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.
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.
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
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”
“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).
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
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
KINGDOM MYSTERIES (2)
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
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
KINGDOM MYSTERIES (3)
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
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
Becoming a citizen of God’s kingdom
KINGDOM MYSTERIES (4)
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
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.