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.

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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.”

What I Believe: Christian Maturity

Immature Christians are sometimes described as being like babies who are not yet weaned and thus unable to feed on the solid food of Christ’s teaching. So what are we to about this situation? I believe we can expect our spiritual maturing to proceed as our physical maturing did. That is, it moved sometimes slowly and sometimes rapidly over a considerable time period. Nonetheless, our body had a plan for what the finished result would be.

I think I have taken the eating and physical growth metaphor as far as it will go as there is no end in this life for our need to continue maturing in Christ. There also seems to be no end to suggestions as to how Christians are to mature, many of them involving events and/or products.

To get anywhere with God in any attribute, I believe, we need to put our Creator in charge. After all, he made each of us unique and only he knows what he has in mind for each of us. There is an old joke that goes “The trouble with living sacrifices is that they keep crawling off the altar.” However, this witticism may bring us close to the problem of maturing. Most of us may prefer doing something rather than being something, such as a willing servant of our Lord. Yet we will only become more mature as we allow ourselves to be made more and more in the image of Jesus.

Paul wrote to the Corinthians that “[T]his slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Corinthians 4:17 RSV). We may find rather more than slight affliction is required as we take on the weight of eternal glory but in the end I am sure we will think it worth it.

What I Believe: Soteriology

Soteriology is the knowledge of salvation. Salvation is God’s work of redeeming mankind for eternity and his glory. It is far more than just freedom from the experience of God’s wrath. Let me tell you what I believe about six aspects of it.

The Great Substitution

Jesus offered to the Father what we cannot—an unblemished life. In his sacrifice he suffered not only pain and death but injustice, humiliation and spiritual destitution. He suffered because he loved us and was willing to do what was required for the redemption of those who are his. He died so that those of us who believe in him and receive regeneration might live with him forever.

Regeneration

Regeneration is more than our being made better. It is the new birth in us of eternal spirits. Jesus told Nicodemus (John 3:3) that he had to be born again to enter the kingdom of heaven, which confused him greatly and well it might. It is not easy for us to understand. I believe we are made new creatures and have a new nature when we are reborn by the work of the Holy Spirit and are thus enabled to experience the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

Adoption

Adoption takes us beyond citizenship in the nation (kingdom) of God and makes us members of the family of God. We become the beloved children of our Abba who is the perfection of our ideas of what a father should be and do for his children. We also become brothers and sisters of Jesus so we are treated as friends with whom he shares his plans and intentions rather than as servants just doing what we are told to do and hoping to get it right. We also have an advocate, the Holy Spirit, in the family who speaks for us when we do not know what to say.

Saving Faith

Saving faith is a gift of God’s grace that allows us to effectively believe that Jesus is the Son of God and that we are in need of redemption through the work of the Holy Spirit in us. I believe this is the only way to regeneration and adoption. In addition to the faith that gives us our salvation, we are to trust God in all the circumstances of our lives.

Repentance

Repentance comes about from our beginning to see ourselves as God sees us. I do not think it is a single act at our conversion but a lifelong process as we are shown more and more of our flaws and realize we need forgiveness and a reminder of God’s love and all that Christ has done for us.

Repentance is also an act of God’s grace. If we think we can remove our guilt on our own we will end up in futile attempts of expiation. Luther climbed the steps of St. Peters Cathedral on his knees but it was not until he found grace that the burden of his sin was lifted from him.

Grace

Grace is God giving us, because of his love for us and not for any merit or work on our part, the spiritual and physical blessings we are unable to obtain for ourselves.