Sunday, November 26, 2017

On the Mount (6)

In my previous posts in this series I’ve been attempting to demonstrate the extent to which the content of the Sermon on the Mount, while often looking forward, remains inextricably tied to the Old Testament.

But the kingdom of heaven with which the Sermon is deeply concerned is itself a New Testament concept — a new frame, a new way of describing the government of God on earth. First proclaimed by John the Baptist, the kingdom occupies a central place in the teaching of the Lord Jesus. You will not find the phrase in your Bible prior to (or, rather remarkably, after) Matthew’s gospel, where it occurs 31 times.*

Before going much deeper into the Sermon, we need to pause briefly to consider what “kingdom of heaven” means.

A Kingdom That Shall Never Be Destroyed

When I say that the kingdom of heaven is a New Testament concept, I don’t mean it has no connection at all to the Old Testament. When the prophet Daniel interpreted King Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, he finished up with the kingdom; it was the whole point of the dream:
“The God of heaven will set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed, nor shall the kingdom be left to another people. It shall break in pieces all these kingdoms and bring them to an end, and it shall stand forever.”
This kingdom is the final installment in a series of multi-ethnic world empires that begins with the Chaldean monarch privileged to hear Daniel’s prophecy, continues through the Medo-Persians and Greeks and culminates, to all earthly appearances, in Rome. No empire in the planet’s history has been so dominant for so long. We’ve have world powers since, but none like the Romans.

But Rome is not the final word. God has the final word.

The People of the Saints of the Most High

Daniel again:
“And the kingdom and the dominion and the greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven shall be given to the people of the saints of the Most High; his kingdom shall be an everlasting kingdom, and all dominions shall serve and obey him.”
So the “people of the saints of the Most High” were to expect a kingdom, and given the information they had to work with, it was not unreasonable for first century believing Jews to understand this as a sphere of world dominance in which their own nation would be foremost, just as Babylon, Persia, Greece had once dominated the known world, and just as Rome now did.

The disciples believed this right up to the time the Lord ascended into glory. And they were not wrong. They just didn’t have the entire picture. Luke records them asking him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?”

Israel or the Church?

The answer to that question matters a great deal — and not only to Jews. Large numbers of Christians today believe all Israel’s kingdom hopes and all God’s promises to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and David are to be fully and exhaustively realized in the Church, a conviction that leads to a whole lot of confusion in interpreting both the Old Testament and the Gospels, not to mention the book of Romans.

Now, if the phrase “people of the saints of the Most High” in Daniel’s prophecy was really intended to mean the Church all along, and if the national hopes of Israel are all a big misunderstanding, this would have been the perfect occasion on which to set the record straight. A single sentence along the lines of, “Guys, you’ve got it all wrong: the kingdom will NEVER be restored to Israel” would have eliminated all possible confusion.

Times or Seasons

But the Lord instead replies:
“It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority.”
The promised earthly kingdom is coming, make no mistake. And the Church is not God’s final act on this planet.

Actually, we’re kind of the intermission.

* The word “kingdom” also appears another 25 times in Matthew without its usual qualifier and once or twice in the form “kingdom of God”, which Mark, Luke and John use consistently in its place. If the two terms are not precisely synonymous, they are close enough as makes no material difference.

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