Earthly Kingdom or Heavenly Kingdom? [Philippians 3]

 

All Scripture quotations are from the 1901 American Standard Version unless otherwise noted.

 

Introduction

I think it’s safe to say that most Christians are taught that we all have an earthly kingdom to look forward to, where upon His return, Christ will reign over this present earth as its Ruler, sitting upon the throne of David — over a kingdom that will last one thousand years. This teaching is called Premillennialism. Most common is Dispensational Premillennialism, which makes a distinction between Israel and the Church.

Dispensationalism divides God’s plan for His people into two groups: One group being the Church (composed of both believing Jews and Gentiles), and the other being the nation of Israel. In other words, it teaches that God still has a plan for Israel that is separate from His plan for His Church. It teaches that there are two peoples of God. But is this what the Apostle Paul believed? Is this what Paul taught? Is this what Paul looked forward to?

What Paul actually believed and taught is that Israel has its fulfillment and continuation in Christ and His Church. As an Israelite who was complete in Christ, Paul no longer looked forward to an earthly kingdom (as the Jews still look forward to), but to a heavenly kingdom, which we enter upon our resurrection, which occurs at the return of Christ. When Jesus came into the world the first time, Jews who recognized Him as their Messiah, thought He would at once set up His kingdom. In fact, they tried to make Him their king at that time (Jn 1:49; 6:15:12:13).

In the third chapter of Philippians, Paul indicates that he abandoned all his previous beliefs, which he formally shared with other Christ-rejecting Jews. Abandoning those beliefs included abandoning the idea of an earthly kingdom, where their Messiah would reign as their king. Recognizing his completion in Christ as a member of His Church, what he looked forward to was not a kingdom on this present earth, but a heavenly kingdom, an eternal kingdom of the “new heaven and new earth” (Rev 21:1-2; 2 pe 3:13).

Jesus Himself plainly stated that His kingdom is not of this world (Jn 18:36), which means that His kingdom cannot be a part of this world at any point in its history. Yet, premillennialists still insist that this is what we have to look forward to. They still insist that we will one day live in a millennial kingdom, where Christ reigns over the earth from His throne in Jerusalem, where there will again be animal sacrifices in a rebuilt Jewish temple!

But this is not what Paul believed, and it’s not what he taught. In a single chapter, Paul revealed what it was that he actually looked forward to as a follower of Christ, as one who embraced Jesus as the prophesied Messiah:

 

Philippians 3:2-14,18-21

(Phil 3:2-6) – 2 Beware of the dogs, beware of the evil workers, beware of the concision: 3 for we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God, and glory in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh: 4 though I myself might have confidence even in the flesh: if any other man thinks to have confidence in the flesh, I yet more: 5 circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as touching the law, a Pharisee; 6 as touching zeal, persecuting the church; as touching the righteousness which is in the law, found blameless.

 

In verse 2, Paul is referring to the Jews, perhaps the Judaizers, who combined grace and faith in Christ with the Mosaic Law. They especially emphasized circumcision. In other words, they believed and taught that we must combine Law with grace in order to be saved.

To understand this whole passage, we must first explain the significance of circumcision under the Old Covenant. Circumcision was a “sign” between God and Abraham and his offspring of the “everlasting covenant” that He made with them (Ge 17:1-13; Ge 17:10-13; Ge 12:3-7; Ge 13:14-15; Ge 15:18; Ge 22:17-18; Ge 26:3-4; Ge 28:13-14; Ge 35:10-12).

 

This covenant refers to the promises God made to Abraham (and Isaac and Jacob):

 

1. That He would make him the “father of many nations.

2. That “in him all the nations of the earth would be blessed.”

3. Land promise: That He would give Israel “all the land of Canaan for an everlasting possession.”

 

Circumcision was the “sign” of this covenant between God and Abraham, between God and Abraham’s offspring (Israel). Thus circumcision identified the people of Israel as the covenant people of God.

What we must understand is that these covenant promises were a type, a foreshadowing of that which is spiritual, including the land promise. Those promises always had Christ and His spiritual people of His spiritual kingdom in view (Col 1:13). In other words, those promises are fulfilled in Christ and His Church. They’re fulfilled spiritually. It’s Christ and the spiritual offspring of Abraham that was always in view in those Old Testament promises (Ga 3:16, 26-29). The physical circumcision was also a type of the spiritual circumcision that is in Christ. Paul makes all of this clear in the following passages:

 

Galatians 3:6-9,14-16, 19, 26-29 (read whole chapter)

Romans 4:11-18 (read whole chapter)

Romans 9:3-8

Romans 2:28-29

Philippians 3:8

Colossians 2:9-12

Ephesians 2:11-22

Also Peter: 1 Peter 2:4-10

 

How does one read all these passages and still conclude that Christ does not fulfill those promises to Abraham and his offspring? From my point of view, that these promises are fulfilled in Christ and His Church is one of the clearest revelations in the New Testament (NT).

Many Christians express their displeasure over the idea that God does not have a future plan for the nation of Israel. Some may even be shocked by such an idea. But how can one not accept that Christ was always in view in those Old Testament (OT) scriptures? How can one not accept that Christ fulfills all things? When you read all of the above passages, how can one not accept that it was the spiritual offspring of Abraham (Christ’s Church) that was always in view in those OT promises, which includes both believing Jews and believing Gentiles? How can it be reasonably disputed? I don’t believe it can be. In fact, that Christ and His Church are the fulfillment of the OT promises and prophecies relating to Israel, is a central theme of the NT. It’s a central theme of Christianity! A true Christian theology is Christocentric, where Christ is “all and in all” (Col 3:11).

This core truth eludes proponents of Dispensationalism because it makes the ethnic nation of Israel of the OT the central theme, rather than Christ! Does this even makes sense? Dispensationalism focuses on the physical, which prevents them from comprehending the glorious spiritual fulfillment of those OT promises and prophecies.

Understanding those OT promises – which again, includes the land promise requires us to allow the light of the NT to interpret those promises for us. To interpret the NT according to one’s understanding of the OT will only lead to error, for the NT is the fulfillment of the OT. The OT always had the NT in view. It’s our understanding of the NT Scriptures that allow us to properly understand the OT Scriptures.

So to be clear, Christ fulfilled all the covenant promises relating to Israel. He is, thus, true Israel. He is a nation of one. We as the Church, are spiritual Israel in Him. We as believers in Christ, are the spiritual offspring of Abraham. Like so many other things in the OT, the nation of Israel and its offspring, and the land that was promised to them, it was all a type and shadow of Christ and His Church. Basically everything in the OT points to Jesus and the spiritual offspring of Abraham — which is the combination of both believing Jews and believing Gentiles. That Israel has its fulfillment and continuation in Christ and His Church as a spiritual nation (1 Pe 2:4-10), how can this even be a matter of debate among Christians?

The land promise regarding Israel, was a type of the Church, which has its ultimate fulfillment in the eternal kingdom of the “new heaven and new earth” (Rev 21:1-2). Notice that in Revelation 19:7; Rev 21:1-2; 9-10, John equates the Bride (the Church) to the “New Jerusalem of the new heaven and new earth.” They’re so closely aligned, that to speak of the Church is to speak of the eternal kingdom. The two cannot be separated. We are a spiritual kingdom in Christ (Col 1:13), which continues in the eternal kingdom of the new heaven and new earth. Just as Christ will rule over the eternal kingdom (co-ruler with His Father), so does He now rule over His Church, His spiritual kingdom in this life. We are citizens of His kingdom, which continues into eternity in the new heaven and new earth the true land of promise that was always in view in those OT passages. Thus the kingdom is both now and not yet.

 

Consider this: In regard to the land promise, God said: “And I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God” (ESV – Ge 17:8). The only way for the promised land to be an “everlasting possession,” is if it refers to the everlasting kingdom of the “new heaven and new earth” (Rev 21:1-2). We must conclude that this OT prophecy regarding land, has to be a physical type that is fulfilled spiritually in the Church, which continues into the Eternal Kingdom of the “new earth” (Rev 21:1).

 

Summary: We, the Church, are the New Israel of the New Covenant that looks forward to the New Jerusalem of the New Heaven and New Earth.

 

With that background, we can now better understand how circumcision relates to the people of God in Christ. Again, OT circumcision was a type and shadow of the spiritual circumcision that we have in Christ (Ro 2:28-29; Ph 3:3; Col 2:9-12). Circumcision was the “sign” of the covenant that God made with Abraham and the people of Israel. Likewise, in Christ, circumcision is a matter of the heart, that which takes place within the heart of the believer — which is spiritual circumcision. Instead of the cutting away of the skin, spiritual circumcision is the cutting away of the old self and the old life. In Christ we are a new creation. In the OT, circumcision was performed by the people. The circumcision of the heart is performed by the God Himself, via grace and faith in Christ.

Thus, our new birth in Christ (produced by the Holy Spirit) is the “sign” of the covenant that God made with Abraham and his spiritual offspring in Christ. In fact, more precisely, I believe the Holy Spirit Himself is the “sign” of the New Covenant that we belong to God (Ro 2:28-29). Just as circumcision in the OT identify Israel with Yahweh, so does the circumcision of our new heart in Christ (which is indwelt by the Holy Spirit), identify us with Yahweh — both corporately and individually. The physical was a type or picture of the spiritual that would come in the New Covenant of Christ.

 

(Phil 3:7-9) – 7 Howbeit what things were gain to me, these have I counted loss for Christ. 8 Yea verily, and I count all things to be loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but refuse, that I may gain Christ, 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of mine own, even that which is of the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith:

 

All the things that “were gain” to Paul, all that he “counted loss for Christ,” refers to all the things that he described in verses 4-6. The previous understanding he had about what the OT Scriptures taught regarding Israel and the Messiah and His kingdom – which unbelieving Jews continue to believe – he counted as loss. Jesus revealed to Paul the truth about those Scriptures, providing him with the true interpretation of those things. In other words, he came to understand that those OT passages were types and shadows of Christ and His Church, as already explained in this study. Indeed, most of what we understand about those OT passages about Israel, are revealed by Paul himself, as they were revealed to him.

Therefore, Paul abandoned the previous understanding that he had as an unbelieving Pharisee. He counted those things as “loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord.” What Paul gained was a true “knowledge” regarding Christ, and also about His kingdom (Col 1:13). As we’ll discuss in a bit, Paul came to understand that the true Kingdom of Christ is a spiritual kingdom, just as he came to understand that Israel is a spiritual nation in Christ.

 

(Phil 3:10-14) – 10 that I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, becoming conformed to his death; 11 if by any means I may attain unto the resurrection from the dead. 12 Not that I have already obtained, or am already made perfect: but I press on, if so be that I may lay hold on that for which also I was laid hold on by Christ Jesus. 13 Brethren, I count not myself yet to have laid hold: but one thing I do, forgetting the things which are behind, and stretching forward to the things which are before, 14 I press on toward the goal, for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.

 

“upward call” refers to the “resurrection.”

 

In the context of everything we’ve learned in this study, Paul “forgets the things which are behind, and stretches forward to the things which are before.” Paul “forgets” the things he previously understood about Israel and the kingdom of the Messiah. He previously understood the coming kingdom to be an earthly kingdom. Now he understands it to be a spiritual kingdom (the Church), a kingdom that continues into the Eternal Kingdom of the “new heaven and new earth” (Rev 21:1-2).

We enter the Eternal Kingdom upon our “resurrection,” which occurs at the time of Christ’s return, as Paul explains in 1 Corinthians:

 

(1 Cor 15:20-26) – 20 But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. 21 For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. 22 For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. 23 But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. 24 Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. 25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26 The last enemy to be destroyed is death.  (ESV) 

 

Christ reigns over His kingdom now, which is the Church. He is sitting on the throne of David now, seated at the right hand of His Father (Acts 2:29-35; He 1:3,13; He 10:12-13). The Church is the spiritual kingdom of Christ. He must “reign” over this kingdom “until he has put all his enemies under his feet.” Jesus will continue to reign over His people – the Church – until the time of His return, where He will judge this world and bring all things to an “end” — all things regarding this world and this life. It’s at the time of Christ’s return that we’re resurrected in our glorified bodies (1 Cor 15:35-49), and enter into the Eternal Kingdom of the “new heaven and new earth” of Revelation 21 and 22. There is no earthly, millennial kingdom. We go directly into our eternal state, as Paul indicates in the final verses of this chapter of Philippians:

 

(Phil 3:18-21) – 18 For many walk, of whom I told you often, and now tell you even weeping, that they are the enemies of the cross of Christ: 19 whose end is perdition, whose god is the belly, and whose glory is in their shame, whose minds are set on earthly things. 20 For our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also wait for a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ: 21 who shall fashion our lowly body to be like his glorious body, according to the working whereby he is able even to subject all things to himself.

 

Where Paul refers to those who “set their minds on earthly things,” I believe he’s referring to the unbelieving Jews, who were (are) still locked into their erroneous understanding of the OT Scriptures, and who are blind to the truth about Christ and His kingdom. What they “set their minds on,” was an earthly kingdom.

But what did Paul look forward to? It was not an earthly kingdom, but a heavenly kingdom (2 Tim 4:18), because “our citizenship is in heaven.” When do we enter into this heavenly kingdom? After a so-called millennial kingdom? No! We enter into the heavenly kingdom (our eternal state) upon our resurrection, for Paul says that from Heaven we “wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ” who at that time will “fashion our lowly body to be like his glorious body,” which refers to our resurrection. Also notice that it’s at that time that He defeats His enemies, where He “subjects all things to himself.”

Paul was no longer looking toward an earthly kingdom, as he did before when he was an unbeliever, when he persecuted the followers of Christ. What he looked forward to as a fellow believer in Christ, was the heavenly kingdom of the “new heaven and new earth” (Rev 21:1-2), which we enter into upon our resurrection, which occurs at the time of Christ’s return. All through the NT the emphasis is on the resurrection. Why is that? It’s because that’s when we go into our eternal state. That’s the great hope of every believer in Christ — not some earthly kingdom, where sin is still alive and well.

 

Think about it, if we’re resurrected at the time of Christ’s return, and if He defeats His enemies at that time, how then can there be an earthly, thousand year kingdom? Because in that so-called millennial kingdom, sin will still dwell among humanity, and many will die as sinners, as “enemies” of Christ (1 Cor 15:20-27). But again, how can that be, when He judges all His enemies at the time of His return, before we enter this so-called millennial kingdom? This is a glaring inconsistency, a glaring hole in the premillennial position.

Is it not odd that proponents of Dispensational Premillennialism look forward to basically the same type of kingdom that unbelieving Jews do? Which is an earthly kingdom? That alone should serve as a red flag regarding their eschatological position.