The agenda in many Christian books and in preaching today is social concern, social justice, community ‘transformation’ and campaigning for change, not only in a local context but even on a global scale. Such teaching becomes wrong when the scale and scope of the action far exceeds anything indicated or required by Scripture, and when such action is then made prescriptive for all Christians! When the teaching bears these hallmarks, it can be then designated as the ‘social gospel’, and it is with this meaning that I will use this expression in this study. And in this sense, the term represents an aberration of the Gospel, and in some instances becomes ‘another’ gospel that opposes the true Gospel of Jesus Christ. It lays claim to care and compassion almost as its trump card, but no godly care and compassion exercises itself at the expense of the truths of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
What is taking place here is not ‘discovering what the Bible really teaches’, but choosing ‘seemingly’ relevant texts and applying an interpretation that is agenda driven. Starting out with a viewpoint that is to some extent, if not heavily influenced by the social justice movement of the last 60 years, it seeks to create a mandate for Christian action that it can impose on others – a mandate that has more to do with the social justice movement of the world rather than what God’s word teaches us. Lacking scriptural backing or justification for their prescriptive teaching, those who promote the social gospel simply misinterpret both well-known and less well-known verses from the Bible in order to underpin their viewpoint. We shall see examples of this later.
These misinterpretations of scripture are then used as justification for prescribing to believers a model or course of community and social action (locally and globally) that they ought to be involved in – they create what they regard as a biblical mandate for social involvement.
Thus, according to them, their particular agenda for social care and involvement becomes an integral part of the Gospel, and therefore the means by which they judge other Christians. Those who do not follow this agenda as rigorously as those who promote it, are variously labelled as uncaring, unloving, ‘holier than thou’, inward-looking, having a fortress mentality or are accused of not knowing God’s love nor his grace! Examples of this abound everywhere in the writings of those who promote and insist on their type of social action! This now takes on the nature of ‘another gospel’, promoting a ‘different kind of Jesus’. It is no less than this.
In view here is the treatment of the subject of the kingdom of God. The social gospel propagates ideas something like the following (which may be variously expressed): our good works bring the love of God into the community in ways that can transform the community, and by so doing we are helping to extend or build ‘the kingdom of God’ (in some small measure at least). We are told that we are called upon to ‘set things right’ in society and so aid ‘the reconciliation of all things’ to Christ. Based on a false and fanciful interpretation of Colossians 1:20, it is taught by some that Christ died to ‘save’ or ‘redeem’ social, educational and political institutions and even ‘cities’ and ‘nations’. These are to be ‘reclaimed’ for Christ, and his ‘kingdom’ is to be established in and through such ‘redeemed’ institutions. Our good works in the community and the consequent transformation that they bring represent the first (small) steps towards ‘building’ the kingdom of God on earth which Christ shall fully and in a far more dramatic way establish and complete on his return. Unbelievers will not only appreciate but will also be impressed by this alternative culture or kingdom that we are creating among them through our good works and thus will turn to Christ and will prepare them for Christ’s return and for his reign. However, as we shall see, there is no such association of thought in Scripture.
These are some of the broad brush strokes of the social gospel, but the details may vary from group to group. Moreover, lacking clear and solid ground in scripture, these notions are explained in vague and nebulous terms alien to the scriptures themselves.
It is not just the essence of the Gospel that is under attack, but the nature of the love of God. If it is possible for there to be ‘another gospel’ and ‘another jesus’, then it is also possible for there to be ‘another love’. Is it not written that I can give all my goods to feed the poor and even my body to be burned and yet not have love? This touches on the very nature of God! The love of God shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit must direct and regulate our behaviour at a much deeper level than just our outward actions of good works (which is what the Pharisees relied on), or knowledge that I may have or gifts that I may possess!
Ephesians 5:1-2 says this, “Be you therefore followers of God, as dear children; And walk in love, as Christ also has loved us, and has given himself for us an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet smelling fragrance.”
This may primarily refer to Jesus giving himself for us on the cross. However, it does go deeper than that. Jesus himself said that he did nothing of himself but only what he saw his father do. “I can do nothing of myself.” An amazing statement! He was dependent upon God and he gave himself to God – for us. He was not a ‘campaigner’ for God. To ‘campaign’ for a cause can detach you from the cause itself and from the author of it as you get caught up in your own agenda and in the virtue of your own zeal. What Jesus did emanated out of his relationship with his father. It says in the verses above that to be a follower of God I must love as Christ loved. How did Christ love? He gave himself as a sweet smelling sacrifice to God, for our sakes, for us. The social gospel inverts this order. Believers are being encouraged, commanded no less, to give themselves to the community for God! This is not a matter of splitting hairs but something that affects our very relationship with God. Are we directed by His word and act out of our relationship with Him, or are we directed by a ‘mandate’ which turns us into campaigners on God’s behalf (rather than witnesses to His life and salvation), and as a consequence of our self-appointed activities we know little about living as a daily offering and sacrifice to God (Romans 12:1,2)!
“We care! We have compassion! We have a passion! We’re enthusiastic to help you! We will give ourselves to you.” This is the declaration. Giving ourselves to God is something that is becoming lost today in teaching and in practice. Can’t we do both? Well, you can’t invert the order in Ephesians 5 and please God. You can give yourself to God and show care and compassion to others. Indeed it must be so! But the ‘social gospel’ by its very nature inevitably emphasizes one over the other! Why is this so? Because it is agenda driven and the agenda only survives by asserting itself over the great truths of Christ’s death on the cross.
This agenda takes us out of God’s hands and instead we are now directed and propelled by this agenda of our own making – in His name of course! In this sense, the ‘social gospel’ is a false gospel of works! Our ‘scribal additions’ to the word of God have become the criterion or means of excusing and justifying ourselves to ourselves on the one hand, and judging and condemning others who do not follow them, on the other!
It is written, “God is love”. We could say that the world (or the western world at least) with all its publicised care and compassion and campaigning for social justice over the last several decades has changed this to “Love is God”. This is now interesting – it gives us the freedom to change things fundamentally! Now all I have to do is to define ‘love’, and this definition of love then becomes (my) god! Add to this the parable of the good Samaritan and the scripture that says you are to love your neighbour as yourself, and the foundation of an agenda which obligates believers into a specific course of action demanded by the social gospel is set! What is happening? The agenda of the world is becoming the agenda of the church. The mandate of the world – with all its intimidating intolerance of those that do not comply with its own agenda, and with its evident self-glorying – is becoming the mandate of churches today! The spirit of the world is getting into churches. Some Christians talk about the “I care revolution”. All I ask you to do is look at the first word in that statement. A sense of our own virtue in caring leads us to run roughshod over what the word of God actually teaches.
The issue here is not about the crossing of ‘t’s and the dotting of ‘i’s, but to do with the very nature of the Gospel. This social gospel is contributing in large measure today to shallowness of preaching, shallowness of Christian living, a lack of the true knowledge of God and of the power of the cross in daily living, and a lack of understanding concerning true sacrificial living and denial of self.
I am not saying that a particular group of people are not Christians! On the contrary! The expressions, ‘another gospel’, ‘another Jesus’, ‘another spirit’, were addressed by the apostle Paul to his own converts at Corinth! The truth that 2 Corinthians chapter 11 makes clear to us is that if you come under and buy into a teaching that misrepresents Christ and his Gospel, it can affect your thinking in a way that actually leads you to oppose that which is of God and become deceived. The apostle Peter had a very human or carnal understanding regarding (shall we say) ‘success’, and his allegiance to his own (false) convictions about the nature and mission of Christ were exploited by Satan to oppose Christ and his cross. And this is why the Lord turned to him and said, “get behind me Satan.” I believe this is the area we are in today. It is no less than this and it is the reason why Paul uses such strong language in 2 Corinthians 11.
Of course, this is not a ‘one-hat-fits-all’ situation! People will have different views on social involvement and on the meaning of social justice. Some churches might only be marginally influenced by this teaching or not at all, whereas others might be almost wholly swallowed up by it and loudly proclaim it and insist that all believers are obliged to follow what they regard as a biblical mandate.
None of what is written in this study is with the purpose of telling people what they must or must not do with regards to showing compassion or pursuing good works. Neither is anything written to dissuade anyone from being involved in works of community care.
What is written here is to make clear and oppose false interpretations of Scripture and particularly the use of such misinterpretations as a justification for imposing on other believers a model of social action that is of their own making. This is the point of the study.
I ask the reader to bear in mind the points mentioned in the previous two paragraphs when reading this study!
That the saints are not only to be involved in, but zealous for good works is beyond question (Mtt.5:16; Titus 2:14; 3:8; Heb.10:24; 1 Peter 2:12). These good works should be the natural outcome of having the love of God shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit. The Bible particularly highlights that these good works glorify God, but nowhere is the association made that such good works extend God’s kingdom on earth or that they need to be of the type and carried out to the extent that others today would prescribe for us! If one wants to consider the type of things that will affect or ‘impress’ the world, then we have two clear statements by the Lord Jesus,
“By this shall all men know that you are my disciples, if you have love one to another.” (John 13:35).
“That they all may be one; as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that you have sent me.” (John 17:21).
Generally, those who preach we must have an impact on the world rarely, if ever, mention the two above verses!
THE KINGDOM OF GOD
There are many Scriptures in the New Testament that refer to the Kingdom of God and that lead us into an understanding of the subject. The term ‘kingdom of God’, as such, does not occur in the Old Testament. Other writers use this term in trying to explain certain arrangements or covenants God made with His people in the OT. They choose to use this term in their interpretations and so it represents their attempt at explaining things. However, the term ‘kingdom of God’ is not used in the scriptures to describe or to refer to anything under the OT – and we shall see why this is so as we look into the New Testament.
As we shall see, the term kingdom of God can apply to basically two timeframes – one that applies to the ‘here and now’, and one that applies to the ‘hereafter’, that is, to the time when Jesus shall return and his saints shall join him to reign with him eternally. (Mtt. 7:21-23; 8:11; Luke 13:23-30; 21:31; Acts 14:22; 1 Cor.6:9,10; 1 Thess.4:13-17, 2 Thess.2:1,2). In this study, we shall be looking at the meaning and nature of the kingdom of God as it applies to the here and now, for if we do not enter the kingdom of God, if we are not partakers of it in the here and now, how then shall we be partakers of it when the Lord returns? For the true believer eternal life starts now, not just as a promise of future bliss, but as a present divine empowering of the life of Christ within us (John 6:50-58; 1John 5:11,12). This is the truth that the writer to the Hebrews brings out when he says that those who ‘taste’ the heavenly gift and who are made partakers of the Holy Spirit, they also ‘taste’ (live by) the powers of the age that is to come (Heb.6:5). We are to live now by that power that will be fully manifest on that day when Christ returns to bring in God’s reign in a new heaven and a new earth. This is what is of the utmost relevance to us all and it is that which we shall look at in far greater detail below!
“The kingdom of God comes not with outward observation.” (KJ2000)
“Therefore take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, How shall we be clothed? (For after all these things do the Gentiles seek:) for your heavenly Father knows that you have need of all these things. But seek first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you. (Matthew 6:31-33).
The Lord Jesus Christ tells us to take no thought about food, drink and clothes, but that we should instead seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and then these other (material) things would be added to us! Christ is here making a distinction between our basic material and physical needs on the one hand, and the kingdom of God and his righteousness on the other. In other words, the kingdom of God and his righteousness is something other than the provision of material needs. In fact, this verse indicates that seeking God’s kingdom and his righteousness is a greater priority and of greater value than caring about one’s basic needs – especially as it is God himself who promises to care for us with regard to such needs. The apostle Paul expresses the same truth in Romans 14:17, where he says, “the kingdom of God is not food and drink, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” These verses refer to the spiritual and moral nature of the kingdom of God. They refer to something other than or beyond the physical realm, and the verse in Romans makes it clear that the kingdom of God refers to the inward spiritual condition of a person – which must, as we shall see, then also by definition be reflected in their conduct and behaviour.
This truth is foundational and significant. We dare not play around with the meaning of ‘the kingdom of God and his righteousness’ lest we undermine the very nature and power of the Gospel! This study has been written because this is exactly what is happening today! From what is quoted above, we already begin to see the spiritual nature of the kingdom of God. As we look further into Scripture, this aspect becomes increasingly clear!
Paul tells us in one Corinthians 4:20 that the kingdom of God is not in word but in power. He is here underlining the truth that the kingdom of God is to do with divine empowering. The Pharisees, and even the apostles misunderstood the nature of the kingdom of God that Jesus Christ was proclaiming and would bring in! When the Pharisees asked Jesus when the kingdom of God should come in Luke 17:20, 21, he told them plainly that the kingdom of God does not come with ‘outward observation’. In other words, it is not at kingdom that can be recognised as an outward physical kingdom! You don’t find it or see it by looking for it with your physical eyes – “Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there!”
Jesus goes on to explain to them that the kingdom of God was ‘in their midst’ or, as the Authorised Version puts it, the kingdom of God was ‘within them’. The Greek preposition used here ‘υμων’ (‘among’ and ‘within’) allows for both interpretations or translations. In the first case, it would mean that the kingdom of God was in their midst because Christ himself was standing among them. His life and the power of it represented the kingdom of God among them. (“But if I with the finger of God cast out demons, no doubt the kingdom of God is come upon you.” Luke 11:20). This also points us to the truth that today the kingdom of God is to do with the presence and power of the life of Christ within a person. With regard to the second interpretation, Christ was underlining the truth that kingdom of God does not refer to an outward material, social or political structure, or even to an outward project of good works, but it is the spiritual dynamic or condition within a person, where God reigns through righteousness. (Christ was underlining this as a fundamental truth concerning the nature of the kingdom of God rather than telling the Pharisees that kingdom of God was actually and already in them, for this was manifestly not the case!)
What the Lord Jesus says here is entirely consistent with the truth expressed in the verses in Matthew 6 and Romans 14 that we read above. And unless we follow the truth of what these scriptures are saying, we too shall fail to understand what the kingdom of God is all about!
Even the apostles were under the same misapprehension about the nature of the kingdom of God. In Acts chapter 1, Jesus told the apostles to wait in Jerusalem because they were to be baptised in the Holy Spirit. Upon this, they asked him in verse 6 whether he was going to restore the ‘kingdom’ to Israel at that time. It is clear that they were thinking of the re-establishment of an outward kingdom where the Romans would be expelled from the land of Israel and Christ would reign supreme over the land of Israel and impose his righteousness outwardly, socially! In response, Jesus led them away from this consideration and told them that they would receive power after the Holy Spirit had come upon them and that they would thus be enabled to be witnesses unto him! Again here a sharp distinction is made between an outward physical kingdom and a spiritual empowering in an individual’s life to be a witness to the life of Christ!
Of course there would be a time when there would be a new heaven and a new earth and God would reign over all, and no doubt the apostles’ question was based on prophecies from the Hebrew Scriptures that speak of such an event. Though such a time would come, Jesus purposefully made it clear to those who heard him that such a kingdom was not imminent, but its fulfilment would be for a later date. Thus we read,
“And as they heard these things, he proceeded to tell a parable, because he was near to Jerusalem, and because they thought that the kingdom of God should immediately appear.” (Luke 19:11).
In other words, many of the Jews were anticipating that Jesus Christ was entering Jerusalem in order to establish a kingdom that was visible and outward, an outward theocracy! The parable he tells following this verse in Luke 19 was to alert them to the truth that such an event was for a later time.
Today many are making the same mistake and believe that we can ‘extend’ the kingdom of God in our communities by social action and community involvement; or that our community involvement it terms of altruistic works represent the first steps towards a righteous, just and loving society that Jesus will complete on his return! Others have held this view in previous generations only to be completely disappointed. All those who hold such a view to day are mistaken and shall be disappointed. They teach that the work we start here in terms of social involvement and in ‘changing’ our community shall be carried out to a far more wonderful completion upon the Lord’s return. They proclaim some kind of divine Utopia peace and ‘justice’ for all. The tragedy of this is they virtually ignore the many scriptures that teach that the Lord’s return is not good news for anyone who has rejected the Gospel.
To return to our study. The Lord Jesus makes a remarkable statement that would almost appear to contradict what he says in Luke 19. In Mark 9:1 he says,
“Verily I say unto you, that there be some of those that stand here who shall not taste of death till they have seen the kingdom of God come with power.”
In other words, some of those who heard Jesus say these words would be alive to see the kingdom of God come with power! Remember, he had already told us that the kingdom of God does not appear as some outward physical structure or entity. This is as significant as it is amazing! There is no contradiction between the statements above, as the kind of kingdom Jesus is speaking about in Luke 19 – which refers to the end time when Jesus returns and which will be visible to all who look on – is different to the one mentioned in Mark 9 – which refers to a spiritual kingdom of power in the lives of some that would still be alive at that time. So what period of time or day was Jesus referring to when he said this kingdom would come with power?
The Kingdom of God is ‘at hand’.
It is significant to note that in the Gospels, ‘the kingdom of God’ that was being preached is referred to as being ‘at hand’, in other words, the time of its arrival was ‘near’: Jesus told his apostles, “And as you go, preach, saying, The kingdom of heaven is at hand. Heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out demons: freely you have received, freely give.” (Matthew 10:7,8). Then to the seventy disciples Jesus gave the same instruction,
“… heal the sick that are therein, and say unto them, The kingdom of God is come near unto you. But into whatsoever city you enter, and they receive you not, go your ways out into the streets of the same, and say, Even the very dust of your city, which cleaves on us, we do wipe off against you: nevertheless be sure of this, that the kingdom of God has come near unto you.”(Luke 10:9-11).
Jesus uses the same expression (‘at hand’, from the Greek verb, ‘εγγιζω’ – eggizo) with regard to his imminent betrayal and death – Mtt.26:18,45. This word is used for something that is geographically near or near in time!
Also of vital significance is the fact that in the Gospel accounts, the disciples were given authority to heal the sick, raise the dead and cast out demons, but nevertheless, in their preaching they were only to declare that the Kingdom of God was ‘near’! In other words, these particular supernatural works in themselves did not bring people into the kingdom of God, nor did they, in that sense, extend the kingdom of God in or among people. This is made abundantly clear to us by Jesus’ denunciation of Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum: “Then began he to upbraid the cities in which most of his mighty works were done, because they repented not: Woe unto you, Chorazin! woe unto you, Bethsaida! for if the mighty works, which were done in you, had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.” (Matthew 11:21).
That the kingdom of God is near may be indicated by the power of these supernatural works, but one does not enter the kingdom of God simply by experiencing these works, as witnessed by the statements of Jesus above, and by the following verses also – Luke 11:20; Mtt.12:43-45. It is clearly evident here that even though supernatural works were done among the peoples of these cities, it nevertheless didn’t lead them to a change of heart and mind, it didn’t lead them to turn from sin to Christ, that is, it didn’t lead them to repent! This is a remarkable truth concerning the state of the human heart and its potential to harden itself against God’s grace, word and demonstrated power! One can do wonderful works, be they supernatural or caring and altruistic, but if people are not lead to repentance, it avails nothing.
The idea that our social works in themselves can, or do extend the Kingdom of God or bring people into it is likewise false and unscriptural. Neither the supernatural works mentioned above nor good works of themselves bring people into God’s kingdom – it is only through repentance, which comes as a result of the preaching the Gospel of the Kingdom that can bring a person into God’s Kingdom! As we shall see in a moment, the necessary doorway for coming into the kingdom of God is repentance!
(None of what is written here is against doing good works, which we are to be zealous for. What is in view here is the meaning and nature of the kingdom of God as it is used in the scriptures and the way that scriptural truth and the preaching of the Gospel is being undermined by false ideas and teaching concerning the kingdom of God.)
The supernatural works – the outward signs and wonders – could only be indicative of the presence and power of the Kingdom but could never bring people into that Kingdom. People could only be brought into the Kingdom of God by a personal spiritual re-birth and that resulted from their repentance.
If we wish to talk about what may ‘attend’ the preaching of the Gospel of the Kingdom, it is these ‘signs and wonders’ of healing and deliverance which evidence God’s power and presence and may accompany the preaching of the Gospel, as the following verses indicates, “How shall we escape, if we neglect so great a salvation; which at the first began to be spoken by the Lord, and was confirmed unto us by them that heard him; God also bearing them witness, both with signs and wonders, and with various miracles, and gifts of the Holy Spirit, according to his own will?” (Hebrews 2:3-4), as well as all the following verses: Acts 2:22; 4:30; 5:12; 8:13; 14:3; Romans 15:19.
We now need to take up the thread of the point under consideration.
As we have seen, Jesus Christ clearly stated that the kingdom of God would come in power in the lifetime of his hearers! In the Acts of the Apostles the expression ‘at hand’ is never used in connection with the kingdom of God! Why? Because, as we shall see, Jesus Christ had risen from the dead, was seated at his father’s right hand and had poured out the promise of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:33)!
“At that day…”
In Acts chapter one, we are told that Jesus spent 40 days speaking to his disciples about things that relate to the kingdom of God. Immediately upon this, Jesus told them to wait for the promise of the Father, which he identified with the baptism in the Holy Spirit. He explained that they would receive power when the Holy Spirit came upon them. At the end of Luke’s Gospel, Jesus uses similar language and tells them, “And, behold, I send the promise of my Father upon you: but tarry in the city of Jerusalem, until you are endued with power from on high.” (Luke 24:49). The disciples were to receive power from above, from heaven when the Holy Spirit came upon them! He also tells them that this would happen not many days later.
Jesus is clearly referring to the day of Pentecost, when the sound of a mighty rushing wind came from heaven and the Holy Spirit filled all the disciples that were gathered together! It was on that day that they would receive power from on high!
Moreover, this kingdom of God that was now being preached was totally new – being both unknown and unavailable to those who lived prior to Jesus death and resurrection. In Luke 16:16 we read, “The law and the prophets were until John: since that time the kingdom of God is preached, and every man presses into it.”
Although the last part of this verse is somewhat open to interpretation, the important thing for us to notice here is that Jesus is telling us clearly that the coming of the kingdom of God is subsequent to, or follows upon the law and the prophets – it could not have been preached before the coming of Christ!
We have already noted that Jesus told his listeners that some of them would not physically die until they had seen God’s kingdom come with power, and that this kingdom had nothing to do with visible, outward structures, but that it would be something that resides in men and women. From all the Scriptures we have looked at, everything points towards the truth that the kingdom of God came with power on the day of Pentecost.
The apostle John, in his Gospel, also speaks of that day, not in terms of identifying the day specifically, but in terms of what would take place on that day. In John chapter 16 Jesus tells his disciples that it was necessary for him to go away, otherwise the Comforter – who is the Holy Spirit -would not come (verse 7). This is a clear reference to the day of Pentecost, and he again confirms that the day was not far away when he says, “A little while, and you shall not see me: and again, a little while, and you shall see me, because I go to the Father,” (verse 16). Jesus makes it clear that the time of his absence would not be long! What is interesting here is that he talks to the disciples in terms of seeing him again! Even more significantly, in chapter 14, Jesus tells his disciples that he would go away and come again to receive them to himself (verses 2 and 3), and then later in verse 20 he tells them that ‘at that day’ they would know that he is in the Father, and that they were in him, and that he was in them!
We know that he was not talking about a day when there would be a new heaven and a new earth because the fulfilment of these words happened within that generation, even as he had said that there would be some standing there who would not taste death till they saw the kingdom of God come with power! The New Testament abounds with the fundamental truth that as a result of God’s work of redemption through Christ and through the baptism in the Holy Spirit, Christ is in us and we are in him! (2 Corinthians 13:5; Galatians 2:20; Ephesians 3:17; Colossians 1:27; 3:3). The reality and power of this truth is not for some time in the future but represents the very essence of the salvation that every believer is to experience here and now!
The day that Jesus was referring to in John chapter 14 is the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit was poured out upon men and women, bringing them with power into the kingdom of God! On that day they were filled with the Holy Spirit and became the habitation of God through the Spirit (John 14:23; Ephesians 2:22). What greater thing could there be than this! God dwelling in his people by his Spirit. Surely this heralds a new reign! As Wesley puts it in one of his hymns, “The reign of sin and death is over, and all may live from sin set free; Satan has lost his mortal power, ‘tis swallowed up in victory.” As we shall see, this quote is by no means out of place as we go on to consider the topic of the kingdom of God as it relates to us in this present day!
(We have just read that Jesus told his disciples that he would return after a little while and ‘receive them to himself’ and that they would ‘see’ him. In the first instance, seeing him again could obviously refer to his resurrection, but in John chapter’s 14 to 16 the context is very much about the coming of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost, and what that would accomplish for them and in them. And in John chapter 17 Jesus prays that those that the Father had given him may be with him where he is and that they might behold his glory. As we read further into the New Testament, we can see that these truths refer to the union and the intimacy of the fellowship we have been brought into with the Father and Son – John 14:23; Ephesians 2:22; Col.3:1-3; 2 Cor.3:18; Heb.2:9;12:2; 1 John 1:3,7.
The Spiritual Nature of the Kingdom of God – “you must be born again.”
“Jesus answered, My kingdom is not of this world…” (John 18:36)
The spiritual nature of the kingdom of God is abundantly made clear as we consider the following verses.
Some of the most significant declarations Jesus Christ made concerning the kingdom of God are to be found in John chapter 3, verses three and five. Christ here declares that except a person is born again, they cannot see the kingdom of God (or born ‘from above’, as the Greek word ‘ανωθεν’ – anothen – can be translated as ‘above’ or ‘again’. In verse 31 of this chapter, John tells us that Christ came from ‘above’, and the Greek word here is again ανωθεν – anothen). In verse five he says that unless a person is born of water and of the Spirit, they cannot enter into the kingdom of God! These truths make it clear that this new birth is a spiritual birth and it is this spiritual rebirth which brings us into a spiritual kingdom of God’s power. We are born of God, of his will and of his power, into his kingdom! (John 1:12, 13). So we find that Paul declares in Colossians 1:13 that we have been ‘delivered from the power of darkness and translated or transferred into the kingdom of God’s son.’ In other words, we have been delivered out of one kingdom (Luke 11:18; Acts 26:18; Ephesians 2:2; 2 Cor.4:4) – a kingdom of darkness and of Satan – and placed into another, that is, the kingdom of God!
In John chapter 8, Jesus had told the Jews that if they continued his word then they would know the truth, and the truth would make them free – from sin! However, when they opposed him and his teachings, Jesus said these remarkable words to them, “You are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father you will do.” (John 8:44). In a dramatic and graphic way, these words bring home to us the need for a person to be born again, to be born from above, to be born of God!
Jesus Christ did not die ‘to make us better’, to ‘improve’ on what we are, to ‘restore’ us or to ‘reform’ us! That would be to misunderstand the Gospel completely! (Yes, we could say that Christ died to restore the relationship that God purposed for us to have with him from the beginning, but here the focus on the condition of my soul and how Christ’s death and resurrection effects that!).
Human nature was so corrupt, so defiled, so lost, that any possibility of it being ‘reformed’ was a delusion or a deception! To make the point graphically but very clearly, you can tell a snake to behave like a lamb, but all its efforts will miserably fail! The Law was given for this very reason, to convince us all that we are guilty before God, as none of us could fulfil his righteousness (Romans 3:19). As Isaiah said, “But we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags.” (Isaiah 64:6). And Paul declares, “There is none righteous, no, not one.” (Romans 3:10), taking his cue from Psalm 14:1-3. Jesus takes us to the heart of the problem when he says, “That which comes out of the man, that defiles the man. For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, Thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness: All these evil things come from within, and defile the man.” (Mark 7:20-23). This is why John the Baptist declared, “And now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees.” (Luke 3:9).
Things needed to change fundamentally, at their very root and foundation. It was simply not possible to build on or improve the ‘old’.
The old had to be done away with! The old had to be crucified! Things needed to be made completely new! So God foretells the New Covenant, declaring, “Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean: from all your filthiness, and from all your idols, will I cleanse you. A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and you shall keep my judgments, and do them.” (Ezekiel 36:25-27). Paul declares, “Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creation: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new. And all things are of God, who has reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ…” (2 Corinthians 5:17-18). Have we been reformed? No! We have been crucified (with Christ)! Did Christ die to ‘improve’ us? No! “I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ lives in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2:20). There was no other solution for you and for me! There is no other solution for you and for me or for anyone else!
In his great mercy and grace, Christ came and died to identify with our condition, that we might be identified with his! “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: That whosoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life.” (John 3:14-15). This is not ‘condemnation’! This is good news! This is the Gospel! This is salvation! An ‘exchange’ has taken place – “For he has made him, who knew no sin, to be sin for us; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.” (2 Corinthians 5:21).
Our old manner of living and the old disposition of sin in us is called ‘the old man’ in the New Testament, and it is ‘this old man’ that has been crucified with Christ (Romans 6:14), and we are exhorted to live according to this new life of Christ within us. That is why Paul says that in our daily living we are to ‘put off the old man’ and to ‘put on the new man’, who is created in righteousness and true holiness! (Eph.4:22-24). The ‘new man’ is of course the life of Christ within us!
Was there no other way? No. If there had been another way then Christ’s prayer would have secured it in the Garden of Gethsemane! How desperate our spiritual and moral condition was is witnessed to by the sweat that appeared as blood as Christ prayed for another way. However, he submitted to the only way that could truly save us and ‘plumbed the depths’ on Calvary to cleanse and deliver us from sin!
To underplay the condition of man is to underplay the Gospel and its power to save men and women!
This is the reason this study is being undertaken, namely, because there is a focus and emphasis on community works that not only de-prioritises Gospel preaching, but actually undermines or changes the content of the Gospel. There is a ‘non-judgemental’ approach that is born out of a politically correct culture that has shaped the mindset of many believers. More of this later.
Men and women are brought into, or enter, the kingdom of God by being born again. There is no other way! Either you are in this kingdom, or you are outside of this kingdom – just as it is for any other type of kingdom! You don’t drift into it unknowingly, nor is it just some vague influence.
To put it another way.
Ephesians 2:1-6 expands on, or gives greater insight into the same truth that we have been considering above and that we read in John chapter 3. It declares to us exactly what God’s power does in our lives through the Gospel! The word of God declares that we were spiritually dead in our sins. (You cannot reform someone who is spiritually dead!) Our conduct was driven and regulated by ‘the prince of the power of the air, which is the spirit that works in the children of disobedience’, causing us to ‘live in the lusts of the flesh and fulfilling the desires both of the flesh and of the mind’. Later in the chapter he tells us that in this condition we were far from God and his promises! But now, by the grace of God, we have been made alive, and through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ we have been spiritually raised up together with him and made to sit together with him in the heavenlies! Having been born ‘from above’ (“But Jerusalem which is above is free, which is the mother of us all.” Gal.4:6) – born of God, and having been ‘raised’ to where Christ is, it is no wonder Paul call us citizens of heaven (Phil.3:20)! Who can doubt that this all represents that truth that we have been brought into a new kingdom, the Kingdom of God. To be born into the Kingdom of God is to be brought into the sphere or realm of God’s salvation where righteousness reigns! (Romans 5:21).
These truths are not to be limited to being just statements of doctrine requiring mental assent, they are not just statements which are true in theory but with little effect beyond that – they are to represent a spiritual power and dynamic in our lives that changes the very way we live and think! How huge this is! What a transfer this is! This Gospel is of power – a spiritual power that brings a person out of the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of God! Jesus Christ had told Paul that he would send him to the nations ‘to open their eyes, and to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God.’ (Acts 26:18). The apostle John explains, “He that commits sin is of the devil; for the devil sins from the beginning. To change this situation and our condition Christ was manifested – “For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that he might destroy the works of the devil.” (1 John 3:8). In other words, to destroy the power of sin and Satan in our lives, that we no longer live under their power but live righteously and free from sin (1 John 3:7,9,10).
A Kingdom of Righteousness
“Who his own self bore our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness…” (1 Peter 2:24).
Of course, a kingdom has a king, and this kingdom is no different! It says of Jesus in Hebrews 1:8, “Your throne, O God, is forever and ever: a sceptre of righteousness is the sceptre of your kingdom.” One great distinguishing feature of God’s kingdom is that it reigns through righteousness, as it is written, “Behold, a king shall reign in righteousness, and princes shall rule in judgement.” (Isaiah 32:1).
Jeremiah prophesied concerning the coming Christ, “Behold, the days come, says the LORD, that I will raise unto David a righteous Branch, and a King shall reign and prosper, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the earth. In his days Judah shall be saved, and Israel shall dwell safely: and this is his name by which he shall be called, THE LORD OUR RIGHTEOUSNESS.” (Jeremiah 23:5-6.)
The reason Jesus Christ died on the cross was to cleanse and deliver us from sin that we might receive his Spirit and be brought into his kingdom where righteousness reigns. As the apostle Peter says, it is through Christ’s death and resurrection that we are born again! “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to his abundant mercy has begotten us again unto a living hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” (1 Peter 1:3).
This transfer from one kingdom, where the power of darkness reigns, into another kingdom where righteousness reigns, is put in these terms by the apostle Paul,
“For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death. For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh: That the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.” (Romans 8:2-4).
In Romans chapter 5 Paul tells us that from the time that Adam sinned, sin and death have reigned over all mankind (Romans 5:12). A bit later in the same chapter Paul explains in some detail how this situation has been changed!
“For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous… That as sin has reigned unto death, even so might grace reign through righteousness unto eternal life by Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Romans 5:19-21). Sinners cannot be ‘reformed’. They must be born again.
It is interesting to note that the word used in the Greek for ‘reign’ in the verse above is βασιλευω (basileuo), which is linked to the Greek word for King, which is ‘βασιλευς’ (basileus). This is exactly the reason the translators choose the word ‘reign’ – because of its direct association with the power of the monarch! Through the disobedience of Adam sin and death reigns over all mankind. But through the obedience of Jesus Christ – by dying for us on the cross and rising again – righteousness is to reign in those who are saved by his grace! As Paul says in Romans 6:14, “For sin shall not have dominion over you: for you are not under the law, but under grace.” The word used for ‘not have dominion’ in the Greek (κυριευω – kurieuo) comes from the noun for ‘Lord’ (κυριος – kurios), so we could translate the verse as, “for sin shall not be lord over you”, or, “for sin shall not lord it over you.”
This transformation, or this transfer from one kingdom into another, delivers us from one master to serve another! So we read,
“But God be thanked, that you land the servants of sin, but you have obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine which was delivered you. Being then made free from sin, you became the servants of righteousness.” (Romans 6:17-18).
The purpose of Christ’s death and resurrection is to do with making us righteous. “For he has made him, who knew no sin, to be sin for us; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.”
Christ didn’t die on the cross to expel the Romans from the land of Israel and set up some earthly kingdom! He died on the cross to forgive and cleanse us from our sins, to deliver us from the power of sin and of Satan, and to give us an entrance into the kingdom of God by a spiritual rebirth, where this kingdom would distinguish itself – among other things – in righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit!
It is by virtue of being born into this kingdom of God that we are empowered to live righteously and in holiness all the days of our lives! (Luke 1:70-75; Ephesians 2:19, 20; 3:19-21; 1 Peter 1:3-5; 2 Peter 1:3,4; 1 John 3:5-9). As I have said, to be born into the Kingdom of God is to be brought into the sphere or realm of God’s power and salvation! You cannot separate the two.
Preaching the Gospel of the Kingdom of God and the way in!
The Gospel of Jesus Christ is linked to or no different to the Gospel of the Kingdom of God.
“And this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations; and then shall the end come.” (Matthew 24:14).
How is the kingdom of God to be ‘spread’, ‘extended’, ‘built’ or ‘introduced’ to men and women? Are we to bring the kingdom of God to unbelievers through the means of our charitable actions? Do we ‘somehow’ bring the presence of God and his love – bring his ‘kingdom’ – to the unsaved through acts of social care or justice? Such notions are as vague as they are unbiblical – though they are promoted by quite a number of writers and preachers today. Nowhere in the Bible are our good works among unbelievers associated with bringing them into ‘the kingdom of God’. It simply isn’t explained in that way in the Scriptures. The ‘social gospel’ makes an association between these two concepts that is nowhere found in the Bible.
We are indeed instructed to let our light shine before others that they may see our good works and thereby glorify God (Matthew 5:16). Our good works may glorify God and may on occasions create opportunities to share the Gospel. But it is the preaching of the Gospel that leads men and women to repentance that then brings them into God’s kingdom – my works in themselves do not engender this.
We have already noted one of the most important references to the kingdom of God in the Scriptures, namely, that a person must be born again of God’s Spirit in order to enter the kingdom of God. (It is a significant reflection on some contemporary books which claim to address truths concerning the kingdom of God on earth without ever mentioning these verses in John chapter 3! In other words, their concept of the kingdom of God is quite different from that which is taught in the New Testament.)
The thing that brings a person into the kingdom of God – or the way to enter the kingdom – is a fundamental inward change taking place in that person. The Lord Jesus Christ makes it clear that some people cannot enter into the kingdom of God because they have attitudes and a disposition that are contrary to it! So right at the outset of his preaching Jesus declares that men and women need to repent, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent, and believe the gospel.” (Mark 1:15). The apostles followed the divine mandate by preaching, “…Repent, and be baptized every one of you…” (Acts 2:38). And divine mandate it is, for we read this in Acts 17:30 these words, “And the times of this ignorance God overlooked; but now commands all men everywhere to repent.” Is this at the heart of our evangelism, of our outreach into communities? Or do we believe we have to slowly coax people to repentance and into the kingdom of God – to give them a feeling of ‘belonging’ amongst us before they can believe? This is hardly what was happening in the early church! We read in the Acts of the Apostles that, “And of the rest dared no man join himself to them: but the people magnified them.” (Acts 5:13). Why? Because the believers had a judgemental ‘holier than thou’ attitude towards others? No! They were so focussed on God who had saved them and so given to Him that anyone outside of this salvation would have quite naturally felt out of place! We read that the people magnified them and that the Lord kept adding to the church!
The unbiblical social agenda of today at best downplays the preaching of the Gospel, but often declares such preaching not to be necessary or even to be avoided in the context of the social involvement it advocates. This represents nothing less than an assault on the Gospel and an undermining of the reason the Son of God died on a cross! It deprives people of the truth about themselves and about why Christ died.
There needs to be a fundamental change in the attitude and disposition of a person! Without repentance, without humbling oneself before God and his word, without the recognition that one is in dire need of His saving grace, there is no way into the kingdom of God. When he was addressing the hardness of heart of the chief priests, he told them, “Verily I say unto you, that the tax collectors and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you.” (Matthew 21:31). And concerning the rich, Jesus said, “For it is easier for a camel to go through a needle’s eye, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.” (Luke 18:25). To the scribe who answered Jesus’s questions wisely, Jesus said, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” (Mark 12:34). Nor were the disciples of Jesus at that time excluded from the necessity of such a fundamental change in their own hearts, “Verily I say unto you, Except you be converted, and become as little children, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:3).
(Concerning the expression ‘become as little children’, I here quote from Coke’s Commentary: “So far shall ye be from becoming the greatest in my kingdom, that ye shall not so much as enter into it, unless ye be like little children, free from pride, covetousness, and ambition, and resemble them in humility, sincerity, docility, and in disengagement of affection from the things of the present life, which fire the ambition of grown men.”)
The Gospel of the kingdom of God challenges the very condition and disposition of men and women!
So, how do we, as it were, bring the kingdom of God to people, or better put, how do we create the opportunity for them to enter the kingdom of God? The Bible gives a clear answer:
“In those days came John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of Judea, And saying, Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matthew 3:1-2).
“Now after John was put in prison, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, and saying, The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent, and believe the gospel.” (Mark 1:14, 15).
“But when they believed Philip preaching the things concerning the kingdom of God, and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women.” (Acts 8:12).
These verses clearly show that, beginning with John the Baptist right through to the end of the Acts the Apostles, the kingdom of God, or as other verses put it, the Gospel of the kingdom (of God) is declared to people through preaching. As we have already noted, the truths of the kingdom of God challenge people’s moral and spiritual condition. It was a declaration about God’s kingdom, which they were not yet part of! The only way to enter or become part of this kingdom of God was to believe this preaching and to repent of one’s sins.
In this sense, ‘the gospel of the kingdom’ is virtually synonymous with ‘the gospel’. This is indicated by the following verse,
“And it came to pass afterward, that he went throughout every city and village, preaching and showing the glad tidings of the kingdom of God: and the twelve were with him.” (Luke 8:1).
‘The glad tidings (that is, ‘the good news’) of the kingdom of God must be a reference to the joy that ensues from repenting and believing the Gospel of the forgiveness of sins and of free salvation. Men and women must hear the ‘glad tidings’ of the kingdom of God before they can enter into it! And it was through preaching that men and women heard and were given opportunity to respond! Thus, we read throughout the Gospels and the Acts the following verses,
“And he said unto them, I must preach the kingdom of God to other cities also: for therefore am I sent. (Luke 4:43). Here Jesus Christ is declaring that he was sent for this very purpose, namely, to preach the kingdom of God! He then commissioned his disciples to do the same,
“Then he called his twelve disciples together, and gave them power and authority over all devils, and to cure diseases. And he sent them to preach the kingdom of God, and to heal the sick.” (Luke 9:1-2). Christ extended this commission to any who would follow him,
“Jesus said unto him, Let the dead bury their dead: but you go and preach the kingdom of God.” (Luke 9:60).
Central to the preaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the preaching of the kingdom of God, as we can also see from the following verses in Acts,
“And he went into the synagogue, and spoke boldly for the space of three months, arguing and persuading the things concerning the kingdom of God… And now, behold, I know that you all, among whom I have gone preaching the kingdom of God, shall see my face no more… And when they had appointed him a day, there came many to him into his lodging; to whom he expounded and testified of the kingdom of God, persuading them concerning Jesus, both out of the law of Moses, and out of the prophets, from morning till evening. (Acts 19:8; 20:25; 28:23).
From this last verse in particular, we can see that the preaching of Christ is virtually one and the same as the preaching of the kingdom of God. For it is only through what Christ accomplished on the cross, through his death and resurrection, that made it possible for sinners to enter the kingdom of God! Perhaps it would be legitimate to say that the expression ‘the Gospel (of Jesus Christ)’ focuses on the work that Jesus Christ accomplished through his death and resurrection, and that the expression ‘the Gospel of the kingdom (of God)’ focuses on that spiritual kingdom, the realm of salvation, which His work brings us into. The two are inevitably and inseparably joined into one!
Someone may say that culture and language has changed so we have to adapt our preaching. Well, it depends what you mean by ‘adapt’! The human condition of sin and of hardness of heart remains unchanged down the centuries. God’s answer to and remedy for this condition remains the same. God’s method of saving people remains the same. It is through the preaching of the Gospel that men and women are saved. Jesus died so that the Holy Spirit could be sent and it is He that convinces men and women of sin! And one of the chief ways that He convinces them of sin is through the preaching of the Gospel. The Spirit of God acts deep on the conscience of men and women through the word of God spoken to them to lead them to repentance! We interfere with or annul this work of God’s Spirit by our efforts to align our preaching to the humanistic and politically correct approach of cosseting and indulging people’s sense of ‘self-esteem’. Though humanly attractive, it is spiritually ruinous for people. The result is that many have some half-baked experience that leaves them with any number of unresolved personal problems and issues that become apparent soon after they ‘become’ Christians. This state of affairs is then taken as ‘normal Christianity’ and the preaching then accommodates itself to this level of things, leaving the people no better off. All this because they have never truly heard the Gospel, have never truly known or understood a repentance that ‘lays the axe to the root’.
People are indeed adapting the preaching of the Gospel to this generation, and in such a way as to leave many outside the kingdom of God. Why does it do this? Because it knowingly and deliberately skirts around the fundamental condition of men and women that needs to be addressed and changed and instead offers sugar-sweet comments that massage people’s self-esteem, like ‘we are here to help you on your journey with God.’ I think we are all familiar with the saying, ‘it’s like putting a plaster on a poisonous snake bite.’
Even though the reader might not agree with every detail of the study above, I trust that it can be seen that the study is not agenda driven. I have not resorted to cherry-picking a few verses to back up a particular outlook. I have not selected an obscure verse and applied human logic to bend the verse to my agenda. Instead, we have looked at a wealth of verses (nearly all that refer to the Kingdom of God in the NT) and have let them lead us into an understanding of this truth.
Let us summarise the pertinent points from the study above. If we want to play a part in the fulfilment of the prayer, “your kingdom come”, then the Scriptures reveal to us that one of the main ways this is done is through preaching – preaching the Gospel of the kingdom of God! The purpose of this preaching is to affect a deep change in attitude in a person which involves or leads to repentance and a deep spiritual experience – a new birth! It is only by being born again, by having this new birth, that a person can enter the kingdom of God or truly know anything about it!
The Kingdom of God – ‘here and now!’
Through Christ’s death on Calvary sin’s power has been broken, Satan’s power has been broken (John 8:31-36; Romans 6:6; 8:2; Heb.2:14; John 3:8), and now anyone that truly repents and believes is born again made a new creation in Christ!
When Jesus Christ cried out ‘It is finished!’, the thing that is immediately reported next in the accounts of Matthew and Mark, is that the veil in the temple was torn in two! This event heralded the truth that the way into the very presence of God, where God resides, was now made open! The redemption that Christ has purchased for us with his own blood so deeply and thoroughly cleanses and delivers us from sin that we can now be born again of God’s own Spirit and enter where he is. (This truth has not been given the prominent position it deserves by many expositors of the Bible.) How truly great our salvation is! This is an astonishing miracle of grace! This is something totally unknown since that time that Adam sinned! Truly, the kingdom of God has come, here and now to such as believe this Gospel, repent and receive the Holy Spirit. Christ is in them and they are in Christ! We have become the habitation of God through the Spirit! What could be greater than this! Therefore the writer to the Hebrews is able to say, “Having therefore, brethren, boldness to enter into the holiest by the blood of Jesus.” (Hebrews 10:19).
This is not just some truth to be relegated to becoming just a doctrinal ‘concept’ of what is ‘positionally’ true of us! It is to be a spiritual reality and dynamic in our lives that brings us into real fellowship with the Father and Son, where we are affected and transformed by the glory that is His presence! The apostle Paul puts it astonishingly clearly! He explains in two Corinthians chapter 3 – whether we will believe it or not – that the glory and the presence of God that the Christian experiences through the ministry of Christ is so much greater than the glory communicated through Moses when he was up the mountain, that it is not worthy to be compared with it! Thus Paul is able to write, “But we all, with unveiled face beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord.” (2 Corinthians 3:18).
The writer to the Hebrews exults in this truth! He too makes this stark distinction between that which was outward and visible and that which is now heavenly and spiritual. He compares the experience of Jewish believers at Mount Sinai with the experience of believers in this New Covenant:
“For you are not come unto the mount that might be touched, and that burned with fire, nor unto blackness, and darkness, and tempest,…But you are come unto mount Zion, and unto the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to an innumerable company of angels, To the general assembly and church of the firstborn, who are written in heaven, and to God the Judge of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect, And to Jesus the mediator of the new covenant…” (Hebrews 12:18,22-24).
No wonder Paul says in Philippians that our citizenship is in heaven! Indeed, Jerusalem which is above is the mother of us all! (Gal.4:26). The source and empowering of a Christian’s life comes from his or her spiritual connection with Heaven! (Eph. 1:3; 2:5,6; 2:22; Col.3:1,3). The purpose of God is that Christ may dwell in our hearts and that we might be filled with all the fullness of God! (Eph.3:16-20; Col.1:27; 2:9,10). Who can doubt that we have been transferred into another Kingdom?
All this is for the ‘here and now’ for the believer in Christ.
Do temptations and difficulties meet us on the way? Are we to live by faith and to patiently endure and overcome? Absolutely – but this is not the subject under consideration here.
The idea that our good works somehow act as a vehicle to bring God’s kingdom to people because they are being touched by God’s love through these works is an association of thought nowhere taught in the Scriptures. However much people may be blessed by our good works, this is a vague, nebulous teaching that simply undermines the preaching and meaning of the Gospel of the kingdom of God by either overemphasising social projects or substituting such preaching with acts of social concern.
In this study, we have not looked at the parables concerning the kingdom of God / Heaven. To a large extent, the parables look at the nature of the kingdom of God from a different perspective which doesn’t really relate to the focus of this study. However, there is nothing in the parables that would contradict the above, or support a contrary view of that suggested in this study.
At the beginning of this study I gave reference to a number of scriptures that refer to the kingdom of God in a future sense. Here is another one:
“But fornication, and all uncleanness, or covetousness, let it not be once named among you, as becomes saints; Neither filthiness, nor foolish talking, nor jesting, which are not fitting: but rather giving of thanks. For this you know, that no fornicator, nor unclean person, nor covetous man, who is an idolater, has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. Let no man deceive you with vain words…” (Ephesians 5:3-6).
As we have seen in this study, through being born again we are ‘transferred’ from one kingdom into another. This involves a radical inward change in our lives that empowers us to live righteous and holy lives now. This ‘new’ life is a ‘foretaste’ of the age that is to come (Heb.6:4,5). This being so, it cannot be that our present lives should contradict that state of righteous, holy living for which Christ died to bring us into and which is the life that testifies to and anticipates the everlasting kingdom that is to come. This is why the apostle John says, “He that says he abides in him ought himself also so to walk, even as he walked… In this is our love made perfect, that we may have boldness in the day of judgement: because as he is, so are we in this world. (1 John 2:6; 4:17). Because of Christ’s death and resurrection, the ‘bar’ is set no lower than this!
However, as we are in the here and now, this is what this study has focussed on. But there is no loss in this, as living in the kingdom of God that our new birth brings us into is the proviso of entering into the Kingdom of God that is yet to come and that shall endure eternally.
Misinterpreting Scripture: Seek first…
As we have seen, the link between the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness is clearly established in the Scriptures. The two are inseparable, and many of the Scriptures quoted above underscore this truth. Righteousness is the feature of God’s kingdom. Christ died for us that grace may reign in us through righteousness and that we ourselves might be made righteousness God through Christ! Consider these words of Jesus,
“For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:20).
The connection between righteousness and the kingdom of God is again here clearly established. In this verse, the word of God is referring to the moral or spiritual state of a person when considering the possibility of them entering the kingdom of heaven (or, the kingdom of God – because fundamentally there is no distinction between these two expressions in the Gospels, as anyone can see by comparing parallel verses in the Gospels). Jesus is making it clear that even the strictest outward observance of religious rules and duties that a person can undertake is nowhere near good enough for them to enter the kingdom of God! All human efforts to attain to God’s righteousness fall far short and fail. A person must be radically and deeply changed from the inside, and in 2 Corinthians 5 Paul refers to such an experience – to such a transformation – when he says,
“Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creation: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new. And all things are of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:17-18).
And a few verses later Paul states, “For he has made him, who knew no sin, to be sin for us; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.”
As God said through the prophets, “This is the heritage of the servants of the LORD, and their righteousness is of me, says the LORD.…and this is his name whereby he shall be called, the Lord our righteousness.” (Isaiah 54:17; Jer.23:6)
It is astonishing to see the lengths that people will go to these days to try to validate, and impose on others their agenda for social action and community projects! They have no fear or shame to change and corrupt the word of God. There are preachers and teachers who will quote from Matthew 6:33 using this form of words,
“seek first the kingdom of God, and his justice” or even, “seek first the kingdom of God, and his restorative justice.”
There are even translations that render this verse with these words! (The Voice translation, the Julia Smith translation, and the Catholic Public Domain Version.) The word translated as ‘righteousness’ in verse 33 is the Greek word δικαιοσυνην, which throughout the New Testament is translated as ‘righteousness’ – because that is its meaning! The only Greek word which can at times be translated as ‘justice’ (or more commonly ‘judgement’) is ‘κρισις’, but that is not used in this verse. There is no justification whatsoever in translating the above verse in this manner. Such corruptions in translation are the result of an interpretation of the text that is agenda-driven! Lacking clear texts on which to base their prescriptive agenda of social and political action, promoters of the social gospel resort to changing the actual text of the Bible or quoting verses wholly out of context.
One writer exemplifies clearly what I am alluding to in the following quote,
“There’s a well-known statement of Jesus, ‘But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things will be added unto you.’
“Righteousness” is not a word we often hear or use outside of the context of the Bible and the church. And even when we hear it there, I’m not sure we really have a handle on what it means. We often think of righteousness merely as moral purity or personal holiness. As if Jesus was saying, ‘seek first the kingdom of God and his moral purity.’
I think we understand the word ‘righteousness’ so much better when we think of it as, ‘things being set right.’ I love the way that the Voice translation captures the force of this word when it translates Matthew 6:33, ‘Seek first the kingdom of God and His restorative justice….’” (The Kingdom Pursuit of Restorative Justice, Kim Smith Jones, May 24, 2017, http://www.sparrowconference.com/blog/the-kingdom-pursuit-of-restorative-justice)
The italics above are mine. The author attempts to persuade us that none of us really understand what ‘righteousness’ in the Scriptures mean – a word that is essential regarding in understanding the nature of God and of Christian behaviour! He then proceeds to try and re-educate us by interpreting it in such a way that destroys its actual meaning in an attempt to transform us into campaigners for social justice! This kind of thinking and misinterpretation of Scripture is the driving force behind any number of books written for Christians today! We are not here dealing with slight variations emphasis or interpretations. What we are dealing with here is a wholesale restructuring of what the Gospel is!
The word of God declares, “…let no man deceive you: he that does righteousness is righteous, even as he is righteous.” (1 John 3:7). Instead, many today like to talk of ‘doing justice’! They are changing the language of the Bible.
It is clear from Mtt. 5:20 above – and from many other scriptures – that righteousness refers to one’s moral character and condition. The writer above contradicts this and pours cold water on the idea that Mtt.6:33 could possibly mean seek first the kingdom of God and his ‘moral purity’, which is near enough what it actually means! If we are talking about ‘as ifs’, it is as if the author doesn’t know what the Gospel is or what the nature of salvation is.
In the quote above, the personal challenge to our hearts and lives of God’s own righteousness is at least side-stepped if not altogether eliminated by the author’s false interpretation and zeal to turn us all into social activists.
There is a move away from God and his righteousness and our relationship to him, to us and our ability and duty to be active against social injustice in the community or even in the world at large!
This departure from that which is meant to aid and secure our spiritual growth – in every area of our lives – is spurred on by the focus on the word ‘justice’ by many a speaker and writer. Yes, God was acutely concerned about how his people the Israelites treated each other, particularly with regard to exploitation. However, the word ‘justice’ is increasingly replacing both the words ‘judgement’ and ‘righteousness’ in all kinds of contexts and in a way that undermines the power and relevance of God’s righteousness being outworked in people’s lives.
Such writers and teachers give paramount importance to a supposedly scriptural obligation for undertaking social action that is prescribed by them! The power of the Gospel and its challenge to our lives is thus neutered by such hijacking of the text, by such hijacking of the Gospel!
What is happening here is not a matter of emphasising that good works are essential as well as preaching the Gospel, but a changing of language and outlook that leads the follower away from their spiritual relationship with God and spiritual growth in Christ and into a plethora of social action and involvement. The result is the demise of true spiritually empowered Christianity in this generation and a lack of knowledge of God and of his saving power in our daily lives.
The erroneous teaching of ‘setting things right’.
It is no accident that other authors who write on Christian social action and social justice use the exact same phrase as the author above when he talks about ‘things being set right’. It is a common idea used by authors when trying to interpret the Gospel and the message of the cross. It is taught that Jesus came and died to ‘put things right’ or ‘to set things right’ (in the community), by which they generally mean we are to ‘transform’ our communities and society at large by ‘putting right’ any and every kind of social injustice that exists in the world and meeting the plethora of needs round about us! Since there is no clear support in the Bible for their agenda of social action and community transformation, they resort to more obscure texts and/or apply their own logic to them. They commonly refer to:
- The ‘reconciliation of all things’ which is found in Colossians 1:20, where it says, “ And, having made peace through the blood of his cross, by him to reconcile all things unto himself; by him, I say, whether they be things in earth, or things in heaven.”
They interpret this verse as meaning Christians are to engage themselves in the community, socially, culturally, politically and artistically to bring about changes in the community. These ‘changes’ or ‘transformations’ are supposed to represent a process of Christ ‘reconciling’ communities and institutions to Himself and preparing these communities and institutions for Christ’s return. As I mentioned, some writers use the term ‘to set things right’ to describe this process, a process that Christ shall complete on his return and establish truth and justice in the world! It is a delusion. Nowhere is such a thing taught in the NT. The references below are also commonly used to propagate this false teaching.
- Romans 8:19-23, where is talks about ‘creation’ being delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God.
- The creation and to the garden of Eden where God instructed Adam and Eve to ‘fill the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moves upon the earth’, and to work the garden of Eden and to keep it. (Genesis 1:28; 2:15).
- The deliverance of the Israelites from Egypt from the book of Exodus.
- The commandments God gave to the Israelites about how they should treat each other (and confusing this with the Church’s relationship with the world).
- The verse that commands us to love our neighbour and the parable of the good Samaritan in Luke 15.
All these particular scriptures are commonly referred to and corrupted by writers who seek to justify their social gospel. I have heard or read teachings on all of the above passages by those who (over-) emphasize social involvement and in each case the scriptures were either taken out of context or their plain meaning was subverted or contradicted. A tell-tale sign of such writers is that they make a comment like ‘Yes, the Gospel is to do with the salvation of our souls but…’. What follows is the agenda of their book, and the rest of the book is then devoted to their agenda of social involvement and action, while the nature of personal salvation is hardly touched upon – unless it is to impose guilt and emotional pressure on the reader by suggesting that he/she doesn’t really know or understand God’s love and grace if they are not as active in the community as their book prescribes!
Instead of transforming lives by the preaching of the Gospel of the kingdom of God; instead of bringing people into the kingdom of God by preaching the power of the cross, those who promote the ‘social gospel’ are gradually but definitely transforming this generation into social and political campaigners rather than those who are witnesses to the life of Christ within them!
Copyright Ⓒ D. Stamen 2021