Response to Peter Goodgame – Part 2: The Kingdom of Heaven

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Some time ago, I answered a post by Peter Goodgame on whether those under the New Covenant are supposed to keep the Torah. Well, that was part 1 of a series by Peter, and I never got around to checking back to see if another part had come out. Now that things are settling down at home and the book I’m working on is shaping up nicely, I’ve been taking the time to revisit old favorite blogs, and sure enough, I found that Peter’s been busy.

Since it’s been a few months, let me reiterate something very important before I dive in: Peter Goodgame and I are brothers in the Lord, and we acknowledge that the Messiah who unites us is far more important than the theological issues that divide us. We both agree that salvation is by God’s grace, which must be received by faith, not rigid adherence to “the works of the law.” We don’t even really disagree that much on basic practice within the Body–I have held for some time now that there are certain commandments that are specific to the Jewish people, just as there are commandments specific to men, women, farmers, herders, Levites, priests, etc. I believe, for example, that even under the Old Covenant, kosher was never a requirement for Gentiles.

So why am I debating him? Simply put, because failure to recognize that the Torah is still God’s commandments has led to the forced assimilation of Jewish believers for centuries. Only when the Church accepts that Messianic Jews are still required to keep the Sabbath, the Feasts, kosher, circumcision, etc.–just as the Jewish Apostles themselves did–will the errors of the past be repented of.

In my previous response, I teased/gently chided Peter for starting with Paul rather than Yeshua himself. For the second part of his series, Peter tackles Yeshua’s teachings on the subject.

The Gospel can be best summarized in seven words: The kingdom of heaven is at hand!

This is “The Gospel” in its most generalized and foundational form. This is the “Good News.” Yes, personal individual salvation is a part of this Gospel, but your personal salvation is merely a derivative sub-plot of this greater Gospel. We have to realize this! The Gospel is not primarily about you, it’s about Him, and about God re-claiming and redeeming a renegade portion of His creation, including the very earth itself. So who was the first person in the New Testament to announce this good news?

Actually, I agree with Peter. There is absolutely nothing in his opening statement that is wrong.

I actually wrote about what “the Kingdom of Heaven” means some years ago. Since I know that a lot of people won’t click that link, I’ll go ahead and restate the points here.

Judaism does teach about a “Kingdom of Heaven” or “Rule of God” that is, to use George Ladd’s definition (quoted in the article), the “dynamic reign of God.” This dynamic rule of God in the hearts of the faithful, as conceived by Judaism, is separate from but a necessary prerequisite for the Davidic Kingdom promised by the prophets.

This may sound strange, but it’s true. In the Talmud we read that one must first accept the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven before accepting the yoke of the Torah’s commandments. What does that mean? R. Akiva says that one accepts the Kingdom when he recites the Shema, the central creed of Judaism (m. Berakhot 2:2, b. Berakhot 61b and 13b). The Talmud further explains:

And R. Yochanan said, “He who wants to accept upon himself the yoke of the kingdom of Heaven in a full way should first empty his bowel, then wash his hands, put on his phylacteries, recite the Shema, and say the Prayer, and this constitutes accepting the kingdom of Heaven in a full way.” (b. Berakhot 14B-15a)

The rabbis in the Talmud regularly teach the need for Israel to repent and keep the Torah in order to bring about the blessings of the Messianic age. So then, we have a progression: Accepting the yoke of the Kingdom, aka God’s Rule, leads to accepting the yoke of the Torah, which in turn would lead to the blessings of the Messianic Age and World to Come. So we see that the Kingdom of Heaven is not to be mistaken with the Davidic/Messianic kingdom or the ‘Olam HaBa, the Age to Come, nor is it to be mistaken with keeping God’s commandments in a rote fashion. Rather, it is accepting God’s rulership, which is the prerequisite for both obeying His commandments and entering into His promised blessings. And how does one accept God’s rule? To the ancient rabbis, the answer was to

  1. Empty one’s self of uncleanness
  2. Wash one’s hands to tend to external purity
  3. Bind God’s Word on one’s arm and between one’s eyes
  4. Recite the Shema, the confession of faith that there is only one God,
  5. And to say the Amidah, the Eighteen Benedictions which simultaneously praise the Holy One and entreat Him for His mercy and provision.

pentecost1This is not so different in concept from the Renewed Covenant view of coming under the Kingship of Heaven. There is, however, a new and incredible benefit that the Holy One has made available to us: Yeshua places his Spirit within us to write His Torah on our hearts and help us to truly walk under his rulership (Jer. 31:31-34, Ezk. 36:27, cf. Joel 2:28-29). Without this new birth and indwelling, we cannot see the true Rule of God, only the visible assemblies, which can and are infiltrated by the Adversary and his children to cause disruption, chaos, and wickedness, as described in Matthew 13’s Kingdom Parables (“The Wheat and the Tares” in particular). Heaven’s true dominion is not to be found in the institutions and rules of Man, but is now realized by the gift of the Holy Spirit, which writes the Torah on our hearts and supernaturally empowers us to walk in the Holy One’s ways (Jer. 31:31-34, Ezk. 36:26f).

Understood in this light, there isn’t a substantial distinction between the messages of Yeshua and Paul, only in their terminology. Yeshua, speaking to a Jewish audience, uses a distinctly Jewish term to describe the imminent rule of the Holy One by His Spirit. Paul, writing primarily to an audience of Gentiles and Hellenized Jews, eschews the possibly confusing term–they, like McKnight, would likely try to understand this Kingdom as a King, a people, a territory, and a law–and explains the same concept in different terms. For example, he refers often to the giving of the Spirit, which his audience knew experientially. Or he speaks in terms of being joined to or unified with Yeshua, which his audience could understand from their knowledge of the teachings of the various pagan cults. But the essential message is the same: The King of Heaven is ruling his people through his Holy Spirit.

Sadly, for centuries Christianity has not understood its unity or its and Israel’s destiny because of a false dichotomy: Either the Kingdom must be the “dynamic rule of God,” in which case there is no place for a national Israel, or the Kingdom must refer to the Davidic reign, and we in this present age do not experience it. On the contrary, the Rule of God is present among us (Luke 17:21), but it is hidden, as it were: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3).

This means that indeed the Kingdom exists now, but that it has not yet reached its fullness. The field is sown, but the harvest hasn’t yet taken place. The mustard seed was planted, and is still growing. The bread is still being kneaded before being baked. Pick your favorite parable; they all describe a lengthy process before the Kingdom achieves its purpose.

Now, having established all that, how does that effect our understanding of the Torah’s role under the New Covenant. The answer is found in Jeremiah 31:31-34, which is of course quoted in Hebrews 8:

“Behold, days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them,” declares the Lord. “But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” declares the Lord, “I will put My law (Heb. Torati) within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. They will not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they will all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them,” declares the Lord, “for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.”

If the terms of the New Covenant are that the Torah of the Lord will be written on our hearts, then how can the New Covenant result in the abolition (or “fulfillment,” as Peter later argues) of the Torah? Peter quotes this passage in part 3 of his series, but doesn’t make the connection of the Law/Torah being put on our hearts.

So then, Peter and I are agreed that the Kingdom of Heaven / Rule of God is not something that we are still longing for, but something that we experience now, and have experienced since the Holy Spirit was poured out on Shavuot (Pentecost) some two thousand years ago. Where we disagree is that this somehow invalidates the Torah as the continuing rules-set for the people of God.

Shalom

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