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 deny then 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.
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.
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 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.”