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Posts Tagged ‘the kingdom of God’

The literary structure of Mark 2:1-12

We’re back in Mark. Today we enter a new section of the book – “five stories of conflict” which runs from chapter 2 through chapter 3:6. These stories demonstrate that although Jesus is loved by the crowds – mostly for what he can do for them – his message and his display of authority created opposition from many, especially the Jewish leadership.

In our story today, the first of the five, the conflict is over Jesus’ authority to forgive a person’s sins.

Mark 2:1-12

1And when he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. 2And many were gathered together, so that there was no more room, not even at the door. And he was preaching the word to them.

Last time we saw how Jesus expanded his ministry into all of Galilee (1:38). And now “after some days” he returns to Capernaum, his home base. But he does so quietly because of the press of the crowds (1:45). Nevertheless word gets out and he is once again swamped by a crowd. The house, most likely Peter and Andrew’s, is packed with people.

We also saw last time that his priority is preaching (1:38). And this is what he’s doing in the house, “preaching the word.” As stated in 1:15, he proclaimed, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”

3And they came, bringing to him a paralytic carried by four men. 4And when they could not get near him because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him, and when they had made an opening, they let down the bed on which the paralytic lay.

So this man is so disabled that he can’t walk or otherwise get to Jesus, but must be carried by four friends. The word used for “bed” here refers to a poor person’s mat or mattress.

Well, on their way to Jesus they encounter an obstacle, the crowd around Jesus is blocking their way. Undaunted they make their way up the outside staircase onto the flat roof – both typical features of a Palestinian home at this time.

It says literally that they “unroofed the roof” and they were “digging it out.” That is, they removed the material between the roof beams to make a hole for the man to be lowered through. (Luke says there were tiles involved – 5:19)

Can you imagine the mess that would have fallen on those below? And I wonder what Peter and Andrew thought of their new sun roof? Whatever others were thinking, Jesus saw faith.

5And when Jesus saw their faith. . .

When Jesus says “their faith” this includes the faith of the disabled man, who is surely a participant in this quest to get to Jesus.

And here is a lesson on faith from these five men. First, it overcomes all obstacles to get to Jesus. Faith is persistent and doesn’t give up. And also it can be seen. Our verse says, “Jesus saw their faith.” He could see it because faith is not just about words, but is demonstrated in actions that can be seen.

. . . he said to the paralytic, “My son, your sins are forgiven.”

This is surprising to us. He came for healing not forgiveness. But this would not be surprising to a Jewish audience. In Scripture, sin and sickness are often connected (Deuteronomy 28:25ff; Numbers 12:9-15; 2 Chronicles 26:16-21; Isaiah 38:16-17; James 5:14-16;1 Corinthians 11:27-30; Psalm 41:3-4; Psalm 103:3; Psalm 107:17; Isaiah 33:24). There’s a connection in general – sickness is a part of a fallen world marked by sin. But also an individual’s specific sins can bring sickness upon them.

Now, Jesus is clear that there is not always a direct connection, as he points out in the case of the blind man in John 9:3 (See also Luke 13:1-5; 2 Corinthians 12:7; Galatians 4:13-14; and, of course, the book of Job). But this doesn’t mean that sometimes there isn’t a direct connection (See John 5:14). And there is a direct connection here, according to Jesus. None of this would have been controversial to his audience.

 What’s controversial is that Jesus personally forgives the man’s sins. (The phrase “your sins are forgiven” could be interpreted as a divine passive so that Jesus is saying, “God forgives yours sins.” But this wouldn’t be controversial (2 Samuel 12:13). The conflict that follows and Jesus’ further statements only make sense if he is personally forgiving this man’s sins. See also Luke 7:48-49) In Scripture, only God forgives sins. How could someone who is not God, a mere human, do this for God?

6Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, 7“Why does this man speak like that? He is blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?”

Scribes are experts in the Law of Moses. Their response is understandable. It is true, only God can forgive sins. (The phrase “God alone” can also be translated “except the one God” – a reference to the Shema). Forgiveness is a divine prerogative or right. And for a mere human to claim this is to blaspheme. And the penalty for blasphemy is death by stoning – Leviticus 24:10-16. (He is later executed based on this charge – Mark 14:63-64.)

Now notice that they do not say these things out loud, they think them in their inner person.

8And immediately Jesus, perceiving in his spirit that they thus questioned within themselves, said to them, “Why do you question these things in your hearts?

Jesus has already displayed the ability to know what is in a person’s heart when he knew what the disabled man’s sins were and forgave them. Now here he knows what the scribes are thinking. But they take no notice of this.

Jesus continues in his response to their thoughts.

9Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise, take up your bed and walk’?

 The argument Jesus is making is from greater to lesser. He’s saying, if he can do the more difficult thing, this guarantees that he can do the easier thing. It is easier to say “your sins are forgiven” because there’s no way to see that the person is or isn’t forgiven. But the results of saying “be healed” can be seen. The person is either healed or is not healed. This is harder.

So his ability to heal the man, the harder thing to say, shows that he can also forgive the man, the easier thing to say.

And in context these two things are connected. Since Jesus sees the man’s ailment as a consequence of his personal sins and the others would almost certainly agree his healing would demonstrate his forgiveness. God would not heal the man unless his sins were forgiven. So the fact that, as we will see, he is healed shows that Jesus’ pronouncement of forgiveness was indeed effective. It becomes a visible evidence that he’s forgiven.

And finally, God would not honor the words of a blasphemer. But here the man is healed.

10But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”-

The phrase Son of Man is how Jesus characteristically refers to himself in the Gospels. Jesus seems to like this title because it concealed his identity to those not interested in following him, but revealed who he is to those who were.

It conceals in that in the Old Testament it mostly just means “a human” or “a mere person” – in contrast to God (Psalm 8:4; Ezekiel).  And Jesus is talking in the 3rd person. So the outsider would ask, “Who’s he talking about?”

But for his followers they know he is talking about himself and he is referring to Daniel 7:13-14, which refers to a human being who is given “authority  which will not pass away . . ..” (LXX) and who is involved with God in the judgment of the nations.

Jesus is saying, “This is who I am; and I have this divine prerogative to forgive – not just on the final day in the courts of heaven, but also now ‘on earth.'”

To demonstrate that he has this authority, picking up the end of v. 10 –

he said to the paralytic— 11“I say to you, rise, pick up your bed, and go home.” 12And he rose and immediately picked up his bed and went out before them all . . .

So he gets up off the ground, then bends over to pick up his bed and then walks home – a clear demonstration of his healing. If he had trouble getting through the crowed before, I bet he doesn’t now!

And after this it goes on to say about the crowd –

. . . so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, “We never saw anything like this!”

The crowd is astonished and gives praise to God. They have never seen a man forgive sins like God does and then prove it by healing the person.

Let me end with 3 more brief lessons from this story.

Jesus has all authority. As we have seen he has authority or power to teach new things; to cast out demons with a word; to heal people by simply speaking; and now we see that this includes forgiving people their sins. Jesus has all this power.

And we learn about Jesus’ unique identity in this story. He tells us that he is the Son of Man of Daniel 7; the somewhat mysterious, exalted figure who is with God when the nations of the world are judged on the final day.

And even more than this he is the Son of God in human form. In answer to the question of the scribes, yes only God can forgive sins, which is why Jesus can forgive sins. Here we see again Jesus’ divine identity.

And then finally, in all this Jesus is making the kingdom of God present. He does this when he sets people free from Satan – exorcisms; when he brings new life – through healings and making people whole; and here when he forgives sins, extending God’s mercy (Jeremiah 31) and bringing people into new relationship with God.

(Now, he forgives, not by saying sin doesn’t matter, but on the basis of his coming death which atones for sins (Mark 10:45; Mark 14:22-24.) This is the basis of all these kingdom blessings. And his death is alluded to in our story. For the charge of blasphemy is a capital offense and is indeed why he was eventually executed on the cross (Mark 14:64).)

Jesus makes the kingdom real in people’s lives.

As we think of who Jesus is and what he does in this story, we too should respond as the crowd does by giving praise to God.

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Series: Markan prologue

The literary structure of Mark 1:1-15

We’ve been studying the introduction to the Gospel of Mark and how in accordance with the prophecies of Isaiah 40:3 and Malachi 3:1, the messenger comes first, who is John the Baptist, and then comes the Lord, who is Jesus. In our passage today, we come to the end of Mark’s introduction, which gives us some very important insight into what Jesus is all about.

Let’s look at these verses –

Mark 1:14-15

14Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the good news.”

Let me first highlight, in terms of the story line, that this is the key transition where John’s ministry comes to an end and Jesus comes fully onto the scene. The baton is passed.

We’ll learn more about what happens to John in Mark 6. But with regard to our verse, I want to point out that when Mark says John was “arrested” it says literally, he was “handed over,” which is foreshadowing of what’s to come. This same word is used in relation to Jesus’ arrest, for instance in Mark 9:31, and also the coming persecution of Jesus’ disciples, in Mark 13:9. So Jesus begins his ministry on a note of persecution that hangs over all that he and his followers will do.

Second, we have in this passage a summary of Jesus’ message that tells us in simple form what he taught, what he stood for, what he was about. The rest of the Gospel gives content to this, but this is where it’s all brought together and so it’s really important to notice and understand this.

If you had to boil the gospel down to just a few words, how would you say it? Or if you had to summarize the whole message of the Bible in a phrase, what would that phrase be? Well, this is exactly what Jesus is doing here. And since it comes from him – this is how he summarizes it all, we should take notice and seek to understand what he’s saying. Which is what I want us to do for the rest of our time together this morning.

Let’s read v. 15 together – “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the good news” – v. 15. (See also Matthew 4:17; Luke 4:43)

First, we look at –

The coming of the kingdom

 And we begin with the question, ‘What is it?’

1. The kingdom of God, to say it simply, is God’s promised salvation. It’s more than this, since it brings together most, if not all of the Bible, but it is this.

Our world lives in rebellion against God and is in misery because of this. But Scripture speaks of a day when the earth will once again be under the dominion and blessings of heaven, where God rules unhindered; a day when all the prophecies will be fulfilled.

For now, the world is characterized by three things:

  • Slavery to Satan, the leader of the rebellion. [The people of God came back from exile but were really still in exile, enslaved to the powers of the nations, or the spirits (demons) behind idolatry, led by Satan.] But the promise is that God will set us free – Isaiah 61:1. That’s what the kingdom is about.
  • It is characterized by condemnation for sin and rebellion. But the promise is that God will forgive our sins and he will be close to us – Jeremiah 31:31-34. That’s what the kingdom is about.
  • It is characterized by subjection to death. But the promise is that God will give us new life – Isaiah 25:7-8. We will be whole and at peace. Death itself will be overcome. This is the reality of the kingdom.

So taking this into account, Jesus is saying here that with his coming –

2. The kingdom has arrived. This is made clear in our verse. Jesus said, “the time is fulfilled.” The word “time” here is not about ordinary calendar time. It’s about God’s providential time. Jesus is saying, this is the moment; the appointed time. The word “fulfilled” has to do with fulfilling the many prophecies that were made. Jesus has come to bring them to pass.

Jesus also teaches us in this verse that the kingdom it is “at hand.” This means that it has drawn near. So something new is happening, something powerful, something long promised, something desperately needed.

3. This is why this is good news. We saw previously that the phrase “good news” in both a Roman and Jewish context (Isaiah) has to do with a royal announcement. And here it’s royal as well. It relates to the coming of the kingdom of God and indeed its king.

We saw how in his baptism Jesus is shown to be “the anointed one” or the Messiah. And he is proclaimed by God to be his Son – a royal designation. The gospel is an announcement that there’s a new king, God’s Son! God’s promised kingdom is here!

4. God’s kingdom and Jesus are intertwined. That’s why the rest of the Gospel is about Jesus – his teaching, ministry, life, death and resurrection. But it is summarized here as about the kingdom of God. That’s why in v. 1 it’s “the good news of Jesus” and here it’s “the good news” of “the kingdom of God.” (The good news of God [v. 14] is that what he has promised, the kingdom, he is bringing about through Jesus.)

 The king and his kingdom are interchangeable. God’s kingdom is where Jesus is, and it’s where he rules.

5. There is more of the kingdom yet to come. Jesus talks about this, for instance in Mark 13:26 when he says the world will see him “coming in clouds with great glory and power.” That is, at the end of all things.

Most of his hearers would have expected the kingdom to come all at once. But Jesus teaches that there is an ‘already, not yet’ element to the coming of the kingdom. As he taught in Mark 4, the kingdom is like a mustard seed that starts out small, but eventually covers the whole world. It’s already here with his coming, but it’s not yet all the way here. That will await his second coming.

Now let’s look at –

How Jesus brings the kingdom

1. In his ministry we see the in-breaking of the kingdom

  • He sets people free from Satan through exorcisms, for instance a little later in Mark 1.
  • He forgives people their sins and gives them a new relationship with God. An example here is Levi the tax collector in Mark 2.
  • He heals people, making them whole, including raising people from the dead. He raised a 12-year-old girl in Mark 5.

In all these ways Jesus is communicating that the kingdom is here! And it is being made known through him. The promises are beginning to be fulfilled.

2. In his death and resurrection he establishes the kingdom

  • He overthrows Satan’s authority over this world. He is now Lord. (Matthew 28:18, which was likely how Mark originally ended)
  • He provides for our forgiveness on the cross – Mark 14:24
  • He defeats death in his resurrection from the dead – Mark 16. Death couldn’t hold him. And he pours out the Spirit to give us new life – Mark 1:8.

3. At his second coming he will complete the kingdom

  • Satan will be judged and destroyed
  • We will have a very close relationship with God
  • We will be resurrected to live forever – Mark 13:27

Finally, in this short verse, Jesus tells us –

How to enter the kingdom

Jesus uses the phrase “entering the kingdom” many times. This has to do with how we receive the promises of God’s salvation, made known with the coming of the kingdom. Jesus summarizes this in two words:

1. Repent – This means to have a change of heart and mind that leads us to do God’s will from now on. We turn away from our old lives and walk in a new path according to Jesus’ teaching and example. For instance we love God with all that we are; we love our neighbor as our self; we honor our marriage vows; we take up our cross and serve others and suffer for this.

 2. Believe – This means that we trust in God and God’s promises. We believe that the promise of the kingdom is here and we believe in Jesus, the king who provides God’s grace to us – freedom from Satan, forgiveness and new relationship with God and new life, which includes the promise the Spirit and culminates in our resurrection.

And these two things, repentance and faith, are two sides of the same coin: For if you believe in the good news, you will do what Jesus tells you to, which is repent. And if you repent you show that you have believed in Jesus.

Some questions for us

Do you know how to communicate the gospel? It’s good to know Jesus’ way of doing this, although he was speaking to people who were steeped in the Scriptures.

How would we say it today? Much of what we can share is our testimony. We say to others in various ways that through Jesus God has given me freedom, forgiveness and new life. The fuller framework can be picked up after someone chooses for themselves to become a follower of Jesus.

How is your repentance and faith? It’s not a one-time thing. It’s lifelong. Are you still believing? Are you holding to God’s promises even when it’s hard?

Are you still turning away from sin to follow Jesus? It’s a lifelong process. We live a life of repentance. We learn more as we grow in life what God wants from us. It’s like peeling an onion. We make progress but there’s always another layer to deal with. Have you stopped along the path? Is God waiting for you back where we went off the path?

Repent and believe is what we do to enter the kingdom both now, and in its fullness on the final day.

Is God making his kingdom known through us? God still sets people free from Satan. Are people being set free here and in our outreach? God still forgives and gives new relationship. Are people coming to know God here? God still gives new life. Are people becoming alive to God here?

Is God working among us in these ways? These are signs of the kingdom’s presence. They aren’t the only ones, but they are important. How are we doing?

 

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Series: Paul to the Thessalonians

Paul mosaicWe are finishing up our series on Paul to the Thessalonians today. There is much more we could cover, especially if we went on into 2 Thessalonians, but that will have to wait for another time. As we close, I want us to focus in on a theme that is in the background of 1 Thessalonians and can be easily overlooked. There is a strong contrast here between God’s kingdom and Rome’s; between the empire of God and the empire of Rome.

First a bit of background connected to –

Thessalonica’s devotion to Rome

Culturally, Thessalonica was a Greek city, although it held onto its local Macedonian political traditions and structures. In its religious life it had many different gods that were worshipped, and many temples, priests, and rituals. And this was entirely ordinary outside of Israel. It distinguished itself, however, in its devotion to emperor worship.

Thessalonica had taken the right side in a Roman civil war – siding with Augustus, and was handsomely rewarded for this. It was made a free city. It benefited economically from is close association with Rome. And it enjoyed the Pax Romana – the peace and security that the Empire brought to their region. So their relationship with Rome was important and actively cultivated by its citizens and leaders. It was a very pro-Roman city.

As I said, this was expressed through the cult of Emperor worship, specifically focused on Caesar Augustus. He was deified and worshipped as a god. There was both a statue of him and a temple dedicated to him in Thessalonica at the time Paul was there.

God versus Rome in 1 Thessalonians

This contrast comes out in several key words and phrases:

1. God’s “kingdom” – 2:12. To give it a bit more context, it says, we “charged you to walk in a manner worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory.”

This language of kingdom and empire, was well known in the Roman world. Rome claimed to have the most powerful and glorious kingdom ever. Yet here Paul’s speaks of God’s kingdom; of “his own kingdom and glory.”

2. “The Lord” – 2:19. This was used as a title for Roman emperors, and it is a general description of what they claimed with other terms. They had authority and power and ruled the world.

Paul’s use of this title is rooted in Biblical sources, but it also makes the counterpoint to Caesar clear. It is used often in 1 Thessalonians in reference to a different Lord, the Lord Jesus.

3. “Son” of God – 1:10. The full phrase is, “you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son.” (vs. 9-10).

Augustus claimed to be the son of god. His father was Julius Caesar who, after his death was revered as a god. And so Augustus called himself “the son of god” and was worshipped as such in Thessalonica. There are coins that proclaim this, which were minted in Thessalonica at the time of Paul.

But in 1 Thessalonians Jesus is the true Son of God, the Son of the “living and true God,” not of a dead Roman leader.

4. “Good news” – 1:5, or gospel. This word has roots in Scripture, but also in the culture of that day. It was used in reference to Roman emperors to talk of their birth, their ascension to the throne and their good deeds that helped the empire. So for instance one could speak of the good news that Augustus had brought in a new era of peace and security.

This word is used six times in 1 Thessalonians in each case talking about the good news of Jesus, the true Lord and Son of God.

5. “Peace and security” – 5:3. This was a slogan associated with Rome and Caesar Augustus. He ended the civil war and had brought law and order to the region through military might.

Paul critiques this as a false security, for when Jesus returns, while they are saying “peace and security” there will be sudden destruction. That is, the security of Rome will not protect it against the coming judgment of God. True peace and security only come through Jesus, and it will cover the earth when Jesus returns and deals with all evildoers and evil.

6. The “coming” of the Lord – 4:15. The word for coming here was used for the visit of a god, an emperor or some dignitary to a place. The Thessalonians would have known this, since kings and dignitaries would have visited their city. Here it is applied to the coming of Jesus. He is the true emperor and Lord and will come to them.

7. “Meet” – 4:17. The phrase is we “will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.” This was a term used for the welcoming committee that goes out to greet a visiting dignitary or emperor and escort them back into the city (Acts 28:15-16). Here it is applied to Christians going up to meet the Lord Jesus in the air when he comes, presumably to escort him to the earth.

One other note from 2 Thessalonians 2:3-4. However you understand the man of lawlessness, he is modeled on a Roman emperor (with Greek rulers also in the background; e.g. Antiochus Epiphanies. For instance the incident in 40 where Caligula tried to place a statue of himself in the Jerusalem temple, not too long before Paul wrote 1 and 2 Thessalonians). The day of the Lord will not come until, “the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction, who opposes and exalts himself against every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God.” These are very plausibly the actions of a Roman emperor with their arrogant claims and titles.

Paul’s point

 In all of these contrasts (and there are more) Paul is redefining their political identity in light of Jesus and the kingdom of God. His point is that God’s kingdom, ruled by the Lord Jesus, his Son is the real kingdom. And this is the community that the Thessalonians are now a part of. His point is that God’s gospel about Jesus and the salvation he brings is true salvation. And this is the salvation that the Thessalonians have received.

Rome is simply a parody of God’s kingdom (N.T. Wright). Despite its glory and power it is frail, feeble and flimsy in comparison to God’s kingdom which is eternal in power and glory.

The political implications of Paul’s claims were not lost on his opponents in Thessalonica or on the rulers of the city. This comes out in Acts 17:6-8. His opponents said, “’These men who have turned the world upside down have come here also, and Jason has received them, and they are all acting against the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus.’ And the people and the city authorities were disturbed when they heard these things.”

They were disturbed because Paul’s teaching would upset the relationship they had with Rome. None of the Thessalonians wanted to lose their benefits and privileges. And this was certainly a source of the persecution directed at the Thessalonian believers. So they got these political implications and the subversiveness of his message, and they and reacted negatively.

Well, whether you think of it in these terms or not –

We live in an empire . . .

– perhaps the greatest, most powerful, most wealthy one ever. What does Paul’s message to the Thessalonians say to us?

1. Beware of nations or empires that assume a divine status. The more powerful the country, the more the temptation to take on an identity that only belongs to God’s kingdom.

This happens in our country when politicians of all stripes and of all ages apply Christian terms and categories to this nation. For instance calling this country “the light of the world. A city set on a hill (that) cannot be hidden” from Matthew 5:14. Well I’m sorry, but this phrase is already taken! It is talking about the people of God and the kingdom of God, not this country. Or seeing our country as the savior of the world come to unite people of all backgrounds into one under our banners and ideals. Again, this is what the kingdom of God will do as people of all tribes and tongues come to submit to Jesus and honor him.

When we mix Christian faith and our national identity, through what is called civil religion – a very watered down version of Christianity, we always get into trouble, biblically considered. Whatever God’s purpose is for a given country, it is not to be his kingdom. He has already chosen a nation for this – his church! It is arrogant to say that it is otherwise. In fact, it is idolatrous.   Certainly we as Christians should not be so foolish as to take part in this. Rather we need to remember our true, separate identity as members of God’s kingdom:

  • We are “the light of the world. A city set on a hill (that) cannot be hidden” – Matthew 5:14.
  • We are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession” – 1 Peter 2:9.
  • “Our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ” – Philippians 3:20.
  • Ours is a nation made up of people “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, as Revelation 7:9 says.

Just as Paul worked to transform their political identity, so we need to remember this as well in our situation. Our country is one thing, the kingdom of God is an entirely different and better thing.

2. Beware of looking to your country for salvation. Don’t look to it for your security and peace and for meaning in life. There are a number of ideas and philosophies in our culture that come to us as alternative gospels; that promise us peace and happiness.

Financially there is the gospel of the American dream, of free market capitalism and consumerism where if we just keep buying more and more things we will be happy. This, even though we are taught to pray for daily bread and are to share with the poor.

Militarily there is the good news of peace and security via the US military and intelligence communities, even though such peace and security is only about preserving our lives in this world and we are called to lose our lives in this world in order to gain them in the next.

Politically there is the good news of democratic freedom, which is the equivalent of salvation, and we are to spread this by all means throughout the world. Even though freedom for the Christian is the freedom we have in Christ to serve God and to live under his theocracy.

Personally there is the gospel of autonomy and self-fulfillment; the casting off of restraints so that you can do whatever you want. Even though we will never find our true selves until we find ourselves in Christ by submitting to him.

Don’t look to these false gospels and the idols that they promote. True salvation only comes from God, through our Lord Jesus. And it will only fully come when our Lord comes and we meet him, as Paul told the Thessalonians. This is the good news. This is how we find peace, meaning and blessing.

(For the background material here I benefited most from Ben Witherington’s commentary on 1 Thessalonians)

William Higgins

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Today I am asking the question, “Will you enter the kingdom of God?” Or to ask it more personally, “Will you enter the kingdom of God?”

The phrase, “the kingdom of God” (or the “the kingdom of heaven”) is another way of saying God’s salvation. This was often Jesus’ way of talking about salvation. It means the blessings of the age to come – eternal life, joy and peace. We can have a foretaste of these things now, but we await the fullness of these blessings when Jesus returns.

So you can see, this is a very important question. And you can answer this by testing yourselves against the words of Jesus. Remember what he said about his words, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away” – Luke 21:33. He also said this, “If anyone hears my words and does not keep them, I do not judge him; . . .the word that I have spoken will judge him on the last day” – John 12:47-48.

So I give you ten specific examples where Jesus speaks of entering or being in the Kingdom. Will you enter the kingdom?

Do you have faith in Jesus?

Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith. I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.” – Matthew 8:10-11. (NIV)

Jesus here commends a non-Jewish soldier for recognizing his authority as the one sent to establish God’s kingdom on earth. The man had asked Jesus to heal his servant. His sense of Jesus’ authority was so great that he didn’t even need Jesus to come to his house. He said, “Just say the word from where you are, and my servant will be healed” – Matthew 8:8. Jesus was amazed.

Unlike so many in Israel, this man both recognized Jesus’ authority and boldly acted on it. That is, he had faith in Jesus. And it is those who have faith in Jesus, whether Jewish or Gentile, who will take part in the great feast and celebration of God’ kingdom salvation at the end of the age, which is what is pictured in these verses.

Do you recognize Jesus’ identity as the Messiah and will you boldly act on this? Like this man, do you have faith in Jesus?

Have you repented of your sins?

Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you” – Matthew 21:31 (NIV)

Jesus is referring to the tax collectors and prostitutes who had responded to John the Baptist’s message of repentance (Matthew 21:32/Luke 7:29-30). These are the same people who received Jesus’ message of repentance (Matthew 4:17) as opposed to the leaders of the nation of Israel, the “you” in this verse.

To repent means to have a change of mind and heart that leads you to begin to do God’s will (Matthew 21:28-31). You turn away from your old life, and begin to do God’s will. These are the ones who enter the kingdom, even ahead of others who may seem like they should be first in line (religious people, or people without sordid backgrounds).

Have you repented? Have you had a change of heart and mind so that you now have submitted your life completely to God? Those who have repented can ask for and receive the free gift of the forgiveness of their sins through Jesus.

Are you born of the Spirit?

Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” – John 3:5.

To be born of water refers to the process of natural birth. We all have this. To be born of the Spirit is to receive new life from the Spirit of God; to be born anew (John 3:3). It means to be spiritually reborn. And not all have this.

Jesus is teaching us here that each of us must be born of the Spirit to enter the kingdom of God.

Have you received this gift of God; this gift of new life? This is what makes all the rest of what we will talk about today possible.

Are you doing God’s will according to the teaching of Jesus?

Jesus said, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” – Matthew 5:20. Jesus also said, “Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven” – Matthew 7:21. (NRSV)

The first verse is near the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, a long series of Jesus’ teaching on what it means to do God’s will. The second verse comes near the end of the Sermon on the Mount. It gives a warning to heed all that Jesus has just taught.

Both make the same point, to enter the kingdom you must practice the will of God that Jesus teaches. This is the righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees. (See also Matthew19:17; 1 Corinthians 6:9-10; Galatians 5:19-21; Ephesians 5:5; 2 Peter 1:11).

Having been born of the Spirit and empowered by the Spirit of God, are you practicing God’s will just as Jesus taught it?

Are you generous with your wealth?

This is a specific example of doing God’s will, and one that Jesus talked about constantly. Jesus said, “How difficult it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” – Luke 18:24-25.

Jesus said this after a rich man chose not to follow him because he loved his money too much.

The camel proverb is meant to make the point that it is impossible for a rich person to enter the kingdom. The pull of wealth and what comes with it, security, power and comfort is just too great. But then Jesus says, “What is impossible for people is possible with God” – Luke 18:27. (NLT) That is, God is able to change our hearts so that we give up our wealth and become generous toward God and others. In this way we can enter the kingdom.

Has God worked in your heart, so that you are now generous with whatever resources God has given to you?

Are you separating from what causes you to sin?

Jesus said, “If your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell” – Mark 9:47.

Not only do you need to repent, that is, turn from sin to do God’s will, you also need to stay away from whatever might lead you to sin – stumbling blocks. Even if this means taking radical action – tearing your eye out. Even if this means losing something precious to you – your eye.

Are you guarding your obedience to God? Are you willing to give up whatever stands in the way of your doing God’s will?

Are you humble like a little child?

Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” – Matthew 18:3-4.

In Jesus’ day children were very low in social standing, like slaves. To become like a child is to be humble or lowly. This is in contrast to the disciples who were focused on who was the greatest among them (Matthew 18:1).

Humility means being willing to submit to others, to forsake honor, to serve others and to suffer lack. (See also Matthew 19:14; 5:3).

Are you doing these things? Do you accept lowliness?

Are you suffering for your commitment to God?

Jesus said, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” – Matthew 5:10.

Those who suffer for the kingdom will enter the kingdom; indeed it is already theirs. Suffering includes anything from being ridiculed to being killed. (See also Acts 14:22; Romans 8:17; 2 Thessalonians 1:3-5).

Is your commitment to God more important than being ridiculed for your faith? Is it more important than your life?

Are you serving God?

Jesus said, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master” – Matthew 25:21. (NRSV)

This comes from the parable of the talents. This parable teaches that we are to be busy serving Jesus while he is gone. We are to be busy with whatever responsibilities God has given us. This could include sharing your faith, serving in Jesus’ community, and serving other’s needs. It means using your gifts for God.

Those who serve Jesus will enter the kingdom, “the joy of (their) master,” with a reward based on their work. But those who do nothing to serve God will be cast out of the kingdom (Matthew 25:30).

Are you serving God doing the work of the kingdom?

Are you ‘forcibly seizing’ the kingdom?

Jesus said, “The good news of the kingdom of God is proclaimed, and everyone is forcing their way into it” – Luke 16:16 (NRSV)

Those who want to enter the kingdom must be forceful in how they lay hold of it. They must seize it; they must grab hold of it. They must seek it first above all else (Matthew 6:33).This paints a picture of someone who refuses not to gain the kingdom, but does everything necessary to enter it. They pursue it at all costs. (Matthew 11:12; 13:44-46).

Do you seek God’s kingdom above all else – money, relationships, family, status?

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Finally, let me say, it’s not too late. When you test yourself against the words of Jesus and you find yourself lacking, it’s not too late. Rather, see this as an invitation even now,

  • to look to Jesus in faith
  • to submit yourself fully to God
  • to receive new life from the Spirit
  • by God’s grace to walk in this new life
  • and to hold nothing back as you do this

I invite you to do this right now. Where do Jesus’ words convict you? How do they show you what you need to do? Do these things and you will be ready for the kingdom of God and the blessings of the age to come, when Jesus returns.

William Higgins

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