Sunday, 2 November 2008

Seeking the Kingdom and Somewhere to Stand

The theme of Matthew’s Gospel is “Kingdom”. At its beginning we find John the Baptist declaring, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near” (Mt.3:2). “Jesus went throughout Galilee...preaching the good news of the kingdom” (Mt.4:23). The word “Kingdom” appears 55 times and the phrase “the kingdom of heaven” 32 times. We are urged to seek it above everything else, called to enter it through repentance, informed that it is good news and promised that it belongs to the poor, the meek, the merciful and those who hunger after righteousness.

Kingdom Now!

The kingdom of God is not entirely something we look forward to in the future but can be experienced here and now as we give ourselves in obedience in him.

It is near (Mt.3:2), within us (Lk.17:21), can be seen whenever we see kingdom power in action (Mt.12:28), we have been brought into it through Christ (Col.1:13), we are in the process of receiving it (Heb.12:28) and we look forward when we enter into our full inheritance in it (Mt.25:34, 46)

We often miss the kingdom now because we are looking in the wrong places, looking to large movements, institutions and organisations. That is not to say that the kingdom is not organised or always operates outside the established church of any age. But it cannot be assumed that it is always identified with institutions. God’s kingdom can enter and quicken man’s institutions and leave them as dead as they were before God stepped in.

Kingdom in History

Too often, when we read our history we can focus our attention on those institutions that so easily impress or dismay us. Often our understanding of church history paints a picture of decline after the apostles, the Dark Ages, Medieval Catholicism, Reformation, Revivals, further decline until we seem to be just hanging on for Jesus to come back. But if we look again, seeking those things Jesus identified as kingdom characteristics, we find a more encouraging picture. There are so many examples of men and women demonstrating kingdom living in the midst of what might at first seem relentlessly dark times.

For instance, the Waldensians of the twelfth century, the Poor Men of Lyons, made the Bible available in the common language, stressed repentance and conversion, emphasised kingdom living and taught that the Christian life should be informed by the whole Bible, but especially the Sermon on the Mount. In the fifteenth century Jan Huss led a great revival in Prague. His followers were driven underground because of persecution but continued in Bohemia until they found refuge in Germany where Count Nicholas Ludwig von Zinzendorf sheltered them on his estate. Later known as Moravians, they established a great missionary movement which swept across Germany, Holland, Scandinavia, France, Switzerland, America and England. It was the Moravians who preached to John Wesley on a ship bound to America and he would go on to do a work of such great magnitude through his Methodist Movement as to inspire us even today.

Kingdom Today

As we look at the church today some are encouraged by what they see as revivalism others dismayed by what they see as a moving away from kingdom priorities in apostasy. We may be discouraged by the apparent growth and success of aberrant groups teaching questionable doctrines, or we may just be confused by the many voices vying for our attention. Some people give up, sit in the back or stay away altogether. But if we are to know Jesus’ kingship in our lives we need to be sure of what are the signs of true kingdom living, and that can only be established from Scripture.

Four warning Signs

Fruit is the test, the life of Christ in his followers, and we need to be wary of judging by outward appearances. Jesus warned us against ways that seem plausible but that can lead us further from his kingdom giving us four warning signs:

1. Visible Piety: “Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ before men, to be seen by them...And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on street corners to be seen by men" (Mt.6:1,5)

People can, in pursuing a life of religious devotion, play religious games. In Jesus’ day men would make a great show of their charitable giving, having it announced, ostensibly to the poor. However, their ostentation in giving drew the admiration of others. Some would go to street corners or packed synagogues to pray. Their prayers would be long, eloquent and ‘worthy’, demonstrating their piety. They were looked upon as exemplars of the faith but Jesus frowned on such conduct declaring:

“When you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honoured of men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you...When you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father who sees what is done in secret, will reward you” (Mt.6:2-4, 6)

All too often today we find people conforming to a pattern that has more to do with looking good. All too often the left hand knows in some detail what the right hand is doing.

2. Material Success: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust will destroy, and where thieves can break in and steal” (Mt.6:19)

This is such a familiar theme and we are no different today than those people of Jesus’ day in all-too-often equating material success with God’s blessing, while a life of struggle and want is seen as a sure sign of God’s disfavour. It is an idea that is rife today and Jesus meets it head on with, “Don’t think this way!” Our treasure is to be in heaven and, while we are naturally concerned with how we might live day-to-day, nevertheless worrying about these things is a sign that our treasure is inappropriately banked. Bad things do happen to good people and God causes his sun to shine on the righteous and the unrighteous.

3. Exalted Authority: “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you” (Mt.7:1-2)

This is not to say that we should not judge wisely in our dealings with others but it highlights that there is a tendency among men and women to establish “authorities”, to seek exaltation above others. We see it at work, in our neighbourhoods and even in our families and it is often no different in the church. The problem becomes clear and the consequences of not paying attention to this lesson sobering when we realise that the judgement we so readily meet out to others “by authority” define the way we will be judged. Never was there a more urgent reason to “do to others what you would have them do to you” (Mt.7:12). Jesus taught an alternative, kingdom way of relating to others. We are not to judge but we are to ask, seek and knock in the way of the one who is aware of our total dependence on God for everything. We are all in the same position before God, sinners in need of grace, supplicants in need of life and wisdom.

4. False Leaders: “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves” (Mt.7:15)

It is a fact that in the church today there is a woeful lack of discernment and, both inside and outside the Christian fold, there are false prophets, those who claim to speak for God but who will only lead people astray. Jesus tells us that they can be known, not by their words, but by their fruits (Mt.7:16).

False leaders are marked by:

Public piety rather than private devotion

A concern for rather an indifference to material things

A readiness to judge anyone who asks questions

Inflated claims to speak “with authority” into the lives of the saints

Four Signs of Kingdom Now

True Leaders:

Seek the approval of God instead of men – who is important in a leader’s life?

Are concerned for the things of heaven more than things of this world – what is important in a leader’s life?

Relate to others in humility rather than authority – Does the leader lead or drive his flock?

Bear the fruit of modest devotion, heavenly assurance and a servant heart – is the leader an example to God’s people?

True citizens:

Seek to please God rather than men – who is important in your life?

Trust God and seek his kingdom and righteousness – what are your priorities?

Show their trust in prayer that looks to the king – Are you led by trends or by God?

Act in obedience to what they hear from the king – when leaders lead do you follow?

God’s kingdom is marked by:

Modest charity (Mt.6:14)

Prayer, forgiveness and fasting (Mt.6:5-18)

Kingdom priorities (Mt.6:19-24)

Complete trust in the providence of God (Mt.6:25-34)

Slowness to judge (Mt.7:1-6)

Looking to God for our every need (Mt.7:7-12)

Discernment and fruitfulness (Mt.7:15-23)

Kingdom citizens are patient in waiting for the king:

Wisdom and solid foundations allow them to know the times (Mt.7:24-29; Acts 2:42-47).

Realise that often we will see the kingdom where we might least expect it, and that can be surprising and humbling. We must determine to please God and not men; trust God and seek his righteousness in our lives; seek God in prayer and determine to be obedient to his will. These things have marked God’s kingdom in every century and generation and they mark his kingdom today; whether in a faithful remnant, or a revived multitude, God rules in and through those who seek his kingdom and righteousness. If you seek the kingdom you will find it among people like this.

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