The 2000-Year Gap—a Mystery

Pentecost

Pentecost

Notes on the Kingdom of God/Heaven

From a message delivered at Gonzales Family Church, October 31, 2010.

Bible scholars have long noted that prophets of the Old Testament apparently failed to see the coming Church or to anticipate a gap in end-time events.  When Jesus ministered on Earth, however, He began to unfurl the mystery of a kingdom that precedes the [Millennial] Kingdom, a spiritual kingdom that is “not of this world” (John 13:36) but yet “in your midst” (Luke 17:21).  It is a kingdom which cannot be observed by eyes of the flesh (previous verse) but received and perceived by faith.  It is a kingdom that God the Father is eager to give to us all (Luke 12:32).

The Disciples long failed to grasp this mystery, either, perhaps not even till the Day of Pentecost.  The Twelve, like many of the Bible scholars of their day, looked for the Messiah to come in power as the Son of David, who would conquer the Gentiles and establish his rule in Jerusalem once and for all.  They did not comprehend the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53, nor did they foresee the Church Age in which we now live, lo, these two millennia.

Yet Jesus himself came preaching not an earthly kingdom but the imminent Kingdom of God (in Matthew, “Heaven,” in deference to Jews to whom “God” was ineffable).  This message had been introduced by John the Baptist, the “voice crying in the wilderness,” and picked up by Jesus after his baptism.

As we read in Luke 4 (par. Mt 13, Mk 6), Jesus had been preaching extensively around the Sea of Galilee, and finally returned to his home town, Nazareth.  When He attended the local synagogue, it was a matter of courtesy that He was offered, as a bona fide Hebrew and son of the town, the privilege of reading the Scripture.  He asked for the Isaiah scroll (a separate book in those days), and read from Isaiah 61:

The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me; because the LORD hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek; he hath sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound; To proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD . . . (Luke 4:18-19, KJV).

at which point He abruptly stopped.  He then declared, to the astonishment of all present, “This day is this scripture fulfilled in your ears,” and sat down.  Unfortunately, his listeners stumbled over Jesus’ audacity while missing the core message.

Jesus’ message hinged on the point at which He stopped:  after proclaiming the Acceptable Year of the Lord, but before introducing “the day of vengeance of our God.”  He was saying that the Age of Grace had now come, whereas God’s vengeance, though indeed pending, yet awaits.  It still awaits to this day, after two thousand years. God had planned long before, predicted through the prophet, and now declared a time of amnesty, a new Year of Jubilee, during which redemption is possible for everyone.

Later, on the Day of Pentecost, the promised enduement of power, the Baptism in the Holy Spirit, was poured out upon all flesh.  A tongue of flame hovered over each disciple, signifying that each received his or her own endowment of that Spirit.  This was to be power to witness, to hear from God, to declare the word of the Lord, to answer theological questions by revelation, to demonstrate the coming of God’s Kingdom with signs and wonders.

Peter stood to preach his first Spirit-empowered sermon, quoting the prophet Joel.  “This is that,” Peter began—this is the event, this is the fulfillment of prophecy, this is the outpouring that was promised for the End Times, this is the sign of the culmination of God’s work on the Earth nearing, which was predicted by the prophet:

And it shall come to pass in the last days, saith God, I will pour out of my Spirit upon all flesh:  and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams:  And on my servants and on my handmaidens I will pour out in those days of my Spirit; and they shall prophesy:  And I will show wonders in heaven above, and signs in the earth beneath; blood, and fire, and vapour of smoke:  The sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, before that great and notable day of the Lord come:  And it shall come to pass, that whosoever shall call on the name of the Lord shall be saved (Acts 2:17-21/Joel 2:28-32, KJV).

Peter, one will note, consciously includes the “wonders in heaven above . . . blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke,” even though these circumstances were not observed at that time.  Peter seemed not at all surprised that these cataclysmic signs were absent.  It appears that Peter understood that Joel prophesied not a single, ephemeral event but a sequence of events, even a process, beginning with gifts of revelation bestowed on the Church, and ending in cataclysmic judgments upon the Earth.

To summarize, Jesus came to declare the Father’s great work upon the world.  In the Last Days, God sent his Son (the Logos, the expression of himself) to declare a spiritual kingdom consisting of all believers (the Church) in the midst of a fallen physical world ruled by material powers and the forces of darkness.  His Son, the Christ, would initiate the Church Age by sending the Holy Spirit to empower the Church to preach and teach the Gospel of the Kingdom throughout the present Age of Grace.  At the end of the Church Age will come “great tribulation,” with cataclysms, culminating in judgment (God’s “vengeance”).

The Apostle Paul once found it necessary to correct a fundamental misunderstanding in regard to the length of the Church Age (1 Th 4:13 ff.).  Some members of the church at Thessalonica were mistaken that fellow Christians who had died before the Rapture had already missed the Resurrection.  Even Paul harbored such a sense of urgency toward the imminent return of the Lord that he (arguably) did not expect a long wait.  Paul did, however, look toward a future “falling away” and the unveiling of the “man of sin,” only after “that which withholds” (generally interpreted to refer to the Holy Spirit, or as we might say in our present context, the spiritual Kingdom of God present in the earthly Church) is removed (2 Th 2).

Nevertheless, the fact that this Age has lasted two thousand years to date need not trouble us.  God, for whom “a thousand years is like a day” (2 Peter 3:8), is eternal and under no compulsion to hurry.  He has planned his work, and now works his plan.  In the meantime, during this seeming hiatus of waiting for the Father to tell the Son that it is time for the Rapture, God in actuality “hath purposed in himself that in the dispensation of the fullness of times He might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven, and which are on earth; even in him” (Eph 1:9-10).  Christ is doing that right now through “his Church, against which the gates of hell shall not prevail” (Mt 16:18) and which is “mighty to the pulling down of strongholds” through his Spirit which works within them (2 Cor 10:4).

In that sense, then, we already live in the Kingdom of Heaven, we participate with Christ in his ultimate plan for the world, and we might even consider ourselves to be experiencing, even now, an End Time event, the Church.

© 2010 Paul A. Hughes

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