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.

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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: 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.

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).

What I Believe: A Deeper Healing

We are able to be healed of more of our sinful natures by the works of the Holy Spirit than we can improve ourselves by our own efforts. This does not mean that we cannot do better in expressing the temperaments we have been given by exercising our self-control.  What it does mean is that we can only go so far on our own.

Recently I read of an encounter between Charles Spurgeon, a famous English preacher, and a man who claimed to have achieved perfection. Spurgeon then stepped on the man’s toe and found that his perfection was incomplete.

What healing of our human natures we produce on our own will always be precarious. What we need is healing by the Holy Spirit that not only removes the wrong behaviors but eliminates our wrong desires. Our need is particularly strong in the area of addictions.

Addiction may be defined as a desire that overcomes our ability to control it. Addictions come in many varieties and in the degree of dysfunction they produce in us. While we may be able to achieve some control over the addiction by daily struggle, this is not living in the freedom promised believers by Jesus Christ.

To be freed from addiction we need the deeper healing of the Holy Spirit which sanctifies our natures and changes them in a process that brings us freedom from those aspects of our being that are contrary to the nature of our Lord and Savior.

For some of us freedom from addiction has been an actual matter of life and death. I think it takes a serious transaction between us and God the Father to bring us the freedom we desire from whatever is spoiling our life of faith. I know of no formula for this covenant between God and us. It is a matter, I think, of the desperate appeal of our spirit to God for the Holy Spirit to do what we can never do on our own.

What I Believe: Church Ordinances

There are two ordinances (sacraments) that, as far as I know, are observed by all the variations of Christianity. These are baptism and the Lord’s Supper (Holy Communion). You can see already that they are given different names in different traditions and when it comes to understandings and practices there are even more versions that we could look at. I am not going to try to sort these things out and tell you which ones are “right.”

What I believe is that these are done properly when they are done in faith. I think that if we and our churches were all that we should be that the Holy Spirit would come upon us at our baptism as was the case with Jesus. In like manner, when we eat the bread and drink the wine (grape juice) at the Lord’s Supper I believe we could be in the spiritual presence of Jesus.

Fortunately, God has in this case, as in everything, made accommodation for our imperfections. I believe we can participate in and partake of the ordinances and be blessed because of our obedience in doing what we are told that we should do.

What I Believe: Local Churches

After almost 2,000 years the local churches that started out as geographically based entities have become many faceted things. I do not have to tell you how many varieties of Christianity, and what purports to be Christianity, there are.

At this time, there may even be local churches that are worldwide thanks to the Internet. Jesus told us that where as few as two or three believers are gathered in his Name he will be with them. He did not seem to limit his promise to any particular mode of being together.

Despite the many differences there have come to be in local churches, I believe the role of churches in Christianity has not really changed. I think they exist not for their own selves but to serve the people who are the body of Christ. We believers need to be supported, built up, comforted, loved, given opportunities to utilize our gifts, and receive much, much more of benefits to believers that can best be done in the context of a local church.

Near the beginning of the book of Revelation John is given a prophetic vision in the context of seven actual churches in Asia Minor. Great blessings are promised to people in the churches who persevere in their faith in Jesus Christ until the end of their lives on earth. However, the churches are told their light and lamp stand (there are various understandings of the symbolism) will be removed if they do not deal with various problems present in their churches.

It seems we have an obligation both to maintain our own faith in Jesus through adversity in our lives and corruption in our culture while also seeing to it that our churches remain holy and, to use an old expression “as pure as the driven snow.”