Monday, July 17, 2017

"Kingdom of Heaven"

                Leonidas, King of Sparta, was preparing to make a stand with his Greek troops against the Persian army in 480 B.C. when a Persian envoy arrived. The man urged on Leonidas the futility of trying to resist the advance of the huge Persian army. "Our archers are so numerous," said the envoy, "that the flight of their arrows darkens the sun."
"So much the better," replied Leonidas, "for we shall fight them in the shade.”.[i]

            It was this kind of hero that the people of Israel were looking for as they prayed God would send them a Messiah.  Someone with so much courage that he would stand against Roman tyranny and cast the oppressors out of the Holy Land.  When Jesus entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, all of the people shouted “Hosanna! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!”  The people hailed a king, because they had seen much and come to the wrong conclusions.  You might mistake Jesus for a kingly candidate, too, if you had seen what they saw.  Because, like the Israelites of Jesus’ day, we often don’t see Jesus’ kingdom for what it truly is.

            For example, What if you took Jesus’ miracles, and instead of looking at them on a personal level, you applied them on a national level?  What if Jesus were running for President of Israel—I mean, if they elected leaders instead of declaring a king?  What would His platform look like?  That depends on your perspective, doesn’t it?  According to some in Israel, they expected that Jesus would:

  • ·         Provide bumper crops like He supplied a great catch of fish (Jn 21)
  • ·         Tax the fish instead of the people (Mt 17)
  • ·         Throw lavish parties with ever-flowing wine (Jn 2)
  • ·         Provide national healthcare (Mt 15:30)
  • ·         Set right all environmental problems (Mk 4:35-41)
  • ·         Feed an army just like He had fed the multitude (Mt 14, 15)
  • ·         Raise the dead (ensuring an unbeatable military) (Jn 11)
  • ·         Command legions of angels (Mt 26:53) for military and secret service
  • ·         Save them from the Romans (Jn 12:12-19)

But that’s not the kind of kingdom Jesus came to inaugurate.  Though He often spoke in terms of God as King, and God’s reign as the Kingdom of Heaven, Jesus meant something different by it than what His hearers understood.  They were looking for an earthly monarchy, but Jesus meant nothing of the sort.  In fact, Jesus’ policies would never work on a national level—and that’s one of the reasons the people ultimately turned against Him.  I mean, if Jesus’ Way were turned into law, there would be public outcry.  His agenda would include:

  • ·         Praying for your enemies, and doing good to them (Mt 5:44)
  • ·         Helping your enemies out when they’re in trouble (Lk 10:25-37)
  • ·         Lending, expecting nothing back (Lk 6:35)
  • ·         Practicing unlimited forgiveness (Mt 18:21-35)
  • ·         Putting other people first, and yourself last (Mark 9:35)
  • ·         Refusing to take up the sword (Mt 26:52)
  • ·         Welcoming strangers, feeding and clothing the poor, healing the sick (Mt 25:31-46)
  • ·         Refraining from judging others (Matthew 7:1-6)

Nobody would win a national election with a platform like that!  Winners who are good at winning win by telling people that their group is the best, by teaching them how they can defeat their enemies, make a profit, win military victories—and they do so by reinforcing to people that they are in the right and everybody else is in the wrong.  But that’s not who Jesus was.  He didn’t come to rule the nation, but to be a role model for all who would follow Him.  He came not to conquer, but to die in order to demonstrate God’s great love.

The problem is that somewhere along the way—when Christianity went from being a minority persecuted by the Roman Empire, to the majority backed by a converted Roman Empire—religion and the throne married one another.  People were baptized not because they believed, but because it was fashionable and profitable and advantageous.  From that day, religion used the power of the state to enforce itself, and the state used the authority of religion to back its claims.  A new word was born: Christendom was the geo-political designation of all nations that claimed Christianity as the state religion.  People began to confuse the Kingdom of Heaven for every realm on the globe that claimed to be a Christian nation.  They forgot that Jesus didn’t come to establish kingdoms, but to reign in the human heart.

When Jesus entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, He didn’t gallop in on a white stallion, waving a banner and calling men to arms.  Instead, He came humbly, riding on a donkey.  When he stood beaten before Pilate, Jesus said, “My Kingdom is not an earthly kingdom. If it were, my followers would fight to keep me from being handed over to the Jewish leaders. But my Kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36 NLT).”  Since Jesus said it from His own mouth, Pilate could see no reason to execute Him.  Jesus clearly was not an earthly King.  He did not come to challenge Rome or to change any human government.  Instead, He came to change people’s hearts.  Yet, Jesus’ opponents wanted to maintain their little kingdoms and power structures, so He was executed nonetheless.

Much like Jesus’ own opponents, Christians today get far too caught up in worldly kingdoms, and lose track of the true Realm of Heaven.  Some of our worldly kingdoms are political—like our egocentric belief that government should reflect Christian values rather than what’s good for people of all backgrounds.  Just like the Pharisees and Sanhedrin who became too embroiled in the politics of Israel and Rome, Christians get too tangled up in the matters of this world, forgetting that “our citizenship is in heaven (Phil 3:20 NIV).”  Other kingdoms are the little territories in our own lives that we seek to control, at work, at church, in our families, and in our other occupations.  We become possessive, manipulative, and deceitful, engaging in the kinds of intrigues one might normally expect from government officers and spies.  We fancy ourselves as heroes like Leonidas, rather than remembering that Jesus calls us not to be lions, but lambs.  Instead of fighting for our little kingdoms, or even for some idea of governmental Christendom, the Spirit of God calls us to model our lives after the One who saves through sacrifice.  Just like Jesus’ disciples didn’t understand, neither will the people around you.  But you’ll be living the life of a prince or princess in the Kingdom of Heaven.  You’ll be living a life of peace.

[i] Today in the Word, November 4, 1993.  June 15, 2017.

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