Much of Jesus’ teaching concerned the kingdom of God, and it is the focus of much religious teaching today. It is undoubtedly God’s will and purpose to establish the kingdom on Earth, but there are different views of how that will happen. We can get a picture for the different perspectives by looking at the Lord’s instruction to His disciples in His final words on Earth:
So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” Acts 1:6–8 (ESV)
In Acts 1:6-8, the disciples were specifically asking about the establishment of the national kingdom. Since they now knew Jesus to be the Messiah, it was very reasonable to expect the physical and sociological kingdom to be established. National law would then reflect God’s Law. However, Jesus responded by pointing them to the mission they were to carry out until the kingdom fully came. It was not yet time for them to know that — they were just to walk in obedience until then.
One application for today is to beware the temptation to think of the kingdom in natural terms, as if it was about people’s behavior instead of the hearts behind that behavior. The danger with this perspective is that we can end up spending time and effort addressing behavior in ways that don’t result in people reconciling with God.
Growth of the kingdom has a physical aspect, of course. Throughout the New Testament, changed lives displayed the reality of the kingdom. The apostles left lives to follow Jesus, Zacchaeus gave generously, Ephesian exorcists burned their sorcery books, and so on. But in every case, these actions were the result of changed hearts welcoming Jesus, not the cause.
Again, the important thing is a changed heart.
And yet, there is a natural temptation to think that changing behavior is almost as important as changing people’s hearts. This is the view that sees the kingdom as mainly a physical thing, rather than a matter of the heart. This is the view that the Law is an important tool for establishing the kingdom, by enforcing God’s rules. This is the view that cannot accept that someone is saved if their behavior isn’t righteous enough.
It’s almost as if people need to accept Jesus as Lord and change their behavior in order to be saved. As if simply reconciling with God is not enough. As if some physical sign, like circumcision, is still needed.
The same deception exists today as an expression of the spirit of the antichrist. John warned about this in his letters. Although the main warning may have been about false teachers who were teaching against the physical reality of Christ, that isn’t the issue today. Instead, the original language also has the possibility that he was talking about people proposing alternatives to Jesus as the Messiah, such as the idea that Jesus was not sufficient, that people needed Him and to change their behavior to be saved.
The disciples, although they had been given the Great Commission directly from Jesus, were still expecting Him to bring in the physical kingdom right away. They believed the sociopolitical expression was the point, rather than reconciliation with God. Jesus had to turn them once more towards the spiritual mission.
Which path are we following today, the direction of the disciples or the direction of Jesus? Are we focused on the establishment of a physical kingdom, hoping that hearts will follow? Or are we focused on making disciples, knowing that the physical kingdom will follow? Are listening to the Spirit of Christ, or the spirit of the antichrist?