Episode 10: The gospel message says “Repent, the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” but after two thousand years, where is the kingdom? Episode ten will examine this conundrum by looking at these words of Jesus from a Jewish perspective. Viewers will learn that the kingdom did not arrive in Jesus’ day because Israel did not repent. However, all followers of Messiah can receive a foretaste of the kingdom now by repenting and attaching to the king now as they eagerly await his second coming.
The Lesson: The Mystery of the Kingdom at Hand
This episode continues to build on the previous ones having to do with exile and redemption, the ingathering of Israel, the Gospel message, and Jewish repentance. First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ) teachers Toby Janicki and Aaron Eby answer a question that has been of special importance to me. How can the Kingdom of Heaven, that is, the Messianic Era, be on the brink of arrival or at hand, and yet not have arrived in the past 2,000 years?
This is the “mystery” that Toby presents to his audience and solving the mystery hinges on understanding the meaning of the phrase often translated in our Bibles as “at hand.”
These twelve Jesus sent out after instructing them: “Do not go in the way of the Gentiles, and do not enter any city of the Samaritans; but rather go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. And as you go, preach, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’”
-Matthew 10:5-7 (NASB)
The pacing of this episode runs a bit differently than previous ones. Even before Toby introduces his first clue in solving the mystery, the scene shifts to Aaron Eby in Israel and the Greek word used to impart the meaning that the Kingdom of Heaven is “at hand.” This word, Aaron tells us, more literally says “it has drawn near” or “it has drawn close,” which seems to indicate something came and has already passed by.
19th century translator Franz Delitzsch ”retro-translated” the Greek back into the most likely form in Hebrew, which would be the idiom we would understand in English as “drawn near to come.” It gives the sense of something that is poised to enter, like a man standing outside your front door, close enough to ring the doorbell. However, that man hasn’t yet arrived until he is invited inside and goes through the doorway. If he hadn’t yet rung the doorbell or knocked on the door, even though he is literally close enough to touch, you wouldn’t even know he was there at all.
Aaron says something important. The Kingdom of Heaven being “near” isn’t about time or proximity, but rather, accessibility and potential. The Kingdom wasn’t only sort of near 2,000 years ago and slowly coming closer with the passage of time. In a very real way, it’s always like the man standing just on the other side of your front door. He could knock at any second. But what’s stopping him?
One of the scribes came and heard them arguing, and recognizing that He had answered them well, asked Him, “What commandment is the foremost of all?” Jesus answered, “The foremost is, ‘Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” The scribe said to Him, “Right, Teacher; You have truly stated that He is One, and there is no one else besides Him; and to love Him with all the heart and with all the understanding and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbor as himself, is much more than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.” When Jesus saw that he had answered intelligently, He said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” (emph. mine)
-Mark 12:28-34 (NASB)
Wait a minute. How can Jesus say that the scribe wasn’t far from the Kingdom of God if “far” and “near” are a matter of the timing of Christ’s return in glory and power? It has to do with the heart of the scribe and his true understanding of the Torah. That, in and of itself, should be a bit startling to a Christian audience, since being close to the Kingdom is linked to both a repentant heart and correct understanding of the Torah of Moses.
Aaron also refers to several different parts of Isaiah to re-enforce his interpretation including Isaiah 56:1:
Thus says the Lord, “Preserve justice and do righteousness, for My salvation is about to come.”
According to Aaron, deliverance is on the threshold of being revealed. It is here and accessible at any moment. The person or people involved just have to become aware of it and then touch it.
Back in the studio, Toby compares this to what we read in Revelation 3:20
Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and will dine with him, and he with Me.
As I said above, the Kingdom is at the door poised to knock and is already knocking. All we have to do is open the door and it will arrive. All we need is to have the right heart and the right understanding of what God is telling us in the Bible. And here’s our first clue.
Clue 1: “At hand” means God’s Kingdom, the Messianic Era, was on the brink of being revealed.
I’m trying not to give too much away in advance of the other two clues, but the revelation of the Kingdom is something that Jewish people have been waiting for longer than there has been anything called “Christianity.” Even in Jesus’s day, once he was resurrected, his disciples expected the Kingdom to arrive immediately. They even asked him about it.
So when they had come together, they were asking Him, saying, “Lord, is it at this time You are restoring the kingdom to Israel?”
-Acts 1:6 (NASB)
It was puzzling when Jesus didn’t summon the Kingdom right away. Yet not only did Messiah’s disciples expect the Kingdom to arrive right then, so did Jesus. Toby says that it was Messiah’s intent to bring the Kingdom to the generation in which he lived. What stopped the Kingdom’s arrival?
Truly I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were unwilling. Behold, your house is being left to you desolate! For I say to you, from now on you will not see Me until you say, ‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!’”
-Matthew 23:36-39 (NASB)
It is said in some branches of Judaism that if all of Israel were to repent at a single moment, it would summon the arrival of Messiah. Toby says something very similar. He teaches that the arrival of the Kingdom of Heaven is contingent upon the repentance of the generation, and although he didn’t make this explicit, the generation of Jewish people. In other words, if all of Israel, the Jewish people, were to repent as a single body, the Messiah would come.
But remember, as we saw in last week’s episode, Jewish repentance does not mean simply coming to faith in Jesus Christ, and it definitely doesn’t mean forsaking the Torah of Moses and becoming goyishe Christians. It means repenting of sins, returning to the Torah, and having a profound faith in God. With Yom Kippur just days away, this message is extremely well timed. Perhaps Messiah will come one year during the Days of Awe, when all of Israel makes teshuvah and returns to God.
Why didn’t the Messianic Age arrive with the first coming of Messiah? Some Jewish people repented, but Toby says most didn’t. They weren’t ready. As Toby was talking, I started to think of that first generation of Israelites Moses liberated from Egypt. They had been redeemed but they too were not ready to enter into the Land. Only the generation after them was ready, and they were the ones who received the promises.
Which generation of Jews will be the ones to usher in the Kingdom of God and Messiah’s reign?
Thus we have arrived at the second clue:
Clue 2: The Messianic Era requires repentance.
Again, I believe this is specifically Jewish repentance, and I believe the unique role of the Gentile Christians, the people of the nations who are called by God’s Name, is to encourage and support Jewish return to God and the Torah within a Messianic framework. Only then will the Messianic Era arrive.
But will that ever happen? The necessary repentance hasn’t occurred in the last twenty centuries. Can the Kingdom of God be near to people now as it was to the scribe to correctly interpreted Torah with Jesus?
Now having been questioned by the Pharisees as to when the kingdom of God was coming, He answered them and said, “The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or, ‘There it is!’ For behold, the kingdom of God is in your midst.”
-Luke 17:20-21 (NASB)
Christians are used to “beating up” the Pharisees, and believe they are nothing but hypocrites and liars, but here, Toby tells us they were asking a sincere question about the coming Messianic Age. Jesus gave them a sincere answer. Like the scribe, if they turned to God and Torah with a repentant heart, they would benefit from the blessings of the Messianic Era right now. They, and all believers, become a foretaste of the Kingdom in the present age. In that sense, anytime that believers in Jesus exist, some part of the Messianic Age of Jesus is always present.
Here’s the final clue:
Clue 3: Followers of Jesus who heed the message of the good news and repent are the Kingdom in the current age.
Toby describes the Kingdom as the Land and the People under the rule of the King. While we have a foretaste of the Kingdom in our lives as believers and we thus can share the Kingdom with others, it won’t arrive as a physical reality until Messiah arrives and rules as King in our world.
Think of the first coming of Jesus as his planting a seed. The seed is underground. It’s present. It’s real. It’s close enough to touch, but it’s still out of sight. If you didn’t know it had been planted, you wouldn’t know it existed at all. We believers are here as gardeners to nurture the seed and to help it grow.
But like a tiny mustard seed becomes a great tree, the reality of the Kingdom won’t burst forth from the seed, escape the bonds of the earth, and reach for the sky in magnificence until the Messiah’s second coming.
What Did I Learn?
I believe I’ve written about this before, but what Toby and Aaron taught confirmed something that never occurs to most Christians. The arrival of the physical Kingdom of God, the Messianic Age, is contingent upon human beings, and specifically the Jewish people. It matters not at all if or how well Gentile Christians, including devotees in the Hebrew Roots movement, observe and perform the Torah mitzvot, even with great and utter faith in Messiah. It matters absolutely if Jewish people return to God and Torah and practice a life of faith and obedience. Only when corporate repentance occurs in Israel will Messiah return, and then ” they will look on him whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a firstborn.” (Zechariah 12:10 ESV)
As I’ve said previously, this is a little hard to take, because if the timing of the arrival of the physical Messianic Kingdom is totally in the control of the Jewish people and their repentance, then, depending on when they repent (or repented if it happened in the past), the understanding of these realities may or may not have been or be available to the people of the world’s nations.
But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone.
-Matthew 24:36 (NASB)
Jesus could be saying that the Father knows the exact time of the return, even though it is in the hands of the free will of the Jewish people.
Certainly, if I accept the FFOZ understanding of the coming of the Kingdom, then it sets a specific course for we who are believers in Jesus now. We can wait and wait and wait for Jesus to return and experience the foretaste of the Kingdom in our present lives, but Jesus will never return in the sky in power and glory until Israel repents. All this means that we Christians have a duty to support and nurture the Jewish people in their faith in God and in the study and performance of Torah so that they can arrive at repentance.
But as my Pastor often asks me, what exactly is the Torah, relative to the many traditions and customs of the different streams of Judaism in our day? What exactly must we do to encourage Jewish repentance so that the King will return and take up his throne?