isaiah 2.[2] Robert Wilken observes how Isaiah commentaries came to “give their interpretation of this text a polemical cast and direct their observations against Jewish views of the text.”[3]

Although for Origen and Eusebius, the tendency to accuse those who believed in a future kingdom on earth of being too Jewish was confined to the Jewish hermeneutic (reading literally), by the time of Jerome, just believing in an earthly hope was grounds for the accusation of Judaizing. Papias, he says, “published the Jewish opinion of one thousand years [of reign].”[4] In commenting on an eschatological passage from Zephaniah, Jerome writes, “If one of the Christians…reckons that the prophecy is not yet completed, let him know that he falsely bears the name of Christ and that he has a Jewish soul, lacking only circumcision of the body” (Commentary to Zephaniah 3.14-18).[5] Remarking on Isaiah 54, Jerome notes that the Jews along with “our Judaizers” believe the passage refers to Jerusalem and that there will be a kingdom for a thousand years. He goes on to accuse them of loving the “letter that kills” (i.e. interpreting literally) and following after “Jewish ravings” (Iudaica deliramenta), since they seek to satisfy their gluttony, lust for marriage, and longing for circumcision, sacrifices, and the Sabbath.[6] In arguing that Jews who converted to Christianity should not keep the law he writes:

“[Those] who assert that the ceremonies of the old Law should be observed in the Church of Christ by the stock of faithful Israel, those should also look forward to a golden Jerusalem for a thousand years, that they may offer sacrifices and be circumcised, that they may sit on the Sabbath, sleep, become sated, drunk, and rise to frolic, their amusement being offensive to God” (Commentary to Isaiah 53.12).[7]

In Jerome’s mind, Torah observance for Christians coincided with a millenarian eschatology. Hilel I. Newman insightfully remarked, “Keeping in mind the nonchalance with which Jerome is ready to tag his rivals with offensive labels not because they are true, but because they may stick, we can better appreciate the pitfalls of taking even his explicit references to Judaizers at face value.”[8]

Scholars have sometimes wondered whether there really was a connection between millenarianism and Judaizing. To this Newman replies, “Jerome speaks of Christian millenarians of the past and present as Iudaizantes in the same way as he and his contemporaries use this and related terms in their struggles against various other Christian movements or ideologies who are candidates for such a caricature, without signifying genuine sympathy towards Jews and Judaism.”[9] This is fairly easy to prove since Jerome sometimes names his millenarian Judaizing opponents. Among the usual suspects are Irenaeus, Tertullian, Victorinus, and Lactantius. Since we know none of these authors were Judaizers, we have solid grounds to read Jerome’s polemic as a caricature rather than as a factual description. “So far as we know,” Newman continues, “none of these authors maintained hopefully that in the millennial kingdom all would offer sacrifices and keep the Sabbath and that all men would be circumcised.”[10] Thus, we see how from Origen to Jerome there is a development that tended to accuse millenarianism as being too Jewish.

Standard Christian Response to Judaism

In order to understand how Judaism became associated with literal interpretation we need to consider the historical context of Origen’s time, since this idea was largely his invention. Judaism posed a major challenge to Christianity, a challenge in which Origen himself was a lead participant. Although one may have suspected the Judaism of Origen’s day to have been on the decline as a result of the combined catastrophes of the Jewish War (a.d. 66-73) and the BarKochba Revolt (a.d. 132-135), by the third century, Wilken notes, “the unhappy memories of BarKochba were beginning to recede into the past, and the hardships that came in the wake of the several wars with the Romans were giving way to economic growth.”[11] Furthermore, the Jews had certain advantages over the Christians. They had superior access to the Old Testament since they could read the original Hebrew.[12] Christians scholars like Origen (cf. his Hexapla) and Jerome (cf. his Vulgate) both took the time to learn Hebrew to varying degrees so as to overcome this deficiency. [13] The Jews also possessed a much more developed liturgical calendar and they had a reputation for spiritual powers including blessings, curses, exorcisms, and even magic. Up until at least the late fourth century, the allure of Judaism continued to trouble Christian leaders as is evidenced by John Chrysostom’ vigorous denunciations of Christians who occasionally attended synagogue and practiced other distinctly Jewish customs (Against the Jews).

Judaism posed two major problems for Christians: (1) By their very existence, they confronted Christian thinkers with the question—if Jesus really was the prophesied Jewish Messiah, then why did his own people still reject him? (2) They actively competed with Christians for adherents and according to Joseph Trigg, “in Palestine at least, the Jews did very well at it.”[14] At the center of this competition was the Jewish denial that Jesus was the actual promised Messiah. The Jewish rebuttal to Jesus centered on the biblical texts related to eschatology, because for the Jews the Messiah played a determinative role in establishing the kingdom of God on earth in the end. Even after both failed attempts to retake Jerusalem in the first two centuries, Jews retained a vibrant faith in a traditional, political, this-worldly messianism, which according to Abba Silver, “assume[d] preeminence in the national consciousness.”[15] In speaking about the Judaism of the period, Silver explains:

It should be borne in mind that Messianism was essentially a political idea. It was bound up with the restoration of the Davidic dynasty and with the reconstitution of the independence of Israel. Certain eschatological and supernatural features were combined with it, but essentially it remained a this-worldly, temporal, national idea.[16]

Rabbi Yohanan, a Jew contemporaneous with Origen, while commenting on the Song of Songs says, “One day Jerusalem will be made into a metropolis for all nations and draw to her as a stream to honor her.”[17] In light of the total lack of political fulfillment, the Christian claim that Jesus of Nazareth was the Jewish Messiah lacked cogency. Wilken writes, “If these prophecies have not been fulfilled historically, that is, these things are not happening, then the Messianic age has not arrived and Jesus cannot be the Messiah.”[18]

Origen himself recognized that the problem related not to what the prophetic Scriptures said, but how they were read:

For the hard-hearted and ignorant members of the circumcision have refused to believe in our Savior because they think that they are keeping closely to the language of the prophecies that relate to him, and they see that he did not literally ‘proclaim release to the captives’ or build what they consider to be a real ‘city of God’…Further, they think that it is the wolf, the four-footed animal, which is said in prophecy to be going to ‘feed with the lamb’…and having seen none of these events literally happening during the advent of him whom we believe to be Christ they did not accept our Lord Jesus, but crucified him on the ground that he had wrongly called himself Christ” (Princ. 4.2.1)[19]

Christian rebuttals focused on the Jewish understanding of the Messiah and messianism, based primarily in the prophets. To answer this issue Christians developed a variety of responses. The Gnostics and Valentinians created cosmic meta-narratives to provide their adherents with an enlightened way of reading the Jewish bible. The side effect of this strategy was that the Jews were looked down upon for reading scripture as if it actually meant what it said. Marcion, as is well known, eliminated the Septuagint from his canon, which again produced a similar downcast attitude towards the Jews. However, a good number of Christian groups committed themselves to the “Old Testament,” and in doing so, according to Michael Hollerich, Christianity “thereby also bound itself to a vindication of its claim to the Jewish Bible against the Jews themselves.”[20]

Thus, the battle became essentially a hermeneutical one and Origen, more than any other, was the pioneer of developing a distinctly Christian hermeneutic (or at least the perception of one). He had to answer the standard exegetical tradition that interpreted the prophetic promises literally and applied them to the Jewish people.[21] “[I]n his controversy with the Jews,” writes Trigg, “allegory was Origen’s first line of defense.”[22] Sellew writes, “Although the allegorical method of interpretation never won universal acceptance in antiquity, at the start of the Christian era it was nonetheless the dominant scientific device to aid in understanding the true significance of ancient texts now far removed from their original contexts.”[23]

A Brief Introduction to Allegory

Originally applied to Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, allegorical interpretation was a strategy exegetes used to relieve the tension created between holding a high view of a document on the one hand, while recognizing it contained unworthy or immoral elements on the other. Although Plato himself did not approve of allegorizing Homer, he was not above creating his own myths to communicate philosophical truths.[24] Likewise the Epicureans spurned allegory and never ceased to criticize the Stoics for their efforts. According to H.I. Marrou , Homer became, in the hands of the Stoics, one who “intentionally conceal[ed] under the veil of myth a complete and detailed body of doctrine, the meaning of which could be discovered by investigating his allegories.”[25] By the first century after Christ, Horace and especially Heraclitus developed these metaphorical readings of Homer further.[26] The latter famously quipped, “everything is impious if nothing is allegorical.”[27] Even Plutarch moralized Homer for pedagogical reasons.[28] The enigmatic Numenius, whom Origen read, likewise employed allegory to harmonize Homer and Plato, not to mention forays into the stories of the Egyptians, Chaldeans, and Jews.[29] Plotinus, Origen’s contemporary, even employed allegory on occasion.[30] His disciple, Porphyry, who composed Against the Christians in the late third century, attacked the Christian practice of allegory, especially Origen.[31] Interestingly enough, Porphyry did not spurn allegory altogether (he employed it himself in an earlier work),[32] rather his criticism was over the biblical text itself, which he thought contained absurdities and immoral behavior, unworthy of allegory. All this is to say that by the time of Origen and his hermeneutical successors, allegory was a widely known and respected way of reading inspired texts.

Apart from Numenius and the Stoics, Origen’s other allegorical influencers were Paul the Apostle, Philo of Alexandria, and Clement of Alexandria. Paul had used allegory to argue against observance of the Law (Galatians 4.21-31). Paul’s contemporary, Philo, in contrast, used allegory everywhere but still believed in Torah observance.[33] Clement of Alexandria probably introduced Origen to Philo and himself applied allegory to the New Testament. Out of these three, Philo, by far, had the greatest influence on Origen’s exegesis. David T. Runia points out that although Origen only mentioned Philo by name three times, he referred to him another twenty times using anonymous phrases, and more than four hundred passages have been identified by editors indicating varying levels of dependency on him.[34]

Origen defined and defended his use of allegory in his fourth book of On First Principles. His argument divides into two main parts. First he sets out to demonstrate that the Bible as a whole is inspired by God and then he argues for a deeper meaning of the individual texts that appear unworthy. Trigg articulates Origen’s mentality well:

If the Bible is inspired by God but appears in places to be irrelevant to our condition, unworthy of God, or simply banal, we may take it for granted that we have failed to grasp its inner sense. If no spiritual significance is apparent on the surface, we must conclude that this surface, which may or may not be factual, is intended symbolically.[35]

Whereas modern sensibilities would express caution regarding allegory because of its apparent ad hoc nature, for Origen, the opposite was the case. The danger, as he perceived was manifest in those who refused to allegorize like the Jews who rejected Jesus as the Messiah, Marcion who rejected the Old Testament entirely, and the Gnostics who concluded the God of the Septuagint was evil. Origen’s allegorical hermeneutic enabled him to move beyond the corporeal outer layer of the text to its soul and spirit. Those who did not grasp these deeper more penetrating meanings could easily be charged with naiveté or ignorance.

What is so puzzling about Origen’s frequent declamations against the Jews for interpreting Scripture in a woodenly literal way is that his own system was indebted to Philo the Jew. Still, Philo had lived more than a century earlier and it is conceivable that his Hellenistic Judaism failed to win the hearts of more conservative Jews. Or, maybe allegorical interpretation was for a time popular, even in Palestine, but then as a reaction against Christianity, it was officially discouraged by the Rabbis. R. P. C. Hanson explains:

By the third century it must have become perfectly clear that it was mainly by her use of typology and allegory that the Christian Church was able successfully to retain the Hebrew Scriptures among her holy books… Lauterbach’s hypothesis, that allegory was at an early period widely used in Palestinian Judaism, but was later officially discouraged, is almost irresistible.[36]

This hypothesis makes sense of Origen’s constant equating of “Jewish” with “literal” exegesis. However, Nicholas De Lange strongly disagrees that this was the case. He writes, “The polemical doctrine of ‘Jewish literalism,’ coupled with an only superficial acquaintance with the rabbinic literature, has given rise on occasion to the statement, which is still heard even today, that the tannaitic Rabbis did not practice allegorical interpretation.”[37] De Lange goes on to demonstrate that the Rabbis of the second and third centuries did actually engage in extensive allegorical exegesis. Furthermore, he thinks Origen did “rely on the Rabbis both for the ‘carnal’ and for the ‘spiritual’ interpretation of Scripture.”[38] De Lange accounts for Origen’s powerful invective against Jewish literalism as the natural consequence of competition between the church and the synagogue for adherents. It is possible Origen was oversimplifying matters and painting Judaism with a broad brush because on the issue of greatest concern—whether or not Jesus was the Messiah—the Jews did use literal exegesis as their primary tool to defeat the Christian claim. Even if the actual facts of the matter were otherwise, Origen’s stereotype stuck. Owing to his massive influence on subsequent thought, Christians came to think of themselves as those who interpreted spiritually whereas the Jews were limited to a “carnal” reading according to the letter.

 

Privileging Allegory Resulted in Rejecting Millenarianism as Judaizing

Our previous two reasons, that millenarianism was crude and hedonistic, functioned as triggers to allegorize. Texts related to inheriting the land, especially, had to be reconfigured. Origen explains:

Moreover there are many prophecies spoken of Israel and Judah, which relate what is going to happen to them. And when we think of the extraordinary promises recorded about these people, promises that so far as literary style goes are poor and distinguished by no elevation or character that is worthy of a promise of God, is it not clear that they demand a mystical interpretation? (Princ. 4.3.6)

In Against Celsus he defends a non-terrestrial reading of the promise to inherit the land.

Moses…introduces God as promising to those who lived according to His law the holy land, which is ‘a good land and a large, a land flowing with milk and honey;’ which promise is not to be understood to refer, as some suppose, to that part of the earth which we call Judea; for it, however good it may be, still forms part of the earth, which was originally cursed for the transgression of Adam….we have confined ourselves to these few words at present, which are intended to remove the idea, that what is said of the good land promised by God to the righteous, refers to the land of Judea. Both Judea and Jerusalem were the shadow and figure of that pure land, goodly and large, in the pure region of heaven, in which is the heavenly Jerusalem. And it is in reference to this Jerusalem that the apostle spoke, as one who, ‘being risen with Christ, and seeking those things which are above,’ had found a truth which formed no part of the Jewish mythology. (Against Celsus 7.28-29)[39]

Origen identified the literal reading of the Old Testament land promises to be “Jewish mythology!” In light of the titanic struggle Origen led to combat Judaism, the millenarians were particularly distasteful and appeared to be siding with the Jews.[40] Thus, Wilken notes, “Origen presents Christian chiliasm and Jewish Messianism as a single phenomenon.”[41] Wilken goes on:

From Origen’s perspective Christian chiliasm and Jewish messianism were of a piece… it is clear that what disturbs him is that if the chiliasts are correct, the promises of the prophets cannot have been fulfilled in the coming of Christ and hence the messianic age has not yet begun.[42]

Over a century later Jerome gave the following hermeneutical advice vis-à-vis millenarians and Jews:

The wise Christian reader should retain this rule of prophetic promises: whatever the Jews and our Judaizers—or rather not ours—contend will happen carnally, we should show to have been accomplished already spiritually, so that we not be compelled to Judaize, according to the apostle, on account of these sorts of tales and tangled questions (Commentary to Isaiah 11.15-16).[43]

Although so many of these Judaizing charges centered on the alleged millenarian desire to observe Torah in the age to come, evidence is severely lacking to indicate any of them argued for eschatological circumcision, Sabbath observance, or sacrificial offerings.[44] The polemic was developed as a consequence of Christian competition with Judaism, and as with so many rhetorical contrivances, it stuck.

Conclusion

Christian thinkers like Origen (3rd century), Eusebius (4th century), and Jerome (5th century) rejected the kingdom because it was too Jewish. The Jewish objection to Jesus was that if he really was the Messiah, then why didn’t he usher in the messianic age? The standard Christian response was that he did. The kingdom prophecies of the Old Testament find their fulfilment in the church when interpreted correctly. Only by stubbornly holding to a woodenly literal interpretation could they miss the kingdom age happening right before them. Already, in the church the kingdom had arrived for those with eyes to see. Although this line of reasoning effectively combated the Jewish objection to Jesus, aren’t there other possibilities that do not force us to so aggressively set aside the plain reading of scripture?

What about the idea of two comings? Jesus comes the first time to redeem humankind and the second time to establish God’s kingdom on earth. Thus, the Messiah has come and he engaged in a lot of messianic activity, but he did not consummate the messianic age, yet. That is what he is coming back to do. This simple solution to the same problem frees us to accept the many kingdom prophecies and embrace “Jewish” interpretations. Thus when Jesus says the meek will inherit the earth, we need not insist that this has already happened (Matthew 5.5). When Daniel prophecies about a coming kingdom where all people, nations, and languages will serve the Son of Man (Daniel 7.13-14), we can simply accept this beautiful hope without engaging in interpretational contortions.

Furthermore, over the last century scholars have completely reversed their estimation of the importance of the Jewishness of Jesus. Following Albert Schweitzer’s devastating critique, The Quest for the Historical Jesus, in 1906, Jesus scholars became sensitive to the danger of reconstructing a Jesus in their own image. Now, people find a non-Jewish Jesus hard to believe. Often, the more Jewish one’s interpretation, the more plausible it is. The apocalyptic Jesus, proclaiming the coming reign of God on earth is immensely more believable than the sanitized belief in a disembodied heavenly existence of souls enjoying a beatific vision ad infinitum.

[1] Eusebius, Commentary on Isaiah 9:15, 31-32, trans. Robert L. Wilken, “In novissimis diebus: Biblical Promises, Jewish Hopes and Early Christian Exegesis,” Journal of Early Christian Studies 1, no. 1 (Spring 1993), 5. (for bibliography: pp. 1-19).

[2] John Chrysostom, Homilies on Isaiah; Basil, Commentary on Isaiah 1-16

[3] Wilken, “In novissimis,” 7.

[4] Jerome, On Illustrious Men 18, trans. Thomas P. Halton, Saint Jerome: On Illustrious Men, Fathers of the Church (Washington D.C.: CUA Press, 1999), 37.

[5] trans. Newman, 441.

[6] Jerome, Commentary to Isaiah 54.1-14

[7] trans. Newman, 432.

[8] ibid., 434

[9] ibid., 440

[10] ibid., 442.

[11] Wilken, The Land Called Holy, 72. See also his extensive footnote for sources (fn 26, p. 284).

[12] Wilken compares the situation to “an American scholar living in Germany who knows only English, yet claims to understand Goethe’s Faust better than native-speaking German scholars.” (Wilken, The Land Called Holy, 68).

[13] Origen wrote, “And I make it my endeavour not to be ignorant of their various readings, lest in my controversies with the Jews I should quote to them what is not found in their copies, and that I may make some use of what is found there, even although it should not be in our Scriptures. For if we are so prepared for them in our discussions, they will not, as is their manner, scornfully laugh at Gentile believers for their ignorance of the true reading as they have them.” (A Letter from Origen to Africanus 5, Crombie, 387.)

[14] Trigg, 183.

[15] Abba H. Silver, A History of Messianic Speculation in Israel, from the First to the Seventeenth Centuries (Boston: Beacon Press 1959), p. 13.

[16] ibid. Hippolytus, a contemporary of Origen, writes “[T]hey confess that another Messiah will come…and that he will usher in some of the signs which the law and the prophets have shown beforehand…And they allege that this Messiah will be King over them,—a warlike and powerful individual, who, after having gathered together the entire people of the Jews, and having done battle with all the nations, will restore for them Jerusalem the royal city” (Hippolytus, Refutation of All Heresies 9.25, trans. J. H. Macmahon, vol. 5 of The Ante-Nicene Fathers, ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965), 138).

[17] Wilken, The Land Called Holy, 71.

[18] Wilken, “Early Christian Chiliasm”, 307.

[19] In one of his homilies on Exodus, Origen writes, “The Jews, by misunderstanding it [the Law], rejected Christ. We, by understanding the Law spiritually, show that it was justly given for the instruction of the Church” (Origen, Exodus Homily 5.1, trans. Ronald E. Heine, Origen: Homilies on Genesis and Exodus, The Fathers of the Church (Washington, D.C.: CUA Press, 2002)). Because the Jews lacked the exegetical key to understanding the Law, which is found in Christ and the apostles, the Law became harmful to them like poisoned water. Origen writes, “I think that the Law, if it be undertaken according to the letter, is sufficiently bitter and is itself Mara. …But indeed they cannot taste the bitterness of circumcision nor are they able to endure the bitterness of victims or the observance of the Sabbath. …If, therefore, the tree of the wisdom of Christ has been thrown into the Law and has shown us how circumcision ought to be understood, how the Sabbath and the law of leprosy are to be observed…then the water of Mara is made sweet and the bitterness of the letter of the Law is changed into the sweetness of spiritual understanding and then the people of God can drink….if anyone without ‘the tree of life,’ that is without the mystery of the cross, without faith in Christ, without spiritual understanding should wish to drink from the letter of the Law, he will die from too much bitterness. Because the apostle Paul knew this he said, ‘The letter kills’” (Exodus Homily 7.1).

[20] He also writes, “The need of this vindication continued so long as the existence of a vigorous and substantial Jewish community provided a living counter-argument to the Christian reading of the scriptures.” (Michael J. Hollerich, Eusebius of Caesarea’s Commentary on Isaiah: Christian Exegesis in the Age of Constantine (Gloucestershire, UK: Clarendon Press, 1999), 131.)

[21] Wilken, The Land Called Holy, 69.

[22] Trigg, 186

[23] Philip Sellew, “Achilles or Christ? Porphyry and Didymus in Debate over Allegorical Interpretation,” The Harvard Theological Review 82, no. 1 (January 1989), 86.

[24] Plato famously argued in his Republic for censoring Homer saying, “Even if they [Homer’s myths] were true I should not think that they ought to be thus lightly told to thoughtless young persons. But the best way would be to bury them in silence” (2.378a). Plato did not even approve of allegorizing them because “the young are not able to distinguish what is and what is not allegory, but whatever opinions are taken into the mind at that age are wont to prove indelible and unalterable” (2.378d-e). Plato’s protest indicates that already by his time people were using allegory to tame Homer’s wilder stories. All quotations of Plato’s Republic from Benjamin Jowett, The Republic and Other Works (New York: Random House, 1973).

[25] H.I. Marrou, A History of Education in Antiquity (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1982), 169.

[26] Horace preferred Homer to any other philosopher as a moral writer and showed how lessons could be extracted from his writings (Horace, Epistles 1.2). Heraclitus wrote an extended defense of Homer called Homeric Problems, in which he allegorized the unsavory episodes along the lines of physical descriptions of the world or ethical lessons.

[27] Heraclitus, Homeric Problems 69, trans. Trigg, 33.

[28] In On Reading the Poets, Plutarch’s argument is that the dim light gained by reading the poets, properly interpreted, could serve a preparatory purpose such that upon introduction to purer philosophies the student would not be so shocked and repelled the brightness of it. Also see Plutarch’s On Isis and Osiris and On the Face in the Moon.

[29] Sellew, 87. For Origen’s defense of Numenius see Against Celsus 4.51.

[30] In his treatise on love, Plotinus extracted from a myth involving Aphrodite, Kronos, and Eros truths about the nature of love (En. 3.5.2). He too recognized that myths, especially Plato’s, serve to communicate high level truths inexpressible otherwise. He grants that they often distort time distinctions, divide powers that are really a unity, and even speak of the births of the unbegotten, but this is all because “the truth is conveyed in the only manner possible” and “it is left to our good sense to bring all together again” (En. 3.5.10). He did not doubt that there was “meaning hidden in the Mysteries, and in the Myths of the gods” (En. 5.1.7; cf.4.3.14).

[31] Porphyry writes, “Some in their desire not to abandon the baseness of the Jewish Scripture but to find an explanation for it, resorted to explanations that were incompatible and out of harmony with what was written, …ascribing divine inspiration to them as oracles full of hidden mysteries, and by their absurdity bewitching the critical faculty of the mind, they bring in their own interpretations” (H.E. 6.19.4-8).

[32] Porphyry’s On the Cave of the Nymphs interpreted Odyssey 13.102-112 allegorically.

[33] Although he constantly strove to understand the spiritual meaning of the text, he did not abandon literal observance of Torah (On the Migration Abraham 89-93).

[34] McGuckin, 170. In all likelihood, the reason why Philo’s writings survived was because Origen preserved them in his library at Caesarea.

[35] Trigg, 121.

[36] R. P. C. Hanson, Allegory & Event: A Study of the Sources and Significance of Origen’s Interpretation of Scripture, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), 35.

[37] Nicholas. R. M. De Lange, Origen and the Jews: Sutides in Jewish-Christian Relations in Third-Century Palestine, (London, Cambridge University Press, 1976), 112.

[38] De Lange, 121.

[39] His two primary biblical texts applied repeatedly to make his case that promises featuring Jerusalem and the land of Judea should be understood as earthly analogs of a heavenly hope were Galatians 4.26; Hebrews 12.22. Wilken notes how Origen broke with earlier exegetes in interpreting these texts. In fact, Irenaeus and Tertullian had cited the same Galatians text to make the point that the future Jerusalem would actually be on earth! (Wilken, The Land Called Holy, 70; see also Origen, Princ. 4.3.6-8).

[40] Wilken notes, “Early Christian chiliasm is the obverse side of Jewish Messianism” (“Early Christian Chiliasm,” p. 300).

[41] ibid., 302.

[42] ibid., The Land Called Holy, 77.

[43] trans. Newman, 432-3.

[44] Hill makes an interesting argument that Marcion and Cerinthus both believed the Jewish golden age would occur, but that this was because the God of the Jews was an evil God who sought to burden them with such things (Hill, “Cerinthus,” 159-170).

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A Long Lost Hope

by Bethany Reise

In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul writes that there is but one hope to which believers have been called.[1] Most Christians have been taught that the hope they are awaiting is eternal life in heaven, to which their immortal soul will depart after death. They would be surprised to find out that this is not the hope to which Paul was referring. Paul was speaking of the resurrection of the righteous which is to occur at the second coming of Christ. It is only at this time that the dead who have been sleeping in their graves will be awakened and clothed with immortality. They will live and reign with Christ in the kingdom of God which is to be established on the earth at the end of the age. At this point most would argue, “Well, what about when Paul said that he would ‘prefer rather to be absent from the body and to be at home with the Lord?’”[2] “Or,” they contend, “When Paul said that his ‘desire to depart and be with Christ?’ Surely that proves that his hope was to die and immediately be in heaven with Christ!”[3] However, interpreting Scripture while under the influence of Greek philosophy is a dangerous idea. One must abandon the influences of pagan philosophy and adopt the perspective of the Hebrew writers of the Bible in order to understand Paul’s hope, the hope of all believers.

While the early church was growing, Paul implored believers adhere to the truth and warned them of the dangers of “philosophy and empty deception.”[4] Paul’s admonitions went unheeded, however, and Greek philosophy started becoming entangled in Christian belief, before it was finally welcomed into Christian tradition by the early church fathers. Platonic philosophy asserts that a separate and immortal soul inhabits the body while it is alive, but after death the soul is released from the body, departing to another realm. By the second century, the Platonic philosophical thought had made its way into the writings of influential church theologians and writers, such as Tertullian, Origen, and Augustine.[5] They adopted the belief that man was an immaterial and immortalized soul, housed in a physical body. Upon death, they asserted, the disembodied soul of the believer departs from the body and goes to heaven. Under their care, the precious hope of the apostles and all the faithful of times past were exchanged for a false hope.

Therefore, since most are under the influence of Greek philosophy, one must adopt a Hebraic understanding of the nature of man when trying to understanding Paul’s statements about the hope he professed. The Bible teaches that man is mortal. As author Greg Deuble rightly states, “The stubborn fact is that there is not one passage to be found anywhere in the Bible that teaches man has an immortal soul.”[6] God also defined mortal man as a living soul. In Genesis 2:7, the author states that “the LORD God formed man [of] the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.”[7] So, the “equation” for man is as follows: “body + breath of life = living soul.”[8] Man is a living soul; he is not some sort of combination of a physical body and an immaterial soul.

Accepting this definition of the nature of man impacted the Hebrews’ understanding of death and life in the age to come. For the Hebrews, death was simple: when a person dies, they rest in the grave in a state of unconsciousness, much like sleep.[9] It is in this state of unconsciousness that the dead wait, until they are resurrected on the last day.[10] On the last day, the Messiah will come and the righteous will be resurrected or “wakened” and clothed with immortality. At this time, the final kingdom of God will be established on the earth and God will dwell with His people.[11] Job expresses this hope in one of his discourses: “As for me, I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last He will take His stand on the earth. Even after my skin is destroyed, yet from my flesh I shall see God.”[12] From this, it is evident that Job was anticipating that at future time after his death, he would be raised with renewed flesh. This raising was associated with his Redeemer coming to take his stand on the earth. This was the great hope to which the faithful of the past looked forward to, and the very same hope that Paul professed: the resurrection of the righteous, who would be clothed with immortality at the second coming of the Messiah.

Based on his letters to the early churches, it is possible to see that Paul’s eschatological view contained the same three basic elements as Job’s did, namely; the resurrection, the return of the Lord Messiah, and the change from mortality to immortality. These elements are evident in Philippians 3, where Paul expresses his hope of being awakened from the dead and receiving a new resurrection body at the second coming of Jesus, saying: “…If by any means I might attain to the resurrection from the dead… eagerly await a Savior from [from heaven], the Lord Jesus Christ… [who] will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.”[13] Clearly, Paul’s eschatological view was consistent with that of the Old Testament writers.

There are some however, who would disagree, citing certain verses that Paul wrote in his letters to the Philippians and Corinthians. In the eschatological view they propose, the hope of believers is an individual event separate from the return of the Messiah, where the disembodied, immortal soul of the individual is released from its physical body immediately after death. The return of Christ loses most, if not all, of its significance and the hope of the faithful of the Old Testament is nullified; what kind of hope is a resurrection from the dead at the return of Christ, if believers are already Him in heaven immediately after death? This is a contradiction of both the Old and New Testament Scriptures, and even Paul’s own words! Therefore, in order to resolve the conflict, one must compare the verses that are unclear to the ones that are more so, all the while keeping in mind the context of the author and the passage.

The context of Paul’s clear description of the resurrection in I Corinthians 15, serves to undermine the traditional orthodox belief and support Paul’s hope of the resurrection. This chapter provides a similar foundation from which to explain II Corinthians 5:8, one of the commonly cited proof texts for those whose hope is heaven. In this verse, Paul yearns to “be absent from the body and to be at home with the Lord.”[14] By looking back only chapter earlier, the context of Paul’s remarks in chapter five are clarified. Just as in his first letter to the Corinthians, he is speaking of the resurrection hope at the second coming of Christ when he writes in his second letter, written only a year later, that “He who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and will present us with you.”[15] This directly correlates with the remarks of his first letter; “But now Christ has been raised from the dead… after that those who are Christ’s at His coming”[16] Thus, it can be seen already that the two letters share common ground; namely the hope of resurrection at the coming of Christ.

This connection is strengthened further by Paul’s use of a trio of identical metaphors, making it reasonable to conclude that the thematic material of both chapters is the same.[17] The first two of these metaphors are found to be located in close proximity to each other, even in the very same verse. The first describes the resurrected believer as being “clothed” and the second describes mortality as being “swallowed” up by immortality. In I Corinthians 15:54, Paul writes that when the perishable is “clothed with the imperishable and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.””[18] He echoes this statement in II Corinthians 5:4: “we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.”[19] Paul’s third parallel revolves around the idea that salvation in Christ will arrive from heaven. In I Corinthians 15:47, Paul writes that “the second man is the Lord [arriving] from heaven.[20] Later on in his second letter, Paul relates that the immortality that he so “earnestly desires to be clothed upon with [is the] house which is from heaven.”[21] According to Cambridge biblical scholar, John A.T. Robinson, to say that II Corinthians 5 suggests this, would be “to read the passage in clear opposition to 1 Corinthians 15.”[22] Thus, through these three repeated words and phrases found in both I and II Corinthians, an apparent unity in Paul’s eschatological view emerges.

Clearly, based upon the correlations between the two letters to the Corinthian church, it may be ascertained that there is but one hope to which Paul was referring, and it cannot possibly be a departure of the soul to heaven immediately after death. In fact, Paul expresses his horror at the very thought of such a prospect, when he adamantly stated “we do not wish to be unclothed” nor be “found naked.” Therefore, when Paul writes that he would “rather to be absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord” he cannot possibly mean that he desires to be a disembodied soul in heaven before the return of Christ, because he just condemned that notion only a few verses earlier! Rather, Paul is eagerly anticipating the time when he will become immortal-an event which cannot be separated from the return of Christ. He is speaking of his two simultaneous desires, to be both “absent from the body” and “present with the Lord.” He did not say “to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord,” that is a dangerous misquotation.[23] Therefore, there is no doubt that Paul remains consistent in his writings: the hope of Christians lies in the immortality that is to be realized at the return of Christ.

In light of Paul’s obvious aversion to the prospect of becoming disembodied, arguments over the other common “proof-text,” Philippians 1:23, dissipate quickly. In this verse, Paul says that he has a “desire to depart and be with Christ, for that is very much better”[24] that to continue to live on in the flesh. If Paul is so strongly against the idea of being without a body, it is unreasonable to maintain that this verse suggests this. Paul’s remarks must be read in context and with respect to his character, which reveals Paul’s true motivation is to exalt Christ, either through his life or his death. As author Greg Deuble notes, “One this in sure: Paul is not seeking to escape his ministry by death just so that he can get some personal and selfish benefit,” as the traditional interpretation of Philippians 1:23 implies.[25] This would be contrary to his character and his hope. Rather, in this verse, Paul is once again expressing his hope that he “may attain to the resurrection from the dead,” at which time, he would finally be with Christ for eternity.[26]

Paul never wavered in his position that there is but one hope. Somewhere along the way however, the church lost sight of this hope. Yes, they propose that there is hope, but it is a different hope than the Bible presents. This false hope has presupposed immortality, effectively clouding over the reality that the precious gift of immortality is only to be given to the righteous at the second coming of the Messiah. Thus, the very hope that the entire New Testament has been trending towards is overlooked entirely, greatly diminishing the significance and unspeakable joy of the future resurrection of the dead and the glorious return of Jesus Christ. It is time to lay aside the false hopes and traditions, and to take hold of that which has been promised to us: resurrection from the dead, immortality, and eternal life in the kingdom of God on the earth. It is time to reclaim the lost hope of the church.


[1] Eph 4:4 (NIV)

[2] II Cor 5:4 (NASB)

[3] Phil 1:23 (NASB)

[4] Col 2:8 (NASB)

[5] Bacchiocchi, Dr. Samuele. Popular Beliefs: Are They Biblical?. http://www.biblicalperspectives.com/books/popular_beliefs/2.pdf

[6] Deuble, Greg S. They Never Told Me THIS in Church!: A Call to Read the Bible with New Eyes. Restoration Fellowship, 2006, p 295.

[7] Gen 2:7 (KJV)

[8] Deuble, Greg S. They Never Told Me THIS in Church!: A Call to Read the Bible with New Eyes. Restoration Fellowship, 2006, p 296.

[9] Ecc 9:5, 6, 10; Ps 13:3, 146:3; Jn 11:11-14 (NASB)

[10] Dan 12:2 (NASB)

[11] Dan 2:44; Job 19:24-26; Is 25:8; Ez 37:23 (NASB)

[12]Job 19:24-26 (NASB)

[13] Phil 3:11,14,20 (NASB)

[14] II Cor 5:8 (NASB)

[15] II Cor 4:14 (NASB)

[16] I Cor 15:20,23 (NASB)

[17] Deuble, Greg S. They Never Told Me THIS in Church!: A Call to Read the Bible with New Eyes. Restoration Fellowship, 2006, p 320.

[18] I Cor 15:54 (NIV, emphasis mine)

[19] II Cor 5:4 (NIV, emphasis mine)

[20] I Cor 15:47 (AKJV, emphasis mine)

[21] II Cor 5:2 (KJV, emphasis mine)

[22] Robinson, John A. T. In the End, God – A Study of the Christian Doctrine of the Last Things. London: James Clarke & Co, 1950, p 106.

[23] Deuble, Greg S. They Never Told Me THIS in Church!: A Call to Read the Bible with New Eyes. Restoration Fellowship, 2006, p 322.

[24] Phil 1:23 (NASB)

[25] Deuble, Greg S. They Never Told Me THIS in Church!: A Call to Read the Bible with New Eyes. Restoration Fellowship, 2006, p 325.

[26] Phil 3:11 (NASB)

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The Promise to Abraham that He Would Be Heir of the World: The Heart of Biblical Christianity

by Anthony Buzzard

“If you are Christians, then you are Abraham’s seed and heirs according to the Promise (Gal. 3:29).”

The Christian world in general does not understand the ultimate purpose for being a Christian. It seems reluctant to believe Paul’s clear teaching that the destiny of Christians is closely related to the destiny of Abraham.

Along with his fellow Jews, Paul, a leading exponent of Christianity, knew well that God had promised Abraham that he would eventually come into possession of the land of Palestine and consequently of the whole world. The certainty of the coming inheritance of the world formed the basis of Israel’s national hope of participation in the covenant promise God had made with “father Abraham.”

According to Paul, however, only Christian believers, Jews and Gentiles alike, become potential participants in the very same inheritance of the world promised to Abraham (Rom. 4:13). Paul says this so plainly that only the force of a contrary tradition can account for the unfamiliarity of this basic New Testament teaching.

In Galatians 3:29 Paul makes one of his determinative statements for the whole Christian faith: “If you are Christ’s [i.e., if you are a Christian], then you count as Abraham’s offspring and are heirs according to the promise [made to Abraham].”

In Romans 4:13 Paul’s illuminating definition of the promise reveals what the future had in store for Abraham and his spiritual offspring: “The promise made to Abraham and his offspring that he should be heir of the world…”

Combining this information with Galatians 3:29, the truth becomes apparent that the promise to Abraham and to all true Christians is that they should be heirs of the world.

This staggering fact, one would think, would be trumpeted constantly from every Christian pulpit, involving as it does a divine statement about the future of our earth and the ultimate control of the world. To be heir, of course, is to look forward to possession — in the case of Christians, possession of the world. Could any challenge be more calculated to stir the hearts of believers and drive them onwards to their ultimate goal?

Once grasped, this basic truth of the Bible will throw light on numerous parallel passages referring to the destiny of believers: They are “joint-heirs with Christ” (Rom. 8:17), “God’s heirs” (Rom. 8:17), “heirs, because we are the children of God” (Rom. 8:17).

Heirs of what? Supplying the data from Romans 4:13, we see that Christians are “God’s heirs to the world,” “joint-heirs to the world with Christ,” “heirs to the world, because we are the children of God” (Rom. 8:17). Paul made the same point when he wrote to the Galatians: “For if the inheritance [of the world] is based on law it is no longer based on a promise, but God granted it [the inheritance of the world] by means of a promise…And if you belong to Christ then you are Abraham’s offspring and heirs [of the world] according to the promise” (Gal. 3:18, 29),

THE TEACHING OF JESUS

Jesus’ teaching is virtually a commentary on the momentous information about God’s plan and promise revealed to Abraham. This is to be expected since Paul described the whole ministry of Jesus as a confirmation of “the promises made to the patriarchs” (Rom. 15:8). It will therefore be impossible to understand Christianity if we are unclear about the promises made to Abraham.

The New Testament cannot be grasped without an understanding of the central message of the Old Testament. God had initiated a Plan for the restoration of mankind when he invited Abraham to leave his native land of Babylon and take up residence in the land of Canaan (Palestine) (Gen. 12:1-4). By covenant oath he promised to give possession of the land of Canaan to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (13:14, 15; 17:8). Long after the Israelites had entered the promised land under Joshua, it was clear that the ultimate acquisition of the land by the patriarchs still lay in the future, for Abraham had never owned a square foot of the territory promised to him. All who reckoned themselves as Abraham’s descendants would share in the same inheritance. To this compelling goal every pious Israelite looked forward with the eyes of faith. Despite every national setback the “covenant” or “word” spoken by God to Abraham served as a rock-firm guarantee of the eventual triumph of the faithful and their possession of the land (see Ps. 105:8-15).

As is well known, Jesus constantly promised his followers that in the future they would inherit the Kingdom of God. It is a very simple matter to deduce from this that “inheriting the world” (Rom. 4:13) and “inheriting the Kingdom of God” mean exactly the same thing. Christians, therefore, are heirs to the world and heirs to the Kingdom of God.

The destiny of the faithful described throughout the New Testament is to inherit the “world” or “Kingdom” with Christ when he returns. This is a cardinal New Testament teaching repeated constantly by Christ and Paul and the other writers of Scripture.

Believers in the Bible must make a conscious effort to rid themselves of the well-entrenched idea that their destiny is to “go to heaven,” “get to heaven,” “gain a home in heaven,” “gain a kingdom beyond the skies,” etc. These phrases are without a shred of biblical support. They have the unfortunate effect of dismantling Paul’s assertion that Christians are going to inherit the world, as promised to Abraham and Jesus (Gal. 3:29, Rom. 4:13, above), and rule the world with Jesus (cp. Rev. 5:10; 2:26; 3:21; 20:1-6; Matt. 19:28; Luke 22:28-30; Luke 19:17; II Tim. 2:12; I Cor. 6:2).

Romans 4:13, therefore, should be a primary text in the thinking of those who seek to follow biblical teaching. The point needs to be emphasized: the promise of “heaven” is nowhere offered to believers. In New Testament times, unlike today, “The thought of Christian inheritance of the Kingdom [or the world, Rom. 4:13] was evidently well enough established in the churches known to Paul so that he has no need to be more explicit” (James Dunn, Word Biblical Commentary on Romans, Word Books, 1988, p. 463).

With nearly two thousand years of non-biblical tradition working against them, Bible readers must take time to meditate on the above passages and adjust their thinking to the teaching of Jesus and the Apostles. Jesus, after all, could not have made himself much clearer! “Blessed are the meek, for they are destined to inherit the EARTH” (Matt. 5:5). This is simply a restatement of the promise made to Abraham — a promise repeated six times in Psalm 37:9, 11 18, 22, 29, 34, and written long after the death of Abraham:

“But those who wait for the Lord will inherit the land…The meek will inherit the land…The Lord knows the days of the blameless and their inheritance will be for ever…For those blessed by Him will inherit the land…The righteous will inherit the land and dwell in it for ever. Wait for the Lord and keep his way and he will exalt you to inherit the land.”

True to his Israelite heritage, Jesus reiterates and confirms the Abrahamic promises of Psalm 37 with his famous dictum that the “meek will inherit the land (or earth)” (Matt. 5:5).

We could not wish for a less ambiguous statement about the Christian destiny. The difficulty is that what we know as Christian literature is thoroughly steeped in unbiblical language about “heaven” (“when I get to heaven,” “I’ll fly away,” etc.). Passages like Matthew 5:5 are no longer “heard” in their original context. Their meaning is “blocked” by conflicting tradition. They will therefore require close attention, especially in relation to their Old Testament background, in order for the necessary shift in thinking to occur. Preachers who continue with language about “heaven” should be encouraged to give clear expository sermons on Romans 4:13, Matthew 5:5 and Revelation 5:10, plus the numerous texts which plainly describe the Christian goal as the inheritance of the Kingdom of God on earth. Revelation 5:10 is a precious text which amplifies the original promise to Abraham, confirmed in Christ:

Christ purchased for God with his blood “men from every tribe and people and nation, and you have made them to be a Kingdom and priests to our God; and they will reign upon the earth.” How very confusing, then, to talk about “going to heaven”!

THE PROMISE TO ABRAHAM AND HIS OFFSPRING

Romans 4:13 connects the promise to Abraham closely to the promise to all believers. What then was that promise?

Paul calls it “the inheritance of the world” (Rom. 4:13). Jesus refers to it as the “inheritance of the earth” (Matt. 5:5). Only Christian tradition, which differs radically from the Bible, talks confusingly of the Christian future as “heaven.”

The details of the promise to Abraham, well understood by the New Testament church but often unknown to contemporary churchgoers, are laid out in Genesis:

Genesis 12:7: “The Lord appeared to Abraham and said, ‘To your offspring I will give this land [Palestine].’”

Genesis 13:14, 15: “Now lift up your eyes and look from the place where you are, northward and southward and eastward and westward; for all the land which you see I will give to you and your offspring forever…Arise, walk about the land through its length and breadth; for I will give it to you.”

Genesis 15:18: “On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abraham, saying, ‘to your offspring I have given this land.’”

Genesis 17:7, 8: “And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant to be God to you and to your offspring after you. And I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojourning, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God.”

We have seen that all Christians are reckoned as spiritual offspring of Abraham (Gal. 3:29) and that with Abraham they are “heirs of the world.” This is because the covenant promise given to Abraham (texts just above) guaranteed him the land forever.

It is obvious that God initially promised part of the earth to Abraham, certainly not a home in “heaven.” He was invited to inspect his future inheritance by walking up and down in it and by looking to the four points of the compass (not upwards to heaven!) (Gen. 13:14, 15). Thus modern commentaries recognize properly that “the idea of ‘inheritance’ was a fundamental part of Jewish understanding of their covenant relationship with God, above all, indeed almost exclusively in connection with the land — the land of Canaan, theirs by right of inheritance as promised to Abraham” (Dunn, Commentary on Romans, Vol. I, p. 213).

Before the time of Jesus and Paul the promised inheritance of the land had been understood to include not just Palestine but the whole world. This was based on a legitimate reading of many passages in the prophets and Psalms, which expected the Kingdom of God to extend across the earth. The following texts from various Jewish writings document this concept and throw light on Paul’s thinking about the Christian’s future:

Ecclesiasticus 44:21: “Abraham, the great forefather of a host of nations, no one was ever his equal in glory. He observed the law of the Most High, and entered into a covenant with him…The Lord therefore promised him on oath to bless the nations through his descendants, to multiply him like the dust on the ground, to exalt his descendants like the stars, and to give them the land for their inheritance from sea to sea, from the River to the ends of the earth” (quoting Ps. 72:8).

Jubilees 22:13, 14: “May the Most High God give you all the blessings with which he has blessed me [Abraham] and with which he blessed Adam and Noah…May he cleanse you from all sin and defilement, so that he may forgive you all your transgressions, and your erring through ignorance. May he strengthen you and bless you, and may you inherit all of the earth.”

Jubilees 32:19: “And I shall give to your [Jacob’s] offspring all of the land under heaven and they will rule in all nations as they have desired. And after this all of the earth will be gathered together and they will inherit it forever.”

I Enoch 5:7: “But to the elect there shall be light, joy and peace, and they shall inherit the earth” (cp. Matt. 5:5).

IV Ezra 6:39: “If the world has been created for us, why do we not possess our world as an inheritance? How long will this be so?”

THE CHRISTIAN’S DESTINY

Both the Bible and extra-biblical Jewish writings are filled with the promise to the faithful of future possession of the world.

Psalm 2:8 invites God’s Messiah to “Ask of me and I will surely give the nations as your inheritance and the very ends of the earth as your possession.” This is simply the ultimate form of the promise to Abraham of the possession of the world (Rom. 4:13).

The meaning of this astonishing fact about the destiny of the faithful is appropriately brought out by the International Critical Commentary on Romans (pp. 109, 111). The verse is paraphrased and explained in a way which beautifully expounds the mind of Paul:

“The promise made to Abraham and his descendants of worldwide Messianic rule…” “The promise is that through Christ Abraham should enjoy worldwide dominion…the right to universal dominion.” That promise is extended to all who accept the terms of the Gospel (Acts 8:12).

Throughout the New Testament believers are said to be “sons of God” and, as such, heirs of the “worldwide Messianic rule” promised to Abraham and his offspring. As James Dunn says:

“Integral to the national faith was the conviction that God had given Israel the inheritance of Palestine, the promised land. It is this axiom which Paul evokes and refers to the new Christian movement as a whole, Gentiles as well as Jews. They are the heirs of God; Israel’s special relationship with God has been extended to all in Christ” (Commentary on Romans, emphasis added).

INHERITING THE KINGDOM

The standard New Testament term for the world dominion promised to Abraham and all the faithful in Christ is simply the Kingdom of God. The inheritance or possession of the Kingdom is something which believers await. The same promised inheritance appears under another name as future “glory,” glory being a well-established alternative term for “Kingdom”:

Mark 10:37: James and John request of Jesus, “Grant that we may sit in your glory, one on your right and one your left.”

Matthew 20:21: The mother of James and John requests for her sons prominent positions in the future Kingdom: “Command that in your Kingdom these two sons of mine may sit, one on your right and one on your left” (cp. “Thine is the Kingdom and the power and the glory”).

So Paul, in Romans 8:17, speaks of “the coming glory to be revealed as ours.” In Romans 5:2 he describes Christians as “exulting in the hope of the glory [or Kingdom] of God.” James has exactly the same prospect in mind when he speaks of Christians as “heirs of the Kingdom which God has promised to those who love him” (James 2:5).

Elsewhere the Kingdom of God is repeatedly offered to believers as their future reward, with dire warnings about types of conduct which will result in exclusion from the promised Kingdom:

Matthew 25:34: At his return, “The King will say to those on his right hand, ‘Come you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.’”

I Corinthians 6:9, 2: “Do you not know that the unrighteous shall not inherit the Kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers shall inherit the Kingdom of God.”

I Corinthians 15:50: “Now this I say, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom of God.” The Kingdom is therefore the great event of the future which can only be inherited by resurrection or transformation at the return of Jesus. Christians in their present state of frailty cannot yet inherit the Kingdom. But they must prepare for it with all urgency.

Galatians 5:21: “I forewarn you, just as I forewarned you that those who practice such things [immorality, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these] shall not inherit the Kingdom of God.”

Ephesians 5:5: “For you know with certainty that no immoral or impure person or covetous man, who is an idolater, has any inheritance in the Kingdom of Christ and God.”

James 2:5: “God chose the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the Kingdom which He promised to those who love Him.”

Matthew 21:38, 43: “God sent his Son…This is the heir, let us kill him and seize his inheritance…Therefore the Kingdom will be taken away from you [hostile Jews] and given to a nation producing the fruit of it.”

Matthew 5:5: “Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth…Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.” Inheritance of the earth is equated with gaining the Kingdom of heaven (a synonym for Kingdom of God).

Titus 3:5: “being justified by grace we might be heirs of eternal life according to hope.”

The well-known phrases “eternal life” and “everlasting life” represent a single phrase in the original Greek of the New Testament. The literal meaning of these terms is “Life in the Coming Age (of the Kingdom).” This is exactly equivalent to participation in “the coming worldwide Messianic Rule on earth” (see above on Rom. 4:13). There is no essential difference between the promise of “eternal life” — “life in the coming age ” — and the promise of the Kingdom of God or the land/earth. Permanent life, immortality, in the future Kingdom will be possessed by all true believers.

The future of the world is inextricably bound up with the future of believers, because at the time when Jesus reappears “creation itself will be set free from the slavery of corruption into the liberty of the glory [or Kingdom] of the children of God.” Note the mistranslation in some versions which weakens and obscures Paul’s statement: “glorious liberty” (NIV) instead of (correctly) “liberty of the glory,” i.e. worldwide Messianic rule or Kingdom of the sons of God (Rom. 8:21).

ABRAHAM AND THE LAND

The writer to the Hebrews insists that Abraham is yet destined to come into his promised inheritance of the world. In chapter 11 the faith of the noble heroes of the Old Testament is celebrated. It was “by faith [that] Abraham, when he was called, obeyed by going out to a place which he was to receive as his inheritance…By faith he lived in the land of the promise, as in a foreign land, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, fellow heirs of the same promise…All these died without having received the promise…We [and they] are seeking the city which is to come” (Heb. 11:8, 9, 13; 13:14).

Now what reward was Abraham expecting? It was to live permanently in the land of the promise, described in Hebrews 11:8 as the “place which he was to receive as his inheritance.” This place was not “heaven” as some ethereal state of bliss removed from the earth. (The inheritance is sometimes described as “heavenly,” meaning that its origin is in heaven, though its location will be on earth.) The place destined to be Abraham’s possession was none other than the land of Canaan to which he was called and in which he lived (Heb. 11:9), and by extension, as we have seen, the whole world (Rom. 4:13). The promised land of inheritance was the earth with Palestine as its center.

The same writer exhorts Christians not to neglect their promised salvation which he spells out as dominion over “the inhabited earth to come” (Heb. 2:5). God, says the writer, has not subjected to angels the “inhabited world to come,” but He has subjected it — and this is the “greatness” of the salvation which awaits the true believers — to Christ and to believers as joint-heirs (Rom. 8:17). The Gospel Message of salvation is precisely and expressly a statement about that great future promised to believers. This salvation “was first spoken through the Lord and confirmed to us by those who heard” (Heb. 2:3). It is “the inhabited earth of the future about which we are speaking” (Heb. 2:5). The Gospel proclaimed by Jesus was, of course, the Gospel of the Kingdom, which implies the gift to all followers of Jesus, of world rulership in that future society. The content of the Gospel hope is appropriately summarized in the verse which follows. The verse bears repetition: “For God did not subject to angels the inhabited earth to come about which we are speaking” (Heb. 2:5). But he has planned to subject it to man in Christ (Heb. 2:8).

It must be plainly stated again that the cherished, popular talk about “heaven” as the destiny of Christians is fundamentally misleading. Indeed it undermines and distorts the whole framework of biblical Christianity. It dissolves the reality of the Christian hope into a nebulous prospect of life as a disembodied soul (a meaningless concept!) in some unknown region away from the earth. It negates God’s great world plan to establish peace on the earth, as promised to Abraham. It negates the Gospel of the Kingdom (see Dan. 7:18, 22, 27; 2:35, 44).

The Bible promises believers that they will share control of the renewed earth of the future to be introduced by the return of Jesus. As participants in the worldwide dominion of Jesus — the Kingdom of God — they will have power to affect the destiny of countless members of the human race. They will be instrumental, with Christ, in bringing about the utopia of world peace which is now the dream of so many, but which man apart from Christ will never achieve. All this forms the core of the Gospel of the Kingdom as Jesus and the Apostles proclaimed it (Mark 1:14, 15; Luke 4:43, etc.). Contained within the same message, but not as a substitute for it, are the facts about the resurrection of Jesus and his sacrificial death for our sins. The forgiveness freely offered and the grace of God enable believers to enter on the path which leads to the inheritance of the Kingdom of God.

Preaching and teaching which persists in offering “heaven” to the believer should be challenged in the name of the teaching of Jesus who expressly promised the meek that they “shall inherit the earth” (Matt. 5:5) and “rule as kings on the earth” (Rev. 5:10). “Fear not, little flock,” Jesus said to his disciples, “for it is my Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom” (Luke 12:32).

To be given the Kingdom is to be granted royal office in the coming worldwide dominion of the Messiah. In response to Peter’s direct inquiry about what the disciples might expect to receive as followers of Christ, Jesus replied that they would become ministers of state in the future Kingdom, the inauguration of which would be in the New World (see Matt. 19:28; Luke 22:28-30).

THE GOSPEL AND WORLDWIDE MESSIANIC RULE

As we saw above, the International Critical Commentary correctly understood the promise to Abraham that he would inherit the world to mean that he would take part in the coming “worldwide Messianic rule.” This is only a synonym for the Kingdom of God. Our grasp of the stupendous future offered to believers directly affects our reception of the Gospel itself.

This is simply because the Christian Gospel of salvation contains as its core the promise of the Kingdom of God: It is the Gospel or Good News about the Kingdom. This is the key term in Jesus’ teaching and the reason for his whole mission (Luke 4:43).

The essential content of the New Testament Gospel is seen in the following primary texts describing the ministry of Jesus and Paul. The term Kingdom of God embodies the ancient hope of worldwide rule promised to Abraham and his royal descendant, Jesus Christ:

Mark 1:14, 15: “Jesus came into Galilee proclaiming the Gospel of God [i.e. God’s saving Message] and saying, ‘The Kingdom of God is approaching; repent [reorientate your life, your priorities and your commitments] and believe in the Gospel.’”

Matthew 4:23: “And Jesus was going about in all Galilee and teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the Gospel of the Kingdom.”

Matthew 9:35: “And Jesus was going about all the cities and the villages teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the Gospel of the Kingdom.”

Matthew 13:19: “When anyone hears the Message about the Kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what has been sown in his heart.”

Matthew 24:14: “This Gospel of the Kingdom shall be proclaimed in the whole inhabited earth for a witness to all the nations and then the end shall come.”

Matthew 6:33: “Seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these [other] things will be added to you.”

Luke 4:43: “Jesus said to them, ‘I must proclaim the Gospel of the Kingdom of God to the other cities also, for I was sent for this purpose.’ And he kept on proclaiming the Gospel in the synagogues of Judea.”

Luke 8:1: “And it came about soon afterwards that he began going about from one city and village to another, proclaiming and preaching the Gospel of the Kingdom, and the twelve were with him.”

Luke 8:10, 12: The Message or Word concerning the mysteries of the Kingdom must take root in the heart of anyone desiring to believe and be saved. The Devil’s object is to destroy the gospel message about the Kingdom

Luke 9:2: “He sent them out to proclaim the Gospel of the Kingdom of God.”

Luke 9:6: “They began going about among the villages preaching the Gospel.”

Acts 1:3: “He [the resurrected Jesus] spoke of the affairs of the Kingdom of God.”

Acts 8:12: “When they believed Philip as he proclaimed the Gospel about the Kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ they were being baptized, both men and women.”

Acts 19:8: “And Paul entered the synagogue and continued speaking out boldly for three months reasoning and persuading them about the Kingdom of God.”

Acts 20:25: “…all of you among whom I went about preaching the Gospel of the Kingdom.”

Acts 28:23: “And when they had set a day for him, they came to him at his lodging in large numbers; and he was explaining to them by solemnly testifying about the Kingdom of God and trying to persuade them about Jesus from both the Law of Moses and from the prophets from morning till evening.”

Acts 28:31: “This salvation of God [cp. Gospel of God, Mark 1:14] has been sent to the Gentiles; they will also listen. And Paul stayed two full years in his own hired house proclaiming the Gospel of the Kingdom and teaching concerning the Lord Jesus Christ with all openness, unhindered.”

I Thessalonians 2:5, 9, 12: “Our Gospel did not come to you in word only…We proclaimed to you the Gospel of God…who is inviting you into his own Kingdom and glory.”

II Thessalonians 1:8, 5: “…that you may be considered worthy of the Kingdom of God for which you are suffering.” God will destroy “those who do not obey the Gospel of the Lord Jesus.”

I Corinthians 4:15, 20: “I became your father through the Gospel…The Kingdom of God does not consist in words but in power.”

II Timothy 4:1, 2: “I solemnly testify to…Christ’s appearing and his Kingdom. Proclaim the Message [i.e. Gospel]…”

In addition to these passages the term “Gospel” occurs some 60 times in the letters of Paul. In every case this key “technical term” should be “filled out” by adding the words “about the coming worldwide Messianic rule, or Kingdom of God.” In this way the content of the gospel message will be protected against the loss of its central element — the Kingdom of God.

Thus, to cite two examples by way of illustration, Paul is “not ashamed of the Gospel [about the coming worldwide Messianic rule — the Kingdom of God], for it is the power of God leading to salvation” (Rom. 1:16).

Paul is profoundly disturbed by an attempt to subtract from or add to the saving Gospel. He insisted in Romans 4 and Galatians 3 that the Gospel is founded on the promises made to Abraham — the posterity promise and the property promise of land. Thus “the Gospel was preached beforehand to Abraham” (Gal. 3:8; cp. Rom. 1:1-2). On no account may it be altered in any way:

“But even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a Gospel other than [the Gospel about the coming worldwide Messianic rule — the Kingdom of God, including the death of Messiah for our sins and his resurrection], let him be accursed” (Gal. 1:8).

RULERSHIP WITH MESSIAH

The entire fabric of the New Testament has suffered a drastic distortion because the key biblical terms have been “reinterpreted” — a sophisticated term for perverted — by reading an alien, post-biblical system into them. Thus “heaven” has replaced the biblical term “Kingdom of God,” giving a thoroughly misleading impression of the teaching of Jesus and the Apostles. In the Bible there is no such thing as “going to heaven” when you die. What is promised is participation in the worldwide rule of Messiah on earth when Jesus reappears. For those Christians who die before Jesus returns, participation in the Kingdom will be via resurrection from the dead (I Thess. 4:13ff, I Cor. 15:23, 50-52).

At present an anti-biblical, Greek philosophical system colors and distorts the ordinary reader’s perception of biblical teaching. This system which misled believers as early as the second century exercises a stranglehold on the minds of many who sincerely want to understand the teaching of Jesus and Paul. A revolution is needed by which Bible readers refuse to use non-biblical language about “heaven,” “going to heaven” and “the dead in heaven” (now propagated incessantly by funeral sermons as well as evangelistic appeals promoting “heaven,” both as the present residence of the departed and as the goal of the convert).

It is tragic that churches have not paid attention to Jewish historians who recognize that the Messianic hopes of the prophets were directed to a renewal of the earth. Speaking of the Hebrew expectation of the coming Kingdom taught by the early Christians, Hugh Schonfield writes:

“What is clear is that a transformed human world is in view, and not a harp-playing home in the heavens. Pointers in the latter direction are of later date and partly inspired by Gnostic repugnance to a material dwelling place for the soul. We may dismiss Messianic eschatology as a fantasy; but we cannot say that Jesus and his early followers did not subscribe to it. What it did was to set a target for achievement which would justify the creation of man and make it worthwhile to persist in well-doing. Ultimately righteousness would be rewarded, and God’s will would be done on earth as in heaven. There is no ‘pie in the sky when you die’ in the Messianic programme” (For Christ’s Sake, pp. 84, 85, emphasis added).

Once the biblical meaning of Romans 4:13 is reinstated, Bible readers will be able to grasp the tremendous destiny offered in the Gospel to believers. With Abraham, the “father” of all the faithful (Rom. 4:12, 16), Jew and Gentile alike, Christians will strive to “be considered worthy of the Kingdom” (II Thess. 1:5) to which, by the Gospel, they are invited. Now joint-heirs of the world with Jesus, they will later reign and rule over the nations with him in the renewed society of the Kingdom of God on earth (Isa. 32:1; Rev. 5:10; 2:26; 3:21; 20:1-6). Such a calling affords them the greatest future imaginable for a human being. The Gospel of the Kingdom or the coming worldwide Messianic rule is the ultimate Good News for a world groaning under the slavery of corruption and waiting for the manifestation of a state of incomparable glory, in which the sons of God, in company with the Son of God, will administer the world in righteousness and endless peace. This is the Christian hope and it is in that hope that we are saved (see Rom. 8:24). It is that hope which purifies (I John 3:3) and on that hope faith and love are built:

Colossians 1:5: “We have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and the love which you have for all the saints because of the hope laid up for you in heaven of which you previously heard in the Message of the Truth — the Gospel.” (Note that the hope is at present kept in reserve in heaven waiting to be manifested on earth at Christ’s return.)

Colossians 1:23: “…if indeed you continue in the faith firmly established and steadfast, and not moved away from the hope of the Gospel” (i.e. the Hope of the coming Kingdom of God presented in the Gospel of the Kingdom). “Christ in us [now is] the hope of glory [i.e. the Kingdom of God]” (Col. 1:27).

JUSTIFICATION BY FAITH

The loss of the Bible’s strongly future-oriented Gospel can be traced to the Church’s loss of the Old Testament. Elizabeth Achtemeier devotes an entire chapter to “The Results of the Loss of the Old Testament: The Loss of the New Testament and the Development of ‘Reader’s Digest’ Religion” (The Old Testament and the Preaching of the Gospel, Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1973). She complains that what goes under the name of Christianity in American churches is a vague religion which has borrowed the name of Jesus but not understood his teaching, especially as it relates to the central covenant promise made to Abraham.

As the Hastings Dictionary of the Bible says, “The whole future of Israel is conceived as bound up in something which God said to Abraham” (Vol. IV, p. 105). The future of Israel is of critical importance to Christians. In the words of Paul, “Through the Gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 3:8). This is a summary statement of the whole New Testament faith.

The important doctrine of “justification by faith” has not escaped the distortion caused by the loss of the land promise made to Abraham which underlies Jesus’ Gospel of the Kingdom. Justification is often limited to the concept of forgiveness of sin. But as the Pulpit Commentary (Vol. 18, pp. 121, 122) points out:

“We must not restrict justification to deliverance from deserved penalty, but must attach it to the further idea of inheritance. As one writer has well remarked, ‘Justification is applicable to something more than the discharge of an accused person without condemnation. As in our courts of law there are civil as well as criminal cases; so it was in old time; and a large number of the passages adduced seem to refer to trials of the latter description, in which some question of property, right or inheritance was under discussion between the two parties. The judge, by justifying one of the parties, decided that the property in question was to be regarded as his. Applying this aspect of the matter to the justification of man in the sight of God, we gather from Scripture that whilst through sin a man is to be regarded as having forfeited legal claim to any right of inheritance which God might have to bestow upon his creatures, so through justification he is restored to his high position and regarded as an heir of God’” (Girdlestone, Old Testament Synonyms, pp. 259, 260, emphasis added).

Thus it is that man is justified in order to regain his status as son of God and in consequence his right to be heir of the promises given to Abraham and made possible through Christ. The goal of the Christian, which unconditional forgiveness and the grace of God place him in a position to strive for and reach, is to rule with Christ in the coming Kingdom of God on earth. A number of high frequency New Testament terms describe this goal: “Kingdom of God/Heaven” (Matt. 19:14, 23, 24), “eternal/everlasting life”— literally “life in the Age to Come” (Matt. 19:16), “life” (Matt. 19:17, Rom. 5:17), “salvation” (Matt. 19:25), “rulership with Christ as royal family in the New Age to come” (Matt. 19:28), “inheritance of eternal life” (Matt. 19:29).

Inheritance of the promises of world dominion is invariably placed in the future. For the present time of struggle towards entrance into the Kingdom of God the Christian is promised the spirit of Christ as a “downpayment” of the future inheritance (II Cor. 1:22; 5:5; Eph. 1:14). But the inheritance itself is plainly to be received in the future (no New Testament text says that we have already inherited the Kingdom): “Whatever you do, do your work heartily as for the Lord rather than for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance [of the world promised to Abraham, i.e. rulership in the Kingdom of God]” (Col. 3:23, 24).

Inheritance and possession of the world are offered to the faithful believers. The Greek word kleronomia — inheritance — is derived from two words, kleros, lot, portion, possession, and nemein, to control or administer. The Christian reward involves administration of the possession to be received. Thus Paul believed that “the saints are to manage the world…The world is to come under your jurisdiction” (I Cor. 6:2, Moffat), while the wicked will be unable to “inherit the Kingdom of God” (v. 10). The one phrase defines the other: Inheriting the Kingdom is equivalent to managing the world.

The notion of a future world government in the hands of the immortalized saints is derived not only from the promise made to Abraham of world dominion, but also from key passages in Daniel who predicted that “the God of heaven will set up a Kingdom which will never be destroyed, and that Kingdom will not be left for another people; it will crush and put to an end all these kingdoms, but it will itself endure for ever” (2:44). To the Son of Man (the ideal Human Person, Jesus) “was given dominion, glory and a Kingdom that all the peoples, nations and men of every language might serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion which will not pass away and his Kingdom is one which will not be destroyed” (7:14).

The location of this Kingdom of the God of heaven is described in Daniel 7:27: “Then the sovereignty, the dominion and the greatness of all the kingdoms under the whole heaven will be given to the saints of the Highest One. Their kingdom will be an everlasting kingdom and all the dominions will serve and obey them” (RSV). It should be observed that this Kingdom will not come into power until the return of Jesus. Any attempt by believers to dominate the politics of the world now, before the reappearance of Jesus, is utterly mistaken.

The final word to Daniel was that he should expect to arise from the sleep of death to receive his portion or inheritance in the Messianic worldwide rule (Dan. 12:13) which was the subject of the visions he had received (Dan. 2, 7, 11, 12).

Paul obviously shared the hope given to Abraham and confirmed by the prophets. As a leading Christian he had not abandoned the biblical, Jewish expectation of world dominion. He confessed before King Herod Agrippa that he was on trial “for the hope of the promise made by God to our fathers, the promise to which our twelve tribes hope to attain” (Acts 26:6-7). That promise involved the future resurrection of the dead (v. 8, cp. Acts 24:15) and the inheritance of the world (Rom. 4:13). Speaking to Jews shortly before his martyrdom Stephen likewise testified that “God had removed Abraham into this country in which you are living, and he gave him no inheritance in it, yet he promised that he would give it to him as a possession and to his offspring after him forever” (Acts 7:4, 5).

The false hope of “heaven,” as opposed to the possession and administration of the world, deserves to be revealed for the fraud that it is. As a leading British biblical scholar noted: “Heaven is never in fact used in the Bible for the destination of the dying” (J.A.T. Robinson, In the End God, pp. 104, 105). He observed that “the whole of our teaching and hymnology has assumed that you go to heaven, or of course, hell when you die. But the Bible nowhere says that we go to heaven when we die, nor does it ever describe death in terms of going to heaven” (On Being the Church in the World, p. 130).

The reflective reader will realize that popular sermons and preaching at funerals are in need of drastic revision. They are at present vastly non-compliant with the Truth of the Bible and the teaching of Jesus.

The truth is that a serious loss of the original Christian faith and Gospel has occurred under the influence of a Gnostic tendency which despised the things of the earth and therefore could not tolerate the idea of the earth renewed and reorganized under the Messiah as ruler. Despite the Old Testament’s passionate yearning for the restoration of the world under sound government, the churches have continued to promote a hope of bliss removed from the earth. The plainest teachings of Jesus that the meek can expect to inherit the earth as their reward have been treated by theologians as metaphors and are supposed not to mean what they say! Churchgoers are left with the vaguest idea of the ultimate purpose of faith in Christ. They do not see how Christianity has anything to say about the future of the earth. Traditional talk about “heaven” thus thoroughly frustrates and confuses God’s Grand Design to bring peace on the renewed earth (for example, Isa. 65:17ff) through the return of Jesus to establish his Kingdom.

May pulpits everywhere undertake the long overdue restoration of the language of the Bible and return to the Christianity which is based on Jesus’ confirmation of the promises made to the patriarchs (Rom. 15:8). Paul was alert to the danger that doctrinal corruption could result in the abandonment of the hope contained in the Gospel. Believers could expect to be presented “before Christ holy, blameless and beyond reproach, if indeed you continue in the faith firmly established and steadfast, and not moved away from the hope of the Gospel [of the Kingdom] which you have heard” (Col. 1:22, 23).

That hope of ruling the world with Christ was presented to converts in the Gospel of the Kingdom proclaimed throughout Judea by Jesus, designated “the Message” some 32 times in Acts, and summarized as “the Gospel” 60 times in the letters of Paul. (Acts 8:12 provides an essential summary of the content of the Christian Gospel.).

JESUS AND THE GOSPEL OF THE KINGDOM

Jesus is proclaimed by the New Testament to be the Messiah of biblical prophecy, the heir to the permanent throne of David (II Sam. 7; I Chron. 17; Luke 1:32ff, etc.). The Messiah was the promised seed of Abraham, the one to whom the covenants and promises were directed (Gal. 3:16). As recipient of the Kingdom of God and rulership of the world Jesus recognized that his life purpose was to announce the Good News about the Kingdom (Luke 4:43). To carry out this commission he saw himself as a sower sowing the message/Gospel of the Kingdom (Matt. 13:19). Those who listened and understood his saving message became candidates for royal office in the coming Kingdom. The issue of salvation and the destiny of man hinges on our response to the Gospel of the Kingdom as Jesus preached it. Thus the parable of the sower informs us that forgiveness and repentance depend on an intelligent and willing reception of the Gospel of the Kingdom. In an amazing statement Jesus claimed to have revealed the secret of immortality and the destiny of both man and the world: “I have explained the secret about God’s Kingdom to you, but for others this comes only as an enigma. The reason for this is [as Isaiah said]: ‘These people will look and look but never see, they will listen and listen but never understand. If they did, they would turn to God [repent] and He would forgive them” (see Mark 4:11, 12).

Plainly, repentance and forgiveness are conditional not just on belief in the death of Jesus, but on understanding and believing his prior Gospel preaching about the Kingdom (“Repent and believe the Gospel of the Kingdom,” Mark 1:14, 15). The issue for Jesus in the critically important parable of the sower is comprehension or non-comprehension of the Gospel of the Kingdom. No wonder, then, that Luke records the Messiah’s brilliant intelligence report about how the message of immortality is treated in the present wicked system. Jesus said: “The seed is God’s Message/Gospel…But the Devil comes and snatches the Message out of their hearts so that they will not believe and be saved…Pay attention to how you listen. Everyone who has something will be given more. But people who have nothing will lose what little they think they have” (Luke 8:11, 12, 18, The Promise, Contemporary English Version).
The destiny and the future of each of us hinges on our comprehension and intelligent reception of the Gospel of the Kingdom as it fell from the lips of the Messiah.

CONCLUSION

The Bible tells a coherent story. God’s World Plan, in response to the fall of Adam, is to reestablish just government on earth under the rule of the Messiah Jesus.

Man sinned by coming short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23). The result was that his glorious destiny as co-ruler with God (Gen. 1:26) was forfeited. The Gospel of salvation, therefore, is the invitation and command to repent and believe in the Gospel of the restored Kingdom (Mark 1:14, 15), which means a return to the lost glory of man and the restoration of Garden of Eden conditions on earth. Sin is defined by Jesus in John 16:9 as failure to believe in Jesus which is failure to believe his Gospel/words (John 12:44-50; note verse 48).

The groundwork of this grand purpose was laid when God called Abraham to go into the “land of the promise,” in which he lived as an alien (Heb. 11:8, 9) but which was promised to him and his offspring (later defined as the faithful Christians, Gal. 3:29) as a permanent possession. This promise remains unfulfilled to this day (as Stephen said in Acts 7:5) and is dependent upon the future resurrection of Abraham and all the faithful to take possession of Palestine and the world Kingdom with the returning Messiah (Heb. 11:13, 39). That stupendous event — the return of the Messiah to inaugurate his Kingdom on earth (Rev 11:15-18) — is encapsulated in Peter’s brief reference in Acts 3:21 which speaks of Jesus’ temporary absence in heaven “until the time comes for the restoration (apokatastasis) of all things about which the prophets spoke.”

The Christian story was foreshadowed in the Exodus, which symbolizes our redemption from sin in the cross of Christ. But the story does not end there. The resurrection of Jesus guarantees the presence of Jesus with the faithful as they proceed throughout their “wilderness” pilgrimage towards the promised land. Christians have not yet entered the promised land of the Kingdom, though they have a foretaste of their inheritance in the spirit of God. Traditional Christianity knows little about the end of the story and dispatches the believer to a location away from the earth to enjoy a vague celestial existence as a disembodied soul. It is as though the children of Israel disappeared in the desert haze and never reached Palestine. The Exodus then loses its whole point.

The oft-repeated talk of “heaven” as the destination of the believer is entirely false to the Hebrew faith of Jesus and the Apostles who, in their Gospel, put before us a momentous statement about the future of human society on earth. The Gospel of the Kingdom, the Christian Message, summons all who hear to prepare now for the staggering privilege of ruling the earth with Christ and sharing in the fulfillment of the age-old covenant promise to Abraham that he would one day inherit the world (Rom. 4:13; Matt. 19:28; I Cor. 6:2). This should provide ample reason for believers to “exult in the hope of the glory of God” to be manifested in the coming Kingdom of God. No prospect could be more calculated to instill the highest moral-spiritual idealism than the challenge of being “worthy of the Kingdom to which we are invited” (II Thess. 1:5; I Thess. 2:12). I Thessalonians 2:13 promises that God’s energy will be at work in all who accept the Gospel of the Kingdom and thus align themselves with the mind and Plan of God and the Messiah.

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How the Kingdom Was Lost 1: Too Crude

by Sean Finnegan

Introduction

From the earliest days of Jesus’ Jewish apocalypticism to Augustine’s authoritative City of God, early Christians have held a variety of views about the final home of God’s people. Already in middle of the second century, Justin Martyr reports Christians held opposing eschatologies.[1] Some believed the earth would be the site of history’s final consummation while others regarded heaven as the destination for the righteous. Adherents of these competing views vied for dominance for several centuries before the heaven idea won out, becoming the standard notion most Christians hold right down to the present day.

In analyzing anti-millenarian polemics, I have found three primary reasons that Christians used to combat the kingdom-on-earth doctrine: they rebuffed it as crude, hedonistic, and Jewish.[2] In what follows, I will present the case for the first of these three, detailing why some Christians thought millenarianism[3] was an uncouth idea unworthy of God. Before delving into the substance of my argument, I will briefly explain why I find some of the common explanations for rejecting the kingdom of God unconvincing.

 

Unconvincing Reasons Millenarianism Was Rejected

The four typical reasons given for preferring a heavenly hope are: reevaluation due to the delay of the second coming, millenarianism’s association with Montanism, biblical incongruities, and the Constantinian shift. I will take each of these in turn.

The Delay Hypothesis

Recently, Barrie Wilson argued that the delay of the kingdom drove a variety of responses in the years that followed Jesus’ crucifixion. While some retained a this-worldly eschatology others spiritualized the kingdom idea or adopted an afterlife position. He proposed that the prolonging of Christ’s return to establish the kingdom on earth was the reason “enthusiasm for this approach withered.”[4] Although the delay hypothesis is plausible it lacks cogency for several reasons. Firstly, as Wilson himself recognized, second century literature is replete with robust millenarianism. Rather than flouting “a supposedly ‘real’ apocalyptic perspective,” observed McGinn, thinkers like Papias, Justin Martyr, and Irenaeus emphasized the physicality of the hope.[5] In addition, later anti-millenarian polemics did not argue that their opponents needed to face the delay issue, a point that would have significantly augmented their case. Furthermore, millenarianism did not die out in the second century as evidenced by advocates like Tertullian, Commodianus, Novatian, Victorinus, Methodius, and Lactantius who thrived in the third and fourth centuries. By Jerome’s time, in the fifth century, he evinced anxiety that his proposed “spiritual” interpretation would be rejected by many of his peers.[6] I am not suggesting here that the lag of history’s final dénouement to materialize played no role in Christian thought; it certainly did.[7] Nevertheless, I am proposing that it did not exert a significant influence in the debate over a terrestrial hope. For example, Hippolytus and Tertullian both interacted with the kingdom’s delay, but neither altered their belief in the physical kingdom on that basis.[8]

The Montanism Hypothesis

Giving voice to the reigning paradigm in much scholarship of the nineteenth century, Arthur Cushman McGiffert wrote, “The Chiliastic ideas of Montanism produced a reaction in the Church which caused the final rejection of all grossly physical Premillenarian beliefs which up to this time had been very common.”[9] Although such a hypothesis is plausible, we have solid grounds for rejecting it. Contra Adolf Harnack and Jean Daniélou, Charles Hill argued in his Regnum Caelorum that the Montanists were not chiliasts at all. He notes, “[S]everal scholars have challenged the assumption of a strongly eschatological orientation…on the part of the New Prophetic movement.”[10] As with so many of the “heretical” groups of antiquity, very few primary writings have survived. What we have are occasional citations embedded in polemics. Only a few Montanist oracles are extant, preserved by Eusebius and Epiphanius; of these only a couple relate to eschatology. Anti-Montanists generally focused on the Montanist mode of ecstatic prophesy along with their extreme asceticism. Still, there are two statements, if Epiphanius can be trusted, in which eschatological expectations find expression. In the first, Maximilla is reported to say, “After me there will be no prophet, but the consummation” (Panarion 48.2.4)[11] The second is when either Priscilla or, more likely, Quintilla said, “Christ came to me…and revealed to me that this place is holy, and that it is here that Jerusalem will descend from heaven” (ibid., 49.1)[12] These two statements certainly coincide with an apocalyptic outlook. But, even if they were millenarians, they were not, as a movement, characterized by it—at least not by their detractors. For example, both Eusebius and Jerome would have undoubtedly capitalized on such a belief, as they do elsewhere, in order to refute them. Since none of the polemicists linked millenarianism to Montanism, when doing so would have sharpened their rhetoric, we can safely conclude that the rejection of this movement did not play a role in repudiating millenarianism.

The Scripture Hypothesis

A third reason that I am not convinced motivated anti-millenarian polemics relates to Scripture. As with any of the topics discussed by the early Christians, eschatological writings are rife with Scripture quotations and allusions. Even if advocates of a heavenly hope pointed to texts like Galatians 4.26 and Hebrews 12.22 for support, our problem is that the millenarians also marshaled support from the same Bible, typically placing considerable weight on the prophets. Furthermore, sometimes proponents from opposing sides cite the same text to make the opposite point. The battle was not waged over what the Bible said per se, but over how one should read it.[13] Thus, although the Bible was highly esteemed by both sides and occupied a dominant role in influencing their doctrinal constructions, it was used by both sides and so cannot be determinative for spurning millenarianism.

The Constantinian Shift Hypothesis

Lastly, scholars have sometimes associated a rejection of an eschatological earthly kingdom with the Constantinian shift of the fourth century. For example, Donald Fairbairn writes, “[W]ith the conversion of the empire in the early fourth century…[and] with the bitterness of persecution past, they felt less need to cling fervently to the scriptural promises…and so there was more openness to interpreting biblical passages about such hope in a less earthly way.”[14] This premise is flawed for at least two reasons. Firstly, Hill has shown by carefully analyzing early martyrologies that persecution, far from enhancing chiliast tendencies, in actuality had the opposite effect. He concludes, “The expectation of an immediate enjoyment of heaven or of the heavenly kingdom meets us in four of these five accounts or authors.”[15] In fact, some chiliasts even believed martyrs bypassed the usual waiting period and ascended directly to heaven upon death. Secondly, we have polemics against millenarians that ante-date Constantine from Gaius, Origen, and Dionysius. This is not to say that Eusebius’ assessment of Constantine as God’s vicegerent on earth had no effect, but it was not a driving force in rejecting millenarianism, even for him.

Moving beyond these four explanations, I will focus on the first of my three reasons—that the kingdom was too crude. I will begin by presenting evidence from the anti-millenarian writers themselves, showing that they did in fact label a terrestrial hope as crude. Then by analyzing the ancient Greco-Roman views about cosmology and transience, I will argue that these biases played a significant role in rejecting a this-worldly hope.

Evidence that Millenarianism Was Considered Crude

Anti-millenarian writers often associated an earthly hope and the literal exegesis required to arrive at that belief with people who were uneducated and simple-minded. The first of several examples illustrating the widespread predilection for regarding millenarianism as crude comes from the third century scholar, Origen of Alexandria. His modus operandi was to hold back more esoteric theology when speaking in public, because he recognized that there were Christians of differing levels of maturity and education. He was often cautious not to burden the simple minded with complex theological propositions and speculations that they would likely misunderstand. However, there were some things that even the simple needed to avoid. In his Commentary on the Song of Songs he writes about “simpler Christians” who believe “that after resurrection…corporeal foods must be used and drink taken” (Commentary on the Song of Songs Prologue). [16] As a result these unsophisticated millenarian Christians “turned themselves to certain foolish stories and vain fictions [about the corporeality of the world to come]” (ibid.). While discussing the resurrection, a critical component of Christian eschatology on both sides, he derided those who “either from poverty of intellect or from lack of instruction introduce an exceedingly low and mean idea of the resurrection of the body” (On First Principles 2.10.3, henceforth Princ.).[17]

Nepos, a contemporary of Origen, was an important and influential bishop in Fayyum, Egypt who preached, “The kingdom of Christ will be on earth” (Ecclesiastical History 7.24, henceforth H.E.).[18] After his death, his book The Refutation of the Allegorists, now unsurprisingly lost, was held by many in his community to offer irrefutable proof for this notion. In the mid-third century Bishop Dinoysius of Alexandria, himself a staunch Origenist, wrote On the Promises against Nepos’ millenarianism and went down to Arsinoë in an effort to persuade his followers to turn away from “whatever appears to be unsoundly composed” (ibid.) His motivation for this trip was that Nepos’ eschatology did not “allow our simpler brethren to have high and noble thoughts,” but instead persuaded them “to hope for the small and mortal and such as are of the present in the Kingdom of God” (ibid.). From Dionysius’ perspective the millenarian hope, though patently low and ignoble, still held appeal for the uneducated, which is why he took it upon himself to convince them otherwise.

When Eusebius, the early fourth century bishop of Caesarea, wrote about Papias, an early second century chiliast, he thought his belief that “the kingdom of Christ will be established on this earth in material form” resulted from his lack of sophistication (H.E. 3.39). He attributed Papias’ seemingly obvious exegetical blunder to “a perverse reading of the accounts of the Apostles, not realizing that these were expressed by them mystically in figures” (ibid.). Eusebius goes on, “For he appears to be a man of very little intelligence, to speak judging from his books” (ibid.). Once again millenarianism was equated with a lack of sophistication.

Augustine, the early fifth century bishop of Hippo, had believed “the Lord will reign on earth with His saints, as the Scriptures say, and here He will have His Church, into which no wicked person will enter, separated and cleansed from every contagion of iniquity” (Sermons Maurist edition, 259.2, henceforth Serm.).[19] However, later on he came to change his view and adopted a new understanding of the first resurrection (Rev 20.1-4). His earlier view that “the first resurrection is future and bodily” he labeled “ridiculous fancies” (On the City of God, 20.7.1). In another sermon he expressed anxiety about non-Christian intellectuals finding out about the belief that resurrected “bodies are going to be victorious on a new earth and not in heaven” (Serm. 242.5). Talking like this to “those pagan philosophers…would be speaking boldly and rashly” (ibid.).

What was the rationale among educated Christians that caused them to regard living on a renewed earth forever intellectually offensive? Although, there were multiple reasons, one of the primary ones was a conflict with cosmology.[20] In order to further probe this issue, we must acquaint ourselves with standard views of cosmology in the patristic era.

Standard Cosmogony and Cosmology Privileged Immutability

Of what is the universe composed? How do the parts interact? Is what we see all there is? Questions like these drove philosophers from Thales of Milesia onward to propose a variety of cosmologies and cosmogonies.[21] Plato’s Timaeus, in particular, became immensely influential for thinkers in imperial times.[22] In it, Plato describes an idea the Pythagoreans before him had developed—that change is inferior to stability. Like numbers, which are always the same, Plato’s theory of forms postulated a whole immutable realm, populated with perfect archetypes corresponding to earthly realities. In Timaeus[23] he laid down a potent myth that shaped cosmological thought for centuries. He made an important distinction between “what always exists having no beginning” (τὸ ὂν ἀεί, γένεσιν δὲ οὐκ ἔχον) and “what is always becoming but never being” (τὸ γιγνόμενον ἀεί, ὂν δὲ οὐδέποτε): the former is known through logic (λόγος) based on mental-perception (νόησις) whereas the latter is a matter of opinion (δόξα) based on sense-perception (αἴσθησις) (Timaeus 28a). The one enjoys radical stability whereas the other is characterized by change, always becoming and perishing. The terse dictum, “as being is to becoming, so is truth to belief” indicates his general skepticism about his ability to say anything that is actually true about the sense-perceptible world seeing that it is itself subject to constant flux (Tim. 29c). Plato’s craftsman (δημιουργός) looks to the eternal realm as a model for arranging the chaotic elements into the organized cosmos (Tim. 29a). The demiurge is neither malevolent nor incompetent but a good craftsman who makes the best possible world (Tim. 30a). Still, as Eduardo Zeller points out, “nature was considered [an] inferior copy of the world of ideas which possessed no reality in a full sense.”[24]

So pervasive was Plato’s cosmogony that later thinkers adopted and adapted it to their own particular interests. In the first century, Philo of Alexandria, who significantly influenced patristic thinkers, accomplished a significant reworking of Plato’s old creation story. As a Jew, he had a high regard for the Septuagint; as an eclectic philosopher he paid homage to Hellenism. He was motivated by a desire to resolve tensions between his own biblical account of creation and the one composed by Plato. He set to allegorizing the Genesis narrative so that it harmonized with Timaeus. The result was his On the Creation of the World in which the Jewish God took the place of the demiurge (though in Philo’s version God worked through intermediaries since the immutable one must always remain in perfect stability).[25] For Philo, “the earth and water have been assigned the lowest situation in the universe” (On the Special Laws 1.94, henceforth Laws). My interest here is not to sum up Philo’s view but merely to note that he felt a need to reconfigure the biblical account in order to make it compatible with the reigning educated cosmogony of his day.

The second-century Gnostics also borrowed from Timaeus, radicalizing its dualism into a good spiritual realm (πλήρωμα) and an evil material realm. Like Plato they conceived of God as immutable and ineffable. First Thought in Three Forms describes the One as “the unchangeable voice…unique, incorruptible.”[26] God goes on to give instruction “about the coming end of the realm” and “the beginning of the coming realm, which does not experience change.” The few who have received such knowledge are the only ones worthy of “thinking of my unchangeable eternal realm” (ibid.). The two domains are kept distinct by a “veil” between them (The Reality of the Rulers 94.1-16, henceforth Reality). In contrast to the immutable realm, the created world is the consequence of cosmic delinquency. Sophia created alone without her partner producing a shadow that became matter. Her offspring was “a product in the matter like an aborted foetus” (ibid.). Ialdabaoth, the child of Sophia, was the demiurge who crafted the material order with ignoble intent. Even so, the true seed are able to “trample under foot death…and they will ascend into the limitless light, where this posterity belongs” (Reality 97.5-7). In the Valentinian revision of the Gnostic cosmogony contained in the Treatise on Resurrection, the πλήρωμα “did not come into being; it simply was” whereas “that which broke loose and became the universe is trifling.” The goal is to escape “this element (the body), so that one might…recover one’s former state of being” (Treatise on Resurrection 46.35-38, 49.30-34). Although to modern readers the multiplication of aeons and the pre-cosmic accidental creation of the material realm may seem confusing or even repelling, Bentley Layton notes, “[a] philosophical myth of this kind was generally fashionable in the second century a.d., following a revival of interest in Plato’s mythic tale of creation, the Timaeus, in the previous two centuries.”[27]
Beyond Philo, the Gnostics, and the Valentinians, it is clear that many other philosophers also held to Plato’s idea of a higher immutable realm superior to this lower transient world. Plato’s cosmology, according to Zeller, played a role in the philosophy of second and third century thinkers including Gaius, Albinus, Maximus of Tyre, Severus, Numenius of Apanea, Harpocration of Argos, Hermes Trismegistus, Plotinus, and Porphyry. [28] Plotinus’ Neo-Platonism became particularly influential on Christianity. Even though Plotinus rebuffed the Gnostics for claiming that the cosmos and the demiurge are evil, he did so without abandoning Platonic cosmology. In fact his main contention with them was that they were misinterpreting and distorting Plato’s Timaeus. He writes, “In every way they misrepresent Plato’s theory as to the method of creation as in many other respects they dishonour his teaching” (Enneads 2.9.6, henceforth En.).[29] He asked the Gnostics, “[W]hat reflection of that world could be conceived more beautiful than this of ours?” (En. 2.9.4). Yet, even if our globe was “minutely perfect” and “admirably ordered” it was still a mere copy of the realm of the forms (En. 2.9.4, 8).

Paula Fredriksen concisely portrays the cosmological picture held by Greco-Roman thinkers with the following words:

In the imagined architecture of the ancient cosmos, the earth stood at the center of the seven planetary spheres, at the furthest remove—spatially and ontologically—from the regions of increasing stability and harmony that stretched from the moon upward toward the planets and the realm of the fixed stars. Such a worldview is prejudiced in favor of the ‘upperwordly’ and spiritual;[30]

Although there were differing solutions explaining how a transcendent being produced the material realm, the Platonic sensibility that being is superior to becoming and immutability to transience, generally dominated the paideia of antiquity.

How Privileging Immutability Resulted in a Tendency to Reject Millenarianism as Crude

I am not making the case that anti-millenarian polemicists were confined by Plato’s cosmology in all of its details; I am merely asserting that educated people of the time had a certain common sense about cosmology. Generally speaking, élite Christians submerged in the Hellenistic milieu of the imperial period “knew” that transience was inferior to stability and that the present cosmos was inferior to the higher realm. Or in the words of Joseph W. Trigg, “Their [the world’s and the human body’s] materiality, which made them subject to change, kept them from being an ultimate good because what is ultimately good is always the same.”[31]

This is significant for our present study because eschatology is influenced by cosmogony and cosmology; how one conceives of the origin and present condition of the universe alters one’s belief about the end. For example, Pseudo-Barnabas wrote, “The Lord says, ‘Behold, I will make the last things as the first’” (Epistle of Barnabas 6.13).[32] The Gospel of Thomas puts it, “For the end will be where the beginning is” (Gospel of Thomas 18). Origen, as if stating a maxim, says, “For the end is always like the beginning” (Princ. 1.6.2). The thought of remaining subject to flux forever in this present lower realm seemed crass at best and absurd at worst. Thus, an eschatology, such as millenarianism that featured life on a corporeal earth where embodied people would pass time experiencing change, clashed with the reigning cosmologies of the day and thus appeared crude and patently false. Fredriksen sums up the matter succinctly:

Many thinking Christians from the second century onward could not take seriously the proposition that lower, material reality was the proper arena of redemption…their grasp of the principles of philosophy made claims to physical redemption seem incoherent and ignorant, these Christians repudiated the idea of a fleshly resurrection and a kingdom of God on earth.[33]

Conclusion

Although the science of antiquity pressured educated Christian thinkers to reject God’s plan for the world, modern cosmology and metaphysics no longer privilege immutability over transience. If anything, due to Albert Einstein’s work on relativity and the subsequent advances in quantum theory in the twentieth century, modern scientists regard radical immutability as incoherent. Furthermore, on a social level, the green movement is inspiring people to live sustainably, exalting the earth as precious and worth saving. How many environmental tragedies could have been avoided if the early church fathers had chosen to reject the reigning paradigms of the “scientific guild” and embrace the kingdom doctrine instead? If western culture had found its roots in the soil of stewardship and creation care in anticipation of God’s ultimate restoration of our planet rather than the evacuationist theology well-articulated by the words of the old hymn, “This world is not my home, I’m just a passing through,” how much farther ahead would humanity be in discovering and harnessing cleaner lifestyles and energy sources? Of course, we have no way of predicting what would have happened if Christians had courageously defied conventional common sense to hold fast to the teachings of Scripture, but we can at least learn a valuable lesson from their mistakes.

Nevertheless, reinventing, distorting, or dismissing millenarianism has much severer consequences than environmental rapacity. Renouncing the kingdom results in alienation from Jesus—the king of the kingdom—and his message of salvation. Even before the Romans crucified Jesus for claiming to be “the King of the Jews,” he was known by his disciples as the Jewish Messiah—the one destined to rule the world from the throne of David.[34] Later on, when Matthew and Luke wrote their respective Gospels, they emphasized Jesus’ messianic office in their birth-narratives, the former by detailing Jesus’ genealogical, royal pedigree and the latter by including the following words of the angel Gabriel:

Coming to her he said, “Rejoice! favored one, the Lord is with you.”…and the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mariam, for you have found favor with God. Behold, you will conceive in your womb and will give birth to a son; you will call his name Jesus. He will be great and he will be called a son of the highest; the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever; of his kingdom there will be no end.” (Luke 1.28, 29-33)

To claim knowledge of Jesus without knowing that his destiny is to rule the world is like being friends with the president of the United States without realizing his or her occupation. Jesus’ anointing as the Davidic king was not some miniscule or insignificant detail, but something that defined him from his birth to his ministry to his death—everything flowed from his identity as God’s supreme representative who would one day rule the world.[35] Furthermore, Jesus talked about the kingdom constantly both when he was publicly proclaiming the gospel and when he was alone with his disciples.[36] From picking twelve apostles to healing the sick and casting out demons, his whole ministry was saturated with kingdom allusions. One simply cannot know the historical Jesus, much less the one who will come again, without understanding the kingdom of God nor can one hope to grasp the gospel message without it. Although biblical scholars today generally recognize the centrality of millenarianism for Jesus, the average Christian is still blissfully unaware of Jesus’ gospel and destiny. The kingdom remains obscure while flitting off to the eternal realm enjoys near universal acceptance.


[1] Dialogue with Trypho 80.2

[2] The period I focused on is from the second to the fifth century. Locating anti-millenarian polemics is a time consuming process and I have no doubt that there are others passages that I have not yet discovered. Nonetheless, I have found quite a few and the data I collected clustered around the three reasons I gave. I do not claim to have in any way exhausted this subject and suspect that there are other equally compelling reasons beyond my three.

[3] Millenarianism, as I am using the term, refers to a broad category encompassing not only apocalypticism and chiliasm, but also other conceptions that locate the site for eschatological redemption on earth. It is grounded in the idea, as Robert Wilken put it, of “a real kingdom in this world.” (Robert Wilken, “Early Christian Chiliasm, Jewish Messianism, and the Idea of the Holy Land” Harvard Theological Review 79, no. 1-3 (Jan. – Jul., 1986), 299.) I follow Bernard McGinn in using millenarianism to refer to “the wider phenomenon of any hope for a better future earthly age.” (McGinn, “Turning Points,” 84 (fn. 12).) Believing that the kingdom God establishes lasts for a thousand years is not a necessary criterion for someone to be a millenarian, as I am using it. (Of course I do realize that millenarian derives from the Latin word for millennium, but since I could not find a more etymologically correct term, I chose to use it rather than coining a neologism.) I am interested in the Christian form of Jewish messianism—the belief that the messiah will return to earth and establish God’s reign, populating it with the resurrected saints who will live in physical bodies, and henceforth I will use millenarianism to refer to this general framework.

[4] Barrie Wilson, How Jesus Became Christian, (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2008), 216-217.

[5] Bernard McGinn, “Turning Points in Early Christian Apocalypse Exegesis,” in Apocalyptic Thought in Early Christianity, ed. Robert J. Daly (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), 83-4.

[6] Jerome, Commentary to Isaiah, Prologue to Book 18.

[7] Concerns over the delay are expressed in 2 Peter 3.3-4, 1 Clement 23.3-5, and the Ascension of Isaiah 3.21-22.

[8] Hippolytus developed a chronology based on the week of millennia typology putting himself approximately 300 years from the end and in so doing deemphasized the imminence ideology replacing it with a concern for the present role of the Church (see Davd G. Dunbar, “The Delay of the Parousia in Hippolytus,” Vigiliae Christianae 37, no. 4 (December 1983), 315-318). Hippolytus did not abandon a certain realism with respect to biblical prophecy. Dunbar notes how Hippolytus interpreted apocalyptic texts as having fulfillment “in concrete historical events” (ibid., 326, fn. 52). For Tertullian see Apology 39 where he says, “We pray, too, for the emperors, for their ministers and for all in authority, for the welfare of the world, for the prevalence of peace, for the delay of the final consummation” (Tertullian, Apology, trans. S. Thelwall, vol. 3 of The Ante-Nicene Fathers, ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), 2-55.). See also chapter 32.

[9] Eusebius, The Church History, trans. Arthur Cushman Mcgiffert, vol.2 of The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, ed. Philip Schaff, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans 1993), 229.

[10] Charles E. Hill, Regnum Caelorum: Patterns of Millennial Thought in Early Christianity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans 2001), 144. The scholars cited are Powell, Schöllgen, and Tabernee.

[11] trans., Hill, Regnum Caelorum, 146.

[12] ibid., 145. We have a more reliable tradition from Apollonius that Montanus is the one who named Pepouza and Tymion Jerusalem (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 5.18.2). William Tabernee regards Montanus’ act “to have been organizational rather than eschatological” (William Tabernee, “Revelation 21 and the Montanist ‘New Jerusalem,’” Australian Biblical Review 37 (1989), 57).

[13] Hermeneutical strategies loomed large in the debate over eschatology, but this was more a tool than a motivation. Anti-millenarians generally embraced allegory while kingdom believers preferred to interpret Scripture more literally. Since allegory depends on detecting “hooks” in the text that indicate a deeper meaning is necessary, a priori doctrinal concerns determined the meaning of the text rather than the other way around.

[14] Donald Fairbairn, “Contemporary Millenial/Tribulational Debates,” in A Case for Historic Premillennialism, ed. Craig L. Blomberg and Sung Wook Chung (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), 115.

[15] Hill, Regnum Caelorum, 142.

[16] trans., Rowan Greer, Origen, The Classics of Western Spirituality (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1979), 222.

[17] All quotations of Origen’s On First Principles from G. W. Butterworth, Origen On First Principles (Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1973).

[18] All quotations of Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History from Roy J. Deferrari, Eusebius Pamphili: Ecclesiastical History: Books 1-5, Fathers of the Church (New York: Fathers of the Church, inc., 1953) and Ecclesiastical History from Roy J. Deferrari, Eusebius Pamphili: Ecclesiastical History: Books 6-10, Fathers of the Church (New York: Fathers of the Church, inc., 1955). Wilken notes, “Nepos was neither a heretic nor a crazy on the fringe; he was a respected and admired Christian leader” (Robert Wilken, The Land Called Holy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992), 76).

[19] All quotes of Augustine from William A. Jurgens, The Faith of the Early Fathers vol. 3, (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1979).

[20] Cosmology is a belief about what the world is and how it works; it is the science of cosmos.

[21] Cosmogony is the story of creation; it is an account or narrative detailing the birth of the cosmos.

[22] Eugene de Faye said of the Timaeus, “It would be impossible to exaggerate the influence of the Timaeus” (Origen and His Work, (London: Unwin Brothers Ltd., 1926), 79.).

[23] Greek excerpts from Platonis Opera, ed. John Burnet (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1903).

[24] Eduardo Zeller, Outlines of the History of Greek Philosophy (London:Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd., 1969),144-5.

[25] Philo, On the Creation of the World 10; On the Confusion of Languages 106; Questions in Genesis 3.1

[26] First Thought in Three Forms, II. Destiny (Poem 5) lines 7, 8, 18-22, 25-26, all quotations of Gnostic and Valentinian sources from Bentley Layton, The Gnostic Scriptures (New York: Doubleday, 1987).

[27] Layton, 12.

[28] Zeller, 287-303.

[29] All quotations of Plotinus’ Enneads from Stephen Mackenna and B.S. Page, The Six Enneads (Burdett, NY: Paul Brunton Philosophic Foundation, 1992).

[30] Paula Fredriksen, “Apocalypse and Redemption in Early Christianity: From John of Patmos to Augustine of Hippo,” Vigiliae Christianae 45, no. 2 (June, 1991), 170 (fn 16). (for bibliography pp. 151-183).

[31] Joseph Wilson Trigg, Origen: The Bible and Philosophy in the Third-century Church (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1983), 108.

[32]trans. Francis X. Glimm, The Apostolic Fathers, Fathers of the Church (New York: Christian Heritage, 1948), 200.

[33] Fredriksen, 154.

[34] 2 Samuel 7.14-16; Psalm 2; 110

[35] Starting with Johannes Weiss and Albert Schweitzer, New Testament scholars from the twentieth century onwards have increasingly emphasized this point.

[36] In public: Mark 1.14-15; Matthew 4.17, 23; 9.35; Luke 4.43; 8.1; 9.11, in private: Matthew 13 (kingdom parables); 24.14; 25; Luke 9.27, 62; 11.12; John 3.3, 5

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The Gospel of the Kingdom as Motivation for Repentance

by Sean Finnegan

“For Yahweh of hosts will have a day of reckoning against everyone who is proud and lofty and against everyone who is lifted up, that he may be abased.” Isaiah 2.12

Introduction

This paper was inspired by the phrase “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3.2; 4.17; Mark 1.15). There are perhaps more questions generated in the mind of the modern reader than there are words in this simple gospel catchphrase. “What is the kingdom of heaven?” “What does it mean that this kingdom is near?” “Has the kingdom already come?” “Did Jesus get it wrong?” “Why should the nearness of the kingdom be a reason for repentance?” “What about the death, burial, and resurrection?” “What does it mean to repent?” “What happens if one does not repent?” It is beyond the scope of this paper to answer all of these questions; however, I would like to focus on two of them: “What is the kingdom?” and “Why does its nearness inspire repentance?”

The curious issue with the phrase “kingdom of God”[1] is that it is never found in the Hebrew Bible.[2] Thus, we are faced with two distinct possibilities: (1) Jesus is introducing a new concept, (2) Jesus is using his own phraseology to refer to something his hearers would easily recognize from the Hebrew Scriptures. Since Jesus never took the time to define “the kingdom of God” as he used the term, we are left to assume that his hearers would have already been familiar with the notion.

Fortunately, it is not difficult to arrive at the meaning from a study of the Old Testament. Five elements that roughly encompass the concept as defined in the Hebrew Bible are: (1) the rule of God on earth through his agent—the Messiah (Psalm 2.6-8; Isaiah 11.1-5; Daniel 7.13-14), (2) the inheriting of the land by Abraham and his descendants forever (Genesis 17.8; 26.3; 28.13)[3], (3) the reestablishment of the throne of David in Jerusalem (1 Chronicles 17.11-14; Psalm 89.35-37; Ezekiel 37.24), (4) the restoration of the planet (reversing the effects of the fall and the flood) (Isaiah 11.6-9; 35.1-10), and (5) the restoration of morality in humankind (no more war, violence, stealing, or other forms of wickedness) (Jeremiah 31.33-34; Micah 4.1-3). However, as I have contemplated Jesus’ gospel language, “Repent, for the kingdom of God is near,” I have been left at a loss to understand why the arrival of paradise would cause men to repent.

It is my hypothesis that these five elements of the kingdom of God are lacking something significant.[4] As I have searched through the Scriptures to find this missing ingredient (that makes the gospel a matter of repentance not simply acceptance), I came across a plethora of “Day of the Lord” texts. It is the intention of this paper to discuss the dark side of the kingdom—the coming judgment of the wicked—in order to fill in the definition of the kingdom of God a bit more as well as answer the question, “Why is the nearness of the kingdom a cause for repenting?” First, I would like to talk about the problem with the world, then look at the passages that speak about the Day of the Lord in the Old Testament, see what changes have been made by Jesus and the apostles, and finally focus on how all this relates to the proclamation of the gospel then and now.

The problem with the world today

The world is sick. Corruption in government, natural disasters, wars, violence, child abuse, rape, murder, thievery, dishonesty, poverty, prostitution, greed, and disease are commonplace. Many take one look at the world and conclude that there is no God. This position is certainly understandable; yet, the Bible gives insight into why the world is so desperately wicked. God is not now ruling the world.[5] Satan has been given the domain of all the kingdoms of the world (Luke 4.6). He is called “the god of this age” because he is ruling now (2 Cor 4.4). This is not limited to one region or country, but the whole world lies in his power (1 John 5.19). Worst of all, he has deceived the whole world (Rev 12.9) to such an extent that most do not even think there is a devil or demons.

Once one comes to understand that Satan is ruling the kingdoms of this world, then the evil in the world starts to make sense. If God were in charge, then crimes would be punished swiftly, and righteousness would be rewarded. However, this is not what is happening today. The world is so afflicted because it is dominated by one who actively prowls around seeking someone to devour (1 Pet 5.8). He has worked for millennia to contrive social and political systems by which people may be deceived into thinking that what God says is wrong.

All humans are born dead in trespasses and sins, and all are by nature children of wrath. Everyone lives according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit now working in the sons of disobedience. Naturally, one follows after the lusts of his or her flesh and indulges in those desires both in thought and action (Ephesians 2.1-3). Like choking smog, the thoughts of Satan imbibe everyone who has not been supernaturally cleansed. The educational, cultural, political, and economic systems of the kingdoms of this world serve to conspire against one coming to know the truth which would set them free from the bondage of sin. Satan has worked and continues to work through the spirits allied with him to deceive.

One of the most important tenets of the worldview of Jesus is cosmic dualism. This concept of dualism contrasts the forces of good against those of evil. There are two ages: the present evil age and the age to come. There are two ways to follow: the narrow way which ends in life and the broad way which leads to destruction. There are two Lords one can follow: Jesus the anointed of God and Satan the cursed of God. There are two kinds of people: the children of the kingdom and the children of the evil one. There are two sets of helpers: angels used by God to liberate and aid and demons used by Satan to incarcerate and harm. According to this belief, one is never in both categories, and there is no gray area.

Freedom comes through the gospel, which functions as an oxygen mask to save us while we still live in this toxic environment.[6] In this age the evil prosper, and the righteous suffer. Those who are God’s have crucified their desires and have adopted God’s desires. In fact, as imitators of God (Ephesians 5.1), we love what he loves and hate what he hates. So, as it pains God to see evil, it should pain us. In this case, we are in a state of perpetual suffering until things are made right. Thus, a major part of the hope for the people of God is the judgment of the wicked and their ruler, Satan.

Even though some may be rescued from the gripping influence of Satan, most will remain in his firm grasp, all the while convinced that they are thinking independently. As these two groups collide with each other violent reactions occur like two volatile chemicals. The holiness of the children of God offends the children of Satan like a bright light shining into their half closed eyes (John 3.19-20). The unrighteous malign Christians calling them “narrow-minded” or “bigots” or “intolerant.” As the kingdom worldview has collided with the world’s paradigm, persecution and martyrdom have been the result. Jesus wisely warned all who would be his disciples that they would suffer and be hated because God has called them out of the world. Untold thousands of saints have been murdered throughout the centuries for their uncompromising faith. Christianity today rests upon a legacy of sacrificial bloodshed in keeping with the spirit of the founder’s supreme example on the cross.[7]

As this present age spirals towards its culmination, persecution will increase exponentially. The suffering of the saints will not be haphazard but organized under the auspices of the Antichrist and his supporters. This violent storm will make the persecution under Diocletian or the drowning of the Anabaptists look like a sun shower. Indeed, the world will unite in its hatred for what God loves. As war is waged against the disciples of Christ, most who confess Christianity in name alone will fall away and join those who would rather enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season than suffer. Then, just when all hope looks lost and the immense forces of evil are going to overcome the flickering specks of light, suddenly and dramatically God will act. Jesus taught that in the end “the history of the world would come to a screeching halt, that God would intervene in the affairs of this planet, overthrow the forces of evil in a cosmic act of judgment, and establish his utopian Kingdom here on earth.”[8] Since this final act of God will occur in real space and time, it begins on a real day, and that day in the Scriptures is called “the Day of Yahweh” or “the Day of the Lord.”

The Day of the Lord defined from the Hebrew prophets

The prophets of ancient Israel spoke vociferously of the coming destruction of the wicked. Sometimes this proclamation was focused on the enemies of Israel and other times it was focused on Israel herself. The prophets painted the dismal picture of the Day of the Lord using many hues of gray. As we will see, this Day was proclaimed as a grotesque and grisly nightmare from which there was seemingly no escape. We shall turn now to the prophets themselves and allow them to speak.

The Day of Yahweh will come with clouds and thick darkness (Joel 2.1-2). It will be a Day of wrath, trouble, distress, destruction, desolation, and gloom (Zephaniah 1.15). God will arise in the splendor of his majesty to make heaven and earth tremble in the fury of his burning anger (Isaiah 2.19; 13.9, 13). There will be famine (Joel 1.16). Cosmic signs accompany this judgment to the degree that neither sun nor moon nor stars will shed light (Isaiah 13.10; 34.4; Joel 2.10; 3.15).

Men will be so frightened that they will scurry into caves and dive into holes in the ground to escape (Isaiah 2.21). They will say to the mountains, “Cover us!” and to the hills, “Fall on us!” (Hosea 10.8). Even hardened warriors will cry out bitterly (Zephaniah 1.14). Pains and anguish will take hold of pale faced men causing them to writhe like a woman in labor (Isaiah 13.8; Joel 2.6). The whole world will be punished for its evil, for its disregard for what God has said is right, for its arrogance and ruthlessness (Isaiah 13.11).

The coming cataclysm is not limited to one or two countries, for Yahweh’s wrath is against all nations and their armies (Isaiah 34.2; Ezekiel 30.3; Joel 3.12; Obadiah 1.15). He will command an army of mighty warriors to execute his anger (Isaiah 13.3-4; Joel 2.11). This army will be unlike anything that has ever come before it, and never again will there be anything like it (Joel 2.2). The earth quakes as fire consumes before them, and behind then a flame burns (Joel 2.3, 10). The army is God’s instrument of indignation which he will use to decimate the land and exterminate the sinners from it (Isaiah 13.5, 9). God will utterly destroy the armies of the earth, and their corpses will be strewn about drenching the mountains with their blood (Isaiah 34.3). Because they have sinned against Yahweh, their blood will be poured out like dirt and their flesh scattered like manure (Zephaniah 1.17). So thorough will this judgment be that the earth will be depopulated to a point that mankind is scarcer than gold (Isaiah 13.12). Yet, there are some who will survive (Isaiah 14.2; Joel 2.32; Obadiah 1.17).

The proud will be humbled, and Yahweh alone will be exalted (Isaiah 2.12). Not even the riches of the wealthy will help them in escaping the destruction (Zephaniah 1.18). The Day of Yahweh will be especially dark for those who think that they are innocent by association (Amos 5.18). For them, the judgment of God will be like one who escapes a lion and a bear catches him; or perhaps he finds his way home unmolested and leans his hand on the wall to catch his breath, and a snake bites him (Amos 5.19). All will be beckoned to come to the valley of decision where judgment will be passed (Joel 3.14). Even those who are stagnant, neither violent nor righteous, will be sought out and punished (Zephaniah 1.12). Those who are in power, who wear the garments of royalty, will be punished (Zephaniah 1.8). The wealthy will have their money stripped away from them, and their houses will become desolate (Zephaniah 1.13).

The Day of Vengeance will be to those who are afflicted, brokenhearted, and imprisoned a favorable year, a time of comfort and joy (Isaiah 34.8; 61.1-3). Those who call on the name of Yahweh in this time of distress will escape this wrath (Joel 2.32).

The purpose of proclaiming the Day of Yahweh is that men would repent

Why did these prophets speak in such a terrifying manner? The purpose of preaching the imminent destruction of the wicked was to splash cold water onto the faces of lethargic sinners. The message shocked men into responding. On the heels of a “Day of the Lord” section, one will typically find a call for repentance.

The prophets urged the people to respond with wailing to their message (Isaiah 13.6; Jeremiah 25.34; Ezekiel 30.2; Joel 1.5, 8, 10, 13). Joel said, “Alas for the day! For the day of Yahweh is near, and it will come as destruction from the Almighty” (Joel 1.15). He requests that the warning be sounded so that all will know that the day of Yahweh is coming (Joel 2.1). Joel appeals to the people to repent:

“Yet even now,” declares Yahweh, ”

Return to Me with all your heart,

And with fasting, weeping and mourning;

And rend your heart and not your garments.”

Now return to Yahweh your God,

For He is gracious and compassionate,

Slow to anger, abounding in lovingkindness

And relenting of evil.

Who knows whether He will not turn and relent

And leave a blessing behind Him,

Even a grain offering and a drink offering

For Yahweh your God? (Joel 2:12-14)

Now is the time to blow the trumpet, fast, gather the people, and come before the altar to weep and ask God to spare his people (Joel 2.15-17). Then, Yahweh will forgive and have compassion on his people and pardon them (Joel 2.18-19). This sentiment is shared by Zephaniah:

Gather yourselves together, yes, gather,

O nation without shame,

Before the decree takes effect—

The day passes like the chaff—

Before the burning anger of Yahweh comes upon you,

Before the day of Yahweh’s anger comes upon you.

Seek Yahweh,

All you humble of the earth

Who have carried out His ordinances;

Seek righteousness, seek humility.

Perhaps you will be hidden

In the day of Yahweh’s anger. (Zephaniah 2.1-3)

Following these pleas for repentance are wonderful passages promising restoration (the restoration is sometimes conditional on the people’s repentance). A prophetic template emerges from our study so far: (1) conviction of sin[9] (2) preaching about the coming Day of the Lord (3) urging the people to repent, and (4) sharing a vision of restoration. This procedure is not exactly followed by each book of prophecy, but the ingredients reappear frequently. Usually, the restoration texts with which Kingdom believers are so familiar begin right after the wrath of God has been proclaimed. Thus, repentance is often squished between these two contrasting themes. The indignation of Yahweh approaches, everyone must repent in order to survive, and then the remnant will enjoy restoration. “The establishment of a remnant of a pious Israel was the germ of the hope of the Messianic kingdom; and the Day of Jehovah itself became the Day of Judgment, which figures so largely in both Jewish and Christian Messianism. In fact, it is not too much to say that the eschatology of Judaism is really a development of the implications of the prophetic teaching as to the Day of Jehovah.”[10] Before we will turn to the Greek Scriptures to see if this theme has been dropped, changed, or expanded upon, we need first to consider how this concept appears in the book of Daniel.

From the Day of the Lord to the kingdom of God via Daniel

Daniel provides the necessary glue between “the Day of Yahweh” terminology and “the kingdom of God” phrase which is found so often in the New Testament (especially on the lips of Jesus). Although the phrase “Day of the Lord” does not appear in the book of Daniel, the concept is undeniably present. For example, the kingdom of God obliterates the kingdoms of the world like a huge rock smashing into a statue (Daniel 2.34-35; 44). Even so, Daniel does not focus on the wrath of God coming on the wicked; rather, his perspective is almost exclusively focused on the righteous. For example, in chapter seven, he sees a series of kingdoms in a vision. The last kingdom before the Son of Man comes is worldwide in scope and influenced heavily by “the little horn.” This person not only speaks out boastfully against the Highest One, but he also actively persecutes, wages war against, and overpowers the saints (Daniel 7.20-21, 25). However, this last kingdom will be crushed by the Son of Man when he comes in glory and power:

“And to Him was given dominion,

Glory and a kingdom,

That all the peoples, nations and men of every language Might serve Him.

His dominion is an everlasting dominion

Which will not pass away;

And His kingdom is one

Which will not be destroyed.” (Daniel 7.14)

Then the kingdom will be given to the saints of the Most High to possess it forever (Daniel 7.18, 22, 27). So we conclude that although Daniel primarily focuses on the destiny of the righteous (including tribulation and vindication at the coming of the Son of Man), he nevertheless understands that in order for the kingdom of God to have dominion, all other kingdoms must be crushed.

Day of the Lord with John the Baptist and Jesus

Unlike Daniel, John the Baptist focused on the unrepentant and what they needed to do in light of the coming kingdom. He does not warn the righteous to endure through the messianic woes (the tribulation) but instead cries out for all to get right with God before the Day comes. He spoke of “fleeing from the wrath to come” (Luke 3.7) and preached about the precarious thread by which God’s wrath hung over everyone’s heads.

“Indeed the axe is already laid at the root of the trees; so every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Luke 3.9).

Even being a descendant of Abraham will not save one from this coming Day. “John the Baptist appears to have preached a message of coming destruction and salvation. Mark portrays him as a prophet in the wilderness, proclaiming the fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah that God would again bring his people from the wilderness into the Promised Land (Mark 1.2-8). When this happened the first time, according to the Hebrew Scriptures, it meant destruction for the nations already inhabiting the land.”[11]

This all sounds just like the prophets mentioned earlier. However, John expanded on the traditional “the end of the world is at hand” message by speaking about “the one to come.” As a standard ingredient to his message, John would prophecy about the coming judge.

John answered and said to them all, “As for me, I baptize you with water; but one is coming who is mightier than I, and I am not fit to untie the thong of his sandals; he will baptize you with the holy spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand to thoroughly clear his threshing floor, and to gather the wheat into his barn; but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire” (Luke 3.16-17)

The one who is coming will divide all into one of two categories: the wheat or the chaff. Those deemed wheat will be properly cared for (i.e. enter the kingdom), but the chaff will be burned with “unquenchable fire.” Apparently this coming one, for whom John the Baptist is merely a forerunner, would be the agent of God’s judgment to be carried out on the last Day.[12]

All of this is brought to a climax in John’s ministry when Jesus came to be baptized by him. Jesus did not choose to focus on the traditional interpretation of the law with the Pharisees, he did not emphasize the role of the temple like the Sadducees, he did not take off to the monastic lifestyle of the Essenes, nor did he take up the sword like the Zealots; instead, Jesus associated with John the Baptist, an apocalyptic preacher who called the people to repentance through baptism. The only reasonable explanation for this association (Jesus went to John for baptism) was that Jesus agreed with the message of John.

If this is the case, then one would expect to find “Day of the Lord” material on the lips of Jesus in his preaching ministry. I propose that this is exactly what the phrase that started us on our journey, “repent for the kingdom of God is at hand,” implies. Jesus did not change or marginalize the message of the prophets concerning judgment and restoration; instead, he amplified it and enriched it with full color. Everything Jesus did was an outgrowth of his faith in this coming kingdom of God both the judgment and the restoration.

Jesus sent his disciples out preaching and told them that anyone who rejects this message will be punished more severely than Sodom and Gomorrah on the Day of Judgment (Matthew 10.15). He proclaimed imprecations on the unbelieving cities of Chorazin and Bethsaida saying that they will be punished more severely than Tyre and Sidon on the Day of Judgment (Matthew 11.21-22). Furthermore, Capernaum will be punished on the Day of Judgment for disbelief despite the miracles done in her (Matthew 11.24). Not only does Jesus invoke “Day of the Lord” pronouncements on cities, but each individual will be judged by the every careless word spoken as well (Matthew 12.36-37). In fact, the door to the kingdom is narrow, and most who try to enter will not be able; once it is closed, there is no admittance (Luke 13.24-25). Those who fail to enter will be outside weeping and gnashing their teeth because they will see Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but they will be thrown out (Luke 24.28-29).

In the parables of both the tares and wheat and also the dragnet, the climax occurs at the end of the age when the Son of Man commands his angels to separate the wicked from the righteous and burn them in the furnace of fire (Matthew 13.40-43, 49-50). It is apparent also in Jesus’ view of the end that the saints will be persecuted first and that after this tribulation, the darkening of the sky will occur, and then the Son of Man comes (Matthew 24.29). Of note is the predicted response to the coming of the Son of Man: “all the tribes of the earth will mourn and they will see the son of man coming on the clouds of the sky with power and great glory” (Matthew 24.30, cp. Rev 1.7). Although the elect will be gathered together at the coming of the Son of Man, the wicked will be punished. His coming puts an end to their rebellion, and that is why they are so upset to see him “with power and great glory.”

To the weeping women who followed Jesus as he marched to the place of The Skull Jesus said:

“Daughters of Jerusalem, stop weeping for Me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. For behold, the days are coming when they will say, ‘Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bore, and the breasts that never nursed.’ Then they will begin TO SAY TO THE MOUNTAINS, ‘FALL ON US,’ AND TO THE HILLS, ‘COVER US.’ For if they do these things when the tree is green, what will happen when it is dry?” (Luke 23.28-31)

Jesus was completely in agreement with the historic prophetic belief that the Day of Yahweh would be a time of tremendous duress. He alludes to several Hebrew texts when he speaks of the desire people will have to find a cave to hide (cf. Isaiah 2.19; Hosea 10.8; Revelation 6.16). Jesus was just as apocalyptic, just as emphatic about the coming Day of Judgment as was John the Baptist, Isaiah, Joel, and the others who spoke concerning these things. The only difference is that he understood that it was through the Son of Man and his words that Yahweh would bring about the last Day (John 5.26-29; 12.48). Furthermore, he, like Daniel, also spoke about the righteous enduring a time of great persecution prior to their vindication and possession of the kingdom. In this sense, Jesus shared not only the bad news (Judgment Day is coming for the wicked), but also the good news (that the righteous will enjoy the messianic age with the patriarchs). Now, we shall turn to how the term “Day of Yahweh” or “Day of the Lord” is used in the rest of the New Testament.

Day of the Lord in the rest of the New Testament

“The expectation of the day of the Lord plays a key role in the eschatological [end times] teaching of the New Testament (1 Corinthians 5.5; Acts 2.20; 2 Peter 3.10), where it is usually identified with the expectation of the Parousia, or second coming of Jesus. This identification is possible because the Greek word for ‘Lord’ (kyrios) can refer either to YHWH (as in the Septuagint) or to Jesus.”[13] Furthermore, since the Lord Jesus is the primary agent through which Yahweh acts, the Day of Yahweh can rightfully be called the Day of the Lord Jesus Christ without any contradiction or redefinition of who Yahweh is. It is still the Day of Yahweh, but now since the Messiah has been openly identified as Jesus of Nazareth (i.e. through resurrection cf. Acts 17.31; Romans 1.3), it makes sense to incorporate him in the proclamation of the coming judgment. The incorporation of the Messiah’s role in speaking about the Day of the Lord finds precedent in the Old Testament[14] and can also be seen at Qumran.[15] Here are the different ways that the writers of the Greek Scriptures referred to the Day of Yahweh.

Terminology Used for the Day of the Lord in the New Testament

the day of judgment Matthew 10.15; 11.22, 24; 12.36;

2 Peter 2.9; 3.7; 1 John 4.17

the day of wrath Romans 2.5; Revelation 6.17
the day of Christ Philippians 1.6, 10; 2.16
the day of our Lord Jesus 1 Corinthians 1.8; 2 Corinthians 1.14
the last day John 6.39-40, 44, 54; 11.24; 12.48
the day of God 2 Peter 3.12; Revelation 16.14
the day Romans 2.16; 1 Corinthians 3.13
that day 2 Thessalonians 1.10; 2 Timothy 1.12, 18; 4.8

“The day is pictured primarily as the last judgment, when all people will be tested (1 Corinthians 3.13) and either rewarded (1 Corinthians 1.8) or punished (Romans 2.16).”[16] The destruction in the time of Noah as well as the annihilation of Sodom and Gomorrah are examples of the future coming judgment (2 Peter 2.5-9). Although men may scoff at the notion, the world as we know it will be scorched with fire (2 Peter 3.7). When the Day of the Lord comes, it will be sudden (like a thief); all the works of the earth will be burned up (2 Peter 3.10-12). In fact, as time goes on, the stubborn and unrepentant are storing up for themselves wrath in the Day of the righteous judgment when God renders to each according to his deeds (Romans 2.5-6). The judgment of the last Day falls not only on humans but also on Satan and his demons (2 Peter 2.4; Jude 6; Revelation 20.10). God executes his final wrath through the Son of Man who commands myriads of angels to come in flaming fire to deal out retribution to those who do not obey the gospel (Matthew 13.41-43; 2 Thessalonians 1.7-10; Jude 1.14-15). Though the ungodly should fear, the ones who are like Jesus can have confidence in the Day of Judgment (1 John 4.17). Those in whom God has begun a good work will be able to stand blameless and in glory on the Day of Christ if they continue in the faith (Philippians 1.6-10; 2.16). So the Day of the Lord Jesus has essentially replaced the Day of Yahweh, and it is both a bad day to the unrighteous and a good day to the saints.

Analysis of the gospel proclamation in the New Testament

By now, it should be well established that (1) the prophets of the OT proclaimed the Day of Yahweh—a time of horrendous judgment of the wicked followed by fantastic restoration for the righteous. (2) John the Baptist and Jesus both firmly believed in the coming Day of the Lord and had not in any way watered it down, rather they (with OT precedent) focused on the role that the Son of Man or Messiah would play on that Day. (3) The rest of the New Testament writers believed in this coming Day, and it had already taken on a distinctly Jesuanic character—it became the Day of the Lord Jesus—because Jesus is understood to be the agent though whom Yahweh will execute his Day. Now, I would like to turn to discuss the gospel message proclaimed by John, Jesus, and his disciples to see what role, if any, the Day of the Lord material plays in their evangelism.

As we have already seen, John the Baptist is undoubtedly a proclaimer of the coming judgment of God and in particular of the coming one who will separate the wheat from the chaff (Luke 3.7-17). However, is John’s proclamation of coming judgment the same as the preaching of the gospel? This question is answered by Luke at the conclusion of John’s message when he says, “and with many other exhortations he preached the gospel to the people” (Luke 3.18). Furthermore, Matthew abbreviates what Luke records by saying, “Now in those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea, saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’” (Matthew 3.1-2). Thus, we conclude that the apocalyptic message concerning the Day of the Lord and in particular the role that “the coming one” plays is indeed the gospel (or at least a very significant part of it) and can be summarized by the phrase “the kingdom of God is at hand.”

This is the very same terminology that Matthew used to describe the gospel proclamation of Jesus the Christ. The continuity between these two men is unmistakable. John is arrested in Matthew 4.12, and as Jesus arrives in Capernaum, Matthew says in verse 17, “From that time Jesus began to preach and say, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’” Matthew wants us to connect these two men together not by relation per se but by message. John’s message continued in the preaching of Jesus. Then, just a few verses later (Matthew 4.23), another summary statement appears, “Jesus was going throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom….” Therefore, whatever is concluded regarding John’s usage of the Day of the Lord material in his gospel proclamation should be likewise applied to Jesus. Thinking along these lines yields a remarkable consistency between the prophets of old, John, and Jesus. However, did Jesus change the message during his ministry? In fact, he did not (Matthew 9.23; 24.14). He sent out his disciples bequeathing to them his apocalyptic kingdom message, “And as you go, preach, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand’” (Matthew 10.7). Mark insightfully sums up the message preached by the twelve as, “they went out and preached that men should repent” (Mark 6.6).

Peter the Apostle firms up our suspicion that Jesus commissioned the disciples to warn of the coming judgment when he said to Cornelius, “And he [Jesus] ordered us to preach to the people, and solemnly to testify that this is the one who has been appointed by God as judge of the living and the dead” (Acts 10.42). Peter faithfully carried out the ministry of Jesus by challenging men to repent in light of the coming Day of the Lord in order that the righteous may be able to partake in the period of “restoration of all things about which God spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets from ancient time” (Acts 3.21).

Even so, it is often alleged (at least since Luther) that Paul the Apostle preached a different gospel than what Jesus preached—the gospel of grace. However, this claim is erroneous since Luke equates Paul’s preaching of the kingdom with the gospel of grace (Acts 20.24-25). Nevertheless, we have even more evidence than this to conclude that Paul preached as gospel the imminent destruction of the wicked on the last Day.

“Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent, because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead” (Acts 17.30-31).

It is my contention that this is the expanded version of “repent, the kingdom of God is at hand.” Paul calls for repentance but substitutes, “he has fixed a day in which he will judge the world…” for kingdom. This manifests a striking resemblance to the prophetic warnings discussed earlier. More evidence for our proposition can be located in the letter Paul wrote to the Romans. He speaks of the unrepentant “storing up wrath…in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God” (Romans 2.5). Those who have repented instead look forward to immortality, glory,[17] and honor (Romans 2.7, 10). Remarkably, this section of his letter concludes equating the coming judgment with his gospel, when Paul says, “On the day when, according to my gospel, God will judge the secrets of men through Messiah Jesus” (Romans 2.16).

We conclude that the primary information that the unrepentant were confronted with was their own impending ruin because of sin. If this is true, then preaching the gospel is a very dangerous endeavor, because most people will be offended immediately by the notion that their Day of demise draws near. In fact, it is likely that one would suffer persecution if they so preached in modern times.

The principle of godly sorrow leading to repentance in actual experience

The preaching of the gospel inspires repentance. However, why would one want to repent? In light of this question, consider the words of Paul to the Corinthians:

I now rejoice, not that you were made sorrowful, but that you were made sorrowful to the point of repentance; for you were made sorrowful according to the will of God, so that you might not suffer loss in anything through us. For the sorrow that is according to the will of God produces a repentance without regret, leading to salvation, but the sorrow of the world produces death. (2 Corinthians 7.9-10)

There is a simple chain of action put forth: godly sorrow leads to repentance leads to salvation. As I meditated on this principle, I remembered back to when I first repented. It was a very uncomfortable experience (i.e. I had godly sorrow). In fact, it was painful to come to the gut wrenching realization that my life was a not a fragrant aroma but a repugnant odor in the nostrils of God. When I changed, it was because I came to understand that I was wrong and that if I did not change, I would be miserable.[18] Yet, if I never experienced “godly sorrow,” I would never have repented. Before this time, I had believed that Jesus had died for my sins and rose from the dead. I also had confessed that Jesus was Lord. However, I still lived the same way; my Christianity did not seriously affect my lifestyle. However, once I had godly sorrow and cried out, “God be merciful to me a sinner,” things began to change. Everything was different because I had made a commitment to do what was pleasing in the eyes of God (i.e. I had repented).

Perhaps the difference between godly sorrow and worldly sorrow is that when one feels bad for what he has done in the sight of God, he is promised forgiveness (on the basis of the cross of Christ in order to enjoy the restored earth and ruling with Jesus); whereas the worldly sorrow ends in despair.

A prime example of this is found in the sermons Peter preached in the early chapters of Acts. In both of them (the day of Pentecost and the day the lame man was healed), the climax of his preaching was to convict his hearers of the sin they had committed in crucifying Christ (not literally, but perhaps they were in the crowd shouting “crucify him”). The people came to realize that they had done wrong and cried out “brethren, what shall we do?” Peter’s immediate response was to repent. This is a fine example of the “godly sorrow leading to repentance” principle at work.

Putting it all together

The gospel is not just that the Messiah is coming to establish the kingdom on earth. The gospel is not just that this utopia is nearly here. The gospel is not just that with the kingdom comes judgment for the wicked. Nor is it just that Jesus died for our sins to enter the kingdom. It is all of this plus that repentance is necessary. This is all included in the biblical gospel. One must understand the sickness before he desires the cure. But once a chronically ill man (sin is a chronic disease) finds the cure, unspeakable gratitude and joy result. So it is with the repentant sinner who is forgiven, who swings from the dominion of Satan to Christ, who no longer fears judgment because of the love he has experienced at the mercy of a gracious God and an obedient Son. Knowing and serving this perfect God and receiving his outrageous love (through repentance and holy living) put us in a whole new category of mind as John so aptly described:

We have come to know and have believed the love which God has for us. God is love, and the one who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. By this, love is perfected with us, so that we may have confidence in the day of judgment; because as He is, so also are we in this world. There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves punishment, and the one who fears is not perfected in love. (1 John 4.16-18)

But even once we have understood the gospel as Jesus preached it, another major problem immediately presents itself. How does one cross the chasm between the thought world present at the time of Jesus and that of modernity? Jesus could declare “the kingdom of God is near,” and everyone would understand that he meant both that judgment was near for the wicked and national and individual rewards (inheriting the land etc.) were near for the righteous. However, today, we have so much more work to do. We cannot speak about the kingdom because no one knows what it is, other than that it is “within you” (apparently this is the only text modern Christians connect with the kingdom concept). Furthermore, even defining the kingdom is not sufficient; we must take a couple of steps back. We have to prove that there is a God, that he is one, that the Bible is true, and that there are moral absolutes, all before our preaching can be understood. Nevertheless, that will have to be the subject of another paper. For now, I hope we can be satisfied to know something more about the kingdom (both the judgment and restoration) and how this precious message motivates repentance and prepares the heart to receive forgiveness through the Cross. May we echo the sentiment of the Qumran community as we proclaim the gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ:

“[Rise up, O Hero!

Lead off Thy captives, O Glorious One!

Gather up] Thy spoils, O Author of mighty deeds!

Lay Thy hand on the neck of Thine enemies

and Thy feet [on the pile of the slain!

Smite the nations, Thine adversaries],

and devour flesh with Thy sword!

Fill Thy land with glory

and Thine inheritance with blessing!

[Let there be a multitude of cattle in Thy fields,

and in] Thy palaces

[silver and gold and precious stones]!

O Zion, rejoice greatly!

Rejoice all you cities of Judah!

[Keep your gates ever open

that the] hosts of the nations [may be brought in]!

Their kings shall serve you

and all your oppressors shall bow down before you;

[they shall lick the dust of your feet.

Shout for joy, O daughters of] my people!

Deck yourselves with glorious jewels

[and rule over the kingdom of the nations!

Sovereignty shall be to the Lord]

and everlasting dominion to Israel.” (1QM XIX, 2-8)

[1] Kingdom of God = Kingdom of Heaven (cp. Matthew 19.23 & 24).

[2] The closest one can find to “the kingdom of God” is in Daniel 2.44 where it says, “in the days of those kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom which will never be destroyed…”

[3] Inheriting the land has been extended to the Gentiles because of what Jesus has done in breaking down the barrier between us (the law) and thereby making the Gentiles fellow heirs of the promises (Matthew 5.5; Romans 11.17-25; Galatians 3.29; Eph 2.11-20; 1 Peter 2.11).

[4] If you are not familiar with these five elements and would like to study more on them, please visit us on the web: www.lhim.org/topics/kg.php

[5] Revelation 11.15-17 indicates that at the seventh trumpet when the kingdom of the world becomes the kingdom of God and his Christ, God will begin to reign.

[6] Yet, it is only freedom from Satan’s effect on us, and not until the end will true freedom be granted when Satan is imprisoned and then destroyed

[7] Jesus died for those who hated him while asking God to forgive them rather than punish them. Is this not the model we are to emulate in regards to our enemies? Does not the Cross teach us what is meant by the phrase “love your enemies” (Matthew 5.44).

[8] Jesus: The Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium, Bart Ehrman, page 3, 1999 Oxford University Press, Inc.

[9] Although we have not covered this element, it is clear that many of the prophets began with a laundry list of sins that the people were committing, followed by a denunciation of this behavior (cf. Isaiah 1).

[10] Shailer Mathews, “Day of the Lord,” Hastings Dictionary of the Bible, ed James Hastings, Hendrickson Publishers, 2001, pg. 179.

[11] Jesus: The Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium, Bart Ehrman, page 138, 1999 Oxford University Press, Inc.

[12] The role of the Messiah on the Day of the Lord is found in some places of the Hebrew Bible (Isaiah 11; Psalm 110; Daniel 7; et al.) although it was not nearly as emphasized as it came to be with John the Baptist, Jesus, and the apostles.

[13] “day of the Lord” page 151, Dictinoary of Judaism in the Biblical Period ed. Jacob Neusner & William Scott Green. Hendrickson Publishers, 2002.

[14] Daniel 7.13-14; Isaiah 11

[15] “[May you smite the peoples] with the might of your hand and ravage the earth with your scepter; may you bring death to the ungodly with the breath of your lips…For God has established you as the scepter. The rulers [and all the kings of the] nations shall serve you. He shall strengthen you with his holy Name and you shall be as a [lion; and you shall not lie down until you have devoured the] prey which naught shall deliver.” 1QSb V, 25

[16] “Day of the Lord” page 152, Dictinoary of Judaism in the Biblical Period ed. Jacob Neusner & William Scott Green. Hendrickson Publishers, 2002.

[17] Glory is used in Scripture to refer to the glorious coming kingdom (Daniel 7.13-14; Matthew 24.30).

[18] However, although I didn’t think I would perish, due to my belief that I could not lose my salvation after I had accepted Jesus as my savior

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How the Kingdom Was Lost 2: Too Hedonistic

Introduction

According to the Hebrew prophets, one day the God of heaven will set up a kingdom on this world, restoring it back to its original glory. Instead of shucking off the body like a husk so the soul can ascend, the biblical teaching about humanity’s destiny is rather fleshy. God designed humans to live on earth in the beginning, and he will resurrect his people on the last day, healing them of all their ailments and imparting to them immortality. The picture is a beautiful one, with people living in peace, confidently planting and harvesting without fear of intruders. Rather than rampant economic injustice, one will wear out the work of his own hands. This grand age is to begin with a banquet at which the resurrected saints will enjoy fine wine and rich meat, celebrating the victory of God. Although this terrestrial hope coursed through the veins of Jews for centuries, it had reached a fever pitch by the time of Jesus of Nazareth. In fact, he based his entire ministry on the proclamation and enactment of the coming of God’s kingdom.

However, as Christianity spread outside the borders of Judea and the Galilee, it encountered people for whom this kingdom idea was quite foreign. As more and more Gentiles came into the faith, suspicions about living in a resurrected body forever manifested in cities like Corinth and Colossae. By the second century, many converts brought their ascetic idealism into the faith and the result was a general disparaging of the body and especially bodily pleasures. Over time, as high powered intellectuals like Origen and Augustine worked to synthesize biblical theology with the philosophy of their own time, the kingdom and resurrection were reimagined along more “spiritual” lines of thought. However, many Christians like Papias, Justin, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Victorinus, and Lactantius—just to name a few—retained their faith in a this-worldly hope. The battle waged for centuries until finally the old millenarian hope fell by the way side and a heavenly disembodied eschaton took its place.

In what follows I intend to trace this development to some degree. I begin by establishing the biblical teaching about bodily pleasure before showing that many Christians rebuffed the kingdom gospel as hedonistic. In order to better grasp the wild world of ascetic idealism, I briefly survey philosophical thought about the body from Plato to Porphyry. This cultural back drop is important to understand why Christianity took an ascetic turn in the early Christian era. Lastly I show how the anti-pleasure bias of the age resulted in the rejection of the kingdom of God idea before making some concluding remarks about how this all relates to us today.

Garden of Pleasure

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth and put the two first humans in a garden. After surveying his creation and declaring it good repeatedly, the first fact that displeased God was that Adam was alone. “It is not good for the man to be alone” (Gen 2.18). Once the Lord formed Eve and Adam calls her “woman,” the Genesis narrative states:

“For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.” (Gen 2.25).

God’s mandates in the Garden of Eden (Eden means pleasure, by the way) were not “remain celibate,” “eat only tasteless grains,” and “submit.” Rather, God’s commands were “be fruitful” “eat freely,” and “have dominion.” God so loved his first two humans that he wanted them to reproduce and fill the new world with many more people. The earth was not an exercise in testing people for some other realm, but a home for his own crowning achievements to delight in and rule over. Although he forbade eating from one tree in the garden, the rest of them were for their enjoyment—their pleasure.

The God of Genesis is more an Epicurean than a Stoic. He does not design bodies without pleasure sensors, but instead squeezes onto the human tongue 10,000 taste buds. He does not make reproduction an onerous or bland affair, but loads human genitals with thousands of erotogenic nerve endings. In his extravagant kindness, he engineered eating and intercourse to give us pleasure and then commanded his first two humans to engage in both. It’s no wonder the first two chapters of Genesis declare creation “good” seven times over. The second chapter of the Bible concludes with two humans, in a garden of Pleasure, totally naked, who are commanded to have sex, eat fruit, and rule the world.

Not only does God’s design of the body shout to us that he engineered us to experience pleasure, but the Law he gave Israel on Sinai likewise indicates his penchant for enjoyment. Consider the holy days built into the Law of Moses: the Feast of Unleavened Bread, the Feast of Weeks, the Feast of Trumpets, the Day of Atonement, and the Feast of Tabernacles. Although the Day of Atonement was a single day of fasting and repentance, the rest of these were multi-day celebrations or festivals. The Feast of Unleavened bread followed on the heels of the Passover meal when families roasted lambs, enjoyed wine, and told stories of God’s deliverance from Egypt. The rule for the rest of the week was no working other than preparing food. The Feast of Weeks commemorated the first fruits of the harvest. According to the Mishnah the festival was “accompanied by a large celebration, in which pilgrims gather in the towns of their district and go as a group with their ripe produce to Jerusalem. There they are greeted by Levitical singing and celebration.”[1] The Law of Moses was for an agrarian society, and built into the rhythm of the farmer’s calendar times of worship that coincided with times of rejoicing. Although sometimes Christian misinterpret the Law as some terrible straightjacket strapped onto the people of God until Christ could free them from it, in reality, it was a way God provided to connect with him by taking time out from the monotony of their toil. In antiquity most people worked every day, but God’s chosen ones worked only six days a week. The seventh day they took off to rest and enjoy the fact that they were no longer slaves in Egypt when they had to labor relentlessly. The Sabbath was a day separated off from the rest of the week to take a break and connect to the Creator.

Beyond the created order and the holy days instituted in the Mosaic Law, the Scriptures contain quite a few statements endorsing pleasure. Although the Bible is sometimes stereotyped as prudish or anti-sex, it does not shy away from the topic, nor does it prohibit physical pleasures. The following texts ably illustrate this point:

Prov. 5:18-19 Let your fountain be blessed, and rejoice in the wife of your youth, a lovely deer, a graceful doe. May her breasts satisfy you at all times; may you be intoxicated always by her love.

Eccl. 9:7-9 7 Go, eat your bread with enjoyment, and drink your wine with a merry heart; for God has long ago approved what you do. 8 Let your garments always be white; do not let oil be lacking on your head. 9 Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life that are given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun.

Eccl. 3:12-13 12 I know that there is nothing better for them than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live; 13 moreover, it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil.

Sex, eating, drinking, and work are for our pleasure. Proverbs encourages young married couples to enjoy each other’s bodies. After all, finding a wife is not a curse, but a gift from God (Prov 18.22). Far from forbidding alcohol, Ecclesiastes flatly affirms the goodness of drinking alcohol and eating food. Furthermore, it shows that even work itself is good: “It is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil” (Ecc 3.13; see also 8.15). The Law of Moses, once again, bears out these facts when it legislated the rules for military participation. The first year of marriage qualified a soldier for exemption from service, so that he may “be happy with the wife whom he has married” (Deut 24.5). Furthermore, if someone had just planted a vineyard he was likewise excused from duty until he could enjoy its fruit (Deut 20.6). Wealth itself is not seen as inherently evil, but a blessing from God (Ecc 5.18-19). Even in the coming age, Isaiah speaks about a banquet involving fine wine and prime meat (Is 25.6; see also Mat 8.11; 13.29).

Perhaps the best book to look at on the subject of pleasure is the Song of Solomon. This elaborate collection of poems brims with sexual imagery. It does not disparage but extols sexual union and all the attendant buildup leading up to it. The book opens up unapologetically with the words, “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth! For your love is better than wine” (Song 1.2). For the author wine is an obvious good, but the kisses of his lover are better still. By the time we reach the fourth verse we read, “Draw me after you, let us make haste. The king has brought me into his chambers” (Song 1.4).

In one riveting scene, the woman awakes in the middle of the night with an intense desire to find her lover. She gets out of bed and begins searching through the city streets and squares. She encounters the night watchmen and inquires where he might be, but they are no help.

“Scarcely had I left them when I found him whom my soul loves; I held on to him and would not let him go until I had brought him to my mother’s house, and into the room of her who conceived me” (Song 3.4).

Later on we encounter romantic poetic descriptions of Solomon’s lover.

Song 7.7-12

You are stately as a palm tree,

and your breasts are like its clusters.

I say I will climb the palm tree

and lay hold of its branches.

Oh, may your breasts be like clusters of the vine,

and the scent of your breath like apples,

and your kisses like the best wine

that goes down smoothly,

gliding over lips and teeth.

I am my beloved’s,

and his desire is for me.

Come, my beloved, let us go forth into the fields,

and lodge in the villages;

let us go out early to the vineyards,

and see whether the vines have budded,

whether the grape blossoms have opened

and the pomegranates are in bloom.

There I will give you my love.

Such words as these would never be allowed in a Bible that was at its core against pleasure. Throughout the Bible marriage is the norm. Sure eunuchs and prophets like John the Babptist remained celibate, but these are exceptions not the rule. The Bible celebrates weddings right from creation onwards. When Jesus went to a wedding they ran out of wine. Rather than scolding them for their merriment, Jesus turned 120 gallons of water into wine—not just any wine—quality wine (John 2.1-11). Even so, the Bible does place clear boundaries on bodily pleasures. Sex is limited to the marriage bed; eating is regulated by bodily needs; alcohol is consumed in moderation. Take any of these outside of their boundaries and we fall into adultery, gluttony, and drunkenness. Thus, unlike bacchic hedonism or the lechery of Mardi Gras, God reigns in the pleasures his people should indulge in to safeguard from ruin. Many Scriptures[2] convey the importance of restraining the flesh from its lustful drive, but too often these New Testament texts are taken to the extreme of asceticism. When members of the church at Colossae fell into asceticism, Paul corrected them with the following words:

Col. 2:18-23 18 Do not let anyone disqualify you, insisting on self-abasement and worship of angels, dwelling on visions, puffed up without cause by a human way of thinking, 19 and not holding fast to the head, from whom the whole body, nourished and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows with a growth that is from God. 20 If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the universe, why do you live as if you still belonged to the world? Why do you submit to regulations, 21 “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch”? 22 All these regulations refer to things that perish with use; they are simply human commands and teachings. 23 These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-imposed piety, humility, and severe treatment of the body, but they are of no value in checking self-indulgence.

Furthermore, when some Christians in Corinth likewise began advocating celibacy, even within marriage, the apostle addressed them as follows:

1 Cor. 7:1-5 Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: “It is well for a man not to touch a woman.” 2 But because of cases of sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. 3 The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. 4 For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. 5 Do not deprive one another except perhaps by agreement for a set time, to devote yourselves to prayer, and then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.

Paul takes for granted that people are sexual beings who will fall into illicit behaviors if they cannot enjoy sex within marriage.

Now that we have seen some of the biblical evidence for this important subject we turn now to see how some Christians in the first few centuries of Christianity criticized other Christ-followers for holding to a kingdom hope. Interestingly, these verbal assaults found their strength in the claim that kingdom believers were really hedonists in disguise whose wanton fleshly passions determined their eschatology.

Millenarianism Considered Hedonistic

Anti-millenarian writers often attacked their opponents on the charge of hedonism. One of the earliest apologists for a celestial eschatology was the early second century writer Gaius. According to Eusebius, Gaius accused Cerinthus of writing the biblical book of Revelation in order to promote his own crass theology.[3] Gaius was appalled at Cerinthus’ belief “that after the resurrection the kingdom of Christ will be on earth and that again the flesh dwelling in Jerusalem will be subject to desires and pleasures” (H.E. 3.28). Note his subtle polemic interlaced with his description of Cerinthus. He chooses “flesh” rather than “body,” and he devalues it by noting how “it will be subject to desires and pleasures.” He goes on to call Cerinthus “an enemy of the Scriptures” for his deceptive belief that “the period of the marriage feast will be a thousand years.” Although Cerinthus remains somewhat of an enigma for patristic scholars, my interest here is not what he believed, but rather how Gaius combatted his apparent millenarianism. For Gaius, the jugular vein of Cerinthus’ eschatology was hedonism.

A century later, Origen likewise took great offense at the idea of experiencing bodily pleasure in the eschaton. “The Christianity of Origen’s time,” Trigg points out, “taught its followers to despise the fundamental cravings for comfort, sex, and the continuation of life itself that tie us to the world.”[4] Origen, himself an ascetic, had no tolerance for pleasure seekers. He wrote the following while describing the nature of eternal life:

Now some men, who reject the labour of thinking and seek after the outward and literal meaning of the law, or rather give way to their own desires and lusts, disciples of the mere letter, consider that the promises of the future are to be looked for in the form of pleasure and bodily luxury. And chiefly on this account they desire after the resurrection to have flesh of such a sort that they will never lack the power to eat and drink and to do all things that pertain to flesh and blood, not following the teaching of the apostle Paul about the resurrection of a ‘spiritual body’. Consequently they go on to say that even after the resurrection there will be engagements to marry and the procreation of children, for they picture to themselves the earthly city of Jerusalem. (Princ. 2.11.1-2).[5]

Origen’s polemic flouted millenarianism because it appeared hedonistic, a notion unworthy of God. In essence he accused those who believed in an earthly embodied eschatology of theological Epicureanism.

A generation later, Origen’s admirer, Bishop Dionysius, also opposed a physical hope. Like Gaius before him, Dionysius attacked Cerinthus on the charge of eschatological hedonism. According to Eusebius, Dionysius criticized Cerinthus for believing:

the kingdom of Christ would be on the earth, and he dreamed that it would be made up of those things which he himself desired—since he was a lover of the body and quite carnal—the full satisfaction of the belly and of things below the belly, that is, feasts and drinking bouts and marriages, and, as a means of providing these under a better name, festivals and sacrifices and slaying of victims. (H.E. 7.25)

Again, whether or not Cerinthus actually believed any of this is not germane to our present inquiry, I am interested in how Dionysius refuted Cerinthus’ millenarianism. He equated desire with loving the body and carnality. As with Gaius and Origen, Dionysius fixated on eating, drinking, and sex as seriously objectionable activities that obviously (at least to him) had no place in the Christian’s final destiny.

Jerome, the early fifth century polemicist par excellence, likewise added his voice in opposition to the millenarians. After noting some of the well-known Christians who held to this perspective including Tertullian, Victorinus, Lactantius, and Irenaeus, he went on to express some concern about how his spiritual interpretation of Revelation would be received since “a great multitude” both of Apolinnarians and Catholics held to a more literal interpretation. Jerome knew that “the anger of many will be aroused” against him and needed to make as strong of a case as possible. After mentioning Dionysius refutation, “mocking the tale of the millennium,” he ridiculed the belief himself by carefully calling attention to unpalatable millenarian elements (Commentary to Isaiah, Prologue to Book 18).[6] He concluded by writing, “I do not envy them, if they love the earth so much, that they desire earthly things in the kingdom of Christ, and if after an abundance of foods and the gluttony of their gullet and belly, they seek that which is below the belly” (ibid.). His polemic ends with his strongest point: millenarians are motivated by hedonism as symbolized by their belly and what is below the belly.

Augustine, who, as I have already mentioned had been a chiliast in his early years, noted in his City of God why their view was objectionable:

But, as they assert that those who then rise again shall enjoy the leisure of immoderate carnal banquets, furnished with an amount of meat and drink such as not only to shock the feeling of the temperate, but even to surpass the measure of credulity itself, such assertions can be believed only by the carnal. They who do believe them are called by the spiritual Chiliasts, which we may literally reproduce by the name Millenarians (City of God 20.7.1).

Once again, as we have seen repeatedly, the “spiritual” rejected the “carnal” on the basis of hedonism, typically construed of in terms of bodily pleasures like eating and drinking. In this regard, Augustine himself was heir to a long tradition that had already developed this notion considerably.

In order to understand why the millenarian notion of an embodied enjoyment of earthly pleasures so grated on these Christian authors, we must first observe how educated people in antiquity thought about the body in general and bodily pleasures in particular.

Standard Anthropology Privileged Asceticism

As with universe, so with the body, Plato played a massively influential role in setting the intellectual climate for discussions about anthropology in the imperial period. Although he does speak positively about the body in the Timaeus, he does so in a restrained manner owing to the body’s participation in this lower realm of transience. Nevertheless, he calls the stomach, “a creature which, though savage, they must necessarily keep joined to the rest and feed,” though it is “housed as far away as possible from the counseling part, and creating the least possible turmoil and din,” so that the head can “take counsel in peace” (Tim. 70e).[7] Plato’s most devastating critique of the body, however, is in his Phaedo, the account of Socrates last moments before death.[8] At a certain moment Socrates asks if a philosopher ought to care for various pleasures including eating and drinking, costly raiment, and bodily adornments. His interlocutor, Simmias, unequivocally replies in the negative. A true philosopher despises “anything more than nature needs” and should be “entirely concerned with the soul and not with the body” endeavoring as much as possible “to be quit of the body and turn to the soul” (Phaedo 64d-e, henceforth Phd.). One should not fear death, which is merely the separation of the soul from the body, but embrace it since it is the means by which one finally gains freedom (Phd. 64c). The body is imperfect and contaminated since it constantly “provides us with innumerable distractions in the pursuit of its necessary sustenance” (Phd. 66b). It constantly prevents philosophers from accomplishing much meaningful contemplation because it is always “interrupting, disturbing, distracting, and preventing us from getting a glimpse of the truth” (Phd. 66d). Furthermore, it fills with “loves and desires and fears” so that “we literally never get an opportunity to think at all about anything” (Phd. 66c). He even went so far as to blame the body for armed conflict since wars are undertaken to acquire wealth the only use for which relates to the body. Until the time of death we should “instead of allowing ourselves to become infected with its nature, purify ourselves…by keeping ourselves uncontaminated by the follies of the body” (Phd. 67a). Thus, the true seeker of wisdom should undergo a “purification” by which one isolates the soul, endeavoring to be “freed from the chains of our body” in anticipation of death (Phd. 67c).

Philo likewise disparaged the body, considering it a major impediment to clear thinking. According to him, the human mind “is entangled among and embarrassed by so great a multitude of the external senses” (Laws 4.188).[9] These distractors do not aid contemplation but instead “seduce and deceive it by false opinions.” He called the body a tomb for the soul and compared the stomach to swine (Laws 1.148). In his book, On the Contemplative Life, Philo describes a community of ascetics called the Therapeutae who live simply, spend all day in the training (ἄσκησις) of philosophy, and allegorize Scripture. By observing how Philo portrayed this idealized community we gain insight into his view of the body and bodily pleasure. These ascetic champions remain in isolation for six days of the week and come together for a modest gathering only on the Sabbath. “None of them would touch food or drink before sunset” since such matters belong to the body and are not worthy of daylight (On the Contemplative Life 4.34).[10] Some of them become so transfixed in contemplation that they transcend their corporeal limitations, going up to three days forgetting to eat. When they do eat they consume “only plain bread, with salt as seasoning” and “their drink is spring water” (ibid., 4.37). At their banquets, “wine is not brought in …but only the clearest water” along with “loaves of wheaten bread, seasoned with salt” since “wine is a drug of madness, and costly meat inflames the most insatiable of wild beasts, desire” (ibid., 9.73-74). Philo’s influence on Christianity is well-known, but what is less known is that Eusebius was so impressed by Philo’s Thereapeutae that he wrote a lengthy apology, defending that they were early Christians (H.E. 2.17). His proof was grounded in the fact that they were ascetics, which for Eusebius was incontrovertible evidence that they followed “the customs handed down from the beginning by the apostles” (H.E. 2.17.24).

In the first century, the Cynic Pseudo-Crates advised his disciples, “Practice [ασκέω] needing little, for this is nearest to God…”[11] Pseudo-Diogenes in an epistle urged a follower, “But you, continue in your training [ἄσκησις], just as you began it, and be eager to oppose in equal measure pleasure and toil…”[12] Odysseus, in contrast to Diogenes, “succumbed to sleep as well as food.”[13] Writing in the latter half of the first century, Musonius Rufus (as reported by Lucius) advised training (ἄσκησις) the body and soul to “adapt to cold, heat, thirst, hunger, plain food, a hard bed, abstinence from pleasure, and endurance of strenuous labor.”[14] In so doing the body is hardened and the soul is trained “by abstinence from pleasure toward self-control.”[15]

Second century sensibilities were little different in this regard. For example, Celsus, in his True Doctrine, railed on the Christians, deriding their belief that some “will arise from the earth clothed with the self-same flesh” as a hope “which might be cherished by worms.” Celsus was befuddled by the notion that “a human soul…would still long for a body that had been subject to corruption.” “Dead bodies” he wrote, are “more worthless than dung.” The flesh “is full of those things which it is not even honourable to mention” and so to assert that God would re-embody departed souls is beyond foolish since it blasphemes God by applying an action to him that is “contrary to all reason” and thus “contrary to himself” (Against Celsus 5.14).[16] In addition the Gnostics denigrated the body. According to Layton, they called the body a bond, bondage, a fetter, and a prison of the soul, which it merely wore as a garment. Layton writes, “The realm of matter, to which the body belongs and to which it will return, is ‘shadow,’ a ‘cave,’ a realm of ‘sleep.’”[17]

In the third century, Plotinus, himself not a thoroughgoing ascetic, retained a dubious attitude toward the body. According to his biographer, Porphyry, he was ashamed to be in the flesh and refused to speak about his ancestors, his homeland, or even sit for a painter or sculptor (Life of Plotinus 1). For Plotinus, the soul was “essentially a stranger” to the body that needed to be purified by being alone without looking to external realities. Instead it should turn away from entertaining alien thoughts “towards the exact contrary of earthly things” (En. 3.6.5). The soul is by nature “bound to the flesh by the chains of sensuality and of multiplicity” and must subdue the body (ibid.). In fact, “The understanding of beauty is not given except to a nature scorning the delight of the body” (En. 2.9.15). For Plotinus, the emotion of anger was tied to the body not the soul and resulted from an unbalanced physiology that produced too much bile and blood (En. 4.4.28). Desire causes the person “whether it resists or follows and procures” to be “necessarily thrown out of equilibrium” (En. 4.4.17). This same “disturbance” is likewise caused by “the needs of the body.” The task of reasoning and intellect “is not accomplished by means of the body which in fact is detrimental to any thinking on which it is allowed to intrude” (En. 4.2.19). The virtuous soul should never allow “the passions of the body to affect it” (En. 1.2.3).

Plotinus’ student, Porphyry of Tyre, who lived into the early fourth century, also lauded the ascetic ideal. His desire, according to Anitra Kolenkow, “is to endure events of the day, dissolve the perturbations of the soul, and realize fidelity and constancy of friendship..living with frugality—no wine, little food, small, hard bed, little sleep…to allow the ascent of the soul.”[18] In commenting on those who make a fuss about what is proper to eat, Porphyry, the vegetarian, retorts, “if it were possible, we should abstain from all food,” but since it is not we should content ourselves, “granting to nature what is necessary, and this of a light quality.” Through strict moderation, eating “more slender food” one will be able to “reject whatever exceeds this, as only contributing to pleasure” (On Abstinence from Animal Food 1.38).[19] Referencing Plato, Porphyry called sense-perception “a nail by which the soul is fastened to bodies, through the agglutination of the passions, and the enjoyment of corporeal delight” (ibid.). In contrast the soul is “pure energy” impeded whose embodiment he called “a thing of a dire nature” (ibid.).

Of course, examples of a general trend towards asceticism could easily be multiplied ad nauseum by looking at the Neo-Pythagoreans, the Stoa, and many other eclectic philosophers that flourished in the Roman empire. Furthermore, “In Greek and Latin Christianity,” Vincent Wimbush points out, “long before the beginnings of communal monasticism in the early fourth century, many held renunciation of sexual relations and abstemiousness in food, drink, and sleep as ideals.”[20] In fact, one early critic of Christianity, Galen the physician, wrote,

For they include not only men but also women who refrain from cohabiting all through their lives; and they also number individuals who, in self-discipline and self-control in matters of food and drink, and in their keen pursuit of justice, have attained a pitch not inferior to that of genuine philosophers.[21]

Examples of Christian asceticism are plenteous and generally well-known. Second century documents like, The Proto-Gospel of James and The Acts of Thecla, and The Acts of John are rife with what Bart Ehrman calls, a “[r]azor-sharp…contrast between ascetic virtue and lustful vice.”[22] Furthermore the apologists like Athenagoras and Justin Martyr were quick to point out how many Christian women and men committed themselves to lifelong celibacy.[23]

Another important example is the late second century theologian, Clement of Alexandria, because he appears to be a moderate in that he fought against both hedonism and extreme asceticism.[24] Perhaps his view is best summed up with the words:

“We must aim for moderation in all things…in every thing and every place we should not live for pleasure nor for immorality; neither should we go to the other extreme. We should, instead, choose a course of life in between, well-balanced, temperate, and free from either evil: extravagance or parsimony” (Educator 3.10, henceforth Ed.)[25]

He admires “those who have adopted an austere life, and who are fond of water, the medicine of temperance, and flee as far as possible from wine, shunning it as they would the danger of fire” (Ed. 2.2). Although he approves sexual intercourse within marriage, he is careful to say, “Pleasure sought for its own sake, even within the marriage bonds, is a sin and contrary both to law and to reason” (Ed. 2.10).[26] In his more esoteric work, Stromateis, Clement says a Christian “tastes not the good things that are in the world, entertaining a noble contempt for all things here” (Stromateis 7.12).[27] He despises all money and dominion and “hates the inordinate affections of the flesh, which possess the powerful spell of pleasure.” One should hold a “noble contempt” for “all that belongs to the creation and nutriment of the flesh” (ibid.)[28]. In short, his view is summarized nicely in the statement, “It is absolutely impossible at the same time to be a man of understanding and not to be ashamed to gratify the body” (Stromateis 3.43).

It is hard to disagree with James Goehring when he says, “The ascetic ideal, to varying degrees, was part of most early Christian theology.”[29] The third and fourth centuries boast many ascetics like Tertullian, Origen, Eusebius, Athanasius, and Jerome just to name a few, not to mention the explosion of desert fathers and mothers like Anthony. My goal here is not to survey the entire patristic period on their view of the body and asceticism, but merely to demonstrate that the body was suspect owing to its susceptibility to desire and therefore was to be controlled and subdued so as to avoid hedonism at all costs. This sentiment was common in the Greco-Roman world and thus was the default mind-set for educated Christians and non-Christians alike. This created a general sense among Christians in the Roman Empire that pleasure should be shunned in favor of asceticism, even if most did not pursue strict asceticism.

Asceticism Resulted in Rejecting the Kingdom

Although Christians tended to have a higher view of the body than their elite pagan contemporaries (owing to their belief in the resurrection), they remained suspicious of bodily pleasure, especially eating, drinking, and sexual relations (even within a monogamous marriage). This all relates to eschatology because the end one hopes for is usually tied to one’s ideals in the present. So Christians like Origen, who limited his sleep, refused to use a bed, endured extreme poverty, walked without shoes, etc., and Jerome who thought the only benefit of marriage was the production of more virgins,[30] found the millenarian hope, which featured a messianic banquet replete with choice pieces of meat and refined wine, singularly unpalatable. No, the ideal instead, was a radically reconfigured resurrection body, completely impervious to fleshly and carnal desires.

Christians took a variety of strategies to deal with what Georges Florovsky called “a flagrant conflict in anthropology between the Christian message and the Greek wisdom.”[31] Although some Christians adamantly insisted on the resurrection of the flesh along the lines of millenarianism others, others like Origen “decarnated” the resurrected body. Origen’s vision of an “exceedingly refined and pure and splendid body” is, Brian Daley notes, “perfectly suited to the environment of a spiritual world.”[32] According to him, the rational being, once free from the flesh grows successively, increasing in mind and intelligence, since it is “no longer hindered by its former carnal senses” but now develops its intellectual power with the end goal of “the pure and gazing ‘face to face’” (Princ. 2.11.7). Trigg notes, “Origen insisted that his teaching on the resurrection of the body upheld the church’s teaching against heretics who denied the resurrection altogether and against simple Christians whose grossly materialistic interpretation exposed the church to ridicule by propagating ideas unworthy of God.”[33] Augustine, along with many others, alleged the resurrection body would be like the angels. He consents that “the flesh will rise again” but then quickly adds that God will transform it into “a celestial and angelic body” (Serm. 264.6). For Augustine, only the wicked will be raised in the same body in “that flesh which was buried, that flesh which dies; that which is seen, which is felt, which needs to eat and drink if it is to continue; which grows ill, which suffers pain” to undergo everlasting punishment. Thus with such interpretations available for understanding the resurrected body, the millenarian anthropology was rejected as base and hedonistic, a vision of the future unworthy of God.

Conclusion

Drawing together the threads of this investigation the following story emerges. The Hebrew background, informed by the Old Testament, held a high view of the body owing to its august origin. The Jews did not disparage bodily pleasures such as eating, drinking, sex, and hard work, but accepted them as God-ordained so long as they remained with his appointed boundaries. The New Testament documents do not challenge or innovate on this basic understanding. In fact, the Gospels portray Jesus as someone who attended dinner parties often, consumed alcohol, and discouraged fasting. That his enemies called him a drunkard and a glutton is unthinkable if he was an ascetic. As Christianity spread beyond the thought-world of Judaism into the Greco-Roman matrix, new converts to Christianity in Colossae and Corinth advocated a much more ascetic attitude towards the body. Paul confronted these issues head on, advocating a balanced perspective that shunned hedonism, on the one hand, and asceticism, on the other. As more and more Gentiles became Christ-followers, the typical dubious attitude towards bodily pleasures spread. By the second and third centuries, key Christian thinkers find themselves embarrassed by the kingdom hope, especially bodily resurrection, since it militated against conventional wisdom. As a result they rejected and mutated the Christian hope of embodied humans living in paradise by imagining a new, less corporeal, resurrection body in a new, less terrestrial, ultimate reality.

Although, Christians today are generally not influenced by the ascetic impulse of the classical age, we often react so strongly against the lasciviousness and lewdness of our own time that we tend to fall back into anti-social restrictions that ultimately besmirch our witness and exclude us from evangelistic opportunities. Rather than promoting Christianity as a holistic, fulfilling, joyous, and satisfying experience, we sell it short by portraying it as a restrictive religion that evacuates fun and enjoyment from the human experience. Christians don’t dance, don’t smoke, and don’t tell jokes. We feel guilty about eating fillet mignon, going on vacation, or living in a nice house. We abstain from sex unless for procreation, alcohol unless for communion, and film unless it supports a Christian agenda. To top it all off we preach a gospel of disembodied heavenly worship, wherein we spend eternity locked in a tractor beam gaze staring at a white glow without sleep, without change, without individuality. Is it any wonder that outsiders take one look at us and run the other way?

This is not to say that biblical Christianity is licentious; we certainly do have boundaries and limitations that hem us in. God has graciously put these in place to protect us and to encourage human flourishing, not stifle it. Imagine a tomato plant in the wild. It can only grow so tall before it bends over on itself. But, if a farmer comes along and steaks it—essentially limiting its direction for growth—the plant flourishes, growing much bigger and producing much more fruit. We have rules, but they are not to suppress us, they are to help us grow.

Although the patristic age fancied the kingdom hedonistic due to their excessive ascetic idealism, our age is just the opposite. Rather than calling the beautiful idea of a world restored to its original glory hedonistic, many people would reject it on the grounds of not being enough “fun.” In a time such as this we are tasked with presenting the gospel to our own generation in a way that is maximally palatable without succumbing to the seductive temptation to reimagine it to make it into a theme park or a debauched soirée.


[1] Jacob Neusner and William Scott Green, eds., Dictionary of Judaism in the Biblical Period: 450 B.c.e. to 600 C.e. (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 1999), 573.

[2] Heb 11.25-26; 2 Th 2.12; 1 Tim 5.5-6; 2 Tim 3.3; James 5.5; 1 Corinthians 7

[3] For a fascinating reconstruction of Cerinthus’ theology, harmonizing both strands of polemic later writers aimed at him (that he was a chiliast Judaizer and that he was a gnostic) see Charles Hill, “Cerinthus, Gnostic or Chiliast? A New Solution to an Old Problem,” Journal of Early Christian Studies 8, no. 2 (Summer, 2000), 135-172.

[4] Joseph Wilson Trigg, Origen: The Bible and Philosophy in the Third-century Church (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1983), 72.

[5] In his Commentary on Matthew 17.35 Origen writes, “And even as those who because of the fact that they do not interpret the prophecies allegorically suppose (that) after the resurrection we will eat and drink bodily food and drink, since also the words of the prophetic writings embrace such as these, so also what has been written concerning marriages of both men and women, keeping to the literal and supposing (that) we will take part in intercourse then, on account of which it is not even possible to have time for prayer when being in (a state of) defilement and uncleanness partaking in sexual pleasures.”(E. Klostermann, Origenes Werke, vol. 11 in Die griechischen christlichen Schriftsteller 38.2 (Leipzig: Teubner, 1933)). Furthermore in another place he writes, “We, in our simplicity and fondness for the flesh, say that the same bones, and blood, and flesh, in a word, limbs and features, and the whole bodily structure, rise again at the last day: so that, forsooth, we shall walk with our feet, work with our hands, see with our eyes, hear with our ears, and carry about with us a belly never satisfied, and a stomach which digests our food. Consequently, believing this, we say that we must eat, drink, perform the offices of nature, marry wives, beget children. For what is the use of organs of generation, if there is to be no marriage? For what purpose are teeth, if the food is not to be masticated? What is the good of a belly and of meats, if, according to the Apostle, both it and they are to be destroyed? And the same Apostle again exclaims, ‘Flesh and blood shall not inherit the Kingdom of God, nor shall corruption inherit incorruption.” (Jerome, Against John of Jerusalem 25, trans. W. H. Fremantle, vol. 6 of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers: Second Series, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965), 436).

[6] Jerome describes his opponents as believing in “the golden and bejeweled earthly Jerusalem, the restoration of the temple, the blood of sacrifices, the idleness of the Sabbath, the injury of circumcision, nuptials, childbirth, child-rearing, the delights of feasting, and the servitude of all nations, and once again wars, armies, and triumphs, and the slaughter of the vanquished, and the death of the hundred-year-old sinner.” (Commentary to Isaiah, Prologue to Book 18, trans. by Hillel I. Newman, “Jerome’s Judaizers,” Journal of Early Christian Studies 9, no. 4 (Winter, 2001), 440.)

[7] R. G. Bury, Plato: Timaeus, Critias, Cleitophon, Menexenus, Epistles (Cambridge: Harvard College, 1929).

[8] All quotations of Plato’s Phaedo from Hugh Tredennick and Harold Tarrant Plato: The Last Days of Socrates (London: Penguin Books, 1993).

[9] See also Questions in Genesis 2.69. All quotations of Philo’s On the Special Laws from C. D. Yonge, The Works of Philo Judaeus, the Contemporary of Josephus (London: Henry G. Bohn, 1855).

[10] All quotations of Philo’s On the Contemplative Life from Vincent Wimbush, Ascetic Behavior in Greco-Roman Antiquity: A Sourcebook (Minneapolis: Fortress Press 1990).

[11] Pseudo-Crates, Cynic Epistles 11, Wimbush, 119.

[12] Pseudo-Diogenes, Cynic Epistles 11, Wimbush, 119.

[13] ibid., Cynic Epistles 19, Wimbush, 120.

[14] Musonius Rufus, On Training (προς ἄσκησιν) Discourse 4, Wimbush, 131.

[15] ibid., 132

[16] All quotations of Origen’s Against Celsus trans. Frederick Crombie, vol. 4 of The Ante-Nicene Fathers, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989).

[17] Bentley Layton, The Gnostic Scriptures (New York: Doubleday, 1987), 18.

[18] Wimbush, 388.

[19] trans. Thomas Taylor (Wiltshire, UK: Prometheus Trust, 1994), 46-7.

[20] Wimbush, 4.

[21] Galen in his lost summary of Plato’s Republic, trans. Richard Walzer, Galen on Jews and Christians (London: Oxford University Press 1949), p. 15.

[22] Bart D. Ehrman, After the New Testament: A Reader in Early Christianity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 284. See Acts of Thecla 5; 17; Acts of John 63.

[23] Athenagoras, A Plea for the Christians 33; Justin Martyr, First Apology 15

[24] This is particularly evident in his treatment in Stromateis 3

[25] All quotations of Clement’s Educator from Simon P. Wood, Clement of Alexandria, Fathers of the Church (New York: Fathers of the Church, inc., 1954)

[26] “Those who from a hatred for the flesh ungratefully long to have nothing to do with the marriage union,” Clement calls, “blockheads and atheists” for exercising “an irrational chastity like the other heathen.” (Stromateis 3.60)

[27] All quotations from Clement’s Stromateis from Henry Chadwick and J.E.L. Oulton, Alexandrian Christianity, vol. 2, The Library of Christian Classics (London: SCM Press, 1959).

[28]Clement explains that his own “ideal of continence” goes far beyond “that which is set forth by Greek philosopher” since they taught one should “fight desire and not be subservient to it” whereas his ideal “is not to experience desire at all.” Rather than merely combating the desire the Christian should “be continent even respecting desire itself.” (Stromateis 3.7.57)

[29] James Goehring in Everett Ferguson, Encyclopedia of Early Christianity: Second Edition, (New York: Garland Publishing Inc: 1997), vol 1., p. 129, entry “asceticism.”

[30] For Origen, see Eusebius, H.E. 6.3.9-12. Jerome writes, “I praise wedlock, I praise marriage, but it is because they give me virgins. I gather the rose from the thorns, the gold from the earth, the pearl from the shell” (Letter to Eustochium 22.20).

[31] Georges Florovsky, “Eschatology in the Patristic Age: An Introduction,” The Greek Orthodox Theological Review 2, no. 1 (January 1, 1956), 36.

[32] John McGuckin, The Westminster Handbook to Origen (Louisville: Westminster John Knowx Press, 2004), s.v. “Eschatology,” 95.

[33] Trigg, 114. For Origen, “The soul’s goal is the abandonment of materiality, a goal for which the Platonic dialectic prepared it by enabling it to grasp intellectually the truths of a higher level of reality.” (Trigg, 109).

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The Christian Hope: Life in the Land of the Promise Made to Abraham

by Anthony Buzzard

In one of the most solemn declarations of all time the Almighty God promised to give to Abraham an entire country. On a mountain top somewhere between Bethel and Ai, in the land of Canaan, God commanded “the Father of the faithful” (Rom. 4:16) to “look from the place where you are, northward, southward, eastward and westward: For the entire land you are looking at I will give to you and to your descendants for ever” (Gen. 13:14, 15). As an additional assurance of God’s gift to him, God then instructed Abraham to “arise, walk through the length and breadth of the land, for I will give it to you” (v. 17).

Abraham’s conception of the ultimate reward of faith was firmly linked to the earth. As he looked northward Abraham would have seen the hills of Judea marking the border with Samaria. Towards the south the view extended to Hebron where later the Patriarchs were to be buried in the only piece of the land ever owned by Abraham. To the east lay the mountains of Moab and to the west the Mediterranean sea. The divine oath guaranteed to Abraham perpetual ownership of a large portion of the earth. Later the promise was repeated and made the basis of a solemn covenant. “And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your descendants after you in their generations as an everlasting covenant…and I will give to you and your descendants after you, the land in which you now reside as a foreigner-all the land of Canaan-as an everlasting possession” (Gen. 17:7, 8).

It would not seem possible that the terms of God’s promise could be misunderstood. And yet, by a miracle of misinterpretation, “theology” has handled these innocent passages in a way which deprives Abraham of his inheritance and makes God a liar. Traditional Christian theology has almost no interest in the land promised to Abraham, as can be seen by inspecting the indexes of standard systematic theologies, Bible dictionaries and commentaries. And yet, as Gerhard von Rad says, in the first six books of the Bible “there is probably no more important idea than that expressed in terms of the land promised and later granted by Yahweh.”1 The promise is unique. “Among all the traditions of the world this is the only one that tells of a promise of land to a people.”2 Because the land is promised on oath Davies suggests that it might more properly be called “The sworn Land.”3 So compelling was the promise of land to Abraham that it became “a living power in the life of Israel.”4 “The promise to Abraham becomes a ground for ultimate hope…. There is a gospel for Israel in the Abrahamic covenant.”5 (Cp. Paul’s statement that “the [Christian] gospel was preached in advance to Abraham,” Gal. 3:8) W.D. Davies points out that large sections of the law make “the divine promise to Abraham the bedrock on which all the subsequent history rests.”6 Von Rad maintains that “the whole of the Hexateuch [Genesis to Joshua] in all its vast complexity was governed by the theme of the fulfillment of the promise to Abraham in the settlement in Canaan.”7 We might add that the Abrahamic covenant permeates the whole of Scripture.

That the patriarchs expected to inherit a portion of this planet is obvious not only from the divine promises made to them but also from their zeal to be buried in the land of Israel (Gen. 50:5). The land promise to Abraham and his offspring runs like a golden thread throughout the book of Genesis. The key words in the following passages are “land” “give,” “possess,” “heir,” “covenant.” (It is interesting to note the frequency of the word “land” in Bible indexes (concordances) and then to see how the same word is absent from the indexes of books claiming to explain the Bible.)
The Promise to Abraham

“Go to the land I will show you (Gen. 12:1). All the land which you see I will give to you and your offspring forever (Gen. 13:17). A son coming from your own body will be your heir (Gen. 15:4). I am the Lord who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldees to give you this land to take possession of it (Gen. 15:7). On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram and said, to your descendants I give this land (Gen. 15:18). I will make nations of you and kings will come from you. I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you. The whole land of Canaan where you are now an alien, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you and I will be their God (Gen. 17:6-8). Abraham will surely become a great and powerful nation, and all nations on earth will be blessed through him. For I have chosen him… (Gen. 18:18, 19). Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies (Gen. 22:17). God promised me on oath, saying, ‘to your offspring I will give this land’ (Gen. 24:7). [Abraham] is a prophet” (Gen. 20:7).
Isaac

“I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him…. My covenant I will establish with Isaac (Gen. 17:19, 21). Through Isaac your offspring will be reckoned (Gen. 21:12). To you and your descendants I will give all these lands and will confirm the oath which I swore to your father Abraham (Gen. 26:3).
Jacob

“May God give you and your descendants the blessing given to Abraham, so that you may take possession of the land where you now live as an alien, the land God gave to Abraham (Gen. 28:4). I will give you the land on which you are lying…. I will bring you back to this land (Gen. 28:13, 15). …the land I gave to Abraham and Isaac I also give to you, and I will give this land to your descendants after you” (Gen. 35:12).
The Twelve Tribes

“God will surely come to your aid and take you up out of this land to the land He promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” (Gen. 50:24).

The promise to the nation of Israel received a primary fulfillment under Joshua’s leadership (Josh. 21:45). Long after the death of the patriarchs, both the Law and the writings of the prophets of Israel express the conviction that Israel’s settlement of the land under Joshua was only an incomplete fulfillment of the covenant made with Abraham. It was clear that the patriarchs had never gained possession of the land. A further and final fulfillment was to be expected. The point is a simple one with momentous implications for New Testament Christians who become heirs to the Abrahamic covenant. Von Rad points out that

“Promises which have been fulfilled in history are not thereby exhausted of their content, but remain as promises on a different level….”8 “The tradition, however changed, continued to contain the hope of life in the land. Deuteronomy makes it clear that there is still a future to look forward to: the land has to achieve rest and peace…. The land looks forward to a future blessing.”9

Thus in the Old Testament the hope of an ultimate and permanent settlement in the land, accompanied by peace, remains in view:

“My people shall live in peaceful dwelling places, in secure homes, in undisturbed places of rest” (Isa. 32:18).

“…descendants from Jacob and Judah…will possess My mountains [i.e., the land]; My chosen people will inherit them and there will My servants live” (Isa. 65:9).

“Then all your people will be righteous and they will inherit the land forever” (Isa. 60:21).

“[Israel] will possess a double portion in their land; everlasting joy will be theirs” (Isa. 61:7).

“Thus they shall inherit the land a second time, and everlasting joy shall be upon their heads” (Isa. 61:7, LXX).

“But the man who makes Me his refuge will inherit the land and possess My holy mountain” (Isa. 57:13).

“The righteous shall never be removed: but the wicked will not inherit the land” (Prov. 10:30).

“Dwell in the land and enjoy safe pasture…. The meek will inherit the land and enjoy great peace…. The inheritance of the blameless will endure forever…. Those the Lord blesses will inherit the land…. Turn from evil and do good, then you will dwell in the land forever…. The righteous will inherit the land and dwell in it forever…. God will exalt you to inherit the land; when the wicked are cut off you will see it…. [Note carefully that the righteous should not expect to inherit the land before the wicked are cut off. There is a caution for dominion and reconstructionist theologies here!] There is a future for the man of peace” (Ps. 37:3, 11, 18, 22, 27, 29, 34, 37).

“The days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will bring my people Israel and Judah back from captivity and restore them to the land I gave their forefathers to possess” (Jer. 30:3).

The integrity of God’s word is at stake in this question of the future of the promised land. It was obvious to all that Abraham had never received the fulfillment of the covenant promise that he would possess the land. Moses was not allowed to enter the promised land and Israel was eventually expelled from her homeland. Based on the Abrahamic covenant, however, the faithful in Israel clung with passionate tenacity to the expectation that the land of Israel would indeed become the scene of ultimate salvation. That hope remained as the beacon light not only of the prophets but also of the original Christian faith as preached by Jesus and the Apostles -until it was extinguished by the intrusion of a non-territorial hope-“heaven when you die.” A non-biblical view of the future, divorced from the land and the earth, was promoted by Gentiles unsympathetic to the heritage of Israel, for whom the promise of the land to Abraham was the foundation of the nations deepest aspirations. In direct contradiction of Jesus, Gentilized Christianity has substituted “heaven at death” for the biblical promise of life in the Land. The message of Jesus’ famous beatitude, “Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the land” (Mat. 5:5) can no longer be heard above the din of endless funeral sermons announcing that the dead have gone to heaven! Gentile antipathy to the covenant made with Abraham has rendered large parts of the Old Testament meaningless to churchgoers. Worse still, it has put the New Testament under a fog of confusion, since the New relies for its basic understanding of the Christian faith on the promises of God given to Israel through Abraham. All the major doctrines of the faith are adversely affected when the Abrahamic Covenant is disregarded or misinterpreted.

The “murder of the [Old Testament biblical] text”10 by critical scholarship was later equally responsible for the suppression of the biblical hope of “life in the land” based on the promise made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, promises which according to Paul, Jesus came to “confirm” or “guarantee” (Rom. 15:7).11 Fragmenting the Old Testament text in the interests of a theory of composition, scholarship lost sight of what James Dunn calls the Pauline presupposition about the authority of Scripture, “that a single mind and purpose (God’s) inspired the several writings [the Scriptures].”12 After nearly two thousand years of uncomprehending Gentile commentary, the promise to Abraham of progeny, blessing and land must be reinstated as the coherent and unifying theme of New Testament faith in God and Christ and the essential core of the Christian Gospel of the Kingdom of God. The Gospel rests on the promise to Abraham that in Christ all the faithful will possess the land forever (Mat. 5:5, Rev. 5:10). Not only will they possess the land but that “future inhabited earth” will be under the authority of the Messiah and the saints (Heb. 2:5). This concept is what the writer to the Hebrews calls the “greatness” or “importance” of salvation which we ought not to neglect:

“How shall we escape if we disregard so great a salvation…. For God did not put the coming society on earth under the authority of angels but the Son of Man” (Heb. 2:5ff.)

The results of the inexorable process of dismantling the divine Revelation

to Abraham can be seen in the comments of the Pulpit Commentary on Gen. 13:14, 15. The problem for the commentator (who sees no relevance in the land promises for Christians) is to reconcile God’s declaration, “I will give the land to you [Abraham]” with the assertion made by Stephen some two thousand years later that God

did not give Abraham any inheritance [in the land of Palestine]- not even a square foot of land, but he promised to give it to him as a possession [kataschesis; cp. LXX Gen. 17:8, ‘everlasting possession’] and to his descendants with him.”

How is the apparent contradiction to be resolved? The Pulpit Commentary offers two solutions. Firstly a retranslation so that the promise of Gen. 13:15 reads: “To you I will give the land, that is to say, to your descendants.” In this way the failure of Abraham to receive the land personally will be explained: God promised it only to his descendants and they received it under Joshua. But this is no solution at all. Throughout God’s dealings with Abraham the promise of land to the Patriarch himself is repeatedly made. Gen. 13:17 reads: “Walk through the length and breadth of the land; to you I will give it.” Abraham would have every right to complain, if this were to mean that he personally should not expect to inherit the promised land!

The commentary offers a second way round the difficulty. It maintains that the land did in fact belong to Abraham during his lifetime. “The land was really given to Abram as a nomadic chief, in the sense that he peacefully lived for many years, grew old, and died within its borders.”13 However, this is to contradict the emphatic biblical assertions that Abraham definitely did not possess the land. Gen. 17:8 specifically reports that God said to Abraham:

“And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your descendants after you in their generations to be a God to you and your seed after you. And I will give to you and to your seed after you the land in which you are a stranger-all the land of Canaan for an everlasting possession” (Gen. 17: 7, 8).

These, then, are the biblical premises: Abraham is to possess the land forever. He lived out his life as a stranger owning none of the land (except for a small piece of property bought from the Hittites as a burial site for Sarah, Gen. 23:3-20). Abraham himself confessed to the Hittite inhabitants of Canaan: “I am an alien and a stranger among you” (Gen. 23:4). As the New Testament witnesses: “God gave Abraham no inheritance here [in Palestine], not even a foot of ground. But God promised him that he and his descendants after him would possess the land” (Acts 7:5, NIV).

How then is the covenant grant of land to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to be fulfilled? The answer to the problem throws a flood of light on the Christianity of the New Testament. There is only one way in which the Covenant can be realized-by the future resurrection of Abraham, enabling him to inherit the promised land for ever. To Abraham and his descendants the land belongs for ever by covenant-oath. Abraham died. Abraham must therefore rise from the dead to receive the “land of the promise,” which is Canaan, the land to which he ventured forth from Babylon and in which he lived as a foreigner. The promise to Abraham will be fulfilled, as Jesus said, when

“…many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the Kingdom of God” (Mat. 8:11 and Luke 13:28, 29).

The absolute necessity for resurrection in the divine plan was the point of Jesus’ important interchange with the Sadducees, who did not believe in any resurrection and thus denied the covenant hope of life in the land for the Patriarchs and all the faithful. Jesus’ response to their inadequate understanding of eschatology and consequent failure to believe in the future resurrection of the faithful to inherit the land involved a stern rebuke that they had departed from God’s revelation:

“You are in error because you do not know the Scripture or the power of God. At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven. But about the resurrection of the dead-have you not read what God said to you: ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob. He is not the God of the dead but of the living” (Mat. 22:29-32).

The logic of Jesus’ argument was simply that, since Abraham and Isaac and Jacob were then dead, they must live again through resurrection in the future so that their relationship with the living God could be restored and they could receive what the covenant had guaranteed them.
Hebrews

The Book of Hebrews expounds the drama of Abraham’s faith in the great promises of God making a future resurrection the only solution to the mystery of Abraham’s failure as yet ever to own the land.

“By faith Abraham when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance…” (Heb. 8:11).

So the story begins. Abraham’s inheritance, we observe, is to be the “place to which he was called,” i.e., the land of Canaan. This is exactly what the Genesis account describes. That very land Abraham was destined to receive “later,” but how much later we are not yet told. The writer continues: “By faith Abraham made his home in the land of the promise like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents as did Isaac and Jacob who were heirs with him of the same promise” (Heb. 11:8, 9). Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and other heroes of faith “died in faith not having received the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance and admitted that they were aliens and strangers in the land (v. 13). Note that the wrong idea is suggested by our versions when they translate “in the land” as “on the earth,” giving the impression that the Patriarchs were expecting to go to heaven! However, the point is that people who say they are aliens in the land “show that they are looking for a country of their own” (Heb. 11:13, 14), i.e., the same land renewed under the promised government of the Messiah.

The important truth about the land promise has been rescued by George Wesley Buchanan:

“This promise-rest-inheritance was inextricably tied to the land of Canaan, which is the place where the Patriarchs wandered as sojourners (11:13). It was called the land of the promise (11:9) and the heavenly country (11:16)…. This does not mean that it is not on earth any more than the sharers in the heavenly calling (3:1) who had tasted the heavenly gift (6:4) were not those who lived on earth. Indeed, it was the very land on which the patriarchs dwelt as ‘strangers and wanderers’ (11:13). [‘Heavenly’] means that it is a divine land which God himself has promised.” 14

“Heaven” will be on earth

It is important to note the evasion by popular Christianity of the implications of Heb. 11:8, 9. In order to preserve the tradition that heaven is the reward of the faithful, it is argued that the geographical land of Canaan is a type of “heaven” to be gained at death. However, this New Testament passage specifically says that Abraham actually lived in the place designated as his future inheritance. “He made his home in the promised land” (Heb. 11:9, NIV) and this was on the earth! “Heaven,” therefore, in the Bible is to be a place on this planet-our own earth renewed and restored.15 The promised land in this New Testament comment on the Old is still the geographical Canaan and it is precisely that territory which Abraham died without receiving. Resurrection in the future is the only path by which the Patriarch can achieve his goal and possess the land which he has never owned. Indeed, as Hebrews emphasizes, none of the distinguished faithful “received what had been promised”-the inheritance of the promised land (Heb. 11:13, 39). They died in faith fully expecting later to receive their promised possession of the land. This is a very far cry from the idea, which so many have accepted under the pressure of post-biblical tradition, that the Patriarchs have already gone to their reward in heaven. Such a theory invites the rebuke of Paul who complained that some had “wandered away from the truth” by saying that “the resurrection has taken place already” (II Tim. 2:18). The loss of faith in the future resurrection destroys the fabric of biblical faith.

Paul and Abraham

Paul treats the story of Abraham as the model of Christian faith with no hint that Abraham’s inheritance is different from that of every Christian believer. In fact, the very opposite is true: Abraham is “the father of all who believe” (Rom. 4:11) Abraham demonstrated Christian faith by believing in God’s plan to grant him land, progeny and blessing for ever. Abraham’s faith was demonstrated in his willingness to respond to the divine initiative; to believe God’s declaration of His plan to give Abraham and his descendants the land for ever. This is the essence of biblical faith. Justification means believing like Abraham in what God has promised to do (Rom. 4:3, 13). This entails more than the death and resurrection of Jesus. Apostolic faith requires belief in the ongoing divine plan in history, including the divinely revealed future. Grasping what God is doing in world history enables a man to attune his life to God in Christ. A Christian according to Paul is one who “follows in the footsteps of the faith of our father Abraham” (Rom. 3:12). Abraham’s faith “was characterized by (or based on) a hope which was determined solely by the promise of God…. Abraham’s faith was firm confidence in God as the one who determines the future according to what he has promised.”16 So Jesus summons us to faith, first of all, in the Gospel of the Kingdom of God (Mark 1:14, 15; cp. Acts 8:12) which is to be nothing less than the final fulfillment of the covenant made with Abraham and his (spiritual) offspring. Paul defines the promise. It was that Abraham should be “heir of the world” (Rom. 4:13). As James Dunn says:

“The idea of ‘inheritance’ was a fundamental part of Jewish understanding of their covenant relationship with God, above all, indeed almost exclusively, in connection with the land-the land of Canaan theirs by right of inheritance as promised to Abraham…. [This is] one of the most emotive themes in Jewish national self-identity…. Central to Jewish self-understanding was the conviction that Israel was the Lord’s inheritance…. Integral to the national faith was the conviction that God had given Israel the inheritance of Palestine, the promised land. It is this axiom, which Paul evokes and refers to the new Christian movement as a whole, Gentiles as well as Jews. They are the heirs of God. Israel’s special relationship with God has been extended to all in Christ. And the promise of the land has been transformed into the promise of the Kingdom…. That inheritance of the Kingdom, full citizenship under the rule of God alone, is something still awaited by believers.17

Paul links the Christian faith directly to the promise made to Abraham. As Dunn says:

“The degree to which Paul’s argument is determined by the current self-understanding of his own people is clearly indicated by his careful wording which picks up four key elements in that self-understanding: the covenant promise to Abraham and his seed, the inheritance of the land as its central element…. It had become almost a commonplace of Jewish teaching that the covenant promised that Abraham’s seed would inherit the earth…. The promise thus interpreted was fundamental to Israel’s self-consciousness as God’s covenant people: It was the reason why God had chosen them in the first place from among all the nations of the earth, the justification for holding themselves distinct from other nations, and the comforting hope that made their current national humiliation endurable….”18

Dunn goes on:

“…Paul’s case…reveals the strong continuity he saw between his faith and the fundamental promise of his people’s Scriptures…. Paul had no doubt that the Gospel he proclaimed was a continuation and fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham. But he was equally clear that the heirs of Abraham’s promise were no longer to be identified in terms of the law. For Gen. 15:6 showed with sufficient clarity that the promise was given and accepted through faith, quite apart from the law in whole or in part.”19

The point to be grasped is that Paul does not question the content of the promise. How could he without overthrowing the whole revelation given by the Bible? The territorial promise was clearly and repeatedly spelled out in the Genesis account and was his people’s most cherished national treasure: To faithful Israel, represented first by Abraham, God had given assurance that they would inherit the land. Paul introduces a revolutionary new fact- that this grand promise is open to all who believe in the Messiah as the seed of Abraham. For it was to Messiah, as Abraham’s seed, that the promises were made, as well as to Abraham himself. But Gentile Christians, if they believe the promise in Christ, may claim full share in the same promised inheritance. Paul reaches a triumphant moment in his argument when he declares that to his Gentile readers that “if you are a Christian then you count as Abraham’s descendants and are heirs [of the world, Rom. 4:13] according to the promise [made to Abraham]” (Gal. 3:29).

The promises, however, are certain only, as Paul says, to “those who are of the faith of Abraham” (Rom. 4:16), i.e., those whose faith is of the same type as his, resting on the same promises. Hence Paul speaks of the need for Christians to be “sons of Abraham” (Gal. 3:7), “seed of Abraham” (Gal. 3:29, Rom. 4:16), and to reckon Abraham as their father (Rom. 4:11), to walk in his steps (Rom. 4:12) and consider him the model of Christian faith (Gal. 3:9), because the Gospel had been preached to him in advance (Gal. 3:8). But how much do we now hear about the Christian Gospel as defined by the promises made to Abraham? The “blessing given to Abraham” (Gal. 3:14) which is now available to both Jews and Gentiles in Christ is described by Gen. 28:4. It is to “take possession of the land, where you now live as an alien, the land God gave to Abraham.” Speaking to Gentile Christians, Paul states that “the blessing given to Abraham” (exactly the phrase found in Gen. 28:4) has now come to the believers in Christ (Gal. 3:14).

It is essential that we do not add alien material to Paul’s exposition of God’s salvation plan. The promise to Abraham and to his offspring is that he and they are to be “heir of the world” (Rom. 4:13). Paul has not abandoned the account in Genesis from which he quotes explicitly (Rom. 4:3, Gal. 3:6 from Gen. 15:9). Since the promised land of Canaan would be the center of the Messianic government it was obvious that inheritance of the land implied inheritance of the world. But the promise remains geographical and territorial corresponding exactly with Jesus’ promise to the meek that they would “inherit the land/earth” (Mat. 5:5), His belief that Jerusalem would be the city of the Great King (Mat. 5:35), and that believers would administer a New World Order with Him (Mat. 19:28; Luke 22:28-30; Rev. 2:26, 3:21, 5:10, 20:1-6). In short the promise of the land, which is fundamental to the Christian Gospel, is now the promise of the Kingdom of God-the renewed “inhabited earth of he future” (Heb. 2:5), which is not be subject to angels but to the Messiah and the saints, the “Israel of God” (Gal. 6:16) who are heirs of the covenant. Such a hope corresponds exactly with the hope of the Hebrew prophets. J. Skinner20 observes that “the main point [of Jeremiah’s hope for the future] is that in some sense a restoration of the Israelite nationality was the form in which he conceived the Kingdom of God.” Paul in Romans 11:25, 26 expected a collective conversion of the nation of Israel at the Second Coming. The Church, however, in Paul’s thinking, would be leaders in the Messianic Kingdom (I Cor. 6:2, II Tim. 2:12). In this way the Abrahamic Covenant guarantees a part in the Messianic Kingdom for all who now believe the Gospel and it assures us that there will be a collective return to the Messiah on the part of a remnant of the nation of Israel (Rom. 11:25-27). This hope is seen clearly in Acts 1:6, where the Apostles (who had not had the benefit of a Calvinist training!) asked when the promised restoration of Israel might be expected. Since they were hoping to be kings in the Kingdom, and the holy spirit (v.5) was the special endowment of kings, they naturally expected an immediate advent of the Kingdom. In His mercy God has extended the period of repentance.
Worldwide Inheritance

It was common to Jewish thinking and Paul, as well as to the whole New Testament that the whole world was involved in the promise made to Abraham that he would inherit “the land of the promise.” This is seen from biblical and extra-biblical texts:

Psalm 2:6 “I have installed my King on Zion…. Ask of Me [God] and I will make the nations your [Messiah’s] inheritance and the ends of the earth your possession. You will rule then with an iron scepter; you will dash them to pieces like pottery” (See Rev. 12:5 and 2:26, 27-the latter passage includes the Christians in the same promise).

Jubilees 22:14: “May [God] strengthen you, and may you inherit all the earth.”

Jubilees 32:19: “And there will be kings from you [Jacob]. They will rule everywhere that the tracks of mankind have been trod. And I will give your seed all the land under heaven and they will rule in all nations as they have desired.”

I Enoch 5:7: “But to the elect there shall be light, joy, and peace, and they shall inherit the earth.”

4 Ezra 6:59: “If the world has indeed been created for us, why do we not possess our world as an inheritance. How long will this be so?

II Baruch 14:12, 13: “The righteous…are confident of the world which you have promised to them with an expectation full of joy.”

II Baruch 51:3: “[The righteous] will receive the world which is promised to them.”

Paul’s definition of the promise to Abraham that he “would be heir to the world” (Rom. 4:13) fits naturally into texts such as these and is implied by the covenant made with Abraham. Henry Alford comments on the connection between Paul’s view of the future and Jewish hopes:

“The Rabbis already had seen, and Paul who had been brought up in their learning, held fast to the truth,- that much more was intended in the words ‘in thee, or in they seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed,’ than the mere possession of Canaan. They distinctly trace the gift of the world to this promise. The inheritance of the world…is that ultimate lordship over the whole world which Abraham, as the father of the faithful in all peoples, and Christ, as the Seed of promise, shall possess….”21

H.A.W. Meyer notes that to be “seed of Abraham” meant that one was destined to have “dominion over the world,” based on Gen. 22:17ff: “Your descendants shall gain possession of the gates [i.e., towns] of their enemies.”22 With this promise in mind, Jesus envisages the faithful assuming authority over urban populations (Luke 19:17, 19).

The International Critical Commentary on Rom. 4:1323 speaks of the promise that Abraham’s seed [in Christ] should “enjoy worldwide dominion,” “the right to universal dominion which will belong to the Messiah and His people,” and “the promise made to Abraham and his descendants of worldwide Messianic rule.” Something of the fervor of Israel for the land may be seen in the 14th and 18th Benedictions repeated in the Synagogue since AD 70:

“Be merciful, O Lord our God, in Thy great mercy towards Israel Thy people and towards Jerusalem, and towards Zion the abiding place of Thy glory, and towards Thy temple and Thy habitation, and towards the kingdom of the house of David, thy righteous anointed one. Blessed art Thou, O lord God of David, the builder of Jerusalem Thy city.” “Bestow Thy peace upon Israel Thy people and upon Thy city and upon Thine inheritance, and bless us, all of us together. Blessed art Thou, O lord, who makest peace.”

Even where the land is not mentioned directly, the land is implied in the city and the Temple which became the quintessence of the hope for salvation.24 Exactly the same hope is reflected in the New Testament:

“The Lord God will give [Jesus] the throne of His father David, and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever; His Kingdom will never end” (Luke 1:32)

“[God] has helped His servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever, even as He said to our fathers” (Luke 1:55).

“[God] has raised up a horn [political dominion] in the house of his servant David…to show mercy to our fathers and to remember his holy covenant, the oath He swore to our father Abraham” (Luke 1:69, 72, 73).

“[Simeon] was waiting for the consolation of Israel” (Luke 2:25).

“[Anna] gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem” (Luke 2:38).

“Blessed is the coming Kingdom of our father David” (Mark 11:10).

“Joseph of Arimathea [a disciple of Jesus-i.e., a Christian, Mat. 27:57], a prominent member of the Council…, was himself waiting for the Kingdom of God” (Mark 15:43).

“We [disciples of Jesus, i.e. Christians] had hoped that [Jesus] was the one who was going to redeem Israel” (Luke 24:21).

The Apostles asked: “Is this the time that you are going to restore the Kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6.)

“It is because of my hope in what God has promised our fathers that I am on trial today. This is the promise our twelve tribes are hoping to see fulfilled as they earnestly serve God day and night” (Acts 26:6. 7).

The Bible does not for a moment abandon or replace these hopes based on the great covenant made with Abraham. The disciples closest to Jesus, who were the products of His careful tuition over several years and for six weeks after the resurrection (Acts 1:3), obviously look forward the “restoration of the Kingdom to Israel” (Acts 1:6). It had not entered their heads to abandon the territorial hopes of the prophets. Paul insists that he is on trial “because of my hope in what God has promised our fathers. This is the promise our twelve tribes are hoping to see fulfilled as they earnestly serve God day and night” (Acts 26:6). The nature of this hope is expressed in a Rabbinical saying of the third century reflecting the ancient expectation of life in the land held in common with the New Testament:

“Why did the patriarchs long for burial in the land of Israel?. Because the dead of the land of Israel will be the first to be resurrected in the days of Messiah and to enjoy the years of Messiah” (Gen. Rabbah, 96:5)

Paul’s statement in Acts 26:6, 7 (above) expressly defines the Apostolic Christian hope as the same as the hope held by the ancient synagogue — the prospect of worldwide dominion for the faithful in the Messiah’s kingdom. New Testament Christianity confirms this interest in the unfulfilled promises to the patriarchs with its expectation of a restoration of the Kingdom to Israel. Jesus promises the land to the meek (Mat. 5:5) and locates the Kingdom of the future “on the earth” or perhaps “in the land” (Rev. 5:10). It makes little difference whether we render “epi tes gys” “in the land” or “on the earth,” because the Kingdom is destined to extend to the “uttermost parts of the earth” (Ps. 2:8). The promise to Abraham is to be fulfilled in the Messiah when the latter is invited to “Ask of me [God] and I will make the nations your inheritance, the ends of the earth your possession” (Ps. 2:7, 8). All these blessings are contained in Paul’s phrase “inheritance of the world” (Rom. 4:13) which he sees as the essence of the promise made to Abraham-the promise to which Gentile believers should cling since in Christ they are equally entitled to it:

“If you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s seed and heirs according to the promise” (Gal 3:29).
“Heaven”

References in the New Testament to “heaven” are limited to contexts in which the future reward of believers is said to be preserved now as treasure with God in heaven. “Heaven” as a place removed from the earth is, however, never the destination of the believer in the Bible-neither at death nor at the resurrection. Christians must now identify with their reward, at present stored up in heaven for them, so that they may receive it when Jesus brings it to the earth at His Second Coming (Col. 1:5, I Pet. 1;4, 5). That reward was made known to the converts when the Christian Gospel of the Kingdom of God was preached to them (Mat. 1:14, 15; Luke 4:43; Acts 8:12, 19:8, 20:25, 28:23, 31). Belief in the Gospel in Apostolic times was not confined to belief in the death and resurrection of Jesus, but included the whole invitation to prepare for a place in Messiah’s worldwide dominion to be realized on earth. The situation is very different today when little or nothing is preached about inheriting the earth with Jesus. There is an urgent need for believers to heed Paul’s warning not to be “moved away from the hope held out in the Gospel” (Col. 1:23). The loss of the Kingdom in the Gospel is symptomatic of the loss the roots of Christianity in the Old Testament.
Faith in God’s World Plan

Nonsense is made of the New Testament scheme, and God’s plan in world history, when it is proposed that the Christian destiny is to be enjoyed in a location removed from the earth. This destroys at a blow the promises made to Abraham and his descendants (i.e., Christ and the faithful) that that they are to inherit the land and the world. The substitution of “heaven” at death for the reward of inheriting the earth nullifies the covenant made with Abraham. That covenant is the foundation of New Testament faith. The repeated offer of “heaven” in popular preaching renders meaningless the whole hope of the prophets (based on the Abrahamic promise) that the world is going to enjoy an unparalleled era of blessing and peace under the just rule of the Messiah and the resurrected faithful-those who believe in “the Kingdom of God and the name [i.e., the Messiahship and all that this entails] of Jesus,” and who are baptized in response to that early creed in Acts 8:12:

“When they believed Philip as he proclaimed the Gospel about the Kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were being baptized both men and women.”

This text remains a model for evangelism and calls the contemporary church back to its roots in the Covenant made with “the father of the faithful” which can be fulfilled only in Messiah Jesus. For the fulfillment of that plan we are to pray, “Thy Kingdom come,” and strive to conduct ourselves “worthy of God who is calling us into His Kingdom and glory” (I Thess. 2:12). The truth about our Christian destiny will be reinstated when we return to the biblical language about “entering the Kingdom,” “inheriting the earth” (Mat. 5:5), and ruling on earth (Rev. 5:10) and abandon our cherished hopes for “heaven.” The way will then be open for us to understand that Christianity is a call to Kingship and that a Saint is one appointed to rule on the earth in the coming Kingdom of the Messiah (Dan. 7:18, 22, 27).

“The general tenor of prophecy and the analogy of the divine dealings point unmistakably to this earth, purified and renewed, and not to the heavens in any ordinary sense of the term, as the eternal habitation of the blessed.”25

“May God give you the blessing of Abraham my father, to you and to your seed with you-the inheritance of the land in which you now reside as a foreigner, the land which God gave to Abraham” (Jacob).

“The blessing of Abraham [will come] to the Gentiles in Christ.” (Paul)26


Footnotes:

1The Problem of the Hexateuch and Other Essays, 1966, p. 79, cited in W.D. Davies, The Gospel and the Land, U of C Press, 1974, p. 15. Back to text.

2M. Buber, Israel and Palestine, London, 1952, p. 19. Back to text.

3The Gospel and the Land, p. 15. Back to text.

4Ibid., p. 18. Back to text.

5Ibid., p. 21. Back to text.

6Ibid. Back to text.

7Ibid., p. 23. Back to text.

8The Problem of the Hexateuch, pp. 92ff. Back to text.

9The Gospel and the Land, p. 36. Back to text.

10Ibid., p. 48. Back to text.

11“Jesus Christ was a minister to the Jews on behalf of God’s truth [the Gospel] to confirm the promises made to the Patriarchs, so that the Gentiles may glorify God for His mercy.” Back to text.

12Commentary on Romans, Word Books, 1988, p. 202. Back to text.

13Pulpit Commentary, Eerdmans, 1950, Vol. I, p. 200. Back to text.

14Anchor Bible, Commentary to the Hebrews, Doubleday and Co. 1972, pp. 192, 194. Back to text.

15Cp. J.A.T. Robinson’s observation that “‘heaven’ is never in fact used in the Bible for the destination of the dying…. The reading of I Cor. 15 at funerals reinforces the impression that this chapter is about the moment of death: in fact it revolves around two points, ‘the third day’ and ‘the last day'” (In the End God, Collins, 1968, pp. 104, 105). Back to text.

16Dunn, p. 219. Back to text.

17Ibid., pp. 213, 463. Back to text.

18Ibid., p. 233, emphasis added. Back to text.

19Ibid., p. 234. emphasis added. Back to text.

20Prophecy and Religion, Cambridge, 1922, p. 308. Back to text.

21Commentary on the Greek Testament, Vol. II, p. 350. Back to text.

22Commentary on John, Funk and Wagnalls, 1884, p. 277. Back to text.

23Sanday and Headlam, Epistle to the Romans, T & T Clark, 1905, pp. 109, 111. Back to text.

24Davies, p. 54. Back to text.

25Henry Alford, Commentary on the Greek Testament, Vol. 1, pp. 35, 36. Back to text.

26Gen. 28:4; Gal. 3:14.

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The Amazing Shift Away from Jesus in the Popular Gospel

by Anthony Buzzard

“Jesus came to do three days work”— Billy Graham

Protestants have inherited a Gospel from their Protestant heritage. The question is, does this Protestant Gospel do justice to the Bible’s and particularly Jesus’ definition of the Gospel? Jesus was the initial preacher of the saving Gospel: “How then can we escape if we take no notice of an offer of salvation so important that God announced it first through the Lord himself? Those who heard him confirmed it to us” (Heb. 2:3; see also Matt. 4:17, 23; Luke 4:43). I Timothy 6:3 and II John 7-9 warn that any departure from the words of Jesus is a grave mistake. Jesus’ own definition of the Gospel is therefore the foundation of biblical faith.

Commentators on the history of Christian ideas point out that Luther and Calvin arbitrarily excluded Jesus’ own preaching of the Gospel. Current evangelicalism is unknowingly dominated by a dogmatic and fundamentally confusing approach to the question “What is the Gospel?”

Creating his own dogma, Luther decided arbitrarily to define the Gospel by taking texts from John and Paul and ignoring the other accounts of Jesus’ ministry. The first casualty of this procedure was the Gospel of the Kingdom of God, the saving Gospel presented by Jesus himself as the model for all subsequent Gospel-preaching (Mark 1:14, 15, Luke 4:43, etc.).

G.F. Moore wrote (our comments in square brackets):

“Luther created by a dogmatic criterion a canon of the gospel within the canon of the books [he chose some books and ignored others, using a selective and misleading procedure]. Luther wrote: ‘Those Apostles who treat oftenest and highest of how faith alone justifies, are the best Evangelists. Therefore St. Paul’s Epistles are more a Gospel than Matthew, Mark and Luke. For these [Matthew, Mark and Luke] do not set down much more than the works and miracles of Christ [this is quite false: the gospels constantly describe the very Gospel as Jesus preached it]; but the grace which we receive through Christ no one so boldly extols as St. Paul, especially in his letter to the Romans.’ In comparison with the Gospel of John, the Epistles of Paul, and I Peter, ‘which [says Luther] are the kernel and marrow of all books,’ the Epistle of James, with its insistence that man is not justified by faith alone, but by works proving faith, is ‘a mere letter of straw, for there is nothing evangelical about it.’”

Moore comments perceptively: “It is clear that the infallibility of Scripture has here, in fact if not in admission, followed the infallibility of popes and councils; for the Scripture itself has to submit to be judged by the ultimate criterion of its accord with Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith. [Luther, in other words, replaced one dogmatic system with another, making the Scripture submit to his own process of selection.]” (Moore, History of Religions, Scribners, 1920, p. 320).

C.S. Lewis reflects exactly the same tendency. He does not seem to think that Jesus preached the Gospel! The following quotation points to a fundamental and amazing misconception of the heart of Christianity: C.S. Lewis: “The epistles are for the most part the earliest Christian documents we possess. The Gospels came later [but Jesus preached the Gospel long before the epistles were written]. They are not ‘the Gospel,’ the statement of the Christian belief…[so Christ’s words are not the statement of Christianity?]. In that sense the epistles are more primitive and more central than the Gospels — though not of course than the great events which the Gospels recount [what about the great words/teachings of Jesus which are the saving Gospel?]. God’s Act (the Incarnation, the crucifixion, and the Resurrection) [what about the preaching of the Gospel by Jesus?] comes first: the earliest theological analysis of it comes in the epistles: then when the generation which had heard the Lord was dying out, the Gospels were composed to provide the believers a record of the great Act and of some of the Lord’s sayings [Matthew, Mark and Luke in fact record the Gospel, as does John]” (Introduction to J. B. Phillips’ Letters to Young Churches, Fontana Books, pp. 9, 10).

What about Jesus’ saving gospel of the Kingdom? Luther and C.S. Lewis rather skillfully bypass the gospel according to Jesus.

In contrast, Moore, as a historian with less of a theological ax to grind, recognizes that the teaching of Jesus recorded in the gospels is absolutely essential for the new birth, i.e., for salvation:

“The idea that the entrance into the new and higher life, the immortal life, must be by a spiritual or intellectual rebirth, or rather regeneration, meets us often in the mysteries [mystery religions], and especially in the intellectual mysticisms of the age. anagennasthai (to be born again) and paliggenesia (rebirth) are familiar terms in them. In John rebirth is the sine qua non [absolute essential] of salvation. Flesh breeds flesh; spirit alone can engender spirit, and only he who is begotten by the divine spirit can enter the ‘Kingdom of God’ (John 3). In the thought of the time spirit was not only the principle of divine life but of the higher knowledge; so Paul conceives it (e.g. I Cor. 2:14). In John [recording Jesus] the two are inseparably connected, or rather they are the same thing” (Moore, History of Religions, p. 142).

Billy Graham and the Gospel

A widely-circulated tract entitled “What is the Gospel?”[1] which contains no reference to the Kingdom of God, declares that Jesus “came to do three days work, to die, be buried and raised” and that “He came not primarily to preach the Gospel . . . , but He came rather that there might be a Gospel to preach.” It is difficult to reconcile these statements with Jesus’ declaration that He was commissioned for the very purpose of proclaiming the Gospel of the Kingdom (Luke 4:43)! Again, Billy Graham says: “Jesus came to do three days work.” But Jesus said, “I came to preach the Gospel of the Kingdom”; that is the reason why I was commissioned” (Luke 4:43).

It cannot be too strongly emphasized that Christianity which is not rooted and anchored in the historical Jesus may turn out to be just another faith. If people are asked to “accept Christ” without being told about the Message of the historical Christ, how can we be sure that “Christ” is not just an abstract symbol? The real question then is, in the words of Jon Sobrino,

“whether this Spirit is the Spirit of Jesus or some vague, abstract Spirit that is nothing more than the sublimated embodiment of the natural “religious” person’s desires and yearnings. If it is the latter, then it is not only different from, but actually contrary to the Spirit of Jesus.”[2]

More from the Billy Graham Association

“…The word Gospel occurs over one hundred times in the New Testament…What then is the Gospel of the grace of God? Let us ask Paul. He would point us to I Cor. 15:1-4: ‘I declare to you the gospel which I preached to you…that Christ died for our sins, that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day’…Paul never discussed the earthly life of our Lord…The fact that the Lord Jesus died to save is one half of the Gospel! The fact that he rose from the dead…is the other half of the Gospel.”[3]

Is that true? Why is there not a single sentence about the Gospel which Jesus preached, i.e., the Gospel about the Kingdom of God? Why are we not pointed to Paul’s own definition of the Gospel of God given in the very next verse after he speaks of the “Gospel of the grace of God”?:

(Paul): “The ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus [was to] testify solemnly of the Gospel of the grace of God …to you among whom I went about proclaiming the Gospel of the Kingdom” (Acts 20:24, 25; cp. Acts 19:8; 28:23, 30, 31).

The Gospel of the grace of God is the Gospel of the Kingdom. There is no difference. God’s grace is proclaimed in the proclamation about the Kingdom of God — that great world government which Jesus has promised to establish, with His followers, on earth when He returns (see Dan. 7:13, 14, 18, 22, 27). Jesus was and is preparing for that great coming day in which he and the immortalized saints will take charge of the renewed earth.

Jesus’ Saving Gospel of the Kingdom

The Christian Gospel of salvation was proclaimed by Jesus and the Apostles. It was (and is) the Gospel about the Kingdom of God and the Name of Jesus Christ (Mark 1:14, 15; Luke 4:43; Mat. 4:23; 9:35; 24:14; Acts 8:12; 19:8; 20:25; 28:23, 31). The death and resurrection of Jesus are essential elements included in the Gospel, but they do not constitute the whole Gospel.

The saving Gospel — “the Message about the Kingdom,” “This Gospel about the Kingdom” (Matt. 24:14) which Jesus stated is the basis of salvation (see Matt. 13:19; Luke 8:12; cp. Acts 8:12) — was the center of all biblical preaching. It is the Message which Satan hates (Luke 8:12; Matt. 13:19). It is called throughout the New Testament “the word,” or “the word of the Lord.” The term “word” is positively not just another way of saying the Bible. “The word” is the core of the Bible and that core is found in the saving words of Jesus — his Gospel of the Kingdom.

It appears that we have abandoned Jesus’ Gospel of the Kingdom. To abandon Jesus’ Gospel is to abandon Him (Mark 8:35, 38; 10:39). We have claimed, by prooftexting from one passage in Paul, 1 Corinthians 15:1-3, that the Gospel is a message only about the death of Jesus for our sins and His resurrection. That this is untrue is proved by the fact that Jesus and the disciples preached the Gospel, calling it “the Gospel about the Kingdom” and “the Gospel” long before a word was said about His death for sin and His resurrection!

The “evangelical Gospel” in contemporary America leaves out Jesus’ own Gospel and distorts the Gospel of Paul, dividing the Apostle from Jesus and omitting vital information. Without the right facts, how can we successfully believe for salvation?

The tract we quoted at the beginning is right: Faith must have an object. We must believe some fact. But it must be the right facts! The question is, what facts are we going to believe? It is a question of obedience and the Lordship of Jesus. Are we willing to obey His first commandment: “Repent and believe the Gospel about the Kingdom of God” (Mark 1:14, 15)?

The Loss of the Jesus of History

The history of Christianity ought to give churchgoers cause for alarm. Because of an anti-intellectual approach to faith, many remain in ignorance of the great issues affecting their relationship with God. When theologians ponder the condition of the Church over the centuries, they often expose an extraordinary departure from the historical Jesus. David Kaylor writes:

Christian faith has not centered on the historical Jesus. The Apostles’ Creed demonstrates the truth of this statement, for it moves from “born of the Virgin Mary” to “crucified under Pontius Pilate.” The Creed’s omission suggests that the intervening years and activities of Jesus were of no real consequence to faith . . . Theologically and ethically, it is not enough to say that a death and resurrection have occurred. Who Jesus was whom the Romans executed and God raised from the dead matters not only for the historian but for the theologian and believer. The historical character of Jesus, and not merely a spiritual Christ, provides Christian faith with its reason for being and its power to bring about change in personal social life.[4]

If the Jesus claimed as Savior is not anchored in the historical figure recorded in the New Testament, who knows what kind of Jesus may be embraced? It seems to me clear that Satan could well play on the weakness of the religious spirit of man by presenting a Jesus who is only vaguely and superficially the Jesus of the Bible. The counterfeit could, however, be most subtle. Satanic strategy would work hard to separate Jesus from His own teachings (laid out in their clearest form in Matthew, Mark and Luke). “Jesus” might then be only a religious symbol offered as a spiritual panacea for the world’s and individuals’ ills. The Jewish, apocalyptic Jesus, preacher of a coming just society on earth — the Kingdom of God — might then fall into disrepute and obscurity. His reappearance in preaching would probably appear strange and unwanted even to churchgoers who have been fed a diet missing the New Testament Hebrew ingredients.

The safest policy against deception would be to reinstate the Gospel about the Kingdom at the heart of all preaching. This would ensure against the tendency to make Jesus up out of our own minds.[5] It would also safeguard believers against the extravagant assertion of a leading theologian who remarked: “What can be said about the historical Jesus belongs to the realm of the ‘Christ according to the flesh.’ That Christ, however, does not concern us. What went on within Jesus’ heart I do not know, and I do not want to know.”[6] This tendency, less blatantly expressed, plagues a number of theological schools of thought, not least the school which relegates the teaching of Jesus to a ministry to Jews only and applies His ethical instructions to the future millennium.

Confessing Jesus as Messiah, Son of God

It is with good reason that Christology, the study of the identity of Jesus, has always engaged the attention of theologians. When Jesus inquired of Peter: “Who do you say that I am?”[7] Peter’s truthful response that He was the Messiah was greeted with the highest praise. The correct answer to the question, so Jesus said, can only be supplied by divine revelation. To recognize Jesus as the Messiah is to grasp the secret of Christianity and open the way to possession of the Kingdom.[8] To acknowledge Jesus as something other than the Messiah, Son of God, is to miss the point of the Christian faith. John echoes his Master when he says: “There is no falsehood so great as the denial of the Messiahship of Jesus.”[9]

Luther and Calvin arbitrarily excluded Jesus’ Gospel, as though Jesus did not really preach the Gospel!

It is reasonable to ask why the Kingdom of God features so little in modern evangelism. The answer is to be found in a long-standing de-emphasis on the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, dating from Calvin and Luther. An unconscious offense at the Messianic Jewish Jesus caused these two Protestant leaders to express a curious preference for the Gospel of John over the other three Gospels. Luther, writing the preface to his translation of the New Testament (1522), stated: “John’s Gospel is the only Gospel which is delicately sensitive to what is the essence of the Gospel, and is to be widely preferred to the other three and placed on a higher level” (Cited by D. Fuller, Gospel and Law: Contrast or Continuum, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980, p. 160).

He was followed by Calvin in this opinion. Calvin even ventured to suggest a different order for Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, making John the ideal introduction to his three fellow reporters of the life of Jesus: “The doctrine which points out to us the power and the benefit of the coming Christ, is far more clearly exhibited by John than by the [synoptists]. The three former [synoptic Gospels] exhibit [Christ’s] body…but John exhibits his soul. On this account I am accustomed to say that this Gospel is a key to open the door for understanding the rest…In reading [the four Gospels] a different order would be advantageous, which is, that when we wish to read in Matthew and others that Christ was given to us by the Father, we should first learn from John the purpose for which he was manifested” (Foreword to Calvin’s commentary on John).

Christians should awake to the fact that their various traditional systems, claiming to be based on Scripture, have not served them well. Scripture nowhere says that John’s Gospel is to be preferred over Matthew, Mark and Luke. Nor does it teach that Jesus preached a Jewish Message up to the cross; whereupon Paul then took a different Message of grace to the Gentiles. The fact is that the Gospel as Jesus preached it is so essential for our salvation that it is repeated in no less than three complementary versions (Matthew, Mark, Luke), with John only confirming the very same teaching, often in different vocabulary. The New Scofield Bible, read by millions, says that a “strong legal and Jewish coloring is to be expected up to the cross” (p. 987). The fact is that the whole New Testament faith is Jewish in character and consistently makes strong demands for obedience.

Jesus and the Promise of the Land

We are at the crux of the problem which afflicts current versions of the faith. A false distinction and division is being created by the so-called “dispensationalist” school. The teachings of Jesus do not remain at the center of the scheme of salvation proposed by dispensationalists. John Walvoord says that the Sermon on the Mount: “treats not of salvation, but of the character and conduct of those who belong to Christ…That it is suitable to point an unbeliever to salvation in Christ is plainly not the intention of this message…The Sermon on the Mount, as a whole, is not church truth precisely…It is not intended to delineate justification by faith or the gospel of salvation.” Rather ambiguously he adds that it should not be relegated to “unimportant truth” (Matthew: Thy Kingdom Come, Moody Press, 1984, pp. 44, 45).

The parable of the sower in Matthew 13, Mark 4 and Luke 8 in fact gives us exactly the information we need to define the Gospel and how it must be accepted. Jesus made it very clear that acceptance of his own preaching of the Kingdom of God is the first step in salvation: “When anyone hears the Gospel of the Kingdom and does not understand it, the Devil comes and snatches away what was sown in his heart so that he cannot believe it and be saved” (Matt. 13:19 and Luke 8:12).

The Land/Kingdom Promise, which is the heart of Jesus’ Gospel, has been lost. The 77% of our Bible which is the Old Testament has been detached from the New Testament. We have forgotten that God preached the Gospel to Abraham (Gal. 3:8) and that the New Testament Gospel preaching by Jesus is based on the covenant made with Abraham. God promised the land to Abraham and the seed (Gal. 3:29). Jesus promised the land to Christians (Matt. 5:5; Rev. 5:10).

The “murder of the [Old Testament biblical] text” by critical scholarship (The Gospel and the Land, p. 48) has been equally responsible for the suppression of the covenant-hope of “life in the land.” Fragmenting the Hebrew Bible in the interests of a theory of composition, scholarship lost sight of what James Dunn has called the Pauline presupposition about the authority of Scripture, “that a single mind and purpose [God’s] inspired the several writings [the Bible]” (Commentary on Romans, Word Books, 1988, p. 202). After nearly two thousand years of uncomprehending Gentile opposition, the promise to Abraham of progeny, blessing, greatness, and land must be reinstated in the churches’ teaching as the coherent and unifying theme of biblical faith in God and Christ and the essential core of the Christian Gospel about the Kingdom of God. There could be no greater rallying point for fragmented Christendom. No other theme than that which ties together all of divine revelation can provide the churches with the unified Message they so desperately need.

As James Dunn says: “The idea of ‘inheritance’ was a fundamental part of Jewish understanding of their covenant relationship with God, above all, indeed almost exclusively, in connection with the land — the land of Canaan theirs by right of inheritance as promised to Abraham…[This] is one of the most emotive themes in Jewish national self-identity…Central to Jewish self-understanding was the conviction that Israel was the Lord’s inheritance…Integral to the national faith was the conviction that God had given Israel the inheritance of Palestine, the promised land. It is this axiom which Paul evokes and refers to the new Christian movement as a whole, Gentiles as well as Jews. They are heirs of God. Israel’s special relationship with God has been extended to all in Christ. And the promise of the land has been transformed into the promise of the Kingdom…That inheritance of the Kingdom, full citizenship under the rule of God alone, is something still awaited by believers” (Commentary on Romans, pp. 213, 463, emphasis added).

Again we must insist on the direct link between early Christianity and the covenant with Abraham. As Dunn says: “The degree to which Paul’s argument is determined by the current self-understanding of his own people is clearly indicated by his careful wording which picks up four key elements in that self-understanding: the covenant promise to Abraham and his seed, the inheritance of the land as its central element…It had become almost a commonplace of Jewish teaching that the covenant promised that Abraham’s seed would inherit the earth [cp. Matt. 5:5; Rev. 5:10]…The promise thus interpreted was fundamental to Israel’s self-consciousness as God’s covenant people: It was the reason why God had chosen them in the first place from among all the nations of the earth, the justification for holding themselves distinct from other nations, and the comforting hope that made their current national humiliation endurable…

“Paul’s case reveals the strong continuity he saw between his faith and the fundamental promise of his people’s Scriptures…Paul had no doubt that the Gospel he proclaimed was a continuation and fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham [cp. Gal. 3:8]. But he was equally clear that the heirs of Abraham’s promise were no longer to be identified in terms of the law. For Genesis 15:6 [‘Abraham believed God and its was reckoned to him as righteousness’] showed with sufficient clarity that the promise was given and accepted through faith, quite apart from the law in whole or in part” (Commentary on Romans, pp. 213, 463, emphasis added).

“The first task of exegesis [explaining the Bible] is to penetrate as far as possible inside the historical context(s) of the author and of those for whom he wrote. So much of this involves the taken-for-granteds of both author and addressees. Where a modern reader is unaware of (or unsympathetic to) these shared assumptions and concerns it will be impossible to hear the text as the author intended it to be heard (and assumed it would be heard). In this case, a major part of that context is the self-understanding of Jews and Judaism in the first century and of Gentiles sympathetic to Judaism. Since most of Christian history and scholarship, regrettably, has been unsympathetic to that self-understanding, if not downright hostile to it, a proper appreciation of Paul in his interaction with that self-understanding has been virtually impossible [cp. Peter’s warning about the danger of misunderstanding Paul!]” (Commentary on Romans, pp. xiv, xv, emphasis added).

The Eclipse of the Jew Jesus

Canon H. Goudge warned of disaster in preaching and practice. The replacement of Jewish ways of thinking (the thinking of the Bible writers) by Gentile ideas has been a disaster affecting the denominations: “[After New Testament times] the great people of God’s choice [the Jews] were soon the least adequately represented in the Catholic [universal] Church. That was a disaster to the Church itself. It meant that the Church as a whole failed to understand the Old Testament and that the Greek mind and the Roman mind in turn, came to dominate its outlook: From that disaster the Church has never recovered either in doctrine or practice. If today we are again coming rightly to understand the Old Testament and thus far better than before the New Testament also, it is to our modern Hebrew scholars and in part to Jewish scholars themselves that we owe it. God meant, we believe, the Jews to be His missionaries; the first great age of evangelization was the Apostolic age, when the missionaries were almost entirely Jews; no others could have done what they did. If today another great age of evangelization is to dawn, we need the Jews again” (“The Calling of the Jews” in the volume of collected essays Judaism and Christianity (London: Shears and Co., 1939), quoted by Lev Gillet, Communion in the Messiah, London: Lutterworth Press, 1942, p. 194).

Let us finish by reminding ourselves of the startling difference between popular definitions of the Gospel and Jesus’ and Paul’s definition:

  1. S. Lewis: “The Gospel is not in the gospels.”

Billy Graham: “Jesus came to do three days work. Jesus came not primarily to preach the Gospel.”

[Our function in heaven will be] “to prepare heavenly dishes” “play with children, “tend gardens” or “polish rainbows.”[10]

Jesus: “I am duty-bound to preach the Gospel about the Kingdom of God. That is the reason God sent me” (Luke 4:43)

“They [believers] shall reign as kings upon the earth” (Rev. 5:10)

Paul: “I went around preaching the Gospel of the Kingdom” (see Acts 20:25; cp. v. 24)

“Don’t you know that the saints will manage the world… and if the world is to come under your jurisdiction…” (I Cor 6:2, Moffatt).

Note also how churches have substituted “heaven” at death for disembodied souls for the Christian goal, which is to inherit the land/earth when Jesus returns. Scholars protest the erroneous church traditions, but very few pay attention:

“Heaven in the Bible is nowhere the destination of the dying.” — Cambridge Biblical scholar, J.A.T. Robinson, In the End God, p. 108.

“No Bible text authorizes the statement that the soul is separated from the body at death.” — The celebrated Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible (Vol. 1, p. 803).

William Strawson, a tutor in systematic theology and the philosophy of religion, made a detailed study of Jesus and the Future Life and dedicated 23 pages to an examination of the word “heaven” in Matthew, Mark and Luke. He concluded:

“In few, if any, instances of the use of the word “heaven” is there any parallel with modern usage. The gospel records of our Lord’s life and teaching do not speak of going to heaven, as a modern believer so naturally does. Rather the emphasis is on that which is “heavenly” coming down to man…Our modern way of speaking of life with God as being life “in heaven” is not the way the gospels speak of the matter. Especially is there no suggestion that Jesus is offering to his disciples the certainty of “heaven” after this life.”[11]

“Heaven as the future abode of the believers is [a conception] conspicuous by its absence from St. Paul’s thought. The second coming is always from heaven alike in the earliest (I Thess. 1:10) and the latest (Phil. 3:20) of Paul’s letters…Possibly he so takes it for granted that believers will have their place in a Messianic earthly Kingdom that he does not think it necessary to mention it.”[12]

“Jesus was not thinking of a colorless and purely heavenly beyond, but pictured it to Himself as a state of things existing upon this earth — though of course a transfigured earth — and in His own land.”[13]

The Gospel of salvation — gaining immortality in the coming Kingdom of God on a renewed earth — is all about how to prepare now to inherit the land with the Messiah at his future, spectacular return to bring about peace among all nations (Isa 2:1-6).


[1]Published by The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, 1980.

[2]Christology at the Crossroads, Orbis Books, 1982, p. 384.

[3] Roy Gustafson, Billy Graham Association, emphasis added.

[4]R.D. Kaylor, Jesus the Prophet, His Vision of the Kingdom on Earth, emphasis added.

[5]Unitarian Universalist theology seems to have fallen into the very trap against which the Bible warns (II John 7-9). A tract on Unitarian Universalist views of Jesus says: “It is not possible to describe the historical Jesus, yet many descriptions of Him exist . . . Each of us may imagine the historical Jesus as we wish . . . The important aspect of personal reality with which we must come to terms is not the historical Jesus, but the idea of Jesus as it exists in our contemporary culture . . . I find it exhilarating to believe that the perfection we have poured into the figure of Jesus has come from the minds of human beings, from human imagination and ethical aspiration . . . I’m for a better and better Jesus, born from the aspiring heart of humanity” (J.G. MacKinnon).

[6]R. Bultmann, “Zur Frage der Christologie,” in Glauben und Verstehen, cited by G.R. Beasley-Murray in “The Kingdom of God and Christology in the Gospels,” in Jesus of Nazareth: Lord and Christ, ed. J.B. Green and M. Turner, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994, p. 23.

[7]Matt. 16:15.

[8]Matt. 16:19.

[9]I John 23:22 as rendered by J.W.C. Wand, The New Testament Letters, Prefaced and Paraphrased, Oxford University Press, 1946.

[10] “What Heaven is Really Like,” Hope for the Troubled Heart, Word Pub. Co., 1991

[11] p. 38.

[12] “Heaven,” Dictionary of Christ and the Apostles, Vol. I, p. 531.

[13] W. Bousset, Jesus, London: Williams and Norgate, 1906, p. 82.

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