Thoughts of the Kingdom of God: Qualifications for Admission to the Kingdom

After looking at the difficulties of entering the kingdom of God and some of the acts that disqualify people from entering we have to ask, what is it that qualifies people for entry? Paul, in writing to the Christian people of Colosse, told them it was God the Father who had qualified them and then added some description of what being in the kingdom meant, “And giving joyful thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of his holy people in the kingdom of light. For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Colossians 1:12-14, NIV).

This short passage, more a “praise” than a teaching, gives us a remarkable amount of information about the kingdom of God. It tells us we have to be brought into the kingdom by an act of God the Father that removes us from the kingdom of darkness by buying us out of our corruption by the forgiveness of our sins. There is much more to consider in this passage but what is of equal importance is what is left out. What is missing is any reference to any work of ours or of our church. It is not in the power of any profession of our faith or sacrament of a church to bring us into the kingdom of heaven. It is an act of God mediated through the Holy Spirit.

Who are some of the people who will receive the inheritance of the kingdom of God. Jesus said many things in his teaching about who would possess and occupy the kingdom of God. For example, “Looking at his disciples, he said: ‘Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God’” (Luke 6:20, NIV). In another place he said to his disciples, “I tell you, among those born of women there is no one greater than John; yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he” (Luke 7:28, NIV).

Who were these disciples who were to become greater than John the Baptist? At the beginning of his recounting of the Parable of the Sower, Luke tells us of some of them. “After this, Jesus traveled about from one town and village to another, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. The Twelve were with him, and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out; Joanna the wife of Chuza, the manager of Herod’s household; Susanna; and many others. These women were helping to support them out of their own means” (Luke 8:1-3, NIV). It was not that these women were buying their way into the kingdom of God, rather it was that they were living testimonies to the power of the kingdom through their being freed from spiritual evils and by the curing of their physical diseases who had been selected to enter the kingdom.

There are many other descriptions of the kinds of people who will be chosen for entry into the kingdom of God. One rather obvious category is that of people who place a priority of finding entry into the kingdom. Jesus told his disciples, “So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Matthew 6:31-33, NIV). It seems unlikely that anyone would be received into the kingdom of heaven who at some level did not seek entry.

Luke 12:22-34 contains Jesus’ instructions to his disciples that they should not worry about food or clothing or even their lives. He says to them, “But seek his [the Father’s] kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.” And then, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:31-32, NIV).

We should not think we come into the kingdom of heaven being all that we are meant to be. There is an example of that on two levels in Matthew 18:1-4, see also Luke 18:16-17 and Mark 10:14-15 (NIV). “At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, ‘Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’ He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said: ‘Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.’” Another time, “Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these” (Matthew 19:14, NIV).

We are to have been given or be able to attain the capability of having the faith of little children in order to enter the kingdom of heaven. We acquire that quality of character through the changes worked in us by grace so as to become among the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. It is, of course, one of the great paradoxes of Christianity that we become among the greatest by becoming lowly.

There are other keys to entering the kingdom of heaven. Righteousness is one of them. Jesus told his disciples, “Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:19-20, NIV).

In Matthew 21:23-32 (NIV) Jesus, while teaching in the Temple, told a parable concerning two sons. One son said he would not obey his father but did. The other son said he would obey his father but in actuality did not. Next there was a test of the hearers’ understanding. “Which of the two did what his father wanted? ‘The first,’ they answered” thus showing they understood that righteousness came from obedience and not just from saying the right things. Turning to the chief priests and elders who were listening to him, “Jesus said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.’”

Repentance, righteousness and obedience are all things that bring people close to the kingdom of God. However, love seems the highest attribute given to those who would enter the kingdom of God. A teacher of the law asked Jesus which of the commandments was most important. Jesus, as usual when asked a question, gave him an answer that was not exactly what was asked. Jesus began by quoting Deuteronomy 6:4-5 which commands that we love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. Then he went on to quote Leviticus 19:18 that commands us to love our neighbors as ourselves. The teacher of the law responded to Jesus by acknowledging that these commandments were more important than religious practices. “When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God.’ And from then on no one dared ask him any more questions.” (Mark 12:34, NIV).

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What Did the Disciples Doubt?

Matthew 28:16-20 tells us of Jesus giving the eleven disciples what we call the Great Commission. It is a familiar and much cited passage and yet there is something in it that our adult Sunday school discussion class skipped over that seemed to me of interest. This was the phrase in verse 17 “but some doubted.”

The complete verse 17 (NIV) reads “When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted.” Apparently Matthew was the only gospel writer to make this statement as no cross references are given in the NIV for this verse nor does the Oxford Study Bible provide any. As far as commenting on it, the Life Application Study Bible does not refer to it. This is not an extensive survey of possible aids to understanding what Matthew had in mind but it seems our class was not the only people willing to just let it sit there without attempting to understand how it could be true.

Another Matthew, Matthew Henry did not omit a comment on this verse. He writes “All that see the Lord Jesus with an eye of faith will worship him. Yet the faith of the sincere may be very weak and wavering. But Christ gave such convincing proofs of his resurrection, as made their faith to triumph over doubts.” What Henry writes is true in the large view but does not deal with why there were doubts among the disciples, on that mountain, on that day, with the risen Jesus present with them.

The doubt may have arisen from the fact that it was evident by then that the messianic kingdom of Jewish anticipation was not what Jesus had described when he spoke to them in his prior teaching of the kingdom of God/heaven. What was it to be and what was their role in it going to be? This seems to me at the root of their uncertainty and why it can be said that some doubted.

Jesus, as always, was aware of their concerns and, as was typical, gave them a task they had not foreseen. They were to use his kingly authority on earth to make disciples from all nations. They were to make them citizens of the kingdom of God by baptizing them in the names of the Trinity. Then they were to teach them be good subjects of their Lord, that is they would be shown how to obey the commandments Jesus had taught the disciples, love God and love your neighbor.

The disciples were only the first of many Christians who have had uncertainty about the nature of the kingdom of God and their participation in it. These doubts have often been resolved by placing the kingdom in another time or place and envisioning Christians as reigning in it. This is another version of the Jewish expectation and not at all what Jesus taught the eleven disciples gathered that day on a mountain.

Christians have also been distracted from the focus on the kingdom of God that was central the Christ’s teaching by confusing the church with the kingdom. It is clear, though, that the kingdom of God exists both on earth and in heaven while the church is an institution whose purpose is to support the spread of the kingdom and the growth in maturity of all believers. The church is both flawed and temporary, as are all the things of earth. At the end of time it will cease to exist while the kingdom of heaven, and those who belong to it, will endure forever.

Some Keys to Christian Maturity

I am sure that somewhere in the television series “Doctor Who” (BBC) the doctor turns to the lovely Clara or another of his female time travelers and says, “Just because something is in plain sight does not mean it is not a secret.” Some keys to the secrets of Christian maturity are plainly outlined in the sixth chapter of Hebrews. This does not mean that many Christians have recognized these for what they are. There is good reason for this.

Verses 4 to 6 can appear to be a warning about Christians losing their salvation and the passage is commonly interpreted that way. However, it also can be understood as a statement that it is impossible for Christians who experience certain spiritual realities ever to fall away from their Christian faith because that would be like they were crucifying Christ again. These five spiritual experiences are the mark of a mature Christian. How do we know this?

The writer of Hebrews tells us at the beginning of chapter 6 that we are going to leave behind “the elementary teachings about Christ and go on to maturity.” Some of the elementary things to be left behind are: “repentance from acts that lead to death, and of faith in God, instructions about baptisms, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment.” Most Christians hardly regard these as elementary teachings so what are the ones that lead to maturity.

The first one is to “have once been enlightened.” This does not mean a onetime experience but that enlightenment comes to mature Christians and remains with them. Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians, prays that their eyes might be enlightened so they would know the hope to which they were called, the glorious inheritance of the saints and God’s incomparably great power for those who believe (Ephesians 1:18-19).

The second part of Christian maturity is to have “tasted the heavenly gift.” It is possible to think of this heavenly gift as God’s grace. However, it is more likely to be a taste of eternal life. We cannot fully experience eternal life now but we can taste it sometimes and know it is surely promised to believers as a gift of God (Romans 6:23).

Sharing in the Holy Spirit is the third experience related to Christian maturity. What Jesus told Nicodemus about the mystery of the action of the Holy Spirit in regard to rebirth (John 3:8) is illustrated by two events described in Acts, as well as in other instances that are described in the New Testament. The first instance was when Phillip went to Samaria. There he preached the good news of the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ. Those who believed were baptized with water but the Holy Spirit had not come upon them. This happened when Peter and John arrived and laid their hands on them (Acts 8:12-17). The second example was when Peter preached in the house of Cornelius. The Holy Spirit came upon those who believed and then they were baptized with water (Acts 10:44-47). It would appear that there is no fixed way that the Holy Spirit comes to believers yet it seems that Spirit must come to any who would be spiritually mature.

The fourth part of Christian maturity is to have “tasted the goodness of the word of God.” Faith comes through the hearing of the word of God (Romans 10:17) but Christian maturity is found by tasting its goodness. And at the end of the list, we find Christian maturity is also shown by the believer tasting the “powers of the coming age.”

I think the writer of Hebrews meant by the coming age the era of the kingdom of God that arrived with the manifestation of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost. Peter quoted the last days prophecy of Joel (Acts 2:17-21) to the crowd who had gathered as the result of the presence of the Holy Spirit. From this passage we can see that the powers of the coming age that will be tasted by mature Christians include prophecy, visions and dreams. However, this is not the end of the promised abilities. We read throughout the New Testament of disciples having the ability to perform signs and miracles. Presumably people of Christian maturity will also have the power do signs and miracles when and if it suits God’s purposes.

In all these descriptions of Christian maturity there are none that are obtained through physical acts or by sacraments. They are all pictured metaphorically which means they must all be received spiritually. In other words they all come about through the work of the Holy Spirit in us. Paul told the Galatians in Galatians 5:16-26 a number of things about living in the Spirit. Toward the end of the passage (Galatians 5:25) he writes “Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.” It seems that the keys to Christian maturity involve learning to walk in several ways in the awareness and power of the Holy Spirit.