One of the accusations that is leveled against the Word of God by the higher critics involves Christ’s big mistake. It is believed by the higher critics, and read into their interpretations of certain passages, that the Lord believed that His kingdom, rather than being relegated to the far future, was so close that it could be expected to come very soon after His three-year ministry on earth. This is a mistake they do not assign exclusively to Christ alone, but also to His disciples after Him, including the apostle Paul, whom they believe expected Christ’s second coming to take place in his own lifetime.
The higher critics have various passages they use to support their claims about the Lord and His first century followers. In this series, we will focus on the passages from Christ’s own words that they use to support the idea that He was wrong regarding when His kingdom would take place.
The first set of passages regards the Lord’s statement, continuing what John the Baptist first taught, that the Kingdom of Heaven was at hand. The passages in question are given below.
Matthew 4:17. From that time Jesus began to preach and to say, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
Matthew 10:5-7. These twelve Jesus sent out and commanded them, saying: “Do not go into the way of the Gentiles, and do not enter a city of the Samaritans. 6. But go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. 7. And as you go, preach, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’”
Mark 1:14-15. Now after John was put in prison, Jesus came to Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, 15. and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.”
In these passages, the Lord’s teaching clearly is that the Kingdom of God (or the Kingdom of Heaven) is at hand. Thus, those who believe that this is an error, a contradiction with what really happened, teach that the Lord clearly meant by this that the Kingdom was soon to come, and He was mistaken.
Some try to answer this difficulty by teaching that Christ always meant that a “spiritual” kingdom was coming rather than a physical kingdom. Yet this idea does not match up with what the Lord actually taught about the Kingdom, or with what His disciples expected to come. Moreover, those who claim this do not define what a kingdom really is. The word “kingdom” is the traditional word, and comes to us because the first men who translated the Bible into English lived in England under a monarchy as their form of government. A Russian might have translated it a “Czardom,” and a Persian might have called it an “Empire.” In our country we have governors, and so we would do best to replace the word “kingdom” with our word “government.” That is what the Greek word “basilea,” which we have translated as “kingdom,” truly means in modern English: “government.”
Most of those who believe in a “spiritual” kingdom make the “church” out to be the spiritual kingdom. Yet once we understand that a “kingdom” is a government, we realize that this is foolishness, for no one can really tell us what a “spiritual” government is, or what good it does anyone. The church is no kind of government, as can plainly be seen. If God is ruling us through the church, then He is doing it very weakly, for the faithful are often not rewarded, the unfaithful are usually not punished, the needy are often not provided for, the sick are sometimes not healed, and many other things that we would expect from the government of God never happens. The “church” often fails utterly at providing these things for people, sometimes from neglect, and often from the fact that they are just not equipped to provide governmental benefits to anyone. If the modern-day “church” is what Christ meant was at hand, then no one had much reason to be excited.
So was Christ mistaken that the kingdom was “at hand?” Let us consider this logically. Something that is at hand can move away again. The Twin Cities where I live have recently started up a light rail train line. I was headed for this line one evening, hoping to catch the train that was there. As I moved towards it, just as I reached the crossing of the tracks, the lights came on, the arms swung down, and the train moved away. Though it had moments before been close at hand, it had now moved on, and I no longer was able to reach it to ride on it. Instead, I had to wait a half hour until the next train left that I could ride.
In the same way, the Kingdom of God had at that time moved close at hand. Men were allowed to see its King, Jesus Christ. They were allowed to experience its power through miracles. They were able to experience its benefits through healing, miraculous provision of food, and other blessings. They were allowed to see its judgments in the forgiveness of sin for those who were submissive or the penalty of sin miraculously falling upon those who rebelled. Yet then that Kingdom moved far away again, and like people standing helplessly at a train station watching their ride move away, they had no choice but to wait until a far future time for the kingdom to come in full at last.
But let us now move away from reasoning and look as well to the Scriptures. Did the Lord in His teaching ever indicate that the Kingdom, then at hand, might move away without coming fully in as His followers hoped it would do? The answer is yes. We can read about it in Acts 1:6-8.
6. Therefore, when they had come together, they asked Him, saying, “Lord, will You at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” 7. And He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has put in His own authority. 8. But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”
Here, we have the apostles (verse 2) coming together with the Lord and asking Him a very important question. They want to know if this is indeed the time that He will restore the Kingdom to Israel. In other words, they want to know if the Kingdom is here to stay, or if it might move away again. And notice the Lord’s answer. He does not assure them that what is at hand will not leave them. Rather, He refuses to answer, telling them that it is not for them to know this, as it has to do with the times or seasons that the Father has put in His Own authority. In other words, the Lord leaves the possibility very much open that the then at-hand Kingdom might not remain so, but might still wait for a future time. Thus, the Lord’s teaching that the Kingdom was “at hand” did not mean that He was certain it would come very soon, and was ultimately mistaken. Rather, He refused to reveal if this was the case or not. There is nothing in these passage to prove that Christ made a mistake. He said the Kingdom was at hand, but never said for certain that it was sure to come right then.