This column first appeared in Baptist Press Dec. 28, 2009
Coming out of a restaurant one frosty autumn day, I pulled my jacket collar tightly up under my chin and walked briskly toward my car – only to find it wasn’t there. Three phone calls and $119 later, I retrieved my car from impoundment. “Didn’t you see the sign?” chided the cashier as he handed me my keys. “It says No Parking in Alley.”
I had missed the sign but legally was without excuse. As a result, there was no way to escape the consequences – a gentle reminder of a greater truth: Of all the things we miss in life, the greatest tragedy is missing the kingdom of heaven. And yet people throughout the ages have missed the opportunity to enjoy the everlasting benefits of God’s glorious reign.
You might think it’s easy to miss something that the New Testament describes as a “mystery” (KJV) or a “secret” (HCSB). But actually, missing the kingdom of heaven requires a deliberate act of the will. Consider three reasons some will miss the kingdom.
1. They don’t see it. Jesus told Nicodemus that unless a person is born again, he or she cannot see the kingdom of heaven, let alone enter it (John 3:3-5). It takes the regenerative work of the Holy Spirit in the human heart to make one a child of the kingdom.
Lest we become fatalistic and blame God for not saving everyone, Jesus tells His disciples that the lost can’t see because they refuse to see. Quoting Isaiah, the Savior says, “For this people’s heart has grown callous; their ears are hard of hearing, and they have shut their eyes; otherwise they might see with their eyes and hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn back – and I would cure them” (Matt. 13:15 HCSB). While the immediate context of this verse is a reference to unbelieving Jews in Jesus’ day, the truth of hardened hearts is universal.
The apostle Paul adds that Satan gladly keeps lost people in the dark as “the god of this age has blinded the minds of the unbelievers so they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Cor. 4:4). But for those who hear the gospel and receive it by faith, the Father “has rescued us from the domain of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of the Son He loves” (Col. 1:13).
Simply put, people don’t see the kingdom because they choose not to see it.
2. They don’t want it. In the parable of the sower (Matt. 13:1-9, 18-23) Jesus compares human hearts to soil to illustrate varying degrees of readiness to receive the kingdom. Some hearts are hardened and defiant like the footpaths winding through ancient fields; others are shallow and uncommitted like rocky soil; still others are worldly like thorny ground. In each case those who hear the message of the kingdom prefer the barrenness of their own lives to the abundance Christ promises to those whose hearts are yielded like fertile soil.
In another parable, Jesus tells of a nobleman who travels to a far country to receive authority to be king, entrusting his affairs to his servants. Meanwhile, his subjects hate him and send a delegation after him saying, “We don’t want this man to rule over us!” (Luke 19:14). When the nobleman returns, he compensates his servants according to their stewardship and then turns his attention on those who have rejected his authority: “But bring here these enemies of mine, who did not want me to rule over them, and slaughter them in my presence” (Luke 19:27).
The nobleman, of course, is Jesus, and the subjects who hate Him are the Jews of His day who should have received Him gladly. Instead, in fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy, the Messiah is “despised and rejected” (Isa. 53:3). The apostle John is more specific: “He came to His own, and His own people did not receive Him” (John 1:11).
Luke 19:27 may be seen as a dual prophecy in which Jesus foretells the destruction of Jerusalem and the Diaspora in 70 A.D., as well as the final judgment of unbelievers – all those who want no part of Jesus’ kingdom – before the great white throne (Rev. 20:11-15).
Many will miss the kingdom, not because they can’t see it, but because they don’t want it.
3. They can’t stand it. The New Testament is full of stories of people who “try” the kingdom but ultimately prefer to cast their lot with Satan’s competing domain. In the parable of the unmerciful servant (Matt. 18:21-35) Jesus makes the point that true followers of Christ take on His character, while pretenders ultimately show that their hearts were never changed. In the parable of the vineyard owner (Matt. 21:33-46) stewardship of God’s kingdom is taken away from Israel and given to the church. And in the parable of the wedding banquet (Matt. 22:1-14) a guest is bound hand and foot and cast out of the kingdom because he prefers his filthy rags to the white garment (the righteousness of Christ) offered by the king.
What these parables illustrate is that many people will stake a claim in the kingdom of heaven on false pretenses – some, by virtue of their heritage; others, by their association with Christianity, such as church membership; still others, by their own righteousness. In every case, these pretenders have “tasted the heavenly gift” (Heb. 6:4) but found they can’t stand the thought of bending the knee to the King of kings and Lord of lords.
Like the rich young ruler, they go away grieved. Like the Antichrist’s followers, they shake their fists toward heaven and defy God. And like the self-righteous, they argue that their works – in the name of Jesus, no less – are sufficient justification for entrance into the kingdom, yet the King responds: “I never knew you!” (Matt. 7:23).
Many will miss the kingdom, not because they can’t see it or don’t want a piece of it, but because their hearts are so set against God they can’t stand it.
The ultimate question is how one enters the kingdom of heaven. Jesus is remarkably clear: “Anyone who hears My word and believes Him who sent Me has eternal life and will not come under judgment but has passed from death to life” (John 5:24). Christ has done all the work. Our proper response – the only acceptable response – is to hear and believe. We miss the kingdom only when we choose not to see it, not to want it, or not to stand it.
Copyright 2010 by Rob Phillips
This column first appeared Nov. 3, 2009, in Baptist Press
By Rob Phillips
One of the more humbling experiences from my days in the corporate world was being told that my reserved seat on the company jet was revoked at the last minute to make room for a late-arriving executive. Not to worry. I was offered the one remaining seat, located in the plane’s lavatory, where the toilet came equipped with a safety belt. Rather than cool my heels on the tarmac, I swallowed my pride and took my place on the porcelain throne.
It reminded me of the parable Jesus told in Luke 14:7-11, rebuking those who reclined at the choicest seats at a wedding banquet. Even more, it brought to mind the future humiliation Jesus said would come to those boasting of a place in the kingdom of heaven, yet being cast out. Though the kingdom is open to all who receive Christ by faith, the day is coming when those who falsely stake their claim to the kingdom will be unceremoniously shown the door.
From Jesus’ own lips, it appears there are at least three types of people who will be cast out of the kingdom of heaven:
1. Those that trust their lineage. In Jesus’ day there was great expectation the Messiah would come – a charismatic military and political leader who would restore Israel to its Davidic glory. Overlooking the necessity of the Suffering Servant, many Jews wrongly assumed that when the kingdom of heaven came, they would be welcomed as citizens by reason of their Abrahamic heritage.
Jesus confronts that false notion in Matthew 8:11-12, after healing a Roman centurion’s servant: “I tell you that many will come from east and west, and recline at the table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the sons of the kingdom [unbelieving Jews] will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
Entrance into the kingdom was not – and is not – gained through natural birth. The apostle Paul, who wished himself accursed for the sake of his Jewish countrymen, nevertheless made it clear in Romans 9:6, “For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel.” Jesus was even more to the point: “[Y]ou must be born again” (John 3:7).
Salvation is not a matter of race, national boundaries or language. As the apostle John noted, people of every “tribe and language and people and nation” are standing before God’s throne in heaven (Rev. 5:9). How did they get there? The Lamb of God was “slaughtered” and “redeemed people for God” by His blood (Rev. 5:8).
2. Those that trust their location. In the parable of the wheat and tares (Matt. 13:24-30), those of God’s kingdom and Satan’s kingdom live side by side and are practically indistinguishable. Only at harvest time, when the tares stand ramrod straight but bear no edible fruit, and the wheat is bowed with heads of golden grain, does the harvester separate them. The wheat goes into the barn but the tares are burned.
In the parable of the dragnet (Matt. 13:47-50), good and bad fish swim in the same waters and are taken in the same net, yet they are meticulously separated on the shore. The good fish are gathered into baskets while the bad fish are tossed aside.
Many people, by virtue of their “location” in a church, believe their association with Christianity will save them. But just as living in a garage doesn’t make you a car, joining a church doesn’t make you a Christian. In fact, only the trained eye of Christ knows the wheat from the tares and the good fish from the bad.
Some are so experienced at playing the game, they believe the lie that their goodness merits eternal life. They will be startled on judgment day when they are separated eternally from God. They will argue that they preached in Jesus’ name, cast out demons and performed miracles. Jesus does not deny their works but replies, “I never knew you! Depart from Me” (Matt. 7:23).
The matter of our eternal destiny is not decided by whether we know Jesus – that is, whether we call ourselves Christians – but whether He knows us because we have confessed Him as Savior and Lord.
3. Those that trust their dirty laundry. In the parable of the wedding banquet (Matt. 22:1-14), the guests invited by the king decide not to show. To add insult to injury, they treat his slaves harshly, killing some. After dealing with these murderers, the king sends his servants to the far reaches of his kingdom, welcoming the outcasts and indigent to his son’s wedding celebration. But as the festivities begin, the king spots a man improperly dressed and has him bound and taken away.
Not fair, you say. After all, the king invited him and he came. How can this vagrant be blamed for his dirty clothes? The answer is that in a Jewish ceremony of this type, the king provides wedding garments for every guest. Therefore, the man has no excuse. He dishonors the king and his son by rejecting the wedding garment and preferring his own filthy rags.
In the same way, no one will enter the kingdom based on personal righteousness. Jesus said the Holy Spirit would convict unbelievers of their unrighteousness and point them to the righteousness of Christ (John 16:8-11). Isaiah reminds us that the best of our works are but filthy rags in God’s eyes (Isa. 64:6). Only the righteousness of Christ – the garment of salvation – is acceptable attire for those before the throne of God and the Lamb (Rev. 7:9). As Paul declared, “He saved us – not by works of righteousness that we had done, but according to His mercy, through the washing of regeneration and renewal by the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5).
Those who hope to enter the kingdom of heaven by virtue of their natural birth, church membership or personal righteousness will find themselves outside, facing a closed door. Why? Because they have rejected Christ, their only hope of forgiveness and eternal life. We may grieve over those who are cast out, but from God’s perspective they are “without excuse” (Rom. 1:20).
Rob Phillips is director of communications for LifeWay Christian Resources. CrossBooks Publishing (www.crossbooks.com) has just released his book, The Kingdom According to Jesus: A Study of Jesus’ Parables on the Kingdom of Heaven, and free downloadable studies are available at www.oncedelivered.net.