And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come. Matthew 24:14 (NIV)
As far as I can tell, this is as close as Jesus comes to pinpointing the time of his return. The entire chapter of Matt 24 is Jesus responding to the question, “what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age” (v.3)? Jesus will list a number of different signs, but makes it clear that it’s ultimately the Father’s business as to when the Son of Man will return (v.36).
I think there is a great deal of confusion among evangelicals as to what the church should expect to happen before and leading up to Christ’s return. Much of this bewilderment concerning eschatology is due to sloppy hermeneutics and the propagation of bad theology.
While I’m not proposing that there isn’t any mystery surrounding the last things, I am saying that rapture theology has grossly distorted Jesus’ gospel message, and NT expectations of a hopeful future for the earth.
Let me break it down.
The “gospel of the kingdom” is not simply a message that Jesus will forgive your sins so that you don’t have to go to hell when you die. This is only part of the good news message, and even this bit is often distorted in the process of marketing the gospel to a consumer culture through fear mongering.
The gospel is frequently reduced down to personal salvation, with no understanding of what it means to be a disciple and a citizen of the Kingdom of God. I highly recommend Scot McKnight’s book The King Jesus Gospel.
The good news of the Kingdom goes beyond the message of Christ’s death on the cross for atonement of our sins (justification). It’s about new life in the here and now (sanctification), and it’s about the future resurrection of the dead along with the restoration of God’s good earth (glorification).
“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away…” Rev 21:1
We are not bound for an eternity in heaven. Can we please stop saying this? Pop-culture Christianity is obsessed with heaven in neo-Gnostic fashion. What is going on? The apostolic hope was not life after death in heaven, but what N.T. Wright calls, “life after life-after-death.”
The NT is clear that we (believers) will be resurrected on the last day to inherit a renewed creation. This is never called heaven. It’s called the new heaven and earth, the New Jerusalem come to earth (Rev 21).
This is the Christian hope: resurrection of the dead and renewal of the earth.
The good news is about the Kingdom, the reign and rule of God on the earth. Jesus calls it the “gospel of the kingdom” because he envisions that his Father will bring heaven and earth together in a new reality of his perfect reign. And why wouldn’t he? Jesus prayed “your kingdom come… on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt 6:10).
This has always been the biblical expectation of the future (Isa 65:17). Israel expected God’s reign on the earth through Messiah (Dan 7:13-14). And the apostles believed that future had broke through into the present with Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus has inaugurated the Kingdom and will soon bring about its consummation in his parousia (coming).
Then he will sit on David’s throne forever (Isa 9:6-7).
We can see this coming together of heaven and earth in the resurrected body of Jesus. He was the firstborn of this new creation. His resurrection is the marriage of God’s space (heaven) and our space (earth). His glorified body resembles something of our present world, but it’s also something very different, i.e. the resurrected Jesus walked through walls!
The disciples couldn’t even find adequate words to describe the great mystery that had been revealed in Jesus Christ of Nazareth.
Rethinking the “Gospel of the Kingdom”
So, what is the gospel? It’s not about an escape from the world for a spiritual existence in white clouds with naked babies playing harps. It’s about God having his way in this world through his church, born out of his Son.
We will not be secretly whisked away to another planet on the other side of the cosmos. Some folks have flattened out the biblical metaphors and abused this apocalyptic vision. God will not literally destroy the earth; he will purify it with his holy fire and winnowing fork.
All those who reject the Kingdom now will not receive resurrection in their bodies for God’s resurrected world that is coming. They will be left outside the city that God will build (Rev 21:27).
Pay careful attention to this truth. It’s those who are righteous that are “left behind” (Matt 24:38-41). The wicked will not inherit the earth. They will be swept away in a flood of judgment.
The “gospel of the kingdom” is about all things being conformed to Christ (Rom 8:29). He is the second Adam, the true Israelite, the new human, and the image of God on the earth. The Lord desires that the image of his Son be reflected in all the earth. This means not only proclaiming a message about Christ, but living out the Kingdom and calling others to do the same.
This gospel of the Kingdom always looks like Jesus—loving, serving, suffering, dying, and rising for his neighbor and his enemies.
Therefore, the preaching of the good news is also action. It’s the manifestation of God’s good will upon the earth. When this is lived out through humans, it looks like Jesus among us.
This “gospel of the kingdom” will be known throughout the whole world before the end of the age—not the end of the space-time continuum. The NT speaks of the end of the present evil age that is marked by sin and death. It’s that age that will come to an end when the “gospel of the kingdom” is realized. The new “eternal” age is the world set to rights at last.
What then does this mean for the church?
It means that the Lord actually expects a great level of the Kingdom to be manifested on the earth through Christian living. He wants to work through free human agents that have surrendered to his will. He will not force himself upon this world. That’s not the way of Christ.
The God we see in Jesus invites us to his table. He calls us to do his work. He wants us to participate in God’s saving act of creation. He waits for a church that cries out for the Kingdom on behalf of the world. The nature of this future is open (to some extent) and full of possibilities!
Christ’s return is mysteriously bound up with our participation in the gospel of the Kingdom. Since the good news of the Kingdom is that God will restore the earth for his resurrected people, we know that our labor in the Lord is not in vain (1 Cor 15:58).
We are not tilling a garden today only for it to be paved over with concrete tomorrow. We are not working a field that will be burned up in a cosmic wildfire. What we do for Christ and his Kingdom is one more brick in the building he is erecting on this earth. It matters. It counts.
You matter. You count.
Dear brothers and sisters, let’s speed the coming of Christ (2 Pet 3:12) by proclaiming and acting out God’s beauty and justice on the earth through creative expressions of resurrected living.
Let us imagine what it would look like if God were running the show, and work out our salvation in hopeful expectation of a new world.
Until the whole earth cries out: “thy Kingdom come!”
D.D. Flowers, 2012.