Who Stole the Kingdom? (3)

(This post is something I wrote several years ago and reflects my thinking on the topic then. Some of my ideas might have changed slightly since then, but mostly, this represents how I see the subject. Read part 1 and part 2.)

The Kingdom Blueprint

In continuation of our series exploring the general truths of the Kingdom of God and its implications for us as the Church I want to use this month’s discussion to focus on the Bible’s vision of the Kingdom. First, we’ll look at what the Old Testament prophets had to say on the subject. Second, we’ll look at Jesus’ teaching on the priorities of righteousness. What I hope to establish is that God’s plan for this world, His vision of the Kingdom, is not just a plan for spiritual renewal, but of physical renewal as well. The redemptive plan starts with the spiritual redemption of mankind, but ends in the physical redemption of all of creation.

What Micah and Amos Taught

To see the proclaimed vision of the Kingdom of God, we must go back to the Old Testament prophets. The subject of the Kingdom is wound throughout the Old Testament, and in many places the prophets. However, for the sake of discussion, I want to focus on one particular vision given to us by the prophet Micah.

Micah 4:1-5 (New Living Translation)

4 In the last days, the Temple of the Lord in Jerusalem will become the most important place on earth. People from all over the world will go there to worship. 2 Many nations will come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the Temple of the God of Israel. There he will teach us his ways, so that we may obey him.” For in those days the Lord’s teaching and his word will go out from Jerusalem.

3 The Lord will settle international disputes. All the nations will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. All wars will stop, and military training will come to an end. 4 Everyone will live quietly in their own homes in peace and prosperity, for there will be nothing to fear. The Lord Almighty has promised this! 5 Even though the nations around us worship idols, we will follow the Lord our God forever and ever.

Micah is giving the soon to be exiled people of Judah a vision of their future beyond Babylon. He is giving them the promise that the hard times are for the refining of God’s people. After which, there will be a time of unparalleled blessing. In reading this passage, it is easy to see that there are two apparent features to this promise. The first (4:1-2) is spiritual, related to religious practice, and the second (4:3-5) is physical, related to peace and prosperity.

The religious component of the Kingdom will be centered on the worship of God in Jerusalem. All of humanity will be listening for the words of its Savior, and we will all strive to obey him. The prophet Jeremiah says something similar in his foretelling of the New Covenant (Jeremiah 31:31-35). The promise from God is that there will come a day when everyone will worship the Creator. We see from Jeremiah that this New Covenant is established not as rules to be followed, but as desires of the heart. This is what Jesus provides, and his sacrifice is the foundation upon which the Kingdom is built.

Not only will the entire world worship the one, true God, but also Jesus will sit upon his thrown. There will be no more need for war. The technology once used to kill, maim and destroy will now be used to provide sustenance. All people will live in peace and prosperity. Imagine that! There will be no more young, desperate men feeling that the only way to change the world is by blowing themselves up while killing as many as possible. Power brokers will no longer advantage of the weak in the pursuit of money. There will be no more abuse of the weak, killing of children for the sake of convenience, or families without food for the table. Imagine that! The good news of the Kingdom of God is not just about the saving of souls for Heaven, but the restoration of peace on this Earth.

Interestingly, these verses from Micah appear on a plaque outside the United Nations headquarters in New York City. The hope of secular humanism is that we can create a utopia of our own design. We love the Kingdom, but we want it without the King. This is the repeated failure of humanity. We want blessing, but we want it on our terms. The story of ancient Israel, reminds us that until the blood of Christ and power of the Holy Spirit transforms human beings, there can be no utopia. The Kingdom of God rests completely on the foundation of Jesus.

We should also note that the prophet Amos has words concerning what God wants for human societies. Unlike Micah who gives a vision of hope, Amos proclaims doom upon the nations for the abuse of the weak. Judah, Israel, and the pagan nations have abused their poor and sold innocent people into slavery. They have committed immorality, and perverted the worship of the one true God by flaunting the clothing and possessions that they stole from others (Amos 4:6-8). God takes justice for the weak very seriously, and we see that he speaks clearly against the nation that actively abuses its weakest members.

What Jesus Taught

We have already seen that the content of Jesus’ preaching was the Kingdom. We have seen that while Paul’s writings were written to give instruction in the finer points of theology, salvation, holy living, church life, and other things beside, his “big picture” gospel message was that of the King and the Kingdom (Acts 14:21-22, 19:8, 20:25, 28:23, 31). This was the gospel message of the apostle Philip as well (Acts 8:12).

Before we take a look at the gospel according to Matthew, it should be noted that Matthew records that Jesus uses both the terms Kingdom of Heaven and Kingdom of God. There is some debate as to whether these refer to the same thing, or if Matthew is making a distinction. He uses the term Kingdom of Heaven a total of 31 times, and Kingdom of God only four times. However, Kingdom of Heaven does not appear in any of the other gospels where the authors use Kingdom of God exclusively. Upon comparing the passages in all the gospels where Kingdom of God/Heaven is used, it appears to me that the terms are interchangeable. There are accounts where Matthew uses the term Kingdom of Heaven and in the parallel passages in Luke, the author uses Kingdom of God.

We have in Matthew 10:7 Jesus’ clear instructions to the disciples to go about the countryside preaching the message of the Kingdom, and supporting the Kingdom claims with miraculous signs. Further, I can only assume that based on the Great Commission (Mt. 28:18-20) that the apostles continued to teach that which they received from Jesus. So, to understand what the apostles preached, we need to look at what Jesus taught concerning the Kingdom.

In the Beatitudes (Mt. 5:2-12), we see that the Kingdom of God is reserved particularly for those who suffer. Those who are the most disadvantaged at this time, will be all the more blessed in the next. This is not to say that the powerful cannot enter the Kingdom of God, or that God loves the poor more than the rich. Jesus did say that it would be more difficult for the powerful to accept the message (Mt. 19:24). The message of the Kingdom has a special force among those that suffer. This is born out in scripture, but also through experiential fact. There are more poor Christians than rich, more women than men, and more Christians of color than white.

We also see that one’s ability to live righteously has nothing to do with one’s right to enter the Kingdom (Mt. 5:20). People of all ethnicities are welcome in the Kingdom, and a person’s race does not make them more or less likely to enter it (Mt. 8:5-13). Earthly success has nothing to do with one’s position in the Kingdom (Mt. 11:11), and the Gospel message is relentlessly moving forward, growing, and won’t be stopped despite the opposition (Mt. 11:12). Acts done in the name of Jesus, by the power of the Holy Spirit are evidence of the presence of the Kingdom (Mt. 11:28).

The Jesus Pattern

While there are still many, many more verses we could reference, it is on this last one that I would like to focus. There is a reoccurring sequence in the Gospels that is hard to miss:

1)   Jesus performs miracles.

2)   Jesus preaches the good news of the Kingdom.

3)   Miracles performed by Jesus demonstrate his authority as the Messiah.

4)   Jesus empowers his apostles to perform miracles.

5)   Jesus instructs his apostles to preach the good news of the Kingdom when performing these miracles.

6)   Miracles done in the name of Jesus demonstrate his authority as the Messiah.

I’m not arguing for miraculous signs. I believe they can happen, but I don’t believe they happen with near the regularity that many Christians believe and practice. These miracles were limited to this apostolic time to serve the purpose of establishing the Gospel. However, there is a definite pattern in the gospels that Christ cares for both the spiritual and physical condition of those to whom he ministers. This fits nicely with Micah’s Kingdom vision where both spiritual and physical needs will be met.

Similarly to the prophets of old, Jesus not only exhorts his apostles to generously care for others, but he condemns the Pharisees for a type of self-righteousness that ignores the needs of the poor.

Matthew 23:23-24 (NLT)

23 “How terrible it will be for you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are careful to tithe even the tiniest part of your income, but you ignore the important things of the law—justice, mercy, and faith. You should tithe, yes, but you should not leave undone the more important things. 24 Blind guides! You strain your water so you won’t accidentally swallow a gnat; then you swallow a camel!

Jesus was concerned about the needs of the weak. His preaching was accompanied by healing. He taught his disciples to do the same, and excoriated the Pharisees for preaching a personal piety that had no place for poor.

I conclude then that Jesus’ desire for the disciples and the Church after them was for us to preach the gospel of the Kingdom. The message is that Jesus has come to fix the world by restoring to us what was lost at the Fall of Man. He will fix this world by establishing his Kingdom. The Kingdom is built upon the foundation of his sacrifice; redemption bought and paid for. The Kingdom is already established in the hearts of Christians, but the day is coming when it will be revealed as a glorious, physical reality. Jesus invited his hearers to enter into this Kingdom vision.

As Christians, we preach the message of redemption of both individuals and the entire creation. This is the Kingdom vision. We, like Jesus and the disciples, should exemplify the values of the Kingdom by performing the goods works established for us to do by God (Eph. 2:10). A faith that does not demonstrate Kingdom values in how it cares for the poor and weak is useless for proclaiming the Gospel (James 2:14-16). This is truer in our post-modern skeptical world than any time since the first century.

Implications of the Kingdom Blueprint

As I’ve stated before, I believe that the individual gospel message of “pray this prayer so you can go to Heaven” or “God has a wonderful plan for your life” is incomplete. The Kingdom message changes the focus of the Gospel from individuals going to Heaven to all believers being invited to be part of the world changing work of Christ. This world changing work is encapsulated in the biblical vision of God’s Kingdom. Understanding this vision, and preaching it gives us a much better picture of what we are being saved to, and makes the process of discipleship much better since we have a much clearer vision of our purpose and goals. We are being called to introduce people to the King, but also to introduce the world to ideals of the Kingdom. We are to minister to both the spiritual and the physical needs of people. In terms of evangelism, it seems to me that a world-encompassing message is more appealing to the unbeliever simply because the gospel becomes message that speaks directly to the issues of the day.

If we accept the Kingdom of God as our blueprint, we should also allow it to speak to our activity as a local church. If God is concerned about both the spiritual and physical needs of people, what are we doing to fulfill this mission? How do we use our influence and resources as a church? Do we earnestly seek to be the benefactor of our community, or do we use our influence to protect our agenda? While the Church is not the Kingdom, the Church should be the place where the Kingdom values are most easily seen. Can we say this about our church? Further, do we see ourselves as citizens of another Kingdom? Do we allow this knowledge to bring us comfort and perspective during difficult times? Do the cares of this world; politics, national healthcare, terrorism, and the economy cause us such anxiety that we forget that our primary purpose is to proclaim the King and the Kingdom?