The best thing about paradise, maybe even its defining feature, is that the people live in the presence of God. Jesus said from His cross to the penitent thief, “Today you will be with Me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43). The empty tomb of Jesus gave evidence that He is eternal God. Believers in Him look forward to His glorious presence. The Church clings to His promise at the end of His revelation to St. John, “Surely I am coming quickly” (Revelation 22:20). Yet when He ascended, He also gave this promise: “Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). Is this a contradiction? How can He be present, but also be coming at the same time?
Apparent contradictions like this are resolved when we have enough information to see how the pieces fit together. There is more than one way for Jesus to be with us. In one way, the Kingdom of God exists already here on Earth (Matthew 4:17, Romans 10:6–10). In another way, the Kingdom of God will find its ultimate fulfillment after the resurrection of all the dead (Matthew 25:31). Even before their bodies are raised, Christians enter the glorious presence of Jesus with the crucified thief on the very same day they depart in faith from this world. So when Jesus promises His presence to believers, it pays to notice exactly when and what kind of presence He means.
In Revelation 22, Jesus is speaking of His second coming, the great return of the King in power and glory for judgment and the final justification of His beloved Church. In Matthew 28, Jesus promises to be present with His Kingdom of grace, or His Church militant, which continues on Earth until the End. There is really only one highest King throughout Scripture and therefore one greatest kingdom, but it exists for us in three ways. (See the ELS’s An Explanation of Dr. Martin Luther’s Small Catechism, questions 177 and 250.)
Christians on Earth live under Christ in a state of “now, but not yet.” We already possess the eternal gifts of God, but haven’t yet reached the full experience of them. So in Mark 1:14–15, Jesus began preaching the message of His Church until His second coming: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.” Even now on Earth, there are special ways that the Lord is already present. In the final Judgment, everyone will have to receive Him (Jesus) whether they want to or not. But now He comes in the message of the Gospel, and in the outward sacramental actions that Jesus has connected to it. These are often called the Means of Grace, because God uses them to convey His merciful forgiveness and the faith needed to receive it. The Means of Grace are our opportunity to hear and be saved through faith. Unlike His final coming, the Means of Grace can be resisted, neglected, and despised. That’s the reason for the Third Commandment. (See the ELS Catechism for more about that connection.)
Perhaps it seems strange that almighty God should be present in such a mundane way: in a message and in certain outward acts connected with it. Yet this is consistent with His work throughout history, even in the Beginning. God reveals that Creation was accomplished entirely through words spoken by God. In a special way these words are identified with Jesus by the apostle and evangelist John: “In the beginning was the Word…. All things were made through Him” (John 1:1, 3). Now, Jesus’ promise to be with His Church is likewise fulfilled when we gather around His Word and bring it with us into our daily lives. The Kingdom of God is at hand already, AND Jesus is also coming soon.
Reverend Jesse Jacobsen
Bethany Lutheran Church
The Dalles, OR
Concordia Lutheran Church
Hood River, OR