The Reality of The Kingdom of God

If you have ever traveled, you know that cultures are different. The deep south is not the same as the far north in the United States (everything is fried in butter; if they don’t know you, they might not be open). When we go to very different cultures we can experience “culture shock” because things are SO different: gestures, food, social expectations (being on time; making eye contact; physical greetings), driving habits, etc. In culture shock, we experience “a condition of disorientation affecting someone who is suddenly exposed to an unfamiliar culture or way of life or set of attitudes.”

When we commit our lives to Christ, there should be culture shock. We have moved spiritually. We are now citizens in a new country, with a  new leader (Christ), new customs, new language, new priorities. And then we balance this with remaining in our national country and being a citizen there. As Christians, we are all dual citizens, balancing what are at times two very different cultures.

So let’s talk about the culture of the Kingdom of God, and in the process address some things in our culture as well. I am going to present this as 4 questions and answers: How do we get into the Kingdom? What characterizes the Kingdom? When Will I experience the Kingdom? How will I experience the Kingdom?

 Q. How do you get in to the Kingdom of God?

A. Through a commitment to dedicate my life to the risen Jesus.

 When Jesus was talking with Nicodemus the following conversation took place:

  “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.” “How can a man be born when he is old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother's womb to be born!”

Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’” (John 3:3-7 )

 Jesus was basically saying, “Nicodemus, you know that you need a physical birth to experience the physical world; human parent make human babies.  You need a spiritual birth to experience spiritual life. You need to a heavenly parent to make you a child of Heaven.” Later, Paul will compare this to adoption. When we commit our lives to worshipping and following Christ, we are brought into a new family, with a new Father in Heaven. We continue to honor our earthly mom and dad – it’s a commandment after all - but our ultimate allegiance is now to our Father in Heaven.  And receiving this adoption is as simple - and profound – as John 3:16, which is just 9 verses later (still part of the same conversation):

  “For God loved the world so much that he gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.”

Believe (pistis in Greek) carries the idea of  “being persuaded to confidently, trustingly commit yourself.” We acknowledge that Jesus is God, that through his life, death and resurrection, our sins are forgiven, that Jesus alone has the power to save us, and that we respond to His loving sacrifice by offering our love and worship as well as the service of our lives in return.

We commit with heart, soul, mind and strength , and we enter the Kingdom of God as we accept Christ as King – the ultimate authority for life and godliness.  In new birth, we see that God brings life. In adoption, we see that God offers to make us one of His own. In kingship, we are reminded that the rule and reign of Christ has been set up in our life.

Q. What characterizes the Kingdom?

A. God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven (Matthew 6:10)

“Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest (honorable), whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely (acceptable and prized), whatsoever things are of good report (repute); if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.” (Philippians 4:8)

 “The Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” (Galatians 5:22-23)

 “Make every effort to respond to God's promises. Supplement your faith with a generous provision of moral excellence, and moral excellence with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with patient endurance, and patient endurance with godliness, and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love.” (2 Peter 1:5-7)

 There’s just a partial list: Truth, honesty, honorable, justice, purity, loveliness, praise-worthiness, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control, faithful, morally excellent, knowledgeable, self-controlled, enduring, godliness, mutual affection. That’s what characterizes the Kingdom.  That’s a compelling list. These things are available to us when we accept Christ as King thanks to the Spirit and the Word of God.

It doesn't’ mean that life will be easy or perfect. It’s just that the more we experience the work and presence of Christ in our life, the more these things will begin to characterize our life in Christ.

It also doesn’t mean we will do them perfectly, but we will pursue them, applaud them, and do our best with God’s grace to live them out, not for recognition, or for power, or to earn God’s love, but as a trusting, committed response to the covenant we as Christians make with Jesus. “I commit my life to you;  I trust that you can save me spiritually and that your path of spiritual transformation of my life is trustworthy. I will follow you. I want my character, my thoughts, my actions to be like yours.”

We pray for God to do something miraculous in us through His Spirit, we “study to show ourselves approved unto God” by rightly understanding and applying His Word to our lives (2 Timothy 2:15), and we surround ourselves with followers of Christ (Colossians 3:16)

Q. When will I experience the Kingdom of God?

A. If you are a follower of Christ, you are and you will.

“The kingdom of God comes—but not with signs that you can observe. People are not going to say, “Look! Here it is!” They’re not going to say, “Look! It’s over there!” You want to see the kingdom of God? The kingdom of God is already here among you (within your midst).” Luke 17:20-21)

The first-century Jews wanted a leader to throw off Roman rule and make Judea a nation. There was a cultural longing for national restoration, a nation in which everything centered around God. There would be safety within the borders; everyone would live within God’s law; God’s people would be powerful, and the long-awaited Kingdom would finally arrive.  I’ll be honest – that resonates with me. There’s something compelling about a safe, comfortable life. Wouldn’t it be nice if those outside the Kingdom loved and supported what was happening in the Kingdom?

But Jesus talked about the arrival of the Kingdom even as he spoke in a land of occupation and oppression. It was not a Kingdom of physical dominance – he specifically tells his servants not to fight (John 18:36). It’s not a Kingdom of cultural comfort. It’s a spiritual Kingdom that exists no matter what our surrounding circumstances look like.

But that’s just part one. There’s more.

"But when the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on His glorious throne. And all the nations will be gathered before Him; and He will separate them from one another, as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats; and He will put the sheep on His right, and the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on His right, 'Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.’” (Matt. 25:31-34)

The Kingdom is fulfilled within history [already], and will reach its fullness at the end of history [not yet].  For Christians, the Kingdom begins in this life and finds its fulfillment in the next.

Q. How will I experience it?

A. In a broken, longing, hopeful world.

On this side of heaven, we will always experience the spiritual kingdom of God in the midst of the physical kingdoms of the world. In the last two weeks, I saw the following:

  • a video of four men being slowly burned alive by ISIS
  • more Planned Parenthood videos that show the callous and calculating taking of human life
  • the increasing move in culture to marginalize and even vilify those who hold to Christian beliefs
  • the expose of Ashely Madison clients that included Christians in leadership
  • MTV’s video music awards last week that just showed the stark contrast between the values of the world vs. the Bible

 The beauty and hope of God’s Kingdom can be experienced in the midst of a very broken and lost world.

We lie, and gossip, and betray, and break hearts, and love poorly, and are not fair, and we are shallow and petty and desperately chasing after things that will never bring us hope or meaning or true joy and peace…. And yet the beauty and hope of God’s Kingdom can be experienced in the midst of a very broken and lost world.

  • When truth triumphs over lies
  • When purity is honored instead of demeaned
  • When repentance and forgiveness highlight grace
  • When joy emerges from despair
  • When an unexpected peace occurs in or around us
  • When we experience the beauty of patience and kindness
  • When those around us are faithful and enduring
  • When Christ reaches out to us sinners and draws us into His Kingdom

In Luke 14, when one of the disciples comments on how great it will be to feast in heaven, Jesus immediately tells a parable about a feast here on earth in which the poor and maimed and lame and blind are invited – in fact, compelled to come in. 

 “He [God, the Father] has delivered us from the power of darkness and conveyed us into the kingdom of the Son of His love” (Colossians 1:13)

 The Kingdom is a feast, a celebration of the love and mercy of Christ to which the poor, the rich, the dirty, the clean, the smart and dumb, the blatant sinners and the careful sinners – in other words, all of us - are invited in to experience the goodness of life in the Kingdom in the presence of the King.   

Letter to a Corinthianized Church

About 2,000 years ago, Corinth was a financial, religious, and cultural mecca.

  • It was a major commercial hub located on a four-and-one-half mile wide isthmus of land. Sailors wanted to avoid the danger of sailing around Malea, so they would move their ship across the isthmus on a series of log rollers. If the ship was too large, the cargo was unloaded and loaded onto another ship on the other side of the isthmus.
  • “Corinthian brass” (a mixture of gold, sliver and copper) was widely renowned. 
  • Athletic contests known as the Isthmian Games - second only to the Olympian Games - were held at the temple of Poseidon in Corinth every two years. 
  • Athena, Apollo, Poseidon, Hermes, Isis, Serapis, and Asclepius, among others, had temples to their honor in Corinth. It was common to have feasts in those temples – they were very much a center of community.
  • Aphrodite had more than 1,000 hierodouloi (female prostitutes and priestesses) in her service. The present museum in Corinth boasts a large number of clay emblems offered to Aphrodite for healing of a particulular part of the body ravaged by sexually transmitted disease. 
  • The name “Corinthian" had become synonymous with sexual immorality and drunkenness. Aelian, a Greek writer, noted that Corinthians in Greek plays were always drunk.

     Gordon Fee summarized it well: "All of this evidence together suggests that Paul’s Corinth was at once the New York, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas of the ancient world: Intellectually alert, materially prosperous, but morally corrupt.”
     They had money, business, athletic prowess, temple worship involving sex and free food – it was just one big party in Corinth.
   The book of I Corinthians was written to a church living in a culture similar to ours. When the Apostle Paul wrote to them, their primary problem was not persecution. They were a church in lap of luxury, full of people who had been Corinthianized from birth, but who were now trying to begin a new life in Christ.
     Why am I not surprised that, only five years after he left, the Corinthians wrote Paul a letter asking for advice.
1 Corinthians records his response.

1 Corinthians 1:1-3 

Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes, 

To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be his holy people, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ—their Lord and ours: Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. 

     Paul begins by reminding them that they have been sanctified (hagios – “called out”) and called to holiness (agios – once again “called out”). God had pulled them from darkness to light, from being like Corinth to being like Christ. They clearly weren't to leave the city or shun their neighbors, but they were different now in attitudes, priorities, passions, loves, hopes and dreams.
     It’s not easy to be the “called out” counter-cultural ones, so Paul reminds them that they are not alone: they are part of the ekklesia, the assembly, the church. They are not alone.
    Then Paul gives a blessing that we read numerous times in Scripture.

  • Grace (favor, joy, pleasure. The image of God “leaning in”).  God is for them.  God is not anxious to judge, or petty, or requiring them to self-destruct in order to worship like they had before. They did not need to merit this kind of favor.  Because He loved them, God was interested in and engaged with their lives. In the midst of a city where favor was earned and pleasure was fleeting, Paul says, "May God give you grace."
  • Peace (wholeness; unity; quiet and rest).  In the midst of where business, chaos, idol worship and temple revelry brought fragmented souls and shattered lives, Paul says, "May God give you peace."

     "Grace to you" was a standard Greek greeting; "Peace" was  the Jewish blessing of "Shalom." Though the church contained both groups, Paul didn't say, "Grace to you Gentiles, and peace to you Jews." The entire church community was to receive God’s grace and peace.

1 Corinthians 1:4-6 
"I always thank my God for you because of his grace given you in Christ Jesus, For in Him you have been enriched in every way —with all kinds of speech and with all knowledge — God thus confirming our testimony about Christ among you. Therefore you do not lack any spiritual gift as you eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed. 

     Apparently when God through His grace “leaned in,” He spoke a lot through His Word and His people. The knowledge they had gained in the five years since Paul had visited has  thoroughly confirmed what Paul said about Christ.

God had enriched their lives by filling them with the knowledge of Him. But knowledge was not the point:
     Because of God's grace, He has enriched them and confirmed Himself to them. For that reason, they did not lack any spiritual gift.
     That’s quite a statement. (We will see later in 1 Corinthians why Paul makes this point at the beginning. A lot of division had begun within the church as people followed one particular leader or wanted one particular gift).  Paul begins 1 Corinthians by saying, “How amazing is it that you, as a unified church, the ekklesia, have been so blessed by God (grace) that you are rich and lack nothing (peace)?”

1 Corinthians 1: 8-9 
He will sustain you to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, who has called you into fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. 

     While reading and re-reading this opening in preparation for a sermon, I couldn't get rid of the nagging thought that more was being communicated here than simply a reiteration of facts. After all, the church apparently heard plenty of speeches and had gained a lot of knowledge. They knew this. Why would Paul need to remind people:

  • that there will be a day when they are blameless? 
  • that God is faithful?
  • that they are called into fellowship with Jesus Christ?
  • that they are holy and sanctified?
  • that there are others like them?
  • that they are spiritually rich?
  • that they have spiritual gifts?
  • that Jesus is returning?

Because they are people. They are just like us. In spite of being given grace and peace, they didn’t always feel God “leaning in.” They didn't always feel whole, complete, and at peace.  We are not so different today, in the modern American Corinth full of business, money, luxury, ease, and 21st century gods of sex, pleasure, and indulgence.

  • We don’t live like we are “called out,” and we're not sure we want to ignore those alluring cultural sirens.  
  • We think money = wealth.
  • We think pleasure=happiness.
  • We think sex=love.
  • We know we are not blameless, and we wonder how we ever will be.
  • We don’t feel “in fellowship” with Jesus. God seems distant, or even absent. 
  • We wonder if God will give up on us, because so many people around us have rejected us. 
  • We feel like we are alone in the world. 
  • We wonder, in the midst of overwhelming despair, if God will ever make things right. 

     In his letter to the Corinthian/American church, Paul with a hopeful yet poignant reminder: “You truly do have fellowship with Christ. In spite of your weariness, He will sustain you;  others may forsake you, but He will “lean in” with gifts of grace and peace; your sins may seem insurmountable, but one day you will know what it is like to never be worthy of blame, and you will be truly free.”

For those of us who are tired.

For those of us who struggle to be holy in the Corinth of our time, so easily distracted and engaged by the American gods of money, sex, and entertainment.

For those of us who are covered with shame and blame.

For those of us who feel alone and unwanted.

For those of us who feel like we have nothing to offer because God has given us nothing.

For those of us who don’t feel like God is near.

For those of us who lose sight of the hopefulness of Christ’s return, because so many things are broken that it’s hard to believe that one He will make all things new.

Grace and Peace. 

Jason Gray, “Remind Me Who I Am”