The Gospel of the Kingdom

If you had 10 words to share with the world, what would be the most important thing you could say? Of course, in days gone by that would be a totally hypothetical question, but in today’s world, it’s a very real question. Everyday we are now bombarded with  hundreds of little 10 word sayings from social media, each of which have the potential to take off and get millions of views, if only we get enough other people to pass them on. So, if you had to reduce the most important thing in the world to just 10 words, what would you say? I want to suggest to you that we have 10 words from Jesus in Mark 1:15 which sums up his whole message. So, what does he say?

Jesus uses different language to the way we put things. We develop our own little Christian clichés and slogans to talk about Christianity- we talk about inviting Jesus to be our “own personal Saviour”, we talk about “Asking Jesus to come into your heart”, we talk about “going to Heaven when we die”. Some of these slogans are ok, some are better than others. The problem with Jesus’ slogan and His terminology is that I’m not sure it is an incredibly catchy slogan today. It’s not all that clear what he means, it doesn’t relate instantly to our culture. But if we are really going to understand Christianity properly, it really helps to go back to what Jesus was on about- even if we then adapt his language for our society today.

What is Jesus slogan? He says, “the kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the gospel.” Let’s think about these first 5 words – “the kingdom of God is near.” The gospel according to Jesus is that the kingdom of God is arriving. This doesn’t relate hugely well to us, because we don’t live in kingdoms anymore- well, technically we do- long live the queen- but really we have prime ministers, and elections, and senates, and double dissolutions- and kingdoms don’t really enter too much into our thinking these days. But the kingdom- this is Jesus’ gospel. This is really the message of the whole Bible- starting back in Genesis 1, where God tells man to rule the earth in his image- on through to the reign of King David in the Old Testament, whose kingdom was said to be an everlasting kingdom- Jesus in the gospels, Paul in Acts- right through to Revelation- where Jesus is said to be king of kings and lord of lords. If you look through Jesus’ teaching in the gospels- kingdom is the slogan used again and again, kingdom is the core concept which everything revolves around.

Jesus comes preaching the gospel about his kingdom. Gospel of course means great news- it was the word which was used by the Romans often to signify important news about the emperor- a messenger would come to a town proclaiming the latest important news about the king- our king has been victorious in battle; a baby has been born to the king; we have a new king who has been crowned today. It was the latest big news. So when the New Testament writers talk about the gospel of Jesus Christ, there is this in the background- there is a new king who has come- He is the greatest king of all- His rule will change everything- His name is Jesus Christ. But the other background to the word gospel comes from Isaiah 40, where Mark quotes from in verses 2-3.

Isaiah 40 starts a new section of Isaiah- and it starts with good news. “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.” What’s he saying? The hard times are over. Judgement is past. Verse 3: A voice cries: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” God is coming. Look at v9. “Go on up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good news;lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good news; lift it up, fear not; say to the cities of Judah, “Behold your God!” 10 Behold, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; behold, his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. 11 He will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young.” There is it- the gospel is that God is king, and He is coming. One more verse from Isaiah. 52:6- “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness, who publishes salvation, who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”” This is the gospel. And so, when Jesus says- the kingdom of God is near- repent and believe the gospel- this is the gospel he is talking about, and He is claiming to be the one Himself who brings God’s kingdom to earth. The kingdom of God is coming- in Him, right now.

What did Jesus mean by saying- his kingdom was near? Because last time I looked,  our world is still a pretty messed up place. Let me summarise what Jesus meant by the gospel of his kingdom with 5 statements.

1. Jesus’ kingdom is a spiritual kingdom.
When people heard Jesus say- the kingdom of God is near- they probably thought of a soldier riding into Jerusalem on a warhorse. Jesus teaching of the kingdom is very different. In Mark 4- he explains how his kingdom will come- and he doesn’t use the image of a soldier, he uses the image of a farmer, planting seeds in a field- and those seeds slowly growing over time- until at the end of the world, there will be harvest time. Then there will be a public, physical kingdom- and there- evil, corruption, injustice, death itself will be done away with. But the present nature of the kingdom which Jesus was instituting was a spiritual one. Jesus was not coming to set people free from Caesar, or Herod, or any other earthly human ruler. Jesus was coming to set us free from our spiritual slavery- because that is our big problem- not our political system, or our educational system or our economy. The big problem we have is we have a heart which is enslaved- we worship idols of money, of sex, of religion, of status- idols which we don’t even know about- we are addicted to loving ourselves, we are in slavery to sin, and ultimately, we’re enslaved to Satan. Jesus comes to interrupt our world on a spiritual level, by setting individuals free- and bringing them into a new spiritual kingdom of freedom.

2. We need to enter into Jesus kingdom.
Jesus talks a lot about entering his kingdom. Usually, he talks about our entering the future kingdom- “going to Heaven when you die” if you like. Sometimes he talks about us being in his kingdom now. For example, Mt 11:11- “Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he”. Jesus talks about how we enter his kingdom- he gives several different images for how we do that. For example- Mt 18:3- “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn andbecome like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” Later Paul describes us who are Christians as being already in God’s kingdom- Col 1:13- He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, 14 in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.”

So the question we need to ask ourselves is- do I belong God’s kingdom yet? Have I entered into it? Are you a citizen of Australia?  The answer is yes or no, not I hope so. Yet many people say they hope they are a Christian. You are either in God’s kingdom or you’re not in God’s kingdom yet. And if you never become a citizen of God’s spiritual kingdom in this life, then you will never enter into God’s physical kingdom in the world to come.

3. God’s kingdom enters into us.
Not only do we enter God’s kingdom, but God’s kingdom enters into us, and demonstrates its presence in our lives and in the world around us. Luke 18:17-  “Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” We receive the kingdom of God- it comes within us- and Jesus starts to be Lord in our life. And the kingdom of God makes its presence felt around us. Mat 12:28- But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.” Luke 10:8 “Whenever you enter a town and they receive you, eat what is set before you. Heal the sick in it and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ 10 But whenever you enter a town and they do not receive you, go into its streets and say, 11 ‘Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet we wipe off against you. Nevertheless know this, that the kingdom of God has come near.’” As God’s people live in our world, people should see the kingdom of God bursting out of us in all of its life, and so, they see the kingdom of God coming near to them.

Like in the novel- The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe- Aslan has arrived to rescue Narnia from reign of White Witch. The children are on a hike through snow to meet with Aslan- and what do they see? They see the snow melting, flowers starting to bloom, birds start to chirp, and signs of spring are everywhere to be seen. Why? Because Aslan is on the move. His kingdom is coming, his kingdom is invading. God’s kingdom invades our world now- the signs of the future kingdom are to be revealed in us right now- as God’s people show the beauty of God’s coming kingdom- in way we live, in compassion we show, in way injustice is dealt with. The kingdom of God is appearing, in our lives, and through our lives around us. A really good question to consider- what would it look like for the kingdom of God to invade my workplace? Where does the kingdom need to come? Where is there sin? Injustice? Sadness? Fear? How does God want me to announce his kingdom?

4. God’s kingdom is a subversive kingdom.
God’s kingdom operates differently to the kingdoms we are used to. Jesus says some fairly outlandish things. He says- in my kingdom- blessed are the poor in spirit- for theirs in the kingdom. Blessed are those who mourn. Blessed are the meek. He say- in my kingdom the first shall be last, and the last first. The rich will barely find a place in the kingdom. The religious will often be thrown out, and sinful no-hopers will be rescued. In my kingdom it is more important to serve than it is to be served. It’s more important to be generous than it is to be rich. It’s more important to be pure in your heart than correct in your theology. God’s kingdom is one which will challenge our natural way of thinking over and over again. It challenges our selfishness and the way we live.

It’s a little bit like Jarryd Hayne, Rugby League superstar, returns to break into the NFL- American football- for his second season. And when he returns, he gets interviewed by a reporter, and he says- I’ve got an important announcement. The days of the NFL are coming to an end. The NRL is coming to America. He says- at the end of this season, I’m going to return to Australia, I’m going to bring back an incredible team, called the NSW Blues, we’re going to play another fairly crummy team called the QLD Maroons, and when all America sees how we crush the Maroons, they will never play NFL again, they’ll all just start playing NRL. The NRL is coming. So now- Jarryd says- the time has come guys. I have come to set you free- from your shoulder pads and helmets. You need repent of all these forward passes you’re throwing. From now on, you need to stop all this constant subbing on and off- everybody gets to play all the time, except you get 4 on your interchange bench, but just 4, no more. And the ball, it’s going to change shape, it’s too pointy. A new era of true football is coming, and it begins now. God’s kingdom has invaded our world in the person of Jesus, and in Jesus people, the kingdom of God continues to invade and express itself, showing a glimpse of the future to come.

5. God’s kingdom is entered through death and resurrection.
The most surprising thing of all about Jesus kingdom- is that his kingship is inaugurated through the death of the king. The king dies for the sake of his subjects. Above Jesus head, there was the sign placed- this is the king of the Jews. Ironically, they were proclaiming a central truth of God’s kingdom without even knowing it- that God’s kingdom is begun and is experienced through the death of its king, and through his resurrection. And for us, we enter God’s kingdom and experience God’s kingdom through our death and resurrection- coming to an end of our old life, and beginning a new life through His Holy Spirit within us. Jesus says- “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. 24 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.”

This is Jesus message for the world. His kingdom is near. And so, the mission Jesus has entrusted us with is to declare this truth- God’s kingdom is here. God’s kingdom is breaking in. God wants to pull us further into his kingdom, He wants to push his glorious kingdom deeper into us, and through us to the world around us.

Why would God test his people?

Why would God deliberately take his people for a wander in the wilderness after setting them free from Egypt instead of travelling up a road straight to Canaan? Well, it is quite clear what God was doing. God was testing His people. Exodus 16:4 says “Then the Lord said to Moses, “Behold, I am about to rain bread from heaven for you, and the people shall go out and gather a day’s portion every day, that I may test them, whether they will walk in my law or not.” (See also 15:25). God testing his people? Doesn’t that sound a bit rough? I mean, what sort of tests are these, starving people and making them parched with thirst in the desert? A pretty tough test, isn’t it?

Well, we mustn’t get the idea here that this is sort of a like a test to see if the Israelites made the grade – and if they didn’t they were going to get punished by God. These tests were rather primarily designed to teach the Israelites, not to fail the Israelites. Remember what James says- “My brothers, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, 3 knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. 4 But let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing.” God was teaching the Israelites important lessons – that is why God did not respond to the Israelites complaints here with judgement but rather with a gracious provision for their needs.

It’s like what we’ve got in Exodus 20:20, where Moses says, “God has come to test you, that the fear of Him might be before you, that you may not sin”.  Why was God testing? What was He trying to teach the Israelites? Firstly, He was teaching them to obey God’s word. The Israelites, and us today as well, have a stubborn habit of assuming that we know better than God and don’t need to follow His instructions. Secondly, He was teaching them to rely on God’s provision- the Israelites needed to learn that God was their provider and could be relied on. Thirdly, He was teaching them that God’s way was the good way- the manna tasted great! We need to trust that ultimately, God’s way is the best way to live, although the pathway sometimes can be challenging in the short term.

 

Questions about the Passover Feast

Exodus 12 is a chapter which raises a number of questions which are common types of questions applied to many passages in the Old Testament. So hopefully these questions here will not only help in understanding Exodus 12, but other passages also.

Why is there so much detail about this Passover meal in Exodus 12?
This chapter contains the details for later generations of Israel to prepare one of their most important meals of the entire year- like a list of instructions for how to prepare a Christmas dinner for somebody who had never had one before!

Why the blood on the doorpost?
This seemed a rather gory task! But it provided God’s people with a beautiful picture of what Christ’s sacrifice has done for us. We are safe from the judgement of God when we shelter “under the blood of Christ”, and the judgement of God passes over us.

Why the rule about the yeast?
Yeast was commonly used as a metaphor for sin in Bible times.

Why such a harsh punishment for breaking the rule about yeast? (v19) It’s quite possible that the phrase “cut off” does not necessarily refer to execution, but rather excommunication from the congregation. Furthermore, it is likely that these harsh punishments were rarely enforced. Having said this, there really should be little excuse for the Israelites who personally had seen God work such miracles for failing to obey Him in simple instructions like this. Such disobedience would be a sign of willful rebellion against the God who had so powerfully and openly saved them from slavery.

Was God’s judgement on the Egyptians fair? A few things need to be remembered in considering God’s acts of judgements in the OId Testament. Firstly, God is not obliged to give everybody 80 years of life. It is not a moral matter if God should take a life of somebody before they are old. Thus, the death of all the firstborn is not necessarily a judgement on each one of them specifically, but rather a general judgement on the nation of Egypt. As such, it was no different than any natural disaster in which many people have their lives cut short. While we may wrestle with why God allows any such event in the world, this event should be understood in a similar way to a natural disaster. Thus, the general judgement occurred against the nation of Egypt in general, and probably not against all of the specific Egyptians involved.

Why you shouldn’t be a pan-millenialist

It’s a common response which is rolled out when the subject of the Lord’s return gets raised- “I’m a pan-millenialist: it will all pan out in the end”. OK, we do need to acknowledge that your interpretation of the Lord’s return is not the most vital issue of all. It does fall into the category of one of the non-essentials which it is normal for Christians to have differing views concerning. It is also a rather imposing subject, with many people just struggling to understand all the different views starting with “pre”, “post”, and “a”s.

However, this does not mean that the issue does not matter. “Pan-millenialism” really is just a means of shrugging your shoulders and hoping the issue goes away. Eschatology is admittedly a challenging study with lots of difficult issues of interpretation. However, that does not mean that we should not pursue it, or have some convictions which we may hold to. It’s my opinion that while some issues of eschatology are fairly inconclusive and not worth being too dogmatic about, other issues are indeed worth discussion and contending for, and there are odd ideas which are strangely common.

While I find the views of amillenialism and postmillennialism worthy of dispute also, here I will share five reasons why I think that dispensational pre-tribulationism is especially deserving of critique.

  1. It has been estimated that at least 25% of the Bible is concerned with the subject of eschatology. Surely we should have a handle on a subject that is given so much importance in the Bible.
  2. The issue does not just stop at the simple question “will there be a pre-trib rapture?”. Dispensationalism has major ramifications upon how the whole storyline of the bible is to be understood, right from Genesis to Revelation. Therefore the issues under discussion have fundamental importance in understanding the big picture of the Bible.
  3. Pre-tribulationists employ an evangelistic strategy of warning people about the danger of “being left behind at the rapture”. This appears to be very effective, so much so, that there are large numbers of Christians who report in their testimonies that the major factor that drove them to Christ was waking up as a child and being afraid that their parents had vanished. Surely it is important to ascertain whether such a doctrine actually has solid foundations or not, rather than just using it “because it works”. Our preaching must be biblical, especially when it involves the all important task of leading people to Christ.
  4. At a very practical level, we must prepare ourselves in the right way for the future. Is the pre-tribulationist right in declaring that at any moment we could all be whisked away from planet Earth? Or is the post-tribulationist right in asserting that there is a time of trouble to hit planet Earth before the Lord comes, and it is our duty to be on the watch for the signs of His coming. Depending on which we believe, our lifestyle in preparation for these events will be very different, and those following the wrong doctrine will be caught unprepared for the future events when they occur.
  5. It is my contention that the pre-tribulation doctrine is guilty at many points of very speculative interpretations of scripture. This gives rise to a very poor technique for interpreting the whole of the Bible.

So I contend that the topic of eschatology should be a topic for healthy discussion and engagement with different positions, speaking the truth in love, and growing to a closer understanding of God’s word. Pan-millenialism is not the right option to go with.

Why does God seek to kill Moses?

In Exodus 4:24-26 we have a very short, very abrupt and very strange story about how the Lord sought to kill Moses on his way to Egypt. This is very odd- why after the Lord’s commissioning of Moses does the Lord immediately seek to kill Moses?? The first thing to recognize here is that we are given only the scantest of details, so we will be forced to read in between the lines as to what may be going on here. Here is one possible way of explaining it.

The word “Moses” is not actually in v24, so some see it as Moses’ son who is being talked about- but it still seems a bit harsh! Why does the Lord seek to put Moses or his son to death? Well, possible the Lord is fulfilling the warning of Genesis 17:14- anyone not circumcised was to be put to death. It sounds very abrupt in the text, but what if the Lord had spoken to Moses about this matter for a long period of time and Moses had been stubbornly resisting? What this passage may be hinting to us is about how far Moses had wandered from his faith- in living amongst the Midianites, Moses was perhaps letting his identity as one of God’s chosen people be lost, or at least his family life was not in order. God challenges him by insisting on his obedience in this matter. The fact that Zipporah had time to do the right thing and remove the danger shows that somehow she was warned and given time to act, showing the grace of God. Thus what this story again reminds us of is how God in His grace can use those who have not “got it all together”. The phrase “Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me” or “blood relative” may not be a negative statement, but rather a triumphant statement, expressing celebration that Gershom was now part of the covenant community.

Is the land of Israel still significant?

Some people, who usually hold to a theological position known as dispensationalism, believe that the land of Israel does indeed have significance in the plans of God for the purpose of history, and in the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies. Their main argument for this is appealing to a commonsense literal interpretation of the text. All throughout the Old Testament, the land is referred to, as it is originally in Genesis 12, as a literal land. It is promised that Israel will be sent into exile away from her land, which literally happened, and then it is promised that Israel will return from exile back to her land, which will have the Messiah come to reign from it over the nations of the earth. Furthermore, Jesus talks about the future of Jerusalem in a similar literal way in Luke 21:20-24. So there is no good reason to interpret it as anything other than literal.

Other people, who usually hold to a theological position known as covenantalism, hold that there is no longer any significance in the physical land of Israel today, as in the New Testament, the land of Israel is nearly always interpreted as a symbolic picture of Heaven to come. For example, in Hebrews 3-4, the writer tells us that the story of Israel’s failure to enter the land of Israel under Moses was a picture of our need to be sure that we will enter God’s “eternal rest”, which is Heaven. Furthermore, throughout Hebrews and also in Galatians 4, we are pointed to the “heavenly Jerusalem”, rather than an earthly one to look forward to. In Hebrews 11:16, we are told that Abraham himself would find the ultimate  fulfillment of the promises of the land to be given to him in “a heavenly country”, not just an earthly one. This fits with the general theme found in the New Testament that “we have been blessed with every spiritual blessing in Christ in heavenly places” in contrast to the earthly promises of the Old Testament. Thus, it is suggested that just as the Old Testament system of sacrifice was a picture of the final sacrifice of Christ to come, the Old Testament language of the land is a picture of Heaven which we will enjoy Christ’s presence perfectly.

My position is that there is truth in both these views, and they can be united in a way which allows for the strong points of both positions to be expressed. This is by recognizing very simply that the Bible speaks of the future uniting of the earthly and heavenly land. This is a position held in a variety of midway theological positions, such as progressive dispensationalism, and historic premillienialism.

For example, we see this in the following passages. Isaiah 65:17-25 and 66:22-24 speaks of the future land of Israel as “new heavens and new earth”, yet this phrase in the New Testament is usually interpreted to refer to the eternal Heaven (2 Peter 3:13, Revelation 21:1). Revelation 20, a description again of this new heaven and new earth is full of allusions to Isaiah 60, a passage describing the future land of Israel.  We see the uniting of the earthly and heavenly Jerusalems explicitly described in Revelation 3:12 and Revelation 21:2,10.

Rev 3:12- I will write on them the name of my God and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which is coming down out of heaven from my God;
Rev 21:2-3, 10- I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. 10 And he carried me away in the Spirit to a mountain great and high, and showed me the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God.

What about the land of Israel today? Does it hold any significance? My position would give a qualified “yes”. It is not significant in its political influence and in the application of Old Testament religious ritual which take place there.  However, it is significant as being the central home of God’s national people, the centre of God’s activities on earth in history and where we may well expect to see an ongoing revival amongst Jewish people take place as more Jews place their faith in Christ as their Messiah. For Jewish believers, it may take on a memorial significance, when believers like Paul (Acts 20:6, 16, 21:26, 24:17), celebrate their Jewish heritage and reflect on how Christ has brought the fulfillment of the ceremonies laid down in the Old Testament.

A related question is whether there is any significance in being Jew or Gentile today, but that question will have to wait for another post.