We Can’t Build the Kingdom of God

Occasionally, I hear well-meaning people say something about how they work to build the Kingdom of God.    But I have never seen anyone actually accomplish it.  Building the Kingdom goes beyond the human ken.  Only God can build the Kingdom, and the Bible never asks us to do it.

That’s right.  The phrase “build the Kingdom” never occurs in the Bible at all, nor does Jesus ask us to spread, extend, enhance, or otherwise effect the Kingdom. Instead, God calls us to enter the Kingdom and to preach the good news about the Kingdom.

To enter the Kingdom, we need to understand the nature of the Kingdom.  Some people may think of the Kingdom of God (Mark, Luke, John) or the Kingdom of Heaven (Matthew) as a place—specifically Heaven.  But when Jesus calls on us to enter the Kingdom, he does not mean for us to go directly to Heaven (do not pass Go, do not collect $200.)  The Kingdom of God certainly includes our abiding in God’s presence, beginning now and continuing forever in the New Heavens and New Earth.  But “Heaven” does not offer the primary meaning of the phrase “Kingdom of God.”

When Jesus preached about the Kingdom in Aramaic—his mother tongue—he used the word malkuth.  When he spoke in Greek—as it appears certain that he sometimes did—he used the term basileia.  In either language, the words primarily mean “kingship, kingly rule, reign, or sovereignty,” not “the geographical area ruled by a king.”  We enter the Kingdom by coming under the Rule of God.  We come into God’s Rule when we confess that Jesus, whom God has exalted to the highest place and given the name above every name, is Lord (Philippians 2:9-11, NIV) and follow up that confession by living in obedience to the Word of God.  Once we have entered the Rule of God, we manifest that rule by declaring the Kingdom, sharing the Good News of God’s victory over evil in the Cross of Christ and God’s sovereign right to rule in every human heart and life.

Only God can build, extend, enhance, or exercise the Kingdom of God.  Nevertheless, when Jesus said “the Kingdom of God is like a net” (Matthew 13:47), he gave us a powerful clue about how our proclamation of the Kingdom works to serve God’s Reign.  When we build larger and more effective personal networks, we increase the range of our relationships and our opportunities for modeling and declaring God’s Kingdom.  In an important sense, our networking builds a web for the Kingdom’s message to run on, a conduit for the power of the Holy Spirit to flow through, even veins for the saving blood of Christ to course through.

I’d like to say so much more about the Kingdom Net, and I have—300 pages of practical advice, compelling stories of powerful Christians, and theological reflection about the meaning of our work in the world as men and women who have entered the Kingdom of God and live to proclaim it.  You can order The Kingdom Net, Learning to Network Like Jesus on Amazon.com and other online booksellers beginning in August, 2013.

Copyright©2013 by Joseph L. Castleberry.

Dr. Joseph Castleberry is President of Northwest University in Kirkland Washington.  He is the author of Your Deepest Dream:  Discovering God’s Vision for Your Life and The Kingdom Net:  Learning to Network Like Jesus.  Follow him on Twitter at @DrCastleberry and at http://www.facebook.com/Joseph.Castleberry or contact him at  joe@josephcastleberry.com.

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Old Testament Nets and New

As Matthew 13:48 suggests, The Kingdom of Heaven is the net God uses to fish the world, catching souls for eternal life in the Age to Come.  In writing my new book, The Kingdom Net:  Learning to Network Like Jesus (forthcoming from My Healthy Church, August, 2013) I considered the topic of nets and networking from a New Testament perspective.  But recently, I did a search for the word net in the Old Testament.

What a surprise!

The Old Testament mentions nets in two contexts: fishing and fowling.  In every single case, when those nets apply to human beings, the reference predicts curse and damnation, not salvation.   A typical use comes from Ezekiel 32:3-4:

“Son of man, mourn for Pharaoh, king of Egypt, and give him this message:

… “Therefore, this is what the Sovereign LORD says: I will send many people

to catch you in my net and haul you out of the water.

I will leave you stranded on the land to die.”

 All of the other uses of the word net refer to snares no one would want to fall into.  In contrast, the New Testament always uses nets in a positive sense—either literally for fishing or figuratively for the saving mission of Jesus and his disciples.

In the use of a single word, the contrast between the Old and New Testament messages stands out.  It would be wrong here to falsely accuse the Old Testament of offering nothing but curse and damnation.  The New Testament only makes sense in terms of the Old Testament’s constant promise of a Redeemer for fallen humanity.  The Hebrew and Aramaic Scriptures present the same picture of a Holy, Gracious, and Loving God that we find in the Gospels and Epistles.

Nevertheless, the focus changes as, in the New Testament, Jesus comes at last, declaring the Kingdom of God, giving His life as a sacrifice for sin, and pouring out the Holy Spirit on the Church.  God’s announcements of net-use turn fully to the saving, missionary purpose of the Kingdom.  When we turn from darkness to light, from our own old testament to our new one, out networks take on a whole new meaning.  In the old life, our networks existed as tools for the provision of our own needs; in the Kingdom, they serve as life-saving equipment for others.  An old saying says, “Give people a fish, and they will eat today; Teach them to fish, and they will feed the world.”

In the Kingdom Net, everyone learns to fish, and the world awaits.

What is the Christian’s Dream Role as a Citizen?

The word “city” first occurs in the Bible when it is mentioned that Cain, the murderer and accursed wanderer, built the first city. Cain wanted to avoid God’s curse that he would be a nomad, and built a city to provide refuge from those who might want to avenge the blood of his neighbor. And from that point until now, the rivalry between urban and rural people has continued.

Throughout the initial books of the Old Testament, God is always sought in remote rural places, while cities are depicted negatively—Nimrod’s Babylon/Babel, Sodom and Gomorrah, Egypt. The tide doesn’t turn on cities until King David comes along and establishes Jerusalem as “Mt. Zion, the City of the Great King.” Unlike the leaders before him, David pulled the Tabernacle, the Ark of the Covenant, and the Presence of God in from the remote places and put it in the very heart of the City.

From David’s Zion Theology, the picture shifts to seeing the eternal destiny of humanity as urban. The earthly Jerusalem falls into dishonor in Paul’s Allegory of Hagar (Earthly Jerusalem) and Sarah (Heavenly Jerusalem) and in John’s Revelation (Jerusalem as “Sodom and Egypt where our Lord was crucified). But the final revelation of our destiny shows God dwelling with the Bride of Christ, the New Jerusalem. Just as Christ redeemed our souls on the Cross, He has begun to redeem all of Creation. They City itself will be saved. God is not far away on some remote mountain, but dwelling in the heart of the City.

So what does that mean for Christians? Our task as citizens is not to reject the city as accursed and godless, but to recognize that we can move the city (society, nation, world) away from Sodom and toward the New Jerusalem. We can do that by bringing the Tabernacle into the midst of it. We can bring Jesus into the City. When we make God’s presence in the city real, we join with our Pilgrim ancestors in seeking to build a replica of New Jerusalem here and now.

One of our great American patriotic songs says, “O Beautiful, for Patriots’ Dream that sees beyond the years thine alabaster cities’ gleam undimmed by human tears.” I have no illusion that we will succeed in building New Jerusalem, as William Blake’s great patriotic hymn of England charges us to do. But in seeking to build replicas of it, we can succeed in bringing God into our cities and making them more like NJ (no, not the otherwise lovely New Jersey) and less like Sodom. That should be the Christian citizen’s dream—to bring God into the city.

Heaven is A City, not a Picture Show

“Our eyes will be forever fixed upon God,” I said in the previous blog post. I am completely convinced that the statement is true. Would you puzzle this idea with me for a minute?

Let no one misunderstand. When I say our eyes will be eternally fixed on God, I do not mean to suggest that Heaven will be some sort of eternal picture show where we are unable to move from our seats. Like most Evangelicals Christians, I’ve heard it said that Heaven is an eternal worship service. The older I get, the less attractive that sounds!

In the Asian religions of Buddhism and Hinduism, as well as in Greek Platonism, the final state of humanity is absorption or “becoming One with the Universe” or something along those lines. In those systems, the end to which personal identity strives is its complete loss. When I say we will have our eyes fixed on God for eternity, I certainly do not mean to suggest that we will be absorbed into God and thus lose our identity. The Biblical doctrine of the resurrection of our bodies serves as the guarantor of our personal being and integrity in the end.

As I have often preached from Romans 12:1, our truest form of worship is not what we do in the exciting, symbolic services held in churches, but rather the daily living sacrifice of offering our whole existence (bodies) to God. It is our life in the streets, in the marketplace, at the workbench, at the dinner table, with our families, that constitute our “latreia logike” (Greek from Romans 12:1 that should be translated “true worship service”).

One more piece of the puzzle: the book of Revelation refers to the Church in Heaven, the Bride of Christ, as a City—the New Jerusalem. If we are to be a Bride, it is clear that we will live together in unity. If we are to be a City, it is clear that there will be a beehive of activity going on. A movie theatre or exhibit hall full of agape onlookers is hardly consistent with the metaphor of a city.

And so it would seem that while we will be unable and unwilling to take our eyes off the Heavenly Bridegroom, we will have our personal identities intact. And we will have things to do in the “economy” of Heaven. We’ll be a bustling city. And yes, it will be an eternal worship service, but not one in which we are fixed in our seats. No matter what we will be doing, we will always be simultaneously fixed on the Beauty of our Savior, conscious of God’s presence, and busy about enjoying it all.

How God Will Fix Our Eyes

Deep inside every human being is a dream of glory. Some might claim to want no glory for themselves. I understand and appreciate their humility. But every mentally healthy, spiritual sensitive human being in the world wants to be in the presence of glory. We want to feel the weight of glory for ourselves. According to Romans 8:18 that is God’s ultimate intention for all of us: “For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared to the glory which shall be revealed in us.”

The moment of our glorification will come when we finally stand in the full and unmediated presence of God. God’s glory that fills everything in every way will fill us as well. When we see God, we will see the source of all beauty, all truth, all fascination and awe. Everything attractive that we have ever seen in this life is merely derivative, a pale copy of God’s true beauty and glory. When we finally fix our eyes upon God, they will indeed be fixed, in both senses of the word. We will see clearly, and we will find ourselves unable to look away.

I recently heard a story about a missionary who was entertaining guests in America from the desert African nation where he had served. In their sight seeing, he took them to a huge waterfall, where they saw more fresh water than they had ever imagined could exist. After a while, he suggested that they should move on to the next activity, but they protested. “Couldn’t we just wait until it’s over?” they asked. They could not imagine that  the water would never stop flowing. Like that waterfall, God’s beauty will never, ever stop.

How will we ever look away from it? Every other thing will only be a tawdry copy of what we see in God. Perhaps some would think that they would eventually want to turn their eyes away to rest, needing a break from the unending display of dazzling delight. Yet that is folly also. God is revealed to be our perfect rest. There will be no more tiring, no wearing out, no decay or distraction. Whatever we require, God will be for us. And that is, at the end, my deepest dream.