As I proved through citing New Testament Bible verses, Christ’s primary mission was to preach and announce the arrival of the kingdom of God. Now, as best we can, we must define what that kingdom actually entails. For our purposes, we will focus on the present reality of the kingdom. I must tell you that in the theological world, the kingdom is now almost universally considered to be of the “present/future” or the “already and not yet” variety. This is another case of the “both/and” principle that we have already discussed. We will systematically go through the Scriptures and let it be defined for us by Jesus and then Paul. After we have allowed the Word to define the kingdom, I will then add some personal revelation about the kingdom. And I would be remiss if I didn’t at least make a case for the future kingdom as well. The most important thing for us is to bring to light what the kingdom is right here and right now. We want to see what the present kingdom has for us today, we want to listen and be aware of its existence, and we want to enter into it as a child receiving a gift. If we focus on the future implications of the kingdom, we will miss the beauty and life-changing power that the kingdom has for us as Spirit-filled Christians living for today.
We absolutely must enter into the mind of an ancient Jew living at the time of Christ to truly grasp the gravity of Christ’s teachings. When Jesus walked the earth, Israel was in the grips of Rome and ruled by the Roman Empire. Jews detested this notion of being under the rule of a gentile empire. There were Jews, called zealots, that tried and tried to rally the Israelites into an insurrection against Rome, and all Jews knew of the prophecy of a coming one that would rise up and be crowned King of the Jews. After Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension, the Jews would actually attempt this insurrection. They had temporary success in driving out the Romans, but it wasn’t too long after this that the Romans returned to Jerusalem, killed everyone, burnt the city, and destroyed the beloved temple. As predicted by Christ, this destruction happened in 70 A.D. and it was devastating. Be that as it may, while Christ was present with His people, many including His disciples were looking to Him as this leader and king mentioned copiously throughout the Old Testament. Jesus claimed to be the Messiah, He claimed to be the One that they sought, and He made this proclamation one day while in the synagogue for all to hear as recorded in the Book of Luke:
So He came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up. And as His custom was, He went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and stood up to read. And He was handed the book of the prophet Isaiah. And when He had opened the book, He found the place where it was written:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me,
Because He has anointed Me
To preach the gospel to the poor;
He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted,
To proclaim liberty to the captives
And recovery of sight to the blind,
To set at liberty those who are oppressed;
To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.”
Then He closed the book, and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all who were in the synagogue were fixed on Him. And He began to say to them, “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” Luke 4:16-21
It is difficult to imagine the emotions that jolted through that assembly of Jewish people. Here is a man who claims to be the one they have waited upon for generations and generations! Some were excited beyond words, some were confused, some were in shock, and some were very angry. Regardless of the reaction, Jesus had thrown down the gauntlet that day in the synagogue, and announced His arrival.
By reading the four gospel accounts, we surmise by no sophisticated machination of the intellect, that no one really understood what the kingdom of God actually was! At some point along the way, the Pharisees (one of two predominant religious sects of Judaism at the time) asked Jesus straight away when the kingdom of God would come. One of the greatest and most fantastic responses known to man came pouring from Jesus’ lips. Luke 17:20-21 records the dialog:
Now when he was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, He answered them and said, “The kingdom of God does not come by observation; nor will they say, ‘See here!’ or ‘See there!’ For indeed the kingdom of God is within you.”
The religious men of the day must have just been stunned! I’m positive that a collective “Huh?” must have been uttered (similar to Scooby-Doo when he says, “Roooh?”). We have already studied Nicodemus’ reaction to Christ’s teaching on being “born again”, and the consensus reaction most assuredly was the same. So let us erect our first signpost and buoy-marker: the kingdom is not seen, one cannot observe the kingdom, and the kingdom is within. Another translation of “within” is “in your midst”. So let us get the weight of His words in context.
All of the Jews are looking for a leader, a leader that will set them free and kick some Roman buttocks. Here is their self-professed leader talking some rubbish about a metaphysical, mystical, poetic, romantic notion of the kingdom being inside of a person. They must have thought Jesus had eaten some bad bread or had been partaking of the “fruit of the vine” a little too early in the morning! They were incredulous. To top it all off, Jesus then turns to His disciples and intimates the eschatological facet to the kingdom and defines Himself as the “Son of Man” prophesied by Daniel! In one sitting, Jesus reveals the present nature of the kingdom as a spiritual life “within” a person, and then the future nature of the kingdom as a physical, earthly rule. One can only imagine how ridiculously confusing this was to a Jew. I’m sure one of them wanted to ask, “So which is it Jesus? It can’t be both, so is it ‘within’ us or is it a future kingdom?” Ironically, His answer would have been, “Yes!” And all would have echoed Nicodemus’ response in his private lesson with Christ, “How can these things be?” They all wanted and thought they needed an earthly kingdom right then, a kingdom that freed them from the cruel and oppressing arm of Rome, and all they got was a strange puzzle and a reference to an ancient manuscript penned by Daniel. Great! Thanks Jesus; that clears it all up…when can we put a crown on your head and make the announcement?!
What we now know and what the disciples would eventually be privy to is that understanding the kingdom takes time, it takes a process, and it is revealed by the Spirit. I don’t want to confuse my readers right out of the starting gate, but you have to grapple with the same things that the disciples had to grapple with, mainly, the kingdom is revealed to those who knock, seek, and ask. At this juncture, assuming the conversation could take place, the line of questioning would be similar to my metaphor of the Ferrari:
We would ask, “So are you giving me the Ferrari?”
Jesus would reply, “Yes, it is yours.”
“So can I drive it now?”
“I don’t know, can you?”
“I mean, may I drive it now?”
“You have permission to drive it now.”
“So, how do you drive the car and where is the key?”
“I can’t tell you now; you wouldn’t understand. And the key is found within you”
“Can you tell us how to find the key?”
“No, I can’t, but I will send you an instructor.”
“When will this instructor come?”
“After I’m gone, I will send him to you.”
“After you are gone?! Where are you going? Can I come with you?”
“You can’t go where I am going. You are from the earth; I’m not from here. I’m going back to the Father.”
“But how will we follow you and obey you and find you?”
“You will seek Me, but won’t be able to find Me. But I will be right here.”
“Inside of you, in the form of the Holy Spirit.”
“So let me get this straight. You are giving me the car, can’t tell me how to drive it or even where the key is hidden, and in order to find the key you have to leave in order to be present?”
“Yep…that about sums it up!”
“So when is this Holy Spirit, instructor dude supposed to show up?”
“You will wait for him after I’m gone.”
“Sheesh! Do you have a bike you can give me instead?”
All kidding aside, let us continue to let the Bible speak to us and help us define the kingdom. Then we can place another sign in the road and another buoy in the harbor. Let’s start in Matthew.
In the book of Matthew, the kingdom of God is referred to as the kingdom of heaven. The obvious question is why does Matthew use a different phrase? We must know a little bit about Matthew first to understand why he did this. Matthew was a Levite. Not only was Matthew a Levite, but also a failure of a Levite. During this time, all males born into the tribe of Levi were expected to pursue their tribe calling, and the calling is that of a priest. When you are still a child, you are expected to memorize the Torah and study the “yoke” of the law. A yoke is considered to be a certain religious leader’s interpretation of the law; the leader, called a Rabbi, would eventually ask a student to “follow” them as a disciple. If however, you just weren’t chosen to be a disciple, you had to find another line of work. Matthew apparently wasn’t asked by a Rabbi to be a disciple. Bummer. You can imagine how Matthew’s parents viewed this shame of his not “making the cut”; it would have been considered a blow to the family. After all of the rigors of studying a Rabbi’s yoke and after memorizing thousands of pages of ancient Scripture, to not be chosen as a disciple would have been devastating. Matthew decided to be a lucrative tax collector. The Jews detested the tax collector! In many ways, all tax collectors were considered traitors because they were essentially working for “the man” in the form of Rome. To top it off, the tax collectors would pad the take and make money by essentially “juicing” the tax fees! Matthew was hated by probably all religious Jews and most of the general population of Jews. When Jesus walked up to him one day and said, “Follow Me”, it was a dream come true! All his life, Matthew probably lived in regret and shame over his inability to please his parents and his auspicious career choice. It was a no-brainer for him to drop everything and follow Jesus.
When Matthew penned his account of Christ’s life, he must have been respectful of his Levitical roots; using the phrase “kingdom of God” would have been highly offensive to his fellow Levites. Essentially, Matthew chose the phrase “kingdom of heaven” over “kingdom of God” because he had finally been restored to his rightful place as a Jewish disciple. Many times we forget that Jesus was Jewish, and we must be conscientious of the fact that Matthew was a very Jewish Jew! And to use the word “God” in printed form would have been offensive to a Jewish audience. In fact, you will notice that if you ever read any Jewish Rabbinical teachings, you will notice the word “God” is replaced with the idiom “G-d”. So that being said, what does Matthew’s gospel teach us about the kingdom?
To compile a work referencing every mention of the kingdom in the New Testament would in reality be a massive life-time endeavor. This book, like I have intimated, is meant to be an invitation to take your own journey. I don’t want to spoil the fun of your own path. We do however need to accomplish our stated purpose. One thing we glean immediately in our study of the kingdom of God is that Christ taught about it in the form of parables. He knew that all generations and all people, regardless of their level of education, would understand a parable at first on a simple level and eventually as a source of continuing enlightenment as they probed the depths thereof. Jesus always begins by saying, “the kingdom of God/heaven is like ______”; He never comes out and says exactly what the kingdom is. The reason for couching truth in a parable is given by Christ Himself: if you cannot understand earthly principles, how will you understand heavenly things? If you can’t understand what I am saying in human language, then how will you understand heavenly language? (John 3:12, John 16:12) This is the beauty of a parable: there is much more there than meets the eye, there are hidden truths buried within the simple, and as mankind discovers more about the nature of creation, even more profound truths emerge! The hermeneutical spiral works on a personal level, but also works in a chronological, historical level as well. That is magnificent, isn’t it? For instance, ancient man didn’t know much about the exact mechanisms of seed germination, seed production, or the encoded, genetic information. How much more beautiful is the Parable of the Mustard Seed now than it was back then? Jesus, in His divine omniscience, knew of the manifold discoveries that we enjoy today!
To begin, let us look at a couple of parables in Matthew 13: 44-46:
Again, the kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and hid; and for joy over it he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant seeking beautiful pearls, who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had and bought it.
I challenge each person to read a parable, to pray over it, and to meditate on it. Each person will receive their own version, or facet, of truth from a parable as the Spirit leads. How deep can we go? Depending on one’s life experience, area of expertise, and affinity for research, each person will find common ground with other Christians and each will find a personal revelation. For our purposes, let us look at the blatantly obvious common ground that we can all share regardless of the parameters stated. I want to point out a couple of “surface” attributes of the kingdom shown in these parables. First, we notice that the kingdom is worth any price. Jesus is clearly impressing upon us that once we discover the kingdom, we will stop at nothing to possess it. The key here for us is the importance of finding it! No one hands it to us, it isn’t sitting out in the open, and it gives us great joy when we find it. What are we looking for? Maybe we seek love, maybe peace, maybe the meaning of life, and maybe we seek happiness. Jesus says that once you find the kingdom, you will sell everything you have to keep it. In other words, all other endeavors cease to be worth anything in comparison to the treasure or pearl. What are you willing to let go of or sell, or what are you willing to stop chasing? The key is in the finding; for once we find the kingdom, we immediately recognize it as the most valuable treasure known to man.
A notable quality of the kingdom mentioned in verse 52 shows us the ability of the kingdom to breathe life into all things old and new. In my own experience, I can tell you that God absolutely loves to redeem things like wasted time, mistakes from the past, and relationships we thought were forever lost. In this verse, Jesus tells His disciples that the Old Testament can come to life with new enlightenment. Jesus invites us to revisit what we thought we knew and allow Him to speak new insight and beauty into it.
In my early years of seeking, reading the Old Testament was like pulling teeth: necessary, but no fun. I spent the first part of my Christian life reading the New Testament, Psalms, and Proverbs. The Old Testament didn’t seem to have much to offer or any modern insight for life today except for the “moral of the story” approach. As I matured in my spiritual life, I began to see what an extraordinary treasure trove was contained in the pages of the Old Testament. I will go into more detail in later chapters, but I want to point out that Christ and spiritual shadows are saturated in those previously unexplored parts of Scripture. In many regards, for a modern gentile, the Old Testament is best explored after a New Testament foundation has been laid. Once your spiritual eyes are opened, you begin to see things that had completely escaped you before. It is almost like the key to unlock the Old Testament is contained in the New Testament, for me anyway. You can’t read any of Christ’s teachings without running into the phrase, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear!” I simply did not have the ears to hear what the ancient texts were trying to say. But when the Spirit begins to open your eyes and ears, there are multiple lifetimes of study awaiting the spiritual man. I am convinced that one can never exhaust the truths contained therein, and that fact in and of itself compels us to always move forward in our spiritual journey of discovery in the sacred texts.
So let us take an inventory of new signposts and buoys: the kingdom is worth any price, it brings us joy to discover it, we will do anything to keep it, and it breathes new life into all things. Now let us uncover more in the gospel of Mark.
The Bible is absolutely teeming with the example of the seed. Seeds are, scientifically speaking, a marvelous and profound mystery. Seeds are the antecedent to new life; no seed, no new life. Seeds carry the genetic information of its parents. The seed, in coded form, has all the information necessary to produce a mature living thing. The seed itself is destroyed as the beginnings of life emerge from it; the seed is discarded as the life it carried takes over. Eventually, the new life created will produce its own seeds, and in many cases, the seeds are contained within the fruit. When we begin to study the fruits of the Spirit, this will be brought into an acute focus. In the following parables recorded in Mark, we will find some awesome truths about the kingdom that Jesus teaches us through the example of the seed. Mark 4:26-29:
And He (Jesus) said, ‘The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground, and should sleep by night and rise by day, and the seed should sprout and grow, he himself does not know how. For the earth yields crops by itself: first the blade, then the head, after that the grain ripens, immediately he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.
The first truth about the kingdom found in this parable is that we do not know how the kingdom grows or works. We know that it does work, but the true nature of the mechanisms escape us. We can see the evidence for the kingdom at work, but it in essence has a life of its own. Now, a scientist would say, “Well back in ancient times they didn’t know the science of the seed. Today we know about all the processes and parts of the seed, so the parable holds no value for modern man.” My question would be, “Do we really know how a seed works, how it germinates, and how it becomes a plant?” If that same scientist possessed even the slightest amount of humility, he would have to admit that there are many problems with his first statement. Let us go on a microscopic field trip.
Starting with the seed, we know it contains genetic information. We know that at a certain temperature, in the presence of oxygen, and the addition of water, the seed will germinate. A botanist knows a great deal about the process of germination, and a cellular biologist knows a great deal about the cellular processes going on inside each cell. But there is a problem: every cell in every living thing is genetically identical, without exception, every cell has the exact same information. We know that much for sure. But what makes one cell become a root cell and another cell a leaf cell and another cell to differentiate into a petiole cell? Science simply cannot explain how cells “become” specific parts of the whole! There is some unknown force that tells one cell to be a leaf and another to be a flower petal. This is the case in all living things, including humans. In fact, most of us have heard of stem cells; stem cells are undifferentiated cells that if put in the right environment can become almost any type of cell. So if you take a stem cell and put it in the liver, it will become a liver cell. But just because we know that stem cells work in this manner doesn’t mean we know how they work! And even if we one day discover the “how”, we will never know the “why”.
Going deeper in our field trip, let us assume that that one day we understand how cells differentiate. But then what about the mechanics of the enzymes and the organic molecules, what about the individual atoms, and what about the mystery of what holds that atom together and then what about the 99.99% nothingness that separates the electron cloud from the nucleus? You see that when you extrapolate inward into the infinite sub-sets of knowledge, we are always faced with the stark reality that we actually know very little!
The day is here or is right down the immediate road where the whole world will realize that all things “real” are made of unseen forces, immeasurable forces, and unknowable forces. We are simply trudging toward the prophetic words spoken by Paul that “professing themselves to wise, they became fools.” Is there anything wrong with science? No! In fact, the more we know scientifically, the more we should be in awe of God’s majesty. The more we discover in the scientific world, the richer the parables become! Think about the Trinitarian nature of seed germination (heat, air, water) and the same Trinitarian nature of plant growth (sunlight, carbon dioxide, water). Think about the spiritual implications of life being hidden beneath a hard shell. Think about the spiritual lessons to be learned about how a seedling can die. I could go on and on and on. So you see, the more we know, the more beautiful the hermeneutical spiral becomes. So getting back to the first principle of the kingdom found in this parable, we must admit that what Christ was teaching is indeed true: we don’t know how the kingdom works, only that it does work.
The second truth about the kingdom that we glean from the parable is that the kingdom is a process. Jesus points to a progression that eventually ends in producing a fruit or in this case, a grain. This process which I will deal with in detail in the next chapter is unbelievably profound. We grow in stages, we have certain functions at any given time, and there is a season allotted for each stage. The particular nature of the kingdom that Christ is showing us is that it is intrinsically tied to an organic process of growth. This should cast the phrase “born again” in a new light. Being born again is not an instantaneous event; being born again, like all things in nature, requires the elements of time, energy, and maturation. To use Jesus’ parable, the blade is the growth or what botany calls the “vegetative cycle”; the head is the flowering and fertilization; and the ripened grain is the fruit. In nature, the energy is focused on the process at hand; in other words, a plant can’t focus its energy on flowering until the plant is full grown. A plant can’t produce grain or fruit unless the root system is developed during the vegetative growth cycle. How many times in life do we get impatient? How many times do we want to “rush” God and demand fruit that will only wither on the vine because our roots aren’t capable of supporting the fruit or our stalks are too young to support the weight of the fruit? The lessons to be learned are potent, acute, and dependable.
Let me remind my readers that these teachings are but the tip to an enormous iceberg! I want to encourage you to find your own spiritual truths by reading, praying and meditating on these parables. A plethora of truth can be found in the simple; meaning, you don’t have to be a biologist to learn unique spiritual truths from a parable. In fact, sometimes I get so deep in my meditations I miss the surface beauty of them! I belong to an incredible Bible study group that meet at 6:30 am on Tuesday morning. In that group, there are people from every walk of life and every level of education. Some of the most profound insights for me have been given by simple, life-experience examples. Each person, regardless of their grasp of science or math or anthropology or even Biblical knowledge, adds equally to the aggregate truth. I am always amazed by how the Spirit orchestrates this masterpiece of enlightenment. I may throw out a gem about how the parable speaks to progeny and the dispensation of seed, and another person throws out a gem on how the kingdom is at work whether we are sleeping or awake. So whoever you are, know that the Spirit uses each person uniquely and we are all awaiting your insights! It is not us that figures out the parables but rather the Spirit of God within us that does all the shedding of light; for us to take credit for it is pride and ignorance of how the Spirit works. This undoubtedly proves that He is not a respecter of persons.
This is the conclusion of the first part of Chapter Three in a “A Life Unplugged”; to go on to part two, click here: Kingdom of God Unplugged: Part Two. I hope you enjoyed this teaching and please share it with whomever you deem appropriate. We are getting into the “meat” of the teachings, and I realize that much of this is deep and can be quite confusing. Please re-read if necessary, bathe it in prayer, and ask the Spirit to breathe life into the teachings! My only hope is that each comes to their own revelation of the magnificence of a life unplugged from the world and plugged into the Spirit…