Editor’s note: This series comes from a sermon given at a recent conference on discipleship for Chinese house church leaders. This sermon has been translated and edited from its original version.
Yang Mingdao is the collective pseudonym for Chinese staff within China Partnership.
We have looked at the kingdom from the perspective of the defeat of our enemies and the salvation of God’s people. Let’s talk about the third part: the end times. Time is very important in Scripture. The first sacred concept the Bible mentions is time. Genesis 2 says, “God rested from all his work that he had done.” The concept of time is important as we talk about the end times. Not the idea of time or the question of when the end times are, but rather about God’s actions in this world.
We talk endlessly about the Great Commission at missionary conferences, but this verse is very connected to the kingdom and the end times. It begins, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” As the Son of Man, as king of the kingdom of heaven, Jesus Christ ascended into heaven. This is a sign of the arrival of the kingdom. The center of this passage is not evangelism. I’m not saying we should not preach the gospel; please don’t misunderstand me. This is talking about discipleship. “Make disciples of all nations” are the key words. The rest of the sentence, “go,” “baptizing,” “teaching them to observe” are the ways by which we act as disciples. This is the key to discipleship.
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This passage is not only presented within the context of the kingdom of heaven, but also points to the end times; it concludes with “to the end of the age.” This age will end, the new age will fully begin. “All authority in heaven and on earth” must be viewed within an eschatological framework at the center of discipleship to understand what Jesus meant by “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.”
Eschatology was not invented by later theologians, or first discussed by Jesus, or even the prophets. Moses was the first to talk about this in Deuteronomy. In Deut. 4:29 he says, “From there you will seek the Lord your God and you will find him.” After the Israelites are scattered among the peoples, Moses says, “If you search after him with all your heart and with all your soul, you will find him. When you are in tribulation, and all these things come upon you in the latter days, you will return to the Lord your God and obey his voice.”
The prophets also talked about this. They said, “In the latter days, you will return.” This was based on Moses’s initial prophecy. The prophets gave more information about the eschaton, including the new heaven and the new earth mentioned in Isaiah 2. “All the nations shall flow to Jerusalem and many peoples shall go up to the house of the God of Jacob.” In the Book of Acts is another important verse about the eschatological concept of time, where it says David fell asleep, and then the age in which he served ended.
There were many wise men in David’s generation. We should understand not only the time, but also the wisdom of the times. Jesus talked about this: you know the time, but do you know the times? You know when it is going to rain, how do you not understand the times?
Let me give you an example from David’s day, where 1 Chronicles 12 speaks of the days when Saul was still king. It says, “Of Issachar, men who had understanding of the times, 200 chiefs.” All 200 had understanding of the times, “to know what Israel ought to do, and all their kinsmen under their command.” If you understand the context, you know it means that they were all preparing for David to be king. Although Saul was still in power, God promised David would be king. They did not yet see David sitting on a visible throne, but they supported the future king in anticipation of his rule. I don’t know how many wise men our Chinese church has. Are we like this? Hopefully after this lecture, we will have gained this kind of wisdom.
“To have understanding of the times” means to have knowledge of ancient and current affairs, and also of pagan learning. Moses studied the learning of the Egyptians. Daniel was a high official for multiple kings. We live in a reality in which Jesus has died and risen from the dead and now reigns. God has crowned him as king. But Jesus has not yet visibly returned to earth; every knee has not bowed and every tongue has not confessed him as Lord. Why do you bow to him right now? Why do you believe in him right now? Because you are like those men of Issachar. You have understanding of the times. You see that Jesus now reigns on the throne of David. You know he will visibly rule the new heaven and new earth. This is our hope. Is this what you want? Thanks be to God!
At this time, God’s visible governance has not yet come. One way he visibly rules is through the church. To what extent are today’s churches reflecting God’s governance through our submission to God’s grace, truth, and wisdom, through our pastoring, through our preaching? These are very important times.
The Psalms do not only talk about the law. They also talk about wisdom. David exercised his kingship through wisdom. We must use both wisdom and law in practicing discernment. Ps. 90:12 says, “Teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.” Does this mean I should calculate how long I will live – maybe 70 years – and store up an appropriate amount of food? Getting a heart of wisdom does not mean knowing how long we can live, but knowing the life we live now is a gift from God. Getting a heart of wisdom means to live wisely by walking the path of wisdom. Wisdom poetry is used to gain discernment to live out God’s will in various complicated situations. Sometimes we need gentleness, sometimes we need courage. Sometimes we must sacrifice ourselves, sometimes we must flee.
If you understand the Old Testament, you will see it clearly in the Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew 5-7, Jesus talks about the Beatitudes, the Lord’s Prayer, the kingdom and the end times. Kingdom ethics are viewed through the lens of the end times. Jesus knows he is going to be crucified and that he is going to rise from the dead and ascend into heaven. Within this context, he talks about how people in the kingdom of heaven should live. Without the resurrection of Jesus Christ, no one can live out these teachings. After talking about the various worries we have, Jesus says, “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” What should be our priority? The kingdom of God and his righteousness. Disciples of the kingdom of heaven must follow Christ in paying a price. This is the standard for doing ministry in the kingdom of the Messiah: the anticipation of the arrival of the kingdom.
Jesus told many parables which reflect the values of the kingdom of heaven. They put us within this eschatological kingdom framework and help us know God, know the world, and know ourselves as people of the kingdom of heaven. In the parable of the pearl of great price, Jesus says the kingdom of heaven is like a pearl, which a man bought after selling all that he had. We often soften this message. If we preached like this, who would follow Jesus? But if you understand who Jesus is and what he has done, you will sell everything. You should weigh things in light of the kingdom of heaven.
Did Paul ever talk about the kingdom of heaven? He does not often use those exact words, but he does say, “The kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking.” Much of Paul’s vocabulary is related to the kingdom. In Ephesians he mentions many things related to the kingdom – the people of the kingdom of heaven, ambassadors, the domain of darkness, authority.
Paul tells us how to be united with the king of the kingdom through his death and resurrection and through our justification. This is the backdrop. If you remove it, it appears that Paul is betraying Jesus by only talking about the cross and not the kingdom of heaven, just as liberals say. No! No! No! We are talking about the kingdom that was inaugurated through the cross, through Jesus’s death, resurrection and ascension. We today also want to enter this narrow gate into his kingdom. Central to Paul’s eschatology is his idea of “already but not yet,” the death and resurrection of Christ, the new creation, and the end of all things.
What does Paul’s eschatology have to do with the church today? If the church is the manifestation of the kingdom and the body of Jesus Christ, then the lives of disciples must be connected to the cross. How should a disciple live? By sharing in his death, in his resurrection, in the filling of the Holy Spirit, and in his rule. This should be viewed in the context of Christ’s second coming.
Colossians 1 says, “From the day we heard, we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him: bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God; being strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy.” After this, Paul starts to talk about personal salvation. He is talking about us as a whole, not as individuals. We were transferred from the domain of darkness to the kingdom of the beloved Son. Our sins were forgiven in the beloved Son. This is the salvation of humanity.
Paul says Christ is the beloved Son, “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” Does Paul only talk about personal salvation and justification? No, he has a cosmic view of redemption. “He is the head of the body, the Church.” With this Lord presiding over the redemption and judgment of the church, how will you deal with other matters today? How will you deal with great and small matters – economics, politics, academics, daily life? “He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead.” What does Jesus have authority over through his resurrection? Pay attention: “that in everything he might be preeminent.” Jesus Christ has authority over everything. As it says here: “For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.”
Do you see the width and depth of the cross, brothers and sisters? The redemption of the entire cosmos is set against the backdrop of the cross. After this, Paul returns to the personal aspect of salvation. He says, “And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him.” Different aspects of salvation are interwoven: the kingdom, the salvation of mankind, and the restoration of the universe.
Would weighing things in light of the kingdom of heaven cause you to make any tangible changes in your life?