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What does the Bible say?


In biblical times, Jews discerned three kinds of heaven: the sky where the birds fly (Mat. 6:26), the firmament where the stars are (Ps. 8:2), and the abode of God (Is. 66:1). Paul recorded that he was caught up to the third heaven (2 Cor. 12:2). However, he says nothing about what he saw and heard. Jesus told a parable about heaven and hell, but said little about heaven – only that Lazarus was with Abraham. Jesus said to Nicodemus that if Nicodemus could not understand when he talked about earthly things, he would much less understand if Jesus talked about heaven.

Jesus explained truth about the kingdom of heaven by using parables: the kingdom of heaven is like grain, leaven, mustard seed, buried treasure, a precious pearl and a fishnet.

In the book of Revelation, John describes inter alia the visions he had of heaven. We don’t know with certainty when his descriptions are realistic and when symbolic. For example: John saw a sword coming out of Christ’s mouth, probably pointing to God’s word (Rev. 1:16, 19:15, Eph. 6:17). Christ is depicted as a lamb and a lion (Rev. 5:5-6). The Spirit of God is symbolized with flames and eyes (Rev. 4:5, 5:6). The New Jerusalem is described as a bride, a city and a cube (Rev. 21:9, 10, 16). Churches are seen as lamp stands (Rev. 1:20), and different eras are resembled by horses, seals, trumpets and bowls (Rev. 6-9, 16). Obviously, Revelation is saturated with symbolism.

As far as heaven is concerned, the Bible is clear about two things: heaven does exist, and the essence of it is -- to be with Jesus. 

·       “I will come back and take you to be with me, that you may also be where I am” (John 14:3).

·       “Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory” (John 17:24).

·       “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43).

·       Where I am my servant will also be” (John 12:26).

·       “We would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:8).

·       “I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far” (Phil. 1:23).

·       “We will be with the Lord forever” (1 Thess. 4:17, all quotations from NIV).

This togetherness with Christ is stressed seven times in the Bible. Seven represents completeness. Being with Jesus in heaven will be perfect and will override everything else. That’s all we need to know about heaven.


Is heaven on earth feasible? 

Kingdom mysteries (1) 

Ancient Israel was first ruled by God-appointed leaders: Moses, Joshua and the Judges. After them, the era of kings lasted about 450 years.  The idea of God’s kingdom (theocracy) was reintroduced by Christ. He taught his disciples to beseech the Father in heaven, “Let your kingdom come.”

Matthew used “kingdom of heaven” 32 times and “kingdom of God” only 5 times. The other gospels used “kingdom of God” (Mark: 15 times, Luke: 34 times, and John twice). From the context it is clear that the two phrases have the same meaning.

Matthew wrote for Jews. He might have preferred “kingdom of heaven,” because he linked the Old and New Testaments, showing how prophecies were fulfilled in Christ. Daniel used the phrase “God of heaven” several times when he spoke to the king of Babylon. The Psalms (Ps. 103:19) and Prophets (Is. 66:1) often referred to heaven as God’s abode.

Mark wrote for Romans, while Luke and John wrote for Greeks. Roman and Greek mythology placed gods on Mount Olympus, not in heaven. “Kingdom of God” would have sounded more familiar to them than “kingdom of heaven.”

J. T. Pennington points out that Matthew contrasted heaven and earth throughout his gospel. The Baptizer (3:2), Jesus (4:17), and the disciples (10:7) started their ministries by proclaiming: “The kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Jesus taught us to pray “let your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” The Sermon on the Mount shows how the values and actions in the kingdom of heaven differ from human standards. Kingdom people focus on God and others, not themselves.

In the kingdom parables (Matthew 13, 18-22, 25), Jesus used earthly examples – seed, soil, growth, weeds, leaven, treasure, pearls, fishing nets, and children – to explain various aspects of the heavenly kingdom.

Matthew started his book by the message from heaven to Joseph: Immanuel (God with us) would be born from Mary. The book ends with Jesus saying, “All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth.”

After he fed 5000 with a few loaves and fishes, the crowd wanted to crown him king, but he walked off to pray. When Pilate asked Jesus if he was a king, Jesus said that his kingdom was not of this world.

Christ will rule on the new earth that is part of heaven (Rev. 21:1-3), but it is highly unlikely that he will rule on the old earth. He was not interested in political power. Before his ascension, the disciples enquired if he was going to restore the kingdom of Israel. He shifted their focus to his heavenly kingdom by spurring them to take the gospel to the whole world (Acts 1:6-8).


Vistas of past, present and future 


The kingdom of heaven/God has general and specific meanings. As the One who created and sustains the universe, God is its sovereign ruler. Whether people recognize him as such or not, does not change this reality. In a special sense, God is king of those who believe in him.  For them, the kingdom of God has become a personal, spiritual reality.

As physical reality (universe), the kingdom of God began at a certain point, and will exist until God ends the universe. H. Ridderbos stressed that as spiritual reality the kingdom of God is already, and will come in fullness later. In Christ the kingdom has begun, and it will culminate in the new heaven and earth where the saved will enjoy eternal life.

In the Old Testament, God is depicted as king of the universe and of Israel. “The earth is the LORD’s, and all its fullness, the world and all who dwell therein. Lift up your heads, O you gates! Lift up, you everlasting doors! And the King of glory shall come in. Who is this King of glory? The LORD of hosts, he is the King of glory” (Ps. 24). In English Bibles, Yahweh is translated as LORD (in capital letters).

“For God is King over all the earth, sing praises with understanding. God reigns over the nations, God sits on his holy throne” (Ps. 47). “The LORD has established his throne in heaven, and his kingdom rules over all” (Ps. 103). The LORD said, “Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool” (Is. 66). “This is what the LORD says – Israel’s King and Redeemer” (Is. 44). “The LORD is the true God; he is the living God, the eternal King” (Jer. 10).

References in the Old Testament to the Son of God (Ps. 2), the Son of Man (Dan. 7), and the Messiah (Dan. 9) are few, but messianic prophecies are bountiful. God addressed Ezekiel as “son of man” 93 times, but this was not a messianic title.

Jesus called himself the Son of Man. All the gospels recorded this self-description (Matthew 28 times, Mark 14 times, Luke 25 times, and John 13 times). It highlights the human nature of Christ. Jesus also called himself the Son of God (John 3:15-16). The eternal Son of God became the Son of Man with his incarnation. He died as human for humanity.

The kingship of Christ is affirmed in the Old and New Testaments (Ps. 2:6-9, Dan. 7:13-14, Matt. 28:18, Rev. 19:11-16). The phrase, “at the right hind of God,” is a metaphor, derived from the ancient custom that the chief general stood at the right hand of the king to execute his will (Rev. 5). 


God’s kingdom explained by parables 


Teaching deep truth with simple words, demands profound understanding. Jesus revealed the hidden mysteries of his kingdom with short parables. Let us look at 12 of these lessons recorded by Matthew.

The kingdom of heaven starts small, like a mustard seed, but when fully grown gives shelter to many. The great effect of small beginnings is also stressed by comparing it to yeast, salt and light. In all of these, there is a start, growth and fulfilment.  Citizens of God’s kingdom can also have a beneficial but inconspicuous effect on society.

The parable of the sower does not start with “the kingdom of heaven is like…” but in Jesus’ explanation to his disciples, he mentions the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 13:9, 11, 19). The sower is Jesus, and the seed is the word of the kingdom. The four kinds of soil represent four kinds of listeners. The word does not come to fruition in hardened, shallow or cluttered hearts. Some think they can improve on Jesus’ explanation by giving smart alternatives – a futile effort.

The parable of the wheat and tares shows how good and evil are mixed in this life, and how the difference will be revealed in the end-time. There is a time of grace. We see the good and bad on television and the Internet. In the end, the kingdom of heaven will prevail. Again, we should not try to improve on Jesus’ explanation.

The parables of the precious pearl and the hidden treasure show that sometimes people find the kingdom of heaven after a long and arduous search, and sometimes it comes unexpectedly. In both cases, the searchers gave up everything to make the kingdom their own.

The parable of the fishnet that collects good and bad fish, stresses the reality that some are accepted in the kingdom of God, and some are not.

When the disciples asked who was the greatest in the kingdom of heaven, Jesus said that unless they have childlike faith they will never enter this kingdom.

To show that an unforgiving heart can disqualify one for the kingdom of heaven, Jesus told a parable of someone whose massive debt was written off, but he would not do the same for someone who owed him a small amount.

The parable of workers hired at various times of day, but who still got the same pay, shows that all are saved by grace, not works. The parable of the royal wedding feast shows how people will miss the kingdom because of feeble excuses, while many undeserving people will be saved by grace.

The parable of the five wise and five unwise virgins addresses the preparedness of people for the return of Christ.


Becoming a citizen of God’s kingdom 


Jesus announced that the kingdom of God was at hand, and he told his disciples to proclaim the same message. Did this kingdom come? There is still so much wrong in humanity and nature. Before we criticize, let us ensure we are not misled by false ideas about the kingdom of God.

When we study the verses referring to God’s kingdom, we soon discover that it is linked to righteousness, which in turn is linked to faith (Matt. 5:10, 6:33, 18:1-4, Rom. 1:17, 4:9, 10:10). One enters this kingdom by faith in the righteousness of Christ (1 Cor. 1:30, 2 Cor. 5:21). Chapters 1 to 4 of Paul’s letter to the Romans connect the dots between (a) the righteousness earned by Christ, leading to God’s forgiveness, and (b) our faith, a gift from God. In this way our relationship with God is made right. Paul’s motto that the righteous shall live by faith, should be understood in this context. We do not enter God’s kingdom on account of our good works, but on ground of Christ’s atoning sacrifice by which he earned God’s forgiveness, making us right with God (Rom. 3:21-26, 4:3, 5:1, Phil. 3:8-9, Gal. 2:21).

That is what Jesus meant when he said that we will not enter God’s kingdom if our righteousness does not exceed that of the Pharisees – who depended on self-made instead of God-given righteousness.

After entering the kingdom of God by faith, we have to live as citizens of that kingdom (Phil. 2:12-13, 3:20). Our good works do not earn salvation but express our gratitude for having received salvation as a gift. Paul reiterates that we are not saved BY good works but FOR good works (Eph. 2:8-10). Our good works should be shaped by the love which the Holy Spirit pours into the hearts of believers (Rom. 5:5, Gal. 5:22). Citizens of God’s kingdom gather treasures in heaven which can’t be destroyed by thieves, moths or rust (Matt. 6:19-24).

Jesus said that people will recognize us as his followers when practical love is visible in what we do and don’t do (John 13:35). We may conclude that the kingdom of God is where people have faith in Christ, practice the Great Commandment, and have the hope of eternal life.

Of course, their faith, love and hope are not perfect, but these attitudes emerge continually. Apart from the ministries, missions and charity done by churches world-wide, many believers bless others with their time, efforts and gifts – in a way that the left hand does not know what the right hand is doing (Matt. 6:3). The kingdom often permeates society unseen, like salt and yeast. Attitude and lifestyle speak louder than words.