Kingdom

Familiar old words to many. Note - Jesus wanted his friends to request that God's kingdom come.  For what were they asking? What had Jesus/the Gospels to say on the kingdom and its coming?
Perhaps Jews of the day may have recalled words from the poetry of the prophet and naturally asked for something like this reads:
For a child has been born for us,
    a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
    and he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
His authority shall grow continually,
    and there shall be endless peace
for the throne of David and his kingdom.
    He will establish and uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
    from this time onward and forevermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this
(Isaiah 9:6-7, NRSV).
Puzzling or not, that Old Testament passage sounds like a kingdom which had not happened but would be sincerely desired, and looked for, and worth total commitment, a golden age realised. The king's rule would be characterised by justice and righteousness - not glory, self-interest and profit. This king would be under the direction of the LORD. It follows that they would have freedom - from any occupation authority or foreign constraints! Judging from the below references in the Gospels, I deduce this was the kind of kingdom looked for, with variations. (As for Jesus' intention in the prayer he gave, see the next clause in it about God's will.)

First New Testament (NT) mention of this kingdom comes in the message of the angel to Mary: He (Jesus) will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:32-33, NRSV). Note that here it is the “Davidic Kingdom”, an unending kingdom with only one ruler forever. This is the doing of the Lord God (or, LORD God). Jesus' elevation was not all that long away then and the kingdom close. Prior to the crucifixion of Jesus, anyone who heard this prediction could have been provoked to think thoughts of armed rebellion. I wonder how Mary thought about it in her reflections? [See previous post, “King (!!)” for more on Jesus, the King. I ended with considerable overlap in the two posts; this post is lengthy - 9,000+ words.]

Move forward 30 or so years and there is another emphasis. Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:14-15, ESV). A critical point in time - why? Because now the (unrecognised) King was there. At that moment the call was(is) for a change of heart and response to the glad tidings, which was the purpose in Jesus’ being sent and coming and leading a peripatetic life: Early the next morning Jesus went out to an isolated place. The crowds searched everywhere for him, and when they finally found him, they begged him not to leave them. But he replied, “I must preach the Good News of the Kingdom of God in other towns, too, because that is why I was sent” (Luke 4:42-43, NLT). The first Gospel encapsulates those days in the north: Jesus went all over Galilee, teaching in the Jewish meeting places and preaching the good news about God’s kingdom. He also healed every kind of disease and sickness (Matthew 4:23, CEV). People were made whole as the kingdom was proclaimed. How long did that mission occupy - at least weeks, or was it months? (Did a similar pattern follow for Judea in the south ? That would be borne out by the preferred reading for Luke 4:44.)

Jesus called for timely repentance and acceptance of the good news of the kingdom - that “in brief” report was similar for John the Baptist. How can detail be elicited from the brief note, i.e., how to “unpack” the preceding: timing, repent, believe, the kingdom? By reading on in the Gospels it may become clear. So - the timing relates to expectations based on prophecy. “Repent”, commonly taken as have or show remorse or regret [OED], in the NT is better said: “Change your mind and take a new direction”, (which may well be accompanied by remorse). Jesus’ message was repent of falling short of God’s requirements, cease relying on religion, accept God’s forgiveness and submit freely to the rightful rule. Trustfully take Jesus at his word and fully rely on him. The kingdom? In that day the kingdom was becoming possible (now essentially it is incorporation in Jesus). Kingdom is a larger topic here; in the following I am picking out specific occurrences of the word.

The kingdom issue was evidently quickly associated with Jesus.  One night, perhaps quite early on in the Jesus events, Nicodemus, a highly placed, meticulous, Jew spoke (privately?) with Jesus. Perhaps they had been talking about God’s kingdom? The man received advice which, as reported, seems blunt and abrupt; advice he did not know he had asked for:
Jesus replied, “I tell you for certain that you must be born from above before you can see God’s kingdom!”
Nicodemus asked, “How can a grown man ever be born a second time?”
Jesus answered: I tell you for certain that before you can get into God’s kingdom, you must be born not only by water, but by the Spirit. Humans give life to their children. Yet only God’s Spirit can change you into a child of God. Don’t be surprised when I say that you must be born from above. Only God’s Spirit gives new life. The Spirit is like the wind that blows wherever it wants to. You can hear the wind, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it is going
(John 3:3-8, CEV). The kingdom is not visible but it can be perceived and actually accessed by a person with God working within them. To grasp the kingdom and to enter that kingdom depends on God’s inner working in the person. There has to be a beginning of kingdom life. However, there is no imperative mood here. God’s work had just been described. The story moves on to the response from the hearer: No one has gone up to heaven except the Son of Man, who came down from there. And the Son of Man must be lifted up, just as that metal snake was lifted up by Moses in the desert. Then everyone who has faith in the Son of Man will have eternal life.
God loved the people of this world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who has faith in him will have eternal life and never really die
(John 3:13-16, CEV). Thus everyone who will do so can receive the life of God’s kingdom; they can "see" what the kingdom is and can enter that kingdom. No external process or human power or authority is required or possible. The life of the kingdom, eternal life, is given to any and all who trust in Jesus for it, believe in him, put their faith in him. [Nicodemus faded from the account [debate over which words are Jesus’ own is inconclusive I think. It looks like Nicodemus did enter Jesus’ kingdom - he was there at the “end” with a becoming not-so-secret follower named Joseph, taking care of the burial of Jesus’ remains (John 19:39).]

Whose kingdom? Why, his, his Father's, heaven's, God's - but also, remarkably, the special possession of those who depend only on their Father in Heaven and admit their own failings, as also those who suffer for doing the right God wants.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
(Matthew 5:3,10; NRSV. ) Jesus turns things upside down. It is not commonly considered a good thing to be humble or be treated badly. (The expression "kingdom of heaven" is common in Matthew [only]; the specific word "heaven" will be a future post.)

Jesus gave a kingdom direction to his followers. I believe it continues to be our imperative. Not for once, nor twice, nor now and then, but continuously. It can, for kingdom members, support service of God rather than wealth or money.
But if God so clothes the grass, which is alive in the field today, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you, O you of little faith! And do not seek what you are to eat and what you are to drink, nor be worried. For all the nations of the world seek after these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, seek his[a] kingdom, and these things will be added to you.
Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom (Luke 12 28-32, ESV). Matthew makes it even stronger, by including “first” in the seeking. The issue is what dominates my life: God, or whatever? What is the object of the striving; for what do you run after? Perhaps it might be simple and literal to take these words and sit back and wait for God to provide. That would ignore all that Jesus and the Bible said about work and productivity and support for the needy. And what is the kingdom to be sought; the kingdom God wants to bestow on the follower? One way to grapple with this is to study Matthew chapters 5, 6, 7. Hopefully this post will assist.

The Father is pleased to give the kingdom - to...? To Jesus' little flock. Those who received him and thus became children of God.  The ones delivered out of the kingdom of darkness that was unconverted Jewish religion, and religion in general.  They were the people ("nation") to whom God's kingdom would be given as it was taken from the unbelieving (see below re Matthew 21 and the fatal stone). Not so long hence there would be no Gentile and Jew, but one new people of God.

True Godliness (not human estimation) remains a requisite for this kingdom. Otherwise some followers will be least whilst others may be great: Do not ignore even one of the least important commands. And do not teach others to ignore them. If you do, you will be called the least important person in the kingdom of heaven. Instead, practice and teach these commands. Then you will be called important in the kingdom of heaven. Here is what I tell you. You must be more godly than the Pharisees and the teachers of the law. If you are not, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:19-20, NIRV). There is a generous open welcome to the kingdom. There is also an exclusion - which seems obvious.

If that is not clear enough a little further on in similar vein we read: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven (Matthew 7:21, NRSV). There is a unique kingdom a person may enter. Words are not enough, not by far. It is a fatal mistake to set aside what God says. Living and current enactment is necessary, as empowered by God.

Evidently this was a vital message which received some emphasis. The community to whom he spoke were supposedly fully open to God’s direction: He went on his way through towns and villages, teaching and journeying toward Jerusalem. And someone said to him, “Lord, will those who are saved be few?” And he said to them, “Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able. When once the master of the house has risen and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, ‘Lord, open to us,’ then he will answer you, ‘I do not know where you come from.’ Then you will begin to say, ‘We ate and drank in your presence, and you taught in our streets.’ But he will say, ‘I tell you, I do not know where you come from. Depart from me, all you workers of evil!’ In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God but you yourselves cast out. And people will come from east and west, and from north and south, and recline at table in the kingdom of God. And behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last” (Luke 13:22-30, ESV). The people present there seem to represent those who gave Jesus a measure of hearing. His prediction of judgement would be especially confronting because of the assessment of their prospects if they continued as they were. Probably even more unacceptable was the truth that outsiders would be admitted to the kingdom whilst religion observant covenant betrayers would be cast out.

Jesus testified on John the Baptist. John was a very significant figure in “salvation history” to that time and in that day. However, the greater had come about in the person of Jesus. Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence,[f] and the violent take it by force (Matthew 11:11-12, NRSV). The “violence” sentence is not easily understood but perhaps relates to then current use of force, coercion or compulsion in the name of God’s plan. The inclination to use human means to enforce God’s (claimed) will seems perennial. God’s kingdom is not brought in, or about, or strengthened, or extended, by any human agency, regardless of how dressed up. Those who go that path end with a handful of ashes. 

Taking in the kingdom is no merely human matter; it is not only understood by logic or arrived at by reasoning. The open invitation stands but the response of enrolment or enlistment with open-hearted teachability is needed. So Jesus explained his dependence on stories instead of on plain speech. The Synoptics record Jesus giving explanation: When he was alone, those who were around him along with the twelve asked him about the parables. And he said to them, “To you has been given the secret[a] of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables (Mark 4:10-11, NRSV). Matthew (13:11) incidentally has “the secrets of the kingdom of heaven”, showing equivalence in the expressions. In the same pericope, with variations, all three similarly record a further challenging precept: Take care then how you hear, for to the one who has, more will be given, and from the one who has not, even what he thinks that he has will be taken away” (Luke 8:18, ESV). Sad to “lose the plot”. It actually matters just how the hearer hears. This is not learning like reaching a pass mark (or even a high distinction). Not a question of intellect or education but of how the hearer relates to Jesus.

And yet - how hard is it to fathom Jesus’ words? Consider some story (parable) comparisons for the kingdom. One is found in similar form in all the Synoptics (the first two share context): He (Jesus) said therefore, “What is the kingdom of God like? And to what shall I compare it? It is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his garden, and it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches” (Luke 13:18-19, ESV). The grower starts with the small, very small. The result becomes large, just by natural processes. This is what God is doing. Does it refer to the inner life of an individual or the impact on people, or both at once? Certainly there is no stunted or withered plant here. (I dare say it is safe to imagine soil preparation and water as well as weed control - but that is another story.)

The kitchen provided another comparison in the image of yeast raising a large quantity of flour. Again he (Jesus) asked, “What can I compare God’s kingdom to? It is like yeast that a woman used. She mixed it into 60 pounds of flour. The yeast worked its way all through the dough” (Luke 13:20-21, NIRV; also in Matthew 13).  The text includes the idea of hiding the active ingredient - it is invisible and permeates the whole. Translations vary, i.e., interpretations differ. (It is risky to give meaning to every part of a story.) If the kingdom is likened to the yeast, then the focus is unobserved change on a large whole. That process is ordinary and natural (though a cook will nurture the batch). From a start brought about by Jesus the kingdom impact increases, either across numbers of people or within the person. At the last the full effect has come about. (In Mark 4:26-29 the story of the planted seed watched but growing unobserved makes a similar point, though more easily applied to the individual. God’s gradual work is real but imperceptible or unmeasurable.)

This following mixed catch of fish is unique to Matthew. It explains the present experience of God’s netting and the ultimate outcome: “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net. It was let down into the lake. It caught all kinds of fish. When it was full, the fishermen pulled it up on the shore. Then they sat down and gathered the good fish into baskets. But they threw the bad fish away. This is how it will be on judgment day. The angels will come. They will separate the people who did what is wrong from those who did what is right. They will throw the evil people into the blazing furnace. There the evil ones will weep and grind their teeth (Matthew 13:47-50, NIRV). There is a day ahead when all will be set right - the net will be brought in to be emptied. This is not for any human power or authority to do, as the next emphasises.

Matthew has an explained kingdom story of a farmer whose enemy wants to ruin the farmer's crop with weeds. The farmer (in an age long before selective poisons) knows the plantings must be allowed to reach maturity and tells his workers they must not try to separate weeds from wheat. Later, in private, disciples asked for the explanation: Jesus replied, “The Son of Man[a] is the farmer who plants the good seed. The field is the world, and the good seed represents the people of the Kingdom. The weeds are the people who belong to the evil one. The enemy who planted the weeds among the wheat is the devil. The harvest is the end of the world,[b] and the harvesters are the angels.
“Just as the weeds are sorted out and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the world. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will remove from his Kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. And the angels will throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in their Father’s Kingdom. Anyone with ears to hear should listen and understand (Matthew 13:37-43, NLT)! Jesus made this message crystal clear. This story looks at individual people grouped together, and the inevitably mixed picture of real or false attachment of Jesus. Some with whom the follower is in contact may in fact not be genuine companions. God will know. It is wrong to anticipate God’s work of separation and judgement although it is natural to wish for a uniformly productive “paddock”. It is inescapable that the (overall) people of God (or, “church”) is in Jesus’ viewfinder here. It would be a mistake to pick up the unchanging nature of actual weeds and their inevitable end. God can change people, if they are willing. The “weeds” story is about leaving God to do the work of God and knowing that he will bring all to account. In some ways the story is similar to the “Parable of the Sower”. The message of Jesus received(s) varied reception. His intention is that we hear and understand and actively respond. This the individual may choose to do, with God’s help. It is notable that the kingdom is his (the Son of Man's) and yet it is their Father’s Kingdom in which the godly shine.

Jesus describes the kingdom as very, very precious and, once glimpsed, totally desirable to the seeker. There are two brief stories of hidden treasure (like an ancient hoard) and of a merchant’s outstanding pearl specimen find: “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it (Matthew 13: 44-46, NRSV). Nothing else compares.

Jesus’ kingdom is vital with God’s unvarnished truth but his message does not just obliterate what went before: So he told them, “Every student of the Scriptures who becomes a disciple in the kingdom of heaven is like someone who brings out new and old treasures from the storeroom” (Matthew 13:52, CEV). Treasure is there for the willing.

The most struggled-over kingdom saying also comes from Matthew: And I will give you the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven. Whatever you forbid[a] on earth will be forbidden in heaven, and whatever you permit[b] on earth will be permitted in heaven” (16:19, NLT). However understood the keys, they are given by Jesus to Peter and he alone can do that. The context shows Peter confessing the truth of Jesus as Christ; in the very same pericope Peter fails to accept what Jesus said.

The Synoptics tell us about a time of discord over “kingdom precedence" in their company. They have got it wrong. Regardless of what humanity may do in our own measures, God’s economy is different. Matthew omits the arguing but in kingdom terms gives what Jesus said to settle it. These are severe and even ominous words: At that time the disciples came to Jesus. They asked him, “Then who is the most important person in the kingdom of heaven?”
Jesus called a little child over to him. He had the child stand among them. Jesus said, “What I’m about to tell you is true. You need to change and become like little children. If you don’t, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Anyone who takes the humble position of this child is the most important in the kingdom of heaven. Anyone who welcomes a little child like this one in my name welcomes me (Matthew 18:1-5, NIRV). How like the common way of looking at things their approach. It is still puzzling in the setting of Jesus speaking of his imminent execution. Apparently the 12 men (Mark 9:35) interpreted Jesus as expecting some kind of new kingdom of Israel (an issue which persisted to trouble disciples). This kingdom of Jesus' is not ever about lording it over others.

Position or prestige or prominence or power or parentage - these are but passing. Children may seem incidental and off-task? On the contrary, the handy measuring stick for kingdom remains the small child: but Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs” (Matthew 19:14, NRSV). All the Synoptics have this memory; the final clause is word-for-word identical across the three. It must be an expression long-remembered and valued. Who, then, constitute the kingdom? Those who can be such as the youngster. Or, put it this way: But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise. God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the things of this world that are common and looked down on. God chose things considered unimportant to do away with things considered important (Paul; 1 Corinthians 1: 27-28, NIRV).

One wealthy young man ran earnestly up to Jesus. He was really disappointed at the challenge to give away his possessions to the poor and go with him - that was too much.
Jesus saw how sad the man was. So he said, “It’s terribly hard for rich people to get into God’s kingdom! In fact, it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to get into God’s kingdom.”
When the crowd heard this, they asked, “How can anyone ever be saved?”
Jesus replied, “There are some things that people cannot do, but God can do anything.”
Peter said, “Remember, we left everything to be your followers!”
Jesus answered, “You can be sure that anyone who gives up home or wife or brothers or family or children because of God’s kingdom will be given much more in this life. And in the future world they will have eternal life” (Luke 18:24-30, CEV). Everyone knew “how things work”, so they thought. If anyone “had it made”, that young man would be seen as being there. Rank, precedence, status and power may apply around us, even, unfortunately, in groups claiming alignment with Jesus. Those “things” in fact easily become “camels” which can never fit through the needle’s eye. Like the disciples were to do, we are to recognise that the kingdom has different priorities; accepted “normal” measures of achievement, value, or worth, do not apply. The incident is memorable because no human status makes it easier or gives priority. Yes, “merit selection” for God’s kingdom, but the merit belongs completely to Jesus! Note: It is surely a mistake to generalise the unique challenge to the man that day - “everything you own” - that is not indicated anywhere as a universal.

Jesus told this story about heavenly “rewards” which seems even more confronting: “For the Kingdom of Heaven is like the landowner who went out early one morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He agreed to pay the normal daily wage[a] and sent them out to work.
“At nine o’clock in the morning he was passing through the marketplace and saw some people standing around doing nothing. So he hired them, telling them he would pay them whatever was right at the end of the day. So they went to work in the vineyard. At noon and again at three o’clock he did the same thing.
“At five o’clock that afternoon he was in town again and saw some more people standing around. He asked them, ‘Why haven’t you been working today?’
“They replied, ‘Because no one hired us.’
“The landowner told them, ‘Then go out and join the others in my vineyard.’
“That evening he told the foreman to call the workers in and pay them, beginning with the last workers first. When those hired at five o’clock were paid, each received a full day’s wage. When those hired first came to get their pay, they assumed they would receive more. But they, too, were paid a day’s wage. When they received their pay, they protested to the owner, ‘Those people worked only one hour, and yet you’ve paid them just as much as you paid us who worked all day in the scorching heat.’
“He answered one of them, ‘Friend, I haven’t been unfair! Didn’t you agree to work all day for the usual wage? Take your money and go. I wanted to pay this last worker the same as you. Is it against the law for me to do what I want with my money? Should you be jealous because I am kind to others?’
“So those who are last now will be first then, and those who are first will be last” (Matthew 20:1-16; NLT). By God’s kindness the invitation to God’s kingdom stands open always; that call leads all to the one place; the one who calls is Jesus.

Evidently amongst the disciples there was the persistent idea that Jesus’ kingdom would work like the kingdoms of this world. Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came to him with her sons, and kneeling before him, she asked a favor of him. And he said to her, “What do you want?” She said to him, “Declare that these two sons of mine will sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom” (Matthew 20:20-21, NRSV). James and John, sons of Zebedee, were mistakenly sanguine about what their near future would be like  (which you can see if you read on). We have interesting variation in another report of that moment: James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory” (Mark 10:35-37, NRSV). So then, it was not “just mum”! They expected Jesus to have glory - and they actually were right in spite of themselves. However, his glory came via crucifixion, his death as suffering servant. (The others present were not amused, but they all had to learn better. They did not yet understand the kingdom.)
   
It must have been well enough known that Jesus spoke in terms of the God’s kingdom, a potentially explosive matter. Evidently some questioners wanted to put Jesus at risk, or to the test, over the issue. Being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, he answered them, “The kingdom of God is not coming in ways that can be observed, nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you”[a] (Luke 17:20-21, ESV). The final clause is able to be interpreted as “within you” or, “within your grasp”. This leaves me a little unclear; nonetheless, Jesus’ presence is the point. What was and is clear yet again is that the everyday concept of force or of human acclaim does not apply; this kingdom comes quite differently. All that is required is the presence of Jesus. This might be seen in terms of his promise, or in terms of his word, passed down for our learning that we might take up and hold on to the everlasting life he gives.

At the start of the final week Jesus made his spectacular Jerusalem entry using a donkey. At least amongst some that day, King and kingdom expectations or hopes were high. This was a busy period in the city with many people visiting: Those in front and those in back shouted,
“Hosanna!”
“Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” (Psalm 118:25,26)
“Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!”
“Hosanna in the highest heaven!” (Mark 11:9-10, NIRV). Only Mark has the specific word, “kingdom”. Matthew 21 has the shout, “Son of David”; Luke 19 and John 12 have “King”. At first glance this seems counter-intuitive, for Matthew has had the kingdom of heaven/God over and over. However, I expect the “Son of David” label inevitably evoked the glorious ancient kingdom, the prophesied new golden age, there and then becoming present, Romans notwithstanding! (I do not see how it is possible to conclusively relate, or not, these excited people to the crowd at the end of the week baying for Jesus’ blood.) No doubt people very soon dispersed, or were dispersed. (The king word and kingdom allusion of that day would have been useful ammunition later in the week to Jesus’ accusers.)

The opponents of Jesus became even more determined. Just a day later they tried a direct challenge to him - who said he could do the things he was doing? In the context of his reply we read two more parables: “But what do you think about this? A man with two sons told the older boy, ‘Son, go out and work in the vineyard today.’ The son answered, ‘No, I won’t go,’ but later he changed his mind and went anyway. Then the father told the other son, ‘You go,’ and he said, ‘Yes, sir, I will.’ But he didn’t go. “Which of the two obeyed his father?”
They replied, “The first.”[h]
Then Jesus explained his meaning: “I tell you the truth, corrupt tax collectors and prostitutes will get into the Kingdom of God before you do. For John the Baptist came and showed you the right way to live, but you didn’t believe him, while tax collectors and prostitutes did. And even when you saw this happening, you refused to believe him and repent of your sins (Matthew 21: 28-32, NLT). Ultimately, it is not the invitation, but the response, the acceptance, that counts. Despite or because of their histories, tax collectors and prostitutes responded; they were entering the kingdom of God. That is, they gladly heeded Jesus and trusted him. Matthew has the most severe words following this pronouncement.

All the Synoptics recount this sad parable with dire future implications, which ended with Jesus still free only because the opponents feared the mob. Matthew alone has the brief and telling “the kingdom lost” paragraph at the ending which no doubt helps explain their fury: Then he began to speak to them in parables. “A man planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a pit for the wine press, and built a watchtower; then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. When the season came, he sent a slave to the tenants to collect from them his share of the produce of the vineyard. But they seized him, and beat him, and sent him away empty-handed. And again he sent another slave to them; this one they beat over the head and insulted. Then he sent another, and that one they killed. And so it was with many others; some they beat, and others they killed. He had still one other, a beloved son. Finally he sent him to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But those tenants said to one another, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’ So they seized him, killed him, and threw him out of the vineyard. What then will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others. Have you not read this scripture:
‘The stone that the builders rejected
    has become the cornerstone;[a]
this was the Lord’s doing,
    and it is amazing in our eyes’?” (Mark 12:1-11, NRSV)
Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits. And the one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him.”[a]
When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they perceived that he was speaking about them. And although they were seeking to arrest him, they feared the crowds, because they held him to be a prophet (Matthew 21:43-46, ESV). In what sense had they “possessed” the kingdom before "they" lost it? Though unfortunately uncircumcised at heart (Romans 2) the nation did have the sign of the covenant God made. They were a people as a whole supposedly joined together around the very words of God and the Temple with its sacrifices. God called them his vineyard, his own olive tree. In God they professed to trust. As was promised to them, they were the ones to whom the Christ came. Some of his own received him gladly. They were the contemporary equivalent of an ancient 7,000 who had not actually rejected their God. Regrettably, many prominenti and those of their outlook were the ones who did not receive him (- individuals did receive him and thus became children of God). God's kingdom today is not tied to any political division, or ethnicity, or ancestry. God's olive tree, pruned and growing now, will be complete at the end of the Gospel invitation era, the names recorded in the "book of life" (see further Romans 9-11; Revelation 20-22). 

In the same context another grim parable describing what had happened over time and up to that day: The kingdom of heaven is like what happened when a king gave a wedding banquet for his son. The king sent some servants to tell the invited guests to come to the banquet, but the guests refused. He sent other servants to say to the guests, “The banquet is ready! My cattle and prize calves have all been prepared. Everything is ready. Come to the banquet!”
But the guests did not pay any attention. Some of them left for their farms, and some went to their places of business. Others grabbed the servants, then beat them up and killed them.
This made the king so furious that he sent an army to kill those murderers and burn down their city. Then he said to the servants, “It is time for the wedding banquet, and the invited guests don’t deserve to come. Go out to the street corners and tell everyone you meet to come to the banquet.” They went out on the streets and brought in everyone they could find, good and bad alike. And the banquet room was filled with guests.
When the king went in to meet the guests, he found that one of them wasn’t wearing the right kind of clothes for the wedding. The king asked, “Friend, why didn’t you wear proper clothes for the wedding?” But the guest had no excuse. So the king gave orders for that person to be tied hand and foot and to be thrown outside into the dark. That’s where people will cry and grit their teeth in pain. Many are invited, but only a few are chosen (Matthew 22:2-14, CEV). It is one thing to have the invitation; the recipient’s actual inner response is crucial. God is generous; human beings have a choice. We have a critical decision to make.

Despite ongoing and even repeated challenges, not everyone was out to "get" Jesus. Perhaps that others were listening in may have strengthened Jesus’ patience with the critical questions. So we read in that last week: One of the teachers of religious law was standing there listening to the debate. He realized that Jesus had answered well, so he asked, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”
Jesus replied, “The most important commandment is this: ‘Listen, O Israel! The Lord our God is the one and only Lord. And you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength.’[a] The second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[b] No other commandment is greater than these.”
The teacher of religious law replied, “Well said, Teacher. You have spoken the truth by saying that there is only one God and no other. And I know it is important to love him with all my heart and all my understanding and all my strength, and to love my neighbor as myself. This is more important than to offer all of the burnt offerings and sacrifices required in the law.”
Realizing how much the man understood, Jesus said to him, “You are not far from the Kingdom of God.” And after that, no one dared to ask him any more questions (Mark 12:28-34, NLT). That man, by thoughtful consideration of what God said in the OT had arrived at the truth. He did not have far to go. I hope he took the further step of trusting himself to Jesus and his word and thus became incorporated in God’s kingdom. The incident serves as a caution - close is too far away!

Along the same theme of final warnings against the religious, Jesus gave guidance which is of relevance to today’s seeker, even though you will not encounter the hazards under the old labels. I think we should take what he said seriously. Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: The Pharisees and the teachers of the Law are experts in the Law of Moses. So obey everything they teach you, but don’t do as they do. After all, they say one thing and do something else.
They pile heavy burdens on people’s shoulders and won’t lift a finger to help. Everything they do is just to show off in front of others. They even make a big show of wearing Scripture verses on their foreheads and arms, and they wear big tassels[a] for everyone to see. They love the best seats at banquets and the front seats in the meeting places. And when they are in the market, they like to have people greet them as their teachers.
But none of you should be called a teacher. You have only one teacher, and all of you are like brothers and sisters. Don’t call anyone on earth your father. All of you have the same Father in heaven. None of you should be called the leader. The Messiah is your only leader. Whoever is the greatest should be the servant of the others. If you put yourself above others, you will be put down. But if you humble yourself, you will be honored.
You Pharisees and teachers of the Law of Moses are in for trouble! You’re nothing but show-offs. You lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. You won’t go in yourselves, and you keep others from going in.[b] (Matthew 23:1-14, CEV). How sad that those who were supposedly there to help were in fact hindrances. Their religianity, their status consciousness and superior knowledge and performance meant they would not place themselves under Jesus and could condescend to ordinary folks and exclude “sinners”. They actually presented alternative to trusting what God said. Such hazards are contemporary with us; the individual needs to ask God’s guidance from God, not others, and constantly dwell in God’s words. This point was emphasised again, as shown below.

Amongst Jesus’ warnings to his followers we find this (then) future of the kingdom message: “Then people will hand you over to be treated badly and killed. All nations will hate you because of me. At that time, many will turn away from their faith. They will hate each other. They will hand each other over to their enemies. Many false prophets will appear. They will fool many people. Because evil will grow, most people’s love will grow cold. But the one who remains strong in the faith will be saved. This good news of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world. It will be a witness to all nations. Then the end will come (Matthew 24:9-14, NIRV). The “end times” sayings do pose challenges now but clearly it was Jesus’ plan that “all” should hear of his kingdom invitation. The emergence of false prophets to fool people was a continuation of previous history. If the false prophet is seen as a spokesperson in the name of God but falsely representing God’s word, then I see they are with us still. They pose a challenge to a hearer. Hate and hate crimes, sadly, are certainly current.

Luke’s report of Jesus’ end times words may challenge understanding but we are plainly told the kingdom was coming. And he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree, and all the trees. As soon as they come out in leaf, you see for yourselves and know that the summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all has taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
“But watch yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life, and that day come upon you suddenly like a trap. For it will come upon all who dwell on the face of the whole earth. But stay awake at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that are going to take place, and to stand before the Son of Man” (Luke 21:29-36, ESV). Not only is is clear the kingdom is inevitably coming but how to be ready is spelled out. Neither they had nor we have any encouragement to think there yet remains plenty of time. All of us are to consider time is short.

It is essential to be prepared for the presence of Jesus. There is a parable which graphically depicts this: “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps[a] and went to meet the bridegroom.[b] Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them, but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, they all became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a cry, ‘Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those virgins rose and trimmed their lamps. And the foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise answered, saying, ‘Since there will not be enough for us and for you, go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves.’ And while they were going to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast, and the door was shut. Afterward the other virgins came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he answered, ‘Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.’ Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.“(Matthew 25:1-13, ESV). In the parable half of the bridesmaids were ready. The others were too late; they missed out and were left out. The story reflects the culture of the day. Our culture is very different but the portrayed challenge is there. It is important not to be foolish! Serious as our responsibility is (see below), it is also important not to overwork the story: The bridesmaids who missed apparently neglected to provide their own supplies; our responsibility now has no equivalent, for God gives the entrance to God’s kingdom.

Jesus made it clear that opportunities and responsibilities are real and different. In this parable the challenges are tailored to the individual’s capacity: The kingdom is also like what happened when a man went away and put his three servants in charge of all he owned. The man knew what each servant could do. So he handed five thousand coins to the first servant, two thousand to the second, and one thousand to the third. Then he left the country.
As soon as the man had gone, the servant with the five thousand coins used them to earn five thousand more. The servant who had two thousand coins did the same with his money and earned two thousand more. But the servant with one thousand coins dug a hole and hid his master’s money in the ground.
Some time later the master of those servants returned. He called them in and asked what they had done with his money. The servant who had been given five thousand coins brought them in with the five thousand that he had earned. He said, “Sir, you gave me five thousand coins, and I have earned five thousand more.”
“Wonderful!” his master replied. “You are a good and faithful servant. I left you in charge of only a little, but now I will put you in charge of much more. Come and share in my happiness!”
Next, the servant who had been given two thousand coins came in and said, “Sir, you gave me two thousand coins, and I have earned two thousand more.”
“Wonderful!” his master replied. “You are a good and faithful servant. I left you in charge of only a little, but now I will put you in charge of much more. Come and share in my happiness!”
The servant who had been given one thousand coins then came in and said, “Sir, I know that you are hard to get along with. You harvest what you don’t plant and gather crops where you haven’t scattered seed. I was frightened and went out and hid your money in the ground. Here is every single coin!”
The master of the servant told him, “You are lazy and good-for-nothing! You know that I harvest what I don’t plant and gather crops where I haven’t scattered seed. You could have at least put my money in the bank, so that I could have earned interest on it.”
Then the master said, “Now your money will be taken away and given to the servant with ten thousand coins! Everyone who has something will be given more, and they will have more than enough. But everything will be taken from those who don’t have anything. You are a worthless servant, and you will be thrown out into the dark where people will cry and grit their teeth in pain” (Matthew 25:15-30, CEV). Everyone may “share in (the) happiness”. They do not achieve it but it can be given to them. Grimly - that same happiness may be lost. This severe result emphasises the significant roles we are given.

Jesus described a great separation. The basis of selection may seem to jar with the rest of his message. Unless full weight is given to his role as judge, it is also extraordinary that all the nations, or peoples, are in view here: “But when the Son of Man[d] comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit upon his glorious throne. All the nations[e] will be gathered in his presence, and he will separate the people as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will place the sheep at his right hand and the goats at his left.
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the creation of the world. For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home. I was naked, and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you visited me.’
“Then these righteous ones will reply, ‘Lord, when did we ever see you hungry and feed you? Or thirsty and give you something to drink? Or a stranger and show you hospitality? Or naked and give you clothing? When did we ever see you sick or in prison and visit you?’
“And the King will say, ‘I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters,[f] you were doing it to me!’
“Then the King will turn to those on the left and say, ‘Away with you, you cursed ones, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his demons.[g] For I was hungry, and you didn’t feed me. I was thirsty, and you didn’t give me a drink. I was a stranger, and you didn’t invite me into your home. I was naked, and you didn’t give me clothing. I was sick and in prison, and you didn’t visit me.’
“Then they will reply, ‘Lord, when did we ever see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and not help you?’
“And he will answer, ‘I tell you the truth, when you refused to help the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were refusing to help me.’
“And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous will go into eternal life” (Matthew 25:31-46, NLT). The Son of Man will surely come with his glory. Then the grimmest prospect is contrasted with the best. How were people of the nations to know how to live? Surely they were to follow their conscience. Did their actions make them either a sheep or a goat? Or, did their actions reveal their inner selves, their true identity? Notice it is giving care to the least, not public demonstration of piety or such like. Sheep and goats do not change their nature. People, however, may be changed from within by God.

The close group of followers must have been long puzzled by what Jesus said to them about the kingdom of God just hours before his arrest. They were gathered for the observance of Passover:  What I’m about to tell you is true. I won’t drink wine with you again until the day I drink it in God’s kingdom” (Mark 14:25, NIRV).  Matthew 26:29 has some words identical with both Mark and Luke, but varies:  Here is what I tell you. From now on, I won’t drink wine with you again until the day I drink it with you in my Father’s kingdom” (NIRV). Luke’s report has many identical words but, although not of critical import, is not readily harmonised in detail; the structure of the passage is different and there are complex issues with the text at points. (see Luke 22:15-20, NRSV - margin shows there are ancient authorities re "not eat it"/"never eat it again"; and that some lack the words after "body"). Jesus looks forward to the kingdom (his Father’s/God’s) and sharing it with them. Things will be different from that day, and they surely were! Did drinking wine together again happen apart from that night? Unless he meant right then as he established the new covenant meal of remembrance, I think he was speaking of their activities in the period following his death and resurrection. (Although realisation of the kingdom was not really simple for the first generation, all was different after his resurrection.)

During that “last supper” there are surprising “kingdom” statements recorded. Note that the position conferred on the eleven follows admonition against claims to personal importance:  A dispute also arose among them as to which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest. But he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.
“You are those who have stood by me in my trials; and I confer on you, just as my Father has conferred on me, a kingdom, so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom, and you will sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel (Luke 22:24-30; NRSV). Still the confusion about the nature of the kingdom. Jesus has a kingdom; Jesus is able to confer that kingdom. They will go forth into the world with the message of Jesus for he has said so. Their role in the final judgement is hard to imagine - how did they understand it? Who were the twelve tribes they are to judge? (Jesus had said the kingdom was taken from the Jews - see above.) The faithful are clearly distinguished from those who did not receive him. A bit earlier Jesus had assured Peter of this prospect for them (Matthew 19: 27-30). Thoughts about status, precedence and rewards had not faded away. What is clear is that there is a reckoning. The role of the apostles endorses the importance of the message handed on from them to us.

At the behest of Jesus’ opponents, the Roman governor asked him about any claim he made to be king of the Jews.  Jesus answered, “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). The opportunity to resist or to attempt to seize power was rejected. Such use of “normal” means to take control was simply wrong then (as it is now). Consequently, the kind of “kingdom” of which Jesus spoke was not of significance to the governor. He might be prepared to drop the matter - the leaders were not. Jesus was duly executed, along with two condemned men. Even one of those men (at least) knew of Jesus as having an (imminent?) kingdom, as seen in his appeal: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:42, NIRV). What did he expect after death? He looked to Jesus for his welfare beyond the grave. (Either news of the proceedings before the governor had brought about this man’s understanding, or he had heard at least something of the message.)

The condemned men died. Jesus’ body was treated differently to the others, for, as all four Gospels tell us, there was a man who acted for him: Joseph went boldly to Pilate and asked for Jesus’ body. Joseph was from the town of Arimathea. He was a leading member of the Jewish Council. He was waiting for God’s kingdom (Mark 15:43; NIRV). I wonder for what exactly Joseph waited at that point? Perhaps post-resurrection he received far more than he could have asked for or thought about. That reminder that there were people who hoped to see God’s kingdom come in is the last kingdom mention in the Gospels.

After Jesus rose from the Jewish tomb "on the third day" the followers had quite a challenge to their thinking. As we see here, not least was their struggle with that kingdom concept, even while Jesus was speaking about it to them: During the forty days after he suffered and died, he appeared to the apostles from time to time, and he proved to them in many ways that he was actually alive. And he talked to them about the Kingdom of God.
Once when he was eating with them, he commanded them, “Do not leave Jerusalem until the Father sends you the gift he promised, as I told you before. John baptized with
[b] water, but in just a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”
So when the apostles were with Jesus, they kept asking him, “Lord, has the time come for you to free Israel and restore our kingdom?”
He replied, “The Father alone has the authority to set those dates and times, and they are not for you to know. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you. And you will be my witnesses, telling people about me everywhere—in Jerusalem, throughout Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth"
(Acts 1:3-7, NLT). We hear part of what was said. Definitely Jesus spoke of God's kingdom; definitely the apostles heard this; apparently they were (still) looking to see a renovated Israel, the Davidic dominion. Disciples (some of them?) had been anticipating that Jesus of Nazareth, their (now risen) Messiah, would 'restore the kingdom' to their nation. They heard Jesus say a lot about the kingdom. Maybe they also were people who still felt to some degree they would only be truly free to live under God when they were free of Roman (or any other) control! “Let’s have God’s rules, now!” The emphasis is absence of control by foreign authority and return to a "golden age".

As the witness went to the end of the earth, the word "kingdom (of God)" continued a useful shorthand for the message of God's salvation plan and its reward through Jesus. So we find in the report from one missionary journey: Paul and Barnabas preached the good news in the city of Derbe. They won large numbers of followers. Then they returned to Lystra, Iconium and Antioch. There they helped the believers gain strength. They told them to remain faithful to what they had been taught. “We must go through many hard times to enter God’s kingdom,” they said (Acts 14:21-23, NIRV). This reminds me of the warnings Jesus gave, including of "wolves". Unfortunately, opposition was centred in the synagogues...

Reminiscent of Jesus' kingdom demands (see above), Paul spoke of the kingdom when rebuking the Corinthian disciples, who seem to have had an easy-going tolerance in their group for the abuse of sex and abuse of others: Or do you not know that the unrighteous[a] will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality,[b] nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 6:9-10, ESV). These descriptions are a difficulty to some and care is needed in interpretation (e.g. see footnotes in ESV). A lot of ink is used today on debating the meaning and application, and anyway, it is said, for whom does Paul speak. (It must be true that the lists reflect the times.) Note what failings are placed on the same level here - it can not be right to focus solely on the sexual issues and not the rest.

In Paul's Romans we find a call for the subjects of Christ the king: Now then, who are you to judge your brother or sister? Why do you act like you’re better than they are? We will all stand in God’s courtroom to be judged... (text omitted) God’s kingdom is not about eating or drinking. It is about doing what is right and having peace and joy. All this comes through the Holy Spirit. Those who serve Christ in this way are pleasing to God. They are pleasing to people too. (Romans 14:10, 17-18, NIRV). The whole chapter addresses particular matters then contemporary but still bears on living in the kingdom now, on what God's kingdom is about, on living in between Jesus' comings.

A prĂ©cis attempt: In Jesus' day the popular concept echoed current political ideas but God's kingdom is not of this world. The kingdom does not come about at human behest. The basic key is inner change brought about by God's spirit to create the subjects of the kingdom. Jesus is the door to the kingdom. Those who epitomise the kingdom's subjects are not the high and mighty; they may seem to be the "rejects". The kingdom places strong demands on its citizens in their freedom. Words are far from enough and may be empty. The subjects of the king(dom) can do no wrong but ought not. They depend on God's mercy. God's kingdom has no organisable form but, once recognised, is treasured above all. The kingdom both is coming, and does come, including within a person by adherence to Jesus' word. The apparent kingdom citizenship includes fakes, and only God can and will separate them out.  People may talk about the kingdom as though participants, but face ultimate rejection. No perfect form of the kingdom is available in this world. Its perfect form arrives with Jesus' return in glory. His return is to be constantly expected.
   
Table: I have compiled a table of the Gospel kingdom verse references I have considered in this post. The following may be copied and pasted into a browser to access the table:
https://drive.google.com/open?id=0B_t0LD6OFOiMR1dXenNiM21VQjQ

Scripture quotations marked (CEV) are from the Contemporary English Version Copyright © 1991, 1992, 1995 by American Bible Society, Used by Permission.
Scripture quotations marked (ESV) are from the ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Scripture quotations marked (NIRV) are taken from the Holy Bible, NEW INTERNATIONAL READER'S VERSION®.Copyright © 1996, 1998 Biblica. All rights reserved throughout the world. Used by permission of Biblica.
Scripture quotations marked (NLT) are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright ©1996, 2004, 2007, 2013 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.
Scripture quotations marked (NRSV) are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

I retain in the publishers' text the references to footnotes where they occur. You can check them out by viewing the text on-line. Often they are the same in different translations.
Note: Bible text sourced through Biblegateway.com or/and BlueLetterBible.org.    

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