When Jesus spoke the Beatitudes, they were blessings for a future time but not a time in the distant future. They would become available to those who were listening to him and practicing them would bring them into the kingdom of heaven. Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3, NIV) and “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:10, NIV). Later, in three different Gospels we have Jesus’ promise to believers living then that they would see the coming of the kingdom of God. “Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom” (Matthew 16:28, and also Mark 9:1, Luke 9:27, NIV).
When Jesus instructed his disciples as to the form of their prayers he said, “This, then, is how you should pray: ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven’” (Matthew 6:9-10, NIV) or more concisely in Luke 11:2 (NIV), “He said to them, ‘When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come.’” The prayer for the coming of the kingdom was like the petitions for daily bread, forgiveness of debts, freedom from temptation, and deliverance from the evil one. In short, it was a plea for help at that moment and the presence of the kingdom of heaven is an immediate need, like all the others.
Before there could be a kingdom of God, there had to be a king. This coming king was anticipated throughout the Old Testament. This did not actually keep the announcement of the arrival of the king given to Mary by the angel Gabriel from being a surprise. Mary, a virgin was told, “You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end” (Luke 1:31-33, New International Version [NIV]).
All of this had been foretold but more had to happen than just the birth of a king. People had to be persuaded the kingdom of God had come near to them in their place and time. Later they would have to be kept from thinking the kingdom is a physical kingdom; a kingdom that would fulfill all their fantasies concerning a life of peace and prosperity. This new kingdom that was coming would of necessity mean bad times for the people’s Jewish and Roman overlords. The overlords were not thrilled when they heard about it.
When the time came for the kingdom of God to be announced, it was said by both John the Baptist and Jesus that the near arrival of the kingdom required personal repentance on the part of those who would enter it when it arrived. John and Jesus both preached “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matthew 3:1-2 and Matthew 4:17, NIV). The ministries of John the Baptist and Jesus were directed at preparing people to enter the kingdom. Jesus also made it clear that now was the time to prepare to enter the kingdom. He said, “The time has come,” and “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15, NIV).
These sayings of John and Jesus raise two questions for us. The first is what they meant when they told the people who heard them that the kingdom had come near. The second is why Matthew uses the term kingdom of heaven while Mark calls it the kingdom of God. Theopedia.com tells us “While Matthew primarily uses the term “kingdom of heaven” and other gospel writers (notably Luke) use the term “kingdom of God,” it is clear that these two expressions mean exactly the same thing (e.g. compare Matt. 5:3 with Luke 6:20).”
I suspect that the reason for the difference in the terms used for Jesus’ kingdom turns on the matter of sedition. Sedition is the crime of saying, writing, or doing something that encourages people to disobey their government. The Jewish people at the time of Jesus’ ministry and early in the history of the church tended either to be guilty of sedition or very fearful of being charged with sedition. Sedition was, in fact, the crime Jesus was charged with before Pilate. So the term kingdom of heaven was probably a better one to use than kingdom of God when writing to a Jewish readership, as seems the case with Matthew. Heaven was probably a safer choice. Also, kingdom of God would allow people to raise the uncomfortable issue of which god was meant, the Jewish deity or the Roman Emperor.
The other problem in these sayings is why both John and Jesus say that the kingdom is near. What does “near” mean? If the kingdom came with Jesus, why wasn’t it present then? To see why the kingdom was not yet present, I think we again need to look at the matter of sedition. Some of the Jews were eager for a messianic kingdom. Jesus even had to keep one crowd that was listening to him from seizing him and proclaiming him king (John 6:15). What “near” seems to say is that the kingdom of God will, in the near future, be available to all those there at that time who were willing to repent of their sins.
When Jesus sent out the Twelve “he gave them power and authority to drive out all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal the sick (Luke 9:1-2, NIV).
The healing of the sick and the exorcisms of demons were not the full meaning of the kingdom of God but only a sign of its possibilities. Thus we are told, “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people” (Matthew 4:23, and also Luke 9:10-11, NIV).
We can more clearly see that the kingdom of God was only “near” during Jesus’ ministry to the multitudes when we read that after Jesus died on the cross, “Joseph of Arimathea, a prominent member of the Council, who was himself waiting for the kingdom of God, went boldly to Pilate and asked for Jesus’ body” (Mark 15:43, see also Luke 23:51, NIV). The fact that Joseph of Arimathea was still waiting for the kingdom of God even though he had sufficient faith in the person of Jesus to risk the consequences of going to Pilate and requesting Jesus’ body shows us that even the most believing people of the time had not yet entered the kingdom of God. Yet, we can see that the death of Jesus did not shake Joseph’s faith in a coming kingdom ruled by Christ. The kingdom was near but not yet there for those who believed in Jesus.
The kingdom of God, or the equivalent kingdom of heaven, describe the spiritual reign of Christ that began with his incarnation, was prepared for by his ministry on earth, including his teaching, death and resurrection, and became actualized on the Day of Pentecost. The kingdom of God encompasses all people who have been forgiven of their sins (made righteous before God the Father) through faith that Jesus Christ is the divine Son of God. It includes both those who are now alive and those that “sleep” in Christ. It is thus expresses the rule of Christ both on earth and in heaven.
The purpose of this series of posts is to show the present and very useful reality of the kingdom of God.
People may think of God almost exclusively in terms of his power. On the other hand there are those who see love as the overwhelming attribute of God. What do we see of God when we examine the life of Jesus?
Jesus’ life on earth was marked by significant withholding of his power as the second person of the Trinity. Although he had the power to judge all the earth, he came to bring salvation instead. This means that when he used his power it was to express his love for people.
It is easy to focus on the power Christ displayed when he raised people from the dead and performed other supernatural acts. We tend to forget the beneficiaries of his power and the divine acts of love that changed their lives.
Yet we are in the same category as those told of in the New Testament. In fact, it would not be hard to make the case that most all of Christ’s miracles have happened in us as we have been brought into the realm of the Son of God. The difference in our cases is that it is, for the most part, spiritual defects that have been cured and spiritual hunger that has been satisfied. We have also been given eternal life, sight to see the things of God, access to truth and innumerable other blessings.
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.
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.”