Jesus had a great deal to say about the kingdom of heaven (aka the kingdom of God). After he was baptized by John the Baptist he spent 40 days in the Judean wilderness, fasting and being tempted by the devil. Then when he heard that John had been arrested and imprisoned by Herod, he went to Galilee and settled in Capernaum. It was here that he began his public ministry by announcing, “Change your hearts and lives! Here comes the kingdom of heaven!” (Matthew 4:17 CEB) His call was to change one’s mindset or worldview (Greek: metanoeo) because the kingdom of heaven operates very differently from the kingdoms of the world. And he then began to offer a simple invitation to others to join him on a journey to enter that kingdom by simply saying, “Come, follow me.” (Matthew 4:19 CEB)
A group of twelve men did follow him as he travelled around the countryside, teaching about the kingdom of heaven and demonstrating the attitude and actions required to enter into it. Sometimes speaking to large crowds and at other times only to his twelve disciples, Jesus gave many illustrations of what the kingdom of heaven was like. It was, he said, like the smallest of seeds that, when planted, grows into a large tree that provides a nesting place for birds. Or, he said, like a small amount of yeast that permeates the whole amount of dough into which it is placed. It might start small, he implied, but would ultimately grow into something quite large. (Matthew 13:31-33)
And it was a thing of great value, like a pearl so priceless that a jewel merchant sold all he had to obtain it, or a field containing such a great treasure that a man sold everything he owned in order to purchase it. (Matthew 13:44-46) Of great value, but offered freely to those who were willing to enter in. The kingdom of heaven belongs, Jesus said, to the poor in spirit (Matthew 5:3) and those persecuted for the sake of righteousness (Matthew 5:10)
When his disciples asked him who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven, he called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” (Matthew 18:3-5)
The haughty and self-righteous can hardly enter, as Jesus explained to the chief priests and elders of the people, saying “the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.” (Matthew 21:31, 32 NIV) No, he said, “unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:20) So repent (metanoeo), change your worldview and believe what I have to say.
And Jesus made it clear that mere mental assent to his teaching was insufficient; action was also required. “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven,” he said. (Matthew 7:21 NIV) But it is not up to us to decide who can enter and who cannot. That decision is God’s alone. In the meantime, he said, “the kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared.
The owner’s servants came to him and said, ‘Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from?’ ‘An enemy did this,’ he replied. The servants asked him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’ ‘No,’ he answered, ‘because while you are pulling the weeds, you may uproot the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.’ ” (Matthew 13:24-30 NIV)
“Once again” he said, “the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was let down into the lake and caught all kinds of fish. When it was full, the fishermen pulled it up on the shore. Then they sat down and collected the good fish in baskets, but threw the bad away. This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous and throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matthew 13:47-50 NIV)
Jesus made it clear that, although everyone was invited to enter the kingdom not everyone would come. “The kingdom of heaven”, he said,” is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his servants to those who had been invited to the banquet to tell them to come, but they refused to come. Then he sent some more servants and said, ‘Tell those who have been invited that I have prepared my dinner: My oxen and fattened cattle have been butchered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding banquet.’ But they paid no attention and went off—one to his field, another to his business. The rest seized his servants, mistreated them and killed them.” (Matthew 22:2-6 NIV)
He expressed his outrage with those kinds of people. “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.” (Matthew 23:13 NIV)
These were those experts in the law who believed they could gain God’s favor by slavish attendance to a myriad of rules and regulations, while they were neglecting the heart of what God really wanted from them. When one of them asked Jesus what he had to do to inherit eternal life, he asked the man, “What is written in the law? How do you read it?” When the man answered, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself,” Jesus replied, “You have answered correctly. Do this and you will live.” (Luke 10:25-28 NIV)
But when the man began to nitpick the definition of one’s neighbor he betrayed his true attitude of self-justification. And a little while later, when Jesus was invited to share a meal with a Pharisee and did not ritually purify himself by washing his hands before he ate, the man was astonished at Jesus’s neglect of what he considered to be a point of law. Jesus’s response was devastating, “Now, you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and platter, but your insides are stuffed with greed and wickedness. Foolish people! Didn’t the one who made the outside also make the inside? Therefore, give to those in need from the core of who you are and you will be clean all over. How terrible for you Pharisees! You give a tenth of your mint, rue, and garden herbs of all kinds, while neglecting justice and love for God. These you ought to have done without neglecting the others.” (Luke 11:38-42 CEB)
When one of the experts in the law complained that they also were being insulted by this, Jesus replied, “How terrible for you legal experts too! You load people down with impossible burdens and you refuse to lift a single finger to help them.” (Luke 11: 46) The hypocrisy of those whose hubris and self-righteousness not only prevented them from entering the kingdom of heaven but created stumbling blocks for those who could not meet their self-imposed standards was thus laid bare.
The essence of Jesus’s teaching about the kingdom of heaven then was that entering the kingdom was a simple matter for those who were willing to humble themselves, admit their shortcomings and honor God’s unconditional love for them just as they were by demonstrating their love of him through sharing that love with those around them. On the other hand it was quite difficult, if not impossible, for the rich and powerful, the haughty and self-righteous to enter in without a major change of attitude (metanoeo: repentance).
What is often overlooked is the fact that Jesus was not describing some “pie in the sky bye and bye” type of utopia but a possibility that exists here and now. When the Pharisees asked Jesus when the kingdom of God was coming, he replied, “God’s kingdom isn’t coming with signs that are easily noticed. Nor will people say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ Don’t you see? God’s kingdom is already among you.” (Luke 17:20, 21 CEB)
Those who are willing to alter their worldview, to follow where Jesus goes and to do what he shows us to do can enter the kingdom of heaven right now. But realize that means humbling ourselves in God’s presence, receiving his unmerited love and favor and then sharing all he gives us with all those around us who are just as undeserving as we are. If we are ready to do that we can freely enter the kingdom of heaven today. I am; won’t you go with me?