"I say to you that many will come from east and west, and recline at the table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven." (Matthew 8:11)
There is also a parallel in Luke:
"In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but yourselves being thrown out. And they will come from east and west and from north and south, and will recline at the table in the kingdom of God." (Luke 13:28-29)
Personally, I don't have a problem with the actual location of the kingdom of God. Since the eternal hope for all true Christians may very well be a restored earth, I have no problem with the locality of "the kingdom of God" being in reference to all that God has rule over. However, the Watchtower is very strict in locating "the kingdom of God" in the heavens alone. Therefore, as we shall see, if "the kingdom of God" is strictly located in heaven, then what is the most natural and reasonable interpretation of the above passages? Would it not be quite conclusive that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob do, in fact, go to heaven? After all, how can you recline "in" the Kingdom of God without actually being...in the kingdom of God, just as the text says?
The Watchtower CD-ROM provides us with their explanation as to how this can be. I will insert my comments in between, but it will be for the reader to decide whether or not the Watchtower's explanation is the most reasonable.
*** w62 3/15 pp. 191-192 Questions From Readers ***
Questions From Readers
● How can Matthew 8:11, which speaks of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of the heavens, be harmonized with Matthew 11:11, which indicates that not even John the Baptist will be in it?
Matthew 11:11 reads:
"Truly I say to you, among those born of women there has not arisen anyone greater than John the Baptist! Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he."
Remember, it is the Watchtower who insists that "kingdom of heaven" is a locality that is limited to the heavenly realm. This will be important to keep in mind as we proceed.
In Hebrews 11:8-19 we read: “By faith Abraham . . . dwelt in tents with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the very same promise. For he was awaiting the city having real foundations, the builder and creator of which city is God. . . . But now they are reaching out for a better place, that is, one belonging to heaven. Hence God is not ashamed of them, to be called upon as their God, for he has made a city ready for them. By faith Abraham, when he was tested, as good as offered up Isaac . . . But he reckoned that God was able to raise him up even from the dead; and from there he did receive him also in an illustrative way.”
We have a translation dilemma. Here's the difference:
"But now they are reaching out for a better place, that is, one belonging to heaven." (Hebrews 11:16, New World Translation)
"But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one." (NASB)
The difference here is crucial. In exegeting the NASB, one would be left with the impression that the saints listed in Hebrews 11 have a heavenly hope. After all, if the "better country" that one desires is "heavenly," then how can this mean anything other than the fact that they desired heaven? But the NWT rendering is more subtle. That is, one could be left with the impression that since earth "belongs" to heaven when it will be restored, this is what they are desiring. Which translation is right? Though i'm very willing to be corrected on this, I don't see any basis for adding the word "belonging" to the text. That is, the NASB translation seems to be far more justified. To substantiate this, compare the Kingdom Interlinear Translation, which is published by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society:
As you can see, there is no word for "belonging" in the Greek. And if there is, then every single Bible translation I looked up seemed to miss it. Therefore, at this point, it seems reasonable to conclude that the word was added to support the Watchtower's "two-class" theology.
How did Abraham expect to receive Isaac back from the dead? In heaven as a spirit? No, but here on earth as a human creature. In an illustrative way he got Isaac back from the dead here on earth. So Abraham was not looking for any spiritual, heavenly resurrection to put him among the celestial angels any more than he was expecting Isaac to have such a resurrection and rejoin him in heaven.
Do you see how the Watchtower's theology forces the text in Hebrews 11:16 to say something that it doesn't? The problem isn't with how Abraham expected to receive Isaac back from the dead as much as it is, how the Watchtower can reconcile their locationally limited "kingdom of God" view. Again, if God's Kingdom encompasses all that He has rule over, both heaven and earth, then whether Abraham is reunited with Isaac on earth or heaven isn't an issue.
Abraham had come out of Ur of the Chaldeans, and he did not want that city any more. He and his son Isaac and grandson Jacob wanted a better place, that is, one belonging to heaven, a city government, namely, the government or city that God has prepared and in which the promised Seed or Offspring of Abraham will be God’s King. This is the “kingdom of God,” or “the kingdom of the heavens,” as these two expressions are interchangeable, the expression “the heavens” having reference to God. Under that kingdom of the heavens or kingdom of God Abraham, Isaac and Jacob expected to live on earth.
Contrary to what the text says, the Watchtower insists that it is the "heavenly government" that Abraham desired, not heaven itself. But the context makes it clear that this is an actual place that is being desired. And this is why most translations add the extra noun, "country," in order to make the text flow easier:
"For those who say such things make it clear that they are seeking a country of their own." (Hebrews 11:14)
Here we see that it is a "country" or a "place" that is desired. What is that place?
"And indeed if they had been thinking of that [country] from which they went out, they would have had opportunity to return." (11:15)
Again, this is talking about a place. In this case, it is the earth. Why would the author use an "if" here? Could he be making the point that these men had no interest in returning to the place from which they came, namely, earth? The text verse answers this question for us, as in, what country did they want to go?
"But as it is, they desire a better [country], that is, a heavenly one." (11:16)
Verse 15 is contrasting where they came from as opposed to where they wanted to go. At this point, the Watchtower's interpretation and translation makes very little sense here. For the context makes it clear that we are talking about going to a place, not returning to a place with a new government.
In the year 30 (A.D.) Jesus told Nicodemus that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were not in heaven. (John 3:13) Three years later, on the day of Pentecost of the year 33, the apostle Peter said that the descendant of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, namely, King David, had not ascended to heaven and so was not in any kingdom of the heavens or kingdom of God. (Acts 2:34) Peter said that after Jesus made the statement about Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in Matthew 8:11 at the time of healing the servant of a Roman centurion.
Even if all of this is granted, how does this change the fact that Matthew 8:11 explicitly states that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are "in" the Kingdom of Heaven? Since "Kingdom of Heaven" cannot include an earthly locality in Watchtower theology, they are forced to reinterpret the Bible to fit their views. Furthermore, is there a basis for viewing Matthew 8:11 in the present tense? Does it not say that "many will come from east and west?" Could this not be interpreted to be a future event, and also in line with the Watchtower's view that no one has gone to heaven before Christ?
Hence those three patriarchs could not be in the Kingdom class as joint heirs with the Lord Jesus Christ. They were his ancestors, who preceded him by more than seventeen hundred years.
This is a claim that is made without basis, and certainly not in accord with any explicit statements in the Scriptures.
It is therefore evident that in Matthew 8:11 Jesus referred to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob figuratively. On the occasion when Abraham offered up his son Isaac, Abraham represented Jehovah God and Isaac represented God’s only-begotten Son Jesus Christ, who was offered up in sacrifice. Accordingly Jacob represented the spiritual Christian congregation, the “kingdom of the heavens” class; for, just as the congregation gets life through Jesus Christ, so Jacob got life from Abraham through Isaac. From this standpoint Abraham, Isaac and Jacob mentioned together in Jesus’ illustration would picture the great theocratic government, in which Jehovah is the Great Theocrat, Jesus Christ is his anointed representative King, and the faithful, victorious Christian congregation of 144,000 members is the body of Christ’s joint heirs in the Kingdom.
This interpretation is completely unnecessary and in fact, a desperate attempt to insert one's theology into the Scriptures. Recognizing types and shadows in the Hebrew Scriptures has nothing to do with interpreting Matthew 8:11 figuratively. After all, if the Watchtower didn't hold to their "two-class" view, would they have ever come to this conclusion in Matthew 8:11? It is highly doubtful. Therefore, it would seem that the Watchtower is adopting the following methodology: "When the text says something that contradicts our theology, make the text figurative." How else would anyone come to the conclusion that Matthew 8:11 isn't actually speaking of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob? Would any non-Jehovah's Witness be able to come to that conclusion in exegeting the text in its context. It would seem highly unlikely.
When the Christian congregation was founded on the day of Pentecost, its spirit-anointed members were made Christ’s joint heirs and were put in line for a place in the heavenly kingdom, to recline there at the spiritual table with the Greater Abraham and the Greater Isaac. The natural or fleshly Jews of the nation of Israel claimed to be the “sons of the kingdom” or the prospective members of God’s kingdom. From the day of Pentecost forward they saw the beginning and the gradual development of this theocratic arrangement, but because of their lack of faith in Christ they were not in it. Hence, as Jesus said (Matt. 8:12): “The sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the darkness outside. There is where their weeping and the gnashing of their teeth will be.”
This is all fine, but the problem is, the Watchtower insists that these "joint heirs with Christ" will have a separate eternal dwelling place than the rest of Christianity. This is something that is nowhere articulated in the Scriptures, but instead, is formulated by the Watchtower.
For this reason it became necessary that many Gentiles (non-Jews), like the Roman centurion whose faith brought a miraculous cure by Jesus, should come “from eastern parts and western parts,” from all around the earth, to become dedicated, baptized Christians. Thus they could help make up the full number of the Kingdom class. For faithfulness to the death these converted Gentiles are resurrected to heavenly life to recline at the heavenly table, as it were, with Jehovah God and Jesus Christ “in the kingdom of the heavens.”
As stated earlier, insisting on "kingdom of heaven" as a limited locality complicates things beyond necessity. In my opinion, the text is much more consistent when we don't make it figurative, but instead, read it plainly.
When understood this way, Matthew 8:11 agrees with Jesus’ words in Matthew 11:11: “Among those born of women there has not been raised up a greater than John the Baptist; but a person that is a lesser one in the kingdom of the heavens is greater than he is.” Since Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are not greater than John, they will not be literally in the kingdom of the heavens. Jesus used them only as an illustration of those who will actually be in it.
Where does the Watchtower get this idea that, "Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are not greater than John?" Is this something that is affirmed anywhere in the Bible? Why isn't there a contrast made between the present age and what is to come? Will it not be the case that men, in the age to come, will be greater than they are in the present age? After all, the statement made by Jesus was before the resurrection. Instead of coming up with interpretations such as these, we should instead, seek to come to the conclusions that fit most consistently with the rest of Scripture. This is opposed to the Watchtower's methodology, in coming up with the best interpretations which are most consistent with their theology. But this is something that only you, the reader, can decide for yourself.