By Samuel Clough
“Don’t be intimidated in any way by your enemies. This will be a sign to them that they are going to be destroyed, but that you are going to be saved, even by God himself. For you have been given not only the privilege of trusting in Christ but also the privilege of suffering for him.” – Philippians 1:28–29 (NLT-SE)
Perseverance of believers in the face of suffering is one of the primary testimonies of the age to come and the truth of the gospel. Not only is it a testimony to unbelievers, it is also a great privilege. The privilege of believing, of coming into the understanding of Jesus, is one thing, but there is an additional privilege in suffering. That privilege is not just coming into an understanding of Jesus, but coming into real, physical participation with His life by living a life of a similar kind as His was. I wonder how many of us consider suffering to actually be a privilege? We do not because we do not understand the significance of suffering.
Not only is suffering a privilege, but it is at the very heart of Jesus’ exaltation and Paul is connecting the believers in Philippi to his description of Jesus’ exaltation in the first 11 verses of chapter 2. Paul’s encouragement to the church to embrace suffering is his logical conclusion to his own consideration of Jesus’ own sufferings which began in the first part of the chapter.
Because Jesus’ sufferings led to His exaltation, therefore he is encouraging the church as well to embrace her sufferings that she might follow her master, both in temporary suffering and in permanent reward from God. Paul is encouraging them to follow the divine pattern. Their reward in the age to come is dynamically connected to their suffering in this age, just as Jesus’ present exaltation as ruler over the universe was the result of His suffering.
Obeying God in blessing can be easy, and this is not to say that God does not release blessing or that all blessing is wrong. However, there is something unique about suffering. Suffering demonstrates the authenticity of love. Suffering is what disarms the powers and principalities because when a heart is unmoved by suffering then a fragrance of love arises that they are powerless against. When love arises in the midst of suffering, the powers are completely stripped of their powers over the one who is full of love in the mist of suffering.
When believers love during suffering, it demonstrates their love for God as a person rather than love for God merely as a benefactor. While God is our source, it is also critical that we understand these two kinds of love and suffering is the tool to demonstrate what kind of love we have. The test of suffering reveals that we love God for who He is and not what He does for us unless, tragically, we fail the test.
When we demonstrate that kind of love, it is a rebuke to the powers and principalities who live only for their own benefit and constantly seduce men to live in the same way. In many cases, it is the suffering of the church that breaks the drunken delusion of the age and confronts lost men with the reality of deception.
The world has no answer for a suffering church. The powers and principalities are stripped and exposed by a suffering church. A suffering church is the ultimate rebuke for this age and it is the ultimate sign of the age to come. When men begin to give their lives and lose their privileges for the sake of the age to come it is the witness that God will save them and a witness to men who live only for their own benefit and pleasure that they will be destroyed.
A persecutor can destroy the body, but he is powerless against those who willingly suffer for their master. Lost men may refuse to hear the words of the gospel, but they are incapable of ignoring the testimony of the suffering of the saints. How many have been converted not just from the words of a gospel witness, but from the demonstration of the gospel in a suffering man or woman? It is easy to reject words. It is another thing altogether to gaze at the one who willingly suffers, even unto death, for the unseen God.
When that kind of suffering takes place, the unseen God becomes visible in front of those witnessing the suffering. It is the ultimate testimony of Jesus. No more are ideas and concepts about God only ideas. Those ideas take on flesh and blood in the suffering saint before them. When lost men and women see the saint willingly giving their life for the salvation of the age to come, it confronts their empty and hollow lives that are relentlessly driven by their own desire for self preservation.
This kind of witness is demanding. It requires a church willing to lay down her life, but it is the call of Jesus. He calls us to take up our cross and follow Him and this is what that following looks like. It is willingness to suffer for the gospel. it is willingness to lose benefit in this life, even to the point of losing our own breath, in order to be a demonstration to this age that Jesus is worthy of love. Not only is He worthy of love in general, but He is worthy of this kind of love in particular.
God is looking for a people that He can trust with suffering because He wants to put the gospel on display. He wants to embarrass the powers and principalities. He wants a rebuke to lost men in this age so that their delusion might be shattered and they might have the opportunity to repent.
Let us set our hearts before Him and commit to take up this cross that His name might be made great. This is not a casual conflict, but a weighty battle. The powers are not intimidated us when we do not challenge them, but when we embrace suffering, we challenge them directly with truth. Grace is needed, but let us not back off from this, but let us embrace suffering as did our Lord.
By Samuel Clough
Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, And to offsprings, referring to many, but referring to one, And to your offspring, who is Christ. – Galatians 3:16
Abraham only received a part of his promise in his son Isaac. In other words, Isaac was the fulfillment of a promise of descendants, but Isaac was not the promised descendent. There was another descendant that would come from Abraham. Abraham is such a towering figure of faith because, even in receiving Isaac, he had to continue to look forward to promises that his eyes never saw before death.
We are caught in a similar predicament. We receive the Holy Spirit both as a fulfillment of the promise and as a downpayment of the promise to come. We are given the very real gift of the Holy Spirit and yet the Scripture is also very clear that there is a much greater fulfillment coming. This is what causes Paul to use words such as “down payment,” “earnest money,” and “deposit” to describe our present experience of the Holy Spirit.
Just as Abraham received Isaac as a testimony that the promised Son would come forth, we must also receive the Holy Spirit as a testimony that the promised Son will return. Just as Abraham was tested on the promise that a Son would come forth that would give him an inheritance in every nation (Gen 12), we are given the Holy Spirit as a testimony that God will fulfill His promise and resurrect our entire body. Abraham had to wander Canaan as a witness looking for the kingdom the Son would establish. In the same way, believers are spread into every part of the earth, as nomads of heart, waiting for the promised Son to fulfill that inheritance.
Given the low place eschatology, and a solid, real eschatological hope presently has among God’s people, can we honestly say we have the faith of Abraham? Abraham had to trust that God would raise up a Seed to bring blessing to the nations from a barren womb. We are being asked to watch, wait, deny ourselves, and live soberly in anticipation of that promised Seed returning, judging the earth, and bringing restoration to creation. The resurrection of creation is no less a miracle than what Abraham carried in his heart. If we are not living constantly in an eschatological perspective, making decisions with the literal day of the Lord in view, are we living as Abraham did?
Our faith is to be just as active, rugged, and absolute as Abraham’s was. Many of us may be “coasting” feeling like we are living in the fulfillment of what Abraham ached and longed for, but the reality is that living the Christian life as God intended it will require a faith as demanding as Abraham’s. If he could speak, Abraham would be urging us to live with a heart that is just as uncomfortable with the present as his own way. He would be pleading with us to live longing for the second appearance of Messiah as strongly as he longed for the first.
Abraham’s longing caused him to wander with no real home looking for a city that God built. In other words, his heart was so set on a future city that he refused to settled in any of the contemporary cities. He would rather wander uncomfortably to maintain a longing for a future city then to settled in a city and risk losing the ache and the longing. I wonder sometimes if we give credence to the coming city, but dull the ache in our heart by being too settled in the cities of our time.
Abraham received Isaac in joy, but even this child of promise caused his heart to long for the appearance of the ultimate seed that could fulfill all the promises. Do we receive the Holy Spirit with all the joy and eagerness that Abraham embraced Isaac with and then long from the depths of our heart to see the fulfillment of the promises with the Holy Spirit points us to or are we content with what we have now?
We must acknowledge that It is to our shame that we have so little interest in the Holy Spirit. It is as shameful for us as it would have been for Abraham to not embrace the baby Isaac. However, for those that eagerly receive from the Spirit, do we allow the Spirit to do His full work of causing us to long for the appearing of the promise? Abraham was called to sacrifice his son Isaac on a hill so that he would know the ultimate promise was not Isaac, but something greater.
So too, the Holy Spirit desires that we receive all that He will give us, but He longs to point us to something more than we have in this age. He wants to cause our hearts to ache that we might receive something greater in the physical return of Jesus to the planet and the resurrection of our entire being by the Holy Spirit. Abraham did receive Isaac back, but he also crossed over into a confidence that God would fulfill all His promises no matter what happened to Abraham. The willingness to sacrifice Isaac was not just an issue of Isaac, it actually changed Abraham’s heart and joined it to God’s promise in a new way. Like Abraham, we need to have our hearts bonded to God’s promises.
Again, do not make the mistake of despising what God has given now, but do not make the critical mistake of losing sight of the ultimate promise that is coming. What is given now is given unto inspiring faith to believe that God will do all that He has promised. In other words, the Holy Spirit and eschatology are inseparably linked.
The clear evidence of this is found in Acts 2. The Holy Spirit so filled Peter with faith, enabling him to believe that God would do all that He had promised, that Peter immediately connected the gift of the Holy Spirit with Joel 2. Since that time, whenever there is an unusual outpouring of the Holy Spirit one of the primary results is a sudden urgency with regard to the return of the Lord. Believers suddenly feel the nearness of His return and it becomes an integral part of their proclamation.
What this also means is that when believers give testimony to the Holy Spirit but have little or no real interest in the return of the Lord, in the sense that it alters the way that they live, that something is lacking in their experience of the Spirit. Perhaps God is asking many of us to sacrifice our present enjoyment of the Holy Spirit, as Abraham did Isaac, that we might no longer consider what we enjoy now to be the fulfillment but that, like Abraham, we might exercise faith in looking for a greater fulfillment. The heart transformation that would come from such a sacrifice is real and substantial.
The issue is not to lay aside our experience of the Holy Spirit. God forbid we should ever do that! The issue is that our present enjoyment of the Holy Spirit must not be an end in itself, but rather we must sacrifice our present satisfaction that we might allow the Holy Spirit to transform us into pilgrims like Abraham. If He is given full control, He will do this work. So long as we are content with just a little of the Holy Spirit now, we are like Abraham refusing to sacrifice Isaac. We are like little children so enamored with our present gift, that we have no faith for a future promise that God is calling us to.
God is looking forward, let us not look back. We must take all that has been given, not despising any of His present gifts, but we must also keep pressing forward looking for the “Day of the Lord” which will be the fulfillment of the promises regarding the Seed. God is looking to see if there are any men who consider His promise worthy actually rearranging their lives around it. He is looking for saints that believe His word, in spite of all opposition, and are looking forward to the complete fulfillment of the promise first given in the garden. Anything less is not following in our Father Abraham’s footsteps.
By Samuel Clough
The harvest is great, but the workers are few. So pray to the Lord who is in charge of the harvest; ask him to send more workers into His fields. – Matthew 9:37b-38 (NLT)
No one would deny the great need for laborers for the gospel in this hour. Not only is there the great need among the nations of the, but previously evangelized cultures in the western world are growing more and more ignorant of the gospel and more and more in need of a gospel witness.
The need for the gospel to go forth with power is clear and the need is as great as it has ever been in history. There are more men lost and in bondage on the earth now than ever before in human history. God is laying this burden on the hearts of believers all over the earth, but it is imperative that we do not merely respond to the call but that we return to the apostolic method of missions whether we have in view missions to the lost in our neighborhood or to an unreached people group.
What are we to do when are hearts are burdened by the great need of the gospel to go forth in power? Though our first impulse is to zealously enter into activity, Jesus summarizes the apostolic missionary method in Matthew 9:38. Before we undertake any activity, if we are truly burdened for the overripe harvest fields, we are to enter the place of intercession asking God to send out laborers into the fields and I fear that our familiarity with the language of the Scripture has masked just how radical Jesus’ instructions are.
Most of us, burdened with the great need of the gospel to go forth, immediately devise ways of motivating others to the call. We find new and innovative ways to call people to the great need of the sharing the gospel. We use charts and graphs to clearly indicate the great need. We devise powerful sermons that move the human heart to respond. We create training programs to equip individuals to evangelize. We teach new and innovative methods to communicate the gospel. In other words, once we get even a hint of the burden of God’s heart for the gospel we set ourselves immediately to activity and completely bypass Jesus’ instructions on how to respond to an overly ripe harvest.
We fall prey to this error for many reasons, but one reason this course of action is so deceptive is because the activities we have already listed are all necessary to the cause of world evangelism. Individuals must be called to share the gospel. They must be trained and equipped. Believers must understand how critical the hour we are living in is. It is not that what we are doing is wrong, the issue is that, in the rush to activity; we are setting the cart before the horse. Matthew 9:38 exposes our error in clearly declaring that laboring for an apostolic sending of men from heaven is the horse that must pull the cart of missions.
Saints, we have had a lot of gospel activity but the reality is what we have had little fruit. A lot of sweat, tears, blood, effort, and money have been expended and yet we have not seen the kind of results that the apostles saw. While there are many reasons for our lack of fruit, Matthew 9:38 identifies one of the critical errors.
The Apostolic Pattern
Saints, if we desire to again see apostolic missionaries of the same kind as the early apostles were, we must return to the apostolic method of missions and the apostolic method is to first pray to the Lord of the harvest to send laborers. The most well known apostolic missionary, Paul, was sent out of a community in Antioch that was obedient to the apostolic pattern. In Acts 13:2, the saints were in the place of prayer and the Spirit expressly sent Paul and Barnabas forth to the gentiles and so began the career of one of the greatest apostolic missionaries of all time.
Part of the secret of Paul’s success was that he did not just go to the gentiles with a burden and under the compulsion of human emotion, but he was sent by the Spirit. After all, that is exactly what is means to be apostolic. Apostolic simple means a “sent one.” In fact, it is a clear indicator of our lack of understanding of what it means to be apostolic that we constantly attempt to define what is apostolic according to role and function. We define an apostle by what he does, but an apostle is defined by who his is. To be apostolic is to be sent and only the Holy Spirit can effect a sending. When we begin defining what is apostolic by the activities that accompany it rather than by the God initiated sending that is the basis of all that is apostolic, we have already lost the essential elements of what it means to be apostolic.
The Holy Spirit is the Grand Architect
We must understand that man is not the grand architect, nor even the executor, of the plan of world evangelism, but rather that the Holy Spirit is the architect of the cause of Jesus on the earth. In the book of Acts we clearly see the Holy Spirit actively directing the work of the church. While we would acknowledge the work of the Holy Spirit, we are much more prone to use the “wisdom” of 2,000 years of history to prop up human effort while we give the Holy Spirit lip service and then ask Him to provide the miraculous power when we need a “sign” or a “wonder” to back up our gospel claims.
And is it not part of our fundamental problem that our gospel campaigns our often our campaigns and not His? Saints, the Holy Spirit has not changed His role. He is still God. He is still the grand architect of the church as He is the one that makes known to us the mind of Jesus and tells us what is on His heart. Is it not the height of arrogance that we build so much of our gospel activity on human wisdom and human zeal and then ask the Holy Spirit to sprinkle a few miracles on it as though He is simply power for our programs?
We ignore the Holy Spirit as a person and as the all-wise God and instead use Him for power and then we stand amazed that so little power is on the gospel. Frustrated, we read the accounts of the apostles and become disillusioned that there is not power on the gospel, but when we have not followed the apostolic pattern, we should not wonder that the Holy Spirit does not gives His full endorsement to our activities.
We must again give the Holy Spirit His place as the grand master architect of missions and as the possessor of the mind of God if we expect His power to accompany our proclamation. It is true that He always uses men and that is precisely where the confusion comes in. He uses men and then we come to believe that something is intrinsic in man and so we seek to duplicate the pattern we see played out in a man rather than go back to the place of the sending of the Holy Spirit that is what made the man unique in the first place.
The issue of missions then is putting the Holy Spirit back in His place through the application of Matthew 9:38 and one of His primary roles, as the initiator of gospel activity, is to send men and women. As already noted, this is foundational to the understanding of what is apostolic because contained within the very definition of apostolic is the understanding that one who is apostolic is one who is sent.
It is true that the community of saints must send and individual, but that sending must be a secondary sending. When a community sends an individual whether it is to pastor a local church, or to go labor across the earth that sending must be an affirmation and acknowledgement of a sending that has already taken place, because before one can be properly sent by men they must have been marked as a sent one by the Holy Spirit.
Saints, one sent men can do more to turn the world upside down then a thousand believers sent by human effort and motivated by human zeal. The great need of the earth right now is not laborers, it is sent laborers and there is a tremendous difference. There is a reason that Isaiah 6, Jeremiah 1, and Acts 9 are such pivotal passages and the reason is that they mark the sending of a man from heaven. Men that are sent from heaven change history. Men that are sent from man merely increase activity. God, in His kindness, may give some measure of blessing to man’s efforts, but He will not give an apostolic outcome where the apostolic pattern is not followed.
If the great need then is sent men is there any way we can increase the number of heaven sent laborers in our generation? Matthew 9:38 holds the promise for us. Are you burdened for the gospel? Do you feel the Lord’s heart both for your own nation and for the nations of the earth? If so, then the first thing is not to preach your burden or call others to missions, although that may very well come, the first thing to do is drop to your knees and ask the Lord of the Harvest to send men.
If you truly understand the great need of the harvest and the vast need for laborers you will understand the gross inadequacy of human effort and be pressed into the place of intercession crying out that God would send men knowing that a sending from heaven is the only solution to the great need of the earth in our hour.
Contending for Sent Laborers
The place of prayer is the place where the great missions enterprise is lost or won, for it is only in that place that we can secure the favor of heaven to send men for white harvest fields demand sent men, not merely laborers sent of energy, zeal, and humanistic motivations. Jesus’ instructions to His disciples were radical. They were ready for His call to lay down their lives and labor in the harvest fields, but I suspect they were surprised to hear Jesus’ admonition to rather pray that God might send men. As a measure of how significant Jesus’ words were, Acts 6 reveals that the apostles learned this lesson well as they gave themselves to prayer and the Word that sent ones might go forth and they shook the powers in their generation because their labor in prayer secured sent ones.
How different Jesus’ value system is from ours! We rush to activity, and the fact that we rush so quickly to activity betrays the fact that we have so little confidence in prayer and the reason we have little confidence in prayer is that we have little confidence in God Himself. We are more confident in our ability to labor than we are in God’s ability to send, though it is the heaven sent ones that are truly apostolic and that change history.
Does laboring on our knees preclude laboring in works? Certainly not. We must put our hands to the tasks in front of us in obedience to Jesus. He certainly calls us to labor, but He calls us first and foremost to the labor of prayer. He calls us first to gaze upward and cry out for sent ones to again walk among us and advance the gospel with power as the apostles of old did. We will labor until our bodies are exhausted and spent, but we must labor as sent ones from heaven, and it is the place of prayer that will secure this sending. Jesus’ command does not give us the luxury of praying and then refusing to go when sent.
The Holy Spirit has not changed. He is still jealous for Jesus’ glory. He is still the grand architect of the gospel enterprise. He waits only for a company of people who will resist human initiative and lay hold of Him in prayer beseeching Him to send men of His own initiative into the harvest. He will send men if we stand before Him and ask for apostolic witnesses. He will anoint the gospel with power when it goes forth according to the apostolic pattern.
By Samuel Clough
By faith Noah, being warned by God concerning events as yet unseen, in reverent fear constructed an ark for the saving of his household. By this he condemned the world and became an heir of the rightesouness that comes by faith. – Hebrews 11:7 (ESV)
Have we fully considered the faith of Noah? He believed what he heard from God in spite of what was around him. We find that he alone had confidence in the word of God and the promise of God. What is even more amazing than his belief is the fact that Noah’s obedience condemned the world. The very way that Noah lived pronounced a judgment on the age in which Noah lived. (It is important to understand that, in the context of the verse, condemning the world is more rightly described as condemning the age rather than the earth. It is a condemnation of the systems and values of this age rather than a condemnation of the creation.) The word used here has the idea of declaring the verdict but not necessarily executing it. The execution of the verdict belongs to God always, but our very lives are a part of declaring the verdict.
How then should we live? As our lives are lived under firm confidence in the Word of God, our lives are proving the truth of His promise by the way His promises shape our lives. Our unseen, mostly future, hope then becomes the very evidence that the unseen thing for which we hope exists (Hebrews 11:1). Our lives are designed to be a witness and testimony to the truth (Acts 1:8).
Have we considered that our very lives are going to be testimony against the damned? God is calling us to live in such a way that we give a witness to the truth that is so authentic that it condemns those who do not believe. Saints, do we live this way? Do you live in such a way that your life pronounced a judgment on all who turn away from the gospel? Are you such a vibrant witness to the living, risen Son of God that for men to reject your witness is to condemn themselves?
Jesus did not leave the world without a testimony. We have the testimony of the infallible Scriptures. We have the testimony of creation which Paul argues in Romans is sufficient to bring one to at least a rudimentary knowledge of God. We have the inner witness in man that we call the conscience that leads a man into truth. We have the testimony of the very Spirit of God who convicts this world of sin, righteousness, and judgment (John 16:8).
Besides these witnesses God has given, He also intends us to be the primary witness to the world. How that should cause our hearts to tremble. Who we are and how we live is to give vibrant and living testimony of Jesus. In other words, on the day of judgment when men stand before Jesus, should a man try to claim ignorance, Jesus will point to you and me and say, “They were a living flesh and blood example of Me. They were evidence that every word I spoke was true. There is no way you could have seen then and not seen Me. You are without excuse because the testimony of their lives was too compelling.”
Who is sufficient for this? Can you and I honestly say that we are witnesses to the extent that a man encountering us is as though he has encountered Jesus Himself? Does our witness have the power to condemn men? Can men who have seen us be condemned for having seen the reality of God and rejecting it? This is what the author is saying of Noah. Noah so carried what God had spoken in his heart that to reject Noah was to reject God Himself. Noah was a man of flesh and blood just like you and me, but what he carried in his life was so vibrant, so alive, that it was enough, in God’s eyes, to be a revelation of Himself to the unbelieving world.
Are our lives so much a revelation of Jesus that they would count as a verdict against the world? Are we enough of a witness to condemn the world when it rejects us? Remember the inverse is true as well. If our lives are so authentic that they can bring condemnation that means they are also authentic enough to bring men to life. It means that we are so full of the living God that there is a river of living water flowing from us (John 7:38) from which men can drink. If our lives are a real enough testimony to condemn men then they are also real enough to bring men into life.
By Samuel Clough
We often speak of the “Kingdom of God” or the “Kingdom of Heaven” in Christian circles but I am afraid that very few of us actually know what we are talking about. I say this because there seems to be volume upon volume written on the kingdom, each volume trying to present the kingdom slightly differently and, at the end of the day, it seems most believers are confused as to what the kingdom actually is and are unable to clearly articulate the kingdom when asked to define exactly what the kingdom of God is. I have seen a teacher pose that question to seasoned believers and the saints questioned looked dumbfounded and were at a loss for words to clearly articulate exactly what the kingdom is. It is a significant issue that we struggle to understand something that is at the cornerstone of Christian theology and is at the heart of the apostolic proclamation of the gospel.
Now, obviously I cannot give the kingdom a full treatment in one post. Volumes have been written on the kingdom so any small thing I can post here cannot even begin to be exhaustive. However, I believe a few short words about the essence of what the apostles, and Jesus, actually meant when they used the term “The Kingdom of God” may help to demystify the kingdom making it much more approachable and understandable.
Two Primary Misunderstandings
I believe there are two primary misunderstandings that have caused confusion about what the kingdom actually is. The first misunderstanding arises in the fact that the word kingdom is a foreign word to the western mind. We operate in governmental structures that are rooted in the ideas of democracy and, to a lesser extent, a republic and so the word kingdom is foreign to us. For us it is a word that we encounter only in fairly tales and ancient history. It is not something that we can tangibly relate to. Dictator would probably be the closest word to kingdom that we could understand, but it has negative connotations that make its use unsuitable.
The second misunderstanding that causes confusion is the influence of Greek thought on Christianity. Because of Greek influence on western thought and culture, we spend more time looking for the “ultimate meaning” of a passage rather than wrestling with the literal words in front of us as the Hebrews would. Compounding the issue is Matthew’s description of the kingdom as the “Kingdom of Heaven” which, because of the Greek dualism which separates “heaven” and “earth” that we have embraced, makes the kingdom even more ethereal. So, because of our heritage of Greek thought, we are looking for the ultimate meaning of a kingdom that seems just as ethereal and mystical as “heaven.” Because we think that “heaven” is some other ethereal realm, we struggle to create ways to make the “kingdom of heaven” relevant and tangible to existence on the earth. Understanding the misunderstandings that have clouded the definition of the kingdom for us, let’s now look at a few simple concepts that will help us gain a better understanding of what the kingdom actually is.
The Kingdom is Simply a Government
The simplest way to properly view the kingdom, coming from a western perspective, is to use the word government rather than kingdom. When you swap this word it is amazing how clear Biblical passages become. When Jesus or the apostles declare the “kingdom of God” they are essentially declaring the “government of God.” When you read a passage and substitute the word government for kingdom, just that word substitution will immediately enable the western mind to better understand the passage as the apostles intended.
The second concept that can help us understand the kingdom, or government of God, is understanding why Matthew uses “Kingdom of Heaven” rather than “Kingdom of God.” First, Matthew never wrote “Kingdom of Heaven.” He wrote “Kingdom of Heavens.” (Use any Bible software, or consult commentaries, and you will see clearly that heaven in the book of Matthew is always plural even though it is translated in English in the singular.) Now, this did not make sense to the Greek mind and so translators have rendered it “Kingdom of Heaven” in accordance with the Greek concept and model of reality which defined two distinct realities consisting of “heaven” and the physical, or earthly, realm rather than according to the Hebraic understanding of one unified reality consisting of both the heavens and the earth.
So what is the “Kingdom of Heavens”? This is explained in Genesis 1:1 when we are told that in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. God created the heavens as the place of His throne, or His government, and then created the earth as man’s place of government. The earth then was under the heavens, or subservient, to God’s throne. This idea is all throughout the Old Testament once you understand what the language means and understand that the word “heaven” is never in the Old Testament as a singular but is always plural.
The Old Testament is filled with consistent references to the heavens as God’s dwelling place and as the seat of all power and authority over the earth. This was the Jewish, and apostolic, understanding of the universe. The key is understanding that the Greek idea of “heaven” is foreign to the Jewish mind. Once you understand the basics of the Jewish concept of “the heavens” the Old Testament becomes much more understandable and the simplicity of the Jewish understanding of the cosmos becomes very apparent when you read the Scriptures.
The Apostolic Proclamation of the Kingdom
Now it is a popular misconception that earth is under satan’s rule until Jesus returns. This is actually false. The earth is still completely under the power of the heavens. This is actually the correct understanding of the sovereignty of God. The sovereignty of God is not primarily His ability to manipulate events to produce a desired outcome, but rather His present rule over all of creation. The Bible makes this completely clear in multiple places. Just a few references that are helpful on this subject are Daniel 4:32, Psalm 103:19, Romans 13:1-2, and 1 Peter 2:13-23. (Leave a note in the comments if you are struggling to understand the present authority of God and I’ll try to write a post on that topic in the future.)
So we now can understand that “kingdom” is another word for government and “heaven,” or the more accurately “the heavens” is a reference to the throne of that government. Now notice how Young’s Literal Translation helps us understand this even futher:
And in those days cometh John the Baptist, proclaiming in the wilderness of Judea, and saying, ‘Reform, for come nigh hath the reign of the heavens,’ – Matthew 3:1-2 (YLT)
Young’s translation, being literal, makes the text clear. John was proclaiming the the ruler of the heavens, in other words God Himself, was coming near to them. Can you see now why the people flocked to John to repent and to cleanse themselves in an act of baptism? John was not announcing some sort of ethereal or “spiritual” kingdom, but rather was declaring that the ruler from the throne over all creation was coming near among the people. The ruler of the heavens, the location of God’s throne, was now coming near His people as a man.
If ever anything would drive men to repentance this would be it! And so it did with the people flocking to John to prepare their hearts for his arrival. They knew full well how disastrous it was when God appeared to His people in the wilderness during the Exodus so they were now preparing their hearts for His visitation in their day and time. You can see now also why Matthew used the phrase “Kingdom of the Heavens.” He was writing to a Jewish audience so that phrase clearly conveyed what he was trying to convey which is that the very ruler of the government of God was among them. In addition, the Jews would have read “the Heavens” as a euphemism for God since the heavens are His dwelling place. This would allow Matthew to clearly convey the Kingdom of God to a Jewish audience.
The other writers were targeted on a wider audience than Matthew so they used the phrase the Kingdom of God because the Greeks, and others, did not necessarily have the same understanding as the Jews of the heavens so they, rather than using the euphemism that Matthew used, just plainly used the term the kingdom of God which clearly communicated that they were referencing the very government of God.
And Jason has received them, and they are all acting against the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus – Acts 17:7 (ESV)
We can see clearly that the apostolic presentation of the gospel continued in this same vein. They clearly preached the government of God. In fact, this is one of the major factors in the early persecution of the Christians. The Jews shared the morality and monotheism of the Christians, but it was the aggressive message of the early apostles of a real and present government over the government of Caesar and the coming of the ruler of that government, Jesus, to shatter all the governments of the earth that caused such an uproar. The Romans could not tolerate such preaching because they were declaring another kingdom that was going to usurp Rome.
In fact the Greek words used to refer to the preaching of the gospel in the New Testament are the same words that were used of a messenger of Caesar who was delivering Caesar’s decree to the people in remote places. In other words, the proclamation of the gospel was a governmental decree carried by messengers of God’s government called “apostles,” which simply means “sent ones.” The apostles were offering the people redemption and forgiveness that they might have right standing with God’s government and be kept safe in the hour when God Himself chose to smash the rebellion of the nations and to move His governmental headquarters from the heavens to the earth.
Can you see now why Paul who write letters encouraging the saints of their citizenship in the kingdom of the heavens and their role as ambassadors of this government? The early church clearly understood the “Kingdom of God” to be a governmental reality that they were declaring, both as a present reality and as a coming reality in the installment of Jesus as an earthly, as well as in the heavens, king and the destruction of all unrighteous government. This why the church in Thessalonica, though Paul was only with them a very short time, had been taught eschatology. Paul simply declared the government of God and the repentance that was necessary before that government destroyed the rebellion of other governments. The apostolic proclamation of the kingdom was governmental.
This is also why Jesus could say that the kingdom was within us when our hearts were submitted to His government. The earth at present is in rebellion against His government and is in the delusion that the rebellion is successful. Those who have repented understand that there is a higher government consisting of a present king that is also coming to destroy the delusion and rebellion on earth. In their repentance, they now become messengers of this government, carrying the reality of it in their hearts and in their witness. This coming government, along with the offer of redemption and immorality through the Spirit, is the cornerstone of the apostolic proclamation of the gospel.
Why is the kingdom demonstrated when signs and wonders occur? It is simple. Healing and other signs serve two purposes. First they demonstrate the nature of God’s government. Satan has deceived man that God is a tyrant who desires to inhibit man from true freedom. Healing and deliverance oppose that lie by demonstrating the true nature of God’s government. These signs clearly demonstrate that satan is actually the tyrant and it is God’s government that brings the maximum freedom and pleasure to man.
The second purpose these signs serve is to validate the governmental proclamation of the gospel. We are to declare a present ruling King as well as a King that is coming. How are men, under the delusion of the present rebellion, to know that this proclamation is valid? In order that men might know, God grants signs and wonders as a miraculous testimony that our proclamation is true because they demonstrate an authority beyond that which man, or satan, can exert.
There is much more than can be written on this topic, but this should help to simplify the issue of the “Kingdom of God” or the “Kingdom of Heaven.” Hopefully you can see that it is much simpler than we have made it out to be. It is simply God’s present government which also includes a future military action, led by Jesus, in which He will destroy all rebellion and relocate the headquarters of His government from the heavens to the earth. Many valid insights have been taught over the years, but I fear we have made the kingdom too mystical and not as practical and real as it is.
Let us return to the roots of the faith and the simplicity of the gospel proclamation rather than trying to examine the apostolic proclamation through hundreds of years of philosophy and cultural mindsets that are different from the cultural understanding that Jesus and the apostles preached from.