Saturday, March 7, 2020

Clearing Up Some Confusion Concerning the Kingdom of God (Part Two)

The celestial kingdom of God

Remarkably, there are some believers who deny or question the existence of any heavenly realm besides the visible heavens that we see above. For example, one believer stated that he was “pretty sure” that a heavenly realm that is distinct from what can be seen from earth was no more real than the hell in which most Christians believe. When asked to elaborate on his belief, he went on to say that “the Bible never really describes heaven as more than what we see above,” and that “a place where we dwell with God and all these weird religious concepts of heaven are never spoken of in scripture.”

While I would agree with this believer that there are a number of false religious concepts of heaven that are never spoken of in Scripture (such as the idea that heaven is a place where people “go when they die,” and is populated by immaterial, “disembodied souls”), I don’t think Scripture allows us to deny that there is an actual place called “heaven” in which Christ currently dwells and sits enthroned, and which is other than (and beyond) “what we see above.” Following his ascension from earth (Acts 1:9-11; 2:34), our Lord “passed through the heavens” (Heb. 4:14), entered into what the author of Hebrews called “heaven itself” (Heb. 9:24), and came to be “seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, a minister in the holy places, in the true tent that the Lord set up, not man...” (Heb. 8:1-5). There, Christ purified the “heavenly things” of which the tabernacle and other related man-made structures on earth are said to have been but copies or representations (9:23). To believe that the heavenly place in which we’re told Christ is now sitting enthroned – and from which he must depart (and descend) in order to appear in the earth’s atmosphere (1 Thess. 4:16-17) – is simply “what we see above,” is clearly absurd. Scripture is clear that there exists a transcendent realm that, in relation to the earth and its inhabitants, is both above us and unseen by us.

Consider also Rev. 12:7-12, where we read of a heavenly realm that is inhabited by heavenly beings, and from which Satan and his messengers are going to be banished at some future time. This heavenly realm (which is referred to in this passage as both “heaven” and “the heavens”) is clearly distinguished from the earth. Satan and his angels belong to the heavenly realm at present (cf. Eph. 6:12), although they can apparently travel to and from the earth as they please (cf. Job 1:6-7). However, following the “war” referred to in v. 7, Satan and his angels will be banished from the heavenly realm and “thrown down to the earth” (v. 9). That the heavenly realm in view here is above the earth is further evident from v. 12 (where the devil is said to have “come down” or “descended” to the earth). In response to the expulsion of Satan from heaven, we read that someone in heaven declares that “the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God, and the ruling authority of his Christ, have now come. Thus, just as the kingdom of God is going to be present on the earth at a future time (i.e., following Christ’s return to the earth), so there will be a time when the kingdom comes to be present in the heavenly realm, also (evidently, the coming of the kingdom in heaven occurs before the coming of the kingdom on the earth).

Keeping the above points in mind (as well as what was argued in part one of this study concerning those who will be enjoying an allotment in the kingdom of God on earth), let’s now consider the following argument:

1. Mortal, flesh-and-blood humans will be enjoying an allotment in the kingdom of God that’s going to be established on the earth after Christ’s return.
2. However, according to Paul in 1 Cor. 15:50, “flesh and blood is not able to enjoy an allotment in the kingdom of God.”
3. In 1 Cor. 15:50, Paul was not referring to the kingdom of God on the earth.

If Paul had in mind the kingdom of God as it will exist on the earth when he wrote what he did in 1 Cor. 15:50, then he would’ve been contradicting the scriptural fact that there will, in fact, be mortal, flesh-and-blood humans in this kingdom during the eon to come (as was demonstrated toward the end of part one of this study). But of course, Paul wasn’t contradicting Scripture. He simply didn’t have in mind the kingdom of God as it will exist on the earth. But if the future location of the kingdom of God that Paul had in mind in 1 Cor. 15:50 is not going to be the earth, then what location did Paul have in mind?

Answer: Paul had in mind the heavenly realm, where Christ is presently located. It is in contrast with the conditions that will characterize the kingdom of God on earth during the eons to come that Paul told those in the body of Christ that “flesh and blood is not able to enjoy an allotment in the kingdom of God.” Rather, what Paul had in mind in 1 Corinthians 15:50 was the kingdom of God into which the saints in the body of Christ will be entering after the snatching away and meeting in the air – i.e., the kingdom of God as it will exist in the heavenly realm (and which he referred to in 2 Tim. 4:18 as the Lord’s “celestial kingdom”). It is the kingdom of God in heaven – not the kingdom of God on earth – in which “flesh and blood is not able to enjoy an allotment.” It is because the location of the kingdom for which those in the body of Christ are destined is celestial in location that we (who are presently “soilish” in nature) must come to wear “the image…of the Celestial,” and thereby become “celestials” (1 Cor. 15:48-49). Our mortal, “terrestrial” body must be transformed into a body that is fit for the realm where Christ, the Celestial One, resides and inherently belongs – i.e., the heavens (1 Cor. 15:47). In 2 Cor. 5:2, our glorified body is described as “our habitation which is out of heaven. As in 1 Cor. 15:47 (where Christ is referred to as the Lord out of heaven), the term translated “out of” in this verse (ek) expresses the idea that, after we’ve come to wear Christ’s celestial image, the heavenly realm will be the place to which our glorified body will inherently belong.[1]

Moreover, since it was in the heavens that Christ was located when Paul wrote to the saints in Corinth (Heb. 8:1; 9:24), we can conclude that it is also in the heavens – and not on the earth – that those to whom Paul wrote will be “at home with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:6-9), and where they will be “manifested in front of the dais of Christ” (v. 10). Hence, the future, vivified body that we in the body of Christ will possess after “the mortal may be swallowed up by life” is described as being “eonian, in the heavens.” (2 Cor. 5:1). In accord with this fact, we’re told by Paul that our realm is inherent in the heavens, out of which we are awaiting a Savior also” (Phil. 3:20), and that we have an “expectation reserved for [us] in the heavens(Col. 1:5). Based on these and other related verses, we can reasonable conclude that the location of the kingdom of God in which the saints in the body of Christ will be enjoying their eonian allotment is not going to be on the earth. It’s going to be the heavenly realm in which, according to Rev. 12:7-12, the kingdom of God is going to be established after Satan is cast out of it.

“Troublesome” verses concerning the kingdom of God

As noted at the beginning of part one of this study, Don Bast asks the reader five questions in the introduction of his book The Secrets of the Kingdom. These questions are based on certain verses he found particularly “troublesome” back when he believed what he used to believe and teach in his fellowship group (and which he had difficulty reconciling with what he used to believe).

Mr. Bast’s first question is based on 1 Cor. 6:2-3: “How is the body of Christ going to judge the world and life’s affairs if it is caught away to the far-off place in the sky, called the celestials?”

In one my earlier blog articles, I argued that the “world” (kosmos) which we’ll be judging is the heavenly/celestial part of the kosmos. However, I’ve since come to believe that we who are members of the body of Christ will be no less involved in the affairs of earth during the eons to come than Satan and his messengers are presently involved during this wicked eon (which is the position I defended in part four of my study on Revelation 12 (see the last section of this article). Although Satan and the rest of the beings Paul referred to as “the spiritual forces of wickedness among the celestials” (Eph. 6:12) aren’t terrestrial beings who reside on (or naturally belong to) the earth, they are, nevertheless, very much involved in what takes place on the earth. In fact, in Psalm 82, we find God rebuking this class of beings (who are referred to as “the gods” and as “sons of the Most High”) for judging unjustly among the nations of the earth, and showing partiality to the wicked (v. 2). In verses 3-4, God makes it clear how these heavenly beings ought to have been using their authority:

“Give justice to the weak and the fatherless; maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”

 In accord with this understanding of Psalm 82, A.E. Knoch commented on Christ’s words in John 10:34-36 (where Christ quoted from this Psalm) as follows:

“The term "gods" is translated "judges" in Ex.21:6, 22:8-9, where it refers to men. But our Lord does not appeal to this, but to Psalm 82:6 where the context clearly excludes men. The mighty spiritual powers of the past who overrule the affairs of mankind are called sons by God Himself. Even Satan is called a son of God (Job1:6). He is called the god of this eon (2Co.4:4). Now if God said to these subjectors, "Gods are you," notwithstanding the fact that they failed to right the wrongs of earth, how much rather shall He have called Him God Who shall dispossess them?”

Since the body of Christ is going to be displacing the wicked celestial beings who are in view in Psalm 82 and Eph. 6:12, it’s reasonable to believe that we will be just as actively involved in the affairs of mankind as these beings have been since the beginning of human history (even if our influence – like the influence of the celestial beings we’ll be displacing – goes largely unnoticed and unrecognized by those over whom we’ll be exercising our authority). And as I noted in my Rev. 12 article, the authority and influence that these celestial beings have over the gentile kingdoms of which they are “chiefs” or “princes” (Dan. 10:13-21) is consistent with there being human kings (as well as other religious and political leaders) exercising their own authority on the earth. From this it follows that our authority and influence over the nations during the eons to come will not be in conflict with Israel’s role as the dominant earthly power, or with the exercise of her political and religious authority during the eon to come. Rather, it will complement and supplement it (for no Israelite during the eon to come – including those among the 144,000 – is going to be spending the majority of his time outside the land of Israel, where the nations will be dwelling).

Mr. Bast’s second question is based on what Paul wrote in 2 Tim. 2:11-12: “Why does Paul say only those who endure will reign with Christ when all the body of Christ was chosen for a place of a son, to reign in the celestials, before the foundation of the world?”

The reason Paul wrote that only those who endure will reign with Christ is because only those who endure will reign with Christ. We know that all in the body of Christ are going to be “manifested in front of the dais of Christ” to be “requited for that which he puts into practice through the body, whether good or bad” (2 Cor. 5:10). And we know from 1 Cor. 3:12-15 that this event will involve some saints receiving (and others forfeiting) “wages.” We also know that, by virtue of “suffering together [with Christ]” and “enduring,” some saints will be “glorified together” with Christ and will “reign together” with him (Rom. 8:17; 2 Tim. 2:12). Thus, in addition to having eonian life (which will be the “common” blessing of everyone in the body of Christ, and will involve living with Christ for the eons and enjoying “every spiritual blessing among the celestials”), some saints in the body of Christ will – by virtue of having endured and suffered together with Christ – have a role in reigning with Christ as well.

Mr. Bast’s third question is based on 1 Thess. 4:16-17: ”How can the body of Christ ever be with the Lord in the celestials when he is on earth sitting on a throne?”

This question correctly presupposes that Christ is, in fact, going to be “on earth sitting on a throne” at some point following his return to earth at the end of this eon (and, as demonstrated in part one of this study, this throne is going to be located in Jerusalem during the eon to come). However, the question also seems to be presupposing that Christ will be continuously present on the earth for the entire duration of the eon(s) to come. But is this assumption warranted?

I think every believer would agree that Jesus Christ will be on the earth during the eons to come for as long as he needs to be, and that – beyond this – he’ll be free to come and go as he pleases. But will Christ have to be on earth for the entire duration (or even most of the duration) of his reign during these eons? One prophecy which implies that Christ is not going to be continuously present on the earth during the eon to come is found in Ezekiel 37:21-22 and 24-26 (cf. 34:23-24):

“Behold, I shall take the sons of Israel from among the nations where they have gone, and I will convene them from all around and bring them to their own ground. I will make them one nation in the land, on the mountains of Israel, and one king shall be king for them all. They shall no longer be two nations, nor shall they be divided into two kingdoms any longer.”

“My servant David will be king over them, and there shall come to be one shepherd for them all. They shall walk in My ordinances and observe My statutes, and they will do them. Thus they will dwell in the land that I gave to My servant Jacob, in which your fathers dwelt; they will dwell on it, they and their sons and their sons’ sons throughout the eon, and David My servant will be their prince for the eon.”

According to this prophecy, David  in addition to being among the Jewish saints who will be restored to life in the “former resurrection” to enjoy an allotment in the kingdom of God – is going to be reigning as king over the kingdom during this time as well. But why would David be reigning as king over this future kingdom if Jesus Christ himself is going to be permanently present and reigning on the earth for the entire time as well? We know that Christ will be “the King of kings” during the eons to come. However, Christ is apparently going to delegate authority to David to reign as king in the kingdom that he (Christ) is going to restore to Israel after he returns to earth. The fact that David will also be reigning as a king in the kingdom that will be established on the earth by Christ suggests that Christ is not going to be present on earth for the entire duration of (or even the majority of the time during) the eon that is being referred to in the above prophecy.   
                                                                                     
That Christ isn’t going to be permanently present on the earth during the eon to come shouldn’t be surprising when we keep in mind that the kingdom of God is going to be present in two different locations/realms (i.e., on the earth and in the heavens). Whenever Christ is not personally present on the earth, David will function as the highest authority on the earth, in his stead. Thus, even if those in the body of Christ were to be continually in Christ’s presence whenever he is present on the earth (although I don’t think Paul’s words in 1 Thess. 4:17 necessitate this view), it’s likely that Christ will not actually be on the earth for the majority of the time during the eon to come. Although we can’t do much more than speculate, it’s possible that much of what Christ will be doing on the earth after his return will be occurring near the beginning of the eon, and will involve the setting up/establishing of the kingdom of God on the earth, and the making of decisions that will determine how things will be for the remainder of the eon (for example, the judgment that we find described in Matthew 25:31-36 will clearly be a judgment that takes place near the beginning of the eon to come, and will determine the circumstances in which people will be living for the majority of the duration of this eon).

Mr. Bast’s fourth question is based on Rom. 4:13: “How can the law, and temple worship, along with animal sacrifices be reinstated for Israel in the kingdom age when they are the ruling nation on earth, if the promise to Abraham to be heir of the world, is not through law?”

In Rom. 4:13 we read, “For not through law is the promise to Abraham, or to his Seed, for him to be enjoyer of the allotment of the world, but through faith’s righteousness.”

If what Paul wrote in Romans 4:13 means (or implies) that the law, temple worship and animal sacrifices cannot “be reinstated for Israel in the kingdom age when they are the ruling nation of earth,” then Paul would’ve been implying that the divine promises to Israel we find in Ezekiel 36-48 (for example) will never be fulfilled, and that God’s covenant-based faithfulness to Israel has essentially been nullified. But is that what Paul’s words in Romans 4:13 mean, or imply? In the words of Paul (which I believe he likely would’ve said in response to such an idea), “May it not be coming to that! Now let God be true, yet every man a liar.”

The “promise” that Paul had in view in Rom. 4:13 is, I believe, God’s promise to Abraham that he would be “a father of many nations, according to that which has been declared, ‘Thus shall be your seed’” (Rom. 4:17-18).[2] When Paul affirmed that “the promise” in view in Rom. 4:16 was “not through law,” he simply meant that this promise (which came to Abraham before the law was given) was not dependent on the law for its fulfillment, and could not be invalidated by the law. God’s covenant with Abraham was made hundreds of year before the law was given, and thus did not contain any law-based conditions that could nullify it. As Paul stated in Gal. 3:17, “a covenant, having been ratified before by God, the law, having come four hundred and thirty years afterward, does not invalidate, so as to nullify the promise.” The promises Abraham received from God (including the promise that Paul had in mind in Rom. 4:16) were given without any reference to the law, and were never dependent on any legal observance for their fulfillment or confirmation. The promises depended solely on God’s own faithfulness.

This lack of dependence on the law for the fulfillment and confirmation of the promise that Paul had in view in Rom. 4:13 was Paul’s only point in saying that the promise is “not through law” (even the NIV Study Bible – which is in no way a “pro-dispensationalist” commentary – explains the expression “not through law” as meaning, “not on the condition that the promise be merited by works of the law”). There is, therefore, no conflict between what Paul wrote in Rom. 4:13 and Israel’s covenant-based expectation. Regardless of how Mr. Bast (or anyone else) may or may not interpret Paul’s words in this verse, we need not doubt that God’s promises to Israel concerning “the law, and temple worship, along with animal sacrifices” being “reinstated for Israel in the kingdom age” (as prophesied in Ezekiel 36-48 and elsewhere) will, in fact, be fulfilled.

Mr. Bast’s fifth and final question is based on Gal. 3:16: “How can the promise made to Abraham, and to his seed, to be heir of the world, be only for Israel if the seed is Christ?”

In Gal. 3:16 we read, “Now to Abraham the promises were declared, and to his Seed. He is not saying “And to seeds,” as of many, but as of One: And to “your Seed,” which is Christ.”

I agree completely that God’s covenant people, Israel, are not (and will not be) the only beneficiaries of the blessings that are available in and through Christ (who Paul referred to as the “Seed” of Abraham in Gal. 3:16). The believers to whom Paul wrote this letter (most of whom were likely gentiles and former idol-worshipers) were members of the body of Christ, and – as members of this particular company of saints – did not belong to God’s covenant people. However, these believers had clearly come to be “of Abraham’s seed” (in the sense referred to by Paul in Gal. 3:29), and had received what Paul referred in Gal. 3:14 as “the blessing of Abraham” (i.e., justification by faith; cf. vv. 5-9). But does this mean that the Galatian believers to whom Paul wrote belonged to the same company of believers as those who belonged to God’s covenant people, Israel? No. In fact, later on in his letter to the Galatians, Paul actually referred to this second company of believers (to which God’s covenant people belonged) as follows:

”And whoever shall observe the elements of this rule, peace be on them, and mercy, also on the Israel of God(Gal. 6:15). 

Notice how Paul referred to the “Israel of God” as a distinct category of people on whom he desired God’s mercy in connection with what he’d just said concerning the observance of “the elements of this rule” (the “rule” being that which was expressed in v. 15). Who is it that constituted the “Israel of God” referred to here, and why would Paul specify “mercy” as being that which he desired would be “on” this distinct category of people (instead of simply “peace,” as he desired would be on everyone else referred to)? Although many Christians (and even some believers in the body of Christ) want to understand the “Israel of God” as just another reference to the body of Christ, this interpretation is simply not tenable. In order to understand the “Israel of God” as another reference to the body of Christ, one must not only understand the word “Israel” in a way that Paul never used the word elsewhere in his letters (see, for example, Romans 11), but they must ignore or “explain away” Paul’s use of the word “also” (which indicates that Paul is now referring to a category of people distinct from those whom he had in view previously).

When we understand the expression “Israel of God” in a literal and straight-forward way, it becomes clear that Paul was simply referring to the believing remnant among God’s covenant people, Israel. That is, it refers to those believing and faithful Israelites who, having been called by God through what Paul referred to as the “evangel of the Circumcision” (Gal. 2:7), share in Israel’s covenant-based expectation, and will be among the “all Israel” that will be saved when Christ returns (Rom. 11:26-27). It is these who will receive an allotment in the kingdom of God on earth (i.e., the kingdom that’s going to be restored to Israel). And while some within this category of believing Israelites correctly acknowledged and respected the fact that neither circumcision nor uncircumcision mattered for those belonging to the company of believers that constitutes the body of Christ, not all did. In fact, some within this company of believers were very much opposed to what Paul called the “elements of this rule.” Hence – for the sake of those who did “observe the elements of this rule” – Paul expressed his desire for God’s mercy on the entire category of Jewish believers constituting the “Israel of God.”

At this point, it would be worth responding to a commonly-held belief among Christians that, in passages such as Romans 2:28-29 and 9:6-8, Paul was broadening the meaning of the terms “Jew” and “Israel” to include all believing gentiles, and that the body of Christ can thus be considered “spiritual Israel.” The reality, however, is that Paul was actually narrowing the meaning of the terms “Jew” and “Israel” in these verses. That is, he was making the meaning of these terms more exclusive. The category of Jews/Israelites who can be understood as constituting true Israel (i.e., the “Israel” referred to in Rom. 9:6 that is comprised of “the children of God,” and which Paul referred to in Gal. 6:16 as “the Israel of God”) is a subcategory of “Israel according to the flesh.” When, in Rom. 9:8, Paul distinguished between “the children of the flesh” and “the children of the promise,” the distinction is not between ethnic Israelites and Gentiles, but rather between (1) descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob who are fleshly descendants only and (2) descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob who are also chosen and called by God. Similarly, when Paul referred to “the Jew” in Rom. 2:28, he was referring to a descendant of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob whose circumcision is not just of the flesh but – more importantly – of the heart. Thus, the “Israel” to whom the kingdom is going to be restored after Christ’s return is not merely “physical Israel” (i.e., those who are Jews/Israelites according to the flesh only); rather, it will be comprised of Jews/Israelites whose circumcision is also “of the heart” and “in spirit.”

In Romans 4:16, Paul actually presupposed the existence of two separate categories of believers who could both be considered as being “of the seed of Abraham.” In this verse we read, 

Therefore it is of faith that it may accord with grace, for the promise to be confirmed to the entire seed, not to those of the law only, but to those also of the faith of Abraham, who is father of us all...’”

Notice how Paul had two categories of Abraham’s “seed” in view to which the “promise” to Abraham would be confirmed: (1) those he referred to as “those of the law” and (2) those referred to as “those also of the faith of Abraham.” Who did Paul have in view as “those of the law?” It couldn’t have been unbelieving Jews, for the “promise” of which Paul wrote is only being confirmed to believers, and not to unbelievers (Rom. 9:6-8). But nor could Paul have been referring to believers in the body of Christ. Being “of the law” identifies one as a member of God’s covenant people, Israel. However, as I’ve argued elsewhere (http://thathappyexpectation.blogspot.com/2018/09/gods-covenant-people-why-most-believing_95.html), no one in the body of Christ – whether uncircumcised or circumcised – can be considered as being “of the law” (for those in the body of Christ have no covenantal status or covenant-based relationship with God). Rather, when Paul referred to certain believers as “those of the law” he was referring to those who comprised the believing Jewish remnant (the “Israel of God”), among whom are included the “tens of thousands” of believing, law-keeping Jews referred to in Acts 21:20. It is these believers among God’s covenant people who are the true Israel (as referred to in Romans 9:6-8), and who are being reckoned by God as Abraham’s seed. Members of the body of Christ are referred to as Abraham’s seed as well (since we are “in Christ”). However, we in the body of Christ are not the seed of Abraham that is “of the law” (i.e., the “Israel of God”).

NoteFor those interested in reading more about how the calling and expectation belonging to the saints in the body of Christ is distinct from that which belongs to the “Israel of God,” see my three-part series, “Revisiting the Two Evangels Controversy” (http://thathappyexpectation.blogspot.com/2019/10/revisiting-two-evangels-controversy.html). In part one of this series, the reader will find a number of links to other articles I’ve written in defense of this important scriptural truth.



[1] Similarly, in 1 Cor. 12:15-16 the term ek expresses the idea of a bodily member being “of” (i.e., belonging to) the body. In Gal. 2:15, it expresses the idea of sinners being “of” the nations. In Phil. 4:22 it expresses the idea of certain saints being “of” Caesar’s house. For another example of the expression translated “out of heaven,” see Matt. 21:25-26.

[2] It is this worldwide group of descendents (which makes Abraham “the father of many nations”) that I believe constitutes the “world” in view in Rom. 4:13. Just as the term “world” can refer to a multitude of people (rather than to a location), so an “allotment” or “inheritance” need not refer to land (see, for example, Heb. 11:7; Titus 3:7; Ps. 2:8; Isa. 19:25). 

2 comments:

  1. Aaron you do such a great job of pulling together and putting all the puzzle pieces of scripture in place to present the big picture in a really clear and logical way. I’m grateful for your gift, and it’s been a joy watching that gift grow and mature in your work. It’s both edifying to me, and potent evidence of God’s power every time you remark on your own personal apprehension of a scriptural matter from a previously held belief. You’re a wonderful teacher and an inspiration to the body of Christ. I’m so happy you guys came to Birmingham, God bless you and your family!

    Laura

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    1. Laura,

      Thank you so much for such a positive and encouraging comment. You've made my day!

      I'm thankful that Chrissy and I were able to attend the 2014 and 2017 Birmingham conferences. Both were such wonderful experiences. I wish we could have another conference there soon!

      Thank you again for the encouraging comment, and may God bless you and your family as well!

      Aaron

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