Thoughts on the Kingdom of God: 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.

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Thoughts on the Kingdom of God: 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). 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.”

What I Believe: The Person of Jesus Christ

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.

Turning Christianity Upside Down

The reformation of American Christianity will, of necessity, cause turmoil and turn the culture of many churches upside down. However upsetting this will be, it is a necessary precursor to any possible positive impacts on American culture. Christianity must be made righteous before its light can shine out in the world. The Gospel of John (John 3:19–20) tells us the people of the world love the darkness of evil and resist being brought into the light of the truth. Only a regeneration of our Christian understandings and practices can produce any hope of us lighting up our darkened world.

When Paul and his fellow Christians left Antioch to bring the light of Jesus Christ into their darkened world they were entering a culture that was not like the present secularized, scientific, and technological environment that now surrounds us. It was a culture that much resembles the contemporary condition of American Christianity. The pagan part of Roman culture followed gods that were of human invention, and traditional myths largely inherited from Greek culture, as well as imports from Eastern and Egyptian religions. The irreligious people advocated a number of conflicting philosophies.

I think it would take a long article to fully justify the previous paragraph, so please just accept my thesis that there is a real correspondence between the Roman culture of Paul’s time and our present Christian culture. If you do that, you can see that the book of Acts contains ideas applicable to our current situation.

C. Kavin Rowe in his book, World Upside Down: Reading Acts in the Graeco-Roman Age writes that the passage describing Paul’s visit to Thessalonica (Acts 17:1–9) sets out three interdependent practices churches must follow if they are going to fulfill Luke’s vision of cultural remediation of a darkened society. These actions are: “the confession of Jesus as Lord of all, the universal mission of light, and the formation of Christian communities as the tangible presence of a people set apart.”

It might be thought all Christian churches would acknowledge that Jesus is the Lord of all that exists in this world and in the world to come. However, what is the reality in our present-day churches. It brings to my mind the parable Jesus told about the tenants of a vineyard that had been left in their care (Mark 12:1–12). The tenants thought they could take ownership of the vineyard because the owner was absent and the people the owner sent to remind the tenants of their obligations had not the owner’s power to enforce them.

The present-day tenants of the Christian enterprise have sought to claim ownership by doing away with the person and teachings of Jesus as set forth in the canonical New Testament and substituting either their own opinions or those of various people, past and present. This is readily evident in people who deny the truth of the New Testament accounts. It is also true of those who remake the gospel in order to attract people to their ministries. It shows up in the portion of Christianity whose image of Jesus is a dead man on a cross. It is also apparent in churches where the empty cross and not God’s love are made the center of preaching and teaching.

Rowe makes the point in his book that when a “moral or metaphysical order is invalidated, a practice whose sense was made in relation to this order literally loses its sense.” What this means, in plain language, is that when Christian churches and institutions move off the bedrock of the being and reality of Jesus Christ their practices of Christianity become nonsensical. This is a strong statement but I suspect it was what had become the situation when Martin Luther nailed his ninety-five theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg. It may be that many of the people who are leaving the practice of Christianity are sensing at some level this disconnect between the reality of their churches and what Christianity really ought to be.

What will happen when part of American Christianity becomes a mission of light to darkened churches should not be a great surprise. John 3:19–21 (English Standard Version) tells us there will be two reactions. Some people will hate the light and resist it so their evil works will not be exposed. Others, who have having been holding to the truth, will come to the light and be seen as people of God.

19 And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. 20 For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. 21 But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.”

Judgment is not a popular thought in our culture. I think it is true that some Christians in the past both misunderstood it and overemphasized it. Judgment is not getting zapped by a lightning bolt when we do something wrong. It is choosing darkness when light is available, and having to live with the consequences of that choice. One of the missions of a reformed American Christianity will be to show our nation both the reality of the light and the truly fulfilled lives Christians can live.

According to Rowe, Luke in the book of Acts shows us that Christianity was not to be a reformation of Roman culture but an overturning of it. If we apply this understanding of Acts to American Christianity, we can see that something radical is needed for its reformation. Institutional Christianity swallowed up the converts of the Billy Graham crusades, the Jesus people of the ‘70s, and the men of the Promise Keepers movement. Perhaps a motto for reformation will be “Step out of your Church and enter the Kingdom of God.” This was the essentially the message of the first reformation and I think American Christianity needs as thorough a revision. However, it should be accomplished without all the downsides, such as divisions among the reformers, persecutions, religious wars and so forth.

It is at this point that the formation of tangible Christian communities will be required to show the reality of life in Christ. I think these communities can be virtual (existing on the social media), ad hoc (Christians coming together at particular times and places to accomplish meaningful objectives), and long term (more or less permanent groups of Christians who have chosen to be an expression of the body of Christ). I also think it will need our submission to the leading of Christ and the Holy Spirit as the reformation task is too large and too difficult for our human abilities, no matter how motivated we might be.