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Our Place in the Kingdom of Heaven

May 18, 2014

Have you ever been reading the Bible and going along when God stops you in your tracks on a verse? Christians who study and meditate devotionally on Scripture never cease to be amazed at how Scriptures that have been read over and over will speak in new ways. Scripture is like living water constantly refreshed and new. This happened to me recently, as I was reading Colossians, particularly Colossians 3:1-4,

“If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.”

I suddenly began to wonder about these verses. I am raised with Christ, hidden with Christ in God? What are the things that are above that I should seek? What is it upon which I should set my mind—things that are not on earth? And then, how shall I live as a person whose life is Christ with whom I shall live in glory?

In the silence of my meditation, what came to my mind was the vision of Revelation and heaven, the paradise of God’s presence and new creation (Revelation 21-22). I thought about the elements revealed in that vision and the characteristics of the Lord that emanate into and fill his kingdom. I considered those things that are sourced in God and contrast the fallen world.

Sometimes, we Christians, can act like the Israelites under the leadership of the prophet Samuel. We want to be like the other nations of the world. We don’t want Yahweh; we want an earthly king to lead us in battle and achieve the spoils of the world. This is no small matter to the Lord who consoles Samuel, “They have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them.” (1 Samuel 8:7) We want a kingdom rooted in the world.

Jesus, on the other hand, asserts a different mindset. He rebukes Pilate by saying, “My kingdom is not of this world.” (John 18:36) Jesus lived not according to this world and certainly didn’t want to be like “sons of this world” and “those who dwell in the earth.” He is King of a different kingdom—the kingdom of heaven, the only eternal reign. For those who are born again by faith in Jesus, they become citizens of this kingdom of heaven rather than remaining as one whose mind is set on earthly things. (Philippians 3:19-20)

So, as I meditated on the things above, I pictured the kingdom of heaven, a paradise where the throne of God and the Lamb of God are the center and the light. I imagined my thirst being quenched with the streams of the water of life. I saw myself breathing in the air generated by the leaves of the tree of life that are for the healing of the nations. I set my mind on tasting the fruit of the tree of life in the paradise of God. I asked the Lord to shine on me with his light that lightens his dwelling place where I am in Christ. I invited the Lord to remove from me all that is evil, dark and causes pain or regret. I pleaded for the Lord to cleanse me from all unrighteousness.

It is from this kingdom on high that Jesus promises his followers the power of the Holy Spirit. I asked God for the fruit and power of the Spirit. I invited the Holy Spirit to sanctify me with truth that is his presence and the word of God. I asked God to fill me with his healing, restorative life and to cure me of all ills, sickness and diseases—all that would cause pain or tears and is not in heaven.

There is no completion to this effort of grace for a disciple of the Lord, until Jesus comes in glory, and we appear with him. I asked the Lord to help me walk in love according to the reality of his kingdom, so that I could truly live as an ambassador of this kingdom and its king—Jesus Christ. This is a practice that I feel compelled to repeat. I think it is a practice of living into our life as citizens of heaven that is the coming kingdom in which all will conform to the Father’s will.

I have heard the quips like, “You can become so heavenly minded that you are no earthly good.” I think this sort of thought misses the point of the gospel and the teaching of Jesus and the New Testament authors. One day, the entire earth will be heavenly minded. Jesus did what he did because he was heavenly minded. He was establishing the kingdom of heaven on earth.

Jesus teaches his disciples that their peace and hope rests on the reality that Jesus would go ahead of them to the “Father’s House” and prepare a place for them. Prior to his arrest, he assures them in their anxiety, “Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. 2 In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? 3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. 4 And you know the way to where I am going.” ( John 14:1-4)

Christians still misinterpret this verse based on the King James Version of the Bible using the word “mansions” for the Greek word mone that translates to a “dwelling place” or “abode” rather than a huge house of the rich, as we have come to understand “mansion” in modern English. In this same conversation, Jesus uses mone again regarding the Spirit of God residing in believers, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.” (John 14:23) Jesus is indicating an intimate relationship with God in his presence.

In the Father’s house, his dwelling place, there is room for everyone through Jesus. He is going before us and making a way for us. In fact, Jesus tells his disciples that he is “the way” and the only way to the Father’s house and to intimacy with him. We can read this as Jesus going before us into God’s kingdom and making a room for us there; however, I think Jesus might be speaking preparing a place for us with the Father by going to his death on the cross. His statement, “I go to prepare a place for you,” precedes Jesus going out from them to his death. There on the cross our place of peace with God is made.

Jesus is pointing to the Father’s house and the eternal kingdom of heaven as the hope of his disciples. This promise is the reason that they should not fear or be troubled. Jesus is preparing their eternal home with the Father in paradise. We learn that Jesus’ assurance offers no guarantees about worldly rule, luxury, accumulation of wealth, self-aggrandizement or even physical safety for his followers. His gospel does promise two things: he will be always present with them, and he is preparing a place for them in his kingdom. All who are in Christ can say with Paul, “For me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.”(Philippians 1:21)

This activity of setting our minds and hearts on the things above does not facilitate escapism or passivity; rather, it emboldens ministry and leads us through the “narrow gate” and along the “hard way” that lead to life. (Matthew 7:13-14) By following Paul’s instructions and Jesus’ teachings, we live according to the heavenly kingdom that consists of power, righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. (1 Corinthians 4:20; Romans 14:17) Jesus’ teaching about his Father’s house comes in direct response to the disciples’ angst in the world. What Paul and Jesus teach is in fact a remedy for the anxieties of this world and “the Heart-ache, and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.” (Hamlet Act III Scene i)

I think the ministry and death of Stephen demonstrates a heavenly-minded life. He was one of the “seven” chosen by the early church to direct the daily distribution of food among the Christians in Jerusalem following Pentecost. He is first described as a man “full of faith and of the Holy Spirit” and then described as “full of grace and power and doing great wonders and signs among the people.” (Acts 6:5,8)

Stephen was also preaching the gospel of Jesus to the Jews in Jerusalem. The Jews who opposed him “could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking.” (6:10) His opponents falsely accuse him and drag him before the Jewish council, as happened to Jesus. Luke describes the event, “all who sat in the council saw that his face was like the face of an angel.” (Acts 6:15)

Such a man as Stephen clearly demonstrates the power, love, joy, righteousness and peace of the kingdom of heaven. The Lord is present with him and working wonders through him. When questioned by the council, Stephen gives a lengthy exhortative narrative of God’s redemptive-salvation beginning with the call of Abraham to the death and resurrection of Jesus. If we did not know the rest of the story and how this ends for Stephen, I think we would surely imagine that the Spirit would fall and overwhelm the audience. I would imagine that in the midst of the shaking of the building they would come to repentance or flee in fear of the Lord who was with Stephen.

That is not what happens. The story continues, “Now when they heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth at him,” and they drag him out of the city and stone him to death. The Lord of Hosts with his heavenly army did not rescue Stephen or come down and appear to everyone in his ascended glory.

What happens to Stephen reminds us that our hope and our home are not of this earth. We are to set our minds on things above. Listen to the description of Stephen during his persecution and murder, “But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. And he said, ‘Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.’…And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’” (Acts 7:55-56, 59-60)

stephen

Luke’s description of Stephen assures readers that the Lord was present with Stephen in the Holy Spirit. Stephen’s vision of heaven confirms that his mind and heart were already set on heaven and the kingdom of God. The sight of Jesus and the throne of God confirms Stephen’s place in the “Father’s House.” Stephen was already living in the kingdom of God as an ambassador of Christ before his death. When he died, he went to the place prepared for him by Jesus. That is how we can live while awaiting the appearing of Jesus.

Stephen, a mere fallen-redeemed human like you and me did great works in Jesus’ name. This is what Jesus promises his disciples in his conversation, “Whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father.” (14:12) The way to do such works is to keep our minds and hearts on Jesus and on things above in the kingdom of heaven. These works may be miracles and healings, but the greatest work of Jesus was his self-giving sacrifice on the cross. We, too, in following him can do no greater work than give ourselves for the sake of others, as God has gifted us to serve .

The meditations on the kingdom of heaven do not lead to passive daydreaming. Rather, envisioning heaven, by the inspiration of Scripture and the Holy Spirit, empowers active kingdom living to the glory of God.

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