I met Steve Gardner when he was a student at Middle Tennessee State University during the early 1990’s. Even as an eighteen year old college freshman he had a strong desire to know the Lord in a deeper way. Steve and I have reconnected in recent years, and the hunger that I first saw in him long ago has resulted in God filling him with more. Steve is a mature disciple with a knack for teaching, and and he’s now discipling others in conjunction with our work. Pictured above (left, bottom), he’s working with John Ingram and Jonathan Sullivan every Thursday during a lunch meeting at the Smyrna IHOP. Their current study and discussion topic is “The Kingdom of God,” one of Steve’s favorite subjects. He presented the following reflections at a recent weekly discipling session, and I’m pleased to also share his thoughts with you in this e-letter. – Mike Stroud
“The kingdom of God” was the very topic that Jesus taught as he went from town to town (Matthew 4:17, Luke 8:1, etc.). The parables that Jesus shared often began with “The kingdom of heaven is like…” When He sent His disciples out, he gave them their sermon: “The kingdom of heaven is near” (Luke 10:9). After His resurrection, He taught them about the kingdom (Acts 1:3). Despite Jesus’ emphasis on the kingdom, I don’t recall a single message specifically about the kingdom of God in all of my growing up even though I went to church gatherings at least 3 times a week.
A couple times lately, I have asked Christians, “What does the kingdom of God look like?” In response, I have seen looks on my friends’ faces that say “I probably should know the answer to this, but I’m not sure what to say.” My intent has never been to embarrass anyone, but I have ribbed a few people by saying “No big deal…it’s only the thing Jesus said to seek first.” (Matthew 6:33).
So, why was it that Jesus was so excited to talk about and demonstrate the kingdom of God? This couldn’t have been some theological snorefest. This is a message (good news) that found people in their brokenness and gave them hope for something amazing that struck a chord deep in their spirits. So, what did that look like? Part of the answer is that Jesus was so excited about the King, the Father that everyone longs for. He was so excited to tell the world that his Father would watch every day for a lost child to return home. And when the lost one returns home, the Father will restore His child to every privilege that comes with being a child of God. So, one focus of teaching about the kingdom is to talk about the wonderful King. Next, Jesus traveled from town to town and He interacted with the sick, the broken-hearted, the poor, and the hopeless. He was so excited to reveal that there is no sickness in heaven…so “be healed”. He was excited to say “Blessed are the broken-hearted because the kingdom of heaven is for you” (Matthew 5:3). And no one is poor in heaven…there is unending abundance. There is no such thing as hopelessness in the kingdom of heaven…everyone has full anticipation that they will experience God’s goodness. To victims of abuse or oppression, He might say “I’m so sorry that this happened to you…it was so wrong. There is no injustice in my Father’s kingdom. No one abuses their power or takes advantage of others. Would you like for My Father to heal all your physical and spiritual wounds?” Other times, He would show that there is no death in heaven when He would say “Arise!” So, simply put, when Jesus taught the kingdom, this was his excitement to share about his wonderful Father, and his excitement to share about the wonderful atmosphere that exists when his Father’s heart and ways are manifested; even on the earth. He showed them the kingdom that every heart longs for.
The kingdom of God concept is seen as early as Genesis 1:26-28. God makes man in His own image and then gives man authority and a mission to fill and subdue the earth. So, man’s assignment was to extend the King’s reign throughout the earth. The mission hasn’t really changed. In Matthew 28 Jesus says, “All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations…” If you make disciples of all the nations, you have filled and subdued the earth. This is such a big deal to God! Here’s why: If His kingdom is not reigning, then an illegitimate kingdom is reigning. An illegitimate kingdom is not out for the good of those made in God’s image. An illegitimate kingdom will steal, kill, and destroy (John 10:10). An illegitimate kingdom brings oppression, addiction, poverty, abuse, greed, sickness, and death. God is often blamed for death or sickness or for letting bad things happen. But those are the effects of an illegitimate kingdom. God never wanted those things, and those things do not belong to the kingdom of God. God’s kingdom brings life and light. When God reigns, love reigns; peace reigns; truth reigns; people act unselfishly and honor each other. Jesus spent all His time teaching and showing the kingdom of God. This same kingdom advance is still forcefully active against the powers of darkness, and it is God’s Spirit moving within and through His people, the church. The mystery of God’s will is Christ reigning over all things in heaven and on earth (Ephesians 1:8-10). That’s when everything is set right. God is using the church to reveal His wisdom to the leaders of the illegitimate kingdom (Ephesians 3:10-11). The struggle is not against flesh and blood (Ephesians 6:12). The struggle is against the illegitimate kingdom. When God’s kingdom does not reign, (very literally) all hell breaks loose. God’s kingdom is the kingdom that every person truly longs for. He is the King that everyone wants in the depths of their spirit. Who wouldn’t want a King that would lay down His life for His people; a King who sees His people as His own dear children? He is the King that is making all things new (Revelation 21:5). God’s Spirit wants to use you to bring the kingdom of God to earth. We are Christ’s ambassadors as though God is making His appeal through us (2 Corinthians 5:20). In an act of worship to this King, offer yourselves as a living sacrifice (Romans 12:1). Then, when you pray for someone who is sick, you are advancing the kingdom of God. When you are generous, when you encourage, when you share God’s goodness, the kingdom of God is advancing. Be a part of the kingdom agenda to make earth like heaven. So we echo Jesus’ prayer, “May Your kingdom come, and Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” (Matthew 6:10).
The people of God certainly have an eternal destiny in a place that is prepared for us (John 14:2-3). We absolutely look forward to heaven! The reason heaven is so wonderful and so perfect is because heaven is a place where God’s kingdom reigns fully. Jesus wanted us to know that there is an amazing plan for eternity. However, Jesus never said to just struggle through your life in the fallen world and I’ll eventually come and rescue you into heaven. What He modeled and what He taught was to bring heaven to earth. Here’s some more good news: The same powerful Spirit that filled Jesus and raised Jesus Christ from the dead is living in us (Romans 8:11). The Holy Spirit can empower us to bring the kingdom to earth. So, the very open-ended challenge to God’s people is this: How much heaven can we bring to earth?