Note: The following essay is an excerpt from my book, The High King of Heaven: Discovering the Master Keys to the Great End Time Debate. As the title indicates, my theme here is the coming of the Kingdom; the way it enters history, and the the stages in which it continues to enter history until the universe, life, and man reach the Final State in the World to Come.
I regard this as the single most helpful chapter in my book. I believe it shows conclusively that the Kingdom of God enters the world in two simple stages. The first I call The Kingdom of the Son. The second I call The Kingdom of the Father (or the World to Come). The two are separated by a single Consummation at the Parousia, or Second Coming, of Christ. Thus, the essay is an effort to show that the Amillennial eschatology of the ancient Catholic Church and the classic Protestant Reformation is indeed the true teaching of the Bible.
If you have not already done so, please read my essay, The Good News of the Kingdom. Then you’ll be ready to read this (long) essay with maximum profit. I sincerely hope it will enhance your understanding and enjoyment the Church’s one true Blessed Hope, the coming again in glory of the High King of Heaven!
The Coming of the Kingdom
Earlier in our journey, we heard the Herald of the Kingdom teach on the nature of the Kingdom. Now, after plumbing his answer to the biblical depths, we are ready to sit at his feet once again and hear him on the temporal structure of the Kingdom. That is, we want to learn how Jesus saw the coming of the Kingdom. Did he think of the Kingdom as being present in his earthly ministry, or as yet to come? And if yet to come, did he see it as coming in stages? And if in stages, how many? And if in many, what are the distinctive characteristics of each?
Along the way we have briefly touched on these matters. From time to time I suggested that Christ and his apostles understood the Kingdom as coming in two simple stages. Now, however, we must find out if this is so. And as we begin our investigation, I would invite you to pay the closest possible attention. For unless I am very much mistaken, this question of the coming of the Kingdom is decisive for a proper understanding of biblical cosmic eschatology. In other words, it is the one question whose answer will fling open the doors to the truth about the Kingdom of God, the Millennium, and the Consummation. It is the one question that—more than any other—will determine the victor in the Great End Time Debate.
The Mysteries of the Kingdom
We begin with what I regard as the single most important body of eschatological teaching in the entire NT: Jesus’ discourse on the mysteries of the Kingdom of God (Matthew 13; Mark 4). Its importance is evident from several key characteristics. First, it is a didactic bloc of teaching: Here Christ is not simply referencing the Kingdom, but pointedly instructing his NT scribes as to its very nature and structure. Secondly, it is a lengthy bloc of teaching (the second of five such lengthy blocs found in Matthew’s gospel). Thirdly, it is a focused bloc of teaching, devoted entirely to the theme of the Kingdom. Fourthly, it is a foundational bloc of teaching, clearly setting the stage for all further dominical and apostolic remarks about the Kingdom and the Consummation. And finally, it is a dominical bloc of teaching, flowing from the lips of the incarnate Christ himself, and therefore clearly of special importance in determining the framework for all further NT instruction on this theme. Here, then, we need to listen and listen hard, if ever we hope to arrive at a sound understanding of the Kingdom of God.
Much as I wish we could devote an entire chapter to these rich texts, limitations of time and space preclude it. We can, however, get to the heart of things with a short survey. Therefore, in what follows I will briefly introduce Jesus’ teaching, take a close look at what I regard as the single most important parable of the Kingdom, give the gist of all the rest, and then conclude by summarizing the key mysteries of the Kingdom here unveiled. Before plunging in, you may wish to read these passages once again. After that, please keep your Bible open, as we dig into these rewarding texts together.
Mysteries and Parables (Matthew 13:1-17; Mark 4:10-12)
The Lord’s instruction on the mysteries of the Kingdom began with his telling the assembled multitudes a parable, the Parable of the Sower (Matthew 4:1-9; Mark 4:1-9). Since all alike were mystified as to its meaning, his disciples later came to him privately, asking him to explain the teaching, and also why he chose to clothe it in parabolic language. His response should be deeply affecting to all Christians: “To you it has been given to know the mysteries of the Kingdom of Heaven; but to them it has not been given” (Matthew 13:11). Since this brief word sets the stage for all that is to come, we do well to spend some time with it. Two key points may be made.
First, in this special season of teaching on the Kingdom, Christ’s main purpose was to initiate his disciples into the “mysteries” of the Kingdom of heaven. As we saw earlier, throughout the NT a mystery is defined as “an open secret,” a divine truth formerly hidden or concealed, but now brought out into the open by divine revelation. Such is the case here. As Matthew himself remarks, Jesus was “ . . . uttering things kept secret from the foundation of the world” (Matthew 13:34-35).
Thus, with respect to the truth of the Kingdom, Jesus knows his disciples are in the dark. Yes, they have read and heard about the Kingdom in the OT, but they have not yet understood it. Why? Because they have not yet received certain special truths about the Kingdom; truths that will enable them to understand its nature and structure; and truths that will empower them, in due season, to shout the good news of the Kingdom from the rooftops (Mark 4:21-23). But now, says Jesus, something great is happening. Through his Messianic Son and Prophet, God, at long last, is graciously giving these precious truths to his people. To them and them alone he is unveiling the mysteries of the Kingdom. Moreover, in doing so, he is also putting into their hands a set of keys, keys that will open up and unveil the true meaning of all OT Kingdom prophecy.
This brings us to our second point, namely that this precious set of keys is a gift of the sovereign God. In other words, for wise reasons, he is pleased to give it to some and not to others. We see this in Jesus’ day, and we see it in our own. In the days of the Lord’s flesh, God was pleased to give his Kingdom truths to Jesus’ disciples, but not to “those who (were) outside,” to the majority of Israelites (Mark 4:11). True, he did, in one sense, give it to the outsiders. But he gave it only in parables, and did so as a judgment and a testimony against them, because their hearts were dull, their ears deaf, and their eyes closed (Matthew 13:13-15; Mark 4:10-12). However, in the case of the disciples—all whom Christ chose for himself, followed him, and humbled themselves to seek and learn truth from his lips—he gave not only the parables, but also their meaning; a meaning they partially understood prior to his passion, and fully understood after his exaltation (Mark 4:10-12).
Importantly, it is much the same today. Though the NT canon is now complete; though Christ’s own interpretation of (many of) the parables is contained therein; and though his holy prophets and apostles have repeatedly instructed the world as to the true nature and structure of the Kingdom . . . still, all men everywhere remain in darkness unless and until God, by his Spirit, graciously grants them to understand these things. Only thus shall the veil over their eyes be taken away; only thus shall the veil over the OT be taken away (2 Corinthians 3:ff); and only thus shall they behold the saving truth about God’s heavenly Kingdom and his divine Messianic King (John 3:3f).
It is for this reason that our Lord pronounces so great a blessing upon his disciples, saying:
But blessed are your eyes, for they see; and your ears, for they hear. For truly I say to you that many prophets and righteous men desired to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what your hear, and did not hear it. –Matthew 13:16-17
How is it that Jesus’ disciples become “scribes”—master teachers—of the Kingdom (Matthew 13:52)? How is it that henceforth they surpass the OT prophets in Kingdom wisdom and understanding? How is it that they can bring out of their treasury things old and new, confidently opening up both OT Kingdom prophecy and NT Kingdom teaching (Matthew 13:52)? It is because God has been pleased to bless them, opening their eyes to see and their ears to hear. This is quite practical for every modern seeker of Kingdom truth. It means that we too must humble ourselves before this sovereign God, beseeching him for the heavenly light by which alone we can see and understand these great mysteries (Luke 24:45; Ephesians 1:15f). Moreover, if and when we do receive this light, it is certain that we must just as passionately thank him for so great a gift; a gift that might not have come to us, but did, because of the exceeding riches of his sovereign grace (Ephesians 1:6-7, 2:7).
The Parable of the Wheat and the Tares (Matthew13:24-30, 36-48)
In search of the mysteries of the Kingdom, we turn first to the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares. It is one of two parables for which Matthew and Mark give us the Lord’s private interpretation. The other, the Parable of the Sower and the Soils, deals largely with the nature of the Kingdom, especially in its first stage. This one, however, deals not only with its nature, but also with its structure. Accordingly, Mathew devotes more attention to this particular parable than to any other. And this is fitting. Yes, it is only a seminal teaching, and therefore requires much fleshing out. But it is also an astonishingly substantial teaching, supplying, as it were, the very skeleton upon which the flesh of all NT eschatology will grow until the whole body reaches full stature. It is for these reasons that I regard it as the most important parable of all.
As to its meaning, the Lord is almost punctilious about spelling out the details of the symbolism involved, obviously desiring his disciples fully to understand every word. This makes it a much-needed bastion of eschatological clarity. Accordingly, there is little need for me to comment at length on what he has already said so well. I will, however, seek to open up the rich eschatological implications of this text by pointing out several of the key mysteries that it contains.
- The one Kingdom of God comes in two stages: The Kingdom of the Son, followed by the Kingdom of the Father.
That there is but one Kingdom is clear from verse 38, where Jesus speaks of “the sons of the Kingdom.” As in verse 11, so here: the article is significant, revealing that in the end there is but a single Kingdom of God. How then can Christ speak of two kingdoms: the Kingdom of the Son and the Kingdom of the Father? The answer is simple: The two stages of the one Kingdom share a common essence. Both are spheres of redemption. Both are spheres of rescue and restoration. Both are spheres in which God is directly ruling over his redeemed children. As our study proceeds, we will discuss how the two spheres differ. Here, however, the important point is that in essence the two Kingdoms are simply phases of the one Kingdom. This implies, of course, that in all essentials, the second phase of the Kingdom is the same as the first.
Though the phrase Kingdom of the Son occurs only once in the NT (Col. 1:13), the idea is pervasive. Here, it appears in verse 41, where Jesus states that at the end of the age he, the Son of Man, will send forth his angels to gather out of his Kingdom all things that offend. In the pages ahead, we will have much to say about the characteristics of this (stage of the) Kingdom. Yet even confining ourselves to the present parable, we learn much: it is growing (v. 30), it is temporary (vv. 30, 40), and it will endure until the end of the (present evil) age, when its righteous human subjects shall be rescued from wrath and from “all things that offend” (vv. 41-43).
As for the Kingdom of the Father, Jesus speaks of it here only glancingly. Nevertheless, even from his few words, it is clear enough that this (stage of the) Kingdom is co-extensive with the Age to Come, and is therefore eternal (v. 40). Moreover, in this Kingdom the Father clearly has supreme authority over the righteous subjects of his Son, who are now fully rescued from evil, and fully restored to the glory of God, so much so that they, like him, shine like very sun (v. 43)!
Important as this mystery is, it was not really too mysterious to the disciples. Having wrestled for centuries with the prophetic scriptures, most of the Jews of Jesus’ day thought of the Kingdom as coming in two stages. The first was usually called “the Days of the Messiah,” a period of unknown duration in which the LORD’s Messiah would lead Israel to military victory over their enemies, thereafter spearheading a worldwide revival of faith in Israel’s God. The second, which would be ushered in by the Day of the LORD (i.e., the Day of Judgment upon all nations), was called “the Age (or World) to Come.” This was the final state, the Kingdom in its full and final form. Later we will discuss these ideas at length. For the moment, I would simply stress that in giving his disciples the mysteries of the Kingdom, Jesus did indeed affirm a two-staged Kingdom of God. However, as we are about to see, his view of the nature of its two stages was radically different from that of his Jewish contemporaries!
- During the first stage of the Kingdom, the Messianic Son of God reigns from heaven, not earth.
This is without doubt the most mysterious of the mysteries of the Kingdom! Though the OT did indeed contain a few hints of a heavenly Messianic reign, the figurative and typological language of OTKP gave rise, naturally enough, to the expectation of an earthly Messianic reign centered in physical Jerusalem and Zion. Indeed, so strong was this expectation, and so impenetrable the mystery Jesus here begins to reveal, that the disciples were still expecting an earthly kingdom even after their Lord’s resurrection (Acts 1:6)! It was, then, not until the coming of the Spirit that the heavenly Teacher fully opened their minds to see the truth about the purely spiritual reign of him to whom the Father had given all authority in heaven and on earth (Acts 2:22-36)!
In our parable, Christ’s revelation of his soon-coming heavenly reign is given only in seed form. Indeed, it would be difficult for us (not to mention the disciples) to spot it, were it not for a host of rich NT texts that supplement and illuminate it, many of which we will discuss below. Nevertheless, with the benefit of NT hindsight, we can see it here clearly enough.
Our first glimpse of it comes in the fact that Jesus here refers to his kingdom as the kingdom of the Son of Man (v. 41). This title was designed to remind the disciples of the Messianic figure of Daniel 7:13-15. As a close look at that passage will show, this personage is manifestly a heavenly being, ushered upon clouds of glory into the heavenly presence of the Ancient of Days, after which, in heaven, he receives from God dominion, glory, and a universal Kingdom. Soon, Jesus himself will fulfill this prophecy (Acts 2:29-36). Therefore, in what is admittedly opaque language, he begins here to his prepare his disciples to understand his own forthcoming heavenly reign.
The case for this truth is much strengthened when we read in v. 41 that at the end of the age the Son of Man will send forth his angels to effect a final separation of the wheat and the tares (v.30). In the gospels alone there are quite a number of texts that make explicit what remains implicit here: namely, that at the end of the age the glorified Christ will descend from heaven with all his holy angels to accomplish the final Judgment of all sentient beings (Matthew 24:29-31, 25:31, 26:64; Mark 8:38, 14:62). The epistles and the Revelation agree (1 Thessalonians 3:13, 4:16; 2 Thessalonians 1:7; Jude 1:14; Revelation 19:11-16).
It would be hard to overemphasize the importance of this mystery. In one form or another, the Messiah’s heavenly reign pervades the entire NT. All the other parables presuppose and elaborate upon it. Many gospel texts reference and illuminate it. It is first preached and celebrated in the book of Acts. Whole blocs of the epistles plumb its hidden depths. The Revelation is structured around it. Moreover, after finally coming to terms with it, the NT writers find it spoken of in the OT as well!
Why does Christ’s heavenly reign loom so large in Biblical revelation? We learned the answer in our earlier discussion of the Eternal Covenant: It looms so large because it is so integral to God’s eternal purpose and plan.
Think, for example, of God’s eternal purpose to honor his Son. How better to accomplish this than to make him the Redeemer of a whole new world, then raise him from dead, take him up into heaven, seat him at his own right hand, and place the entire universe under his authority and control, thereby making him the High King of heaven and earth?
Or again, think of God’s eternal plan: the heading up of all things in Christ, by which he intends to achieve his eternal purpose. How better to accomplish this than by placing the Holy Spirit under Christ’s authority, so that Christ himself, by the Spirit, and through the preaching of the Church, might apply the redemption that he accomplished during the days of his humiliation; might gather God’s chosen people under his wing, under his spiritual headship; and might prepare them for the Day of his return, when at last he will place all things in subjection to himself, thereby creating a new humanity, new heavens, and a new earth—all for the pleasure and glory of God the Father (Ephesians 1:10; Philippians 2:11)!
Yes, the doctrine of Christ’s heavenly mediatorial reign is important, so important that it must rank as one of the two or three main keys to all biblical theology. To neglect it is eschatological suicide. To understand it at its depths is to resolve once and for all the Great End Time Debate.
- During the days of the Messiah’s heavenly reign, the world will be a field of battle upon which two opposing kings, and two opposing kingdoms, vie for the souls of men.
In explaining this parable, Jesus spoke of two opposing kingdoms dwelling side by side in the world. Such imagery would not have been too surprising for the disciples. After all, had not Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Israel and all her kings all dwelt in the Promised Land, surrounded by hostile enemies for centuries on end? And even now, was not Israel occupied and oppressed by Roman governors and garrisons, whom most Jews viewed as willing (if unsuspecting) instruments of “the wicked one?” Surely then there was no great mystery here!
But indeed there was. For in speaking as he did, Jesus had something far different in mind; something beyond his disciple’s wildest imagination; something profound, ultimate, and spiritual; something of which Israel’s physical warfare in the flesh was but a type and a shadow. What he had in mind—and what he here unveils in seed form—was nothing less than a whole new cosmological paradigm; a whole new way for God’s (NT) people to look at their experience in the earth; and a whole new way of thinking about the earthly consequences of his heavenly reign.
This new paradigm is the third mystery of the Kingdom, just cited above: From Pentecost until the Parousia, the world will be a field of battle upon which two opposing kings (Christ and Satan), and two opposing kingdoms (the realm of the world and the realm of the Church) do fierce battle for souls of men.
In Chapter 6 we discussed these central NT truths at some length. In seed form, they all appear in this parable. Here, Jesus is saying that the exalted Son of Man will soon pour out the Holy Spirit, send his Church into the world to preach the Gospel, and begin to bring his elect to faith, thereby planting them in the field of the world as a growing crop of wheat (vv. 25, 37-38). Meanwhile, the wicked one—the devil and Satan—will continually use false religions, philosophies, and ideologies to gain a following of his own, thereby planting them in the field of the world as a crop of tares (vv. 39-39). Though barely distinguishable physically, these two seeds have completely different and antithetical natures. Yet Christ forbears to judge the tares; indeed, for a season, he very much desires the two realms to interact. In particular, he desires the growing crop of wheat to keep on carrying the Gospel to the tares, so that he himself—from heaven and by the Spirit—may put the tares to the test (John 3:16-21); may enter the Strong Man’s field and plunder his goods (Matthew 12:29); may give the tares a new wheat nature (Matthew 7:15-20; 2 Corinthians 5:17); and may transfer them from the Domain of Darkness into his own Kingdom of light and love (Colossians 1:13). In other words, in order to have the largest possible crop, the High King of Heaven has ordained a lengthy Era of Proclamation and Probation, during which the two crops (realms) will coexist, grow, and interact. But at the end of the age, there will indeed be a harvest: Christ will return to separate the wheat from the tares, and transform the whole world into the glorious Kingdom of God. Then an Era of eternal Reward and Retribution will begin, wherein the righteous will shine forth like the sun in the Kingdom of the Father (vv. 40-43).
- The two stages of the Kingdom are separated by a single Consummation at the Parousia of Christ.
With all Israel, the disciples followed the OT prophets in looking for the Day of the LORD; the Day when Yahweh, Israel’s God, would supernaturally break into history, judge the nations, and usher in the Age to Come (Isaiah 2, 13; Joel 2; Zephaniah 1; Malachi 4). In our parable, Jesus confirms this expectation, but also supplements it with at least three new mysteries; three fresh revelations about the true character of the Consummation and the Age to Come.
First, we learn here that the Day of the LORD is actually the Day of the Son of Man; the Day of the Lord Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 5:5; 2 Corinthians 1:14; Philippians 1:10, 16; 2 Peter 3:10). In other words, Jesus here lays the foundation for one of the great “mysteries” of NT eschatology: namely, that it pleases the Father to glorify his Messianic Son by making him the Agent of all the great eschatological acts that will bring Salvation History to its glorious close. For example, here in vv. 41-42 we learn that Christ himself will execute final judge upon men and angels; and indeed that it he will lift the curse from all nature, thereby casting out of his Kingdom all things that offend (Philippians 3:20-21). As we will see later, other NT texts flesh out this picture, portraying Christ as the divine-human Agent of the resurrection, the transformation of the living saints, and more.
Secondly, we see here that the Day of the LORD will occur at the Parousia of the High King of Heaven; at the close of his heavenly reign, when he descends from heaven in power and great glory to consummate Salvation History. Yes, in our present text there is only a hint of this mystery. But as we have just seen, many other NT texts confirm this scenario.
Finally, our text unveils the new truth that the Age to Come is, in fact, the Kingdom of the Father. Throughout the first stage of the Kingdom, the Father exalts and supremely honors the Son. Then, in the second, final, and eternal stage of the Kingdom, it is the Son’s turn to supremely exalt the Father. Later we will go into this subject in greater depth. Here it suffices to conclude by saying that in Jesus’ mind the NT mystery of the Holy Trinity obviously lies quite close to the heart of the NT mysteries of eschatology!
The Gist of the Other Parables of the Kingdom
To fully grasp the meaning of The Parable of the Wheat and the Tares is, I believe, to receive a precious key to all the rest. Let us therefore take that key in hand and look, ever so briefly, at the other parables of the Kingdom. My goal here is simply to give the gist, or essence, of each parable. Hopefully, these few remarks will move you to further meditation upon these precious eschatological gems.
The Parable of the Sower appears in all three synoptic Gospels, a sign of its great importance (Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23; Mark 4:1-9, 13-20; Luke 8:4-15). Indeed, Jesus himself identifies it as crucial for a proper understanding of the other parables (Mark 4:13). The great mystery unveiled here, and elaborated in the rest, is the distinctly spiritual character of the first stage of the Kingdom. During the days of Christ’s heavenly reign, the Kingdom does not come with observation (Luke 17:20). Rather, it is purely spiritual, completely invisible, and must therefore be entered spiritually and invisibly. How does this happen? As we have already seen, it happens by hearing with faith. Christ, the heavenly Sower, sends his Spirit-led Church into the world to scatter the seed of the Word of God, the Gospel. Satan, the wicked one, opposes her efforts, sometimes successfully (Matthew 3:15). Nevertheless, some seed falls on good soil: the noble hearts of God’s elect, who, amidst much tribulation, bring forth good spiritual fruit with perseverance. This parable is rich with instruction, warning, and encouragement. It teaches Christ’s pilgrim Church the centrality and indispensability of “the foolishness of preaching” for the advance of the Kingdom. It prepares them for the hard fact that not all who hear the Gospel will believe or persevere. But it also assures them that some definitely will (John 17:17; Colossians 1:3-6; 1 Peter 1:23).
Similarly, The Parable of the Mustard Seed assures the saints of the infallible, worldwide growth of the High King’s earthly realm, the Church. Yes, it starts out very small, with the body of a single carpenter from Nazareth being planted, seed-like, into the depths of the earth. But in the end it will sprout and grow to enormous size, extending its branches upward and outward to all nations, providing spiritual shelter and rest for untold multitudes around the world (Revelation 5:9). Thus, in parabolic imagery drawn from OT prophecy, the Lord affirms once again, “I will build my Church” (Ezekiel 17:22-24; Matthew 16:18; John 10:16)!
Much the same message is conveyed in The Parable of the Leaven: Like yeast spreading through a lump of dough, Christ’s spiritual reign will infallibly push its way through the earth until it permeates the whole world (Matthew 13:33). Here, however, we meet a further nuance: Not only does the Kingdom spread infallibly, but also, like the workings of leaven, secretly and mysteriously. On this score, The Parable of the Leaven is virtually identical with The Parable of the Growing Seed, found in Mark’s Gospel (Mark 4:26-9). In both of them, Christ is emphasizing that, despite necessary human labors, his global community of faithful believers is not a creation of man, but of the Spirit of Truth, whom the world cannot receive because it neither sees him nor knows him (John 14:17). The saints are to take comfort and courage from this, faithfully scattering the seed of the Word, then trusting the sovereign Spirit to do his secret, mysterious, and infallible work in human hearts until the appointed Day of Harvest (Mark 4:29).
The parables of The Hidden Treasure (Matthew 13:44) and The Pearl of Great Price (45-46) are both designed to communicate the exceedingly great value of the Kingdom for those who find it; a value that will quite naturally be reflected in their willingness “to sell all”—to make every necessary earthly sacrifice—in order to receive and retain it. Note also, especially from The Parable of the Hidden Treasure, how Christ again portrays his Messianic Kingdom as being invisible; as being hidden in the earth, or tucked away like a rare book in the stalls of the great marketplace of ideas that is the world-system. Clearly, this Messianic Kingdom has nothing to do with mountains, cities, temples, priests, sacrifices, or any other institution of the Mosaic Law. Rather, it is an invisible realm of spiritual rescue and restoration; a realm that does not even appear on the radar screen of the world-system; yet a realm profoundly valued and cherished by all who, through God’s sovereign grace, have heard, seen, and entered in.
Finally, we have The Parable of the Dragnet. This appears only in Matthew, where, fittingly enough, it brings Jesus’ discourse on the mysteries of the Kingdom to a close (Matthew 13:47-50). It is one of three parables picturing the Last Judgment as a definitive separation, whether of wheat and tares (13:30), sheep and goats (25:31-46), or good fish and bad fish (13:49). Here again Christ speaks of the holy angels. This time, however, we receive more light on their mission in that Day. First, they will gather in both good and bad; then they will gather out (lit. throw away) the bad. Later we will examine a number of other NT texts that shed more light on this single end-time “rapture” of the saved and the lost. Here, however, we conclude by observing yet again that Christ clearly anticipates a single Consummation. At the end of the age he will come again one final time (13:41). He will send forth his angels to assemble all men and angels before him (Matthew 25:31-32; 2 Cor. 5:10). He will turn away the wicked into hell (13:42, 50). And then, in a glorious new Age to Come, he will cause the righteous to shine forever in the eternal Kingdom of their Father (13:43).
A Summary of the Mysteries of the Kingdom
We are seeking Jesus’ view of the coming of the Kingdom: how it enters and unfolds in Salvation History. Our starting point has been his Discourse on the Mysteries of the Kingdom. Though clothed in parabolic language, it is fabulously rich. Indeed, with a little assistance from later NT texts, we find that it actually contains the whole of Christ’s cosmic eschatology; that in seed form it actually unveils all the essential mysteries of the nature and temporal structure (or coming) of the Kingdom. Let us summarize our findings so far.
The fruit of his ongoing redemptive action in history, the Kingdom of God is essentially a spiritual sphere of divine rescue and restoration, a sphere in which the evil sons of Satan have been supernaturally transformed into the holy and righteous sons of God. This one Kingdom comes in two stages, separated by a single Consummation at the Parousia of Christ at the end of the present evil age. The first stage is the Kingdom of the Son. During this time, the Messianic Son of God reigns from heaven, by the Spirit, over his earthly subjects. His benevolent rule is spiritual, invisible, redemptive, infinitely valuable, and worthy of all self-sacrifice. Amidst perennial conflict with the kingdom of the evil one, it advances spiritually and invisibly by “the foolishness of the message preached.” For this reason, sinners enter it spiritually and invisibly by hearing the Gospel message with faith. When at last the Kingdom of the Son has permeated the whole earth—when the Gospel has reached all nations, and a believing people has been gathered out of them—the end will come. The High King of Heaven will descend to the earth in power and great glory to raise the dead, transform the living, judge the world in righteousness, send the wicked into hell, and cause the righteous to shine like the sun in the Kingdom of their Father. The Kingdom of the Father is the second, last, and eternal stage of the Kingdom. Here God’s benevolent redemptive rule extends to the physical side of the creation, as well. Here all things—both spiritual and physical—become perfectly whole. Here, all things are forever filled with the glory of God.
Crucial Confirming Texts
In our journey so far, I have repeatedly stated that a great many NT texts confirm the view of the Kingdom unveiled in the Lord’s Discourse on the Mysteries of the Kingdom. We have touched on a few already. Now we must look more closely at some of the choicest. My strategy here will be to cite (but not reproduce) the text, and then make some brief observations. Please remember that my remarks will be limited to the topic at hand: the coming, or temporal structure, of the Kingdom. My goal here is simply to show you that all throughout the NT Christ and the apostles envision the Kingdom as coming in two stages only, with the spiritual Kingdom of the Son being separated from the spiritual and physical Kingdom of the Father by a single Consummation at the end of the present evil age.
With all this in mind, let us begin.
The Parable of the Minas (Luke 19:11-27; cf. Matthew 25:14-30)
The Lord spoke this parable to his disciples in anticipation of his imminent departure to heaven. His goal was to secure their faithfulness in Gospel ministry during the entire period of his coming physical absence. In Luke’s version, we read as follows:
He spoke another parable, because He was near Jerusalem, and because they thought the Kingdom of God would appear immediately. Therefore He said, “A certain nobleman went into a far country to receive for himself a Kingdom and to return.” (Luke 19:12)
These introductory words provide an eschatological framework for the disciple’s thinking, a theological paradigm that will enable them to persevere in service throughout the long and difficult days ahead. Each word is significant. The nobleman is Christ. The far country is heaven. When he arrives there, he will receive for himself a Kingdom. This is the Messianic Kingdom that the disciples mistakenly thought was about to appear on earth, in Jerusalem. But strange to tell, it is actually a heavenly Kingdom; a reward that God the Father will grant to his Messianic Son of Man; a core element of the great exaltation that God will bestow on him as a result of his humiliation, his arduous obedience even to the point of death (Daniel 7:14; Matthew 28:18ff; Philippians 2:5f; Revelation 5:1f). Importantly, the High King of Heaven will remain in Heaven for a long time: The Kingdom of God (in its fullness) will not appear immediately (Luke 19:11); the High King will indeed return(Luke 19:12), but only after many days (Matthew 25:19). Nevertheless, his coming is sure. Therefore, the disciples must not lose heart or grow lazy. For when the King does return, he will handsomely reward his faithful servants, but slay all the rebels who refused to have him reign over them (Luke 19:27). The former will enter into the joy of their Lord (Matthew 25:21, 23), but the latter will experience only weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matthew 25:30).
We have seen all this before, especially in the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares. Here, Christ once again clearly affirms the central mystery of the Kingdom: The one Kingdom comes in two stages: a temporary heavenly reign, followed by an eternal earthly reign, the two being separated by a single Parousia when the High King descends from heaven to consummate all things in final reward and retribution.
The Upper Room Discourse (John 13-17)
Subtly, but quite substantially, Jesus’ thinking as to the structure of the Kingdom is again on display in his Upper Room Discourse to the disciples. Notably, if fits in perfectly with all that we have seen so far.
His hour has come. His earthly ministry—his humiliation—is nearly complete. Only the cross—the final earthly work of God’s great High Priest—remains (17:19). When it is accomplished, his exaltation will begin. Following his resurrection, he will depart from this world to the Father who sent him, to his home in heaven above (13:1, 33; 16:5). However, he will not enter heaven as he left. Rather, he will return not only as the Son of God, but also as the Son of Man; as the Messiah, God’s Spirit-anointed Prophet, Priest, and King. When he arrives, the Father will glorify him in heaven, even as he so faithfully glorified the Father on earth (17:1, 4). Indeed, the Father will place all things in his hand, giving him authority over all flesh (13:3, 17:2). With that mighty scepter in hand, he will therefore embark on the next stage of his redemptive work, sending the Holy Spirit down to his disciples on earth (14:15-18, 15:25, 16:7). By the Spirit, he will indwell them (14:19-24), sanctify them (15:1f), and empower them to bear witness to the truth of the Gospel (15:26-16:15). Moreover, as they do so, he himself, by that same Spirit, will bestow eternal life upon as many as the Father has given to him (17:2, 20).
Here then is the saint’s pattern of life for the entire forthcoming Era of Proclamation and Probation. Laying hold of all these great provisions by prayer, obedience, and meditation upon God’s Word of Truth (14:21, 16:23-28, 17:17), the High King’s disciples of every time and place will abide joyfully in him (15:1f), serve one another in love (13:1-17), and bravely endure inevitable persecution (15:18-25)—all the while eagerly awaiting their Lord’s return. For in that day, the heavenly King will be as a Bridegroom to his Bride: In a glorious new world to come—an eternal dwelling-place that he himself will prepare for his Beloved—he will receive her to himself, that where he is, she may be also (14:1-3).
The Early Sermons of the Apostle Peter (Acts 2:14-39, 3:11-26)
As in Jesus’ Discourse on the Mysteries of the Kingdom, so here: Peter’s first two sermons to his Jewish brethren in Jerusalem give us the entire NT eschatology in a nutshell. The marvel is that he so clearly “gets it,” whereas only weeks before he most certainly did not. Before, both he and his comrades were wondering if the risen Christ would immediately expel the Romans and restore the promised Davidic monarchy to national Israel (Acts 1:6-8). Now, however, his thinking has completely changed. Now the Spirit has filled him, opened his understanding, and illumined the Scriptures. Now he understands, from those same Scriptures, that the Christ had first to suffer, and then to enter into his glory (Luke 24:26); that it was necessary for him to die, rise from the dead, and be exalted to God’s right hand in heaven, so that repentance and remission of sins could be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem (Luke 24:45-49). In short, Peter now understands that the Messiah’s kingdom—the very Kingdom promised in all the OT scriptures—is heavenly in origin, spiritual in nature, and redemptive in purpose. It is exceedingly abundantly unlike anything that Israel could ever have asked or thought (Ephesians 3:20).
But let us pause to explore these things a little more deeply. We will do so by taking a brief look at each of the two sermons. In the first, the focus is exclusively upon the mystery of the Messiah’s heavenly reign. In the second, Peter again speaks about this reign, but gives us further light on the Consummation that will occur at its end, when Christ returns from heaven to “restore all things.” Thus, between the two sermons, we do indeed behold again the nature and temporal structure of the Kingdom of God; the entire NT eschatology in a nutshell.
- The Sermon on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:14-39)
This majestic sermon came in response to a question. Beholding the spiritual fireworks of Pentecost, the amazed and perplexed onlookers asked one another, “Whatever could this mean” (2:12)? Peter was well pleased to tell them.
His answer was straightforward: “This is what was spoken of by the prophet Joel” (2:16). In other words, his hearers were to understand that the events of Pentecost mark the onset of the Last Days: days of the coming of the Kingdom; days of the Spirit outpoured; days of the saints prophesying; days of final judgment looming; and days when men may—and must—call upon the name of the Lord to be saved (Joel 2:28-32; Acts 2:14-21).
But what was not so straightforward—and what was so totally unexpected—was Peter’s explanation of how and why these events were occurring. His discourse was actually quite lengthy, and had to be, since here, for the very first time, the apostle undertook to introduce his Jewish brethren to the great NT mysteries of the Person and Work of their Messiah. Let us follow him carefully as he does.
Peter begins by pointing to Jesus’ miracles, explaining that God himself granted them by way of divine attestation, seeking to mark out Jesus of Nazareth as his Messiah; indeed, as the (Messianic) Prophet promised by Moses, the Prophet appointed by God to bring the light of his (redemptive) truth to all his peoples, both Jew and Gentile (Acts 2:22, 3:22-23).
Next he reminds them of Jesus’ death by crucifixion, affirming that it was indeed divinely foreknown and predestined to occur, yet a sin of unspeakable magnitude and gravity; a sin for which they themselves were personally responsible (2:23). Here then, in seed form, Peter introduces the Messiah as Priest and Sacrifice for the people of God.
Then, at considerable length, he speaks of the fact of Jesus’ resurrection. First, he shows that it too was in accordance with the prophetic Scriptures (Psalms 19:8-11). Then he explains that it had to occur, since God could not permit death, the penalty for sin, permanently to hold his Holy One in its grip (2:24-28). Here the apostle unveils the perfect holiness—and, indeed, something of the divine nature—of Israel’s Messiah.
In speaking further on this subject, Peter now unveils yet another reason for Jesus’ resurrection (2:29-32). As all Israel well knew, in the writing prophets God had promised that of the fruit of David’s body he would raise up One to sit upon his throne; a latter day King of the lineage of David who would rescue and restore Israel; in short, the Messiah himself. Jesus, says Peter, is that man. And for this very reason, God has not abandoned his soul to Hades, nor permitted his flesh to see corruption. Rather, he has raised him from the dead. And he has raised him from the dead so that he could raise him up to heaven and seat him on David’s heavenly throne! Here we again encounter the greatest eschatological mystery of the NT; the mystery that Jesus himself spoke of in his parables and in the upper room. It is the mystery of the Messiah’s heavenly reign; the mystery that the Messiah does not rule on earth over Israel according to the flesh, but in heaven—and from heaven— over Israel according to the Spirit; over the New Covenant “Israel of God.”
Now Peter reaches the climax of his sermon. In his grand peroration, he accomplishes two things: He fully answers their question about the meaning of the Pentecostal manifestations, and he does so by fully unveiling the (most unexpected) mystery of the Person and Work of Israel’s Messiah:
Therefore, being exalted to the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this which you now see and hear. For David did not ascend into the heavens, but he himself says, “The LORD said to my Lord, ‘Sit at My right hand, till I make your enemies your footstool.’” Therefore, let all the house of Israel assuredly know that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ, (Acts 2:32-36, 5:29-31).
In these inspiring final words, Peter’s great goal is to supply his audience with all the remaining NT truth they need to do exactly as Joel desired and foretold: call upon the name of the Lord and be saved (2:21). But what exactly is “the name of the Lord?” Peter knows, and has already unveiled it. He has told them that God bore witness to Jesus by various signs and wonders; that he foreordained and brought to pass his atoning death; and that in fulfillment of the prophetic Scriptures, he also raised him from the dead.
Now Peter lays the capstone. He tells them that God has exalted Jesus to his own right hand. As the text itself makes clear, this means far more than simply ascending into heaven. Rather, it means ascending into heaven so as to sit down at God’s own right hand; so as to receive from him (God) all authority in heaven and earth (Matthew 28:18f); so as to receive from him (authority over) the promised Holy Spirit; so as to pour out the Spirit on the nascent Church; so as to move the Church to preach the Good News of salvation, and thereby move sinners to call upon the name of Jesus for that salvation; so as to indwell the Church by the Spirit, and rule over her as her royal Head from heaven above; and so as to continue ruling until, on the Day of the Lord, he returns to puts all his (remaining) enemies under his feet, just as OT prophecy had predicted (Psalm 110:1). In short, God has exalted this Jesus, whom they crucified, to be the divine-human Lord of the entire universe, and to be the Spirit-anointed Christ—the redeeming Prophet, Priest, Sacrifice, and King—of all his people.
In his concluding remarks, Luke comments on the effect of Peter’s sermon, and it is well worth noting what he says (2:37-39). Because the High King of Heaven was much at work by the Holy Spirit, men were cut to the quick and cried out, asking what they must do to be saved. With the words of Joel still in mind, Peter directs them to the Lord Jesus, urging them to repent and be baptized in his name for the forgiveness of sins and the full reception of the gift of the Holy Spirit. Here again we see the distinctly redemptive and spiritual character of Christ’s kingdom: All who believe are rescued from the Domain of Darkness, transferred into the (spiritual) kingdom of God’s beloved Son, and restored to eternal life in the triune God (Col. 1:13). Importantly, this precious promise is not only for Jews, but for Gentiles as well; for all who are far off, as many as the Lord God of Israel is pleased to call (2:39). Well remembering his Master’s words about One Shepherd and one (new) Flock (John 10:16), Peter here speaks of the one new Israel of God, over which David’s Greater Son, seated upon his heavenly throne, will continue to rule until he comes again at the end of the age to restore all things (Acts 5:29-31).
- The Sermon at Solomon’s Portico (Acts 3:11-26; 2 Peter 3)
In spirit, content, and purpose, this sermon is much like the one delivered on Pentecost. By supernatural gifts of faith and power, Christ, through Peter, has healed a lame man (3:1-10). The amazed bystanders are inclined “to look” to Peter and John as the agents thereof, but Peter directs their attention instead to Jesus (3:11-12). Even in the days of his flesh, God glorified him (13). Yet Israel denied him, delivering him up to Pilate and killing the very Prince of Life (14-15). But God raised him from the dead, this Living One whose spiritual rule now gives life and perfect soundness even to the lame (16). Yes, this Jesus is the Christ, who, according to God’s predetermined plan, suffered and rose again, all in fulfillment of the OT Scriptures (17-18).
At this point, Peter reaches his goal, and in doing so gives his audience further precious light on the Messiah and the course of his heavenly reign:
Repent therefore and return, that your sins may be blotted out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send Jesus, the Christ appointed beforehand for you, whom heaven must receive until the times of the restoration of all things, about which God has spoken by the mouth of all his holy prophets since the world began (3:19-21).
Once again Peter bids his Jewish brethren to look upward to Christ, penitently and believingly, so that they may enjoy forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit (2:38-39). Note, however, that in this sermon he speaks for the first time about the course and conclusion of the Messiah’s heavenly reign. So long as God is calling Jews and Gentiles to Christ (2:39, 3:25), heaven must “receive” him: hold him there, keep him there. Happily, throughout this period of physical separation, the High King of Heaven will faithfully refresh his pilgrim people on earth with continuing visitations of his Spirit. When, however, the appointed time comes for the restoration of all things—a restoration spoken of by all the OT prophets—God will send him again to the earth. Why? Elsewhere, Peter gives us the answer: So that Christ himself may fulfill the great promise of the Covenant by creating new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells (Isaiah 65:17, 66:22; Acts 1:11; 2 Peter 3:13; Revelation 21:1)!
Here, then, is Peter’s eschatology. Though in need of further fleshing out, it is both clear and completely in line with his Master’s: The one Kingdom of God comes in two stages—a heavenly and an earthly—, with the two being separated by a single Consummation at Christ’s coming again, when he will finally judge, redeem, rescue, and restore all things (1 Peter 1:3-9, 4:7; 2 Peter 3).
The remainder of the sermon contains two or three further points of eschatological interest. In verses 22-23, Peter identifies Jesus as the (eschatological) Prophet promised by Moses of old (Deuteronomy 18:15). His point is that the entire OT prophetic institution finds its fulfillment in Christ, the Messianic Prophet of whom all former prophets were mere types and precursors. Very importantly, this Prophet is speaking right now, from heaven, through the Church, admonishing all everywhere to repent, believe, and turn to him. In other words, the High King of Heaven is also the High Prophet of Heaven, preaching his Gospel to all nations, and urging all to hear him, lest, at the Judgment, they should be “destroyed from among the people” (3:23).
Also, observe in verse 24 Peter’s confidence that all the prophets, from Samuel onwards, “foretold these days.” What days? The days of the High King of Heaven; the days of the Messiah’s heavenly reign; and the days with which he will bring it to close at his coming again. This point cannot be overemphasized. As for Peter, so for all the writing apostles: The sphere of fulfillment of all OTKP is the two-fold Kingdom of God: the Kingdom of the Son, followed by he Kingdom of the Father; the Era of Proclamation and Probation, followed by the Era of Eternal Reward and Retribution. Most assuredly, therefore, the OT prophets do not anticipate an ideal Mosaic theocracy in a future Millennium.
Finally, we note again from verses 25-26 that the subjects of Christ’s Kingdom are not Jews only, but Jews and Gentiles. Yes, God sent Jesus to the Jew first, a great privilege and a great responsibility (v. 26; Matthew 10:5-6, 15:24; Romans 1:16). But from the very beginning he purposed and planned that in Abraham all the families of the earth should be blessed (v. 25; Genesis 22:18, 26:4, 28:140). Soon, Peter himself will watch them come to the Messiah (Acts 8, 10-11). Indeed, soon he himself will be speaking of them as a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, and God’s own special people (1 Peter 2:10). Dwelling as they do beneath the benevolent rule of David’s Greater Son, they—along with their elect Jewish brethren—constitute the very Israel of God (Galatians 6:16).
Paul’s Teaching on the Two Stages of the Resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:20-28)
For clarity, conciseness, and comprehensiveness, this may well be the single most important NT passage dealing with the structure of the Kingdom of God. Many regard it as a bastion of amillennial eschatology, and also as the bane of every premillennial scheme. For this reason, it merits close examination.
A few words about the context are in order. Certain members of the Corinthian church have been denying the bodily resurrection of the dead (15:33-34). Realizing that this heretical tendency strikes at the very heart of the Gospel (15:1-11), Paul mounts a vigorous defense, exploring the resurrection from many different angles (15:12ff). In so doing, he is at pains to provide a chronological framework within which the saints at Corinth are to think about the resurrection. He does so in our text (15:20-28), after which he goes on to speak of other mysteries, including the nature of the resurrection body (15:35-49), the transformation and glorification of the living saints at Christ’s coming (15:50-53), and the glorious finality of Christ’s victory over death in that day (15:54-58). Thus, on the theme of the resurrection, and on the eschatological framework within which we are to contemplate it, there is no more important chapter in all of Scripture.
Let us work our way through this passage step by step, focusing once again on the matter that concerns us most: the coming and structure of the Kingdom.
In verse 20, Paul identifies the risen Christ as “the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.” Just as Israel under the Law was to offer two harvest sacrifices to God, one at the beginning and one at the end of the harvest season, so here: Christ is the first of all God’s saints to rise from the dead, and the One whose own resurrection anticipates and guarantees the full harvest of resurrected saints at the end of the age (Leviticus 23:10f).
In verses 21-22 we learn why the saint’s resurrection is guaranteed: Just as surely as Adam’s sin was imputed to his children, with the result that they all died, so surely shall Christ’s righteousness (along with the merits of his atoning death) be imputed to those who are his, with the result that they, like him, will certainly rise from the head. As the Last Adam, Christ is Head over a whole new humanity; God will deal as faithfully with the Body as he did with its Head (Romans 5:12ff)!
In the crucial verses 23-24, Paul now elaborates, explaining the two simple stages in which the full resurrection harvest is to be brought in. Three discrete events are involved, after which all the saints will have been glorified, and all Salvation History will have reached its ultimate goal.
The first event is the resurrection of Christ himself, stage one of the harvest. The second event is the resurrection of those who belong to Christ, stage two of the harvest, and the stage that brings the harvest to completion. Importantly, this occurs at Christ’s Parousia, when he will also change and glorify the living saints in the twinkling of an eye (15:50-52). Then, because Christ has now gathered the full harvest of the redeemed to himself, the third and final event will occur. Paul calls this “the end” (15:24). In our text, it involves two elements. First, Christ “puts an end to all rule and power and authority.” This is the final judgment, when all human and satanic foes are brought down and banished forever. Next, he delivers up the (completed) Kingdom to the Father. This is Christ’s Kingdom, the Kingdom of the Son. As we shall see in a moment, it includes not only his right to rule (i.e., the sovereignty delegated to him by the Father), but also the realm that he created by means of that rule: his resurrected and glorified saints, along with the beautiful new glorified world they are to inherit. All this reminds us of Jesus’ own teaching in the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares, where he spoke of the Son of Man coming again and casting out of his Kingdom all things that offend, so that in the end the righteous may shine forth like the sun in the Kingdom of the Father (Matthew 13:41-43).
Mindful that this material is breaking new ground, and desiring that the Corinthians better understand the delivering up of the Kingdom to the Father, Paul now backtracks and, in verses 25-28, explains things in greater detail. Observe from what follows how brightly the classic structure of NT eschatology shines forth from this passage!
In verse 25, Paul declares that Christ must reign till he has put all his enemies under his feet. As we learn from other NT Scriptures that cite Psalm 110, he has in view Christ’s heavenly reign, and not, as some assert, a future millennial reign subsequent to his Parousia (Acts 2:34f; Hebrews 1:13, 10:13). Throughout this period, Christ—from heaven, by the Spirit, through the preaching of the Gospel—will himself gather in his chosen people, turning former enemies into present friends by the miracle of regeneration. At the same time, he will also judge his impenitent adversaries, placing them under foot in Hades. And he will continue to do this until the Parousia, at which time he will finally destroy every remaining rule, authority, and power antithetical to his reign (15:24; Luke 19:27). This includes the last enemy, which is death itself (15:26), for God the Father has put all things—even death—beneath Christ’s feet (15:27; Psalm 8:6). Please consider carefully: If Christ destroys the last enemy at his Parousia, how then shall other enemies arise in a millennium subsequent to it, as premillenarians assert?
In passing, we should note that the reference to Psalm 8 is quite significant (15:27; Psalm 8:6). The Psalm itself is a cry of wonder and praise that God has exalted man so highly as to give him dominion over the work of his hands. However, lifting their eyes a little higher, the apostles see here an ultimate reference to the divine-human Messiah (Ephesians 1:22; Hebrews 2:8). As we saw earlier, in the beginning God purposed to make his Son the spiritual Head over all creation. When sin entered the equation, he then set about to fulfill that purpose by making the Son of God into the Son of Man; into the divine-human Redeemer, under whose headship he would place a new humanity and a new creation. Thus, in verse 27, Paul affirms that at Christ’s return God will fulfill his eternal purpose for his Son, placing all remaining enemies under his feet, and all remaining friends under his headship, with the result that all creation will be renewed, perfected, and glorified.
There is, however, one exception: the Father himself. He cannot come under Christ’s authority, since it is by his supreme authority that Christ received the (heavenly) authority that he now has (15:27). Accordingly, it is only fitting that in the end Christ should deliver up to the Father, not only his delegated sovereignty, but also all the (redeemed) things that the Father so lovingly delivered over to him, so that once again God (the Father) becomes the supreme authority over all (15:25). Note carefully from this amazing verse that Christ will deliver up all (redeemed) things to his Father. This is none other than the consummated Kingdom of the Son—a new glorified humanity and a new glorified universe—freely and lovingly surrendered up to the Father, so that in the eternal Kingdom of the Father, he may be all in all.
Summing up, we have found that in this decisive NT text Paul once again represents the Kingdom as coming in two simple stages, separated by a single Parousia of Christ at the end of the age. Moreover, we have seen that this single Parousia is closely associated with a single resurrection of the dead, a single transformation of the living saints, and a single judgment of Christ’s foes. The Parousia is therefore the hub, the fixed center around which all the other elements of the Consummation revolve. For this reason, in 1 Corinthians 15 the classical Reformation eschatology finds an excellent friend indeed.1, 2, 3
Paul’s Prayer for the Ephesians (Ephesians 1:15-23)
Paul’s letter to the Ephesians is an extended meditation upon the mystery of the Church, and upon its place in God’s redemptive purpose and plan for the universe. To read it is to see immediately that the mystery of Christ’s heavenly reign lies at the heart of both; indeed, that it has always been one of the great goals of Salvation History, a goal that has finally been reached, and is presently being fulfilled, now that Jesus Christ is seated at the right hand of God.
Our text—Paul’s majestic prayer for a spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of God and his purposes—throws considerable light on these things, supplying yet another NT confirmation of the centrality of the Messiah’s heavenly reign, and of the true structure of Salvation History.
In the preceding verses (1:3-14), Paul has laid a foundation, using a trinitarian framework to unveil the great mysteries of redemption, the core elements of the Eternal Covenant. Before the foundation of the world, God the Father elected a people (to be) in Christ (1:3-6). In the fullness of time, God the Son came forth, taking on human flesh and making provision for their redemption through the shedding of his own blood (1:7). Now, through the preaching of the Gospel, God the Holy Spirit is gathering this people in, sealing them for God’s own possession, and teaching them about the greatness of their inheritance in Christ (1:11, 13). In all of this, God is fulfilling his eternal purpose for his Son: the heading up of all things in Christ, the placing of all (redeemed) things beneath his direct and benevolent rule (1:10). But there is more. The full inheritance is yet to be received. For when at last his Church is fully gathered in, Christ himself will return to complete the redemption of the purchased possession at the resurrection of the dead. When he does, the curse will finally be lifted, and the whole creation will be delivered from its bondage to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God (1:14; Romans 8:18-21)!
With all of this as background, Paul’s prayer begins. He is deeply grateful for their faith (15-16), but he is also keenly aware of their need of further understanding, hope, and strength. So he prays, asking that God will open the eyes of their hearts to see three things: the hope of God’s calling, the riches of the glory of his inheritance in the saints, and the exceeding greatness of his power—the very power that will one day cause them to inherit all he has promised (17-19).
By way of conclusion, he illustrates that power. If ever they are inclined to doubt God’s ability to raise them from the dead or to recreate the universe, let them consider Christ: how God raised him from the dead, lifted him up into heaven, seated him at his own right hand, gave him authority and power over all men and angels, placed the very cosmos itself “under his feet” (i.e., under his control), and—best of all—made him Head, or King, over his Church, and over all things pertaining to her and her welfare (20-23). Yes, in mighty power the High King of Heaven is ruling even now, and will continue to do so until his return, when at last the heading up of all things in Christ will be complete, and the glorious new Age to Come will begin (1:10, 21, 2:7). Let all the saints take heart!
Here, then, is a truly majestic portrait of the exaltation of Christ. Though the language of the Kingdom does not appear prominently, the idea of the Kingdom does. It comes in two stages. The first is the Kingdom of the Son, during which time the Messiah rules over all—both the Church and the world—from heaven on high. The second is the Kingdom of the Father, the glorious age to come. The partition between the two is the Parousia, when Christ himself will accomplish the full redemption of the purchased possession, to the praise of the glory of the Triune God (1:12, 14).
Paul’s Teaching on the Saint’s Citizenship in Heaven (Philippians 3:20-21)
Short as it is, this little passage packs an eschatological wallop. Paul is exhorting the Philippians to walk after the example of the godly, and not like those “who set their mind on earthly things,” whose end is destruction (3:17-19). Eager to secure their obedience, he therefore concludes by supplying the spiritual rationale for a holy life, a rationale that is full of eschatological truth and encouragement:
For our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform the body of our humiliation into conformity with the body of his glory, by the exertion of the power that he has even to subject all things to himself.
Keeping our theme of the Kingdom before us, let us briefly spotlight three important points reflected in this text.
First, the saints are citizens of a heavenly Kingdom. As Paul taught in his letter to the Ephesians, God, by the miracle of regeneration, has brought the saints to life together with Christ, raised them up with him, and seated them with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 2:5-6; John 18:36). Physically, they may be citizens of Rome, but spiritually they are subjects of the High King of Heaven, citizens of his heavenly realm, who should live as such. Here again we encounter the Messiah’s heavenly reign, the distinctly spiritual Kingdom of the Son.
Secondly, the saints are eagerly awaiting the return of the Savior. That is, they are looking forward to his Parousia, when the spiritual salvation they presently enjoy will be enlarged to include the physical side of creation, and in particular, their very bodies.
This brings us to our third and final point, namely, that at his coming, Christ himself will effect a complete transformation and glorification of the cosmos, thus bringing in the Kingdom of God in its full and eternal form. We see this in verse 21, where we learn that Christ, at his Parousia, will effect two majestic eschatological acts. First, he will conform the humiliated natural bodies of the saints to his own glorified body; that is, he will resurrect and glorify the dead saints, and transform and glorify the living. But secondly, he will also exercise that same power to “subject all things to himself;” that is, he will banish every spiritual and physical enemy from the creation, and create a glorious new cosmos (Matthew 19:28; 1 Corinthians 15:20-28, 50-58). Again we are reminded of the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares, wherein our Lord taught that at his return he would cast out of his Kingdom all things that offend: not only the wicked themselves, but also the physical pain, deformity, and brokenness that so terribly burden the natural world (Romans 8:18-21). We conclude, then, that Paul, like his Master, envisioned the Kingdom as coming in two simple stages, separated by a single Parousia of Christ at the end of the age.
Eschatological Nuggets in Paul’s Letter to the Colossians (Colossians 1:13-14, 3:1-4)
Not surprisingly, the eschatological outlook of Paul’s letter to the Colossians is identical with that of his letters to the Corinthians, Ephesians, and Philippians. It appears with special brilliance in two nuggets that are short enough to cite in their entirety. The first is a familiar friend:
He (the Father) has delivered us from the Domain of Darkness, and transferred us to the Kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. –Col. 1:13-14
The second complements the first, and caps it off:
If then you were raised with Christ, keep seeking the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your mind on things above, not on things on earth. For you died and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is our life, is revealed, then you also will be revealed with Him in glory. –Col. 3:1-4
Here—and in the letter as a whole—we again find the classic NT eschatology. Having chosen a people for his own possession, God the Father has sent forth his Son to live and to die for them, thereby providing a just basis for their redemption (2:14, 3:12). In fulfillment of his eternal purpose (1:16), he has also raised Christ from the dead, received him into heaven, seated him at his own right hand, where he will henceforth serve as cosmic Head, not only over the Church (1:18), but also over all rule and authority, whether human or angelic (2:10). In short, God has made the Lord Jesus to be High King of Heaven and Earth.
In the exercise of this delegated cosmic sovereignty, Christ now sends forth the Spirit into the Church, and by that same Spirit sends forth the Church into the world, to proclaim “the word of the truth of the Gospel” (1:5). As the Colossians—and all of God’s elect in all creation under heaven (1:23)—hear that word, God performs his miracle of regeneration, rescuing them (through faith and repentance) from Satan’s evil kingdom, and transferring them (through that same faith and repentance) into the spiritual Kingdom of his beloved Son (1:13). Because of this gracious spiritual miracle, they come to life with Christ, rise with him, and sit down with him in the heavenly places (2:11-14, 3:1; Ephesians 2:4-6). They now share in the Messiah’s triumphant heavenly reign.
This calls for holiness. Henceforth, their physical life on earth must reflect their spiritual life in heaven. Strengthened by prayer and biblical meditation, they must turn away from earthly things, and keep on seeking the things that are above, where Christ is seated at God’s right hand (3:1). Thus shall they become fully pleasing to the Lord, bearing fruit in every good work, and increasing in the knowledge of God (1:10). Does the world scorn their preoccupation with spiritual things; does it scoff at an invisible King and an invisible Kingdom? To be sure. But let the saints rest assured: One day soon, their faith—and their message—will be vindicated! At his coming, Christ will be revealed from heaven in power and glory. When he is, they too—whether by resurrection or transformation—will be revealed with him in glory (3:4). And when they are, the whole creation itself will be revealed in glory with them (Romans 8:18-21)! As their Master himself had said, in that day, the righteous will shine forth like the sun (and like the Son) in the glorious, never-ending Kingdom of the Father.
The Writer to the Hebrews on the Heavenly Reign of God’s Royal High Priest (Hebrews 1:1-5, 13)
The anonymous author of the epistle to the Hebrews sought to warn, instruct, and encourage wavering Jewish Christians who, for various reasons, were tempted to return to Judaism. Recognizing that a rejection of Christ and the New Covenant would rob them of eternal salvation, he drew upon his vast knowledge of the OT to press home two relevant truths: 1) In and of itself, the OT service of worship, centered around the Tabernacle and the Temple, was altogether inadequate to make sinners right with God; 2) the OT service of worship was typological in nature, pointing forward to the Person and Work of Jesus Christ, who has now fulfilled it and therefore rendered it obsolete. Accordingly, to go back to Judaism is to go against the very flow of Salvation History; it is to repudiate the very Christ and the very Covenant towards which that history ever tended, and from which it ever borrowed whatever efficacy it had. In sum, now that Christ has come, they should not go back, for now that Christ has come, they cannot go back!
Very importantly, in making his case, the writer sheds a great deal of light on our theme: the heavenly mediatorial reign of Christ. Here, however, the emphasis is less upon Christ’s Messianic Kingship, and more upon his Messianic Priesthood. Nevertheless, this extended treatise on the High Priest of Heaven is most useful to us, since it clearly displays the writer’s total eschatological outlook, the very same outlook that we have gleaned from our previous texts.
In a highly condensed form, we encounter it at the outset, especially in the first five verses of Chapter 1. Here the writer’s clear purpose is to display the deity of Christ, thereby sharply distinguishing him from the angels, with whom some of the Jewish Christians were apparently confusing him. To this end, he identifies Christ as “the Son,” and the Son as the (co)-creator of the world (1:2), the sustainer of the world (1:3), and the express image of the Father’s person (1:3). No angel here!
Importantly, he also speaks of the Son as the heir of all things (1:2), the One by whom and for whom all things exist (2:9). But how exactly does the Son inherit all things? Our text addresses this as well: He becomes a man, purges the sins of God’s people, and sits down at the right hand of the Majesty on high (1:3). Yes, in so doing, he inherits a more excellent name than the angels (1:4). But he inherits that most excellent name because he inherits the universe as well! As our text implies, through the humiliation and exaltation of his divine-human Son, God has “begotten” the Messiah: He has fitted him for, and set him in, his great ministry as the High King (and Priest) of Heaven and Earth (1:5). In one form or another, his throne—his universal sovereignty—will endure forever (1:8). In the present stage of his rule, he will sit a God’s right hand until he makes all his (remaining) enemies a footstool for his feet (1:3; Psalm 110:1); until he himself comes again, and folds up both the heavens and the earth like a cloak, changing (i.e., glorifying) them once and for all (1:10-12). Again, let no Christian think of this One as an angel! Rather, let them worship him as the all-sovereign God-Man—and let the angels do so, as well (1:6)!
We find, then, that the standard NT eschatology—the simple two-staged view of the Kingdom—appears in the very first chapter of this epistle. Moreover, it appears repeatedly in the rest of the book. A brief overview will make this important point clear.
As the writer makes his case for the superiority and finality of the New Covenant, he begins by showing that the incarnation of the holy Son of God was absolutely necessary for the salvation of sinful men (2:10-18, 10:5-10); that animal sacrifices—which were mere pictures of Christ—had no intrinsic power to redeem (10:1-4).
But to what purpose was this great sacrifice? The answer must surprise and thrill every godly Jew: Christ died to give all God’s people direct, ongoing access to himself; to give them entrance, once and for all, into the Holy of Holies! How exactly can Christ grant this supreme blessing? First, by laying down his life a sacrifice for sin, and then by entering heaven itself as the High King—and the eternal High Priest—of his people (2:17-3:6, 4:1-5:11). Fully adorned with the infinite merit of his own life and death, he now appears in the Presence of God for the saints (9:24). And wonder of wonders, in doing so, he brings them in with him! Henceforth, they may come boldly to the throne of grace (4:16). Henceforth, they may enter the Holiest by the blood of Jesus, drawing near with the full assurance of faith and a clear conscience (10:19-22). Henceforth, they have come to the Zion that is above, they dwell in the Jerusalem that is above, and they worship in the Temple that is above (8:2, 12:18-24).
But this is not the end of the Good News. For even as the pilgrim Church enjoys refreshing communion with God and Christ in heavenly places, she also eagerly anticipates a Day that is fast approaching (10:25); a Day when he who is destined to come, will come (10:37); the Day when God, through Christ, will once again shake not only the earth, but also the heavens (9:28, 12:26); the Day in which he will remove all that can be shaken, so that only what cannot be shaken will forever remain (12:27). On that Day, Abraham will enter the better country that he ever sought (11:16); Moses will receive the reward for which he gladly sacrificed the treasures of Egypt; and all the other saints, like God himself at the creation, will enter into their everlasting rest (3:7-4:10).
Thus, in Hebrews as well, we find that the one Kingdom comes in two stages—a “mysterious” heavenly stage, followed by a glorious earthly stage—separated by a single, all-consummating coming of the High King of Heaven.
John’s Vision of the Lamb Receiving and Unsealing the Testament of God (Revelation 5)
Here I offer a teaser, but a purposeful one. Later in our study we will look closely at the astonishing structure of the Revelation. As we do, we will see that chapters four and five—John’s vision of the Sovereign Creator and Judge upon his throne, followed by his vision of the Sovereign Redeemer at the Father’s right hand—constitute the core, the theological center of gravity, of the entire book. In particular, chapter 4 establishes the dreadful fact that sinful man stands in desperate need of a Redeemer. Chapter 5 establishes the corresponding—and glorious—fact that the holy God has graciously provided one, who now stands before him in heaven. On the one hand, he stands as a Lamb: alive indeed, but with the marks of his having been slain (5:6). Here is Christ as Priest and Sacrifice, as the High Priest of Heaven, whose work on earth has secured the redemption of God’s people (5:9-10).
On the other hand, he also stands before God as a Lamb having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth (5:6). Here is Christ as the ROYAL High Priest; as the High King of Heaven, having all authority in heaven and earth, and all disposition over the Holy Spirit, so that from his throne above he may henceforth apply the redemption that he secured on earth to his people. As the rest of the book shows, this is precisely what he will do throughout the entire Era of Proclamation and Probation: He will unseal the Father’s last will and testament. In other words, he will take all the judicial and redemptive steps necessary to gather in and prepare His elect for the grand unveiling of the (full) Promise of the Father at the end of the age. As John beheld over and again, this unveiling will occur at the Parousia, when the High King of Heaven descends to the Earth, once and once only, to consummate all things in final judgment and in final redemption, thereby bringing in the saint’s full inheritance, the glorious Kingdom of God.
At the outset of our journey we saw that the Revelation is the one NT book upon which premillenarians base their distinctive eschatology, and by which they challenge the eschatological outlook that so naturally emerges from the many other NT texts we have just studied. However, in chapters 18-20 we will see that, far from overthrowing that outlook, the Revelation supplies what is arguably its single most extensive, intricate, beautiful, and powerful confirmation! In short, we will find that the Revelation is the glorious capstone that seals, once and for all, the body of NT truth concerning the coming of the Kingdom, the shape of all biblical eschatology, and the winner in the Great End Time Debate.
The Coming of the Kingdom
Having closely examined NT teaching on the Eternal Covenant and the nature and structure of the Kingdom, we are now ready to distill what we have learned into a summary of the NT view of the coming of the Kingdom of God. It involves, I believe, three basic stages: 1) The earthly ministry of Christ, during which time the Kingdom is founded; 2) The heavenly reign of Christ, during which time the Kingdom is continually coming into the world; and 3) The Parousia of Christ, when the Kingdom is consummated. Let us look briefly at each one.
Earthly Ministry: Kingdom Founded
By earthly ministry I mean the full scope of Christ’s work during the days of his flesh, from the moment of his incarnation to the moment of death and burial; in other words, the entire spectrum of events and activities proper to the humiliation of the Son of God. As we saw earlier, this humiliation was part and parcel of the Covenant of Redemption, into which the Son entered with the Father before the foundation of the world. In essence, its great purpose was to make provision for the promise of the Covenant of Grace; or, to use the biblically favored metaphor of the Kingdom, to lay a proper (legal) foundation for the coming, building up, and consummation of the Kingdom of God. We can get a better feel for all of this by touching very briefly on certain key aspects and events of the Lord’s life on earth.
Everything begins, of course, with the incarnation of the Son of God as Jesus of Nazareth. Here, God the Father sends the Covenant Provision into the world as the Last Adam, the new Head of a new, elect humanity. Since he is destined to become the Messiah—the Spirit-anointed Prophet, Priest, and King of the people of God—Jesus’ birth is, as Zachariah, Simeon, Anna, and the Magi all well understood, the birth of a great King, the King of the coming Kingdom of God (Matthew 2:1-12; Luke 1:67-69, 2:25-38).
Next is Jesus’ water baptism beneath the hands of John, at which time, in fulfillment of OT prophecy, God the Father anoints the Messiah with the Holy Spirit (Isaiah 42:1f; Matthew 3:13-17). This too is in fulfillment of the Covenant of Redemption, since here the Father equips and empowers the Last Adam for every aspect of his earthly work. Importantly, this anointing neither crowns Christ as King, nor launches his Messianic reign: From his birth, he is indeed already the Messianic King; but, as we shall see in a moment, the actual commencement of his reign awaits his exaltation. So then, the anointing of the Spirit at the Jordan is meant to equip Christ to prepare a people for the eventual coming of his Kingdom, and also to lay a proper foundation for it.
This brings us to his three and half years of ministry, wherein Jesus lived, taught, worked, and finally died as a sacrifice for the sins of his people. If we stand back and survey these years from the point of view of the Covenant of Redemption, we behold their essential meaning quite clearly: They are the years in which the Last Adam fulfills all righteousness on behalf of his people; in which—by obeying the Father’s every command, passing his every test, and complying with his every precept in the Mosaic Law—he (Christ) fulfills the Covenant of Works, thereby earning the prize of eternal life for his own. However, included in these works is the single greatest work of all: his atoning death, by which he satisfies God’s justice and propitiates his wrath, thus making the imputation of his righteousness possible, and the regeneration, justification, and reconciliation of his people sure (Romans 3:21-26, 4:1f, 5:1f, 8:29ff; 2 Corinthians 5:21). Thus, by his active and passive obedience throughout the days of his humiliation, Christ fulfills and abolishes the Mosaic Law, introduces the New and Eternal Covenant, and secures its great promise: eternal life under God’s direct, benevolent rule. In short, by all that he did in the days of his flesh, Jesus laid a perfect and eternally abiding foundation of the coming of the Kingdom of God.
Not surprisingly, then, this same Kingdom lay at the very heart of his earthly ministry. We observe this in several different ways.
As we have seen, he heralded the Kingdom, proclaiming to all Israel that it was at hand: near and drawing nearer by the moment, both temporally and spatially (Matthew 4:17, 10:7; Mark 1:15).4
He previewed the Kingdom, miraculously rescuing multitudes from various spiritual and physical afflictions, and also restoring them to a measure of the perfect wholeness that would characterize life in the Kingdom when it actually came in fullness (Matthew 9:35, 10:6-8, 12:28, 17:1f).
He explained the Kingdom, introducing his disciples to the mysteries of its true nature and temporal structure, mysteries they would fully understand and enjoy only when the Kingdom had indeed come into the world, and they into the (first stage of the) Kingdom (Matthew 13:1ff; John 16:13; 1 Corinthians 2:6f; Ephesians 1:8-10).
And finally, he offered the Kingdom, directly and primarily to Jews, but also indirectly and secondarily to Gentiles (Matthew 10:6, 15:21-28, 21:1-23:38; John 4:1-42). Importantly, in making this offer, Jesus never projected himself as a temporal king who, in the manner of his forefather David, would rise to the throne by military might (Matthew 12:14-21; John 6:15). Rather, he simply called upon Israel to repent of their sin and to follow him in faith (Matthew 8:22, 11:25-30, 16:24, 19:21, 23:37-39; John 6:29). In other words, the Kingdom Jesus offered to Israel was always and only spiritual; it was always and only a direct, benevolent rule of God and Christ,to be made possible by the total redemptive work of Christ yet to be completed (Luke 17:20-21; John 6:3, 18:36). Here, then, we meet one of the great mysteries of God’s redemptive purpose and plan: The spiritual Kingdom that Christ sincerely and urgently offered to the Jew first, but also to the Gentile, could not be entered until Jew and Gentile had rejected both him and it, so that upon the solid foundation of his righteous life and atoning death his heavenly Kingdom of spiritual light and life might actually arise in the earth, and its mighty doors swing open to all (Matthew 23:37-38; John 3:14-15, 12:31-34; Romans 11:33-36)!
Heavenly Reign: The Kingdom Coming
The coming of the Kingdom is part and parcel of the exaltation of the Last Adam, the divine/human Messiah, the eternal Prophet, Priest, and King of God’s people. As we saw earlier, this exaltation was a key element in the Covenant of Redemption, according to which the Father, upon condition of the Son’s obedience unto death, would fulfill his eternal purpose for the Son by raising him from the dead, taking him up into heaven, seating him at his own right hand with all authority in heaven and earth, bestowing upon him the privilege of gathering in his elect, and also of consummating his eternal plan in final judgment and redemption at the Parousia. Again, it is through this great exaltation—and especially through Christ’s heavenly reign and Parousia—that God fulfills his eternal purpose for his Son, making him Head, or King, over a new humanity and a new world (Ephesians 1:10; Colossians 1:16-18, 2:19). It is through this that the saints experience the Promise of the Eternal Covenant. It is through this that the Kingdom of God actually comes into the world.
The NT is quite clear in designating the Day of Pentecost as the beginning of the coming of the Kingdom. As Jesus himself told Nicodemus, no one can see or enter the Kingdom unless he is born from above, born of the Spirit (John 3:3, 5). But no one could receive the Spirit until Christ had been glorified (John 7:39, 17:1,5): until he had finished his redemptive work (John 19:30), risen from the dead (Romans 4:25), entered heaven as the High Priest and Advocate of his people (Romans 8:34; Hebrews 9:24; 1 John 2:1), removed the legal veil separating God the Judge from man the sinner (Matthew 27:51; Hebrews 6:19-20, 10:19-22), received the promised Spirit from the Father (Acts 2:33), and poured out this same Spirit upon his own, as he did on the Day of Pentecost (Luke 24:49; Acts 2:33). Therefore, Pentecost was, as Peter himself affirmed, the beginning: the beginning of the Church, the beginning of the Era of Proclamation and Probation (Acts 2:14-39), the beginning of Christ’s heavenly reign (Acts 2:36), and the beginning of the coming of the Kingdom of God into the world (Acts 11:15).
We receive a picturesque and dramatic confirmation of this great truth in Revelation 12:1-12. In a vision, John beholds a Woman who gives birth to a Male Child who will one day act as a shepherd with a rod of iron towards all (disobedient) nations. For now, however, he is caught up to God and his throne (12:5). As soon as he is, war breaks out in heaven between Michael (and his angels) and the Dragon (and his angels). But the Dragon—who has hitherto successfully deceived the whole world–cannot prevail, and is cast down to the earth, along with his angels. At this, John hears a loud voice in heaven, saying:
Now salvation and strength and the kingdom of our God and the power of His Christ have come, for the accuser of our brethren, who accused them before our God day and night, has been cast down. –Rev. 12:10-12; John 12:31-32
What a powerful picture this is! Christ, as High Priest and Sacrifice, has entered heaven, removing every legal barrier to the redemptive rescue and restoration that is the essence of the Kingdom. Henceforth, Satan has no legal grounds upon which to accuse God’s people, or to hold them captive by means of his various deceptions. Therefore, by the Spirit, Christ sends out his Church to preach this Good News; and by the same Spirit, he also enables his elect of every nation to believe it. In other words, through the preaching of the Gospel, Christ lawfully rescues God’s people from every deceiving shackle of the Domain of Darkness, transfers them into the spiritual Kingdom of the Son, and restores them to eternal life in union with God Triune (Colossians 1:13). As a result, ever since the Day of Pentecost the Kingdom of Satan has been continually falling, for which reason he rages in fury against the Church Militant, knowing that his time is short (12:12-17). But the saints are not to fear. Indeed, they are to rejoice! Because of their High Priest in heaven, the accuser cannot (successfully) condemn; and because of their High King in heaven, the tempter cannot retake and control. Accordingly, throughout the Era of Proclamation and Probation, Christ will build his Church, and will keep his Church (Matthew 16:18; John 10:16, 28-30). The Kingdom of our God and the power of his Christ have come, and they will infallibly continue to come, until that happy Day when they come in glorious fullness at the High King’s return (12:11, 14, 16).
Parousia: Kingdom Consummated
As we have seen in text after text, the third and final stage of the coming of the Kingdom is the Parousia: the return to earth of the glorified Lord Jesus Christ at the end of the present evil age, in order to raise the dead, transform the living, judge the world in righteousness, purge the present cosmos by fire, and create a glorious new world, the eternal home of the redeemed.
Here, all of God’s purposes in the Covenant of Redemption and the Covenant of Grace are finally fulfilled. Here the exalted Christ fully and finally places all (redeemed) things under his cosmic headship. Here he fully and finally rescues those things from every spiritual and physical enemy. And here he fully and finally restores them to every spiritual and physical blessing of the direct reign of God. In short, here Christ himself brings in the Kingdom in its full and final form, the form in which he is pleased to deliver it up to the Father, so that God—throughout the endless ages to come—may be all in all.
Our theme in this chapter has been the coming of the Kingdom. Earlier, we saw that the OT did indeed speak truly of a coming Kingdom, yet in veiled, symbolic language. In his Discourse on the Mysteries of the Kingdom, Jesus declares that the disciples cannot understand this language without the proper keys; and that the keys they need are none other than the mysteries that he himself is now placing in their hands.
These mysteries—repeatedly affirmed in the book of Acts, the epistles, and the Revelation—pertain both to the nature and structure of the Kingdom.
As to its structure, we saw that Jesus consistently represents the one Kingdom as coming in two stages: the Kingdom of the Son, followed by the Kingdom of the Father, the two being separated by one Parousia of Christ at the end of the present evil age.
As to its nature, we saw that in essence both stages of the Kingdom are the same: They are spheres of redemption, in which God reigns directly over his blessed subjects in virtue of the work of his Redeemer, a Redeemer who rescues his subjects from every spiritual and physical enemy, and restores them to every spiritual and physical friend.
Nevertheless, there are significant differences between the two stages of the Kingdom, differences that are vital for a full and proper understanding of biblical eschatology.
Thus, concerning the Kingdom of the Son, we saw that is temporary, extending from Pentecost to the Parousia. It emanates from heaven, and in particular from the High King of Heaven, who is seated at the Father’s right hand. It is altogether invisible to the naked eye, being a creation of the Christ who is himself hidden in heaven, and who secretly works in men’s hearts by a Spirit whom the world can neither see nor receive. Infallibly, this Kingdom spreads abroad, advancing throughout the earth by the “foolishness of preaching.” Miraculously, it grows to its appointed fullness, as the Spirit of God graciously bestows upon his people the gift of hearing with faith. For the world, its days are days of probation, in which, beneath the preaching of the Gospel, men are tested concerning their love of the truth about God. For the Church, its days are days of opposition, struggle, and humiliation; yet they are also days of hope, as the saints, following in the footsteps of their persecuted Master, make their pilgrim way through the wilderness of this world to the Land of Promise waiting up ahead.
When, however, Christ returns in power to consummate all things by the full spectrum of his great eschatological acts, he will usher in a very different Kingdom indeed.
Here in the Kingdom of the Father the divine reign is no longer partial, but complete; no longer temporary, but permanent. Here it no longer emanates from heaven above, for here heaven has descended to earth, so that earth and heaven are one. Here the Kingdom is no longer spiritual only, but spiritual and physical, extending not only to the saint’s bodies, but also to the new and glorified world in which they live. Here the Kingdom is no longer invisible, but fully manifest, for here the pure in heart see God. Here it is no longer growing, but full-grown: The harvest of the earth has been reaped, once and for all. Here, there is no longer a brief season of proclamation and testing, but an eternal season of reward or retribution. And here there is no longer a short night of struggle and humiliation, but an endless day of rest and glory for all who have believed, served, and overcome.
Now if indeed we are reading Christ and his apostles correctly—if indeed this is the truth about the nature and coming of the Kingdom of God—then it is clear we have reached a very special moment in our journey. For having received from our Teacher such precious keys as these, what is there to prevent us from using them to face one of greatest challenges of biblical eschatology? What is there to prevent us from using all we have learned to draw up a biblically sound time-line of Salvation History, a timeline that not only displays its true chronological structure, but also its very heart and soul?
Sound interesting? If so, meet me in chapter 10!
- In 1 Corinthians 15:50-57 Paul completes his discussion of the resurrection by introducing another “mystery,” the previously hidden truth that the saints living at the time of the Parousia will not die, but will be glorified “in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.” This text also powerfully supports the simple two-staged view of the coming of the Kingdom. When will the living saints be glorified? At the resurrection of the dead (52). When will the resurrection occur? At the Parousia (23). What will sound at the Parousia? The last trumpet (52). Why is it called the last trumpet? Because it heralds the one resurrection that will forever swallow up death in victory (54-55). So then, for Paul the Parousia brings the end (24), the subjection of all enemies (25), the subjection of all things (26), the last trumpet (52), the resurrection of the dead (52), the glorification of the living saints, and (for the saints and the world they shall inherit) the eternal abolition of death. In short, the Parousia brings the Consummation of all things. How then, after the Parousia, shall Christ rule for a thousand years over a world in which Satan, various human and natural enemies, and death itself are still present; in which more resurrections and more judgments must occur; and over which still another “last” trumpet must sound?
- It is deeply instructive to see how premillennarians try to reconcile their eschatology with the plain sense of Paul’s teaching in this decisive text. John MacArthur, for example, commenting on verse 23, asserts that “those who are Christ’s will be raised and enter the eternal heavenly state in three stages at Christ’s coming” (MSB, p. 2401). What he means is that Christ’s Coming to raise the saints will occur in three stages: a pretribulation Coming (i.e., the Rapture, when he raises dead believers) a post-tribulation Coming (when he raises OT and Tribulation saints), and an intra-millennial Coming (when Christ, in all likelihood, will continually raise and glorify the millennial saints at the moment of their death)! This is an outstanding example of what theologians call eisegesis,reading something into a text that is not there, instead of simply extracting from the text what really is. No matter that in the entire Didactic NT there is not a single mention of a future Millennium; the premillennarian’s commitment to a literal interpretation of OTKP and the Revelation force him to make room for one, just as MacArthur does here. But would it not be better to take our cues from the Didactic NT, and so reconsider our commitment to prophetic literalism? Yes, says Christ and the apostles, it would.
- Historic premillennarian, George Ladd, pointing to the presence of certain Greek words denoting sequence, interprets verses 23-24 as follows: “An undefined interval falls between Christ’s resurrection and his parousia; and a second undefined interval falls between the parousia at the end” (New Testament Theology, p. 559). For Ladd, the second undefined interval is an earthly millennium. But does this text—or Paul’s eschatology as a whole—support his view? For reasons cited in note 1, I would strenuously argue that it does not, and that the interval between Christ’s one Parousia and the delivering up of the glorified Kingdom is precious short indeed.
- It is true that in the Gospels we find Jesus declaring that the Kingdom of God is in your midst (Luke 17:21, NAS), and that the Kingdom has come upon you (Mt. 12:28). This does not mean, however, that during the days of his flesh the Kingdom had come into the world as an abiding presence; that it had actually taken root in the earth; that it had begun its redemptive assault upon the Domain Darkness. For reasons indicated above, that coming must await the Day of Pentecost. So then, in these two texts Jesus is saying that the Kingdom that will come on the Day of Pentecost is even now in your midst (though not yet within you), and is even now upon you (though not yet permanently). By way of sneak preview, it is here; but by way of its definitive entrance into human history, it has not yet come.