(Article 1 of 3 in the Kingdom of God series)
We as human beings all have ideas and concepts about the Kingdom of God or the afterlife and what it will be like. Of course, each of us knows our concepts are the right ones because we believe they have been proven from scripture, and they have been repeated over and over again by those preaching from the pulpit. That can be said whether you are a Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Adventist, Jehovah’s Witness, Mormon, part of an evangelical Christian fellowship or have been a member of the Worldwide Church of God, etc.
We already know that repetition of a concept regarding the afterlife can be nothing more than the validation of what we already want to believe is true. That’s been the case throughout human history in all religions. It’s part of the carrot or reward. What people want most in this life is extrapolated into the next. The Vikings wanted their Valhalla so for eternity they could go out to do battle, get drunk on mead that night and then repeat it all over again the next day. The native American Indian wanted his happy hunting ground. A Muslim man wanted his 70 virgins. In Christianity, for a man living during the Renaissance period in poverty and toil, the idea of streets of gold and floating around on clouds doing absolutely nothing was most appealing. The paintings of that time reflected this. They also depicted angels as little fat babies with wings or oftentimes as voluptuous bare breasted females. Today, many people like to think of the afterlife as “walking into the light” and there on the other side is Grandma and Grandpa waiting for you with open arms.
It’s so easy to simply project our wants and desires of this life into the next. For those like myself, coming out of a Worldwide Church of God background, each individual could easily project their own desires into what we called “the Wonderful World Tomorrow.” For some who may have been overlooked for a promotion in this life they could look forward to ruling over 5 no, make that 10 cities in the wonderful world tomorrow. Or how about being in the church administration department right under Elijah the prophet. When I was a younger man all caught up with the busyness of life with pressures on the job, fighting traffic every day, trying to pay bills and “watching world events” sometimes I just yearned for the simple life—living under the vine and the fig tree… going to the Feast of Tabernacles down a little country lane and the birds are singing. If I was honest with myself back then, I was describing my own retirement wishes.
So how can we really know if our concepts of the Kingdom of God are the correct ones? No matter what church background you have or even if you aren’t part of one, you and I need to acknowledge the possibility that to a greater or lesser extent concerning the Kingdom of God we all have been in-doctrine-ated.
When we read the New Testament we need to ask ourselves, did Jesus and His Apostles talk about the same concepts we do or are we caught in a paradigm of our own making concerning the Kingdom of God? Can we be inadvertently ignoring scriptures to validate for ourselves a false narrative concerning the Kingdom of God? It’s sometimes easy to see this in others (various church groups), but how about in ourselves and our church group? It is time to take an honest look at this important subject, focusing only on the Apostles’ perspective of the Kingdom of God as they were led by the Holy Spirit to write in the New Testament.
When I was a member of the Worldwide Church of God I would have said that we as a group never ignore scriptures, but we read all of them. Yet, I attended the Radio/Worldwide Church of God for years and never heard the first 2 chapters of Luke read about the birth of Jesus because somehow that seemed to be orthodox Christianity’s Christmas story. Likewise, we didn’t read in chapter one the angel giving a “hail” to Mary telling her how “the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women” (Luke 1:28) or Elizabeth’s proclamation in v-42 how “Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb.” Luke 1 (including Mary’s beautiful response in v-46-55) was not read because the Catholic Church’s paradigm venerates the “blessed virgin.”
The same could be true for many passages concerning Heaven. Have many of us inadvertently ignored scriptures about Heaven because of orthodox Christianity’s false paradigm concerning Heaven or immortal souls looking down from Heaven? Since all churches have their paradigms (belief system of what seems real to you), it is easy to focus only on things we want to believe are true. John wrote that those with the anointing from God (have the indwelling Holy Spirit) are taught the truth by Him and don’t need men to teach them what they call the truth (I John 2:27). Being led by the Holy Spirit allows us to see the truth as given by the Apostles as the word of God working in us (II Thes. 2:13). The truth concerning the Kingdom of God is not dependent on what Pastor Bob repeats from the pulpit or what is written in a doctrinal position paper from a church organization or what you want to believe is true.
As a boy growing up in the Lutheran church, I heard the minister preach about “when we get to Heaven” and how my little deceased 4 year old cousin was looking down at us from Heaven. Later, when I read the epistles, I could see that the Apostles never talked that way. Paul didn’t say “when we go to Heaven” or talk about who would be at “the pearly gates when we die” or anyone after dying being able to “look down at us from Heaven.”
As a young teenager in 1962, along with my father I joined the Radio Church of God which back then included messages about the existing Kingdom of God, but during the 1960’s that message slowly began to change to where they eventually always spoke about a coming peaceful Wonderful World Tomorrow and made the gospel all about the millennium here on this earth. It was all very clinical and logical. The Gospel was about a coming Kingdom, and “a kingdom requires a king, laws, territory and subjects”. Yet years later when I read again the epistles (without the voice of any man’s interpretations in my head) I could see clearly how after the Apostles received the Holy Spirit on that first Pentecost they never again spoke about Christ restoring the kingdom to Israel. Instead, they focused on the true eternal spiritual Kingdom of God in Heaven and looked forward to the spiritual salvation of mankind based on better promises.
Had the true gospel been nothing more than an announcement of the Christ (Messiah) coming to the earth to bring world peace with God’s government and laws going forth out of Zion, then many of the same ones who yelled “crucify him, crucify him” would have agreed wholeheartedly as would most all the Jews of their day. This was their hope of the messianic prophecies which they looked forward to.
Brethren, whenever we only make the Kingdom of God, as many today do, synonymous with the coming messianic kingdom (the Millennium or the “wonderful world tomorrow”), we tend to focus all our attention on the physical future kingdom and ignore the reality of God’s eternal kingdom that exists today and always has existed. I observed changes in messages being given during the Feast of Tabernacles in the old Worldwide Church of God to where by the late 1960’s during the Feast, rather than concentrating on the fact that we are sojourning in temporary earthly tabernacles like Peter and Paul taught (II Pet. 1:13-14 & II Cor. 4:16-18, 5:1-4), the messages evolved to make the Kingdom of God all about the coming millennial kingdom. Even today for brethren keeping the Feast we too often spend our time at the Feast of Tabernacles going out to restaurants, eating fine meals and drinking fine wine because somehow, for many of our brethren, “this all pictures the Kingdom of God on earth” (the Millennium). Those words are taught from many pulpits and are read in church booklets, yet those with His Spirit know deep down inside, the Kingdom of God is not about meat and drink! It’s not about staying at a luxury resort with access to a hot tub, eating good steaks, drinking nice glasses of wine and “tomorrow we’re going to Legoland.” Nor was that even the main message given during the 1950’s when most of the brethren who kept the Feast of Tabernacles in the old Radio Church of God were camping in tents, residing in small booths or staying in cabins during the Feast.
Let’s face it, it would have been a hard sell back then to tell a family living 8 days in a tent, cooking breakfast on a Coleman stove and getting their children all dressed up in that tent for church services to say that somehow “this all pictures the kingdom of God.” For many of us keeping the Feast, the meaning of the Feast slowly started to change during the 1960’s into something very different than it’s biblical meaning. I’m not saying that we need to go back to living in tents, cabins or small motel rooms during the Feast, but we should never lose sight of the true meaning and spiritual intent of the Feast, including our rejoicing in Christ Jesus for our hope of eternal life through Him. I want to encourage the ministry in all the churches of God to get back to giving more messages during the Feast like they were once given during the Feasts in the 1950’s and early 1960’s. The Feast is about how (like Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and all the people of God throughout history) we are strangers and sojourners living in this world that is not our home. We are in the world, but not of the world. Our citizenship and hearts are elsewhere. Also, like those leafy branches of a sukkah (tabernacle) made by an Israelite in Joshua’s day, which by the end of the Feast was sagging and falling apart, we realize the temporariness of life– that all flesh is like grass and we aren’t taking anything in this life with us into the next. It’s why the Jews even today read the book of Ecclesiastes (showing how all in this life is vanity or temporary) during the Feast of Tabernacles. Our hope is in Christ and the resurrection of the dead. This includes the resurrection of the coming great harvest of those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life. We likewise need to get back to giving more messages about the existing Kingdom of God and not just the coming millennial kingdom.
When you think about it, why didn’t Paul and the other Apostles talk about the lion lying down with the lamb or swords being beaten into plowshares or every man lying under his vine & fig tree? They didn’t talk about Corinthians “preparing to rule over 5 or 10 cities in a wonderful world tomorrow”. After receiving the Holy Spirit the Apostles no longer concerned themselves with the restoration of the kingdom of Israel on this earth, but rather clearly focused on the better promises by looking to the eternal spiritual Kingdom and it’s ultimate revelation in what we now know to be the post-millennial time.
In what is called “the resurrection chapter” (I Cor. 15) Paul talks about our mortal bodies putting on immortality (v-51-54) when we are changed and our bearing the image of the heavenly. In v-23-28 he talks about Christ putting an end to all enemies, “Then comes the end when He delivers the kingdom to God the Father, when He puts an end to all rule and all authority and power, For He must reign till He has put all enemies under His feet. The last enemy that will be destroyed is death.. Now when all things are made subject to Him, the Son Himself will also be subject to Him who put all things under Him, that God may be all in all.” What kingdom is this that after death is destroyed Christ delivers to God the Father and is subject to the Father? It’s the messianic kingdom! This takes place in what we would consider a post-millennial time. Why didn’t Paul tell the churches all about Christ ruling from Jerusalem and our reigning with Him or the desert blossoming like a rose? All of those prophecies will take place, but Paul and the other Apostles (who were fully aware of those messianic prophecies) didn’t point the brethren in that direction. Why not?
In II Pet. 3:10-13 Peter wrote about this physical earth being burned up and the heaven (atmosphere) being dissolved. We are to “look for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.” Like all the prophets who came before them, the Apostles no longer sought a city made with human hands over some Jebusite or Roman rubble. They (like even those human beings living in the millennium will do) confessed that while in this human flesh they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth seeking a city coming down from Heaven whose builder and maker was God (Heb. 11:13-16). Again, they looked forward to what we would consider a post-millennial time. This is what the Apostles, after receiving God’s Holy Spirit, focused on and were “looking forward to these things” (continue reading in II Pet 3:13-18). The literal translation of v-18 reads, “But grow in grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. To Him the glory, both now and to (the) day of eternity. Amen” (the 8th day).
When Paul endured all that he did in preaching the gospel he wrote, “Therefore I endure all things for the elect’s sake, that they may also obtain the salvation which is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory” (II Tim. 2:10). The gospel was about obtaining eternal glory. Paul looked forward to the “heavenly kingdom” (II Tim. 4:18) which is that kingdom that has always existed and always will exist. It was about that “day of eternity” where true righteousness dwells (see also II Pet. 3:10-13).
In the spiritual intent of Jesus’ parables, Paul and the other Apostles knew Jesus was the Way, the Truth and the Life. He was that pearl of great price and that treasure hidden in a field. He was that mustard seed that was planted in the earth. When Paul preached the gospel, he preached Christ crucified. It was foolishness to the Greeks and a stumbling block to the Jews, but it was the power and wisdom of God (read I Cor. 1:17-24). Paul called this good news the “gospel of the grace of God” (Acts 20;24). It was about our Lord Jesus Christ, “Who gave himself for our sins, that he might deliver us from this present evil world, according to the will of God and our Father” (Gal. 1:4) and he warned the Galatians about the preaching of any other gospel than this gospel of grace (v-6-9). This gospel of the grace of God through Christ crucified fit’s in better with Jesus’ speaking of a spiritual realm saying “the Kingdom of Heaven is like unto” parables in Matt. 13 than saying “the millennium is like unto….”
It was after re-reading all of those New Testament writings of James, Peter, John and Paul that I came to realize that the false paradigm of Heaven in my Protestant upbringing had been followed by another false paradigm that evolved over time in the Radio/Worldwide Church of God concerning the Kingdom of God. In both cases I was ignoring the words of the Apostles and accepting the words of teachers or church leaders who read into scripture something that the Apostles didn’t say, thus twisting what the Apostles really said.
Even in the book of Revelation, what many consider to be the Gospel of the coming Kingdom, what we call “the millennium” is barely mentioned, “… And they lived and reigned with Christ for a thousand years” (Rev. 20:4). The book of Revelation is about the Lamb. It is about the Lord’s day (day of the Lord) which begins with the Lamb destroying earth’s kingdoms because of carnal mankind’s unrighteousness and Christ’s glorious return to earth as King of Kings. In chapter 20 He rules for 1000 years, afterwards Satan is released and wicked armies are again destroyed by God by fire (v-9). Mankind’s existence ends with a final judgment for all mankind in a Judgment by God for their acceptance or rejection of the Lamb—some to eternal life by grace through faith in Him (names written in the Lamb’s Book of Life) and eternal death to those who refused to repent and accept His grace.
The capstone and promise of Revelation (and the entire Bible) is about the eternal reign of God our Father with the Lamb coming to the earth in the New Jerusalem. Those who overcame through Christ will dwell with Him and our Father forever in that Kingdom of eternal love. God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world, that we might have eternal life. This is to be every true Christian’s focus. Yes, there will be a messianic kingdom and those in first resurrection will rule with Him for a thousand years, but that was not the primary focus of our Lord’s Revelation to the churches. For those of us who will be in the first resurrection, the millennium will be our first day of eternity and we will be with and reigning with Christ in the kingdom of God’s dear Son. While liberating the world from Satan’s control and bringing peace on earth for a thousand years is wonderful good news, it’s the eternal salvation of those in Christ Jesus that was the good news and focus of all the Apostles in their writings (including the book of Revelation). This was not the salvation of what those Jews who were laying down the palm branches when Christ rode into Jerusalem on a donkey were looking for. They wanted the Messiah to throw off the Roman shackles and restore the kingdom to Israel. The salvation the Apostles revealed to mankind was not about having world peace, rain in due season, each man living under a vine & fig tree, old men dreaming dreams and little children playing with lions and lambs. The salvation offered by Christ crucified was about eternal life– mortal putting on immortality. It was about entering that spiritual realm in the Kingdom of God that flesh and blood cannot inherit. As Christians we look forward to that day when Christ returns and establishes what Paul calls, “the kingdom of the Son of His Love” (Col. 1:13) on the earth. We are to make our “calling and election sure” to be in the kingdom of our Lord (II Pet. 1:10-11). We look forward to spending eternity with God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
This is the hope for all Christians at all times of trials whether you are a Christian living at the end of the first century facing persecution under the Roman emperor or living during the period of the Catholic Inquisition or today undergoing a painful chemotherapy. As fleshly tabernacles, we are all living in our own “last days”. It is our hope that most of mankind will be a part of that great harvest pictured by the Feast of Tabernacles when men will put off their earthly tabernacles (II Pet. 1:13-14) and enter that spiritual realm.
For us, Paul said it best in II Cor. 5:1-4 when he wrote, “For we know that if our earthly house of this tabernacle were dissolved, we have a building of God, an house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this we groan, earnestly desiring to be clothed upon with our house which is from heaven…. For we that are in this tabernacle do groan, being burdened: not for that we would be unclothed, but clothed upon, that mortality might be swallowed up of life.” People living during the millennium will be keeping the Feast of Tabernacles, confessing that while in this flesh, they are just strangers and sojourners as they seek that city coming down from Heaven who’s builder and maker is God. Just like us, they will groan that mortality might be swallowed up of life. That’s the meaning of tabernacles as expressed by the Apostles. That is good news for mankind.
In the next article “The Kingdom of Heaven Is the Kingdom of God” we will see why Matthew, in writing to Jewish Christians, usually called it the “Kingdom of Heaven.” He did it for a reason and hopefully we can clearly see how it also applies particularly to those of us coming from a Worldwide Church of God background and to those in various messianic churches.
The Kingdom of Heaven is the Kingdom of God and it exists right now today with Jesus Christ sitting at the right hand of God the Father on His throne. David wrote how God’s kingdom is an everlasting kingdom where the angels rejoice before Him. Each day we come before our Father’s throne, not His chair. The evolving movement during the 1960’s in the old WCG of making the Kingdom of God all about the coming millennium with little or no reference to the existing Kingdom of God has been detrimental to our understanding of what the gospel is all about. .The good news for mankind is that through Christ crucified, the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world, we in human form now can have access to that spiritual throne in Heaven and at Christ’s coming we will be changed to spirit, bear the image of the heavenly and enter the realm of that Kingdom of God that always has existed and always will exist. That is the Apostles’ perspective of the Kingdom of God.
Written by Lee Lisman
(Please click below to continue with the second article titled “The Kingdom of Heaven Is the Kingdom of God” in this 3-article series on the Kingdom of God)
The Kingdom of Heaven Is the Kingdom of God part 2 of 3