Thoughts on the Kingdom of God: Nature of the Kingdom of God

We might well ask, “What is the kingdom of God like?” Jesus was asked that question. “Once, on being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, ‘The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, “Here it is,” or “There it is,” because the kingdom of God is in your midst’” (Luke 17:20-21, NIV). It is evident from Jesus’ answer to the Pharisees that the kingdom of God is not visible because it is not an institution such as the church or any other grouping of people. It is a spiritual entity as we will see when we come to Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus.

When Nicodemus came to Jesus one night he already accepted that Jesus was a teacher sent from God because of the miracles he had performed. We might think that Nicodemus would have been given a better welcome. After all he was both a Pharisee and a member of the Jewish council. Instead, when Jesus responded to Nicodemus’ praise it was with a seeming impossibility and a mystery. Both of these are essential to understanding the kingdom of God.

“Jesus replied, ‘Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.’” “How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!” “Jesus answered, ‘Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, “You must be born again.” The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit’” John 3:3-8 (NIV).

Nicodemus took Jesus’ first statement literally and saw immediately that it was something that could not happen. Jesus’ explanation of what he meant makes things both easier and harder. There are many people who take “born of water” to mean baptism. However, the next sentence begins “Flesh gives birth to flesh.” This seems to me to refer to the breaking of the mother’s water that precedes birth. Jesus is simply saying here that physical birth is one necessity for people to enter the kingdom of heaven.

The mystery comes in trying to figure out how “the Spirit gives birth to spirit.” There is disagreement, of course, concerning our spiritual natures. It does though seem a clear understanding from Scripture that all people who have flesh also have a spiritual component. This is sometimes designated a soul. The issue is whether the birth brought by the work of the Holy Spirit is an enlivening of the existing soul or the addition of a spiritual entity that did not exist before. We probably cannot resolve this issue. However, we need to keep in mind that our spiritual birth is a sovereign act of the Holy Spirit and one that we do not, at least generally, see the logic of. This is because basically we have nothing in ourselves that would make us worthy of this immense gift.

This does not mean there are not prerequisites for rebirth. In Acts 8:12 (NIV) we are told that faith in the words of Philip brought a new birth to some people. This birth was symbolized by their baptism. “But when they believed Philip as he proclaimed the good news of the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women.” It has been clearly evident since Abraham that faith is the only path to a right relationship with God. That has not changed so it appears that faith in the deity (name, as Luke put it) of Jesus is essential to spiritual birth and entry into the kingdom of God.

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Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale

I think I am going to use the same conceptual approach to the gospel (good news) of Jesus Christ that Frederick Buechner did in his book Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale. My ideas will differ from his as he was writing to preachers and I am writing to everybody, Christian or non-Christian. Buechner’s categories stuck me as strange at first but as I read his book I realized he was writing what I wanted to say in a different idiom than that to which I was accustomed.

The Good News as Tragedy

The central tragedy in the good news of Jesus Christ is his crucifixion. Never has a human being suffered more in the way of injustice, humiliation, physical pain, and psychological agony, and in the end God his Father turns his face away from him. It is fashionable among people who do not believe in God to cite the crucifixion as an example of God’s cruelty. How would they know, since they know nothing of God? Not even that that he exists. If they had looked up the verse in the New Testament John 3:16  that frequently shows up at sporting events, they would see that the Apostle John, who was there when it happened, came to regard the crucifixion as the ultimate sign of God’s love for humanity.

The crucifixion of Jesus was the first step in providing a remedy for another tragedy, the almost entire absence of communication with God. This second step occurred on the third day after the crucifixion. It was the resurrection of Jesus from the dead and his talking with his disciples on that first Easter. Ever since Adam and Eve were ejected from the Garden of Eden communication between people and God was rare and awkward. When God sent angels to speak to people, the first words of the angels are always “Do not be afraid.” When God talked face-to-face with special people such as Moses and Elijah, mountains shook. Since that first day of Jesus’ new life, the lines of communication between God and believers in Christ have been open.

Full-bore atheists and happy hedonists may be content with the absence of communication with God. To tell the truth, most of the rest of us, Christians included, are somewhat comfortable with the absence of direct messages from God. We prefer to have the message mediated by a religious institution. But this is just part of the tragedy of the good news. Most of humanity will not accept the offer of a partial return to the days of Eden and the loving relationship with God that existed way back when. God offers us the ability to be brothers and sisters of Christ and share in the love of God the Father for God the Son and yet most people reject the offer. It is an ever-growing tragedy that most people will live and die without ever experiencing the good news of Jesus Christ as a personal experience.

The Good News as Comedy

Buechner tells us tragedy is inevitable, even though we wish it were not. On the other hand he writes that comedy is the unforeseen. We are not used to finding comedy in the good news of Jesus Christ but it is there. This is because much of what Jesus did and taught during his three years of ministry was 180 degrees away from the common thinking of the Jewish people. And much of his thinking is still radical, though not in the way many people think. Jesus told Pilate his kingdom was not of this world, so all the attempts to turn him into a political leader or social activist fail to encompass the spiritual reality of his commandments to us to love God and other people.

Comedy results from turning normal things upside down. Jesus told us that in the kingdom of heaven the least of those who believed in him would be the greatest and the greatest would be the servants of all. This turns our world of status and position on its head and makes a joke of our ambitions and achievements. The underachievers who believe in him like little children are the ones who will receive the most from their faith, and will be still joyful at the end of their lives, while the high achievers, who have the most from this world, will learn at their final breath that everything in this world is nothing.

At first the reactions to the things Jesus said was shock and then, I think, came laughter. Think of the reaction when Jesus told the people walking with him through a grain field that the Sabbath was made for people and not people for the Sabbath. Fifteen hundred years of Sabbath rule-making was turned on its head so that Sabbath observance could be a joy and not a burden. Some of the people whose lives were made freer by his teaching must have laughed at the joke.

Not all comedy provokes laughter. Think of the woman with her “female problem” working her way through the crowd so she could touch Jesus’ cloak and be healed. Think of her faith, think of her persistence, think of her shyness, think of her embarrassment when Jesus turned and said, “Who touched me?” It is a funny story—of the kind that can bring tears. Perhaps most of the stories of the people who come to true faith in Jesus Christ are stories much like this. They are stories of hesitation, resistance, discomfort, of coming closer and drawing back, until finally the voice of Jesus speaks and the healing comes.

The Good News as Fairy Tale

The new life that comes to us through faith in Jesus is like the kind of transformation that comes in fairy tales. The frog does not just become a better, happier frog; he is transformed into a prince, an entirely different kind of creature. Buechner uses the wardrobe in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe as one of his illustrations. The wardrobe is the doorway to a different existence. Jesus used an earthy image to convey the same idea. He told Nicodemas that to get into the kingdom of heaven he would have to be born again. Nicodemas was shocked but did not laugh. Instead he raised a logical objection. “How can I return to my mother’s womb?” It was then that Jesus told him the beginning of the good news as fairy tale. He would have to be blown into a new life by the breath of the Holy Spirit.

Fairy tales tell of both personal transformations and of entries into different realms. The good news tells the same kind of story. In fairy tales a powerful extra-human person typically provides the transformation. New worlds are entered through various types of portals, such as Alice’s looking glass. The inhabitants of the new place are like humans but not quite. Fairy tales only have the power to energize our imaginations. The good news has the power to make us immortal beings. That is why it is not wise to regard the good news of Jesus Christ as something people have invented, even though Buechner and I have opened that option in trying to describe things outside our normal existence.

In fairy tales someone takes notice of somebody. The good news tells us that the God who exists in three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, will, if we seek him, take note of us and bring us into a new form of existence and eventually to a new place where we will live in bliss forever. This is not the situation if we only have the universe as our home. Buechner uses a short poem that Stephen Crane, the author of The Red Badge of Courage, wrote in 1899 to illustrate what it is like for people without the good news of Jesus Christ. It goes as follows: A man said to the universe:/“Sir, I exist!”/”However,” replied the universe,/”The fact has not created in me/A sense of obligation.”

It is better for us to accept the love shown in the reality of the fairy tale God has written for us than to accept ideologies that exclude God. All they can promise us is a short life that at its best is filled with an emptiness that only the good news can fill and at its worst is nasty and brutish. It is far better for us to receive the new life Jesus spoke about with Nicodemus. As we seek it, it will come to us through the grace of God and the work of the Holy Spirit. Then we can live forever in the good news of Jesus Christ.