Our over-arching theme in these blogs this fall is The Banner That Unites Us. That banner is The Kingdom of Heaven, and this week I want to look at that term in detail.
What comes to our mind when we think of a Kingdom?
When I was an innocent, influence-able young boy growing up in a very conservative church background, my family attended Sunday School and church every week. I became very familiar with the old standby songs: Jesus Wants Me For a Sunbeam, The B-I-B-L-E, Deep and Wide.
Some of you will now hum one of those songs the rest of the day. You’re welcome.
One song which invariably caused us to leap to our feet, stand at attention and start marching in place was: Onward Christian Soldiers. I reviewed some of the lyrics this past week:
Onward, Christian soldiers, marching as to war
With the cross of Jesus going on before.
Christ, the royal Master, leads against the foe,
Forward into battle see His banners go.
At the sign of triumph, Satan’s host doth flee
On then, Christian soldiers, on to victory.
Hell’s foundations quiver at the shout of praise
Brothers lift your voices, loud your anthems raise.
Like a mighty army moves the church of God.
Onward, Christian soldiers, marching as to war
I have to confess; I gulped in near disbelief. I agree that we are in spiritual warfare, and that certainly, Jesus leads us. But the general tone of this song sounds surprisingly militaristic and uncomfortably triumphalist to my older ears. This is clearly the Good guys blowing away the Bad guys.
With all due respect to the writer of the song, is this an accurate picture of The Kingdom of Heaven as described in Scripture? Is this the biblical image of the spirit that we Christ-followers are called to? Let’s check.
The term Kingdom of Heaven appears 45 times in Scripture; 31 in Matthew alone, so I’d like to focus primarily on Matthew’s account of Jesus’ words, as recorded in that gospel. In Matthew 13 alone, Jesus tells several parables, solely about the Kingdom:
V. 24 The Good Seed and the Weeds.
“The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared.”
Jesus goes on to describe that the workers asked if they should pull out the bad weeds.
“‘No,’ he answered, ‘because while you are pulling the weeds, you may uproot the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time, I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.’”
Lesson for us: In the Kingdom of Heaven, keep the seeds and weeds together.
V. 31 The Mustard Seed.
“The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches”
Lesson for us: Something as seemingly insignificant as the Kingdom of Heaven, will grow to bring life to others.
V. 33 Spreading Yeast in the Dough.
“The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough.”
Lesson for us: Spread the Kingdom of Heaven throughout its surroundings.
V. 44, 45 The Hidden Treasure and The Fine Pearl.
“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.
V. 45 “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.”
Lesson: The Kingdom of Heaven is more valuable than everything else you have.
Jesus is on a roll now. V 47 The Fish in the Net.
“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.”
Now here, Jesus adds another layer to the kingdom story: “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.”
6 similes describing the Kingdom of Heaven in one setting! I wonder if this matters.
Having told all of these parables, with different imagery, some with frightening endings, Jesus, wanting to be sure they are tracking with him, asks, “Have you understood all these things?”
I chuckle at their reply: “Yes.” Honestly, I picture deer in the headlights expressions. Did they truly understand the picture he was painting? I wonder. Do we?
If you and I had been there, and been familiar with that culture, I imagine we might have said, “Frankly, Lord, we have no clue what you’re talking about. This doesn’t sound like any Kingdom we’ve heard of!”
In fact, men, we still disagree with each other to this day exactly what the Kingdom of Heaven is, what it looks like and when it will come.
Praying for Our ‘Hood.
When my wife, Beryl, and I first moved into our neighborhood 16 years ago, we were house #2. I became the Homeowners Association President, not due to any particularly outstanding qualifications; more because it was either me or the 85 year-old man next door.
Over the next couple of years the neighborhood exploded, eventually growing to 100 homes, and I was involved in a number of issues related to organizing social activities, clarifying landscaping rules, enforcing covenant violations, and resolving neighbor conflicts and so on. Some of you know how that goes. It’s not especially life-giving.
Over time some neighbors became aware that I was a Christian. This was demonstrated one Saturday morning when a man I hardly knew knocked on our door and introduced himself. “Craig, I’m a Christian, like you, and I want to invite you to join me every Saturday morning on a walk around the neighborhood, to pray.”
I was already skeptical of where this was heading. He continued, “I’m going to pray over every empty lot and ask God to fill it with a Christian family until the whole neighborhood is like the Kingdom.”
Honestly, men, that felt creepy to me. After a moment’s thought, I said, “I encourage you to pray for our neighborhood. Thank you for asking, but I’ll pass on going on the walk with you. And, truthfully, I’ll be praying that those empty lots get filled with unbelievers.”
I think his view was that we needed to make our little slice of Monument, CO into a cozy Kingdom of Heaven. Men, that’s not at all the picture Jesus painted in his parables. Not even close!
It might feel comfortable to live in an insular, safe Christian community, but I think the whole point of Jesus’ parables was the opposite.
- No! Don’t separate the weeds from the good seed!
- Spread the yeast throughout the dough and let it change the whole thing.
- Allow both good fish and bad fish into the net.
Don’t separate! Mix together! Some day, at the end of time, the weeds, and the bad fish will be pulled out and burned, but today, allow them to mix. The Father will straighten it out.
It’s for this reason I LOVE the churches in Colorado Springs, and in any other community, that go into the world next door. Here’s it’s under the banner COSILove you:
- To serve the poor
- To provide a bed for the homeless
- To feed the hungry
- To work hand in hand, side by side, with churches of another ethnicity, or denomination, in another part of town.
That’s the Kingdom!
Back to Matthew, here’s what else he says about Jesus’ comments on the Kingdom:
V. 18:1-4 Be Like Children.
“At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” (I can almost see Jesus shaking his head in disbelief at the question).
“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. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.”
We read a similar theme in Ch.19:13, 14 “Then people brought little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them and pray for them. But the disciples rebuked them.” (These guys were very slow to pick up the point.) “Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.”
Jesus, once again, is letting listeners know, My kingdom is completely different than what you picture. It is not power-based. It is not a place where the obvious ones are in control. The Kingdom is like these children: innocent, guileless, overlooked.
Matthew continues in chapter 19 where Jesus tells the story of the rich man who qualified for righteousness in every way, except that he was unwilling to give away what he owned to the poor.
V. 23 The Rich Young Man.
Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, 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.”
When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, “Who then can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”
Is Jesus saying there will be no wealthy people who enter the Kingdom? No, of course not, but his point is in keeping with the verse that describes the love of money as the root of all evil. Wealth and power are extremely addictive and it takes exceptional inner strength and character to draw boundaries and self-discipline against relying on the instant access and influence those gain in the world.
Some of the most admirable Christians you and I know are those who have been blessed, but have their priorities in biblical values and are enormously generous. That’s the truth.
But it’s also sadly true that some of the least admirable folks we might know, are those who profess to be Christ-followers, yet seem hungry for the same kind of power and influence that the rest of the world values and strives for.
The First Will Be Last.
Matthew continues and describes Jesus telling yet another parable this time in Ch. 20: “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard.” You can read the whole story on your own, but Jesus makes the point clear in verse 16: “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
Such is the Kingdom of Heaven. Everything is upside down from what we think.
I want to give one example each from a couple of other Gospels:
Luke 17: 20, 21 “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 you.
John 18:36: “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.”
Did you get that? The Kingdom of God is from another place. It’s in you.
What lessons do we learn from Jesus’ words and stories about the Kingdom? What are its characteristics?
- Is mixed together with unbelievers like good seed or yeast. We are not separated from the world, but remain in the world to influence it.
- It’s worth may not be immediately apparent, like the mustard seed that grows, but eventually it will be
- Is childlike in its innocence, faith and subtlety
- Is characterized by the greatest being the least, and the least, the greatest.
- Rejects self-serving power and earthly kingdoms
- Will be very difficult for the wealthy to enter. To do so, they must reject power and influence that comes as a result of their wealth
- Is not of this world, it’s of another place
Perhaps most stunningly, the Kingdom of Heaven is in you.
In summary, the Kingdom is the complete opposite of human power structures, upside down from earthly values, and works from the inside out in its influence. It is not of this world. It’s from another place. The Kingdom is more subtle, deeper and more valuable than the World thinks, and perhaps even than we think.
The Kingdom of Heaven is Jesus in you.
My greatest joy in life is my family. I know, that sounds like the comment you’re supposed to make as a man and father. All I can say is I literally shake my head in wonder at the family I have: my wife Beryl; my daughter Barclay and son-in-law Vince, their four daughters, Bella, Brynn, Brooke and Blake; my son Alec, my son Conor and daughter-in-law Bonnie, their daughter Gemma and son Calvin. Every one of them is a genuine gift. Beyond that, I have a calling that I live out through Peregrine Ministries. It is to help men: Understand their identity in Christ, Embrace their role as men, and Live out their God-given calling in life. Bottom line is I’m convinced men matter and I want to help them live life on purpose.
Well said. Thank you for your thoughtfulness. I completely agree with you in your illustration of attitudes about living and association with just Christians, (sorry, my conclusion of your neighborhood/HOA story — hope I got that right). Parables aside, it seems to me that Jesus continually engaged with “the world”, (i.e. unbelievers), in very relational and “normal” ways, (e.g. sharing a meal together). I don’t know how you do that if you insulate yourself from the world.
Thanks for your comments, Dave. Yes, you got the neighborhood story right. I can’t help but think that if Jesus were here today he’d spend quite a bit of his time associating with unbelievers. Leads me to think I should too.