~ The Now and Future of the Kingdom ~
Quoting out of context can generate problems. A part of the truth, standing alone, can change the meaning of the whole truth. But the context can be so large that time and space requires only part of it to be presented. Other times a long context could drown the focus of the essence to be understood and digested.
The Book of Hebrews is a superb example of out of context quotes: Chapter 1 has seven, chapter 2 has four, and most of the other chapters have one or two. The quotes, however, are connected in a marvelous way to present a fresh meaning from the tapestry of Scripture.
I had to do a similar thing to help me understand some things that didn’t make sense on the surface of thought. For example, Hebrews 1:13 (NIV) states: “To which of the angels did God ever say, ‘Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet’?” The writer is referring to Christ, the quote taken from Psalm 110. But haven’t you wondered about the “until” part? Where will Christ “sit” once the enemies are under His feet? And isn’t Revelation clear about the destruction of the enemies of Christ?
1 Corinthians 15:25-26 (NIV) also states, “For he [Christ] must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” Verse 28 reveals a profound insight into mystery: “When he has done this, then the Son himself will be made subject to him who put everything under him, so that God may be all in all.”
Paul’s context is Christian judgement when he quotes Isaiah 45:23: “ ‘As surely as I live’, says the Lord, ‘every knee will bow before me; every tongue will confess to God’” (Romans 14:11). One must read Isaiah in context to see if the “every knee” and “every tongue” includes Christ’s enemies. If so, does that suggest even His enemies shall be redeemed?
To help link these observations, let’s look at an “out of context” statement about the Kingdom of God, since there are just so many of them. Jesus declared (to the Pharisees, no less, but addressed to all listening): “The kingdom of God does not come with your careful observation, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:20b-21, NIV).
In Scripture, the kingdom is spoken about both as a present state and as a future outcome. In the passage from Luke above, and in John 14:23 where Jesus says, “If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him,” the tense is in the here and now. Indeed, our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit now, as Paul asserts, not having to wait until the end of time for that gift.
Satan will be rendered powerless and all of God’s pronouncements are certain to be fulfilled. The kingdom of God will be established. This will happen whether or not we pray for it. So for what are we praying when we say, as instructed by Christ, “May your kingdom come”? For what are we praying when we say, “May your will be done on earth as in heaven”? We pray, “Holy be your name.” Is His name not holy already?
The rest of “The Lord’s Prayer” is about us: “Give us our daily bread…forgive our sins…keep us from temptation…deliver us from evil.” Perhaps the first part is also about us: May we keep your name holy…May your kingdom manifest in us…May your will be done in and by us.” As James writes, it doesn’t do much good to pass by a hungry or poorly clothed person and pray God’s will be done for him to be helped, when you are the one in the position to make God’s will happen. The “good Samaritan” was the neighbor to the injured man Christ calls us to be. God’s will was done because the Samaritan did it.
The kingdom of God is accessible only in Christ, who promises to dwell within us in love, along with the Father (John 14:23). Therefore, in us, Christ then sits with the Father and reigns until His enemies are underfoot and not running around. His enemies are whatever resides in our corruptible, mortal natures “that must put on incorruptibility and immortality,” whatever keeps us from being “completely formed into His image.” That’s why death must be “the last enemy to be destroyed.” Then Christ’s reign can end because we can reign with Him and “God may be all in all” in us.
The wisdom of God is layers deep. What happens on the grand scale is a visible image of what happens to each of our souls. The exodus, desert wanderings and entrance into the promised land is not only the history of the Hebrew people, it is also the story of our personal life journeys. The Red Sea parts in our lives and the walls of Jericho crumble down in our paths as we implement the faith Jesus said would move mountains. The seduction, disobedience and shame in God’s presence of Adam and Eve happens over and over in us. Abel’s blood still cries out from every part of our earth as his murder by his brother is repeated thousands of times every day and people still mockingly ask, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” We still ask, “And who is my neighbor?” We haven’t learned that much over the past few thousand years.
Christ bore the sins of the world. He also bore my own, and yours. Grace is bestowed upon us as a community, but also as individuals. We are one body in Christ, yet we are also individuals in Him.
So we may wonder at the statement of Ephesians 2:6 (NIV): “And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus.” This is not a future state to come. It is written in the past tense. But is that our experience now, here on earth?
It can be if we believe the kingdom is within us, that the Father and Son dwells in our hearts now, and Christ is, at this very moment, making His (and our) enemies His footstool. But it can’t be if we insist on being the lord of ourselves, if we don’t offer ourselves “as living sacrifices,” if we don’t forsake our lives to His reign, denying ourselves, crucifying ourselves with Him so that we can be resurrected with Him. The power of the resurrection is ours today, not just for the “end of the age.”
Isn’t this what Psalm 24 is about? “Who may ascent the hill of the Lord? Who may stand in his holy place?…Lift up your heads, O you gates; lift them up, you ancient doors, that the King of Glory may come in. Who is he, this King of Glory? The Lord Almighty – he is the King of Glory” (v.3,9-10, NIV). What are these gates, if not the doors to our hearts at which Jesus stands and knocks?
Many of us like truth and wisdom to be black and white with clear dividing lines. Our God, however, did not create a black and white world. Even at the most profound depths of the oceans where light never reaches, sea life is resplendent with exquisite colors. (Evolutionary theory cannot explain why life would evolve useless color in a perpetually dark world.) God loves to reflect His work in glorious spectrums of infinite hues and colors, and so with sounds, tastes, smells and textures. Can we expect wisdom and God’s revelations in the Scripture to be any less resplendent and multifaceted?
We look forward to when the Church, the Kingdom, is fully established everywhere. We can be, however, so awed, so comforted, so overwhelmed in grace knowing we are seated with Christ right now in the heavenly realm within us, and He and the Father, in the Holy Spirit, is at work in us right now making the enemies His footstool, allowing us to happily gaze at death and ask with the psalmist, “So where is your sting?” Our full submission to the reign of Christ in His Kingdom within us will hasten His work of our sanctification. God said we must be holy for He is holy. O God, holy be your name, in us. May your kingdom come in us as we await its fullness at the end of time.
The “Kingdom of God is within you” as individuals, “in your midst” as a community of faith (“wherever two or three are gathered”), and “God has [already] raised us up with Christ and seated us with him” in that kingdom. We can explain this away or argue Christ wasn’t talking about this happening to us (in us) on earth. Or we can prayerfully take Him at His word (He is the Word) and pray, “May your name be kept holy in us now, may your kingdom come within us now, may your will be done within us now, on earth as it is in heaven.”
“May he strengthen your hearts so that you will be blameless and holy in the presence of our God and Father when our Lord Jesus comes with all his holy ones… May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul, and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful and he will do it” (1 Thessalonians 3:13; 5:23-24, NIV).
A confusion seems to muddle the distinction between the “change” and “glorification” of the bodies, souls and spirits of the redeemed at the “end of time” marked by the explosive visibility of Christ’s Second Coming and holiness and sanctification.
A review of Scripture reveals an association of glorification with the Second Coming, while the call, even the command, to be holy and perfect is expressed in the present tense and coupled with our earthly existence. The opening quote from the first letter to the Thessalonians above is one example of many.
Others to ponder include, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48, NIV); “But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do, for it is written, ‘Be holy, because I am holy’” (1 Peter 1:15-16, NIV); “But join with me in suffering for the gospel, by the power of God, who has saved us and called us to a holy life” (2 Timothy 1:8b-9a, NIV).
Confusion can also result from the way we use the words “holy” or “saintly,” as in the mocking phrase, “Holier than thou.” In the Kingdom language, holy is never associated with “superior.” Quite the contrary, actually.
Consider this often quoted passage, Philippians 2:6-8 (NIV): “Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death, even death on a cross!”
In most versions these verses are arranged as a canticle or prose song. We gasp at the marvel of our God doing such a thing. It eloquently describes holiness in human form on earth. So we view these words as applicable only to God. Consequently, we tend to almost consistently omit the crucial introductory verse in our recitations and writings, verse 5: “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:” Verses 5 and 6 are one sentence. That means the verses that follow are not so much in praise of Christ as they are an elaboration of the often repeated instructions for us: “Be holy because I am holy.”
We can glean from this the revelation of holiness not being a personal ascent to God. Instead, Christ “made himself nothing” and lost no holiness in the process. “He humbled himself and became obedient to death.”
Christ did pound away at our need to die to self with direct statements and metaphors. This is more literal than we like to view it, as our fallen natures cling “for dear life” to our egos. There is no limit to the imaginative deception of this corrupt nature. It will even clothe itself in religious piety and a holy façade in great charitable works and fiery exhortation and praise in the name of Christ to keep itself alive. Forgotten are those terrible, predicted words of Christ when our facades and images are stripped away: “Go away; I never knew you.”
Because this religious posturing is the most despicable profaning of the sacred, Jesus told the Pharisees, “Prostitutes are entering the Kingdom before you!”
All of us who pursue the Kingdom are in grave danger of this. And if we don’t think so, we are even in more danger than we think. The danger persists until we have made ourselves “nothing” and “obedient,” like Christ.
Here’s some evidence from Jesus’ words: “The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men – robbers, evildoers, adulterers’” - (Luke 18:11a, NIV). Deceptive prayer, this is. He “prayed about himself” and he gave God the credit by thanking Him that he is “not like other men.” Jesus held the Pharisee in contempt. And who among us can claim to never have thanked God that we are not like other people who do evil things? Many little children have not prayed like that. Not incidently, Jesus did remark that the Kingdom cannot be entered unless we are like them. So Jesus tells us to pray we are not led into temptation to think and pray like that, or to teach our children to. It is a great temptation, isn’t it?
Our natures are fear dominated. In Exodus 33:20 we learn that “No one can see God and live.” Precisely the point. So we approach His mountain and ask a Moses to tell us what God is like. We study the Bible well, do charitable things that make us feel good (our reward), attend services with frozen smiles and thank God we are not like the others cursing their lives on the streets, despairing in prison cages because “justice” was done, drunks who deaden their pain daily, those who “reject” Christ and are thus condemned to hell. We are fearful that we are not “not like the others,” that we are nothing. Like the Pharisee, we thank God for that. But in Deuteronomy 32 we are told how “basely” we treat our God. That means we use Him like He was our servant.
“No one can see God and live,” yet Jesus said the pure in heart will see Him. Paul said to die is gain. The Scriptures teach in direct and indirect ways that holiness is made perfect in love. That God is love. And “by that will, we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (Hebrews 10:10, NIV).
If holiness was a matter of personal achievement, no one could attain it. There is a passivity needed, the dying of the fear of “being made nothing.” When we are nothing and “God is our all,” there is no satisfaction in human “justice,” only God’s. No satisfaction in “being right,” only in God’s perfect ways. There is satisfaction in forgiving others who violated the parts of our natures clothing our holy nothingness, since we can watch them grow in grace and God’s nourishing love.
This love is so vital that Jesus needed to drive it into our hearts by use of literary hyperbole or deliberate exaggeration like a splash of cold, unexpected water on our sleepy faces: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters – yes, even his own life – he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26, NIV). If we understand this, we are not using our own minds, which we are told to make into nothing. Instead, “we have the mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2:16b).
Plunge my heart into nothingness in preference for the heart of Christ? Kill my mind so, upon its ashes, the mind of Christ can live? No hesitation in deciding. It’s a matter of love. Fear of hell is self-serving and is not redemptive. Real love, not the gushing, sentimental, needing-a-return kind, is redemptive.
The majority of people in this world cannot read even a simple sentence, let alone the Scriptures. The majority also do not have the mental acuity of reason to understand a complex idea let alone the ego serving prattle of many of our philosophers and theologians. The majority have no eloquence of words that could “inspire” public audiences with grand prayers. But every human from cradle to coffin knows and hungers for love, the kind that only God can give through His holy people who are nothing, because He is everything to them.
The majority of people in this world are in pain, desperation, loneliness, affliction, bondage, really suffering in anxiety for their “daily bread.” Are we to thank God we are “not like the others – the robbers, evildoers, adulterers”? Jesus pointed to the man in the shadows, repeating his prayer, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” Jesus said that was the one who is justified in God’s sight. That’s the holy and perfect one. We pray that he be kept that way “at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ…[God] is faithful and he will do it.”
But our stubborn natures must die before we are born into the Kingdom while still on earth. The more resistant and self-clinging the more suffering and hotter the sanctifying fire must be. Like Augustine and others lamented, why did I take so long to learn this in my heart, although my brain knew of it ever since I learned to read proficiently? At last, I really want to be made nothing, though my dying nature still kicks in rebellion. God help me and be merciful to me, and all who I am like. I pray that before I die on this earth, my nature gives its final kick of resistance.
Christ reigns in His kingdom, and right now His kingdom is within us. He will continue to reign “until all His enemies are made His footstool.” Let my fallen nature lie dead beneath His feet, that I may fully share in the power of His resurrection. “We love Him [only] because He loved us.”
Anything more is just making something out of nothing. And only God can do that.
John S. Hilkevich, Ph.D.
Spiritual Resource Services
© March 2003
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