Don’t get me wrong. The whole New Testament assumes that God has a wonderful future prepared for his people after bodily death, climaxing in the new world of the resurrection, of new heavens and new earth. I have written about all that in detail elsewhere (especially in Surprised by Hope).* But this is not—demonstrably not—what the four gospels are about.
The problem has arisen principally because for many centuries Christians in the Western churches at least have assumed that the whole point of Christian faith is to “go to heaven,” so they have read everything in that light. To a man with a hammer, they say, all problems appear as nails. To readers interested in postmortem bliss, all scriptures seem to be telling you how to “go to heaven.” But, as we shall see, they aren’t and don’t.
This wrong reading has gained a good deal of apparent credibility from two expressions that occur regularly in the gospels and that the Western church at least has taken to refer to “heaven” in the traditional sense. The first expression is found frequently in Matthew’s gospel. Because Matthew is the first gospel in the canon and has occupied that place since early in the church’s history, it exercises considerable influence on how ordinary readers understand the others as well. In Matthew, Jesus regularly speaks of “heaven’s kingdom,” whereas normally in the other gospels he speaks of “God’s kingdom.” Millions of readers, when they hear Matthew’s Jesus talking about doing this or that “so that you may enter the kingdom of heaven,” assume, without giving it a moment’s thought, that this means “so that you may go to heaven when you die.”
But that is not at all what Matthew, or Jesus for that matter, had in mind. Matthew makes it quite clear, and I think Jesus made it quite clear, what that phrase means. Think of the Lord’s Prayer, which comes at the center of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5–7. At the center of the prayer itself we find Jesus teaching his followers to pray that God’s kingdom might come and his will be done “on earth as in heaven.” The “kingdom of heaven” is not about people going to heaven. It is about the rule of heaven coming to earth. When Matthew has Jesus talking about heaven’s kingdom, he means that heaven—in other words, the God of heaven—is establishing his sovereign rule not just in heaven, but on earth as well. — How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels by N. T. Wright
I have just completed a 9 week Bible study based on this theme. It is available on Amazon, as well as part of my Good Questions Have Groups Talking subscription service.
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