For the kingdom of God does not consist in words but in power. (1 Corinthians 4:20)
We enjoyed a wonderful church retreat this last weekend! The Retreat Committee did a great job of organizing the childcare, meals, and group activities. It was held very near the site where James Marshall discovered gold whose discovery led to the California gold rush. Our theme was “Finding Treasure” based on the parables of Jesus in Matthew 13:44-46. A number of Jesus’ parables are explicitly intended to teach us about the kingdom of God (or heaven, a euphemism for God). They sometimes begin with the words, “The kingdom of heaven is like…” In the case of these two parables, Jesus is teaching us that the kingdom of God is so valuable it is worth everything to obtain it. So what is this kingdom of God that Jesus says we should “seek first” above worldly goods (Matthew 6:33)?
In short, the kingdom of God is where and when God’s will is done. This is clear from our Lord’s “model prayer”: Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. (Matthew 6:10) But isn’t God’s will always done? The answer to that question is a little complicated but not too mysterious. It is true that the natural world always obeys God’s commands. We call these commands “the laws of nature”. But let’s note an important qualification: because of sin’s entrance into the world through man the natural world does not operate entirely according to God’s original or highest intent.
Suffering and death due to the frailty and decay of higher order living organisms is not God’s perfect will. Rather, it was instituted by God (Genesis 3) in order to teach us that created goods are fine in their place but never to be valued above, or apart from, our relationship with the Creator, (Romans 1:21-25) who is Himself our highest good (Psalm 63:1-5; 73:25-28). So, while nature always obeys God, He has a higher will for nature which He will one day bring to pass. The Bible calls this future arrangement the “new heaven(s) and earth” (Isaiah 65:17; 66:22; 2 Peter 3:10, 13; Revelation 21:1; see also Romans 8:18-23). While on earth and later as we wait in heaven for Christ’s glorious second coming, we are preparing for that day. This is when the kingdom of God in its fullness begins but its real essence starts long before that in another domain, that of the human soul and of human society.
While nature must always do God’s will, mankind was created with the capacity to make a free choice to obey or disobey God’s expressly revealed will for us. God’s will is not presently being done on earth as it is in heaven. To put it bluntly, human beings are regularly exercising their option to disobey Him. In fact, it’s become quite a habit for us! One might even say it is our nature to do so although we must always keep in mind this is a voluntary condition. God’s moral nature or character is love (1 John 4:8, 16) and all His moral precepts are applications of the law of love. We, on the other hand, have become adept at living according to another law, the law of self-gratification. Pride, lust, envy, deceit, strife, distrust and dislike of God, along with a host of other malignant vices infest the human soul and separate it from God. (Galatians 5:19-23; 2 Timothy 3:1-6)
So how does the kingdom or rule of God come to be established in the soul and, by extension, in human society? The Old Testament prophets foretold the coming of the Messiah, whom God calls “My Servant”. (Isaiah 42:1-9; 49:5-7; 52:13-53:12) He would be the first human being to perfectly do the will of God from the beginning of His life to the end of it. His perfect life was to be offered as the atonement for the sins of all mankind thus purchasing to everyone the possibility of entering God’s kingdom when in the future it is finally and fully established. These prophecies were fulfilled by Jesus. But before we can enter into that final stage of the kingdom, we must be changed within. Our ways and thoughts must come into line with those of God. And how shall that happen?
It is not enough that we give our assent to the correct truths about God, sin and the way of salvation, as important as this is. We must receive into our hearts and into our daily lives the Spirit of God’s Son and Servant, Jesus Christ. As the text at the beginning of this article says, [T]he kingdom of God does not consist in words but in power. That word, “power” is dunamis and means, basically, “strength” or “ability”. And what is this strength or ability for? It is for doing the will of God from the heart, or coming into such communion with God that you prefer His will to your own. It is the ability to take up one’s cross and follow Him who died for you. This is a wonderful gift that was purchased for us by Christ and provided to us by His Spirit dwelling within. While the kingdom of God is His right to rule and also the rules by which He wants us to live, it is above all the power to do His will. This is power to do God’s will despite all the opposition of our deeply ingrained habits of selfishness and pride reinforced by a rebellious world and an army of demons. This is a remarkable power, beyond anything we should expect possible to us fallen creatures.And we must be clear on one thing: it is not our power, as Jesus makes clear: Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you unless you abide in Me. I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing. (John 15:4-5) It is in our daily and even moment by moment communion with Christ that we begin to take on His attitudes and behavior. This is that wonderful “treasure” of God’s kingdom. Our very weakness then becomes our strength because we know we cannot do this on our own.
This realistic awareness of our dependency upon God provides a wonderful opportunity for God to glorify Himself in us. As Paul says, [W]e have this treasure in earthen vessels, so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not from ourselves… (2 Corinthians 4:7; see also 2 Corinthians 12:9-10) Paul, who confessed that prior to Christ’s transforming work his besetting sin was covetousness (Romans 7:7-8) learned to become content in all circumstances, whether in plenty or in want, because he found that he could do all things through Christ who strengthened him. (Philippians 4:11-13)
And so let us conclude with a prayer and a promise. First the prayer: I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened, so that you will know what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints, and what is the surpassing greatness of His power toward us who believe. (Ephesians 1:18-19) And now this great promise contained in a beautiful doxology: Now to Him who is able to do far more abundantly beyond all that we ask or think, according to the power that works within us, to Him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations forever and ever. Amen. (Ephesians 3:20-21)