As I began studying the kingdom of God a couple weeks ago, I noticed there were several times when Jesus told his listeners that the kingdom wasn’t going to be full of the type of people they expected it to be. Rather, those who expected to get in wouldn’t make it and the people they’d thought wouldn’t qualify would be there.
Part of what Jesus was doing in these interactions was blowing up the idea that the kingdom belonged only to one ethnic group (Jewish descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) or only to those who lived perfect religious lives. There’s a much more open invitation than most of Jesus’s audience realized, and God wants all sorts of people in His kingdom. That doesn’t mean there isn’t something expected of the people invited, though. It’s just not exactly what the Jewish people who were involved in these particular interactions thought God wanted.
For those of us today who believe in God and read His Bible, the sorts of people that Jesus says will be included in the kingdom shouldn’t surprise us. Even so, it’s just as easy for us to get caught-up in ideas that don’t have much soundness in scripture, or to become complacent in our own righteousness, as it was for the people of Jesus’s day. And so as we look at these scriptures about the people Jesus says will be in the kingdom, perhaps they will challenge us to take a closer look at our expectations–and our own lives–just as they challenged Jesus’s listeners two centuries ago.
The Sinners Who Know They Need God
Jesus was in the temple courts when “the chief priests and elders of the people came up to him” and started questioning his authority. As part of His answer, He told a parable about two sons (Matt. 21:23-46). At the end, He says, “I tell you the truth, tax collectors and prostitutes will go ahead of you into the kingdom of God!” (Matt. 21:31, NET). It must have been a shocking and offensive thing to hear, and it’s not much later that they crucify Him. This isn’t the first time Jesus had said something like this, either. After a centurion came to Jesus asking healing for his servant, Jesus told those following Him:
” I tell you the truth, I have not found such faith in anyone in Israel! I tell you, many will come from the east and west to share the banquet with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, but the sons of the kingdom will be thrown out into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”Matthew 8:10-12, NET
The people who were sure they’d done everything right, who didn’t think they needed to change, who thought they were better than others–those people were told they’d be thrown out of the kingdom (Luke 13:24-30). Today, we also need to beware of complacency; of the Laodicea attitude that says, “I am rich and … and need nothing” (Rev. 3:17, NET). The sinners who know they need God have an easier time getting into His kingdom than self-righteous religious people do. We can’t expect to coast into the kingdom based on any human qualifications, or attending the “right” church group, or even the most rigorous keeping of God’s laws.
The People Who Do God’s Will
Let’s go back to the parable of the two sons, because Jesus says a lot more there than just delivering a warning about who will and won’t be in the kingdom. He also explains why.
“What do you think? A man had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ The boy answered, ‘I will not.’ But later he had a change of heart and went. The father went to the other son and said the same thing. This boy answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but did not go. Which of the two did his father’s will?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “I tell you the truth, tax collectors and prostitutes will go ahead of you into the kingdom of God! For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him. But the tax collectors and prostitutes did believe. Although you saw this, you did not later change your minds and believe him.”Matthew 21:28-32, NET
See? It’s not about what we say we’ll do or believe. It’s about how we actually respond to God. The “sinners” getting into the kingdom do so because they listen to godly instruction, repent, change, and live according to the Father’s will as they live their lives going forward. The mistake people were making in Jesus’s time was thinking that one group was naturally more righteous–and therefore more deserving–than the other. While some also think that today, we also (and perhaps more often) make the mistake of thinking that we don’t need to be righteous–that we just confess Jesus and we’re automatically in the kingdom. Neither view is correct. God wants everyone to join His kingdom and He expects us to do His will. The kingdom is about His grace and our covenant faithfulness.
The kingdom of God will be … given to a people who will produce its fruit.Matthew 21:43, NET
Those Who Are Changed by Jesus
The idea that God’s commands don’t matter any more today is absolutely unscriptural. Jesus didn’t do away with law, commands, or any part of the Word of God. Rather, He elevated them to a spiritual level. Under the New Covenant, we’re to live on that spiritual level, doing God’s will because our hearts are transformed to want what His heart wants. There are certain “fruits” that God expects from those in His kingdom.
Paul tells us that the unrighteous will not inherit God’s kingdom (1 Cor. 6:9-10; Gal. 5:19-21; Eph. 5:3-5). However, formerly unrighteous people can. Every single one of us has sinned and qualified as unrighteous before God (Rom 3:9-23). In order for us to become righteous instead of unrighteous we need to be washed, sanctified, and “justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and in the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor. 6:11, NET). We all need to undergo a significant change in order to inherit the kingdom of God, both now and in the future.
And just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, let us also bear the image of the man of heaven. Now this is what I am saying, brothers and sisters: Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.1 Corinthians 15:49-50, NET
This change is fully accomplished at the resurrection (1 Cor. 15:51-58), but putting on Christ starts now (Rom. 13:14; Gal. 3:27). It doesn’t matter what your ethnic or religious background is or how unrighteous you might have been before knowing Christ. It’s one of God’s greatest miracles that He calls people who seem the most unworthy and unexpected by human judgements and turns them into His children (1 Cor. 1:26-31). He just asks us to follow Him and be faithful, and He’ll make us part of the people who are citizens of His kingdom.
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