The Bewildering, Contradictory Claims
as to What the Bible TeachesThe Bible reader who sincerely desires to discover the will of God, to understand what God has revealed in Scripture, is faced with a daunting task. A veritable jungle of differing teachings confronts him as he considers the thousands of denominational options available in the "church marketplace." It is hard for us who produce Focus on the Kingdom to believe the Bible is responsible for such a smorgasbord of conflicting points of view. About 10%, probably, of first-century Jews and Gentiles were literate. They relied on what they heard preached and taught by word of mouth. Certainly the Hebrew Scriptures were read weekly in the synagogue, and the intrepid Paul was believed, by virtue of his extraordinary apostolic office, to be writing Scripture (2 Pet. 3:16). But does the Scripture present its teachings so poorly and unclearly as to warrant the amazing fragmentation we find today? Denominations are testimony to the appearance of distinct denominational leaders, who invite their followers to distance themselves from other Christian groups, in the interest of promoting the "correct" understanding of God’s will in Scripture. At your door are earnest Jehovah’s Witnesses claiming to possess a unique point of view vested in the Watchtower organization (Awake magazine). Adherents believe the Watchtower to be God’s only genuine promoter of divine truth. Twenty million Seventh-Day Adventists, holding in high regard their founder Ellen G. White’s vision ... Roman Catholics see in the Pope an infallible guide to truth. The Pope is thought to be the sole authorized successor to the apostle Peter. Their elaborate system of veneration of Mary as intercessor in heaven offers comfort to millions who strongly believe that Mary, "the mother of God," aids them in their daily struggles. Believers in conditional immortality are convinced about what they hold is plain scriptural teaching, that Mary and all the dead are currently unconscious, sleeping the sleep of death (Ps. 13:3; Ecc. 9:5, 10), until they awake in the future resurrection (Dan. 12:2; Luke 14:14). The dead then will reemerge as whole persons, wakened from their sleep of death, only when the seventh trumpet sounds at Jesus’ return (Rev. 11:15-18).
Mormons are no less enthusiastic about their conviction that their prophet Joseph Smith was the vehicle of extra revelation, in addition to the Bible, ... So called "non-denominational" churches are not really that. They claim no label like "Baptist" or "Methodist" but their belief system is very similar to any of the fundamentalist churches, such as Baptists. They sometimes insist that the King James Bible is the only reliable testimony to the will of God. Pentecostals are discontent with what they see in the various denominations ...
An umbrella teaching common to many of the groups so far mentioned is the conviction that the real badge of authenticity is the belief that the God of the Bible and the universe is a triune Being, a Godhead known as the Trinity. This ancient teaching held in common by both Protestants and Roman Catholics finds in the Bible Jesus’ claim to "be God," a full member of the Deity who is one essence in three Persons.
But Jehovah’s Witnesses are vigorous opponents of this Trinitarian idea of God and door to door promote the teaching that Jesus was originally the archangel Michael. This view of Jesus sets them apart from their fellow non-Trinitarians, the United Pentecostal Church, who claim that the Father and the Son are the same one God, a single Person. Their understanding is known as the "Oneness" view of God.
Within the so-called Bible churches there are differences of "interpretation" about the future destiny of Christians. Held in common, however, is the conviction that the "wicked" are now being and will continue to be tormented consciously forever and ever. ...
The New Testament is clear in its disapproval of the major denominational differences we have outlined. "I wish above all things," Paul wrote to the Corinthian believers, "that you all say the same thing, that you be perfectly united in one mind and one judgment" (1 Cor. 1:10). Jesus had prayed that his followers all be "one," as Father and Son are one in harmonious agreement (John 17:11). What became of that prayer? It seems not to accord with the patent absence of unity within Christendom. Thousands of Christian groupings, all separately labeled, meet in isolation from differing forms of the faith, and maintain a sense of coherence by concentrating on what makes them different from other denominations.
What sense can we make of all this? Some of us found ourselves disenchanted with the denominational affiliation into which we were born. We were thus launched on a fascinating journey of faith as we tried to sort out the myriad differences found in the various groups claiming Jesus’ name. Trinity or non-Trinity? The dead in heaven and hell now, or resting unconscious in their graves? Could Jesus return at any moment and remove the faithful from the earth in a secret pretribulation rapture, or will Jesus return just once to resurrect the dead and inaugurate his Kingdom on earth? Or will the Kingdom not be on earth at all, but rather in a celestial location? And what is the Gospel? With the past 50 years behind me, in which I have been privileged for many years to teach in a small Bible college, I present the following suggestions as to where the truth lies. Readers are urged to ponder these important issues.
Who is God? Is the answer to this question really so fearfully complex? ... Suppose for a moment that Truth resides in a few clear, plain and simple propositions. Suppose that it was the avoidance of the plain and simple Bible propositions which led inevitably to confusion and diversity.
Try this for a supremely beautiful and easy statement defining God: “You, Father,” Jesus said, “are the only one who is truly God” (John 17:3).
Can anyone else be “truly God,” if the Father of Jesus is “the only one who is truly God”? The Greek of the Bible gives us these lucid words: The Father is the “MONOS [only, unique] alethinos [true, genuine] THEOS [God].”
Do you see here the roots of our English word “monotheism,” which summarizes the fundamental appeal of the Bible to avoid any God but the one true God?
Look again. Who did Jesus believe was that “one true God” of monotheism? Plainly and conclusively it was his Father who is “the only one [monos] who is truly God [theos].”
Do you need an army of learned linguists to help you grasp this sublime statement of Jesus? “The Father is the only one who is truly God.”
Jesus makes this statement in the context of his definitive statement about “eternal life.” “Eternal life is this: that they believe in you [Father] as the only one who is truly God” (John 17:3).
Jesus the Master Rabbi’s shattering proposition about the Father as “the only one who is truly God” (John 17:3) has the potential to cause the denominational barriers to tumble. It has enormous power to engage the interest of Muslims and Jews and Christians and move them to enter into a new and meaningful dialogue. At present these three huge world religions are at loggerheads over the definition of how many and who God is.
When the creed of Jesus expressed in John 17:3 is taken to heart and the evident departure from it represented by the strange notion of a tri-personal God is seen as a foreign and unwanted perversion of Jesus’ simple definition of the true God, the road to a greater unity will be open.
With God defined by John 17:3 and by thousands and thousands of singular personal pronouns designating Him as a single Person, we advise that attention be paid to the question, Who then is Jesus? Luke 1:35 provides the supremely easy and definitive account of how, why and when Jesus is the Son of God. He is uniquely Son of God, certainly not because he is incomprehensibly also God — but precisely because of the miraculous new creation effected by God, the Father, in the womb of Mary. Luke 1:35, strategically placed by Luke, the historian-theologian, at the beginning of his two-volume theological treatise (Luke and Acts), has the potential for destroying long-standing confusion and division about Jesus. Expressly because of the miracle in Mary, Jesus is the Son of God. No further definition is required. This marvelous verse can claim to be a “control text” for the whole New Testament. The miracle in Mary brings the Son into existence. He was therefore not in existence before.
With God and Jesus His Son defined, it remains to define the Gospel, the heart of the saving Christian message. Where better and more appropriate to search for the right definition of the Gospel than in the words of Jesus, as he opened his evangelistic mission? Yet this obvious approach to defining Jesus’ master Gospel term “Kingdom” is not the approach taken by churches in general! Plainly and clearly Jesus opened his ministry by commanding us to “believe on the basis [en] of the Gospel about Kingdom of God” (Mark 1:14-15). Jesus’ urgent appeal is directed to the whole human race from the Great Commission, when Christianity as defined by Jesus was to go to the whole world, until Jesus comes back (Matt. 28:19-20). The great commission commands us all to change our minds, or “repent and believe the Gospel of the Kingdom of God” (Mark 1:14-15).
With equally plain and simple language Jesus declared that the whole rationale for his ministry was “to preach the Gospel of the Kingdom of God: that is the reason I was commissioned” (Luke 4:43). Is that hard? Surely not. It remains only to define the Kingdom, with Jesus’ own sayings, as that renewed society which he will introduce worldwide at his return in the future. For this he urged us to pray, “May Your Kingdom come” (not “May Your Kingdom spread!”). Certainly not just “May Your kingdom rule in my heart,” which immediately obscures the real and concrete meaning of “Kingdom” as a literal and future government. The Kingdom, according to Jesus, is that revolutionary world government which the Messiah will inaugurate at his Second Coming, to be prepared for in advance with all urgency.
Yes, of course the Kingdom of God Gospel, which in obedience to Jesus we are commanded to believe and obey, means a changed lifestyle now and until the end of our lives. We are to “walk” (the Bible’s Christian living word) in obedience to Jesus’ and “Jesus-in-Paul’s” teaching. But the word Kingdom is largely and predominantly — and especially in the fundamental accounts of the Gospel given by Matthew, Mark and Luke — not a Kingdom in the heart, not “enthroning Jesus in the heart,” but nearly always the future new world order of which Christians are now heirs, “waiting for the Kingdom of God,” as was Joseph of Arimathea (Mark 15:43).
... Joseph was a disciple (Matt. 27:57). But Joseph did not confuse the term Kingdom of God by making it a synonym for the Christian life now. He was still waiting for the Kingdom of God, after the historical ministry of Jesus was finished. Had Joseph missed the Kingdom? Of course not. He defined the Kingdom, as did Jesus almost invariably, as the Kingdom to be inaugurated at his future coming. The thief on the cross as a good disciple also thought of the Kingdom as future at the Second Coming (Luke 23:42).
Definitions of the Christian Gospel fail if they do not start with the Kingdom statements in the words of Jesus. “The Kingdom of God was at hand,” on the horizon, and calling for urgent action on our part. The Kingdom of God describes a time in the future when Jesus will again eat and drink with the disciples (Luke 22:18). The Kingdom of God is the Kingdom in which the resurrected Abraham, Isaac and Jacob will reappear to receive the promised inheritance they have never gained (Matt. 8:11). The Kingdom of God is still “about to come,” Jesus said, “when you see all these things happening,” the final events predicted in Luke 21 (see v. 31). The Kingdom of God is the great event of future judgment and salvation when the decision of God, in Christ, will exclude or include us in the Kingdom. The Kingdom of God is not to be implemented worldwide until the nobleman Jesus returns from heaven (Luke 19:11-27).
What will it mean to be “in the Kingdom”? Reducing the Kingdom teaching to “the good life now” destroys the primary meaning of Kingdom in the words of Jesus, as the Kingdom which will be given to the little flock (Luke 12:32). That is not a “Kingdom in the heart.” It is a new political order on earth replacing all present nation-states at the last trumpet (Rev. 11:15-18).
The Kingdom of God in that passage begins not now but in the future. Christians are heirs of the Kingdom now, as they prepare for it with urgency, living in the energizing hope of its appearance when Jesus comes back. That Kingdom is defined firstly by the prophets of Israel in the Hebrew Bible, and most notably in the prophet Daniel who defines the Kingdom as one which will be “under the whole heaven” (7:27), not in heaven! When the Kingdom comes, which is the center of all good Christian prayer: “May Your Kingdom come,” the saints of all the ages will function as co-rulers with Jesus (Dan. 7:18, 22, 27, RSV). The leading Christians, the apostles, will “sit on 12 thrones to administer the restored tribes of Israel” (see Matt. 19:28). The same promise reoccurs in Luke 22:28-30 where it is made the essence of the New Covenant. Jesus shed his blood to bring that Kingdom covenant into force. “Just as my Father has covenanted to give me a Kingdom, so I covenant with you to give you the Kingdom, and you will be seated on thrones to administer the twelve tribes of Israel.”
This promised Kingdom, the heart of the Christian Gospel, guarantees the believers “power over the nations” (Rev. 2:26) which they certainly do not have now. Christians are to be rewarded with positions of authority in that Kingdom and “they will sit with Jesus in his throne,” the throne of David to be restored in the land.
Paul warned Christians against the error of thinking that they were already functioning as kings: “You are already satisfied; you have already grown rich; you have become kings without us! Indeed, I wish that you had become kings, so that we also might become kings with you” (1 Cor. 4:8).
The principal and fundamental meaning of “Kingdom” in the recorded teaching of Jesus is not an “ethical” standard in the heart now. It is not an interiorized Kingdom. It is nearly always (98% of the Kingdom texts) the Kingdom of the future, dependent on the future binding of Satan “so that he can no longer deceive the nations” (Rev. 20:3), a brand new state of affairs. The relationship of Christians to the Kingdom is that they are invited to be that royal family, privileged, through testing and trial now, who will assist Jesus in “fixing” the world on a grand and blessed scale when the Kingdom comes. Unless this primary definition of Kingdom is clear to the minds of churchgoers, the Gospel of the Kingdom, the Christian saving Gospel, is not firmly established. In traditional and popular preaching that all-important royal Kingdom of Jesus and of the Father has been waffled away into some vague hope of “heaven when I die.”
With that alien concept, based on the false teaching that we have “immortal souls” which must either fly off bodiless at death to heaven or be tortured forever in a subterranean hellfire, the Gospel of the Kingdom is muddled and confused.
Defining the Kingdom, starting with Jesus, will do much to unite the fragmented denominations, provided they first come into line with Jesus’ unitary monotheism so beautifully declared in John 17:3. And provided Jesus is presented as the Messiah and Savior, not a visitor from outer space. God did not become a man; God became a Father when the miracle of the procreation of the Son of God occurred in the womb of his mother (Luke 1:35; Matt. 1:18, 20; Ps. 2:7; 2 Sam. 7:14).
The biblical definition of God, Jesus and the Gospel has been damaged for millennia, since the second century, by the regrettable influx of pagan philosophy. “Heaven as a resort for souls” has replaced the real, concrete Kingdom of God coming on earth when Jesus returns. Christian destiny is missing from most current preaching.
This leaves churches as “disaster areas” needing urgent reform, as they return to the simple basics of Jesus’ and Paul’s Gospel about the Kingdom (Mark 1:14-15; Luke 4:43; Matt. 24:14) which is identical with the Gospel of grace (Acts 20:24-25; 28:30-31).
We may take courage and comfort from the warning words of leading New Testament scholar Bishop Tom Wright, who deplores the mindless attitude towards biblical truth so evident in churches. Listen to Wright’s searing criticism and penetrating analysis of the “mess we are in,” marked by the evident fragmentation of Christian denominationalism:
“Traditionally, of course, we suppose that Christianity teaches about a heaven above, to which the saved or blessed go, and a hell below, for the wicked and impenitent. This is still assumed by many both inside and outside the church, as the official line which they may or may not accept.”
“A remarkable example arrived in the mail not long ago, a book, apparently a bestseller by Maria Shriver, the present first lady of California, who is married to Arnold Schwarzenegger and whose uncle was John F. Kennedy. The book is called What’s Heaven? and is aimed at children, with lots of large pictures of fluffy clouds in blue skies. Each page of text has one sentence in extra large type, making the basic message of the book crystal clear. Heaven, says Shriver, is ‘somewhere you believe in…It’s a beautiful place where you can sit on soft clouds and talk to other people who are there. At night you can sit next to the stars, which are the brightest of any in the universe…If you are good throughout your life, then you get to go to heaven…When your life is finished here on earth God sends angels down to take you up to Heaven to be with Him there…And Grandma is alive in me….Most important she taught me to believe in me…She is in a safe place with the stars, with God and the angels…She is watching over us from up there…I want you to know [says the heroine to her great-grandma] that even though you are no longer here, your spirit will always be alive in me.’”
Wright comments on this amazing piece of misleading information offered by the authoress of What’s Heaven? “This is more or less exactly what millions of people in the Western world have come to believe, to accept as truth and to teach their children.” Bishop Wright was sent the book, he says, by a friend who said appropriately, “I hope you find this awful book helpful in what not to say.”
Wright then elaborates his point: “Many Christians grow up assuming that whenever the New Testament speaks of heaven it refers to the place to which the saved will go after death. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus’ sayings in the other gospels about the kingdom of God are rendered as ‘kingdom of heaven.’ Since many read Matthew first, when they find Jesus talking about ‘entering the Kingdom of heaven,’ they have their assumptions confirmed, and they suppose that Jesus is indeed talking about how to go to heaven when you die, which is certainly not what either Jesus or Matthew had in mind. Many mental pictures have grown up around this and are now assumed to be what the Bible teaches or what Christians believe. But the language of heaven in the New Testament doesn’t work that way.”
Wright then adds: “God’s Kingdom in the preaching of Jesus refers not to postmortem destiny, not to our escape from this world into another one, but to God’s sovereign rule coming ‘on earth as it is in heaven.’
The roots of the misunderstanding go very deep, not least into the residual Platonism [paganism] that has infected whole swaths of Christian thinking and has misled people into supposing that Christians are meant to devalue this present world and our present bodies and regard them as shabby or shameful…In the book of Revelation we find not ransomed souls making their way to a disembodied heaven, but rather the new Jerusalem coming down from heaven to earth, uniting the two in a lasting embrace.”
Bishop Wright has hit upon one element of the disaster which is fragmented denominational Christianity. He notes that “most Christians today, I fear, never think about this from one year to the next.” They are indeed trapped in a mindless, non-Berean state of mind. The status quo, what we learned in church, is accepted as real and true, when it is no more than a mishmash of Platonic paganism, buttressed by a few Bible verses twisted or torn from their context. No wonder, then, that many who do take the trouble to think for themselves come to realize that “heaven as traditionally pictured looks insufferably boring — sitting on clouds and playing harps all the time.” 
The New Testament warns on page after page that false belief is a deadly threat. Paul foresaw trouble looming large on the horizon. With power-packed words he indicts all failure to be constantly alert, lest we fall prey to nonsense camouflaged as saving truth: In 2 Timothy 4:1-4, the apostle speaking for Jesus said: “I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his Kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths.”
“Heaven in the Bible is nowhere the destination of the dying,” declared another Cambridge scholar. When “Kingdom,” “God” and “Son of God” regain their biblical definitions churches may expect a healthy unity to emerge. While we avoid the definitions of these master-terms given by Jesus and Paul, we may expect business as usual, and a stifling dullness which keeps church members under the iron fist of popular biblical misunderstanding of God, Jesus and their coming Kingdom in a renewed earth. “Unless you accept the Kingdom of God as a little child, you will not enter it,” Jesus said (Luke 18:17), reflecting his infectious delight in the Gospel about the Kingdom, for which he preached and died. The summary of his Kingdom work is given us in those amazing statements of Revelation 5:9-10: “And they sang a new song, saying, ‘Worthy are you [Jesus] to take the book and to break its seals; for you were slain, and purchased for God with your blood men and women from every tribe and tongue and people and nation. You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to our God; and they will reign upon the earth.”
The primary meaning of Kingdom remains the Kingdom of Messiah’s expectation, for which believers of all nations are to prepare now in view of the royal office promised to them. Salvation in that future Kingdom depends as Hebrews 5:9 states on our present obedience to Jesus who “became to all those who obey him the source of eternal salvation.” His first and programmatic command is “Repent and believe the Gospel of the Kingdom of God,” and of course, “define the Kingdom as I do in my scores of Kingdom sayings!”
 Surprised by Hope, pp. 17, 18.
Taken from: November, 2009 edition of Focus on the Kingdom magazine