The kingdom of heaven has a distinct personality or culture that is vastly different and most of the time completely the opposite of the ‘rules’ and traditions of earthly cultures, systems and nations. In all of the gospels, Jesus was constantly talking about this personality, this realm, and its ways: ‘the kingdom is like’ this, ‘the kingdom is’ this.
Take for example this teaching, “From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been advancing forcefully, and forceful men lay hold of it.’ Some translations even say “violently”. What is this realm, that it requires violent action to access it?
The way that I always picture and feel the kingdom is like this: it is another world, different than ours, with its own personality, its own laws, its own reproductive patterns. And because both John the Baptist and Jesus described it as a “kingdom” and not just a “realm” or a “universe” or an “atmosphere”, it’s easy to conclude that it has things that a kingdom has: rulers and authorities, cities, outposts, warriors, nobles, a distinct culture, a king, servants, systems of ownership and domain.
And Jesus was the first person to be living fully from this kingdom, while showing us earth-dwellers what it means to access it and live from it. For Jesus himself as one of the kingdom personalities to enter the atmosphere of the earth and incarnate in human form meant great suffering. Jesus was not violent but his entry into our atmosphere caused not only his own suffering but the suffering of others who followed him.
Because the systems of our own kingdoms are not always receptive to the heavenly kingdom, and because the ways of the heavenly kingdom are so radically different from ours, there is not only suffering but also radical choices to make about which one we will live in.
For those of us who live in cultures that have been “Christianized” I think the decision to live in the kingdom becomes a little more confusing. There are many parts of American culture, for instance, that have incarnated kingdom primciples, because so many of the early settlers and pioneers were living by radical kingdom principles. There are aspects to European culture that also have kingdom principles within their society because of the church’s early radical penetration of Europe, and the transformative Reformation that swept Europe.
There are many nations which have to make much more radical decisions to live in the kingdom, just as the early followers of Christ did. To become a Christian in some parts of the world means, necessarily, an immediate abandonment of one’s family, home, cultural practices, along with an immediate baptizing into a whole new family, a family that is usually heavily persecuted.
This is not to say, as some do, that we should go looking for persecution in our culture, but I think we are required to look more penetratingly into the systems of our culture, to ask them if they will live by his kingdom or not, to make clear the fine lines between his ways and our ways. Have we been baptized into him or into our culture?
For example, one of the decisions that was very common to the early followers of Jesus was whether or not they would leave their families to follow him. Family is a good thing and given to us to express something that exists in the kingdom. But many times a person’s obligations toward their earthly families took priority over their kingdom family and calling.
There are many examples of this from Jesus’ own teaching, but here are a few:
Luke 9: 57-62:
As they were walking along the road, a man said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.”
Jesus replied, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”
He said to another man, “Follow me.”
But the man replied, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.”
Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”
Still another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but first let me go back and say good-by to my family.”
Jesus replied, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.”
Luke 10: 34-36:
Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn
a man against his father,
a daughter against her mother,
a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—
a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.
Someone told him, “Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.”
He replied to him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” Pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers.”
Now these teachings might be hard to hear now, but they were definitely hard at the time, especially within Jesus’ own culture, which valued family closeness, ritual and respect as a demonstration of God. And yet he was drawing a fine line to his followers. He was saying something like: there will be conflicts between you and your family, especially when you are born into this new family and wish to be a part of it. There will be conflicts especially if your family is not living in the kingdom and you want to be. And this is what He meant when He said He has come to bring a sword.
Within my own culture I have noticed that family and cultural obligations are amongst the biggest obstacles to many of my friends following a kingdom calling. A friend of mine was recently talking to me about this, and suggested that it was a very American thing to become independent of one’s family. And I agree on some levels, that our culture tends to foster independent-mindedness, and a resulting inability to care for our elders and family in the way that other cultures are better at.
At the same time, I think there is a bigger difference between the ‘kingdom nation’ and earthly nations and cultures, than there is between American culture and other national cultures. While our national and racial identities are important and also I think eternally valuable aspects of who we are, when we were born again we were born into a new nation, which was prophesied by Moses to the Israelites:
Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. (Exodus 19:5-6)
and again repeated by Peter to the early Jesus-followers:
But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. (1 Peter 2:9)
and John in prayer:
You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth (Revelation 5:10)
This is an important truth–that our ‘nationality’ is and should be primarily in his kingdom. It is our highest belonging, our highest identity. And it supercedes our racial nationalities and culture. I remember when God first showed me that I have more in common with a believer in Poland or China than I do with just an American. I possess the same blood and inheritance lines, the same Father, the same “president” or king, and ultimately share more personality and cultural traits with other Christians.
They are my true brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, and it is to them that I ultimately owe my respect and care, above my natural family. It may be that some of us have the graced opportunity to walk as a family in the kingdom with our natural families. But it is pretty rare.
As I wrote before, in my culture, I think the decision to walk with our spiritual family is a much harder decision than in places in the world where it is a necessary decision. Ironically, I think we actually are far more attached to our families than in cultures where family is such a tight, cultural obligation. In those places kingdom followers suffer the most when they choose to follow Him. And that is what happened in the early church. We have much more subtle decisions to make–will we stay contractually or subtly attached to cultural things that have some good in them, but at the expense of our kingdom callings and family?
This is a decision and process that I have been working through in my heart and spirit ever since choosing to live radically in His kingdom seven years ago. I want him to apply his fine sword to dividing what are my true spiritual relationships from what are my cultural relationships. And has he said, there would be suffering–he did not come to bring peace here. There would be “violence” in the kingdom trying to incarnate into the maze of my natural contracts and relationships.
I have made some very hard decisions about where to live, how to interact with old friends and with family. They’ve not been without struggles and grief. But I know that I do not want to “bury my father” if it means that I am only living out a natural obligation. I want to know that my life is entirely spiritual and living from His path. For all of us, there are secret sufferings here that no one can truly know, where we are picking up his cross to follow him. There are sufferings when we cut off our natural obligations, whether to jobs or people or homes, that have no kingdom purpose in them. Everything we do should be about building his kingdom, because that is where we truly live–and eventually that is the only place we will live long after the world is gone.