I think it is very important to stop for a moment and ask the question that the early church had to ask itself: “With all the different versions of the kingdom of God, why believe Jesus’ version? What was it that made his claims different than all the other claims out there?” The New Testaments gives us two answers as to why the first-century followers of Jesus took his word over and above the words of all the other voices of their time. These answers are also the ones that we, in the twenty-first century, must hold on to, as they are what set us apart, not only from other definitions of the kingdom of God, but from all other religions.
In 1 Corinthians 15:1a, 3b–8, Paul gives us the first answer to the question of why we should believe Jesus’ version of the kingdom:
“Let me remind you, brother and sisters, about the good news which I announced to you…The Messiah died for our sins in accordance with the Bible; he was buried; he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Bible; he was seen by Cephas, then by the Twelve; then he was seen by over five hundred brothers and sisters at once, most of whom are still with us, though some fell asleep; then he was seen by James, then by all the apostles, and last of all as to one ripped from the womb, he appeared to even to me.” (TKNT)
It was the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth after three days in the grave that marked him as someone different. If Jesus had stayed in the grave, then the message that he declared would have been false. He would have been nothing more than just another failed Jewish leader, who tried to take on the Roman and Jewish establishment. Yet, he didn’t stay in the grave. Instead, Jesus arose from the dead and walked and talked with lots of different people over the course of 40 days before ascending to the right hand of the Father. This one-of-a-kind act changed history, as it proved that Jesus was different from all those who came before or after him. It also validated his message that the kingdom of God had come in and through him.
It was no accident that the primary focus of all four Gospels is the death and resurrection of Jesus. Furthermore, in the book of Acts it is the resurrection of Jesus that the early church points to when asked why they are doing the things that they are doing. Right off the bat at Pentecost, Peter declares that Jesus arose from the grave. A few days later, he is talking to another crowd after the healing of a crippled beggar, and once again he declares that Jesus was killed and rose from the dead at the hand of God. This declaration was repeated a few hours later before the Sanhedrin – the very folks who sentenced Jesus to death and watched him die on the cross. Yet, instead of backing down from what seems like the stupidest, outrageous, bald-faced lie, Peter and John stood firm on their claim that Jesus had risen from the dead. Why did they do this? Because the resurrection gave credibility to the message of the kingdom proclaimed by Jesus. To deny the resurrection of Jesus is to say that he was lying and that we are still living in our sin. To believe in the resurrection as declared by Peter, John, Luke, Matthew, Mark, Andrew, James, Philip, Bartholomew, Thomas, James the son of Alphaeus, Simon the Zealot, Thaddeus, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, Salome, the 500, and the church at large for the past two thousand years, is to believe that the world has changed and that the active and dynamic rule and reign of God has broken into our present evil age and set us free from the bondage of sin, evil and death.
In addition to the above, the resurrection of Jesus also opened the door for the second answer to our question whether or not to trust Jesus. This answer comes from the mouth of Peter as recorded in the book of Acts:
“This is the Jesus we’re talking about! God raised him from the dead, and all of us here are witnesses to the fact! Now he’s been exalted to God’s right hand; and what you see and hear is the result of the act that he is pouring out the Holy Spirit, which had been promised, and which he has received from the Father.” (Acts 2:32–22, TKNT)
It was the pouring out of God’s Spirit upon his people that backed up the claim of Jesus that he was the Messiah. For centuries the people of God had looked forward to the day in which God’s Spirit would dwell in them. The prophet Ezekiel foretold of the day in which God would replace the hearts of stone within his people and give them hearts of flesh and a new spirit (Ezekiel 11:19, 36:26). That day was Pentecost, 50 days after the death of Jesus and 47-days after the resurrection. It was an end-time event that radically changed the course of human history. This is why Peter quotes Joel 2:28–32 when standing before the crowd after the Spirit invaded their lives with tongues of fire. Joel chapter two, for those who don’t know, was an end-time, day of the Lord prophecy that could only be fulfilled after God had ended his judgment and restored his people. For Peter to quote this verse at this time was akin to Jesus declaring that the kingdom of God had come. They are one and the same: different words, same meaning.
Paul later builds upon Peter’s words and declares that it is the Spirit of God upon the followers of Jesus that marks them as children of God. No longer is physical circumcision, kosher meals, Sabbath-keeping or anything else in the Torah the identity markers for the people of God. It is now the Spirit within those who follow Jesus, who are marked out as the people of God: “God stamped his seal on us, by giving us the Spirit in our hearts as a first payment and guarantee of what is to come” (2 Corinthians 1:22, TKNT). We hope and trust in Jesus and the coming of the New Age because of the Spirit of God which is given to us today, in the middle of this evil, painful age.
So, why should we trust Jesus’ version of the kingdom of God as opposed that of Caesar, the Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes or anyone else? We trust him because he arose from the dead and sent the Holy Spirit as a down payment, guaranteeing that he will finish what he started (Ephesians 1:13–14). Sin, evil, pain, sadness, injustice, guilt, and even death will one day be defeated for good (1 Corinthians 15). In the meantime, we live between two ages: this present evil age of pain and the future age to come. While it is a mystery that cannot be fully explained, it is also a reality proclaimed by Jesus of Nazareth, the King of Kings, the Creator God himself. And to that end, we must hang tight onto the word of the Lord as he is our salvation and our only hope.
[box]Originally published in my book, The Here and Not Yet (pages 112-115)[/box]