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.
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).
Luke tells us (Luke 16:16, NIV) that, “The Law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John. Since that time, the good news of the kingdom of God is being preached, and everyone is forcing their way into it.” This verse is among a collection of sayings and parables that Jesus taught in regard to the defective religious understandings of the Pharisees. It does not seem to tell us that the kingdom of God had actually arrived at that time but that the ordinary people were eager for the new religious ideas being proclaimed by Jesus. In fact, “faith” rather than “forcing” seems the right approach to entering the kingdom. Jesus’ words seem to show that not only the Pharisees but the common people had wrong ideas about what was meant by a place in the kingdom.
In another place (Matthew 23:13, NIV), we find among the seven woes that Jesus pronounced regarding the teachers of the Law and the Pharisees these words, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.” People’s interest in the kingdom of heaven was being actively opposed by respectable religious groups.
There is another obstacle to entering the kingdom of God—wealth. In Mark 10:23-25 (NIV) we are told, “Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, ‘How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!’ The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said again, ‘Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.’” The same teaching is recorded in Matthew 19:23-24 and Luke 18:24-25 (NIV). No matter how we interpret the camel and the eye of the needle it is clear that Jesus taught that wealth constituted a difficulty when it came to entering the kingdom of God.
In 1 John 2:16 we are warned against the love of the world and the craving for things that John calls “the lust of the eyes” (NIV). Seemingly this is the explanation for the severe words of Jesus, “And if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, where ‘the worms that eat them do not die, and the fire is not quenched.’” (Mark 9:47-48, NIV)
Paul tells us in three places that various forms of immorality not just create difficulties in regard to entering the kingdom of God they make it impossible for those who practice them to do so. “For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person—such a person is an idolater—has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God” (Ephesians 5:5, NIV). In 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 (NIV) we have a description of some of the forms of immorality that bar people from the kingdom of God. “Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with mennor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.” Galatians 5:19-21 (NIV) provides another list of behaviors that keep people out of the kingdom of God. “The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery;idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.”
There are people other than the enemies of Jesus who will be excluded from the kingdom of God. The concept of the kingdom of heaven can attract false prophets as Jesus taught his disciples. This warning is recorded in the seventh chapter of Matthew along with other teachings concerning how his followers were to think and do. In regard to those who spoke of him without obeying him Jesus said, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 7:21, NIV).
Later in Matthew we learn that people who were supposed to be in the kingdom of heaven because they were Jews would not necessarily measure up to the admission requirements but because of their lack of faith in Jesus would be excluded. “I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 8:11-12 and Luke 13:28-29, NIV). In Matthew 21:43 (NIV) we read that Jesus told the chief priests and Pharisees, “Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit.”
The first twenty-three verses of the thirteenth chapter of Matthew contain what is called the Parable of the Sower. The parable and Jesus’ explanation of it to the disciples tell us three ways that people who are able to enter the kingdom of heaven because they have received instruction concerning it exclude themselves from it. The first method is from lack of understanding. “When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in their heart. This is the seed sown along the path” (Matthew 13:19, NIV).
The second way people exclude themselves from the kingdom of heaven is to accept the news of the kingdom eagerly but then fall away when trouble or persecution comes. This, in the parable, is the seed that lands on rocky soil. People also exclude themselves when they receive the news of the kingdom but allow worries and the deceit of wealth to keep them from living in it. Or, as the parable puts it, their seed lands among thorny plants and is choked out.
There are also people who will appear to be of the kingdom of heaven until the end of the age. This is how Jesus began telling about it. “Jesus told them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field’” (Matthew 13:24, NIV). It is called The Parable of the Weeds in the NIV. Let’s look at how Jesus explained the parable.
“The field is the world, and the good seed stands for the people of the kingdom. The weeds are the people of the evil one, and the enemy who sows them is the devil. The harvest is the end of the age, and the harvesters are angels.
“As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. They will throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Whoever has ears, let them hear” (Matthew 13:38-43, NIV).
Jesus began another parable by saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son” (Matthew 22:2, NIV). As the parable continues, we find that the invitees refuse to come when first told the banquet is ready. Their rejection is even more vigorous when they get the second notice. Some of the invitees ostentatiously follow their own interests, others mistreat and kill the messengers. So an invitation goes out to people in general, both good and bad, so that the wedding hall is filled with people enjoying good food and drink. We would be happy if the parable ended here but it does not. The king finds one guest not wearing wedding clothes. When asked about it, the man has no answer and so is thrown out of the banquet and into the darkness. The parable ends with these difficult words of Jesus, “For many are invited, but few are chosen” (Matthew 22:14, NIV).
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.
The Christian Church, as were the Tabernacle and Temple, is intended to exist for a time to fulfill God’s purposes on earth. At the Second Coming, I believe, it will cease to exist, having served its purposes on earth and it will no longer be needed in heaven because believers will have direct access to the persons of the Trinity.
Jesus Christ is in charge of the Christian church as it is the extension of the work he came to do on earth. There is powerful symbolism in the New Testament portraying Christ as the bridegroom and the church as his bride. The meaning of this is, I think, that the Christian church must be prepared, eager, watchful, energetic, pure, and so forth to be ready to give itself to its Lord when he returns. This will not be as an organization or other human entity but as it will have birthed and been the mother of the people of the universal church.
The universal church is the totality of all believers, past, present and future that have been brought into the kingdom of God through the effectual work of Jesus Christ. There is, therefore, one church that is the body of Christ in the world. This is the holy catholic church of the Nicene Creed.
We might think of the Holy Spirit as the all-present person of the Trinity. He, using the traditional pronoun, exists in heaven communicating to the Father and Son the prayers of believers, sometimes even when the believers do not know what to say. He also continually passes over the earth to do what he has been given to do in our physical realm.
The person of the Holy Spirit is able to relate to our spirits so as to bring them to new life, make them stronger by maturing them in the knowledge and will of the Trinity, and produce in them the fruit and the gifts of the Holy Spirit. It is the Holy Spirit that brings God’s power and blessings to our Christian endeavors.
The Holy Spirit deserves the same respect as the other persons of the Trinity. Also, since the Holy Spirit is the person of the Trinity that brings awareness of sin to individuals. I believe a rejection of the Holy Spirit by an individual leaves no other path to faith in Jesus Christ and acceptance by God the Father.
Jesus had about thirty years to be prepared and prepare himself for the work he would do during his last three years on earth. In fact, it is not until the last week of his pre-crucifixion life on earth that he gets to the really heavy lifting. It is in that week he enters Jerusalem fulfilling the Old Testament prophecies concerning the arrival of the Messiah, finalizes his conflict with all the different sects of Jewish religious and political leadership, teaches and heals amongst the crowds, institutes the Lord’s Supper and is betrayed, manages and endures his trial and crucifixion, and rises from the dead, and then on that Sunday he begins wrapping up with his followers the loose ends he had left hanging.
What is to be noted about his last week is that it was probably only slightly more busy and dramatic than the other weeks of his active ministry. We, of course, do not have his calendar for that time but John assures us that if all Jesus did were written down there would not be room on the whole earth to hold the books (John 21:25).
So far I have presented you with just the earthly works Jesus did. What is difficult for me is to know how to tell you of the spiritual work he did in his ministry. I know that he did what was necessary to remove from us, and all others who believe in him, the inherent and evident sin of our natures through his obedience to the Father even unto death. And it was not an easy death. But it is not possible for me to understand how the death of a single person was sufficient to do all that had to be done to satisfy our guilt before God. There must have been something agreed between the Father and the Son that allowed all to be accomplished by Christ’s death that was needed. I do know I do not have anything I can add to the transaction.
Angels came from heaven to sing of the glory of Jesus’s coming to earth. Shepherds came in from the fields to worship the new-born-child. Eight days later Jesus was taken to the Temple for the ritual required by the Law. Two or three years later the Wise Men showed up to provide the means for the Holy Family to live in exile until the danger from Herod and his sons had passed.
When Jesus was twelve years he went to Jerusalem with his family and then stayed to talk theology with the priests and rabbis. This was not normal but it was natural for someone coming into their identity as the Son of God.
About eighteen years later, Jesus knows who he is and what he has come to do. He is the second person of the Trinity, truly God and truly human. He has the same power as created the world and he knows he is to fulfill all the prophecies in the Old Testament concerning the Messiah, the Anointed One of God. I believe Jesus is fully God—of one being with the Father and Holy Spirit as one person of the Holy Trinity.
Jesus used providential opportunities given him to show his power to perform miracles and thus demonstrate both his nature as deity and God’s care for his creatures. I like the account of the raising from the dead of the son of a widow just outside the Town of Nain (Luke 7:11-15). Jesus is moved by the sorrow of the widow and so does what he can do in the situation. Can you imagine her son sitting up and yelling, “Get me out of this shroud”! Awe followed and the news spread but the event was not a publicity stunt. It was a showing of Jesus as who he is.
It took an intricate weaving of events to get the Old Testament prophecies fulfilled. I started with Jesus’ birth but the fulfillment began nine months before that and lasted until Jesus died on the cross, and then was raised from the dead and ascended into heaven. In this time frame Jesus fully demonstrated he was the one described in Isaiah 9:6-7. Jesus was the child born who by the end of his life on earth could lay claim to being Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace whose power would have no end.
Jesus also used his time of earthly ministry to teach his disciples, and the crowds, about himself, about the Father and Holy Spirit, and about their human natures. In addition he spoke often of the kingdom of heaven (kingdom of God) that was soon to arrive. I think that soon was in human time and not “God time.” In other words, some of the people he was speaking to would experience its arrival. I believe the kingdom of heaven came to us at Pentecost as the Holy Spirit inaugurated a body of believers who would live, starting with their rebirth, forever. We start on earth and then continue our existence in heaven.
We need to remember that the human nature of Christ was fully present in him during his time on earth. When he obeyed the Father, as we must, in seeking baptism, the Holy Spirit came upon him and made his human spirit immortal. This is a picture of our redemption and was necessary so that Christ would be first among his brothers and sisters.
When Jesus was tempted in the desert, Satan’s offers of food, acclamation by the world, and earthly power were directed at his human nature. They were not an attack on his divine nature but directed at a person in a redeemed condition like ours. That is, he had trust in God and had faith in what was written in Scripture but nonetheless he was susceptible to the possibility of sin. It was a real test. Needless to say, but I will write it anyway, Jesus passed this test and overcame all the other temptations that came his way.
Jesus was one with us in his human nature and he is the One who is making us like him in that nature so I believe he should always be recognized as at the center of our Christianity.
Let me put in here something more about the Trinity. This is not from my own thinking but from the Nicene Creed, a fifteen-hundred year old interpretation of Scripture accepted by most churches. The Trinity functions as three distinct persons though all share the full nature of God. Here is what the creed has to say about the character and roles of the three persons.
“We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth of all that is, seen and unseen.
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father. Through him all things were made.
We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son. With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified. He has spoken through the Prophets.”