KEEPING A KINGDOM MINDSET
The Kingdom of God is a paradox. Jesus’ disciples are asked to embrace the paradox of seeking to convert the whole world even while they remain vigilant waiting for His soon return. Given the irony of the insistence that ‘what the disciples do, they must do quickly’ (in terms of being witnesses), and that Christians have been waiting for two millennia for Jesus to come back, perhaps we should stop asking the question of “when will it happen?” Perhaps we should only ask, “What must we be doing today since the teaching of Jesus to His disciples (and the New Testament’s teaching to the Church) commanded the immediate spreading of the gospel beyond Jerusalem while not losing heart for His imminent coming back to earth to establish the Kingdom of God.
There is little doubt that we should maintain a Kingdom mindset in more ways than one. Not only should we realize that the methods and standards of the present age are anathema in the age to come. We should also face the ever-present proximity of His return. We live in a transient time—we are between two ages. We must relinquish the values of the old age. We must embrace the values of the new, even though the new world to come awaits consummation. This contradiction comprises “the already, not yet.” It constitutes the tension within which the Church of Jesus Christ must practice its faith—exemplifying the new Kingdom. We are to model that Kingdom today, even though our lifestyle will not be fully in fashion until the Kingdom comes.
So does this make the question of when Jesus will return a non-sense question? Should we live like the existentialist who finds meaning by embracing the paradox of meaninglessness? Should we commit ourselves to an existence in which a final resolution never arrives? Given that Jesus demanded His disciples believe in His immediate return, all the while knowing that His Kingdom was at least two millennia away, what manner of man was this that asked his followers to adopt such an irrational lifestyle, conflicting with the values of the world, and their everyday common sense and better judgment?
If we assume (incorrectly I might emphasize) that there was never to be resolution in the form of a physical, earthly kingdom, then clearly the gospel of Jesus Christ must mean something very different than what the Church has taught its members for most of its 2,000 year history.
No, the intention of this paradox must be that the followers of Jesus Christ ought always to remember that for each of them, the duration of their waiting, their anticipation of the Kingdom, remains bounded by two very real truths: one—we are all finite and we will die someday; two—that someday may be today.
We never have that much time left in the bank. At most, we will enjoy no more than 80 years of service, and then we will move on to the next phase of our existence. Likewise, we never know whether the day in which we find ourselves will be our last day. Like Job, we should recognize that our life is but a breath—our existence hangs by a thin thread (Job 7:7). When our number is called and our time is up, we will be with our Lord and the Kingdom of God, for each one of us—separately—begins at that distinctive moment. Either (1) living in light of the imminent time-space return of Christ, or (2) the transition to living consciously in His presence, always stares us squarely in the face, whether we realize that ultimate reality or not.
EVEN MODERN THEOLOGIANS TESTIFY TO THIS TRUTH
For the past one hundred years, most liberal theologians asserted that Jesus Christ looked to a physical Kingdom of God in this world. He believed in the apocalypse. He preached a coming Kingdom in which God would break into the natural order and bring justice to the world. Unfortunately, these teachers believed he was deceived to think that way, being one of many “apocalyptic rabbis” roaming about the countryside in Palestine, expecting the world to end soon in flames of fire. It is important, however, to recognize these ‘doubting Thomases,’ while not regarding Jesus to be the Son of God in the correct sense, still asserted Jesus DID believe in a coming Kingdom of God in a real, not ‘spiritual’ sense.
Bart D. Ehrman, in his book, Jesus: Apocalpytic Prophet of the New Millennium argues a compelling case for this view. Although the most prolific and popular writer on New Testament topics today, ironically Ehrman writes as an agnostic. He investigates and writes as an historian, absent faith that Jesus Christ was anything more than a remarkable personage.
But what does Ehrman assert concerning this principal character of religious history, one Jesus of Nazareth who is worshipped by over a billion people today? Jesus must be understood as a person in the context of his day and age. He must be seen as an apocalypticist—a rabbi utterly convinced the world was coming to an end. His entire message—the coming of the Kingdom of God—begins and ends with his radical (and socially ‘sideways’) perspective. Ehrman states:
What has struck me over the years, though, is that the view shared probably by the majority of scholars over the course of this century, at least in Germany and America, is equally shocking for most nonspecialist readers. And yet it is scarcely known to the general reading public. This is the view that is embraced in this [Ehrman’s] book. In a nutshell, it’s a view first advanced most persuasively by none other than the great twentieth-century humanitarian Albert Schweitzer. It claims that Jesus is best understood as a first-century Jewish apocalypticist. This is a shorthand way of saying that Jesus fully expected that the history of the world as we know it (well, as he knew it) was going to come to a screeching halt, that God was soon going to intervene in the affairs of this world, overthrow the forces of evil in a cosmic act of judgment, destroy huge masses of humanity, and abolish existing human political and religious institutions. All this would be a prelude to the arrival of a new order on earth, the Kingdom of God. Moreover, Jesus expected that this cataclysmic end of history would come in his own generation, at least during the lifetime of his disciples. It’s pretty shocking stuff, really. And the evidence that Jesus believed and taught it is fairly impressive.
Such strongly supportive testimony for the assertion that Jesus preached the apocalypse, looked at from the standpoint of evidentiary value, constitutes a more decisive witness than those who believe in Bible prophecy and the divinity of Jesus Christ.
Why would I say that? Because Ehrman’s view, like most modern theology, rejects Jesus ever claimed to be the Son of God—it expresses doubt that Jesus even claimed to be the fulfillment of the Son of Man referenced in the Book of Daniel and other inter-testament writings (one thinks of the Book of Enoch and other extra-biblical sources discovered in the Dead Sea Scrolls). Nonetheless, liberal scholarship asserts Jesus did believe in the physical manifestation of the Messiah in the realm of space-time. The Kingdom of God would intersect the realm of humankind. It was not to be ‘pie in the sky by and by.’ Rather, in the same guise as Jesus actions in the Temple when he overturned the tables of the moneychangers, the Kingdom of God would upset the apple cart. It would forever alter the normal ways of the world where the poor are oppressed while the rich run the show.
Thus, modern theologians, no friends of literal biblical interpretation, do not deny that Jesus preached the imminent literal apocalypse—they simply reject that what he preached would ever come to pass, as such change would require the supernatural intervention of God. From their viewpoint, Jesus may have been mixed up about certain things. But he was never double-minded about the end of the world. He based His whole ministry on that assumption.
Liberalism, of course, does not leave it there. It goes on to assert that while Jesus believed in apocalypse and the upheaval of the world system, He was just wrong to think that God would stop the injustice and terminate mankind’s reproachable reign. Of course, that is where we that believe Jesus was the Son of God (and was not confused about the meaning and timing of the apocalypse), part company.
Assuming, for the sake of argument that Jesus is who we evangelicals believe He claimed to be—i.e., the Son of Man and the Son of God, of all Christian ‘branches’ of faith we should be the most eager to understand the essence of His gospel so we remain true to its substance. If His principal teaching consisted of the coming Kingdom, it should be front and center in the pulpits of America. Even liberal theologians would confirm this very truth. To be authentic, we had better understand why Jesus was an apocalypticist.
EVANGELICALS DENY THE MESSAGE OF THE KINGDOM
How ironic then that famed evangelical preacher Rick Warren dismisses the apocalypse and coming Kingdom as a matter of no import to Jesus. In his blockbuster book, The Purpose Driven Life, Warren makes no bones about it. Prophecy is not important.
When the disciples wanted to talk about prophecy, Jesus quickly switched the conversation to evangelism. He wanted them to concentrate on their mission in the world. He said in essence, “The details of my return are none of your business. What is your business in the mission I have given you. Focus on that!”
What a thorough misrepresentation of the truth! Warren contends 200 years of liberal protestant scholarship, the emphasis of the true church almost 2,000 years in the making, and the ‘fundamentals’ espoused by evangelicals in this country during the past century have all gotten the gospel wrong. Instead, the essential message should be about the here and now, about finding purpose in life today through this up-to-date ‘Jesus.’ To Warren, Jesus believed the apocalypse was malarkey and would have nothing to do with it! Furthermore, neither should the disciples.
How tragic that Warren’s message is considered an idyllic statement of evangelical belief! It fails even to be a fair portrayal of liberal protestant scholarship. It can only be a statement that has been thoroughly infused with ‘positive thinking’ if not out-and-out new age mysticism. Furthermore, Warren pulls Jesus completely out of his historical context and puts words into his mouth that reflect the Gospel According to Rick. For these reasons, I choose not to back away from a most critical assessment of Warren’s message: Rick Warren preaches another gospel than that which Jesus Christ preached. His assertion that Jesus possessed a lackadaisical attitude toward Bible prophecy could not be further from the truth. It ignores scores of Jesus’ statements to the contrary. As such the Gospel According to Rick could not be more at odds with the essential message of this article [book]. However, I do not intend to mount a negative polemic against those in evangelicalism such as Rick Warren who dismiss the importance of eschatology, let alone who fail to proclaim the message of the Kingdom of God. The truth will become evident of its own accord as we advance a positive polemic demonstrating why the apocalypse matters not only doctrinally but practically to those who seek to be disciples of Jesus Christ.
To recap: the coming of the Kingdom of God was the heart of Jesus’ message. Virtually all respected Bible scholars (liberal or conservative) assert this to be so. The only real issue concerns whether we should believe Jesus or not and put into practice the form of spirituality he taught and exemplified, which hung on the promise of His soon return. Additionally, unless we conclude that Jesus intentionally wished to mislead His disciples about His return to this world (to culminate the age in which we now live), it seems most illogical to assume the central teaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ is based upon a non-literal, non-historical, indeed nonsense non-event.
The Kingdom of God is coming. It will happen in space-time. The “other side” will break into our experience one day. The curtains will be pulled back. The day of reckoning will come. The time of reward and recompense will be here before we know it.
NOTES Yes, I believe that Jesus had awareness that His Kingdom was not to come until many centuries in the future.  Ehrman, Bart D. Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium (p. 2). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.  Pastor Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Life, p. 285.