The Focus of the Kingdom of God

One day my friend Dan and I were helping a neighbor load a moving truck for the neighbor’s move to another state. Dan’s wife and two small children came along to visit Dan while he was helping load things onto the truck. At one point Dan’s 3-year-old son started crying, and his mom went to comfort him. She asked him what was wrong. He answered, “I don’t want daddy to move away.” Dan wasn’t moving – he was only helping a neighbor move. But Dan’s son had the wrong idea about the whole scene!

According to Acts 1:1-8, shortly after Jesus’ resurrection, his disciples had the wrong idea about what Jesus was doing with his kingdom. As a result, they had the wrong idea about what they should be doing as well. Jesus has just died for the sins of the world, so that people could participate in God’s kingdom and enjoy relationship with the King. On the third day, Jesus rose from the dead and began to appear to the disciples. Note that according to Acts 1:3, Jesus continued to teach about the kingdom of God to his disciples. Even after his resurrection Jesus proclaimed the same kingdom he had announced at the beginning of his ministry and had demonstrated through his miraculous works.

Jesus and the apostles, Trinity Church, New York City

Jesus and the apostles, Trinity Church, New York City

Still, the disciples are confused at this point. In verse 6 they ask, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” There are two primary things they are confused about. First, they are confused about the timing of the kingdom. They think that it should come immediately. Jesus diverts their focus from timing to mission. They shouldn’t worry about the “times or seasons,” since that is God’s responsibility. Their response is to be empowered by the Spirit to be Jesus’ witnesses, pointing other people to God’s kingdom and its King. Waiting for God’s kingdom should never lead to passivity. The hope of the coming kingdom should motivate followers of Christ for service and ministry.

The second point of confusion is about the scope of God’s kingdom. The disciples envisioned a kingdom that was restored to Israel. But God’s kingdom is for both Israel and the other nations. Jesus told his disciples to be his witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. God’s kingdom is open to anyone who has faith in Jesus and his sacrificial death for the forgiveness of our sins.

Even today the promise of Jesus’ kingdom coming sometimes creates idle speculation about dates and timing rather than motivation for action. We should avoid the pull towards passivity and instead be active witnesses and servants of God’s kingdom to people from all backgrounds and cultures.

(See also previous posts in this series on the kingdom of God).

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Entering the Kingdom of God

Loch Vale, Rocky Mountain National Park

Loch Vale, Rocky Mountain National Park

Hiking in the mountains is one of my favorite things to do. I love the fresh air, the great views, and the challenges of the hikes. I’m not enough of a thrill-seeker to want to hike Mount Everest though, and besides, I wouldn’t have the free time for it. When people hike to the top of very tall mountains, they can’t just show up one day and hike to the top the next. Their bodies need multiple weeks to adjust to the high altitude first. If they were dropped at the base camp and immediately started hiking, their bodies wouldn’t be able to cope and they would break down and put their lives at risk. A majestic mountain range is an amazing environment, but only for those who are prepared to enjoy it.

The kingdom of God is good news (gospel) for our world, but we shouldn’t assume that we can enjoy God’s kingdom in our default human condition. There was a religious teacher named Nicodemus who made that assumption, but Jesus quickly set him straight. In John 3:3-8, Jesus identifies what is necessary for entering the kingdom of God. And in John 3:14-17, Jesus promises that he himself would make it possible for Nicodemus and others to enter the kingdom of God.

The exchange between Jesus and Nicodemus picks up steam quickly. Not one for small talk, Jesus immediately challenges Nicodemus with truth about the kingdom of God. Jesus states that no one can see (verse 3) or enter (verse 5) the kingdom of God without being born again by God’s Spirit. Kings judge their enemies, and apart from a new birth Nicodemus was an enemy of God. All humans have sinned and rebelled against God and his kingly reign. Apart from a dramatic transformation, we would be judged by God as enemies of his kingdom. But we can enter God’s kingdom if we experience a new birth by God’s Spirit and receive forgiveness for our sins. The Holy Spirit, who is the giver of life throughout the Scriptures, creates this new birth and new life within us.

It is significant that Jesus chides Nicodemus for not understanding these truths (John 3:10). Jesus expected Nicodemus to know about the need for a spiritual rebirth already. Jesus was not claiming to be an innovator in this teaching. He probably had in mind the Old Testament passages that spoke about the need for circumcised hearts (Deuteronomy 30:6), hearts that were forgiven and genuinely responsive to God’s commands (Jeremiah 31:31-34), and hearts that were cleansed and enlivened by the Spirit (Ezekiel 36:24-28). Nicodemus and his contemporaries thought that they could enter God’s kingdom in their current condition, without any dramatic change of heart. But Jesus knew the evidence from the Old Testament that suggested otherwise.

Jesus tells Nicodemus that this new birth and forgiveness will be made possible by his sacrificial work on the cross. As usual, Jesus uses the royal designation “Son of Man” to refer to himself, in verse 14. But in a shocking statement, Jesus hints that this royal Son of Man will be lifted up (on a cross) as a sacrifice for the people of the world, all of whom are enemies of God’s kingdom. Through Jesus’ sacrifice, however, those who believe in him will not be judged as enemies but given eternal life in the kingdom of God.

Mountaineers cannot enjoy or even survive a climb to Everest unless their bodies are ready for the hike. People cannot enjoy or even survive the coming of God’s kingdom apart from the new birth we experience when we trust in the Son of Man and receive his sacrifice for our sins. When we read this passage we encounter the stunning reality that we can experience eternal life in the kingdom of God because the King has died for our sins.

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The Kingdom of God Defined

In the previous two blog posts (here and here) we have talked about the kingdom of God without examining a detailed definition of the kingdom. What does God’s reign look like? If Jesus came to proclaim and demonstrate the kingdom of God, why does so much of our world still look so broken and disordered? We can find answers to these questions in the Gospels, and in a famous prayer in the Gospels in particular.

In Matthew 6:7-13 Jesus told his disciples to pray that God’s kingdom would come. Jesus instructed his disciples to pray this because only God can establish his kingdom on the earth. The fact that we still need to pray for God’s kingdom also suggests that even though Jesus inaugurated the kingdom of God when he began his ministry, the kingdom has not yet arrived in full. What will the full arrival of the kingdom look like? The next line gives us an important clue: “your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” The kingdom’s final arrival will consist of God’s perfect will being carried out on earth as completely as it is in heaven. Everything in the universe will be restored to its proper order and harmony. Human life will revolve around God’s glory, and believers will experience the peace, love, and righteousness that characterizes God’s reign.

The topic of the kingdom of God was central to Jesus’ ministry. Many of his parables describe what the kingdom of God is like. Other statements in the Gospels show that Jesus’ early ministry could be summed up as “proclaiming and demonstrating the kingdom of God” (see Matthew 4:23, Matthew 9:35; Luke 4:43). Every miracle, every healing, and every casting out of demons gave the crowds a glimpse or sneak preview of the kingdom of God. These miracles and wonders displayed what it was like for God to have authority over the natural and supernatural world. They gave a vivid preview of the kingdom of God, of God restoring order to the seen and unseen world. Jesus’ earthly ministry in the first century A.D. represented the “already” of the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is already present through the works of Jesus, and the kingdom continues to be witnessed through the power of the Spirit working among his people (as in Luke 9:2).

Church of St. Paul outside the walls

There is still a “not yet” aspect to the kingdom of God. God will one day send Jesus back to exercise his perfect authority over all of creation, so that God’s will is done on earth, as it is in heaven (see Acts 3:19-21). At that time, Jesus will banish all sin, evil, and suffering, and his eternal kingdom will be consummated. Hebrews 9:27-28 and other passages explain that Jesus came to our world a first time to die as a sacrifice for our sins. But he will come a second time to judge his enemies, bring salvation for his people, and rule over the world.

From our study in this series so far, here is a working definition of the kingdom of God:The kingdom of God is the complete and abundant reign of God on the earth, through Jesus, in fulfillment of Old Testament promises. This reign will be characterized by eternal life, justice, righteousness, love, and peace.

Praying the prayer of Matthew 6:9-11 can shape and fuel our desire to see God’s kingdom come. Let’s use this prayer as a way to express to God our longing to see his kingdom come.

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An Eternal Kingdom: Promised and Unveiled

Temple of Artemis remains, Ephesus

Temple of Artemis remains, Ephesus

When I was in Ephesus, Turkey, our tour group saw the remains of the Temple of Artemis, one of the famous Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The site had one tall pillar and another shorter one. The pillars were not unearthed in this shape – they had been stacked with sections from pieces of sculpted stone that had been scattered around the site. Nothing besides these two reconstructed pillars were left from what was once one of the marvels of the ancient world. This was a stark visual reminder that even the most impressive structures do not stand the test of time. Only God’s kingdom will endure.

Daniel 7:9-14 describes this vision of an eternal kingdom. In this passage, which comes in the form of a heavenly vision, the prophet Daniel sees a judgment scene taking place, with the Ancient of Days (God) taking his seat as the judge. God judges a number of beasts, which are symbolic for powerful earthly kingdoms that have raised themselves up against God’s kingdom. One by one, these kingdoms, which seemed so permanent and dominant at the time, have their power removed from them by the One who has final and complete authority.

The scene shifts in verse 13. The Ancient of Days still presides over the proceedings, but instead of beasts, “one like a son of man” approaches God’s throne. In other words, Daniel sees someone who looks like one of us. When the son of man comes before the Ancient of Days, he is given “dominion and glory and a kingdom.” The passage says that all people and nations will recognize his authority, and his reign will be permanent. This is the one kingdom that will stand the test of time!

We learn several things about God’s kingdom from this passage. First, God’s kingdom has been opposed throughout the history of the world. But no kingdom ever prevails against God’s kingdom. Additionally, although God in some sense has always and will always rule over this world, he has designated a special representative, the son of man, to implement this kingdom directly on the earth.

In Mark 1:14-15 Jesus describes this kingdom as “good news” or “gospel” (these are the same word in the Greek language). This emphasizes again the idea that God’s good and perfect reign is cause for hope and celebration. When Jesus says that “the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand (or near),” he means that according to God’s timetable the promised kingdom of God is ready to be unveiled. The kingdom was drawing near with the arrival of the King – the Son of Man – Jesus. In fact, in all four Gospels, “Son of Man” is Jesus’ preferred title for himself. Jesus understood that his ultimate calling was to rule over the world as God’s Anointed One.

Jesus makes it clear that the arrival of the kingdom rests in God’s hands alone. Jesus doesn’t tell his listeners to build the kingdom. Instead, he simply announces the coming of the kingdom. What did Jesus tell the people to do in response? He told them to “repent and believe in the gospel” (the good news he had just spoken about). God is bringing his kingdom to the world, but people cannot enter in their current state of resistance to God. They must humbly repent and believe.

The proclamation of the arrival of God’s long-awaited kingdom was and is good news for a world that needs God’s leadership and authority. In response, we must get on board with God’s kingdom agenda by repenting from our sin and our own agendas. We must humbly believe in God, his kingdom, and his king – Jesus.

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The LORD Reigns – Reflections on the Kingdom of God

Biblical Theology is an approach to the Scriptures that observes the development of important themes from Old Testament to New Testament. One central theme to Biblical Theology is the topic of the kingdom of God. This post will begin a series of reflections on the promise and realization of God’s reign on this earth.

This past summer I served on a jury for a trial that lasted four days. During that time I had the chance to observe the way the judge ran the trial and kept the courtroom in order. He was a knowledgeable judge who made sure that the trial was conducted according to the law. He was also a considerate judge who was sensitive to the practical needs of the jury and other participants. Most important, he was a fair judge who made decisions based on justice rather than favoritism. It was fun to watch a skilled judge provide effective leadership over the courtroom and the trial.

On the grandest scale possible, God judges and reigns perfectly over the world he created. A number of Psalms in the Bible celebrate God’s reign over Israel and over all the nations of the world.  Psalm 96 depicts a celebration of God’s reign and reveals the character traits and actions associated with God’s reign.

"Let all the trees of the forest sing for joy."

“Let all the trees of the forest sing for joy.”

The psalmist poetically summons all of creation to sing God’s praises (verses 1 and 9). This includes even the seas and its creatures, the fields and its plants, and the trees of the forests (verses 11-12). This is appropriate, since God made all of creation in the first place. There is something so fitting about God’s creation reflecting praise back to its creator.

God’s glorious reign is to be proclaimed among the nations, so that all people can see his greatness and reject the worthless gods or idols that they have made for themselves (verse 5). God is the only one worthy to be praised, since he alone is the ruler of the world, and he alone has the power to act for the good of his creation.

The psalmist associates God’s reign with his salvation, holiness, judgments, righteousness, and faithfulness. These are all attributes that describe God’s character and the way that he exercises his rule. These descriptors confirm that God is the type of king this world needs. He created the world and its people, and he knows what is best for us.

A kingdom that is governed by a wise, powerful, and good king is a kingdom to be celebrated. Sadly, we experience the consequences of living under flawed rulers in our world today, whether selfish and corrupt political leaders, greedy and reckless business leaders, or flawed and untrustworthy religious leaders. Even on a personal level, when we rule our own lives without God’s guidance, we make a mess of things.

In contrast, God’s kingdom brings deep joy, because he will rule perfectly and in such a way that this world can flourish under his reign. “Sing to the LORD a new song; sing to the LORD, all the earth!”

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The Authorship of Colossians and Ephesians – A Closer Look

Todd Scacewater has posted a review of my book, Portrait of an Apostle: A Case For Paul’s Authorship of Colossians and Ephesians, on his blog, Exegetical Tools. Scacewater has shared some kind words as well as points of substantive critique. I appreciate that he has extended to me the opportunity for a brief response. I think the whole exchange will reflect what should happen in biblical studies and other scholarly arenas – engaging in a respectful yet challenging discussion of ideas as part of the pursuit of greater insight into important issues.

Here is the link to Scacewater’s review. My response has been posted on his blog at this link. Perhaps the main question up for debate: what methods are most appropriate for examining the authorship of the letters that are written in Paul’s name?

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Pictures from Rome (and Vatican City)

I have posted pictures from Rome and the surrounding area, including the Roman Forum, Coliseum, Arch of Titus, Pantheon, San Callisto Catacombs, and the Vatican City.

The pictures can be accessed from a link on the top of the home page or by following this link.

These pictures were taken as part of a January, 2015 study tour in Greece and Rome.

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