There is a popular image of heaven as a place of celestial bliss — with clouds, angels, harps and chubby babies. But that’s not how the Bible depicts heaven at all. In Scripture, heaven is actually described as a new earth. Revelation in particular paints a picture of heaven that includes a city, a river, trees, feasting, fellowship and joy. It all sounds very earthy.
The disciples seem to have had the same kind of picture. In particular, they expected the Messiah to be a political ruler; a king who reigns in the physical land of Israel. In fact, one of the reasons many Jews of the time rejected Jesus is because He just didn’t fit that description.
It is of course true that Jesus declared, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36). As His ministry continued, it became increasingly clear that Jesus had not come with the intention of setting up a political dominion in this outpost of the Roman Empire. This serves as a reminder to us today that while political engagement is important for the Christian, it is not the means by which God will usher in His kingdom — not in the present age, at least.
Nevertheless, the disciples and other first-century Jews were not altogether wrong in expecting a political ruler. Israel’s prophets had long promised that God would raise up a redeemer from the line of David who would bring physical deliverance from their Gentile enemies, restore the Jewish temple, and reestablish the kingdom rule of David. If you doubt this, take a look at Isaiah 9:6-7; Isaiah 11:1-2, and Jeremiah 23:5.
First-century Jews had not misinterpreted these Scriptures — but they had missed other ones. Their eyes were shut to the fact that the Messiah would first come as a suffering servant. With the arrival of Jesus — and with His sufferings and death — they finally understood that this, too, was part of the Messiah’s mission. (Luke 24:27, Acts 17:2-3)
You and I can easily comprehend Jesus’ role as the suffering servant because we’ve inherited 2,000 years of theology that teaches it. But now we run the risk of missing the other half: the Messiah will yet come as a political ruler. The disciples never gave up hope in these promises, and neither should we.
After His death and resurrection, we read in Acts 1:3 that Jesus was with His disciples, “speaking of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God.” It is in this context that the disciples ask Jesus, “Lord, will You at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” Notice that this is a question about Israel’s political future: will the land remain under Roman dominion, or will Jesus now restore Israel’s independence and reestablish the kingdom of David?
Jesus’ response is telling. He doesn’t rebuke the disciples for their expectation. Rather, he indicates that it’s not for them to know the timing of these yet-future events. “It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has put in His own authority,” Jesus responds. Even as they maintain hope for what’s to come, the disciples are redirected by Jesus to their present calling as His witnesses in the world.
We continue that mission today. You and I are called to be witnesses in our own Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. Following His ascension, the book of Hebrews declares that Jesus “sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2). But according to the angel Gabriel in Luke 1:32, that is not the only throne Jesus will assume before the fullness of time has come:
He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Highest;
and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David.
And He will reign over the house of Jacob forever,
and of His kingdom there will be no end.
~ Luke 1:32-33
God’s promise through Gabriel has not yet come to pass. But we have every reason to believe that it will. Since the prophecies of the Messiah as a suffering servant were fulfilled literally, why would those predicting his reign as King be metaphorical? Both Scripture and logic call for consistency.
Jesus is coming back — not to whisk us away to some cloudy realm, but to bring heaven to earth, and to make the reign and rule of God permanent on this planet. This is, after all, what Jesus taught us to pray:
“Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
~ Matthew 6:10