What did the Man from Nazareth teach about God’s kingdom? It was a subject dear to His heart. Almost all of the 84 references in the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John to the terms “Kingdom of God or “Kingdom of Heaven” quote Yeshua’s own word. In the decades that followed, his friends use these words another 14 times. Was this Kingdom to be a literal rule from Jerusalem that would extend across the whole earth as the prophets had foretold (1) or was it to be more than that? Surprisingly, throughout His ministry Yeshua turned down all opportunities to political leadership, and declared:
My kingship does not derive its authority from this world’s order of things (2).
Yeshua rules in the heart of His individual followers, with them, and from within them (3). This is radically different from what the Jewish people of His day expected. As in the days of Samuel, they looked for freedom to have a king of their own, to rule the land of Israel for themselves, under God’s sovereignty. They looked merely for a political figure.
The promises of the Tanakh are always available for those who reach out for them. Eretz-lsrael is the inheritance of the Jewish people and always will be, should they so choose. Zionism is one thing; setting the Land as an idol is another. A diligent search of the New Covenant scriptures shows no reference whatever to the Land being the ultimate Kingdom of God.
The Lord has given, however, a treasure greater than the Land – a Messiah, His own Anointed One to lead His people. So easily in our messianic synagogues and fellowships we fall into the trap of highlighting Jewish liturgy or Jewish culture or aliyah. Messiah Himself is the treasure we are to seek, and our goal is to display His beauty in our personal lives.
The End of the Age
In his commentary on Matthew 23, Stern (p.16) points out that the rule of God in the hearts of mankind is “near or present … and that it is (also) yet to come”. The Old Covenant prophets spoke of a future golden age, but their view seems expressed in limited earthly terms. God’s kingdom is mentioned countless times in the gospels, where the emphasis is in spiritual terms, concerning the relationship between God and His people. The “thousand years” of Rev 20:1-6 appears after the unveiling of God’s Messiah, Yeshua. Does the final book of the New Covenant revert back to an earthly viewpoint?
Yeshua’s followers have looked hard and long at the scriptures to see the detail of His coming kingdom. Those who trust the scriptures agree that He is the Son of David and the King of Israel. Yet they see that He is more than that – more than human. He is the divine King to whom the whole world belongs, who will come again in a literal way to rule (4).
Purpose of the Kingdom
In different centuries Yeshua’s followers have emphasised different aspects of His kingdom. As we look at these alternatives, we need to remember that our focus should remain on the fact that the kingdom is not for our personal pleasure or comfort. It is not for the preservation of the physical earth. It is not for the propagation of our own cultural or doctrinal preferences. It is rather for the ultimate purposes and pleasure of our God – an area that deserves our thoughtful consideration at another time.
Messiah’s kingly office, says Milne (p.160), is rooted in the Old Covenant prophecies of the throne and kingdom of David which would last forever (1). Yeshua was welcomed as King (5). He hesitated to take up the title, preferring to use the more impersonal term of “kingdom” (6). He knew that people would misunderstand, restricting His scope to this earth (7). The throne of Messiah-King is, however, one that is to last forever (1) and His followers at last began to recognise this (8).
During the first few centuries of the Common Era Yeshua’s return was expected at any time. There were two main views. Some regarded Revelation as a book about current first century events and interpreted its symbols as referring to Roman dominance. Others regarded the thousand years mentioned in 20:6 as Yeshua’s special future time of reigning as King over the whole earth.
During these early years a high proportion of Yeshua’s followers were Jewish believers, familiar with Jewish hopes for a political messiah. They had not had time to absorb the full implications of His reign in individual hearts. Their era was an uncomfortable one with much devastating persecution. A hope for the future gave these believers courage to continue.
Escape from Troubles
None of us likes to face trouble, whether of the normal everyday kind or for the sake of the good news about Messiah. Another way of coping with trouble is the theory that speaks of believers being taken out of the world seemingly before or midway through a period of great tribulation (9) just before Yeshua would take His place as God’s anointed King over the whole earth. Then for a long time, it is said, He will reign over the earth, there will be another great war and finally earth will be replaced by the heavenly realm. This view of God’s kingdom is called pre-millenialism (from the “thousand years” of Revelation chapter 6). Since the 19th century it has had many firm adherents.
The “taking away” from the time of trouble is called by pre- and post-millenial thinkers “the rapture”. They expect a “secret rapture” at a time different to Yeshua’s glorious second (ultimate) coming. This detail we will look at later.
Some Jewish believers regard the Holocaust as being the time of great tribulation, but as Yeshua did not return in the mid-1940’s this idea is not common. Some people regard the Fall of Jerusalem to the Romans in 70 C.E. as this terrible time, but even this event does not exhaust all the detail in Yeshua’s prophecy in Matthew 24.
For a couple of hundred years after Yeshua was here it seems pre-millenial views were common. These were resurrected in the 19th century by J.N. Darby of the Plymouth Brethren. His version is sometimes called “dispensationalism”.
It is interesting to note there are no other reference in the Tanakh or the New Covenant scriptures to a period of a thousand years except 2 Peter 3:8 (which says God’s view of time is different to the one we see from our limited earthly perspective). Is the emphasis of the passage in Revelation really on a time-slot, or on something more intangible? We are creatures of the earth. Though it is not easy for us, we need to be cautious about assigning earth-time to activity in the realm of heaven. Our Messiah’s reign is beyond time.
The Tangible and the Intangible
In 312 CE, Emperor Constantine made following Yeshua legal, acceptable and fashionable, and towards the end of that century Augustine taught that God’s reign within the life of individual believers (and corporately through the messianic community) was what counted. The book of Revelation began to be appreciated for the apocalyptic, symbolic, poetic book that it was. The tribulation it described expressed the troubles we all face as believers in various places in the earth, and in any age.
This view is called, though not entirely accurately, amillenialism. Its followers emphasise the inner, spiritual reign of Messiah rather than an outward, physical one. It has been the basic belief of Yeshua’s gentile followers from the fourth century, and still is the most widespread view today across the broad spectrum of gentile denominations.
Like the pre-millenial view, amillenialism includes the calling away physically of believers at the end of the present age, for that is clearly taught in scripture. (10) Amillenialists, however, emphasise the openness and noteworthy nature of our going to be with the Lord at the end of time. This shows the ongoing nature of our salvation; some of us will not even have to pass through physical death to be with our Lord Yeshua. More than others, amillenialists sense their belief of the indwelling of God’s Holy Spirit as being more integrated with their beliefs about personal immortality, and the link between earth and the heavenly realm.
A Hazy Golden Age
As time went on, people began to compare the symbolism of Revelation with history, and interpreted it accordingly. As you can understand, this idea changes with the centuries.
In periods when Yeshua’s followers maintained peaceful co-existence with the world and their numbers multiplied, another view emerged. The post-millenial view is that the world will get better and better. Yeshua’s present kingdom in the hearts of individuals, it is assumed, will expand to such a degree that a golden age such as the prophets of the Old Covenant period foretold would be seen. Many Jewish people who do not yet recognise Messiah still hold similar views, looking for a golden messianic age rather than a one and only messiah. That is why they can sometimes come to the conclusion that there may be a messiah-figure in every generation – a view not found in scripture.
Today, as science and knowledge increase, we do not see improvement in the moral state of humanity – if anything, we seem to become more and more immoral. There is a valid element of truth here however. In the darkness, people who follow Yeshua shine as little lights, sometimes coming together in such a way that they seem like fires, even at times quite large, glorious fires (as in past revivals of Wales and Azusa Street, and as the land of Africa today where countless people are turning to Messiah). Such warmth and beauty still seems unnoticed by unbelievers generally, and very likely it always will be. The post-millenial view is not widely held nowadays amongst gentile believers.
Why and How to Choose a View?
Firstly, when there are several views on an issue, we usually feel more comfortable if we have a view that we accept and follow. We do not want to be accused of “sitting on the (doctrinal) fence”. Many of us simply follow the line that we have been taught, because we don’t want to be accused of “‘rocking the (congregational) boat”. We rarely consider alternative views. Very few of us really explore the scripture to see if the teaching we have been given really is based on its firm foundations. We take other people’s word for it. This is normal for new believers, but should not be for those who would mature in their beliefs.
There are other tests that may give us an idea of how healthy our views really are. Do we constantly have the need to be reading books on our view, to bolster our confidence and avoid our fear? Secondly, setting aside for the moment the question of charismata (gifts of the Spirit), do we give full credence to the moving of the Spirit of God within us? Or do we assume our lives are merely human, as unbelievers live? We can also ask ourselves: how well integrated are the various aspects of our belief in Messiah?
Jewish believers in Yeshua may have “mental blocks” from some of their previous understandings of the Land of lsrael. They may also have such a strong feel that God rules the earth, that they under-emphasize that His rule extends through the heavenly realms as well. It is possible that some haziness may still lie in their thinking about the resurrection of individuals. It is also usually evangelical Christians who speak to Jewish people about Yeshua, and evangelicals often have pre-millenial views. These Jewish believers, therefore, may follow without question, either unwittingly or out of loyalty to their new friends.
Some gentile followers of Yeshua who want to express their regard for His Jewish followers have a different difficulty. They observe that Jewish believers tend to follow the pre-millenial view. If gentile “friends of Israel” hold to one of the other views, and express their ideas, they fear losing their new friends This is a powerful force for, again, “not rocking the boat”.
A Historical Note
Where our forefathers obeyed God we are blessed; where they went astray, we suffer. When the people of Israel kept on asking Samuel for a king like the other nations, they were given one. God’s people today still demand kings, and they are given. Only one main group of modern-day gentile believers has the sense to openly state they are prepared to share the local leadership workload amongst several people, and they do their best to avoid titles. “The Brethren” are to be commended for keeping alive these aspects of God’s truth.
In a new, brief section updating his book, White comments in the second edition on future events: “One purpose of prophecy is to give hope. God encourages His people about the future … Will the repentance of Israel, her turning to her true Messiah, result in ‘greater riches for all mankind (Rom 11:11-15)?”
He then reports on some detail of past events that is vital to our study: “lain H. Murray,(11) in his superb study, ‘The Puritan Hope’, examines these very questions. J.N. Darby, the first expositor of what we now recognize as dispensational theology, saw anything but a triumphant Church.
The immediate future was to be dark, but brightened by the wonder of the Church being snatched out of the darkness into the light of Christ’s immediate presence in a secret rapture. From thence they would return after a brief interval of years to reign on earth in a glorified condition with Christ for a thousand years.”
White goes on: “Murray, in ‘The Puritan Hope’, traces the history of this view. He quotes Darby, who believed that evil would overthrow good in the end: ‘… instead of permitting ourselves to hope for a continued progress of good, we must expect a progress of evil; and that the hope of the earth being filled with the knowledge of the Lord before the exercise of his judgment, and the consummation of this judgement on earth, is delusive … Truly Christendom has become completely corrupted; can it be restored? No! Impossible.”‘ The prophet Habakkuk (12) definitely states that the earth will be filled with that glory.
The Second Witness
White continues: “Both Murray and Martin Lloyd-Jones (13) also show the essential similarity between Darby’s eschatology and the teachings of Edward Irving, the 19th century charismatic leader. The essential points in Darby’s view can all be found in Irving.
Indeed, Darby and other early Brethren leaders attended more than one prophetic conference organized by the Irvingites. Lloyd-Jones traces the origins of the secret rapture to a false prophecy uttered in Edward Irving’s church.”
Lloyd-Jones’ words are then reported: “… it was through one of these supposed utterances of the Spirit that this idea of a secret rapture of the saints came in. So this was something that they claimed the Spirit had given as a direct revelation, and they accepted it. What is amazing is that a man like J.N. Darby accepted it, but he did, and continued to teach it … Tregelles would not accept it, neither would B.W. Newton…”
The quotation concludes with: “Lloyd-Jones also points out that Darby quickly became aware of the ‘dangerous tendencies’ in the Irvingite movement, and entirely broke with him, but he continued to accept the secret rapture solely as the result of what was claimed to be a prophetic utterance.”
White’s own comment follows: “Those who support the view of a secret rapture are not wanting in scholarly work to support their view. Yet the scholarship should be examined with unusual care.”
White is not saying modern prophecy is unacceptable, but that doctrine should be based on scripture. He sees any prophecy abroad today should meet all the tests scripture sets for prophecy of biblical times.
A Word can say a Lot
The word “prophecy” has different meanings for different people. We all agree that it refers to the words of the biblical prophets as they spoke on God’s behalf. People with a “charismatic” bent also consider it a practice not confined to biblical days but current today as well. People with pre-millenial views most often use the word to describe what they call “end-time events” – their emphasis is on prophecy predictive of the future (as they see it). Some of us follow variations or a mixture of these meanings.
“Tribulation,” even “great tribulation” is part of Yeshua’s prophetic words about His second coming, but it should not be restricted to any one period of time or any one race, for the scripture does not so restrict it. (9) Both Jews and gentiles are included in the reference to “great tribulation” in Revelation. Those who suffered in the Holocaust in the 1940’s are included along with those who suffer in China in the 1990’s.
The word “rapture” comes from the Latin RAPERE, to catch away. The reference “as a thief in the night” (14) is merely an emphasis on the suddenness of His appearing. When Yeshua speaks about “His coming (again) and the end of the age” (15) He says nothing of a quiet “catching away”. Rather, He speaks of a noisy event, and He adds that it brings a loud response from those who are left behind. Paul confirms this aspect of the “calling away”. He says it will be “with a rousing cry, with a call from one of the ruling angels, and with God’s shofar”. (16)
There is Only One King
We should remember that we who follow Yeshua are one group, and need to tolerate each others’ varied points of view on a whole host of matters, only some of which we have been looking at. While gentile messianic believers vary in their ideas about Messiah’s kingdom, and have written many books on the subject from these different viewpoints, Jewish believers tend to accept the pre-millenial stance, it seems without considering carefully the other alternatives. As a person may be a conservative voter, yet appreciate industrial unionism, messianic believers are free to research carefully and maintain their own views of the interpretation of scripture. Indeed, to be mature, we need to search the scriptures for ourselves.
The rabbis have never been slow to express differing opinions, yet Judaism has endured for countless generations. Messiah’s followers can do so also. The messianic community includes people from a wide range of backgrounds, and we have many tensions that can easily pull us apart. Regrettably this is already a widespread problem. We must however aim to remain one, united with the messianic community in general and our own fellowship within it. On the issue of exactly how God’s kingdom will one day be brought to fulfilment, we should not be disagreeable, but we may, however, disagree.
(1) David (2 Sam 12:17, Ps 89:3-4), Isaiah (2:1-5, 9:5-7), Daniel (2:44, 4:3. 7:27), Ezekiel (37:21-22). Milne (p.251) comments that by the time the Tanakh was complete the hope of the Messianic golden age came to be expressed as ‘olam haba’ (the new age to come) as distinct from ‘olam hazeb’ (this present age). By Yeshua’s day, he says, the age to come was also commonly referred to as ‘the kingdom of God’. Stern lists in his index many references to ‘olam haba’ and ‘olam hazeh’
(2) John 18:36 JNT
(3) John 14:17
(4) Acts 1:11
(5) Matt 1:1, 2:2, 20:21, Mark 15:2-12, Luke 19:38, 23:3, John 12:13, 18:33-37,19:12-21
(6) Matt 13:24-52, Mark 1:14-15, 9:1 (which is easier to understand when we see Yeshua is referring indirectly to Himself), Luke 13:18-30, John 3:3
(7) Matt 20:21, Luke 19:11, John 18:36, Acts 1:6
(8) Acts 17:7,1 Tim 6:15, Rev 17:14
(9) Matt 24:27-31. Tribulation is seen more clearly in its wider context in Acts 14:22, 2 Cor 1:4-8, 4:8-9, 2 Thess 1:4-6, 1 Peter 4:12. In 2 Cor 1:8 Paul said his sufferings for the sake of Messiah were so bad that he “despaired of life”. In Heb 11:32-40 is a list of horrors suffered by people in former times. The word “great” is attached to the word “tribulation” in Matt 24:29,31, Mark 13:19,24 and Rev 7:14, and is aligned by some with the “time of Jacob’s trouble” (Jer 30:7). It seems there will yet be such a time, but that has no bearing on the pre-millenial idea of a secret rapture, neither does it prove a literal thousand years must follow. The reference in Revelation shows we all share not only the pain but also the reward.
(10) An act of catching away is also found at Acts 8:39, 2 Cor 12:2,4 and Rev 12:15, and the emphasis is on the forcefulness of the event (see Vine’s word study “Catch” on p.174). Hammond (p.179) speaks of 300 references to Messiah’s second coming in the New Covenant scriptures, contrasting this with a mere four references to Communion. He is surprised we speak so little of the former in contrast to our practice of the latter.
(11) J.N. Darby, “Collected Writings” in Prophetical, vol 1.7, as quoted in Iain H. Murray, “The Puritan Hope: Revival and the Interpretation of Prophecy” (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1971), p.201)
(12) Hab 2:14
(13) Martin Lloyd-Jones, “The Sovereign Spirit: Discerning His Gifts”(Wheaton, III: Harold Shaw Publishers, 1985). pp.81-2
(14) Luke 12:39
(15) Matt 24:25-27
(16) 1 Thess 4:16
Clouse, R.G. The Meaning of the Millennium: Four Views (ed) (Inter-Varsity Press, Downers Grove, U.S.A., 1977) – a detailed treatise
Hammond, T.C. In Understanding Be Men (Revsd and ed D.F. Wright. Inter-Varsity Press, Leicester, 1991) -from an Anglican perspective, few headings
Ludwigson, R. A Survey of Bible Prophecy (Academie Books, Zondervan PubI House, Grand Rapids, 1975, first published in 1951) – author gives clear case for pre-millenial view but inadequate treatment of amillenial view
Milne, B. Know the Truth (Inter-Varsity Press, Leicester, 1992) – easy to read, index, many headings, from amillenial perspective with much detail about the kingdom of God
Pratney W. & The Return (Sovereign World, Chichester, Chant, B. 1991) – a collection of short segments for new explorers, from amillenial view
Stern, D~H. Jewish New Testament Commentary (JNT Publns, Jerusalem and Clarkesville, 1992)
Vine W.E. Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (World Bible Pub, Iowa Falls, 1981)
White J When the Spirit Comes With Power, 2nd edn (Hodder and Stouton, London Sydney Auckland, 1992) – author is pastor and psychologist who sensitively explores modern effects of revival
(Reprinted from Tishrei Vol 4 No 3, Kingdom of Heaven, Summer 1996)