What are the Gospels all about?

Though I am not in any way a fan of N. T. Wright (due to his teachings on justification by faith alone and his “new perspective” on Paul), there is no getting away from the fact that in other matters of Christian theology, he has a great deal to contribute. This lecture, given in January 2012 on the message of the Gospels is very insightful.

The Kingdom of God v. The Kingdom of Heaven

Pastor John, what is the difference between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of heaven?

The short and simple answer is “nothing at all.”

To answer this question properly, I need to provide some background. Matthew, being a Jew and writing to a primarily Jewish audience (with the purpose of showing how Jesus is the long awaited Messiah) was very reticent to use the name of God. That is because of its hallowed name in Hebrew society and religion.

This dates back all the way to the time of Moses and to the sacred name of God revealed in the Pentateuch. Most scholars believe that this name probably sounded like “Yahweh” but this is merely the best educated guess.

Why is this only a guess?

Well, being very mindful of the blasphemy of taking the sacred name of God and using it in vain (one of the Ten Commandments) when writing the name, they removed the vowels. They did this in hope that this might cause people to not speak the sacred name at all (rather than speak it in a vain way). God was so holy and His name was to be revered as no other name and so to treat it lightly would provoke God’s anger and wrath towards them as a people. Therefore in the original Hebrew of the Old Testament, all we are left with, when transliterated into English is “YHWH.”

Many centuries on, we have to only guess what those vowels might be because there is nothing to show us exactly what they were, and as I say, “Yahweh” is the best estimate of a guess by scholars.

Some say that the way this would have sounded would be “Jehovah,” but more careful scholarship dismisses that claim, and the vast majority would say the original sound of the name would be as close as possible to “Yahweh.” Most Jewish scholars are naturally reluctant to even look into this debate, because of what the issue means historically in Jewish society and how easy it would be to blaspheme God’s holy (set apart) name.

For us as Gentles, growing up in a culture where the name of God is not hallowed in the same way, this appears to be an over reaction on the part of the Jewish people to treat God’s name in this way. However, to the Jews, this made perfect sense and someone writing to Jews would need to take this into account if he wished to be read at all. This Jewish reluctance to use the name of God is seen even in today’s society in Israel where, for example, the Jerusalem Post (a secular newspaper) will spell the divine name as G-D, (putting in a dash rather than the “O” vowel), so as not to offend their orthodox Jewish readers (who can be very vocal).

I find it very interesting to note that in what we call “the Lord’s Prayer” Jesus instructed His disciples to make the very first petition a request that God’s name would be given its due reverence. When we say “Hallowed be Thy Name” we are actually asking God that His Name would be revered and set apart as holy. It is as if we are saying “May Your Name be hallowed.” Yet how wonderful it is that before we come to this request, we can, as His children, speak to Him as “Father.” Jesus, in teaching His people to pray, establishes both the transcendent majesty of God as well as the deep personal intimacy we have as His children. How wonderful this is.

I say all this to point out that while other gospel writers use the phrase “the Kingdom of God” when they are writing primarily to non Jews, Matthew prefers to use “the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew will use the word “God” of course, but it was rare for him to do so, and where there was the chance to use a different term, he did so.

This becomes immediately apparent when we compare Matthew and the other synoptic Gospel writers (Mark and Luke) when they are recalling either the exact same words of Jesus. Quoting the KJV, here are some examples:

Matthew 4:17 From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.”
Mark 1:14-15 Now after that John was put in prison, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, {15} And saying, The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe the gospel.

Matthew 5:3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Luke 6:20 And he lifted up his eyes on his disciples, and said, Blessed be ye poor: for yours is the kingdom of God.

Matthew 8:11 I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.
Luke 13:28-29 There shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when ye shall see Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, and all the prophets, in the kingdom of God, and you yourselves thrust out. {29} And they shall come from the east, and from the west, and from the north, and from the south, and shall sit down in the kingdom of God.
Continue reading

In a Kingdom…

I saw this image today and it made me think of the great contrast there is between a democracy and a kingdom. I grew up in the United Kingdom, where all my lifetime, Queen Elizabeth II has been reigning. Her rule is in stark contrast with that of former eras where the will of the Sovereign is law. In our day, the Queen has very little political power. The real power is wielded by her Government, with the Prime Minister and his party setting the political agenda.

I grew up in a Kingdom, but its present day operation is nothing like the kingdoms of old, and certainly nothing like the rule of the Kingdom of God. In the United Kingdom, the Queen reigns but does not rule. She sits on the throne and wears the crown of royalty, but she does not establish new laws in the land. In God’s kingdom, the King both rules and reigns!

In a democracy we have debates and political candidates running for the office of the Presidency. In contrast, in a Kingdom, the King is neither voted in or out of office. If He leaves His palace and tours His realm it is not to gain the popular vote, but to see the condition of His subjects. He is King because he is the son of a father who was also King. He does not abide by laws. He makes the laws by the words of His mouth.

“From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”” – Matthew 4:17

Notice that Jesus’ first words to the general public were not “Vote for me” but “Repent for God’s kingly rule is at hand!” These are the words of a King, striding through the realm of His rule.

Living in a kingdom is not necessarily good news. It could be terribly bad news. It all depends on the type of king that is in charge. If he is a despot the only way to avoid his rule is to leave the realm of his rule or to await his death, and to hope that his son is a better King than he is. To seek democracy in a kingdom (seeking to put another on the throne) is a treasonous act and once discovered means certain death.

“And he went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people.” – Matthew 4:23

When the Bible talks about “the gospel (good news) of the Kingdom of God” it refers to the fact that in this kingdom a good King is reigning. The yoke He places on the shoulders of His subjects is light and easy and not a heavy burden. Yet it is a yoke nontheless, for to fail to work for the King’s purposes is rebellion.

People of the world, hear the good news. “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.” (Isaiah 9:6,7)

When it says “the zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this” it means that God is deeply earnest and will make sure this King ascends the tone and nothing will stand in His way. If God is that commited to seeing it happen, you and I had better believe that it will happen.

Of course, this promise was fulfilled in Jesus Christ, and in His glorious ascension. Jesus now sits on the throne of this Universe and will one day come back to earth in power and glory. The book of Revelation describes His arrival in these terms:

“Then I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse! The one sitting on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war. His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems, and he has a name written that no one knows but himself. He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and the name by which he is called is The Word of God. And the armies of heaven, arrayed in fine linen, white and pure, were following him on white horses. From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron. He will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh he has a name written, King of kings and Lord of lords.” (Revelation 19:11-16)

Doesn’t sound like anyone I would wish to mess with!

The reference to Him having many diadems is the image of Him being the true King of all nations on earth. As He Himself said, “All authority is given to Me in heaven and on earth.” (Matt 28:18)

Every earthly ruler, from the Roman Ceasars who often persecuted the Church, to the Communist despots of Russia and China, to the Kings and Queens and Prime Ministers and Presidents of history – all who have enjoyed rulership on earth will one day acknowledge that their crown was owned by King Jesus. Every knee shall bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is the true Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

The Queen of England wears a borrowed crown. The true King of England is the Lord Jesus Christ and one day soon, He will return to earth and both she and all other rulers on earth will give an account of their rule to Him. He is the King of Kings, the Lord of lords.

Until then, without His visible rule, democracy is by far the best political environment. As Winston Churchill remarked, “No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” Yet, better to have only a few years of a bad ruler so we can vote him out, than to be under the tyranny of an evil King for an entire generation.

In the kingdom of God, Jesus the King has won the hearts of His people. He is our beloved King. His yoke is easy, His burden is light.

“For the word of the king is supreme, and who may say to him, “What are you doing?”” – Ecclesiastes 8:4

What a great King He is!