Throughout history, as well as today, one outstanding indicator of the difference between observable, practical Christianity – a mutual effort at faithfulness – and the theoretical, doctrine-driven, “pie-in-the-sky” version – concerned primarily with sorting who is “in” and who is “out”– , is the understanding that a group promulgates of the Kingdom of God: you can easily tell, by whether they speak of it as a present reality or a future dream.The Biblical balance is skewed heavily in the direction of the present reality.
It started at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Actually, it started at Creation, but immediately after his baptism by John, Mark tells us that “Jesus came into Galilee preaching the good news of the Kingdom of God, saying, “The time HAS BEEN fulfilled; the Kingdom of God HAS ARRIVED!” (1:14,15)
He explained it further in his “inaugural address” (Lk.4:18-21), as providing “good news to the poor, release to the captives, sight to the blind, and freedom to those broken by oppression”. He announced (the word is the same as what is translated “herald” – the task of a news anchor!) “TODAY this HAS BEEN FULFILLED in your hearing!” It only takes third or fourth grade English to realize that “has been” refers to something that is already present.
Later, he outlined the “constitution of the Kingdom” in Mt.5, 6, 7 and Lk.6.
More than half of his recorded parables refer to the Kingdom, many of them introduced with “The Kingdom of God IS like…” (NOT “will be”). And Acts 1:3 informs us that it was also the content of the “graduate course” that Jesus conducted for his disciples in the period between his resurrection and his ascension: “He presented himself ALIVE to them during 40 days, talking about the Kingdom of God.”
He had put it very plainly before, in Lk.16 and Mt.11, “The Law and the Prophets were in effect UNTIL JOHN, and since then , the Kingdom of God is being proclaimed!”
THE KING HAS ARRIVED! THE KINGDOM EXISTS wherever the authority of the King is recognized.
A powerful example is seen in the Lord’s prayer – which I’m quite sure was never intended to be a rote memorization to be recited, but to encourage our participation, together with the Lord Jesus, in the basic ingredients of the Kingdom. The Kingdom exists and flourishes where and when God’s name (his entire personality) is recognized as holy – belonging uniquely and exclusively to him – and where presently doing his will is the deliberate choice of his people. This is already the case in heaven – his people are called to model it as well as to pray for it on earth: in other words, we are called to incarnate the Kingdom.
Jesus corrected the eschatological expectations of the disciples, who were still hung-up on the restoration of Israel, explaining that the Kingdom will be established and grow as the Holy Spirit enables his people to spread its influence.
The whole rest of the NT describes that Kingdom in action. There are no cut-and-dried definitions. Its forms vary with the situation. Only two things are certain and inviolable: THE KING IS IN CHARGE, and a radical difference in lifestyle is expected. The people of God are not merely asked to adopt a slightly sanitized substitute for the sordid situation of their surrounding society. The change is enormous – variously described as the change from death to life, from foreigners to citizens, from captive slaves to a ransomed, free people.
This is a Kingdom different from anything the world has ever seen. Sadly, through the ages, most folks who say they “believe” in Jesus have preferred to defer any observable difference to a future heavenly paradise, and not be bothered with it now. But please consider: Is it not possible that, had the Lord Jesus confined his remarks to ethereal, theoretical talk of heaven and hell, he would very probably never have so incurred the wrath of the authorities, both religious and political? They felt their authority threatened in the present, not the future. His opponents understood far better than we, that in the Kingdom of which he spoke, nothing is familiar and manageable. Nothing is under the control of those who are used to exercising control. There is only one King – and his authority is absolute. IN THIS LIFE – not just the next.
Furthermore, Jesus was not talking about a revolution, as some have suggested, all through the centuries. Revolutions never solve – or even address – any real problems. A revolution only changes the cast of characters in an oppressive power system, reversing the role of oppressor and oppressed. Jesus is out to rearrange the entire structure of things so that there exists no oppressive power structure. His citizens function together as his Body, of which he is the only Head! What, exactly, is involved in becoming a part of the Body of Christ?
The idea of citizenship was well understood by first century folks. Rome conferred citizenship upon select allied cities (among which were Philippi, Tarsus, and other major centers) and their inhabitants, as well as to people who had served the state. Even a slave could gain citizenship, if his freedom was attested by his master before a magistrate.
Citizens had legal rights not afforded to others and Paul asserted those rights on occasion – in Philippi, Jerusalem, and Caesarea.
But the New Testament proclaims a citizenship far beyond that offered by Rome. There is a wonderful description in Eph.2:11-22. Right in the middle, v.19, is the key:
“Now, therefore, you all are no longer strangers and temporary residents, but you are fellow-citizens with God’s people, and members of God’s household.”
The citizenship conferred by our King, although vastly surpassing anything the nations of the world can offer, nevertheless bears some similarities to other forms of citizenship.
Even on a worldly plane, it is a weighty decision to change one’s citizenship, one that should not be taken lightly nor made impulsively. One is wise, if not legally bound, to live in a country for a while, to become familiar with its customs and laws, before taking such a step. Likewise, no one should ever be rushed into the Kingdom!!! A citizen needs to be fully apprised of what he is getting into! People recruited in campaigns more closely resembling “scalp-collecting” than Kingdom advocacy, rarely become active, productive citizens.
There is nothing wrong with living in a country as a visitor or foreigner. People go to another country for a variety of reasons.
There are tourists – and turistas. We learned the distinction from a friend in Mexico, years ago. When Jose remarked, “Ustedes no me parecen turistas”, (“You all don’t seem like tourists to me!”) we recognized it as a compliment.
“Turistas” are the overbearing, complaining, arrogant folks who loudly criticize everything unfamiliar.
Tourists go to learn, appreciate varied friendships, and even may adopt some of the ways of their host country. However, even these, with their much healthier attitude, do not usually make the commitment of citizenship. They retain sovereignty over their own way of life. They are free to choose where they will and won’t conform. That is not wrong. But full citizenship demands a renunciation of that autonomy.
Some folks go into a country as entrepreneurs – for what they can get out of it. They will adapt only to what contributes to their own perceived profit, and don’t much care about their effect on the local citizens. There are entrepreneurs in the Kingdom as well.
Some enter a country deceitfully, with a goal of its detriment, or even its destruction. John, Paul and Peter all warned of these in the Kingdom.
Then there are those who enter as refugees. They really didn’t want to leave home, and did so only to escape war or disaster of some sort. They have no desire to become productive, contributing citizens – they only want a place to hide. Sadly, many have “entered” the Kingdom also only because they were threatened with destruction. Unfortunately, some folks call such threats “evangelism.” It’s NOT “good news!” It was not Jesus’ approach!
Jesus never threatened anyone! To the tax-collecting cheat, Zacchaeus, he simply said, “I’m coming over for lunch!” and the man’s life was radically changed. When Peter, who would have been a fine target for today’s so-called “evangelists”, called himself a “sinner” and asked the Lord to go away, his response was simply, “Come on, Peter, I have a job for you!” If only those who are called his followers would follow that example!
Our King, in recruiting citizens for his Kingdom, called folks to become participants in a new and wonderful life, in company with the King, and others he had called. They were not turistas, tourists, entrepreneurs, or refugees, but members of his citizenship class!
The responsibility of a foreigner in a country is minimal. He has no obligation to other citizens, nor they to him. But the true content of Jesus’ offer is full citizenship. No one is a citizen alone. He shares both privilege and responsibility with every other citizen.
He pledges support and allegiance, renouncing every other loyalty, and receives the protection of his Sovereign.
Acknowledging Jesus Christ as “Lord and Savior” (#4), for first century followers, was a far cry from the required password or the creedal recitation it has become in subsequent generations. It was a powerful declaration of absolute allegiance to Jesus’ Kingdom – a declaration that could, and frequently did, cost the life of the person involved! These were titles that the Roman emperors, drunk with power, reserved for themselves, as symbols of their overtly-claimed deity! Applying either of those terms to anyone but the emperor was treason – punishable by assorted forms of gruesome death. One could only persist in that declaration of loyalty by the power of the Holy Spirit, as Paul noted in I Cor.12:3.
Remember: The Kingdom is not a democracy, in which one can participate minimally, enthusiastically, or not at all, at his own discretion.
A King is an absolute ruler. What he says, goes.
Kingdom citizens have no concern for “equality.” Their goal is much higher. They are to become ONE, just as Jesus and his Father are. (Jn.17)
The Kingdom is not a place to “find yourself”. That search belongs to the old creation, where self-centeredness quickly became the original sin. The New Creation was engineered by the One who spoke of “losing, denying, disowning” the tyranny of “self” in favor of being built into the body of the King.
The Kingdom is not an institution, with hierarchy and flow-charts. There is ONLY ONE SUPERIOR.
All the citizens are members of his family – of his own Body! (see #84)
Consider very carefully, then, as you contemplate the King’s offer of full citizenship. The Kingdom has been a long time in the building, and it is not finished yet. Study the blueprints carefully, and only then decide. The blueprints of the Kingdom were drawn by the Supreme Architect of the Universe – the same Architect who also set the standards for the building code. His specifications are not subject to revision.
As Paul reminded the folks at Corinth, “The Kingdom of God does not consist of talk, but of power” – the present-tense experience of the power of the Holy Spirit.
The Kingdom is not an idea to be argued, but a life to be lived!
We also have the assurance (Heb.12:28) that when everything else is shaken apart, this Kingdom WILL STAND.
Clearly, there is “more in store” for those who choose ways of faithfulness. The future is not irrelevant. It simply is not the only, or even the main consideration. It holds indescribable promise – the culmination of the citizenship class.
BUT UNTIL THEN – we already have a King to honor and obey, and fellow-citizens of his Kingdom with whom to learn to reflect his very being!
There are only two requirements:
to acknowledge the King as our only sovereign,
and to follow his instructions TOGETHER.
The citizenship class always has room for more. There are no restrictive quotas. The King is still recruiting citizens for his Kingdom.