The Jews of Jesus’ day believed their prophets had foretold a kingdom that would be physical and nationalistic. We can hardly blame them. Many of the prophecies appear on the surface to predict glorious days for the physical nation of Israel. Even Jesus’ apostles viewed the kingdom in that light.
But wait! The twelve apostles did not even understand that Jesus had to die on the cross to take away the sin of the world! What is more basic to the Gospel than that? Yet, they missed it. Their prophets certainly foretold Jesus’ suffering for sin. In addition, Jesus himself plainly told them ahead of time. Yet, they still missed it. When Jesus died, the disciples did not praise God for the great sacrifice of the Lamb of God. No, indeed. They thought it was all over. No wonder, then, that they had no idea of the true nature of the kingdom of God.
A true Christian needs to accept God’s own interpretation of His prophecies. “No prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation” (2 Peter 1:20). Therefore, we must study the Gospels. We must hear King Jesus. We must interpret Old Testament kingdom prophecies in the light of New Testament explanations.
THE SERMON ON THE KINGDOM
Yes, we usually call it “the Sermon on the Mount.” However, the location of the sermon is immaterial. The content is what matters.
This outstanding sermon begins with the famous beatitudes. And, what are they? They are blessings related to the kingdom. The sermon opens with these words: “Blessed [are] the poor in spirit, For theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3). Those who are humble, those who recognize their spiritual poverty–the kingdom belongs to them.
As they close, the beatitudes dwell on the theme of persecution. “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, For theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (5:10). The kingdom of God belongs to those who are willing to suffer, without retaliation, for their faith in Christ. It is for those who put principle before pleasure, who stand up for righteousness at any cost.
The kingdom of heaven requires holiness of life. “Unless your righteousness exceeds [the] [righteousness] of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven” (5:20). The scribes and Pharisees were the religious leaders of the Jews. According to Jesus’ statement, these Jewish leaders would not be in the kingdom. This means the kingdom is neither based on nationality, nor on mere religion. The kingdom is only for those who are truly righteous in the eyes of God.
Again, in 6:33, Jesus taught that godliness is interconnected with the kingdom. “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness.” In the context, there is a contrast between the material and the spiritual. Jesus called on His followers to make righteousness their top priority, more important than food and clothes. Yes, God promises to take care of the material; but that is if we put the spiritual first. God’s kingdom is about spiritual concerns.
Entrance into the kingdom depends upon one’s relationship to Jesus. “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven” (7:21). We usually look at this as indicating that merely calling on Jesus’ name is not enough to enter the kingdom. True. However, do not overlook the fact that calling Jesus Lord is a necessary prerequisite to entry. As Jesus clarified elsewhere: “No one comes to the Father except through Me” (John 14:6). Neither Jew nor Gentile can enter the kingdom apart from making Jesus the Lord of their life.
“THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN IS LIKE… “
To help his disciples understand better the true nature of God’s kingdom, Jesus told many parables. Matthew 13 records seven of them: the sower, the tares, the mustard seed, the leaven, the hidden treasure, the pearl of great price and the dragnet. All but the first begin with these words: “the kingdom of heaven is like… ” Nor is the first really different, for Jesus’ explanation of it begins thus: “When anyone hears the word of the kingdom.” When his disciples asked Him why He spoke in parables, Jesus replied, “because it has been given to you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven” (verse 11).
These mysteries, first and last, relate to a spiritual kingdom. They tell how the kingdom is enlarged by planting the Word of God in people’s hearts. It is hearts that are “captured.” Some will accept, others will reject. Some will first accept and afterward reject the Word of God because of persecution, and “the cares of this world.” The parables warn that the Devil also sows seed and that his followers will live in the midst of “the sons of the kingdom” until “the end of the age.” Then, the angels will “separate the wicked from among the just.”
We rightly connect all the above ideas with the gospel message of salvation. And Jesus connected the gospel to the kingdom of heaven. Mark 1:14 says that Jesus began his ministry “preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God.” The gospel and the kingdom are not two different topics; they are one and the same.
Aside from Matthew 13, there are many other parables of the kingdom recorded in the Gospels. Take for example Matthew 22:1-14, which opens thus: “The kingdom of heaven is like a certain king who arranged a marriage for his son, and sent out his servants to call those who were invited to the wedding.” Entrance into the kingdom of heaven is by way of invitation. An appeal is made. No one is forced in. No one enters automatically, whatever the nationality may be. Each individual–male or female, young or old, American or African, rich or poor, Jew or Gentile–each individual makes a personal decision to accept or reject the invitation to enter the kingdom.
PETER PROMISED KEYS OF KINGDOM
It is widely known that Jesus gave “the keys of the kingdom of heaven” to Simon Peter. However, it is not so widely understood what was meant by these “keys.” It is certainly true that he who holds keys controls entry. But, entry into what?
The keys are mentioned solely in Matthew 16:19. The context reveals that the prime topic of consideration was the identity of Jesus. The populace had many views; but Peter had it right when he said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (verse 16). In reply, Jesus spoke of the church and the kingdom of heaven in the same breath. There is no indication that Jesus was changing subjects. He certainly appears to equate His church with “the kingdom of heaven.”
Notice what Jesus connected with the keys. “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (verse 19). Peter would be using the keys to bind and loose “on earth,” (not in heaven, as the foolish jokes would have it). Also, two chapters later, Jesus tells all the disciples, “whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven” (18:18). Thus, it is not only Peter who will be binding and loosing, but rather, all the apostles.
The idea of “binding” is spelled out in Matthew 23:2-4. “The scribes and the Pharisees… bind heavy burdens, hard to bear.” The “binding” here is obviously what religious teachers tell their followers they must do. Jesus told the apostles, “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven.” The apostles’ word would be divinely authoritative.
While all the apostles were to be involved in binding and loosing, only Peter was to be given the keys of the kingdom. Keys open doors. Once open, others can enter. Thus, Christ chose Peter to open the doors of the kingdom. Peter was to be the first one to tell the people of Israel what was required of them to enter the kingdom of God on earth. This can be no other but the church of Jesus Christ, which in the previous verse Jesus said He was going to build. It is an elementary fact of Scripture that Peter was the preacher on the day of Pentecost in Acts 2. Peter again used the keys for the Gentiles in Acts 10. Peter was the designated preacher to open the doors to the kingdom of God. Those doors have now been open for nearly 2000 years. (Look for more regarding the actual beginning of the kingdom in a future Insight.)
JESUS REFUSED TO BECOME THEIR KING
If Jesus had in mind setting up a physical kingdom, there was no better time than after the feeding of the 5,000. The Jews were so stirred up that “they were about to come and take Him by force to make Him king” (John 6:15). Far from seizing the opportunity, Jesus “departed again to the mountain by Himself alone.” When the crowds found Him the next day, Jesus preached a powerful sermon, contrasting the physical with the spiritual.
“Jesus answered them and said, ‘Most assuredly, I say to you, you seek Me, not because you saw the signs, but because you ate of the loaves and were filled. Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to everlasting life… I am the living bread which came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is My flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world… Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life… It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing. The words that I speak to you are spirit, and [they] are life” (John 6:26-63).
The net result? “From that [time] many of His disciples went back and walked with Him no more.” From what time? From the time Jesus refused to become their physical king. From the time Jesus probed deep into their minds and hearts to uncover their true inner materialistic hearts. From the time Jesus scorned politics with its earthly concerns, choosing rather to preach to them about eternal life. From the time Jesus refused to become a king like David and Solomon over physical Israel. From that time, many disciples–disillusioned–turned their backs on Jesus.
THE DISCIPLES WERE NOT SOLDIERS
At the time of the “triumphal entry,” the fervor of the Jews was raised once again. The crowds shouted, “Hosanna to the Son of David! ‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the LORD!’… Blessed [is] the kingdom of our father David That comes in the name of the Lord!… ‘Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the LORD!’ ” (Matthew 21:9; Mark 11:10; Luke 19:38) They acclaimed the King, the son of David and the kingdom of David as all coming right then. They believed that Jesus was fulfilling the Old Testament kingdom prophecies.
The Jews knew the close relationship between David and Jesus–between David’s kingdom and Jesus’ kingdom. However, they did not know that the nature of the two kings and the nature of the two kingdoms were very different. The relationship was one of ancestry and one of God’s direct involvement. However, the nature of the two was quite different.
The week of the “triumphal entry” was one filled with rapid and dramatic change. Finally, Jesus stood before the Roman Governor, Pontius Pilate. Pilate asked Jesus, “Are You the King of the Jews?” Jesus offered a powerful, definitive reply. “My kingdom is not of this world.” He further clarified the relationship between His kingdom and the current political situation by saying, “If My kingdom were of this world, My servants would fight, so that I should not be delivered to the Jews; but now My kingdom is not from here.” (John 18:33,36).
Jesus’ kingship and kingdom were fundamentally different, not only from that of Rome, but also from that of David. David did fight that he might “not be delivered” to the Philistines (remember Goliath?), to the Amalekites, the Jebusites, the Moabites, the Syrians, the Ammonites and the Edomites. David, like many of the Old Testament heroes we teach our children about, was a man of violence, blood and war. David fought for a physical kingdom. He conquered Jerusalem. He greatly extended his earthly domains. David had his “mighty men of valor fit for war.”
Jesus, in dramatic contrast, refused to take up arms either to save his life from the Jews or to rescue Jerusalem from the Romans. “My kingdom is not of this world.” Jesus pointedly declared that His kingdom was not one that expands and takes control by force of arms. Babylon, Persia, Greece and Rome, represented in the great-image dream of Daniel 2, all came into power by force of arms. Not so God’s kingdom, which was to start as a small stone that was “cut out without hands.”
If the Son of David were to set up a kingdom like David’s, He would have fought and thrown the Romans out of the Promised Land. No matter what the kingdom prophecies seem to be saying in their Old Testament context, they must be interpreted in the light of Jesus’ declaration to the Roman Governor: “My kingdom is not of this world. IF My kingdom were of this world, My servants would fight” (emphasis supplied). Jesus’ kingdom does not have soldiers; it is neither defended nor extended by force of arms. Jesus’ kingdom is a spiritual kingdom.
Pilate clearly understood Jesus’ words, for Pilate then told the mob, “I find no fault in Him” (John 18:38). If Jesus were claiming to be king of a temporal kingdom, that would be treason against Caesar and Rome–sufficient cause to put Jesus to death. When Pilate said, “I find no fault in Him,” Pilate clearly confessed his own understanding of the spiritual nature of Jesus’ kingdom.
The mob cried out, “Crucify [Him]!” Pilate tried every way He could think of to release Jesus, “but the Jews cried out, saying, ‘If you let this Man go, you are not Caesar’s friend. Whoever makes himself a king speaks against Caesar’ ” (John 19:12). The chief priests cried, “We have no king but Caesar!” (verse 15) With that, Pilate desisted and turned Jesus over to them to do as they wished.
We say the Jews did not understand. However, there was something they most assuredly did understand. The Jews could see that Jesus was not going to set up an earthly kingdom (like David’s earthly kingdom). They could see that Jesus wanted no part of attempting to oust the Romans from Jewish soil. They could see that Jesus was neither a Zealot, nor a patriot, nor a subversive.
It is “unthinkable” that Jews in Jesus’ day would yell, “We have no king but Caesar!” That was an absolute, bold-faced lie! The only reason they would yell such a fabrication is that they were desperate to get rid of this “man” who preached at them rather than become the political king they expected he would be. They hated Caesar. But they hated Jesus more than Caesar because Jesus failed to take up their cause to rid the land of Caesar. Jesus refused to set up a physical kingdom like David’s. Jesus did not comply with their understanding of the kingdom prophecies.
KINGDOM NOT ESSENTIALLY JEWISH
Less than a week before the mobs cried out for His crucifixion, Jesus had revealed some very important truths by way of the parable of the vineyard (Matthew 21:33-46). The owner of the vineyard placed vinedressers in charge of it. In due time, the owner sent servants to collect the fruits, but the vinedressers dealt cruelly with them, wounding some, killing others. Finally, the owner sent his own son and the vinedressers killed him. It does not take much Bible understanding to discern that the owner represents God, the servants represent the Old Testament prophets and the son represents Jesus. And the vinedressers? Who could they be but the Jewish nation as a whole, or the Jew’s religious leaders in particular? “Now when the chief priests and Pharisees heard His parables, they perceived that He was speaking of them.”
Jesus told the chief priests, elders and Pharisees, the Jewish “clergy” as it were, “the kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to a nation bearing the fruits of it” (Matthew 21:43). Jesus simply told them, paraphrased in popular language, “If you don’t want it, I’ll find someone else.” The rejection of the kingdom by the Jewish leaders would in no way change God’s plans. Daniel had prophesied (2:44), “In the days of these kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom which shall never be destroyed.” No conditions. No dependency upon Israel’s response. Others more worthy could take their place. “The God of heaven will… ” A study of the rest of the New Testament (see future Insights) confirms that the God of heaven did.
Earlier that day, Jesus had already told the religious leaders of Israel, “Assuredly, I say to you that tax collectors and harlots enter the kingdom of God before you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him; but tax collectors and harlots believed him” (Matthew 21:31,32). Once again, we see that the kingdom of God has to do with righteousness and faith. It is altogether a spiritual matter. Neither color of skin, nor nationality–not even Jewishness–had anything to do with being a part of it. It was, and still is, a matter of the heart and spirit.
KINGDOM ESSENTIALLY SPIRITUAL
What is the nature of God’s kingdom? Listen to the King: “Let the little children come to Me, and do not forbid them; for of such is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 19:14). What a rebuke to the disciples. They thought Jesus had too many important things to do to be bothered with little children. However, Jesus said that child-like-ness is the very spirit He wants in His kingdom.
Shortly before that, “the disciples came to Jesus, saying, ‘Who then is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’ Then Jesus called a little child to Him, set him in the midst of them, and said, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:1-3.). Physical birth could not do the job. Greatness, as men measure it, is out of the picture. Did we catch it? It is a matter of being “converted” and becoming like little children. That is what the kingdom of heaven is all about.
Jesus had told the Pharisee Nicodemus that birth as a Jew would never, by itself, obtain entrance for a Jew into the kingdom of God. Jesus said, “unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God… unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:3,5). Jewishness would never do it. Religiousness would never do it. Theological education would never do it. An emotional experience would never do it. Simply accepting Jesus into the heart would never do it. Praying the sinners’ prayer at the conclusion of the little tract would never do it. No amount of man-made religion would ever do it. No proofs of Jewish nationality would ever do it. “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” The King has spoken.
“NOT OF THIS WORLD”
From the ministry of John the Baptist to Jesus’ declarations before Pontius Pilate, the kingdom was repeatedly described as a spiritual one. John, Jesus and the twelve preached repentance as a condition for entering the kingdom. John taught that ancestry from Abraham was insufficient. Jesus told Nicodemus that physical birth would not give anyone a ticket into the kingdom–that entrance into the kingdom required a birth of water and spirit.
Jesus taught that the kingdom is spread by the preaching of the Word of God and that sons of the kingdom are peacemakers who endure persecution without taking up arms. He taught that the kingdom has nothing to do either with the cares of this world or with material wealth; but on the contrary, that those are elements that seduce men away from the kingdom.
Jesus refused the offer of the Jews to become their physical king like David. Jesus refused to let His disciples defend Him with swords. Jesus made it very plain to the politician Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world.” It is a spiritual kingdom.
(Scripture in the preceding article is taken from the New King James Version. Copyright (c) 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.)