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 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).
I think that before I narrow my discussion down to the problems present-day American Christians have with Jesus I will do a broad survey of the subject. The Jews were told by the prophet Isaiah (8:14) that their God would be a stone that caused people to stumble and fall. The apostle Peter (1 Peter 2:6-8) applied this prophecy to Jesus. Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthians (1:23) wrote that the crucifixion of Christ was “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.” In Paul’s categories, all of humanity was contained in the two categories: Jews and Gentiles.
The situation now is much like it was in Paul’s time, only there are more categories of people with problems with Jesus and not just with his crucifixion. His claim to deity, that is to be of the same nature in his divinity as God the Father, is a difficulty for non-Christians. Atheists, Buddhists, and followers of the teachings of Confucius have no deity in the Christian sense and so have a problem with Jesus’s claim to be like God the Father in one part of his person and like us in the other part. Jews and Muslims are monotheists who have no acceptance of a triune God. New Agers, Hindus, Shintoists, animists, and pagans have room for many gods in their religious systems but no place for the Christian understanding.
It is not hard at all to see why people who believe other things than Christianity would have a problem with accepting Jesus. However, why do Christians have such problems with him that they have in many ways turned away from him in their understanding of Christianity? One problem is, as with the rest of humanity, his deity. God coming to earth, living as a human, and then returning to heaven does not fit the secular, materialist understanding of reality. Many contemporary Christians are willing to strip Jesus of his divinity, search for the historical Jesus, and proclaim him a great ethical teacher. This seems a solution to the deity difficulty but if what he said, as recorded in the gospels, is true then he was not a wise human being but nutty as a fruitcake (to use an old expression).
Beyond the problem of his deity there are major difficulties with his coming to earth and his exit from it. Let me begin with his birth from a virgin. This became a problem for Christians during the nineteenth century when materialists began to attack Christianity. However, we who live in the twenty-first century when microbiologists can create mice that glow in the dark may have less of a problem with it. There appear to be only three necessary steps for it to happen, all of them never likely to happen except for the work of the Holy Spirit in Mary’s body. The first step was the failure of meiosis to occur in one of Mary’s egg cells so that it contained two strands of DNA rather than the normal one strand. The second step was for one of the X chromosomes to be converted into a Y chromosome. The third step was the initiation of the normal development of an embryo.
There are theological reasons for Jesus’ virgin birth which lead us into two other problems. One problem, for some people, is the original sin that Jesus needed to be free of so he could be a blameless sacrifice. This first problem leads into all kinds of theological thickets which I will not get into but have caused a lot of people problems. The second problem is that at Jesus’ conception his divinity was bonded to his humanity in an absolutely unique way. It took the early church over 300 years of thinking, discussion, debate, and actual conflict to arrive at what is now the traditional understanding of his two natures.
Jesus’ resurrection three days after his crucifixion, and then his ascension into heaven forty days later, create problems for Christians. The people who live in a closed universe simply deny the resurrection and invent ways it did not occur. The unacknowledged problem for many other Christians is “What is Christ doing in history and human culture until he returns?” There is a wide range of opinions among Christians on this question and many Christians think Jesus has left culture and history in their hands. The result is divisions among Christians and so a lack of ability to do what we should if history and culture were actually given to us to control.
There would not be as much problem with knowing what Jesus is doing in history and culture if he would speak to us in the present. Prophets, though, are problematical. There are false prophets now just as there were in Old Testament times. So this problem with Jesus not sending word of his larger purposes is part of the larger problem of communication with him in general. We are told in the Bible and in churches to pray. Yet prayer as we know it consists mostly of tossing words and thoughts into heaven and hoping something happens. Sometimes we think we see results, but we are not told by Jesus that what happened was the result of our prayer and that is a problem for us.
If we are to hear from Jesus, we need to rediscover our spirituality (see previous post). When we become aware of the Holy Spirit within us and Jesus beside us, we are able to have the communication we were intended to have. Achieving this state of awareness is not easy for us because we are not yet aligned completely with God’s will. In the Lord’s Prayer we say “your will be done in earth as it is in heaven.” Our tendency is to think of the earth as someplace else and that this phrase does not have anything to do with our lives. Another one of our problems with Jesus is that it is not easy to keep him close to us. This is because we are still beta versions of what we were intended to be.
Our society tells us that almost everyone, given education and opportunity, can be OK. So we are encouraged to tell others they are OK and to think the same of ourselves. We can do this if we lower our standards enough. Our problem with Jesus in this regard is that his standard is perfection and if we are honest, neither ourselves or anybody else measures up. Some Christians think they are all right because God created them. It is true that God gives us our present existence, but we are not in our final configuration. After this life we will be changed into the persons God intended, from before the universe was created, for us to be.
We have a problem with Jesus because he did not give his disciples clear information concerning what was going to happen to get us to this eternal version of ourselves. I think that, just as the Jews did not get the Messiah they expected, we will not find eternity, whatever it is like, what we anticipate. The best we can do is have faith that Jesus will provide us the dwellings he promised to us who believe he is the unique Son of God.