How to live in the kingdom

“The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15, NIV)

Something has brought me back to this verse in the last few hours. It comes to me in the form of a question: In what way is Jesus speaking to the United Methodist Church through these words?

The center of the verse, it seems to me, is the key to hearing it. How do we hear the meaning of the phrase, “the kingdom of God”? What does that mean? What is that referring to?

John Wesley published two sermons on this text, one of them on this very question. He defined “kingdom of God” in terms of Romans 14:17, which speaks of righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit. The kingdom of God for Wesley is a pneumatological kingdom and reality. It is the space in which we live by the Holy Spirit rather than by the wisdom of the world.

Modern exegetes would point out, I suspect, that reading Romans to define the words “kingdom of God” does not make sense. But let us dwell with Wesley a bit in this text, letting scripture interpret scripture.

Romans 14:10-16 sets the context for hearing Romans 14:17 and its description of the kingdom of God. In the chapter, Paul is arguing against judging each other in the body of Christ over food rules. Paul is convinced that what we eat and drink does not condemn us. There is no unclean food unless we regard it as unclean. But — and this is the primary point — if our brother or sister judges something to be unclean or forbidden it is not our place to create dissension in the body by scolding them or correcting them. Indeed, he tells the church that it should abstain from eating or drinking if by doing so it causes a brother or sister to stumble. So, he teaches the Romans both to withhold judgement — for that is Christ’s job — and to abstain from practices that might scandalize the church, even if they are convinced such things are harmless.

All of which leads him up to the description of what the kingdom of God is all about — righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit. Given the communal context of the verses that come before verse 17, I conclude that Paul is talking about these manifestations of the Holy Spirit within and among community. They are personal and social.

So, we might read these two texts together, Mark 1:15 and Romans 14:17, something like this: In Jesus Christ the righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit are at hand. Turn away from other forms of life. Turn toward Jesus and his way. Stop judging each other over non-essentials. Stop provoking and scandalizing each other. Rejoice in the good news.


12 thoughts on “How to live in the kingdom

  1. I don’t know. Paul seems to “over-spiritualize” things. I’d rather look at what Jesus said about himself, his mission, and his understanding of the kingdom of God:

    He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:16-21 NIV)

  2. Righteousness, peace, and joy are too abstract for me. When I think about the obstacles to kingdom living, I think about Colossians 2:20-22: ” If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the universe, why do you live as if you still belonged to the world? Why do you submit to regulations, ‘Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch’? All these regulations refer to things that perish with use; they are simply human commands and teachings. These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-imposed piety, humility, and severe treatment of the body, but they are of no value in checking self-indulgence.” The middle-class American ethos is defined by the “appearance of wisdom” in self-sacrifice. It is self-sacrifice as Pelagian currency rather than asceticism as a means of discovering the deeper richness of intimacy with God. We don’t fast; we diet instead. The reason we don’t live in the kingdom is that we submit to all the world’s regulations, expertise, and expectations about how to raise our kids, what we’re supposed to do with our finances, etc, to be “responsible adults.”

    1. I share your sense that the words are not self explanatory. We need more interpretation. I am not so hostile to the middle class as you, though I agree that all cultures stand in need of the gospel.

      1. Maybe I need a better term than “middle class.” I’m talking about my people only because I don’t know how to talk about the problems of poor people or really rich people because I haven’t lived them. The exasperating thing is that many Christians I have encountered who share my background, whatever term we want to use for them, take their cue for most of their lifestyle decisions from the values of the secular world and then define “the world” that we’re supposed to set ourselves apart from as “those Hollywood liberals” so that as long as I’m a heterosexually chaste tea-totaler who doesn’t use profanity, I’m living in the “righteousness, joy, and peace” of the kingdom.

        I just long to be in a community of people who long to pursue intimacy with Christ every waking moment and want to throw off every social rule that keeps us from being radically hospitable to the strangers through whom Christ is always trying to visit us. Obviously there is a place for practical concerns and common sense, but if we don’t want the government to take care of the people who are falling through the cracks and if our boundaries of social propriety inhibit and excuse us from taking care of them beyond a few feel-good drop-in-a-bucket latex glove-wearing mission outings a year, then we’re mocking God and certainly not living in his kingdom.

  3. If one interprets Romans 14:17 in light of the remarkable appearance of the kingdom among the Gentiles (“who did not strive for righteousness”), which Paul discusses at length, then we may take heart that God’s kingdom shows up where it’s not expected, where we have done diddly-squat, so to speak. Is this not what we experience when the very reprobate we have given up on turns to Christ for salvation? It happens.

  4. Good piece.
    Great topic.
    Sharing is a good thing. Thank you!

    The Kingdom of God is Christ.
    “Seek the Kingdom of God above all else” ( seek Christ)
    “The Kingdom of God has arrived among you.” ( The messiah has arrived)
     “The Kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a nation that will produce the proper fruit.” ( The authority of Christ ruling his kingdom)
    “How can I describe the Kingdom of God?” Mark 4:30 
    “I must preach the Good News of the Kingdom of God in other towns” ( Christ would preach He is the way to salvation)

    What is the Kingdom of God like?
    It is like Christ. Christ is Holy.
    God is forgiving. Christ is a place of peace..
    God is truth. Gods word is reliable, trust worthy and can be counted on without question.
    (There is no fear)
    God is justice. God has the authority to decree conviction as well as innocence
    God has the authority to pronounce penalty.

    There are many examples where Christ does judge. Christ sets the standard when he says ‘you’re sins are forgiven”. By that statement alone we we can see Christ judges. You cannot forgive something unknown.Christ cannot forgive something that does not exist.
    The sin is acknowledged in the statement. Christ sends them away and says “sin no more”. That is a directive towards righteousness and holy living and it teaches us to forgive.

    Every capitol punishment crime from the Torah is found in the NT & “do not steal” is elevated to a capitol crime by Paul’s writing based on the teaching of Christ found in the book of Mark and Matthew. “Do Not” spoken from the mouth of God is a command. It becomes law.
    All non-capitol crimes ( which include, foods, Passover, circumcision etc.) do not condemn to death.

    1. I disagree with saying the kingdom of God is reducible to Christ. Certainly Christ is the king but there’s a different way of living together that the kingdom of God concerns which can be undermined when we come to quick, fixed conclusions about what it means for Jesus to say the kingdom of God is within/among you, for instance. Jesus has many parables that begin “The kingdom of God is like…” I think it might be better to look into those parables for clues about what the kingdom of God is than to take individual phrases and give them fixed, limited meanings based on the theology we superimpose on top of them.

      1. All OT writings point to the future messiah.
        John the Baptist tried to prepare the people for the arrival of Christ.
        John understood who was coming.
        Christ spent a lot of time trying to explain who He was.
        Peter and the woman at the well where given the revelation that Jesus was the Christ, the promised messiah. Peter was told that information was given by God.

        The woman said, ‘I know the Messiah is coming—the one who is called Christ. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.’
        Then Jesus told her, ‘I Am the Messiah!’ John 4

        Christ speaks of himself as the Kingdom of God and also a promise of a future Kingdom HE himself will rule over.

        You wrote:
        “the kingdom of God is reducible to Christ.”

        The Kingdom of God is not reduced to but elevated to Christ and all that Christ represents and commands.

        1. Reductionism means to take a concept that has a broader range of meaning and oversimplifying it. Your comment here is full of non-sequiturs. The kingdom of God is not just a single person or a set of rules; it is the way our reality comes to look the more that we worship Christ as king. Maybe that’s what you’re saying and I’m just nit-picking.

  5. It seems to me that the heart of the verse for the United Methodist Church is the last part, “Repent and believe the good news!”. Do we preach repentance or self improvement.? Do we believe the good news? Do we preach Christianity as a “life style” or a “life line”? Are we really interested in” rescuing the perishing”?” Do we really, deep in our hearts, believe that they are perishing or just that they are missing out on the good life and fellowship of the church? Are we more interested in their economic well being here and now than their spiritual destiny?

  6. “The kingdom of God for Wesley is a pneumatological kingdom and reality.”

    Is it a pneumatological kingdom in the believer because they try to live today as if God’s Kingdom was in place in the physical which it is not.
    Is it reality because we try to live it?
    The Kingdom of God is a reality by faith in the believer.

    Wesley made an interesting comment in his notes on John 6:65.
    He wrote:
    Unless it ( life & understanding) be given – And it is given to those only who will receive it on God’s own terms.

    I am inclined to believe “on God’s terms” in Wesley’s mind would extend to all things.

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