Questions from Onward: Heaven and the Reign of Christ

As part of our Onward series, we’re taking questions from the congregation related to ideas that come up in our sermons, class, and small groups discussions. Some questions will be covered in our Engage & Equip podcast, and others will be discussed here on the blog, so keep your eye out for more posts in both places!

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Today’s question came after the first sermon of the series, focusing on the kingdom of God:

“Please explain the differences between Christ’s Millennial Reign, Heaven, and the New Heaven and New Earth.”

I’ll discuss each of these terms and how they’re related to one of the main themes of our series, having a kingdom mindset.


Christ’s Millennial Reign, referenced in Revelation 20:1-7, refers to the 1,000 year period when Christ will reign on Earth prior to the establishment of the new heaven and the new earth (which we’ll look at more below).

There are long-standing differences of opinion about how to interpret this passage. Will it be a literal 1,000 years with Jesus physically reigning as the King over the whole world, or is it meant more symbolically? If it is literal, Christ will obviously need to return before the millennium begins (pre-millennial), but if it is symbolic, maybe Christ’s rule will be represented by his people, and he won’t return until after that period of time (post-millennial). Some argue that the millennial reign is representative of Jesus’s current and ongoing reign among his people, the Church, and therefore we shouldn’t anticipate a 1,000 year reign at all. Rather than inaugurating a period of reigning yet to come, he inaugurated his reign at the time of his first coming (amillennial).

My goal in this post isn’t to defend one interpretation over another, but whichever interpretation you favor will have slightly different implications for your understanding of the “already, but not yet” kingdom of today. Put simply, what we expect for the future affects how we behave today.

In recent history, pre-millennialism has been construed as pessimistic, since it essentially expects that the world will get progressively worse and worse until the return of Jesus. It could equally be described as hopeful, however, with its enthusiastic expectation of Christ’s imminent return. One major effect of this view has been a sense of urgency in evangelistic mission. If Jesus is coming any day, then we’d best get busy, and we may even be able to hasten his return by finishing the evangelistic task that he left to us (Matthew 24:14). On the negative side, some have accused this view of dis-incentivizing social and environmental work. While that’s a possible consequence, it’s not a logically necessary one. Pre-millennialism is also often tied to an interpretation of God’s promises to Israel which will result in their literal fulfillment realized in the same geographic location as the original promised land.

On the other hand, if you believe, as in post-millennialism, that we currently live in the millennium of Christ’s reign, then you will expect the world to get progressively better and better. This view was popular, for instance, in the USA prior to WWII. After the horrors of the war, many people came to view this idea as less plausible. One possible implication of this interpretation, however, is the drive to realize the kingdom idea of justice and shalom through pursuing societal improvement.

Amillennialists don’t adopt the same optimism about the progress of human history as post-millennialists, expecting instead to see Christ’s reign fully inaugurated in the New Heaven and New Earth. Satan is currently restrained, but hasn’t met with his final defeat.

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Heaven: There are several words in Greek and Hebrew that are translated as “heaven(s)” in English Bibles. The most common Hebrew word is שָׁמַיִם shâmayim, and the most common Greek word is οὐρανός ouranós. Both words express the idea of the sky and the realm above us, including what we think of as outer-space today. In Genesis 1, God created the shâmayim and the earth. Birds fly there (Genesis 1:20; Jeremiah 4:25; Matthew 6:26; Revelation 5:3); it’s the place where the moon, sun, and stars are fixed (Genesis 1:14; Isaiah 13:10; Revelation 6:13), and the place from which rain falls (Genesis 8:2; Isaiah 55:10; James 5:8; Revelation 11:6). Generally speaking, it refers to one of the three domains of the created world: heavens, land, and waters (Exodus 20:4; Revelation 10:6).

These words are also used to refer to the place where God dwells (Deuteronomy 26:15; 1 Kings 8:30; Psalm 11:4; Matthew 16:17; Mark 16:19; Revelation 11:19), and therefore as the place from which God and his angels speak (Genesis 21:17; 2 Samuel 22:14; Mark 1:11; Revelation 14:13). In the New Testament, heaven/heavenly is often used in contrast to human/earthly (1 Corinthians 15:47) and as a shorthand for God himself (Matthew 21:25).

Jesus also makes reference to “heaven” in a way that points to a future place where rewards for faithfulness will be received after our resurrection from the dead (Matthew 19:21; 22:30; Mark 10:21; Hebrews 10:34; 1 Peter 1:4). His reference to heaven in what we call the Lord’s Prayer is helpful in understanding how he thinks of both heaven and the kingdom of God: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:9-10). What he seems to be saying here is, “May your name be recognized as holy, and may your kingship be honored here on earth among humans to the same degree that it is honored among your angels in heaven.” In this context, heaven seems to represent the place where God’s kingly rule is fully accepted and realized, a realm in which his plans and desires are completely enacted, and he is given all the honor that he deserves as rightful king. Jesus prays for that to be true of earth as well. That is the vision of the kingdom of God. It is the full and active reign of God in Jesus Christ on earth.

Living with a Kingdom Mindset

Jesus repeatedly teaches about what he calls the “kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 16:19; 18:4, for example), teaching people what the reign of God on earth will look like and how it will come.

One of the ideas that we’ve talked about is that the kingdom of God is both “already” and “not yet.” By this, we mean that there are certain elements of Christ’s future reign which are active now, and there is a certain domain of human life (namely, the Church), over which Christ’s reign is (or ought to be) absolute.

But the world we see today is not as good as it gets. Satan is still free to roam the earth and, in many ways, unleash havoc and destruction. We as fallen humans bring plenty of destruction without his help. The physical world itself, nature around us, is broken. God’s promise in Scripture is that, after the return of Jesus, he will make everything right again. The biblical concept of shalom is usually translated as “peace,” but it carries the deeper idea of everything being in its proper place. It is the world rightly ordered. We see in Scripture the promise that, after Jesus returns, he will place everything back in its proper order and restore shalom.

In the meantime, we the Church are the first fruits of that kingdom harvest. We are the preview, the trailer for the coming kingdom. In the way we live, the world is supposed to see what it looks like to live under King Jesus. What kind of a king is he? What does his world look like? How is it different from the broken world in which we live? Is Jesus a good and powerful king? Can he do what he says he’s going to do? Is he worth following? We are the living answer to those questions.

What we really mean when we talk about a kingdom mindset is that we are called to go about life in this world with that future reality in mind.

With that as our framework for the world and our lives in it, everything we do carries new significance.

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New Heaven and New Earth

The New Heaven and New Earth are referred to in the last glimpse God gives us of what to expect in the future. The idea is clearly rooted back in the story of God creating the world. The first home given to humans was in a garden, and their original assignment was to do the work of cultivating it and fostering the flourishing of life in the newly formed world. When human sin corrupted that good world, its effects rippled out beyond humans with terrible force, tearing through all of creation, leaving it groaning like a woman in labor, waiting for the day when all things would be restored. One of the foundations of our hope is found in God’s promises through the prophet Isaiah:

“See, I will create new heavens [shâmayim] and a new earth. The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I will create; for I will create Jerusalem to be a delight and its people a joy. I will rejoice over Jerusalem and take delight in my people; the sound of weeping and of crying will be heard in it no more.” (Isaiah 65:17-19)

In the last scenes of Revelation, this promise is expressed again:

“Then I saw ‘a new heaven [ouranós] and a new earth,’ for the first heaven [ouranós] and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven [ouranós] from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying ‘Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (Revelation 21:1-4)

This passage directly quotes parts of Isaiah 65, showing that God will fulfill his original promise to set things right. The old order of things will pass away, and a new and final shalom will take its place. This is the ultimate realization of God’s redemptive work and his kingly reign. Our lives in that restored, eternal world will look more like farming, art, and industry than like lounging on clouds in an ethereal heaven. In that New Heaven and New Earth, our pre-sin purpose can be restored and we can take our places as the stewards and cultivators within the Kingdom of God.

We as Christians today are a colony of that coming kingdom. The kingship of Jesus is present among us today, and we are called to live in a way that is consistent with that new order rather than the corrupt, dying order around us.

We refer to that attitude as having a “kingdom mindset,” and it has the potential to redefine our actions and perspectives in strange and beautiful ways.

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