30-03-2018 - THE IMPORTANT
QUESTION OF WHEN - Part One
Published 30th March 2018
By John Aldworth
When studying, or even just reading scripture, it’s always good to ask the question, ‘When?’ For example, when was Jesus born, when did He die? When was such a thing said and to whom? When will the important promises Jesus made to Israelite disciples in the Beatitudes take place? When did the ‘kingdom foretaste’ of miracles in Acts end? When was the dispensation of the mystery first revealed? In this study series we will look at certain portions of scripture and see in each of them how very differently each speaker recorded in scripture saw time. Doing so will help us to better appreciate how God Himself views time. As you might expect his perspective is very different from ours but nonetheless absolutely right and true for all that.
First up then are the Beautitudes found in Matt. 5:1-12. There is no argument that Lord wanted those who followed Him in his earthly ministry to have these ‘be-attitudes’ in their heart. Nor that it would be good for us to have them too. Importantly, though the Lord plainly said it was only the meek and merciful, the hungry for righteousness and the ‘poor in spirit’ who would receive, or be received into, the kingdom. The Beautitudes were their entry ticket. The big question, however, is when they would receive this and other promised rewards?
To answer that, note that in verses 3 and 10 the Lord uses the present tense to tell the ‘poor in spirit’ and ‘they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake’ that ‘theirs is the kingdom of heaven’. And in verses 11 and 12 he tells those reviled and persecuted falsely ‘for my sake’, that they should rejoice for ‘great is their reward in heaven’. These faithful followers were told a reward was already in heaven for them and that they were assured of a place in the kingdom. But, and it’s a big but, the kingdom hadn’t come yet, nor would it in the Lord’s lifetime on earth for, as He clearly explained in Luke 11-27, He must first ‘go into a far country (i.e. heaven) to receive for Himself a kingdom’.
Evidently these persecuted, poor in spirit disciples were to be counted by God as citizens of the kingdom for their faithfulness to Jesus. Their reward had already been set aside for them in heaven. But again, when would they receive it? The answer lies in verses 4 through 9 where the future tense is used by the Lord. Here He tells those that mourn ‘they shall be comforted’; those that thirst after righteousness that they shall be filled. The merciful will obtain mercy, the ‘pure in heart’ shall see God and the peacemakers shall be called the children of God. But again, when will these promises be made good? It is hard to see how his disciples were ‘comforted’ in their lifetimes; indeed some were killed, as Jesus said they would be.
How could they enter the kingdom?
Were any ‘filled’ with righteousness, that is the state of being sinless, then or even later? Not according to the Apostle John. He said (1 John 1:8-9), ‘If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and truth is not in us.’ Again, he said, ‘If we say we have not sinned, we make Him a liar and his word is not in us’. And that was written more than half a century after the Lord’s ascension. An important clue to the timeline for fulfilment of these promises is found in Matt. 5:5 where the meek are told they are blessed ‘for they shall inherit the earth’. Now, ask yourself, when in the last 2,000 years have the meek inherited the earth or anything much else, for that matter? Far from inheriting anything they mostly have had what little they had taken from them.
Yet the Lord’s words were true. They will inherit the earth – all of it. Government will pass into their hands and they will have dominion over it. When, you ask? Answer: when the Lord inaugurates his kingdom and that hasn’t happened yet. Later we’ll set out scripture that tells us just when this kingdom will begin. But for now, let’s put ourselves in the shoes of the disciples Jesus spoke to in Matt. 5:1-27. How could they understand the promises really would come to pass for them when He told those who thought the kingdom would appear ‘immediately’ that it wouldn’t (Luke 19:11). Not only that, in Matt. 5:20 He says ‘… except your righteousness exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees ye shall in no wise enter into the kingdom of heaven’.
How could a disciple hearing these words of the Lord, and others, believe he could enter the kingdom in his own lifetime? The short answer is that he couldn’t. But, importantly, he could believe that he would be resurrected to live again in a time to come and when raised from the dead would find himself in the kingdom then. Lazarus is a case in point. The Lord let him die and start to rot in the tomb before resurrecting him (temporarily, let it be said, for he died later) to prove that bodily resurrection was real (John 11: 1-44). Then he told Martha, who had hoped against hope her brother would live again, that ‘Your brother shall rise again’. Martha then evidenced her faith in Old Testament scripture (Daniel 12:1-3), saying, ‘I know that he shall rise again in the resurrection at the last day’. Now note the timing in Jesus’s reply:
I am the resurrection and the life; he that believeth in me, though he were dead yet shall he live. And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die. Believest thou this? (John 11:25-26).
Then and there Martha comes to believe that Jesus Christ is indeed who He says He is, 'the resurrection and the life'. She hails Him as ‘the Son of God which should come into the world’. And, of course, it’s essential that we believe that too.
But do you see two important principles here? The first is that believing what God says is needed. Martha had the faith that is the prerequisite for receiving resurrection. The second principle taught here is that when the rightful King is present then the power of the kingdom is present also.
True, the kingdom in its fullness is yet to come. For, as Martha rightly said, Lazarus will indeed be resurrected (for the second time, that is) ‘at the last day’ which is when the Lord will inaugurate his heavenly kingdom in the dispensation the Apostle Paul called ‘the day of Christ’ (Phil. 1: 6, 10; 2:16, etc.). But that was still in the far future when Jesus spoke. Indeed, it still hasn’t happened in our time, nearly 2,000 years later.
In Martha’s time, however, the rightful King stood outside the tomb, called Lazarus to come forth, and forth he came to prove that Christ is indeed the resurrection and the life. Why? Because where the King is so is his kingdom. This is why when Jesus was casting out a devil (but not by Beelzebub as his false accusers claimed) he said:
But if I with the finger of God cast out devils, no doubt the kingdom of God is come upon you. (Luke 11: 20).
The kingdom of God then was present in Jesus as He ministered in person on earth. But He is not on earth today but in heaven. Today both the King and his kingdom are ‘hid in God’ (Col. 3:1-4) and we are hid with Him as we await his appearing in glory. Yet nearly 2,000 years ago the Apostle Paul anticipated this glorious, yet, for him, far off event in time, as something that would be the very next thing he would experience after death. This is what he wrote in Phil. 1: 21 and 23:
For to me to live in Christ and to die is gain… having a desire to depart (i.e. die) and be with Christ which is far better.
And again in 2 Cor. 5:8:
We are confident, I say, and willing rather to be absent from the body and to be present with the Lord.
Understanding the timing of the fulfilment of Paul’s hope is crucial. 2 Cor. 5:8 does not mean, as so many think, that immediately upon dying (i.e. becoming absent from the body) the believer immediately will be consciously ‘present with the Lord’, still less that anyone could attain to being with the Lord without undergoing resurrection or change. However, resurrection into his presence, whether on earth or in heaven, will be the next thing he will consciously experience. Meantime he will 'sleep' in the grave, knowing nothing.
Paul was right when he wrote about resurrection in 1 Cor. 15: 19, saying: ‘For if in this life only we hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable’. He was also right when he wrote, ‘If Christ be not raised your faith is in vain … then they also which are fallen asleep in Christ are perished’. And the many that believe their soul will automatically fly to heaven upon death are in error, sad to say.
As I write King David still lies in his grave in Jerusalem (Peter said so, Acts 2:29); in fact all believers including Paul lie dead, just as dead as unbelievers for that matter. As yet no soul has gone to heaven because both soul and body die at death. Jesus said so (Matt. 10:28). Even we who are saved by grace in the dispensation of grace (Eph. 2:5 and 3:1-4) are still dead. Paul said so in Col. 3:3:
For ye are dead and your life is hid with Christ in God. When Christ, who is our life, shall appear, then shall ye also appear with Him in glory.
Did you notice that the word when is the key on which this verse turns? Our resurrection (or translation if we are alive at the time) occurs when Christ appears, not before. Until then we know nothing because the dead know nothing. There may be a long time passing, as we remain ‘asleep in Jesus’. But eventually we who have followed Paul in the ‘high calling’ (Phil. 3:14), and by faith are already ‘risen with Christ’, will have our part in the (out) resurrection (Phil. 3:11). It will be the first thing we are conscious of after death. This out-resurrection (Greek: ex-anastasis) is to eternal life and it is the first mass resurrection of believers to take place.
God's sense of timing
But again one must ask, when will it take place? Perhaps not in our life time but soon because soon Christ will indeed appear and He ‘… shall judge the quick and the dead at his appearing and his kingdom’ (2 Tim. 4:1). This judgement by Christ of both the alive and the dead will determine who is worthy to enter and live in the Lord’s kingdom. Those counted worthy will be resurrected or ‘changed in the twinkling of an eye’; those deemed unworthy will be left dead in the ground. It is worth repeating that no believer has as yet entered heaven to be with the Lord. What’s more no believer in Jesus during his time upon earth entered the kingdom then, nor as yet have they since. Incredible as it may seem those who received his earthly proclamation of the gospel of the kingdom knew they would only enter it in the ‘last day’, that is in the far future long after their death.
Returning to the Beatitudes, the power of Jesus’s words to his disciples was such that it made the prospect of future entry into the kingdom instantly real in their hearts. That it would be by way of resurrection was vouchsafed to them later by the resurrections Jesus performed, including that of Lazarus. The long time gap between promise and fulfilment did not prevent them taking hold of this truth by faith because they saw the timing as God sees it - an already accomplished fact. That is, once God (Christ in this case) spoke, the fulfilment of the promise was certain no matter how long it might be delayed. Why? Because God always sees the end, and an accomplished end at that, from the beginning. That is his sense of timing.
To sum up, for those who heard and believed the beautitudes spoken by Jesus faith bridged the time gap between his promise and its fulfilment. That is to say that in God the timing may be far future but He can make what will happen then a real experience a believer’s heart in the here and now.
To be continued