WORTHY OF THE KINGDOM

by Thomas W. Finley


Chapter Two

ETERNAL LIFE AND THE COMING KINGDOM

The rich young ruler had surely heard the amazing reports of the miracles wrought by Jesus and of His selfless ministry to the common people. So he had determined to go to Him through whom God was working and ask Him the question that burned in his soul. He was so concerned about the matter that Mark records that he "...ran up to Him and knelt before Him, and began asking Him, ‘Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?’" (Mk. 10:17) To understand this question concerning "eternal life", we must consider the background. Alfred Edersheim indicates that this was not an unusual question, but one that was commonly posed to rabbis by their disciples.[1]

It is easy for us Christians to get confused by the young ruler’s inquiry, as this writer once was, because of our frame of reference. To informed Christians, the matter of having eternal life is primarily viewed as the present possession of God’s life through the new birth. Eternal indicates that the life described is inherently endless and this word "life" (zoe in Greek) is commonly used in the New Testament to denote "‘life as a principle, life in the absolute sense, life as God has it,... and of this life men become partakers through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ (John 3:15) who becomes its author to all such as trust in Him (Acts 3:15), and who is therefore said to be ‘the life’ of the believer (Col. 3:4)...Eternal life is the present actual possession of the believer because of his relationship with Christ.’"[2]

However, as with all terms in any language there are multiple meanings. The real meaning in any given instance is dependent upon several factors, including the context and the historical background. Since the rich young ruler asked the question, we must consider what he meant by it, and then we need to consider how the Lord Jesus’ answer confirmed or modified the young ruler’s understanding of "eternal life".

The Jews in Jesus’ day had no concept of possessing God’s eternal life (zoe) internally and thus "having eternal life". When Jesus tried to explain to Nicodemus about the new birth by which God’s Spirit gives life (zoe) to our human spirit (Jn.3:6), it became obvious that Nicodemus, a "teacher of Israel" (Jn.3:10), did not know of these matters. Jesus then explained to him of His wonderful mission as the Redeemer sent into the world. He told Nicodemus that just as the cure for the snake-bitten, rebellious Israelites in the wilderness was accomplished by their looking upon a brass serpent lifted up on a pole by Moses, so the Son of Man would be lifted up (Jn.3:14) on the cross to bear man’s sin, in order that "WHOEVER BELIEVES may in Him HAVE ETERNAL LIFE" (Jn.3:15).

So, this possession of eternal life, obtained through believing in the Redeemer, is a second birth wrought in man’s spirit by the Holy Spirit at the moment of belief (Jn.3:6; 5:24). Of such a potential possession of eternal life, the Jews who witnessed Christ’s ministry were totally ignorant. Indeed, this matter was a mystery hidden by God until the New Testament era (Col.1:26,27). Therefore, it was not this kind of "eternal life" about which the rich young ruler so anxiously inquired.

The concept of "eternal life" that was held by the rich young ruler had to do with the obtaining of the blessed condition in the "world to come". The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology makes these comments concerning "eternal life" in relation to the age to come: "The expression ‘eternal life’ (zoe aionios), corresponding to the basic meaning of aion, lifetime, as defined by the OT, is to be understood primarily as life which belongs to God. From the Book of Daniel onwards ‘eternal life’ is an expression of the longed-for eschatological blessings of salvation, life in the coming age (cf. Dan.12:2)."[3]

The same reference work also comments: "Over against the present life there stands the life to come (Mk.10:30; 1 Tim.4:8, ‘Godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come [zoes tes nyn kai tes mellouses]’). It is described as ‘eternal life’ (zoe aionios; Matt.19:16; par. Mk.10:17, Lk.18:18; Matt.25:46; cf. 2 Tim. 1:10, zoe kai aphthersia, life and immortality)."[4] To further understand the rich young ruler’s idea of this future age characterized by eternal life, it will be helpful to look at remarks concerning this coming period from a book entitled Palestinian Judaism in the Time of Jesus Christ:

What we have learned about man’s fate after death helps us to see more clearly into the question of time and eternity. The ancient Semites had great difficulty in understanding this latter notion, to designate it, they had only the very imprecise term, olam. This word meant "time," considered as the mysterious mass of the past or future. By extending the meaning of the word, it was possible to come to a wider conception of time. At the eve of the Christian era and under the influence of Greek thought, olam had come to be understood not only in a temporal sense but also in spatial terms, corresponding to the Greek term, kosmos. The possibility of distinguishing between two periods, two kinds of time, was then considered. There would be the time of unhappiness and corruption in which humanity was living, and the "new age," a time in which unhappiness and corruption had been eliminated. This distinction appears first and above all in the Apocrypha; we find it mentioned by the rabbis from the first century on. The two ages succeed one another and prepare for one another; one is the vestibule, the other the main hall.

When will "the world to come" take place? If the time of reward is placed after the resurrection, in a renewed world, it means that happiness and the absence of corruption will only then make their appearance. But as belief in retribution and judgment after death becomes more accepted, the time of reward starts much earlier. The usual expression in referring to this time, olam haba, is commonly translated as "the world to come," the world that has not yet begun and will be inaugurated by the resurrection. But several second-century texts expect it to start immediately after death.[5]

This excerpt tells us a few basic things we must keep in mind: (a) the Israelites of that day saw two different ages; (b) the duration of the future age was not clear to them; (c) the current world was one marred by corruption; (d) the world to come, however, was seen as a time when unhappiness and corruption were absent. The Jewish thought of the early first century viewed the coming age as one inaugurated at the future time of the resurrection (see Dan. 12:1,2). It was entry into that future world, or age, which the young ruler had in mind when using the term to obtain, or "inherit," eternal life.

To further understand the young ruler’s seeking after the blessedness of such a coming age, we should note the basis upon which he hoped to gain entry to that blessed world to come. The basis was altogether wrapped up with righteous living and works. "What good thing shall I do...All these things I have kept; what am I still lacking?" (Matt. 19:16,20). It was a common notion among the Israelites that the new age would be ushered in by the resurrection, but that only the righteous (those who have lived righteously) would participate in the blessed world to come. In speaking of common Hebrew thoughts of the time, the book last quoted notes:

This shows that the essential character of the resurrection is LIFE as a reward for the righteous. As a matter of fact, in many representations the resurrection is reserved exclusively for the righteous, and only they will ENTER ETERNAL LIFE. This is Josephus’ feeling in the matter, and he attributes it to the Pharisees: "The Pharisees believe the soul to be immortal, and that rewards and punishments will be awarded to those who, while alive, had devoted themselves to vice or virtue. The soul will then be taken to eternal prison or it will receive the faculty to come back to life" (Antiquities of the Jews, XVIII, i,3, par. 14)...Nevertheless, the universalist concept [that all persons will be resurrected] was also maintained. It was the only logical position if resurrection was for the sake of judgment, as suggested by Daniel (12:2), "Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake; some shall live forever, others shall be an everlasting horror and disgrace."[6] (emphasis added)

Other sources confirm that the general understanding of the Jews during Christ’s lifetime was that the individual’s righteous or unrighteous living determined whether reward or punishment awaited him in a future age. In commenting on the intertestamental literature and its effect upon the evolution of Jewish theology, the Encyclopedia Judaica states the following:

THE WORLD TO COME. The apocalyptic writings after Daniel (though in this book the terms themselves are not used) divide the time after God’s great eschatological interventions as "this (present) time" (olam ha-zeh) and "the time to come" (olam ha-ba, lit., "the coming time"; cf. I En.23:1; IV Ezra 7:30, 43; Test. Patr. Abraham 19, B 7). It is only in the latter period, the eschatological period in the strict sense, that full retribution, for good and evil, is meted out by God to every man.Retribution: Israel always had firm faith in the Lord’s justice, in His rewarding the good and punishing the wicked. However, in Israel there was a definite development of this concept in two important points: (1) from collective responsibility and retribution to individual responsibility and retribution, and (2) from full retribution in man’s mortal life to full retribution only "in the world to come," i.e., after man’s death.[7]

Was the rich young ruler’s understanding of having eternal life, namely entry into the blessed age to come after the resurrection, and his understanding of how to obtain it, namely through righteous living, confirmed or denied by the Lord? I believe that the text will show that to a great degree, with careful modification, his notions were confirmed by the Lord Jesus. To aid in our interpretation, we need to keep in mind that after the young ruler left the Lord (Matt. 19:22), Jesus immediately used the encounter as a springboard to teach His disciples concerning the age to come (down through at least verse 30 in our present consideration).

The Lord’s first direct answer to the ruler’s question was "...if you wish TO ENTER INTO LIFE, keep the commandments" (Matt. 19:17). This shows that Jesus agreed with the ruler’s concept of entering into a realm of blessing (i.e., a realm characterized by life--zoe). This realm was further defined by Christ in verse 23 when He laid down the lesson to be learned from the encounter: "Truly I say to you, it is hard for a rich man TO ENTER THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN." In the next verse Jesus substituted the phrase "TO ENTER THE KINGDOM OF GOD" (v.24). All three of these terms (life, Kingdom of Heaven, Kingdom of God) were used by Jesus to apply to a coming future realm.

But to what realm specifically did Jesus refer? This question is answered when Jesus responded to Peter’s query in verse 27: "Behold, we have left everything and followed You; what then will there be for us?" Peter was essentially saying, "Look, Lord, the rich young ruler was unwilling to give up all to follow you in order to ‘obtain eternal life’. Well, we have given up everything to follow you, so what is in it for us--what will our future be?" The Lord Jesus responded, "Truly I say to you, that you who have followed Me, IN THE REGENERATION WHEN THE SON OF MAN WILL SIT ON HIS GLORIOUS THRONE, you also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. AND EVERYONE who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or farms for My name’s sake, shall receive many times as much, and SHALL INHERIT ETERNAL LIFE" (v. 28,29).

But, very importantly, notice how this last verse ends in the parallel gospel passages, "and IN THE AGE TO COME, ETERNAL LIFE" (Mk. 10:30; Lk.18:30). Jesus was confirming here that the "eternal life" sought by the young ruler was something to be experienced in "the age to come". The Lord had instructed the young ruler that if he wished to "enter into life" (Matt.19:17), he needed to keep the commandments, forsake the riches of this world and follow Him. Then Jesus went on to teach His disciples that everyone (which would include the young ruler!) who followed Him in such an absolute, all-forsaking way would receive eternal life in the age to come (Mk. 10:30; Lk. 18:30).

We have already noted how entry into life was equated in the passage with entry into "the kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 19:23) and entry into the "kingdom of God" (v. 24). Therefore, the particular Kingdom of Heaven and the particular Kingdom of God mentioned here refer to a coming Kingdom that is to be realized in the "age to come". That future Kingdom will be characterized by eternal life. There, all those disciples of Christ who leave earthly possessions and relationships for His sake shall "receive ...eternal life" (Mk. 10:30).

It is imperative that we have a clear understanding of what the Lord Jesus Christ meant when He used the term "the age to come" (Mk. 10:30; Lk. 18:30).[8] Otherwise, we will be confused in our theology concerning salvation. (Note that the King James Version uses the term "world to come" but the New King James Version uses the more accurate term "age to come"). The New Testament Greek word for age is aion. W. E. Vine defines aion as "an age, era...signifies a period of indefinite duration or time viewed in relation to what takes place in the period. The force attached to the word is not so much that of the actual length of a period, but that of a period marked by spiritual or moral characteristics".[9]

"Ages" in the Bible can come to a definite end (Matt. 13:39, 40; 28:20). It is significant to note that in speaking of the future, the Bible uses not only the term "the age to come" (Matt. 12:32; Mk. 10:30; Lk. 18:30; Eph. 1:21; Heb. 6:5), but also the term "the ages to come" (Eph. 2:7). This shows us that there is more than one coming period in God’s plan. Thus, the period called "the age to come" can not speak of eternity.

When Jesus used the term "the age to come", He spoke of the age that immediately follows the close of the present age. This age ends with cataclysmic judgments connected with the time of the "harvest" (Matt. 13:39,40; Rev. 14:15). This world system is being ruled by Satan (Lk. 4:5,6; Jn. 12:31; 1 Jn. 5:19) during the present age (2 Cor. 4:4). At the end of this age, however, Satan will be overthrown and bound (Rev. 12:10; 20:1-3). Then the Lord Jesus Christ will return from heaven with authority to rule (Lk. 19:12, 15) and set up His Kingdom on the earth (Rev. 11:15), sitting on His glorious throne in Jerusalem (Matt. 25:31; Is. 2:1-3; 24:23; Mic. 4:7,8).

As the Lord pointed out, the time of reward for His faithful followers will be realized "in the regeneration when the Son of Man will sit on His glorious throne" (Matt. 19:28). The regeneration is the time of restoration of the earth that has been under the curse.[10]

Another passage also shows us that the inauguration of this era begins with the return of Jesus Christ: "that He may send Jesus, the Christ appointed for you, whom heaven must receive until the period of restoration of all things about which God spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets from ancient time" (Acts 3:20-21). Therefore, "the age to come" is the age of restoration and begins with the second advent of Christ. We will look at the glory of this restoration later.

The "age to come" is also known as the "millennium" (1,000 years, Latin). This is because Christ’s reign upon the earth, inaugurated by His second advent, will last 1,000 years. Revelation 20:4, 6 both speak of overcoming believers reigning WITH Christ for this definite period: "and they came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years . . . but they will be priests of God and of Christ and will reign with Him for a thousand years".

We get further understanding of this period of Christ’s earthly reign from another passage: ". . . then comes the end, when He (Christ) delivers up the kingdom to the God and Father, when He has abolished all rule and all authority and power. For He must REIGN UNTIL He has put all His enemies under His feet. The last enemy that will be abolished is death" (1 Cor. 15:24-26). These verses show us that Christ’s earthly, theocratic rule lasts until the last enemy, death, is abolished. Scripture tells us that death is abolished at the end of the 1,000 year period (Rev. 20:7-14; 21:4).

In conclusion, therefore, we can identify with certainty the "age to come" of which Jesus spoke. It is an age that begins with the literal return of the Lord Jesus Christ to earth to set up His Kingdom. He reigns for a period of 1,000 years. The 1,000 years of His earthly rule from Jerusalem ends with the abolishing of the last enemy, death. Then, He delivers up the Kingdom to the God and Father. Thus, "THE AGE TO COME" IS THE MILLENNIAL KINGDOM OF THE LORD JESUS CHRIST. After the millennium, Christ continues to reign in the New Jerusalem, no longer on "His glorious throne" in Jerusalem (Matt. 19:28; 25:31), but on "the throne of God and of the Lamb" in the New Jerusalem (Rev. 22:3).[11]

Having established that the Lord Jesus did confirm the young ruler’s idea of obtaining eternal life as involving entry into a future blessed age, we now return to the other side of the question. The rich young ruler assumed entry into that coming age of blessing was gained through one’s righteous living. Did Christ agree? He not only agreed, but He substantially raised the standard of obedience to God.

The young ruler had an admirable record of obedience to the commandments, but still wondered if it was enough. It was then that the Lord caught him totally off guard by advising him, "One thing you still lack; sell all that you possess and distribute it to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me" (Lk. 18:22). The Lord raised the level of obedience beyond the morality of the law to include an abandonment of this world’s goods and a total denial of self-will to follow a person, the Lord Jesus.

Notice that which the Lord did not tell the ruler. He didn’t tell him to believe in Him and thus have eternal life (Jn. 6:47). No. Rather, Jesus told him that he must do something very difficult for a rich man to do in order to obtain eternal life (Lk. 18:22-25, 29, 30). Thus, the Lord substantially confirmed the principle that the highest standard of practical righteousness (not positional righteousness) is required for entry into His coming millennial Kingdom. Let us keep in mind, however, that we are not speaking about the believer’s eternal position with God, but only of the matters related to the millennium.

Relative to our understanding of Kingdom matters, this chapter has been a very important one. We have learned some fundamental things. Eternal life is the present possession of every born again believer by virtue of the new birth secured through faith in Christ. This eternal life is Christ in us as our life (Col. 1:27; 3:4). There is another meaning, however, to the term "eternal life" in Scripture. This meaning refers to the future magnified enjoyment of that life in the realm of the blessed age of restoration to come, Christ’s millennial Kingdom. It is this eternal life which is at issue in the story of the rich young ruler.

Jesus used that important encounter with the young ruler to give His disciples, and us, an important lesson concerning His coming Kingdom. Participation in the blessings of that "age to come" is dependent upon the highest standard of practical righteous living in the disciple’s daily life. This is a different righteousness than imputed or positional righteousness, which is a gift (Rom. 5:17) received through simple faith in the Savior (Rom. 3:22). If these principles are correct, then they will be confirmed throughout the New Testament.

Seekers of Christ Seekers of Christ Seekers of Christ Seekers of Christ Seekers of Christ

And you will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with all your heart" (Jer. 29:13, NASB)

[1] Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah. 1883. (Reprint ed., Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1971), Vol. II, Book IV, p. 379.

[2] W. E. Vine, An Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words. 1939. (Reprint ed., Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1968), p. 367, quoting from Notes on Galatians, by Hogg and Vine, pp. 324-325. Used by permission of Thomas Nelson, Inc.

[3] Colin Brown, ed., The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1975), Vol. III, p.832. Used by permission of Zondervan Publishing House.

[4] Ibid., Vol. II, p. 480. Used by permission of Zondervan Publishing House.

[5] Joseph Bonsirven, Palestinian Judaism in the Time of Jesus Christ, translated from the French by William Wolf. (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1964), p. 169.

[6] Ibid., pp. 229-230.

[7] Encyclopedia Judaica (Jerusalem: Keter Publishing House Ltd., 1971), Vol.VI, p. 874.

[8] It should be noted that in ancient Judaism the term "the world to come" (olam ha-ba) did not always have a fixed meaning and underwent transition over time. One encyclopedia reference shows that period’s identity with the millennium:

The Perso-Babylonian world-year of twelve millenniums, however, was transformed in Jewish eschatology into a world-week of seven millenniums corresponding with the week of Creation, the verse "a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday" (Ps. xc5[A.V.4]) having suggested the idea that the present world of toil ("olam ha-zeh") is to be followed by a Sabbatical millennium, "the world to come" ("olam ha-ba"): Tamid v11.4 . . . [The Jewish Encyclopedia (New York and London: Funk and Wagnalls Co., 1907), Vol. V, pp. 210-211.]

Other encyclopedia references show how the term evolved:

Owing to the gradual evolution of eschatological conceptions, the Rabbis used the terms "olam ha-ba" (the world to come), "le-atid la-bo" (in the coming time). and "yemot ha-Mashiah" (the Messianic days) promiscuously or often without clear distinction (see Geiger . . . ) . . . R. Eleazar of Modi’im of the second century (Mek., Beshallah, Wayassa, ed. Weiss, p.59, note) distinguishes between the Messianic time ("malkut bet Dawid"), the "olam ha-ba" (the future world), which is that of the souls, and the time of the Resurrection, which he calls "olam hadash" (the new world, or world of regeneration). [Ibid., p.216]

It was Jesus’ response to the rich ruler, however, in which he defined the future age of reward and blessing, from which we must derive our theology concerning reward according to works.

[9] W. E. Vine, p. 19. Used by permission of Thomas Nelson, Inc.

[10] See Ray E. Baughman, The Kingdom of God Visualized (Chicago: Moody Press, 1972), pp. 190-191.

[11] The eternal Kingdom of Christ begins with Christ’s return to earth to rule (Dan. 2:44-45; 7:13,14; Matt. 25:31-34; Lk. 1:31-33). The first stage of His eternal rule begins when He sets up His earthly rule and sits upon "His glorious throne" (Matt. 19:28; 25:31) located in Jerusalem (Is. 2:1-3; 24:23; Mic. 4:7,8). From this throne He rules the nations with "a rod of iron" (Ps. 2:8,9; Rev. 2:27; 19:15). His kingship brings in the great regeneration (Matt. 19:28; Acts 3:19-21). This particular earthly reign ends after 1,000 years, the point at which death is abolished (1 Cor. 15:24-26; Rev. 20:4,6; 21:4). However, even though Christ "delivers up the kingdom to the God and Father" at the end of the 1,000 years (1 Cor. 15:24), He does not cease to reign. From then on, He reigns not upon "His glorious throne" in Jerusalem, but, in continued subjection to the Father (1 Cor. 15:28), His eternal reign continues in the New Jerusalem on "the throne of God and of the Lamb" (Rev. 22:3).

In commenting on First Corinthians 15:27-28, Dwight Pentecost says, "The means by which all things are brought under subjection to God, so that He becomes all in all, is that Christ unites the authority that is His as King with the Father’s after He has ‘put down all rule and all authority and power’ (1 Cor. 15:24). God’s original purpose was to manifest His absolute authority and this purpose is realized when Christ unites the earthly theocracy with the eternal Kingdom of God. Thus, while Christ’s earthly theocratic rule is limited to one thousand years, which is sufficient time to manifest God’s perfect theocracy on the earth, His reign is eternal". J. Dwight Pentecost, Things to Come (Dunham Publishing Co., 1958. Reprint ed., Grand Rapids: Academie Books, Zondervan Publishing House, 1964), pp. 492-493.