This is the galaxy we live in. The beautiful detailed spiral of the Milky Way.
Here we have taken a step back to picture the estimated 100,000,000,000 galaxies of the universe; 100,000,000,000 milky ways and mega milky ways scattered across the fabric of space. It is awe inspiring to reflect that the Creator exists beyond all that and fills it and expresses himself through it. How beyond our imagining God must really be!
And yet for the God of the Universe there is something about the human beings on planet Earth that is so attractive to him and so valuable that he would continually watch and visit human beings, and enter individual human lives by his Spirit, and do other things to profoundly alter human society. When we experience those alterations to human lives and human society we recognize them as manifestations of “The Kingdom of God.”
THE NEARBY KINGDOM
When I was a boy people conceived of the Kingdom of God as something very remote. If someone said, “You’ll be waiting until kingdom come,” they meant that you’ll be waiting for ever and it might be better to assume it won’t happen. That’s how distant the Kingdom of God seemed to us. But my faith has been informed by a tradition of believers who say that the kingdom of God is nearby; that it is about the present as well as the future; that the kingdom of God is about how we should live with each other; that it is something to be reached out for and taken hold of.
George Eldon Ladd taught this to John Wimber, who then sewed it into the fabric of the Vineyard fellowships. And Vineyard planted it in my theological DNA!
Jesus’ teaching in the Gospels gives us lenses that enable us to recognize God’s ways in the here and now, and identify his activity (kingdom-rule) out there. Because God is out there! He is pouring out his Spirit on all flesh. He is trying to get into conversation with every human being on the planet. Some human beings are aware of that. And some people are not aware – or not yet aware. But my experience is that God is always Previous – to use a Watchman Nee phrase. God has always got there first to try and get people into conversation with Him.
So if the kingdom of heaven is at hand and is manifested in people’s current experience then presumably people should be experiencing those alterations I spoke of. They are!
Through the years there is a question I have asked of hundreds of people – from agnostics to pagans, from believers to atheists. When I ask “Have you ever experienced anything in your life that, looking back, you think might have been God?” it doesn’t matter who I ask, the answer is always “YES!” Everyone has a story – even the person who two sentences before was an atheist!
Because God is always trying to get into conversation with people, when we believers ask we often find that God has met with a person long before we have. For some New Testament examples think…
- Apostle Peter meets Cornelius – an Italian already known by God, already in conversation with God.
- Aspostle Paul meets Lydia in Philippi – a person already gathering others to pray together
- Deacon Phil meets the Ethiopian Chancellor reading the book of Isaiah on the Azotus Road
- Priscilla and Aquilla meet Apollos in Ephesus – a man who was already touring with lectures on Jesus, even though he didn’t fully know the Gospel.
The Kingdom of God was manifesting in the lives of all those people in Acts. But they needed the change explaining.
THE KINGDOM AND RE-BIRTH
Through the lens of Jesus’ teaching in John 3 we understand that God loves to re-boot human lives by providing from his own Spirit a spiritual rebirth later in their lives; a rebirth that opens up their spiritual senses to perceive God’s kingdom and enables them to participate in the ways and activity of his kingdom. Sometimes people experience that second birth before the change is explained to them.
- Alfred the Great was spiritually reborn in the 800s, on his own, in a Saxon forest, hiding from the Vikings, and calling out to God for help.
- Nelson Mandela experienced a spiritual rebirth – though he only rarely mentioned it – while in prison on Robben Island
- Eve Ensler, champion for women’s rights and author of The Vagina Monologues, does not describe herself as a Christian but clearly was spiritually reborn when she collapsed on an airport floor in the most acute psychological and emotional pain and called out to God to save her. He did. He relaunched her life and gave her a life-changing contribution to women on an international scale.
Eve Ensler – author of “The Vagina Monologues”
Some need the alteration they have experienced explaining to them. Because the Kingdom of God is manifesting in people’s lives faster than we can keep up!
My friend Dean was in prison for various frauds. A good church lady befriended him as a pen-pal and sent him a Gospel to read. Every time he started to read it his body began to fill with and amazing warmth, and his mind began to fill with an amazing peace, and his heart began to fill with an amazing joy. And it freaked him out!! So he put the book down and wasn’t sure if he should read it again.
Dean told this to the Anglican chaplain who didn’t know what to make of it. He told it to the Uniting chaplain (it sounds like a joke but it’s a true story!) and the Uniting chaplain said, “Yes that is weird!” But the Roman Catholic chaplain read it right. He said, “Dean, do you know what’s happening to you? You’re entering the Kingdom of God. You’re going to be living a changed life!”
The Roman Catholic chaplain was right. Dean was experiencing a spiritual rebirth. The chaplain helped him to understand it and Dean has been a Christian ever since! Note:
- The Kingdom of God manifestation – God’s John 3 rebirthing activity – came first!
- Then came the explanation
- Then came the change – the repentance and decision
Now someone might say, “Paul, that’s a funny order isn’t it? Shouldn’t the repentance come first?” Not really.
Consider the sermon that Jesus took with him on his first preaching tour, referenced in Matthew 4. He said: “The Kingdom of God is at hand, or has come close – therefore repent!”
Now, to say that the Kingdom of God is previous – previous to us seeing and joining in – is to say that the Kingdom of God is beyond us. Yes the Kingdom of God is within us and among us. It is also beyond us. It is a bigger perspective than Christian/non-Christian or Church/non-Church.
“NO” TO GOD. “YES” TO THE KINGDOM OF GOD?
In another place Jesus says the Kingdom of God is like two sons. The Father says, “Will you plough the field for me?” One son says, “Yes”, but it is no more than verbal assent. No actual ploughing occurs. The other son says “No” to the father, but later decides of his own accord to plough the field. So Jesus asks, “Which one did the will of the father?” Answer: the one who said “no” but actually ploughed the field.
Wait a second! In this story the Father represents God. That means that what we have here is a picture of a person who has said “No” to God – actually ploughing his field for him. Here is a person who has said “No” to God – actually doing the work of God!
Through this story Jesus is teaching us to perceive a reality among people in the world around us. Off the top of my head I can think of many people who have not said “yes” to God, or who have even said “no” to God, whose love and work and care for people and whose beautiful character often appear to manifest the Kingdom of God better than some religious believers do!
As a Christian believer I have sometimes looked upon my kingdom-manifesting friends and asked in my mind, “Why aren’t you a Christian. You should be a Christian! You would make an awesome Christian!!” But the Kingdom of God is not a Christian/non-Christian paradigm.
Rajiv Parti – author of “Dying to Live”
ENTERING THE KINGDOM AS A PARADIGM ALL ITS OWN
Consider the possibility that a person might experience a new birth, a coming alive in the spirit through God’s saving intervention in their life – a person who, like Eve Ensler, then devotes her life to giving compassionately to others and living by the values of the Kingdom of God.
Then think again about Jesus’ discourse with Nicodemus in John 3. To perceive the Kingdom of God and enter the Kingdom of Heaven a person must experience a spiritual rebirth. This rebirth will be evidenced by participation in the life of the kingdom – the values and the realities of God.
As a Christian I have tended in the past to read that passage all the while mentally substituting Jesus’ words so that the passage becomes a teaching about changing a person from a non-Christian to a Christian. But that paradigm is nowhere in the text. (The language of “christian” belongs to another time and place. It was the label given in Antioch to non Jews who were accepting Jesus as the Messiah or Christ.)
If we allow the text to speak on its own terms it provides a lens for me by which I can recognize this story arc for what it is – a life re-defined by a radical change – a coming alive spiritually – which then opens the person up to the realm of God’s ways, his love, his values and principles and power – noting that this story arc might be found in the life of any kind of person – be they a card-carrying Christian or not!
The paradigms of the text are spiritual rebirth and kingdom. If I use those paradigms as my lens I suddenly perceive how expansive is God’s activity in all kinds of people. Eve Ensler’s story mirrors the John 3 story arc exactly!
For a powerful, detailed and immersive illustration of the John 3 story-arc outside of a card-carrying Christian context, let me highly recommend this book:
Rajiv Parti MD is an American Hindu Surgeon whose life was completely changed through a near death experience, which took him on a journey through hell and heaven and back to life to a process of repentance and change, henceforward to live a transformed, redeemed, reborn life. Rajiv speaks openly about the process, about the importance of God and the need for forgiveness, prayer and compassion.
For a paradigm to summarize and makes sense of the whole story, you will find no better text than John 3. Notwithstanding two Judaeo-Christian angels turning up to help him in his journey, Rajiv Parti is a Hindu. His wife noted this as an incongruity. “What’s wrong the the Hindu ‘gods’? Why did you get Christian angels turning up?!” Why indeed! But at this point in time I cannot label Rajiv Parti’s experience as a “becoming a Christian” story. It is an “entering the Kingdom” story. Just like John 3. Because the Kingdom of God is not a Christian/non-Christian paradigm.
To what else can we compare the Kingdom? Jesus said the Kingdom of God is like two builders. One who builds on sand is like a person who listens to the word of Jesus but doesn’t do anything about what he’s heard. One who builds on rock is like a person who listens to the words of Jesus and puts what he hears into action.
Both of these builders are listening to the word of Jesus. So it sounds to me like they’re both in the Church. But only one is manifesting God’s rule. Only one is actualizing the Kingdom. Clearly then Clearly, being in church and Manifesting the Kingdom are not the same thing.
Documentary maker, Michael Moore
THE KINGDOM AS DIVINE ACTION
Let me recommend another movie, the Michael Moore doco “Where to invade next?” In it Michael Moore visits various countries around the world to steal their best ideas and take them back to America. In it we saw:
- Children cared for, nurtured and empowered in their education
- Addicts being helped rather than harmed
- Prisoners loved and rehabilitated rather than brutalized
- Employers loving and caring for their employees rather than fleecing them
- Sick people looked after and cared for, rather than abandoned.
Ruth and I watched the movies together and we said to each other: “If the Kingdom of God is when we do it God’s way, then that looks like the Kingdom of God!”
Of course we know this. We know that we can serve the Kingdom by:
- Caring for Children – think Heidi Baker or George Muller
- Caring for Addicts – think Jackie Pullinger or William Booth
- Caring for Workers – think Oscar Romero or George Cadbury
- Caring for Prisoners, or Refugees, or the Homeless, or caring for sick people – think the monastic founders of the first hospitals.
Heidi Baker – in her element
In the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 25, Jesus taught that if you are caring for any such people then you are caring for the King. You are serving his Kingdom. The Kingdom of God is so big as to embrace all our sense of cause.
For many Christian believers the cause into which they feel pressed is that of building the Church. That is a great cause, though one absent from the teachings of Jesus in the Gospel. Building the Kingdom evokes a wider vision of God’s purpose in the world.
And there is an order to it. My point of view is that we don’t look for the Kingdom of God to build the Church. We look for the church – God’s people – to build the Kingdom, to bless what God is doing, to see what his Spirit is doing and join in.
Jesus said something else to keep us from being passive – as if the Father will build his Kingdom on his own. “The Father will do it on his own” was the perspective of the son who said yes but didn’t do any ploughing. He left it to the father. That’s like the builder who listened to the words of Jesus but took no action. The Father will do it on his own?! It was that kind of Passive Thinking that John Wesley saw as the greatest threat to the continuation of revival in the Great Revival of the C18th.
Jesus put it this way: “The Kingdom of God advances with force and forceful people take hold of it by force.”
In Jesus’ announcement that the Kingdom of God is at hand, is an invitation to reach out and take hold of it; take hold of ways of forgiveness; take hold of ways of grace; take hold of healing and deliverance by God’s power; take hold of justice, freedom, kindness, generosity – all gifts of the Kingdom for the taking. We need to go for them with all our energy.
Try chewing on these questions:
- What Kingdom activity have you seen beyond Christian and Church boundaries and what does it mean for us to join in and serve?
- What does it mean to acknowledge God’s rescuing, and re-birthing activity among people outside of the realm of our churches?
- What people or situation have you encountered where God was “previous” and what did it mean to join in and bless what He was doing?
- What aspects of the Kingdom of God do you need to forcefully take hold of in a way you have not done before?
- Jesus saw the proximity of the Kingdom as a call to change. What change is it calling for from you?
THE KINGDOM OF GOD AS A POWER-PARADIGM
Just as in the past we have tended to confuse Jesus’ kingdom paradigm with “coming to Church” paradigms or “becoming a Christian” paradigms so we in the churches have tended to do that with all of Jesus’ teachings.
But in the Gospels of Matthew and of John the kingdom is the paradigm through which we should be hearing all his teachings. So if we get our notion of kingdom of God or kingdom of heaven wrong then our take on all his teachings will be out of kilter.
Matthew twice summarizes Jesus’ early preaching in a sentence. If I translate that sentence, avoiding all the words that are now laden with religious and churchy associations then it sounds something like this: “You need to change how you think about things because the greater power, a power to which all other realities are subordinate; a power on which all other realities depend; the superior power of a higher, cosmic dimension has come close. It is available to you. It can be reached out and touched and engaged with. You will be seeing its effects. Your life can be changed by it and you can live by its principles.”
Now if I heard that message on Jesus’ first preaching tour it would certainly whet my appetite for more!
Framing all Jesus’ kingdom teachings with that starting point makes me hear them differently. That rephrased announcement makes me fully expect manifestations of healings, deliverances and miracles. How could it not.
When Jesus says that to perceive this higher dimension and enter into it I need a spiritual rebirth…then I ask in a fresh way, how can I get that?
When Jesus says that not all who do healings or deliverances and call him Lord are genuinely going to enter into in that higher dimension…that gets me thinking.
When Jesus says that a person operating by the cosmic principles of a higher dimension can do business so shrewdly that they can leverage a company crisis and come out of it better off than before…I want to learn how to do that!
If the language I have suggested unpacks accurately the implications of Jesus’ language of the kingdom being at hand, I have to go back to the Gospels and admit that’s a wider lens than I have looked through before. So what was Jesus on about? What has my narrower view missed. Suddenly the themes of the Gospel appear a little wider, more diverse and more mysterious. That’s a realm – a kingdom – I really want to get into!