Dispensationalists commonly believe and teach that when Jesus came He and John the Baptist offered an earthly kingdom to Israel. If Israel had accepted Him as their Messiah, and accepted His and John’s offer of the kingdom, He would not have been crucified.
So they believe the kingdom offer was withdrawn when it became clear to Christ that Israel had rejected Him as their king. From that point in His ministry Jesus ceased to proclaim the kingdom He and John had offered, changed His message and began speaking of the cross He must bear.
Dispensationalists regard the cross as part of God’s eternal plan only insofar as He knew ahead of time (from the foundation of the world) that Israel would reject His Son and the kingdom offer. On account of that Jesus must go to the cross. They also teach that the kingdom He and John proclaimed would be “postponed” till some time in the future.
The following is a letter I wrote to a friend who holds this point of view. He taught a Bible study my wife and I attended.
I am aware that there are many sincere, well-meaning Christians today who hold this point of view. It is not my intention to discredit any person but to challenge unscriptural teachings. Sometimes what is commonly taught and accepted without question by those who hear it (compare Acts 17:11) needs to be examined in the light of Scripture. It is time, now more than ever, to stand for truth like Luther and others have in the past.
Speaking the truth in love is the aim of this letter. You are a dear brother in the Lord. I hope my manner of presentation is worthy of Him. May it lead to joy in your heart. “Your words were found, and I did eat them; and they became the joy and rejoicing of my heart.”
Not all will agree; but, speaking the truth is the number-one priority. That is the preparation of the meal in the kitchen, using all the correct ingredients. You may not like the “garlic,” but it is necessary.
Then, it must be placed on a platter of love. The platter may not always look like love. It didn’t when my dad laid a belt on my bottom. But it should yield a tasty meal! Be informed that your chef may insist that you eat your broccoli. Don’t turnip your nose at the veggies. He knows the key is in the careful manner he has followed the recipe the Master Chef has given him.
You may still find it hard to believe that Kathy and I became physically ill when we read the following line from your Study Guide on the Davidic Covenant: “The ‘Gospel of the Kingdom’ is different than the ‘gospel’ that Paul preached. –the first was to Israel only, the second to the world.” Pardon the simile: spiritually, to us it was like food poisoning.
I know that we have talked about this already. Nevertheless, I feel it is necessary to establish the reason, Biblically, for our dual, involuntary response.
First, I want to challenge the supposition on its face. How does the audience change the Gospel? The Gospel is not a “to-each-his-own” declaration. It’s not like putting on a different pair of glasses, depending on who you are.
Secondly, your assumption that “The Gospel of the Kingdom is…preached…to Israel only” almost immediately brought to mind a verse to the contrary. I admonish you to be careful not to make an assertion that Jesus Himself has spoken differently about. If what you say is true, why did He say, “This Gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the inhabited earth for a witness in all the nations” (Matt. 24:14)? Not only that, but doesn’t this sound a lot like what Paul said about his Gospel, which “was preached in all creation under heaven” (Col. 1:5,6,23)? How is Paul’s different than Jesus’ in this sense, which is, after all, the essential element in your assertion that there is a difference between the two. In this respect, they are plainly not different.
When Paul said to the Jews in Antioch, “It was necessary for the Word of God to be spoken to you first…now we turn to the Gentiles” (Acts 13), did he have in mind two messages? He did not. Furthermore, the hearer would naturally understand that “to you first” includes what Jesus began to preach. There is solidarity in the message preached by Jesus and Paul.
The writer of Hebrews also presents the unity of the message given. “How will we escape,” he writes, “if we disregard so great a salvation, which began to be spoken through the Lord and was confirmed to us by those who heard it [from the Lord]” (Heb. 2:3). This reveals that the same message was preached by Jesus and those who followed, who in fact went into all the world with that message. Many of them died in remote parts of the world. Those who heard Him proclaimed what they heard from Him. His message was “confirmed” by them. It was not different.
Having said all that, what is the Gospel anyway?
No matter how “imperfect” one’s understanding might be, it all comes down to the “death, burial and resurrection” of Someone very dear to you and me. Preaching any other Gospel is “anathema.”
In light of this, it is time to examine the message of the kingdom/message of the cross as it relates to Christ’s ministry.
Let us begin by looking at Matthew’s account of the kingdom presentation given by John the Baptist and Jesus. According to him, their declaration was identical: “Repent, for the kingdom of the heavens has come near” (3:2; 4:17).
They begin this declaration with the word “repent” in a present sense. The word “for,” which follows, gives the reason for the command: “the kingdom of the heavens is at hand.” In the Greek text, the weight of the proclamation falls on the first word, “it has come near”; for, the order of words is actually inverted. After given the command to repent, this is what captured the ear of the hearer: “It has come near!”, much like, “Extra! Extra! Read all about it!” that newspaper boys once shouted at passers-by before they introduced the front-page news. This would raise curiosity–“What is at hand?” Moreover, the effect of this leading word (it is one word in the Greek) was maximized by being presented in the perfect tense. The perfect tense indicates that the action taken (“it has come near–the kingdom of the heavens”) is like a stake driven in the ground. The effects of it are on-going. Life will never be the same again.
To show the effect this tense has on a Greek verb, two prominent examples can be given in John 19, when Pilate said, “What I have written I have written” (v. 22) and when Jesus said, “It is finished” (v. 30). The stake driven (the action taken) has an enduring effect. You can’t reclaim the water that has broken through a dam. And the valley below will never be the same. That is the impact of the Greek verb “it has come near.”
What “has come near”? The kingdom of the heavens.
Now let’s look at Mark’s account. You might say Mark’s is the “Amplified” version. According to him, Jesus was preaching “the Gospel of God” and saying, “The time is fulfilled and it has come near–the kingdom of God; repent and believe in the Gospel” (1:14,15).
Again, “it has come near” is in the perfect tense and precedes the words “the kingdom of God.” The Greek word “time” is not general, but an “appointed time,” which is further strengthened by the article (“the”). This, combined with a perfect-tense “it is fulfilled,” which in Mark introduces the entire message, is a wake-up call for any prophetically-minded Galilean casting a net in the sea.
To convey the force of “It is fulfilled,” let me put it this way… You wouldn’t remove a boulder that “has fallen” on your house from a ridge in the Jordan Valley (at least, not without great difficulty). Nor will you alter what “is fulfilled” in the perfect tense. What “is fulfilled” is fulfilled. How many times can you fill a barrel? You can keep adding water, if you like, but it will only run over the sides once it is full. Jesus’ statement fulfills a prophecy. What prophetic word is it fulfilling?
Come, my friend, and look with me at a verse in Daniel 2. “In the days of these kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom” (v. 44). When Jesus says, “The appointed time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near,” He is announcing the impending advent of the kingdom prophesied in Daniel 2.
That leads me to another friendly discussion I must have with you. In the Bible study you pointed out NT fulfillments of prophecies like Zechariah 9:9 and used words like “partially fulfilled” and “potentially fulfilling” to describe the fulfillments. Try convincing me that my gas tank is full if you have only put in half a tank. Referring to Zechariah 9:9, Matthew says, “This happened, that it be fulfilled–that which was spoken through the prophet” (21:4). Do you ever feel uneasy when you slip an extra word in a text of Scripture, like–this was “partially fulfilled”? I do, when I hear you do it. But you’ll have no quarrel with me. You have to work this out with your Father. It is His Word.
Normally, we are not at liberty to add words to a text, unless you are trying to make room for some “eschatological” contingency, related to “system-maintenance” or “damage-control.” Matthew did not ask for your help. As far as he is concerned, the message ends where his pen stops. I admonish you, as my brother. The text says that Zechariah 9:9 is “fulfilled” at the triumphal entry.
So, aside from Luke’s rendition in Luke 10, which we will refer to shortly, the kingdom announcement, in its “parallel,” stereophonic, surround-sound, ultimate and complete, “all-your-eggs-in-one-basket” form, is: “It is fulfilled–the appointed time; and it has come near–the kingdom of the heavens [or, of God]; repent and believe in the Gospel.”
Let us proceed, at this point in the discussion, by looking at the Greek word: “has come near.” It is instructive to look at how the word, in its various translations–“has come near” or “came near”/”approached,” is used in Matthew, Mark, and Luke in other connections. Can one find evidence in any text that would indicate that the person or thing that was approaching drew back? In other words, is the word ever used in the sense of coming near and not following through on the approach made?
Let’s look. I gathered the references from Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon.
Matthew 21:1: “They approached Jerusalem and came into Bethphage.” Then they proceeded into Jerusalem with Jesus riding on a donkey. 21:34: Jesus taught, “When the appointed time of fruit came near” the servants were sent to the vine keepers to gather the produce. 26:45 and 46 (Mark 14:41 and 42 corresponds to this; only, “has come” in v. 41 is curiously replaced by Matthew, in 26:45, with “has come near“): Jesus said, “Behold, the hour has come near and the Son of man is delivered into hands of sinners. Let us arise…the one who is delivering me has come near.” The hour and the betrayer both materialized shortly thereon.
Luke 12:33: Jesus said, Lay up “treasure in the heavens, where a thief does not draw near.” The message is clear. On earth, when thieves draw near, they break in and steal (Matt. 6:19,20). 18:35: “[Jesus] was approaching Jericho.” While He passed through the city, He came upon a blind man. 18:40: The blind man, “having come near, [Jesus] asked him, ‘What do you want me to do?'” After he was healed, the man followed Jesus, glorifying God. 19:37: Jesus, “having come near the descent of the Mount of Olives,” proceeded to ride down the slope. 19:41: “As He drew near [Jerusalem], when He saw the city, He cried over it.” This soon led to His entry into the temple and its cleansing. 21:20: Jesus said, “When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, you know that her destruction has come near.” Historically, this was followed by the sacking of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. 21:28: Jesus said, “When you see these things beginning to happen, stand erect and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” They could expect it at any moment after that! There was no possibility of it turning back. 22:1: “The feast of unleavened bread… was drawing near,” and it came. 24:15: While the two were on the road to Emmaus, “Jesus drew near” and began walking with them. 24:28: When “they came near the village where they were going,” Jesus was persuaded to enter with them into their dwelling.
In all the cases given, the approach made was completed. Is the kingdom that draws near the only exception?
Having presented its common usage and the meaning the word would normally evoke,
let us examine the “kingdom withdrawn” assertion you make. Where in the Gospels does it say that the offer of the kingdom was withdrawn? Is it assumed?
Actually, the kingdom proclamation becomes more-fully-established the farther we go into the ministry of Christ. There is no change of message like politicians might have as their political fortunes decline. The announcement of the kingdom proceeds side by side, like Zwingli and Luther in Spurgeon’s sermons, with declarations about Jesus’ death.
Take, as an example, a passage from Luke. References to the kingdom are made in 9:2,11,62 and 10:9-11. References to the cross are made in 9:22,23,31 and 44. And this weaving of the two does in fact continue to the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry. Look, with me, at the Gospels as they proceed from here.
After repeated affirmations and disclosures are given about those things that would befall Him in Jerusalem (the crucifixion) in Luke 9:22,23,31 and 44, one being a public declaration (Luke 9:23-26); and, after He has “steadfastly set His face to go to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51), Jesus sends out seventy who will go before Him. On the final journey to Jerusalem He tells the seventy to proclaim the very same kingdom message He and John the Baptist presented at the beginning (Luke 10:9-11; cf. Matt. 3:2; 4:17; Mark 1:15). Only, the Greek indicates that their message is even stronger! They preach, “The kingdom of God has come upon you.” It is “on you” like a lightning strike from gathering clouds!
You will find that the message of the kingdom is drawn through the Gospels like a thread in Jesus’ tunic (John 19:23). In Luke 11:20 He says, “If I with the finger of God cast out demons, then the kingdom has come upon you [it has arrived].” Jesus says in Luke 12:31 and 32, “Seek [present tense] [God’s] kingdom, and all these things will be done for you. Fear not, little flock; it has pleased your Father to give you [in a present sense] the kingdom.” The offer of the kingdom is not withdrawn. Rather, the kingdom is given to those who believe. The offer is made good. Keep in mind that the message of the kingdom and the message of the cross are woven together through Luke’s Gospel, as they are through the other Gospels. (We will soon focus more closely on the message of the cross.) There is no conflict of interest. The two alternate, appear and reappear. They rise and fall like a pair of wooden horses on a carousel.
Continuing our kingdom objective through Luke, in 17:21 Jesus says, “The kingdom is in your midst.” This is telling, when you realize that He is answering an “age-old” question the Pharisees are asking Him in public: “When is the kingdom of God coming?” He changes their literal/physical terms for a kingdom and says it is here. (Too many Christians fail to hearken to His “age-old” answer.) Jesus is asked by a rich man, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Seeing the man’s sad response to His answer, He says, “How hard those who have much enter into the kingdom of God” (Luke 18:18,24). “Enter” is a present-tense verb. Jesus equates “obtaining eternal life” with “entering the kingdom of God,” not unlike He did when He spoke to Nicodemus (see John 3).
Even as the curtain closes on His life on earth, Jesus says to the Jewish religious leaders, “Tax collectors and harlots are going before you [a present-tense present reality] into the kingdom of God” (Matt. 21:31). He goes on to say: John told you, “but you did not believe him; but tax collectors and harlots did” (v. 32). Whatever John’s message was, it was articulated under the banner of “Repent; for the kingdom of the heavens has come near.” Since then, people were going into that kingdom. Luke 16:16 says, “From the time of John the kingdom of God is being preached [a present-tense verb–no one has let up on preaching that message] and everyone is forcing [‘pressing’–also a present-tense verb] their way in.” The kingdom was being taken by force. It was not a kingdom withdrawn, but a kingdom “pressed into.” Just the opposite of what you teach.
Then, as grains of sand rushed to the bottom of the hour glass, Jesus confirmed the nature of the kingdom before Pilate: “My kingdom is not of this realm [world]” (John 18:36). This is something Pilate will never forget and Christians have a hard time remembering. (Why do we assume the nature of His kingdom will change in the future?)
As I alluded to already, two threads run through the ministry of Christ: (1) the message of the kingdom and (2) the message of the cross. We have followed the kingdom thread. Now let us follow the cross thread from the beginning of the Gospels. We took a look at it earlier, in Luke 9.
At the same time John the Baptist is announcing, “Repent; for the kingdom of the heavens has come near,” he is also announcing, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29,36). It is in the wake of Jesus’ public ministry, at the time of His baptism at the very beginning, that John makes this public declaration. Should we be surprised? John’s proclamation about “the Lamb of God” reflects the prophetic word of his father Zacharias who charted his son’s mission at birth. In Luke 1:76 and 77 he said, “You, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare His ways; to give knowledge of salvation to His people in the forgiveness of their sins.” So, naturally, when John made his public appearance, he was preaching “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Luke 3:3).
John had no qualms about speaking of the cross. It was central to his message of forgiveness and the kingdom. And we, in turn, are now looking through both lenses of our Gospel binoculars! We can skip joyfully back in time and sing, “I can see clearly now!” No need approaching Scripture with one eye closed, depending on where you are in a Gospel narrative.
Let us pick up the cross thread in John 2.
Before Jesus does His first miracle, He says to His mother, “My hour has not yet come” (John 2:4), making reference to His death. Again, in John 2, He speaks of His death, and in this case, His resurrection, when He says, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up” (v. 19). In John 3 Jesus says to Nicodemus, “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up” (v. 14). Needless to say, John 3:16 and 17 also carry the message of the cross.
In John 4, after listening to Jesus preach for two days (when He diverted from His “to Israel only” course, according to the will of God, I might add–see v. 4 and 34), the people of Samaria declared that He “is truly the Savior of the world” (v. 42). In John 6 Jesus says, “The bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh” (v. 51). I could go on and on. In Bible college I was required to make a list of all the references to the cross in the book of John alone. I came up with 76.
Matthew and Luke, at the beginning of their Gospels, stand alongside their non-synoptic friend. Matthew begins with this declaration: “[Mary] will bring forth a son, and you will call His name Jesus; for He will save His people from their sins” (1:21), an obvious reference to the cross. Luke opens with similar words: “A Savior is born to you today in the city of David, who is Christ the Lord” (2:11). This message is delivered at the birth of Christ, years before He makes any public statement.
As Joseph and Mary were presenting the baby Jesus in the temple, Simeon took Him in his arms and said to God, “My eyes have seen your salvation which you have prepared before the face of all people” (Luke 2:30,31). Then he tells Mary, “A broad sword will pierce your soul” (2:35): a reference to the cross. At that time, Anna also came upon the child in the temple. She began speaking “concerning Him to all those who were looking for redemption in Jerusalem” (2:38). This is the “Savior” who “will save His people from their sins.” But there will be no Savior or forgiveness of sins apart from the cross.
For the present purpose I will only trace the cross thread through Matthew 13 & Luke 6.
The magi presented the young child Jesus with “myrrh” (Matt. 2:11) which Nicodemus prepared for His burial (John 19:39,40). When Matthew gave a citation from Isaiah 53:4 (Matt. 8:17), reference was made to God’s suffering Servant from an OT passage where the message of the cross is plainly set forth (Acts 8:35). When Jesus said, “the Son of man has power on earth to forgive sins” (Matt. 9:6), reference was made to the authority He possesses in the light of His impending death on the cross. When He said the “sick” need “a physician” and “sinners” are called to “repentance” (9:12,13), the healing and forgiveness would come through the cross. His reference to the days “when the bridegroom will be taken” (9:15) points to His death on the cross. You will notice, in the same chapter, that He is also preaching “the Gospel of the kingdom” (v. 35).
In Matthew 10, when Jesus sends out the twelve to preach “the kingdom of the heavens is at hand” (v. 7), He tells them, “he that takes not his cross and follows me is not worthy of me” (v. 38). Both messages are combined in the instructions to the twelve (note 10:5; 11:1).
The message of the death and resurrection of Christ is also found in Matthew 12:40: “As Jonah was three days and three nights in the sea monster’s belly; so will the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” Then the kingdom message is proclaimed again in Matthew 13, ending with this affirmation: “Every scribe who has become a disciple of the kingdom of the heavens is like the head of a household, who brings out of his treasure things new and old” (v. 52). The message of the cross may very well be found in the midst of these kingdom messages Jesus delivers, when He says, a merchant man “found one pearl of great price, went and sold all he had and bought it” (v. 45,46).
In Luke 1 Zacharias says that the Lord has visited and “redeemed” His people and raised up a horn “of salvation” (v.68 and 69). In Luke 3 John comes preaching the baptism of repentance “for the remission of sins” (v.3). A citation from Isaiah 40:3-5 is given, where Isaiah 40:5 is translated: “and all flesh will see the salvation of God” (Luke 3:6). In Luke 4:43 a reference is made to Jesus’ kingdom message. In Luke 5 references are made to “the Son of man [having] power on earth to forgive sins” (v. 24) and “the days when the bridegroom will be taken away” (v. 35). In Luke 6 Jesus says to His disciples, “Blessed are you poor: for yours is [present tense] the kingdom of God” (v. 20). Kingdom and cross messages are woven throughout.
Could it be that the kingdom proclaimed by John the Baptist, Jesus, the twelve, and the seventy, was awaiting the cross, resurrection, and exaltation of Christ at the right hand, in fulfillment of Psalm 2, 24, and 110, for ratification?
Yes. In fact, without the cross and exaltation, the kingdom could not exist. Taking away the cross is like pulling a plug on Frankenstein. The kingdom and the cross do not and cannot stand alone. If there is no cross, there is no crown. They are not isolated realities. And they are not mutually-exclusive. Indeed, the kingdom would never have been established if Jesus had not taken up the cross. “Was it not NECESSARY for the Christ to suffer these things AND enter His glory?” (Luke 24:26). He could not have worn a crown without first taking up a cross. It is a pipe dream to think otherwise.
When we talk about the nature of Christ’s “offer” of the kingdom to Israel, it has nothing to do with what He knew. It has everything to do with who He is. He was not offering a kingdom without a cross. There was no “deceit” found in His mouth. He could not do that, and He did not.
I am, gratefully, your brother in Christ.
© James Unruh 2015 and beyond