The emphasis is on the here and now in Judaism; and it was so for Jesus. Examine the gospels, and see how many references you can find to the world to come. When Jesus undertakes his Sermon on the Mount — how many times does he talk about the world to come? This point is vitally important for you to understand: there is more to your salvation than dying; there is more to the Christian life than dying. If all that mattered was for Jesus to come and offer himself up as the Passover lamb, atone for your sins, be resurrected, ascend to heaven and intercede there for you—if that is all that counted, he didn’t need to stay around for 3½ years teaching, teaching, teaching. ‘What is the point, why bother to teach, Jesus – if all that counts is that we die and go to heaven?’ If you listen to many Protestant ministers that is the impression that you are given – all we talk about is dying and going to heaven and saving souls.
But why did Jesus not talk about it all the time? Again, don’t misunderstand – heaven is our eternal reward; for the faithfulness that we show here, we are rewarded there. But heaven (the world to come) is not our purpose. I am trying to tell you that there is more to your salvation than just your personal reward of getting saved, and dying and going to heaven. Salvation involves God’s purposes — what is his will, what are his purposes? The truth of the matter is, he has a purpose in saving you, and it is more than just to take you to heaven and reward you. He has things he wants you to do for his name’s sake. He has things he wants to accomplish in this earth for his glory, and he saves you in part to do his will. This is exactly what Paul says in Ephesians, ‘you are saved by grace through faith’ – you don’t earn it, it is God’s gift. But then in vs. 10 he goes on to say that God has saved you because from the beginning of the earth he has ordained good works for you to do.
For that reason – if not for others – the ‘kingdom of heaven is at hand’ must be understood to refer to some present reality. Primarily it refers here to a present reality. The word in Hebrew makes it very clear to us. If you put Jesus’ teachings back in Hebrew it would read something like: malchut shamayim karvah. Where this word (karvah) is used in the OT it is very clear what the meaning is. Ex. 32:19 – ‘when Moses approached the camp…’ Karvah is translated as approach. Is. 8:3 – ‘then I went to the prophetess and she conceived and gave birth to a son’. Went to is the word karvah. In Hebrew it means something that is spatially close. Moses approached the camp, the prophet drew nigh unto his wife.
The corresponding word in Greek is engizo. I want to show you where part of our problem comes from. E.g. in Matt. 26:46 you will see engizo used in exactly the same sense as the Hebrew counterpart: ‘arise, let us go! Here comes my betrayer!’ (NIV). ‘Here comes my betrayer; behold he is at hand who doth betray me’ (KJ – a very literal translation). It says that he is karvah, i.e. he is at hand, he is here, he is near me. But that is clearly the same meaning. So, why do we get confused? In James there are two scriptures – in one engizo is used in the same sense as karvah, and in the other it is used in quite a different sense, although it is related. James 4:8 is an example of the Greek word engizo used in the same sense as the Hebrew word karvah – ‘come near to God and he will come near to you’ (NIV). ‘Draw nigh to God and he will draw nigh unto you’ (KJ). This is a spatial orientation in a sense. Jm. 5:7 – ‘be patient then brothers until the Lord’s coming…stand firm because the Lord’s coming is near’. Here you have the same word, and this is where the problem is.
Engizo can be used in the same sense as karvah; i.e. a spatial sense – you draw nigh unto your wife, or you draw nigh unto the camp. Or it can be used in a temporal sense (the sense of time). James uses engizo in two different ways. Using engizo in the referring to time means it is immanent, it is about to occur. James says, ‘the Lord’s coming is about to happen, it is drawing nigh (that is, in a time sense and not in a spatial sense).
People without a Hebrew orientation have basically ignored the spatial sense of the word engizo, and have emphasized the temporal sense of it. So when they speak of the kingdom being ‘at hand’, they no longer think of spatial orientation, they think of temporal – it is drawing nigh. Fundamental to an understanding of this principle is that it should not be understood in a temporal sense, but it should be understood in the Hebrew sense. When Jesus says, ‘the kingdom of heaven is at hand’, he is saying, ‘the kingdom of heaven is here’. It is just a Hebrew way of saying it is spatially near. When Jesus says the kingdom of God is at hand, he is saying the kingdom is here.