Understanding the Kingdom of God: Part 7 of 7

Understanding the Kingdom of God: Part 7 of 7 March 23, 2020

The kingdom of God stands in radical opposition to the kingdoms of the world because it operates by way of love

Another point of confusion for many is that the kingdom of God is often referred to in the NT as “above.” As I noted earlier, Paul tells the Colossians to, “Set your minds on things above” (Col 3:2; cf 3:1-4).

If we think of this in terms of an Epicurean dualism, mentioned at the outset of this series of posts, we would consider that heaven is somewhere up there. The result is a spirituality that is divorced from the physical world.

To “set your minds on things above” might mean to pray and read the Bible and not be concerned about earthly matters—like the injustices of the world, the outbreak of war, and the devastation of the planet. But this is contrary to what Paul and the rest of the NT are saying.

When the Scriptures refer to God as coming down, or Jesus ascending up, it is simply using a figure of speech as a means of expressing the notion that God’s dwelling place is beyond ours.[1] We know from Scripture that God’s dwelling place transcends all space. God is omnipresent. He invades all space and is beyond all space.

Heaven, then, is the realm from which God rules and is both all around us and, yet, is beyond us.

If we look at this from the perspective of the kingdom of God, things begin to make more sense. Heaven, or “above,” is simply a means of referring to the place from which God rules. When Paul says, “set your minds on things above” and “not on the things that are on earth” (Col 3:2) he is referring to setting our minds on matters of the kingdom of God as opposed to those of the kingdoms of the world.

Paul is not telling them to focus only on spiritual things and to abstain from all physical things. Instead, he is exhorting his readers to be faithful to Christ and His kingdom and to cease indulging in the things of the world: i.e., the things that will not last forever.

When Paul lists the things they are to abstain from it includes immorality, lusts, and passions (Col 3:5). He lists these things, because, as I have argued, they are all destined to perish (Col 2:22; 3:6).

When Paul exhorts them to “put on the new self” (Col 3:10), he includes, “bearing with one another, and forgiving each other, whoever has a complaint against anyone; just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you. Beyond all these things put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity” (Col 3:13-14).

The actions that Paul exhorts the Colossians to do are not spiritual, that is, detached from the present world. Instead, love is expressed in serving and forgiving and ultimately laying down one’s life for the other.

These are the laws of the kingdom of God. These laws are not some spiritual escapism. They are exemplary of how God’s kingdom works.

I have argued that Christ is in the process of implementing His kingdom in the now! This means that in order to live in accord with His kingdom we must implement such things in the present. We are not to wait until we arrive in eternity to serve, forgive, and love.

In other words, Paul does not exhort us to escape the world through prayer and meditation, by eating only what we need to survive and living in isolation. No! to “set your mind on things above” means to start implementing the way of life that will characterize us for eternity: serving, forgiving, and loving one another.

The key distinction then is that in the kingdoms of the world (or, the “present age”) the goal is to obtain peace, prosperity, and security in the present. To do so, we love and commit acts of kindness primarily because it benefits us in the present.

Whereas, in the kingdom of God what matters is the eternal. We have died to the self that seeks its own interests and have been raised with Christ in accord with the kingdom of God.[2] Our lives now are to be characterized as sacrificing personal gain and interests for the sake of the other.

To reiterate: when Paul says to set our “minds on things above,” he is exhorting us to focus on the matters of God’s kingdom and not the world’s. The matters of God’s kingdom are not some spiritual matters that have no effect in the here and now. Instead, they have everything to do with the here and now.

Love is to be manifested as the central ethic of God’s people.[3] Love is to be displayed at all times to all people—even our enemies. For it is through love that the kingdom of God comes! After all, love is the essence of the kingdom of God

The kingdom comes through sacrificial love

It is amazing, and sad, that many evangelicals hold to a belief that God will bring His kingdom through wrath, war, and violence.

For many, this means sitting back and watching the world go to pot. Then, when God has had enough, He brings His wrath on the nations and Jesus returns to destroy them.

But this is not how God operates. Wrath is not the means through which God builds His kingdom. Love is. Love is how Jesus did it. And love is what He commands of us.

The problem with the popular evangelical views of the end-times[4] is that it perpetuates an attitude of apathy. We see things in the world going bad and we conclude that this is just what’s going to happen before the end.

Now, let’s suppose for a moment that the popular scenario of war and violence and wrath is indeed the way things are supposed to happen (which I don’t agree). Does that make it okay for Christians to sit around and be apathetic?

Are we not called to be peacemakers (Matt 5:9)? Are we not called to advocate for justice (Micah 6:8)?[5] Are we not called to look after the widow and the orphan (James 1:27)? Are we not to be a voice for the voiceless (Proverbs 31:8-9)?

God brings His kingdom through His people. And He does so through love. Jesus modeled for us the nature of the kingdom of God when He suffered and died. Now, He commands us to do the same.

Now, I realize that it might take more than a simple blog post to verify that this is the teaching of the Bible. Allow me to defend this point here by simply noting that we have almost 2000 years of church history that confirms that the Church has grown most when it suffers.

If Jesus inaugurated the kingdom of God through His death and resurrection, then should we not expect that God will not continue to bring His kingdom through the death and resurrection of His people?

“By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another. . . . Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends” (John 13:35; 15:13).

If love is the pre-eminent feature of the kingdom of God, and if love is the means by which the world knows that we are followers of Christ, then does it not follow the way of the kingdom is the way of love and the way of love is the sacrificial living of God’s people?

This is why Jesus says, “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).

I argued in a previous series that the mission of God’s people was to make Christ known. What I have argued in this series is that making Christ known is to advance the work of the kingdom of God.

We have seen here that the kingdom of God advances through love! That is, just as Jesus laid down His life for us, so we are called to make Him known by laying down our lives for the sake of the world.

What does all this mean for politics and the life of God’s people in an election year? It means that we should engage in the political, social, economic, and all civic arenas with an attitude of sacrificial love for the sake of the other!

What does this mean in the midst of a global pandemic? It means that the pandemic is the result of the world’s system. It is not the work of God in judgment on the world. It is natural result of humanity being in charge.

 

[1] “Above” cannot be taken literally. After all, what does “above” mean for someone in the southern hemisphere? Are they traveling in the wrong direction or are we? Instead, “above” or “heaven” is simply a reference to where God dwells.

[2] Col 3:3: “For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God.”

[3] 1 John 2:8-12 says that if we don’t love our brothers and sisters in Christ, then we walk in the darkness.

[4] I wrote extensively about this in my book Understanding the New Testament and the End-Times.

[5] Note that Jesus announced that His ministry was about bringing justice to the nations (Matt 12:18). If we are to imitate our Rabbi, then we too should be bringing justice to the nations. Paul command masters to bring about justice for their slaves (Col 4:1). Note, also, the Pharisees were rebuked because they neglected justice (Matt 23:23; Luke 11:42). Cf Micah 6:8; Gen 18:19.


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