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 post is to show the present and very useful reality of the kingdom of God.
Preparation for the Kingdom
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 healings 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.
Testimony Concerning the Near Presence of the Kingdom of God
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.
The Kingdom of God and Jesus’ Opponents
Although believers were still waiting during Jesus’ ministry for the kingdom of God to arrive, the kingdom was already present for those who opposed Jesus. When Jesus was in conflict with the Pharisees, we are told, “Jesus knew their thoughts and said to them, ‘Every kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and every city or household divided against itself will not stand. If Satan drives out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then can his kingdom stand? And if I drive out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your people drive them out? So then, they will be your judges. But if it is by the Spirit of God that I drive out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you’” (Matthew 12:25-28, NIV). Also, “But if I drive out demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you” (Luke 11:20, NIV).
For those enemies of Jesus who sought to discredit his person, ministry and message, the kingdom had already arrived. There was nothing further in it for them other than their condemnation. As G.K. Beale wrote in his commentary on the book of Revelation (G.K. Beale, NIGTC, The Book of Revelation, p. 67) “After all, Jesus inaugurated his messianic reign in the midst of his own suffering during his earthly ministry.” The kingdom of God was already in conflict, not only with the people who were rejecting it but with an evil spiritual kingdom. The passage from Matthew shows us there are two spiritual kingdoms contending for human souls. One is of Satan and the other is from God.
There are people other than the enemies of Jesus who will be excluded from the kingdom. 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).
Difficulties in Entering the Kingdom
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). This seemingly 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 men nor 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.”
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, however small of will or understanding, 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).
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 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.
Benefits of Inclusion in the Kingdom of God
One of the benefits of inclusion in the kingdom of God is knowledge of its secrets. Although the kingdom of heaven was only as yet near, Jesus gave special knowledge of it to his disciples. When asked why he spoke in parables, “He replied, ‘Because the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them’” (Matthew 13:11, NIV). Jesus made it clear, as recorded in Mark 4:11-12 (NIV), that it was his intention that those who were not his disciples would not be able to understand his teaching about the kingdom of heaven. “He told them, ‘The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables so that they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding; otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!’” There are similar words in Luke 8:10.
There are other benefits of the kingdom. Paul told the Thessalonians, “You are witnesses, and so is God, of how holy, righteous and blameless we were among you who believed. For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into his kingdom and glory” (1 Thessalonians 2:10-12, NIV). Being in the kingdom of God means that we have help in becoming holy, righteous and blameless not just from reading the words of Paul but by the call of God to enter his kingdom and partake of his glory.
Another feature of the kingdom of heaven is that it is unshakeable. We are told this in Hebrews 12:28 (NIV). “Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe.”
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.
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.
The Kingdom on Earth and in Heaven
Jesus told Peter that he was the rock on which Jesus would build his church and that the gates of Hades would not overcome it. Then, in Jesus’ next statement to Peter he says, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:18). If we think the church is an earthly entity given the task of finding and strengthening the people of kingdom of God and that the kingdom of heaven is a spiritual realm that exists both on earth and in heaven, then it is reasonable that Jesus was speaking here of two different aspects of Peter’s future apostleship.
Churches are institutions formed in the here and now by Christians to do the things Jesus has given the churches to do. However, “Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.” (John 18:36, NIV). We can probably read “from another place” as meaning “of a different kind.”
Luke 14:1-24 is a rendition of words Jesus said to Pharisees at a Sabbath meal to which he had been invited. Most of what he said contradicted the beliefs of the Pharisees, however “When one of those at the table with him heard this [the teaching concerning who should be invited to banquets], he said to Jesus, “Blessed is the one who will eat at the feast in the kingdom of God” (Luke 14:15, NIV). Jesus did not then deny there would be a feast in the kingdom of God but told the parable of the great banquet about who would be enjoying the feast. The next section of the fourteenth chapter is where Jesus spoke about the cost of discipleship.
Costs of the Kingdom
There are those who say, “family comes first,” that is to say it comes before everything else. This is not what Jesus said. “Jesus said to him, ‘Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.’ Still another [person] said, ‘I will follow you, Lord; but first let me go back and say goodbye to my family.’ Jesus replied, ‘No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God’” (Luke 9:60-62, NIV). In Luke 18:29-30 (NIV) we find even more explicit words regarding the priority of the kingdom of God in the lives of those who follow Jesus. “’Truly I tell you,’ Jesus said to them, ‘no one who has left home or wife or brothers or sisters or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God will fail to receive many times as much in this age, and in the age to come eternal life.’”
Jesus even spoke of some people adopting a celibate life to devote themselves to the kingdom of heaven. “For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others—and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it” (Matthew 19:12, NIV).
There are hardships to be endured in the kingdom of God beyond those that are accepted voluntarily. It is as Paul and those with him told the disciples in some of the cities of Asia Minor. “They preached the gospel in that city [Derbe] and won a large number of disciples. Then they returned to Lystra, Iconium and Antioch, strengthening the disciples and encouraging them to remain true to the faith. ‘We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God,’ they said” (Acts 14:21-22, NIV).
There is also separation from loved ones. Paul told the elders of Ephesus, “Now I know that none of you among whom I have gone about preaching the kingdom will ever see me again” (Acts 20:25, NIV). In his novel, The Painted Veil, W. Somerset Maugham, who was not a Christian, gives a touching description of French nuns leaving their homeland to serve in China. They know they will never see their families, friends and homes again. They were paying a high price for the sake of the kingdom of God but not more than it is worth.
And finally, there is martyrdom for the sake of the kingdom of God. In Matthew 20:20-23 we are told the mother of James and John knelt before Jesus and asked him for a favor. “What is it you want?” he asked.” She said, “Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom.” She, of course, having the common misunderstanding of the kingdom of heaven did not have any idea of what she was requesting. However, Jesus, knowing the eventual fates of James and John asked them. “Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?” They told him they could, and they did, but not on the crosses on either side of Jesus as he came into his kingdom.
Paul rejoiced in the growing love the Thessalonians had for each other in the midst of persecutions and trials and said he boasted to other churches about their faith and perseverance. He told them, “All this is evidence that God’s judgment is right, and as a result you will be counted worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are suffering” (2 Thessalonians 1:5, NIV). The author of the book of Revelation also suffered for the sake of the kingdom of God. “I, John, your brother and companion in the suffering and kingdom and patient endurance that are ours in Jesus, was on the island of Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus” (Revelation 1:9, NIV).
Completion of the Kingdom of God
We can experience much of the kingdom of heaven in this life but its final establishment comes with Christ’s return to earth and the eternal actualization of it in heaven. In Matthew chapter 25 Jesus told the Parable of the Ten Virgins. It begins, “At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom” (Matthew 25:1, NIV). Later in that chapter we learn the fearsome fate of those who are not faithful to Christ in this life. However, among the terrible fates of the unfaithful we see these words. “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world” (Matthew 25:34, NIV).
While Jesus was speaking to people at the house of Zacchaeus the tax collector he told them a parable involving a departing nobleman and ten servants given ten minas each. “While they were listening to this [his words concerning Zacchaeus], he went on to tell them a parable, because he was near Jerusalem and the people thought that the kingdom of God was going to appear at once” (Luke 19:11, NIV). In this parable we are told again we must be faithful servants as we wait for the final establishment of the kingdom of God.
The images of final condition of the faithful always include pleasures. Jesus told the apostles at the Last Supper, “For I tell you, I will not eat it [the Passover meal] again until it finds fulfillment in the kingdom of God.” After taking the cup, he gave thanks and said, “Take this and divide it among you. For I tell you I will not drink again from the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes” (Luke 22:16-18, see also Matthew 26:29 and Mark 14:24-25, NIV). Jesus also told the apostles, “You are those who have stood by me in my trials. And I confer on you a kingdom, just as my Father conferred one on me, so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and sit on thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Luke 22:28-30, NIV).
There are people other than the apostles who are told they will be part of the kingdom of God. The repentant thief said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” “Jesus answered him, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise’” (Luke 23:42-43, NIV). Paul, in the fourth chapter of his second letter to Timothy, wrote at the beginning of his charge to Timothy to minister faithfully “In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge.” Paul then expressed, at the end of his instructions to Timothy, his faith that he would be brought to the kingdom of heaven. “The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and will bring me safely to his heavenly kingdom. To him be glory for ever and ever. Amen” (2 Timothy 4:18, NIV). It is not only leaders in the church who are promised entry to the kingdom of God. James wrote to ordinary Christians “Listen, my dear brothers and sisters: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him?” (James 2:5, NIV). Peter also wrote similarly to his brothers and sisters in Christ “Therefore, my brothers and sisters, make every effort to confirm your calling and election. For if you do these things, you will never stumble, and you will receive a rich welcome into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 1:10-11, NIV). Jews who had converted to Christianity also had a place in the kingdom of God. Paul wrote about some of them “These are the only Jews among my co-workers for the kingdom of God, and they have proved a comfort to me” (Colossians 4:11, NIV).
After Jesus told his disciples of his return to earth in glory, he told them a parable concerning what would happen before his second coming. It had to do with the kingdom of God and goes thus “Look at the fig tree and all the trees. When they sprout leaves, you can see for yourselves and know that summer is near. Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that the kingdom of God is near” (Luke 21:29-31, NIV).
What is it in our lives that could look like the vigorous growth of fig leaves and the coming of summer? John in his greeting to the seven churches, Revelation 1:6 tells us Jesus Christ “has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father—to him be glory and power for ever and ever! Amen” (NIV). This is speaking of the then present situation of John and the Christians of his day. Later in Revelation, as the Lamb is about to begin opening the seals the elders and living creatures sing a hymn of praise that includes the words “You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth” (Revelation 5:10, NIV). The opening of the scroll is an unfolding of history. It seems clear from Revelation that the kingdom of God is now always present on earth and that it is intended to be a powerful spiritual reality. You may think or have been led to believe, that your church is the manifestation of the kingdom of God on earth. However, this cannot be true for several reasons.
Paul wrote to the Corinthians “I declare to you, brothers and sisters, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable” (1 Corinthians 15:50, NIV). Churches are assemblies of flesh and blood people and cannot be otherwise by their very nature. They are meant to be servants of the people of the kingdom of God and to have a very important role in enhancing spiritual growth but they are not the kingdom God.
Another reason churches cannot constitute the kingdom of God is that the kingdom of God is a unity of all who are in Christ. If you look at the yellow pages in the phone book you can see there is no ecclesiastical unity wherever it is that you live. Ecumenical unity has never been achieved on any significant scale since the conflict between the churches of Jerusalem and Antioch that is described in Acts 15:1-35.
Just as the kingdom of God does not find its fulfillment in the churches so it is not completed on earth. Its final place will be in heaven. As Paul told the Corinthians “Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power” (1 Corinthians 15:24, NIV). We find in Revelation 11:15 (NIV) that this kingdom that is handed over to God is that of the world. “The seventh angel sounded his trumpet, and there were loud voices in heaven, which said: ‘The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign for ever and ever.’”
A little further on in Revelation we learn that there is joint rule in heaven by both the Father and the Son. “Then I heard a loud voice in heaven say: ‘Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God, and the authority of his Messiah. For the accuser of our brothers and sisters, who accuses them before our God day and night, has been hurled down’” (Revelation 12:10, NIV). Hebrews 1:8 (NIV) makes it clear about Christ’s eternal authority. “But about the Son he says, ‘Your throne, O God, will last for ever and ever; a scepter of justice will be the scepter of your kingdom.’”
I think that when modernist Christianity forfeited Hell to the reductive materialists they set off a chain of lost realities. If you give up Hell, how can you keep Heaven? And if there is no Heaven, how can there be a kingdom of Heaven? And if no kingdom of Heaven, how can there be a spiritual kingdom of God for those Christians presently living on Earth to be a part of? You can see the results in contemporary American Christianity. The loss of emphasis on or active rejection of spiritual realities produces a Christian humanism that suffers the same defect as secular humanism. That is, it cannot produce improved people. Secularists deal with the problem by decriminalizing, accepting and embracing various forms of what they think are nonthreatening behaviors. This does not make anybody any better, and makes those who legitimize these behaviors but do not practice them themselves, perhaps, even morally worse than those who practice them.
Many Christians see the Kingdom of God as a nice thought for some time in the future or even something now present in some dim form but not a reality having much to do with the present forms of institutional Christianity. This is shortsighted. It neglects the ample teaching in the New Testament concerning the kingdom of God/kingdom of heaven. This blindness in regard to what Christ and the apostles taught concerning a spiritual kingdom can only be debilitating in regard to the fullness of our Christian lives. It is also an explanation of the failure of Christian values to have much attraction for the people in our culture.