The Present and Future Kingdom of God, by Michael Morrison
“Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.” John the Baptist and Jesus proclaimed the nearness of God’s kingdom (Matthew 3:2; 4:17; Mark 1:15). A literal translation is “has come near.” The long-awaited rule of God was near. This message was called the gospel, the good news. Thousands of people were glad to hear this, and many responded to this message of John and Jesus.
But consider for a moment what the response would have been like if Jesus had preached, “The kingdom of God is 2,000 years away.” This would not have been news, nor perceived as all that good. The message would have been disappointing, and public response would also have been disappointing. Jesus may not have been popular, Jewish religious leaders might not have been jealous, and Jesus might not have been crucified.
However, John and Jesus preached a kingdom that was near in time to their audiences. The message said something about what people should do now; it had immediate relevance and urgency. It aroused interest—and jealousy. The message challenged the status quo and implied that changes were needed in civil government, in religious teachings, and in personal behavior
First-century Jewish expectations
Many first-century Jews could identify with the phrase “kingdom of God.” They eagerly wanted God to send them a leader who would throw off Roman rule and make Judea an independent nation again—a nation of righteousness, glory and blessings, a nation everyone would be attracted to. There was a variety of speculations about how this would be done. The concept was attractive, although it was not very well defined.
In this cultural longing for national restoration, John and Jesus preached the nearness of God’s kingdom. Mid-way through Jesus’ earthly ministry, the message continued. He told his disciples to preach “The kingdom of heaven has come near” and to heal the sick (Matt. 10:7; cf.
Luke 10:9, 11).
But the kingdom most people hoped for did not happen. The Jewish nation was not restored. Even worse, the temple was destroyed and the Jews were scattered. Even now, 2000 years later, the Jewish hopes are still unfulfilled. Was Jesus wrong in his prediction, or was he not predicting a national kingdom?
Well, we do not believe that Jesus was wrong. Rather, the popular hopes and speculations were wrong. Jesus’ kingdom was not like the popular expectation—as we might guess from the fact that many Jews wanted to kill him. His kingdom was “not of this world” (John 18:36). When he talked about the “kingdom of God,” Jesus used a phrase the people knew, but he was giving it a different meaning. He told Nicodemus that God’s kingdom was invisible to most people (John 3:3)—to understand it or experience it, a person must be renewed by God’s Spirit (verse 6). The kingdom of God was a spiritual kingdom, not a civil and physical organization.
The word “kingdom” is a metaphor, since the sort of kingdom that Jesus was talking about is not an ordinary kingdom—certainly not like the kingdoms of the first-century world. In his parables, Jesus used a variety of images to explain what the kingdom is “like.” The reason he had to use parables was because his listeners did not have the same concept of “kingdom” as he did. “You are thinking that God’s plan to rescue the Jewish people is like a kingdom. OK, I will use that word, but I’m going to suggest a different way to look at it…”
Present condition of the kingdom
In the Olivet prophecy, Jesus predicted certain signs and apocalyptic events. But some of Jesus’ teachings and parables explain that the kingdom does not come in a dramatic way. The seed grows quietly (Mark 4:26-29); the kingdom starts as small as a mustard seed (verses 30-32) and is hidden like yeast (Matthew 13:33). These parables suggest that the kingdom is a reality before it comes in a powerful and dramatic way. In addition to being a future reality, it has reality right now.
Let’s look at some verses that indicate the kingdom is already functioning. After casting out demons, Jesus said, “If I cast out demons by the Spirit of God [and he did], then the kingdom of heaven has come to you” (Matt. 12:28; Luke 11:20). The kingdom is here, he said, and the proof is in the exorcisms. The power of God is invading the domain of evil, expelling the powers of evil.
This proof continues in the church today, because the church is doing even greater works than Jesus did (John 14:12). We can also say, “If we cast out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God is working here.” The kingdom of God, by the power of the Holy Spirit, is continuing to demonstrate its power over the kingdom of Satan – and that power is shown not just in expelling evil spirits, but in many other activities that undo what the devil has done.
Satan still exerts some influence, but he has been defeated, and “the prince of this world now stands condemned” (John 16:11). He has been partially restrained — tied up (Mark 3:27). Jesus overcame Satan’s world (John 16:33), and with God’s help we are overcoming it, too (1 John 5:4). But not everyone does. In this age, the kingdom “is like a net that…caught all kinds of fish,” both good and bad (Matthew 13:47-50). It will be like ten young women, some wise and some foolish (25:1-12, 14-30). Satan still has influence; we still look forward to a world and a time in which God’s will is done perfectly rather than partially.
“The kingdom of heaven has been coming with violence,” Jesus said (Matt. 11:12, my translation)—and forceful people are laying hold of it (present tense). Even in the first century, people were laying hold of the kingdom, which implies that it existed back then. A parallel verse, Luke 16:16, also uses present-tense verbs: “everyone is forcing his way into it.” For now, we don’t need to decide who the forceful people are or why they use force—what is important here is that these verses talk about the kingdom as a present reality.
Luke 16:16 replaces the first part of the verse with “the good news of the kingdom of God is being preached.” This variation suggests that the kingdom’s coming, at least in Luke’s view, is roughly equivalent to its proclamation. The kingdom is—it already exists—and it is advancing by
being preached. “The tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God,” Jesus said (Matt. 21:31), and they do it by believing the gospel (verse 32).
“Enter” is a metaphor that implies movement, but the movement is one of allegiance rather than in geography. Actually, the kingdom makes the first “move”—it comes, and people are entering it not by changing their location, but by recognizing the validity of something that has already come. They could not enter it at all, unless it were already here.
Jesus also implies (and this may be his main point) that God accepts them in his kingdom. Their behavior did not qualify them for the kingdom, but they were accepted by grace; they were given a right relationship with the King. The kingdom would not be good news for ordinary people unless ordinary people could be part of that kingdom. It requires grace, mercy, and forgiveness.
In Mark 10:15, Jesus indicates that the kingdom is something we must receive in some way, apparently in this life: “Anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.”
Some Pharisees asked Jesus when the kingdom would come (Luke 17:20). You can’t see it, replied Jesus: “the kingdom of God does not come with your careful observation.” But he also said, “The kingdom of God is among you” (verse 21). Jesus was the King, and because he was teaching and performing miracles among them, the kingdom was among the Pharisees. However, he did not just say that the King was among them – he said that the kingdom was, too. It was available for them, just as much as it was for prostitutes, but the Pharisees were not entering.
Jesus Christ is in the church today, too, and just as the kingdom was present in the ministry of Jesus, it is present in the ministry of his church. The King is among us; his spiritual power is in us, even though the kingdom is not yet operating in its full power.
We have already been brought into God’s kingdom (Colossians 1:13). We are already receiving a kingdom, and our proper response is reverence and awe (Hebrews 12:28). Christ “has made us [past tense] to be a kingdom” (Revelation 1:6). We are a holy nation (1 Peter 2:9)—already and currently a holy kingdom—but it does not yet appear what we shall be. God has rescued us from the dominion of sin and transferred us into his kingdom, under his ruling authority.
The kingdom of God is here, Jesus said. His audience did not need to wait for a conquering Messiah—God is already ruling, and we should be living his way now. We don’t yet possess a territory, but we do come under the reign of God.
The kingdom of God is here, Jesus said. But how is the kingdom present? The details are not yet clear, but the verses we have looked at say it is present. His audience did not need to wait for a conquering Messiah—God is already ruling, and we should be sharing in the divine life right now, living in his domain, in which his will is done. We don’t yet possess a territory, but we do come under the reign of God. The kingdom does not force itself upon us – we have to voluntarily come under its influence.
Understanding that the kingdom already exists can help us give greater attention to the way the world is right now. We do not forget that the completion of the kingdom is still future. If our only hope is in this age, we don’t have much hope (1 Corinthians 15:19). We do not harbor illusions about bringing the kingdom with human efforts. Nevertheless, even though we cannot transform this earth into a heavenly paradise, doing good is still good. We can still try to make the world a better place for at least a few people. This is part of what it means for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven.
The kingdom of God is yet future
When we suffer setbacks and persecutions, when we see that most people reject the gospel, we gain strength from the knowledge that the fullness of the kingdom is in a future age. And when we try to make the world a better place but encounter setbacks along the way, we do not give up, but take comfort in the fact that good will prevail in the end.
No matter how much we try to live in a way that reflects God and his kingdom – and we should try – we cannot transform the entire world into God’s kingdom. Perfection will come only through divine intervention. Dramatic miracles are needed to usher in the new age. Satan must be completely restrained, and we can’t do that.
Numerous verses tell us that the kingdom of God will be a glorious future reality. We know that Christ is a King even now, but we yearn for the day when he will exercise his power in a great and dramatic way to stop human suffering. The book of Daniel predicts a kingdom of God that will rule the earth (Daniel 2:44, 7:13-14, 22); the New Testament Apocalypse describes its arrival (Revelation 11:15, 19:11-16).
We pray for the kingdom to come (Luke 11:2) – but even so, we want God’s will to be done now, as well as in the future. The poor in spirit and people who are persecuted await a future “reward in heaven” (Matthew 5:3, 10, 12). People “enter the kingdom” not just now, but also on a future “day” of judgment (Matthew 7:21-23; Luke 13:22-30). Jesus gave one of his parables because some people thought the kingdom would become powerful right away (Luke 19:11).
In the Olivet prophecy, Jesus described dramatic events that would come before his return in power. Shortly before his crucifixion, Jesus looked forward to a kingdom in the future: “I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it anew with you in my Father’s kingdom” (Matt. 26:29).
Paul speaks several times of “inheriting the kingdom of God” as a future experience (1 Corinthians 6:9, 10; 15:50; Galatians 5:21; cf. Ephesians 5:5), and otherwise indicates by his language that he thinks of it as realized only at the end of the age (1 Thessalonians 2:12; 2 Thessalonians 1:5; Colossians 4:11; cf. 2 Timothy 4:1, 18). When Paul wants to focus on the present manifestation of the kingdom, he tends either to introduce the term “justice” or “righteousness” along with “kingdom” (Romans 14:17) or in place of it (Romans 1:17; for the close association of the kingdom and the justice of God, see Matthew 6:33), or (alternatively) to connect the kingdom with Jesus Christ rather than God the Father (Colossians 1:13). (J. Ramsey Michaels, “The Kingdom of God and the Historical Jesus,” chapter 8 of The Kingdom of God in 20th-Century Interpretation, edited by Wendell Willis [Hendrickson, 1987], page 112)
Some “kingdom” scriptures could apply either to the present kingdom or to the future fulfillment. For example, lawbreakers will be called least in the kingdom (Matthew 5:19-20). That could be true no matter whether the kingdom is now, or in the future. Similarly, we leave families for the sake of the kingdom (Luke 18:29). We enter the kingdom through tribulations (Acts 14:22). These verses could refer to either a present or a future kingdom, but as we have already seen, at least some verses are clearly one, and some are clearly the other, and both must be held together. It is the same kingdom, both now and in eternity. The kingdom is a paradox, a surprise, a mystery that may be difficult to understand.
After Jesus’ resurrection, the disciples asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6). How was Jesus to answer such a question? What the disciples meant by kingdom was not what Jesus had been teaching. The disciples were still thinking in terms of a nationalistic kingdom rather than a slowly growing family of all ethnic groups. It would take them many years to realize that Gentiles were welcome in the new kingdom. Christ’s kingdom was still not of this world, but it was to be active in this age. So Christ did not say yes or no—he simply told them there was work to do and power to do it (verses 7-8).
The kingdom of God in the past
Matthew 25:34 tells us that the kingdom has been in preparation since the foundation of the world. It has been in existence all along, albeit in different forms. God was a King to Adam and Eve; he gave them dominion or authority to rule; they were his vice-regents in the Garden of Eden. Although the word “kingdom” is not used, the first humans were essentially in a kingdom of God, under his rule and ownership.
When God promised Abraham that his descendants would become great nations and that kings would come from him (Genesis 17:5-6), he was, in effect, promising a kingdom of God. But it started small, like yeast hidden in a batch of dough, and it took hundreds of years to be seen for what it was.
When God brought the Israelites out of Egypt and made a covenant with them, they became a kingdom of priests (Exodus 19:6), a kingdom that belonged to God and could rightly be called a kingdom of God. The covenant he made with them was similar to treaties that ancient empires made with smaller nations. God had saved Israel from slavery, and the Israelites responded— they agreed to be his people, as a nation in his empire. God was their king (1 Samuel 12:12; 8:7). David and Solomon sat on the throne of God, ruling on his behalf (1 Chronicles 29:23). Israel was a kingdom of God.
But the people wouldn’t obey their King. God sent them away, but he promised to restore the nation with a new heart (Jeremiah 31:31-33), a prophecy that is being fulfilled in the church today. We who are led by the Holy Spirit are the royal priesthood and holy nation that ancient Israel could not be (1 Peter 2:9, Exodus 19:6).
God has always been a King, and there has always been a kingdom, and there always will be a kingdom. But this one kingdom appears in different ways at different times – it looks one way with Adam and Eve, another way with Abraham. It is transformed again with the nation of Israel, and transformed again with Jesus and the church. We are now in the kingdom, but there are weeds growing in among the grain. At the end of the age, the Messiah will return in power and glory, the weeds will be removed, and the kingdom of God will again be transformed in appearance. The final form of the kingdom, in which everyone is perfect and spiritual, will be dramatically different from the millennial one (no matter how you understand the millennium).
Since the kingdom has historical continuity, it is proper to speak of it in past, present and future tenses. In its historical development, it has had and will continue to have major milestones as new phases are established. The kingdom was established at Mt. Sinai; and again in Jesus’ ministry; it will be established again at his return and the day of judgment. In each phase, God’s people rejoice in what they have and look forward to more yet to come. One phase builds upon the other. As we now experience some limited aspects of the kingdom, we gain confidence that the future kingdom will also be a reality. The Holy Spirit is our guarantee of greater blessings (2 Corinthians 5:5, Ephesians 1:14).
What the kingdom looked like in the past is not what it looked like in Jesus’ day, nor what it will look like in the future. In some respects the phrase “kingdom of God” has different meanings at different times in history. But the fact that the same phrase may be used for the first-century manifestation and the future manifestation, causes us to look for a common denominator, something that the kingdom in all ages has in common, despite its dramatically different appearance at different times in history. A more abstract term such as “rule” can be helpful, and indeed, that seems to be what the Greek word basileia focuses on.
Jesus told a parable about a man who went to a foreign country to receive a kingdom (Luke 19:12). He went not to receive the territory and bring it back with him. Rather, he went to receive the authority to rule. He then returned to the territory and had to exert that authority. The Jews were well acquainted with a historical example: Herod had gone to Rome, seeking to be appointed king. He was so appointed, but when he returned to Judea he had to raise an army and conquer the territory. What he was given in Rome was not the territory, but the permission to be its king. The Greek word basileia is focused on authority, not on territory.
The kingdom and the gospel
When we hear the word kingdom, we are reminded of the kingdoms of this world, perhaps the kingdoms of medieval Europe. In this world, kingdom is associated with authority and power, but not harmony and love. Kingdom can describe the authority God has in his family, but it does not describe all the blessings God has in store for us. It is a metaphor, and it cannot convey all that God’s realm is. That’s why other metaphors are used, too, such as the family term children, which emphasizes God’s love and authority.
Each term is accurate, but incomplete. If any one term could describe salvation perfectly, I suppose that the Bible would use that term consistently. But all are metaphors, each describing some aspect of salvation—but none of the terms describes the complete picture. When God commissioned the church to preach the gospel, he did not restrict us to using only the phrase “kingdom of God.” The apostles translated Jesus’ sayings from Aramaic to Greek, and they translated them into other metaphors, choosing concepts that were more meaningful to a non-Jewish audience. Matthew, Mark and Luke use “the kingdom” often. John and the epistles also describe our future, but they generally prefer other metaphors to do it.
Salvation is probably the most general term. Paul said we have been saved (Ephesians 2:8), are being saved (2 Corinthians 2:15) and shall be saved (Romans 5:9). The salvation that we already have, just like the kingdom we are in now, is a foretaste of greater things to come – but it is salvation and kingdom nonetheless. God has given us salvation, and he expects us to respond to him with faith. John wrote of salvation and eternal life as a present reality and possession (1 John 5:11-12) and also a future blessing. We have now a small foretaste of what we will have in the future.
Metaphors such as salvation and family of God—just as much as kingdom—are legitimate although partial descriptions of God’s plan for us. Christ’s gospel can be called the gospel of the kingdom, gospel of salvation, gospel of grace, gospel of God, gospel of eternal life, etc. The gospel is an announcement that we are destined to be in loving relationship with the Father, Son and Spirit forever, and it includes information about this has been made possible—through Jesus Christ our Savior.
When Jesus talked about the kingdom, he didn’t emphasize its physical blessings or clarify its chronology. He focused instead on how people get in that kingdom, and how they live. We enter the kingdom when we respond to God with faith and allegiance, when we come under his authority; we then seek to live in way that is reflective of that kingdom.
In Mark 10, a man wanted to inherit eternal life, and Jesus said he should keep the commandments (verses 17-19). This was apparently just a teaser of an answer, because Jesus soon added another command: He told him to give up all his possessions for the heavenly treasure (verse 21). Jesus commented to the disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!” (verse 23). The disciples asked, “Who then can be saved?” (verse 26).
In this passage, and in its parallel (Luke 18:18-30), we see several phrases used to indicate the same thing: receive the kingdom, inherit eternal life, have treasure in heaven, enter the kingdom, be saved. When Jesus said, “follow me” (v. 21), he was using another phrase to indicate the same thing: We enter the kingdom by orienting our life to Jesus – and it is not possible for us to do it – but it is possible with God. He makes the impossible possible.
In Luke 12:31-34, Jesus also indicates that several concepts are similar: seeking the kingdom, being given the kingdom, having a heavenly treasure, giving up trust in physical possessions. We seek God’s kingdom by responding to what Jesus taught, and that is also the way that we enter the kingdom. (We are talking about a metaphor of allegiance here, rather than physical movement to a new territory.) God’s kingdom is the realm in which God’s will is done. In Luke 21:28, 30, the kingdom is parallel to redemption.
In Acts 20:21, 24-25, 32, we learn that Paul preached the gospel of the kingdom, and he preached the gospel of God’s grace, repentance and faith. The kingdom is closely connected with eternal life—the kingdom would not be worth preaching if we couldn’t be part of it, and it wouldn’t make sense to risk our lives for it in this age unless we were promised life in an eternal age. We can enter the kingdom only through faith, repentance and grace, so those are part of any message about God’s kingdom. Salvation is a present-tense reality as well as a promise of future blessings. Acts 28:23, 29, 31 tells us that Paul preached not only the kingdom but also about Jesus and salvation. These are different ways to describe the same Christian message. One focuses on the result; one on the means by which we get that result.
In Corinth, Paul preached nothing but Christ and his crucifixion (1 Corinthians 2:2). In Acts 28:23, 29, 31, Luke tells us that Paul in Rome preached both the kingdom and about Jesus and salvation. These are different aspects of the same Christian message.
The kingdom is relevant not merely because it is our future reward, but also because it affects how we live and think in this age. We prepare for the future kingdom by living in it now, following our King. We are bringing the future into the present. As we live in allegiance to Jesus, we recognize God’s rule as a present reality in our own experience, and we continue to hope in faith for a future time when the kingdom will be filled to the full, when the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord.
Perspective from the future
Suppose for a moment that you could live forever – what sort of world would you want to live in? Would it be a world in which everyone is trying to lord it over others, in which leaders enrich themselves at others’ expense, in which everyone is looking out for themselves even if it means stealing from other people? A world in which you always have to watch your back, a world in which you can never trust anybody else, but always had to use threat or force to get what you want? If that sort of world lasted forever, you could never relax or let your guard down – there would always be someone eager to use an opportunity to take something you had. That’s not much like heaven, if you ask me.
Or would you rather live in a world in which everyone was trying to be helpful, a world in which people who have power always use it to help others? That would be far better, I think, and that is the sort of kingdom that Jesus is offering us, because it is the sort of king that he is. The Lord’s Prayer says that we want God’s will to be done – we want that because it’s the better way to live – and it’s better now, not just later.
If we want a life of perpetual competition, of struggle against one another, then we don’t have to do anything; that’s the world we already have. But if we want a world of cooperation, of kindness and love, if we really want that, then that is the way we ought to want to live right now. In one sense, we vote for our kingdom by the way we live. We choose each day what kind of world we want to live in. We can choose to live by the methods of this world, or by the methods of Jesus.
The way of Jesus is not easy, but then neither is competition and dog-eat-dog. The way of Jesus might be difficult, and it might sometimes involve pain and suffering for us, just as it did for Jesus. It might even involve death – but all of us are going to die anyway, aren’t we? The way of Jesus comes with the good news that we will live again – we will have eternal life in the age of cooperation, kindness, and love, and there will be no more pain and no more sorrow.
The good news is that such a world will come, and right behavior and right ways of thinking will prevail, and Jesus has already qualified us to be in that kingdom of kindness. But the best part of eternity is not the low crime rate—it is the presence of God. We will live with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and with each other, in peace and love and joy.
We are not fully there yet, but that’s what Jesus has given us, and he is saying that if that’s the kind of life we want forever and ever, then that’s the way we ought to be living right now. We are already in that kingdom, and we should live like it. If we really want it, we will be willing to live it. We have something wonderful to look forward to, and we have something wonderful to live for even now.
This is not easy. In fact, it’s not possible. We cannot do it, because we are too weak to do it. Even with God’s help, we keep falling short. The good news is that Jesus has done this for us, and he is willing to give it to us as a gift. We do not deserve to live in the kingdom of kindness, but Christ gives it to us as a gift. We are saved by God’s mercy, not by anything we can do. No matter how many good things we do, we can’t buy our way into an eternal life of joy.
But the good news is that Jesus has paid the price – a big enough price for all of us put together. He has already done it, and he is giving it to us. If we know that we will live forever in peace and joy and love, we can give our life for what Jesus wants, knowing that he will give us far more in return. If we really want life in a world of kindness and joy, if we really want it, then we will want to live that way even now, and Jesus will do it in us, because he has already done it, and he lives in us and makes new people out of us, if we let him.
Does this involve works – behaviors that we do? Yes. Do those works save us? No. They always fall short of what we really want. The Bible makes it clear that we always need grace. But the Bible has a lot to say about behavior, too, and if we are to make sense of this dual emphasis, we need to understand how the two fit together.
If the gospel offers nothing more than forgiveness of sins, for example, then all its behavioral exhortations are verbal clutter that we could eliminate (and some people are happy to do that). But the problem with sin is not just that God has declared transgressors to be guilty and disqualified. God is not in the business of creating arbitrary rules that disqualify us, just so he can send Jesus to qualify us.
The problem with sin (indeed, the reason that God tells us to avoid it in the first place) is that it messes up our relationships and messes up our happiness. Paul describes sin as a power over us, a power we need to be freed from. Just removing the eternal penalty is only one aspect of the salvation we need – we also need to be delivered from the grip of sin itself. Taking the end-time punishment away is only one part of Christ’s saving work.
To be saved from the pain-producing force of sin itself, we need something internal, affecting the nature of who we are as human beings, and changing the choices we make in life. We need to stop kicking the thorns, or banging our head against the wall, shooting ourselves in the foot, or whatever other metaphor you want to use for self-inflicted pain. A judicial declaration about the future judgment does not change our tendency to sin, and does not change the fact that sin causes pain in our lives and it is a power we need to be rescued from.
As long as we struggle with sin, as long as we do things that we wish we hadn’t done, our salvation is not complete. Our future may be guaranteed, but our salvation is not yet complete. We look forward to a future transformation that will liberate us from the sin nature that resides within us. Another way of saying it is that we are on the right flight, but we are not yet at our final destination.
Behavior and grace are tied together because (quite apart from any eternal penalty) our behavior is something we need to be saved from. God wants us to participate in the triune life, a life that is freed from even the temptation to lie, cheat, steal, and commit adultery. It would make no sense for him to say, “I invite you into a community in which love and loyalty prevail – but that’s just the future. In this age, it really doesn’t matter whether you participate in that way of life or not.”
If eternal life is worth having, it’s worth living that way right now. The future kingdom – the life of the triune God – is brought into the present as we choose to live the way of the future – or rather, let Christ live it in us. This is letting his kingdom be manifest in our lives. When Jesus is telling us to do something (preach the gospel, for example), he is saying that this reflects the mindset and way of life that is characteristic of the life to which he is inviting us, the life for which he has qualified us, so it is something that we ought to want to do. And when he tells us to avoid something, it is because that way of thinking or acting will not be in the eternal kingdom. It is something we need to be rescued from.
Our thoughts and emotions are an intrinsic part of the reward that Christ gives us. God says, “I want you to enjoy the results of love rather than selfishness.” But we do not enjoy the results of love if we remain selfish. Christ does not magically give us the results of having good relationships with other people unless we actually have good relationships. He does not give us the rewards of loving other people unless we actually love others. If there is no connection between rule and result, then the result is arbitrary – but God’s definition of sin is not arbitrary. He is saying that there is an intrinsic and unavoidable relationship between what we do, and how happy we are.
The reward is an intrinsic and inseparable part of behavioral changes that come with coming under the rule of the triune God. We are invited into a life of divine love, not a life of perpetually chasing after selfish pleasures. The many commands we see in the New Testament show us that certain behaviors are contrary to the kingdom of God, contrary to the lifestyle that God wants us to participate in, contrary to the lifestyle of the kingdom past and kingdom future.
We fail to live up to all that God calls us to be. But that does not mean that it’s pointless to try. We were made to share in the life of the triune God, and the better we are in tune with the way we’ve been made, the happier we will be.
In summary, sin has consequences in this age and in the next. Jesus has taken care of the ultimate penalty, but he does not change the fact that sin causes pain in our lives. Adultery, theft, and deceit have unpleasant results in this age. He does not magically change the results – e helps us avoid the negative consequences by working in us to change 1) the behavior and 2) the desires that lead to bad behavior and bad results. He helps us stop beating our head against the wall. This transformation doesn’t happen instantly, so we always need to trust in the grace he has promised. We are assured that he helps us in the present age as well as the future judgment.
Good behavior, and right ways of thinking, have consequences in this age and in the next. Eternal life with the triune God will be good primarily because of the relationships of love that will be in eternity – honesty and kindness will prevail. That sort of behavior has good results – not just in the future, but in the present age as well. So God invites us into this way of life. The kingdom is not just a future reality – people are even now entering God’s kingdom by responding to what he offers. He offers not an artificial world in which our enjoyment has no connection with the way we treat other people, but a world or kingdom in which joy is the natural result of love, of treating others the way we wish to be treated.