Thoughts on the Kingdom of Heaven:Completion of the Kingdom

We can experience much of the kingdom of heaven in this life but its final establishment comes with Christ’s return to earth and the eternal actualization of it in heaven. In Matthew chapter 25 Jesus told the Parable of the Ten Virgins. It begins, “At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom” (Matthew 25:1, NIV). Later in that chapter we learn the fearsome fate of those who are not faithful to Christ in this life. However, among the terrible fates of the unfaithful we see these words. “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world” (Matthew 25:34, NIV).

While Jesus was speaking to people at the house of Zacchaeus the tax collector he told them a parable involving a departing nobleman and ten servants given ten minas each. “While they were listening to this [his words concerning Zacchaeus], he went on to tell them a parable, because he was near Jerusalem and the people thought that the kingdom of God was going to appear at once” (Luke 19:11, NIV). In this parable we are told again we must be faithful servants as we wait for the final establishment of the kingdom of God.

The images of final condition of the faithful always include pleasures. Jesus told the apostles at the Last Supper, “For I tell you, I will not eat it [the Passover meal] again until it finds fulfillment in the kingdom of God.” After taking the cup, he gave thanks and said, “Take this and divide it among you. For I tell you I will not drink again from the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes” (Luke 22:16-18, see also Matthew 26:29 and Mark 14:24-25, NIV). Jesus also told the apostles, “You are those who have stood by me in my trials. And I confer on you a kingdom, just as my Father conferred one on me, so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and sit on thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Luke 22:28-30, NIV).

There are people other than the apostles who are told they will be part of the kingdom of God. The repentant thief said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” “Jesus answered him, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise’” (Luke 23:42-43, NIV). Paul, in the fourth chapter of his second letter to Timothy, wrote at the beginning of his charge to Timothy to minister faithfully “In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge.” Paul then expressed, at the end of his instructions to Timothy, his faith that he would be brought to the kingdom of heaven. “The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and will bring me safely to his heavenly kingdom. To him be glory for ever and ever. Amen” (2 Timothy 4:18, NIV).

It is not only leaders in the church who are promised entry to the kingdom of God. James wrote to ordinary Christians “Listen, my dear brothers and sisters: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him?” (James 2:5, NIV). Peter also wrote similarly to his brothers and sisters in Christ “Therefore, my brothers and sisters, make every effort to confirm your calling and election. For if you do these things, you will never stumble, and you will receive a rich welcome into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 1:10-11, NIV). Jews who had converted to Christianity also had a place in the kingdom of God. Paul wrote about some of them “These are the only Jews among my co-workers for the kingdom of God, and they have proved a comfort to me” (Colossians 4:11, NIV).

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Thoughts on the Kingdom of God in the New Testament: Costs of the Kingdom

There are those who say, “family comes first,” that is to say it comes before everything else. This is not what Jesus said. “Jesus said to him, ‘Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.’ Still another [person] said, ‘I will follow you, Lord; but first let me go back and say goodbye to my family.’ Jesus replied, ‘No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God’” (Luke 9:60-62, NIV). In Luke 18:29-30 (NIV) we find even more explicit words regarding the priority of the kingdom of God in the lives of those who follow Jesus. “’Truly I tell you,’ Jesus said to them, ‘no one who has left home or wife or brothers or sisters or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God will fail to receive many times as much in this age, and in the age to come eternal life.’”

Jesus even spoke of some people adopting a celibate life to devote themselves to the kingdom of heaven. “For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others—and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it” (Matthew 19:12, NIV).

There are hardships to be endured in the kingdom of God beyond those that are accepted voluntarily. It is as Paul and those with him told the disciples in some of the cities of Asia Minor. “They preached the gospel in that city [Derbe] and won a large number of disciples. Then they returned to Lystra, Iconium and Antioch, strengthening the disciples and encouraging them to remain true to the faith. ‘We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God,’ they said” (Acts 14:21-22, NIV).

There is also separation from loved ones. Paul told the elders of Ephesus, “Now I know that none of you among whom I have gone about preaching the kingdom will ever see me again” (Acts 20:25, NIV). In his novel, The Painted Veil, W. Somerset Maugham, who was not a Christian, gives a touching description of French nuns leaving their homeland to serve in China. They know they will never see their families, friends and homes again. They were paying a high price for the sake of the kingdom of God but not more than it is worth.

And finally, there is martyrdom for the sake of the kingdom of God. In Matthew 20:20-23 we are told the mother of James and John knelt before Jesus and asked him for a favor. “What is it you want?” he asked.” She said, “Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom.” She, of course, having the common misunderstanding of the kingdom of heaven did not have any idea of what she was requesting. However, Jesus, knowing the eventual fates of James and John asked them. “Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?” They told him they could, and they did, but not on the crosses on either side of Jesus as he came into his kingdom.

Paul rejoiced in the growing love the Thessalonians had for each other in the midst of persecutions and trials and said he boasted to other churches about their faith and perseverance. He told them, “All this is evidence that God’s judgment is right, and as a result you will be counted worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are suffering” (2 Thessalonians 1:5, NIV).

The author of the book of Revelation also suffered for the sake of the kingdom of God. “I, John, your brother and companion in the suffering and kingdom and patient endurance that are ours in Jesus, was on the island of Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus” (Revelation 1:9, NIV).

Thoughts on the Kingdom of God: The Kingdom Both on Earth and in Heaven

Jesus told Peter that he was the rock on which Jesus would build his church and that the gates of Hades would not overcome it. Then, in Jesus’ next statement to Peter he says, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:18). If we think the church is an earthly entity given the task of finding and strengthening the people of kingdom of God and that the kingdom of heaven is a spiritual realm that exists both on earth and in heaven, then it is reasonable that Jesus was speaking here of two different aspects of Peter’s future apostleship.

Churches are institutions formed in the here and now by Christians to do the things Jesus has given the churches to do. However, “Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.” (John 18:36, NIV). We can probably read “from another place” as meaning “of a different kind.”

Luke 14:1-24 is a rendition of words Jesus said to Pharisees at a Sabbath meal to which he had been invited. Most of what he said contradicted the beliefs of the Pharisees, however “When one of those at the table with him heard this [the teaching concerning who should be invited to banquets], he said to Jesus, “Blessed is the one who will eat at the feast in the kingdom of God” (Luke 14:15, NIV). Jesus did not deny then there would be a feast in the kingdom of God but told the parable of the great banquet about who would be enjoying the feast. The next section of the fourteenth chapter is where Jesus spoke about the cost of discipleship.

Thoughts on the Kingdom of God: Coming and Proclamation of the Kingdom of God

Jesus after his resurrection continued to teach the disciples concerning the kingdom of God. In the first chapter of Acts we read “After his suffering, he presented himself to them and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God. On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: ‘Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ Then they gathered around him and asked him, ‘Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?’” (Acts 1:3-6, NIV).

The disciples were at this time still looking for a political restoration of the kingdom of Israel. Jesus told them the time of that was not for them to know. Instead, he told them “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8, NIV). Paul, in writing to the Corinthians made the connection between the power given by the Holy Spirit and the kingdom of God. “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power” (1 Corinthians 4:20, NIV). In his letter to the Roman Christians he wrote “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Romans 14:17, NIV). This means the kingdom of God is not a matter of religious practices but is lived in righteousness, peace and joy through the presence of the Holy Spirit in the believer.

As for the kingdom of God being proclaimed all over the world, Jesus had already told his disciples, “And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come” (Matthew 24:14, NIV). Jesus also told his disciples, “I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns also, because that is why I was sent” (Luke 4:43, NIV).

Paul also had a need to proclaim the good news of the kingdom. We are told in Acts 19:8 (NIV) “Paul entered the synagogue and spoke boldly there for three months, arguing persuasively about the kingdom of God.” Later in Acts we read “They [the Romans] arranged to meet Paul on a certain day, and came in even larger numbers to the place where he was staying. He witnessed to them from morning till evening, explaining about the kingdom of God, and from the Law of Moses and from the Prophets he tried to persuade them about Jesus” (Acts 28:23, NIV). During two years in Rome Paul welcomed visitors to his rented house and there “He proclaimed the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ—with all boldness and without hindrance! (Acts 28:31, NIV). It is hard not to see that the kingdom of God had a large place in Paul’s proclamation of the gospel.

Thoughts on the Kingdom of God: Value and Characteristics of the Kingdom of God

Jesus gave many illustrations of the value and characteristics of the kingdom of God. In one place, Matthew 13:44-46 (NIV), he provided us with two images of the value of the kingdom of heaven. “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.” Jesus also compared the kingdom of God to a mustard seed and yeast (Matthew 13:31-33 and Luke 13:18-20) to illustrate how it will grow large.

In Mark 4:26-32 we have two descriptions of the characteristics of the kingdom. The first says the kingdom of God is like a man sowing seed and then harvesting the grain. The growth of the grain is God’s work through the seed and the soil. The second illustration is that of the mustard seed.

Later in the thirteenth chapter of Matthew we receive a more complex and disturbing picture of the nature of the kingdom of heaven. Let us look at the words of Jesus. “Once again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was let down into the lake and caught all kinds of fish. When it was full, the fishermen pulled it up on the shore. Then they sat down and collected the good fish in baskets, but threw the bad away. This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous and throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” After these words Jesus asks his disciples, “Have you understood all these things?” “Yes,” they replied. “He said to them, ‘Therefore every teacher of the law who has become a disciple in the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old’” (Matthew 13:47-52, NIV).

In this parable the kingdom of heaven is portrayed as containing people with both true and spurious spirituality. The purpose of the parable may have been to show the disciples that not everyone who appeared outwardly spiritual was a true citizen of the kingdom of heaven. The last part of this teaching seems to indicate that true teachers of the law in the kingdom of heaven will go beyond the old teachings of Judaism and redefine spiritual life as more than a performance on earth’s stage.

It is a characteristic of the kingdom of heaven that it includes people who forgive others. Jesus gave a vivid illustration of this in Matthew 18:21-35 when Peter asked him how many times he should forgive a brother who sins against him. Jesus told him seventy-seven times and then followed that with a frightening story known as the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant. This is a dramatic illumination of the words in the Lord’s Prayer “forgive us as we forgive others.” In both cases the teaching is that we will not be forgiven, and thus part of the kingdom of heaven, unless we forgive those who sin against us.

Later, in Matthew 20:1-16, Jesus told the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard which begins, “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard.” If we add Matthew 19:30 (NIV) to the parable, “But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first” we see it is bracketed by this verse and verse 16 “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”   We seemingly learn from this parable that all who are called to the kingdom of heaven receive an equal reward. Yet we are also told there are people whose status on earth is reversed in the kingdom of heaven.

Thoughts on the Kingdom of God: Benefits of Inclusion in the Kingdom of God

One of the benefits of inclusion in the kingdom of God is knowledge of its secrets. Although the kingdom of heaven was only as yet near, Jesus gave special knowledge of it to his disciples. When asked why he spoke in parables, “He replied, ‘Because the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them’” (Matthew 13:11, NIV). Jesus made it clear, as recorded in Mark 4:11-12 (NIV), that it was his intention that those who were not his disciples would not be able to understand his teaching about the kingdom of heaven. “He told them, ‘The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables so that they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding; otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!’” There are similar words in Luke 8:10.

There are other benefits of the kingdom. Paul told the Thessalonians, “You are witnesses, and so is God, of how holy, righteous and blameless we were among you who believed. For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into his kingdom and glory” (1 Thessalonians 2:10-12, NIV). Being in the kingdom of God means that we have help in becoming holy, righteous and blameless not just from reading the words of Paul but by the call of God to enter his kingdom and partake of his glory.

Another feature of the kingdom of heaven is that it is unshakeable. We are told this in Hebrews 12:28 (NIV). “Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe.”

Thoughts on the Kingdom of God: Nature of the Kingdom of God

We might well ask, “What is the kingdom of God like?” Jesus was asked that question. “Once, on being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, ‘The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, “Here it is,” or “There it is,” because the kingdom of God is in your midst’” (Luke 17:20-21, NIV). It is evident from Jesus’ answer to the Pharisees that the kingdom of God is not visible because it is not an institution such as the church or any other grouping of people. It is a spiritual entity as we will see when we come to Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus.

When Nicodemus came to Jesus one night he already accepted that Jesus was a teacher sent from God because of the miracles he had performed. We might think that Nicodemus would have been given a better welcome. After all he was both a Pharisee and a member of the Jewish council. Instead, when Jesus responded to Nicodemus’ praise it was with a seeming impossibility and a mystery. Both of these are essential to understanding the kingdom of God.

“Jesus replied, ‘Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.’” “How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!” “Jesus answered, ‘Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, “You must be born again.” The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit’” John 3:3-8 (NIV).

Nicodemus took Jesus’ first statement literally and saw immediately that it was something that could not happen. Jesus’ explanation of what he meant makes things both easier and harder. There are many people who take “born of water” to mean baptism. However, the next sentence begins “Flesh gives birth to flesh.” This seems to me to refer to the breaking of the mother’s water that precedes birth. Jesus is simply saying here that physical birth is one necessity for people to enter the kingdom of heaven.

The mystery comes in trying to figure out how “the Spirit gives birth to spirit.” There is disagreement, of course, concerning our spiritual natures. It does though seem a clear understanding from Scripture that all people who have flesh also have a spiritual component. This is sometimes designated a soul. The issue is whether the birth brought by the work of the Holy Spirit is an enlivening of the existing soul or the addition of a spiritual entity that did not exist before. We probably cannot resolve this issue. However, we need to keep in mind that our spiritual birth is a sovereign act of the Holy Spirit and one that we do not, at least generally, see the logic of. This is because basically we have nothing in ourselves that would make us worthy of this immense gift.

This does not mean there are not prerequisites for rebirth. In Acts 8:12 (NIV) we are told that faith in the words of Philip brought a new birth to some people. This birth was symbolized by their baptism. “But when they believed Philip as he proclaimed the good news of the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women.” It has been clearly evident since Abraham that faith is the only path to a right relationship with God. That has not changed so it appears that faith in the deity (name, as Luke put it) of Jesus is essential to spiritual birth and entry into the kingdom of God.