I am studying with a pre-millenialist who is particularly caught up with Israel, end-times, and the special role of Jerusalem. The materials on Jacoby’s [editor’s note: he is referring to douglasjacoby.com] site recently published on the mass conversion of Israel were timely as well as John Oakes messages on the Kingdom of God. Thanks! I am doing a study with him on the Kingdom of God and found a couple of verses that seem to indicate that believers might “reign on the earth.” For example: Matthew 19:28 Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. Revelation 5:9-10 And they sang a new song, saying: “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased for God persons from every tribe and language and people and nation. You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth.” What could Jesus possibly mean by his followers reigning on the earth or judging the 12 tribes of Israel?
As with any complex biblical question, such as describing the specifics of what happens after final judgment, we need to take the Bible as a whole, rather than choosing one or two passages and basing our belief on that. I believe that discussions about end times, about what happens when we die and about the nature of the afterlife is a perfect example of the need to get the big picture in order to reach some good conclusions.
Before I do that, however, I want to remind myself, you and the one you are having discussion with that doctrine about the end of times and the nature of heaven are not essential teachings. We can disagree on these issues and still be fully united as Christians. Let us keep our perspective on these issues.
First, all or nearly all passages about the nature of heaven of hell of end times and the second coming of Jesus are obviously couched in highly symbolic terminology. This is true because such things require metaphorical and symbolic descriptions because we as humans are incapable of fully grasping such things which have to do with realities we have little experience of. This is why certain passages in Ezekiel, in Daniel, in Zechariah and especially Revelation use what is known as apocalyptic language. Jesus’ discourse in Matthew 24 and 25 is filled with symbolic language for obvious reasons. Will the apostles sit on literal, physical thrones? Does God himself sit on a literal, physical throne? I very highly doubt it. I want to be humble and open-minded and say that it might be possible that Matthew 19:28 should be taken literally, but I will just say that, given the nature of such passages, as used throughout the Bible, I highly doubt that there will be literal thrones. I also doubt that the 24 thrones in Revelation 4:4 are actual physical thrones, but, again, I might be wrong. Will the apostles on the twelve thrones in Matthew 19:28 literally judge the Israelites (with God sitting back and accepting their decision)? Or will they be there at the judgment, giving their approval to God’s judgment, which seems a bit more consistent with Revelation 20:11-13? My answer is that I am not sure, but I lean more toward the second conclusion. Here I think I know the answer but I am less certain than I am about the first question–that the twelve thrones are not literal. In both cases, I try to remind myself that this is my best attempt at a reasonable answer, based on an organic use of the entire scripture, but I admit I might be wrong.
Revelation 5:9-10 is a highly symbolic description. It is even more obviously symbolic/apocalyptic that Matthew 19:28, at least in my opinion. Might there be a grain of concrete reality here? Might our reign in the Kingdom of God actually be on the same actual physical earth we live on today? Let me give you my conclusion and let you and those you are discussing this with reach their own as well. Personally, I do not think that the “new heaven and new earth” of Revelation 21:1 are a reconstituted version of the actual planet earth. I will say right away that I am not at all sure about this conclusion. I am probably only 70/30 confident of this conclusion. I would not be at all shocked when we get to heaven to find that it is actually on the physical earth. However, when I take into account the descriptions in Revelation 21-22, Daniel 12:2-4, the Luke 16:19-31 (rich man and Lazarus which has us in a parallel reality while waiting which clearly is not on the earth!) and any of dozens of other passages, I conclude that heaven is not a purely physical thing in a physical place on the physical earth. I believe that we will have bodies of some sort, but that they will not be the same kind of bodies (1 Corinthians 15:50-54)–they will not be physical bodies, or if they have a physical nature it will not be the same sort of physical nature. Good friends of mine disagree with me somewhat on this–seeing heaven as a more physical thing that I do. To this I say I might be wrong and we will see….
I might be wrong and I will be the first to admit that I might be wrong. I certainly have no monopoly on truth–especially about the nature of the afterlife, but that is my conclusion.
The short version of my answer is that I believe that we will be there at the judgment giving our assent and agreement to God’s judgment on Israel (and on others as well). We will even judge the angels (1 Cor 6:3), but our judgment will be to agree with God on this. We will reign “on the earth” but I put that in quotation marks as I believe these are apocalyptic/symbolic statements whose exact meaning we will only understand after the final resurrection. Let us be humble, give our best judgment on these questions, and wait for God to reveal the truth in his own time.