If the gospel is essentially a theory of the atonement and if you accept this theory of the atonement, your sins are forgiven and when you die you will be received into heaven, there is no basis for discipleship.
By disciple I mean someone who is learning from Jesus how to lead their life as he would lead their life if he were in their place. The New Testament defines a disciple as someone who is with Jesus learning how to be more like him.
But the gospel focuses on the kingdom, that we are invited to live in the kingdom of God then the basis for discipleship becomes clear.
The new birth is the entrance into the kingdom of God. Forgiveness from sins is essential – but it is not the whole package. One of the main barriers to proper discipleship is that people see the teachings of Christ as laws that they have to obey. They are not.
They are expressions of the life that comes to you, through the new birth, and by being part of the kingdom of God.
We have already seen that the Kingdom of God is within or among you: it is here. But when and how did it come?
The one thing we can be sure of is that inhabitants of first-century Palestine didn’t think of space, time and matter in quite the way that we do. If we’re going to understand Jesus, it’s vital to grasp the difference between his world and ours.
1. The Kingdom of God foretold
Space! Most people in the Western world today think of geography as simply places on a map. The sense of ‘sacred space’ or even a sense of ‘place’ is gone; territory is just property to be developed, exploited, bought and sold.
For many centuries mapmakers put Jerusalem at the middle of the earth. That corresponds to what most Jews in the first century believed about the city, and particularly about the Temple. It was the heart of everything, the holiest spot on earth. It was the focal point of the holy land. It was a bridgehead into the world. It was the sign that the creator God was claiming the whole world, claiming it back for himself, establishing his domain in the middle of it.
It was, in particular, the place where God himself had promised to come and live. This was where God’s glory, his Shekinah, had come to rest. That’s what the Bible had said, and some fortunate, though frightened, individuals had glimpsed it and lived to tell the tale.
But God lived, by definition, in heaven. Nobody, however, supposed that God lived most of the time in heaven, a long way away, and then, as though for an occasional holiday or royal visitation, went to live in die Temple in Jerusalem instead.
Jesus behaved as if he were the Temple, in person. He was talking about Israel’s God taking charge. And he was doing things that put that God-in-charge into practice. It all starts to make sense.
In particular, it answers the old criticism that ‘Jesus talked about God, but the church talked about Jesus’ – as though Jesus would have been shocked to have his pure, God-centred message corrupted in that way. This sneer fails to take account of the fact that, yes, Jesus talked about God, but he talked about God precisely in order to explain the things that he himself was doing.
So we shouldn’t be surprised at Jesus’ actions: The promise was always that would God would build his Kingdom on earth.
Before the coming of Jesus we read in Daniel of the Kingdom of God. There we are told that God would establish a kingdom, and a kingdom that would never be destroyed.
"In the time of those kings, the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed, nor will it be left to another people. It will crush all those kingdoms and bring them to an end, but it will itself endure forever. This is the meaning of the vision of the rock cut out of a mountain, but not by human hands—a rock that broke the iron, the bronze, the clay, the silver and the gold to pieces. (Daniel 10: 24.)
We also read in Luke the words that are spoken by the Angel Gabriel in He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High.
The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end. (Luke 1:31-33)
Jesus would be given the throne of David; and of His Kingdom there would be no end. There are kingdoms that come and go and yet the kingdom that is being talked about here is a kingdom that in essence is different from any other kingdom, one that will never be defeated, destroyed or overthrown.
2. The Kingdom of God Present
Time! Jews in Jesus’ day and Jews in our own day have a very special sense of time. Time is moving forward in a linear fashion, with a beginning, a middle and an end.
We see what Jesus meant when he said the time is fulfilled. That was part of his announcement right at the start of his public career (Mark 1.15). Only this will enable us to understand his extraordinary behaviour immediately afterwards.
He seems to have gone out of his way to flout the normal regulations. Most people in the modern church have imagined that this was because the Judaism had become ‘legalistic’.
That, though commonplace, is a trivial misunderstanding. It is too ‘modern’ by half. Rather, Jesus was announcing that the future to which the signpost had been pointing had now arrived in the present. He was doing the ‘God’s-in-charge’ things. He was explaining what he was doing by talking about what God was doing. The time was fulfilled, and God’s kingdom was arriving.
In particular, Jesus came to Nazareth and announced the Jubilee. This was the time – the timel – This was the moment Israel and the world had been waiting for. When you reach your destination, you don’t expect to see signposts any more. Nobody needs a signpost saying ‘London’ in Piccadilly Circus.
It was well established in the public awareness that a kingdom would come.
When Jesus was on this earth He spoke of the Kingdom in such a way that it reminded people of what was being expected.
· At the start of His ministry The Time has come – The Kingdom is at hand. (Mark 1:14-15)
· At the height of His ministry "I tell you the truth, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God come with power." (Mark 9:1-9)
· At the end of His ministry – Joseph of Arimathea, a prominent member of the Council, who was himself waiting for the Kingdom of God, went boldly to Pilate and asked for Jesus’ body.
· The Thief on the Cross and Joseph of Arimathea looked for the Kingdom and after the resurrection Jesus teaches His disciples to inquire about the Kingdom.
Not only did Jesus refer to the promised Kingdom, He took every opportunity to stress that, in Him, and His being accepted by faith, it was present, “among you”.
· The Kingdom now exists by virtue of Jesus’ authority and rule. He has been given all authority in heaven and on earth. (Matt 28:18)
· He has been made both Lord and Christ (Acts 2:36) All things have been placed under His feet. (Eph. 1:20-22) All authority and power have been made subject to Him (1 Peter 3:22).
· The reign of God is now administered by Jesus. He is the ruler over the Kings of the earth. (Rev. 1:5) He has received power to rule the nations with a rod of iron. (Rev. 2:26-27) King of Kings and Lord of Lords (1 Tim. 6:14-15); He will reign until all enemies are placed under His feet.(1 Cor. 15:25-26)
In the NT story of the early church, it was obvious that the Kingdom was well established in reality. For example,
· Those in the church were being called into the Kingdom (1 Thess. 2:12)
· They were being translated into the Kingdom (Col 1:13)
· They were receiving the Kingdom (Heb 12:28)
· They were companions in the Kingdom (Rev 1:9)
· Becoming a Christian meant confessing Christ as Lord (Romans 10:9-10).
· The church is the community of souls in whose hearts Christ is recognised as sovereign.
Because of this reality and immediacy, the terms ‘church’ and ‘the Kingdom’ are often used interchangeably.
3. The Kingdom of God Future
Reality. We have been schooled to believe, as a bedrock principle in our worldview, that the material world is relentlessly subject to the laws of physics, chemistry and the more specific sciences of astronomy, biology, zoology, botany and the rest.
The world of matter, no less than those of space and time, was made by the creator God.
Again and again the prophets and Psalms hint at what we might conceivably have guessed from the story of creation itself: the material world was made to be filled with God’s glory. ‘The earth will be filled with the knowledge of die glory of God, as the waters cover the sea’ (Habakkuk 2.14). Suppose that isn’t just an extravagant way of speaking? Suppose it means what it says?
What prevents us from thinking in these terms is Deism. As long as we are thinking in that way, with God or the gods a long way away and earth trundling on entirely under its own steam, we will never glimpse that vision. Our world says that miracles don’t happen because they can’t happen.
Jesus’ announcement that God is now in charge, that God is becoming king on earth as in heaven, means that we can glimpse, fitfully and in flashes, something of what this prophetic vision might mean -where Jesus is and what he is doing. We can see the material world:, itself being transformed by the presence and power of Israel’s God, the creator.
We see it in the healing stories. In them the physical matter of someone’s body is being transformed by a strange power, which, in one telling scene, Jesus feels going out of him (Mark 5.30).
The professional fishermen who -caught nothing during the night are overwhelmed with the catch they get when Jesus tells them where to cast the net. Jesus not only heals the sick; he raises the dead. He feeds a hungry crowd with a few loaves and a couple of fish. Something new is happening, and it’s happening to the material world itself. He commands the raging storm to be. quiet, and it obeys. Then, worse still, he walks on the lake and invites Peter to do it too.
As with the resurrection itself it is no good trying to rationalise these events. When I looked at Jesus his problem was getting away from people! There has to be something different here. What every scholar will tell you, that Jesus’ message was the kingdom of God. He proclaimed it, he manifested it and he taught it. When he sent out his disciples, he didn’t send them out to teach (that’s the hard part), but to proclaim and manifest (the easy part!) It was very powerful.
We have in Matthew 13:40-43 the parable of the Tares and the notion of gathering the good into the Kingdom, but leaving the bad. The righteous shine in the Kingdom of their Father.
In the description of the judgement in Matthew 25:34 when the Son of Man comes in His glory, the blessed will inherit the Kingdom prepared from the foundation of the world.
Paul looks to the future, expounds the hope of the resurrection, and encourages believers to live holy lives and be steadfast and expresses his own hope for the future (2 Tim.4:18)
Peter takes it further when he says:
Therefore, my brothers, be all the more eager to make your calling and election sure. For if you do these things, you will never fall, and you will receive a rich welcome into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ (2 Peter 1:10-11)