What follows is a guest post by Andrew Gilmore. Andrew Gilmore is the author of Walking with Christ, a brand new 30-day devotional spanning Jesus’s last journey to Jerusalem. Click here to check out his books.
We don’t use the word kingdom much these days. Over the past three hundred years kings have faded out of style via revolutions, wars, and constitutions. Sure, kings and emperors still exist, but these are rare birds in the flock of governments around the globe.
As a result, the force of the terms kingdom of God and kingdom of heaven that we see in scripture might lose some of its steam before they reach the ears of Westerners.
But why should we care about kings and kingdoms?
I bring this up because, for the diversity of topics Jesus spoke about, one of his favorite subjects was the kingdom of God.
Yet unlike the kingdoms of earth, Jesus taught that God’s kingdom is not about fortresses, armies, wealth and power. Instead, God’s kingdom values things we might not consider. Whether by miracle, object lesson, or parable, here are five counterintuitive lessons Jesus taught about entering the kingdom.
The Humble Are First in Line
In a parable about a Pharisee and a tax collector, Jesus told of a self-righteous Pharisee who listed his good deeds in prayer as if God would be impressed. He fasted twice a week. He gave tithes of all he earned.
The tax collector also prayed. But rather than spewing self-righteous blather, he beat his chest and asked for mercy for the sins he had committed.
If we humans were to compare the lives of a Pharisee and a tax collector, most of us would probably say that the Pharisee lived a more righteous life—one more in line with God’s law.
And yet, Jesus said it was the tax collector who went home justified before God.
Unlike Jesus, we often fail to see the condition of the heart. God wants us to approach him in humility, just like the tax collector did, not with self-righteousness. The bottom line is this: the tax collector probably was a scoundrel who had committed heinous crimes against his own people. On the other hand, the Pharisee’s donations and self-discipline probably yielded some valuable fruit. But none of us, not even the most well-behaved can earn a spot in God’s kingdom.
Isaiah reminds us our righteous is like filthy rags. So even the best among us have nothing to offer in atoning for sin. As “good” as the Pharisee was, he was still in need of a savior. He still had an enormous debt he could never pay, no matter how much he fasted or gave to the synagogue. And until he humbled himself and admitted as much, he could not enter God’s kingdom.
The Rich Have No Advantage over the Poor
When a rich young man asked Jesus how he could inherit the kingdom, Jesus inquired about his life. The rich man said he had kept the commandments since he was a boy.
But again, Jesus knows the condition of the heart so he said, “One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (Luke 18:22).
The rich man didn’t take Jesus up on the offer.
Seeing the young man’s reaction, Jesus said something contrary to common sense. He turned to his disciples and said, “How difficult it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God” (Luke 18:24-25).
To our sensibility, this statement doesn’t sound off. Maybe it is simply because we’ve read this passage so many times. But also, rich people are vilified on screen, stage, and page, nearly every day. We’re used to the idea of the corrupt wealthy class. But to the disciples, this was an incredible statement. In fact, they turned to Jesus in amazement and said, “Then who can be saved?” (Luke 18:26).
Here’s why they had such a reaction. The people of Israel assumed that those with wealth had been blessed by God, and, therefore, had his favor.
Job, Abraham, and David—to name a few—were wealthy. In fact, Hebrews throughout history viewed wealth as a sign of God’s favor. And why wouldn’t they, when they read passages in the Tanakh, our Old Testament, like this:
Blessed is the man who fears the Lord,
Who greatly delights in his commandments!
His offspring will be mighty in the land;
the generation of the upright will be blessed.
Wealth and riches are in his house,
and his righteousness endures forever.
This is just one of many examples in the Old Testament which relates wealth to God’s favor. Those who do the right things will be rewarded with riches.
Through this lens, we can understand the dismay of the disciples when Jesus spoke about the difficulty of the rich entering the kingdom. If they—who obviously had God’s favor—couldn’t make it in the kingdom, who could?
Notice something critical from this narrative. Jesus responded to the incredulity of the disciples by saying, “What is impossible with man is possible with God” (Luke 18:27).
I’ve got news for you: Rich or poor, it is impossible for anyone to enter the kingdom by his or her own deeds. But Jesus was saying that rich are the only ones crazy enough to believe that they can make it on their own.
The lesson: The rich have no advantage when it comes to entering the kingdom of God.
Childlike Qualities Are Required
Jesus said many radical things, but this one is in the running for most radical: “Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it” (Luke 18:17). Nonsense. Right?
Not so fast.
I believe with this statement Jesus highlighted two essential qualities that come naturally to children—traits people tend to lose as they enter adulthood.
The first is enthusiasm. Think back to the best gift you ever received as a child. Maybe it was a toy or a bicycle. Maybe it was a book. I can guess you expressed unbridled joy upon unwrapping the gift.
Now compare that reaction to the reaction you had at the last gift you received. “You shouldn’t have.” “This is too much.” It’s just not acceptable or respectable for an adult to lose his or her mind over a gift. Maybe that’s for the best, but you get the idea.
God’s grace is the most precious gift we could ever receive, and we should receive it with enthusiasm. Just like a kid would.
The second is this: children receive without guilt or any illusion of paying it back. They receive with an open hand and empty pockets. They know they have nothing to offer in exchange.
When we receive a gift, the temptation is to repay it with a gift of our own or else feel guilty.
God’s grace, though, is something we can never pay back, nor should we try.
You Don’t Have to Make Up for Your Bad Deeds
One of the most powerful transformation stories is the story of Zacchaeus.
Here’s a cheat, liar, thief. The epitome of corruption. Not only was Zacchaeus a tax collector, but he was the chief tax collector in the important trade city of Jericho. That means he was the chief liar, the chief thief.
Yet, when face to face with Jesus, he couldn’t help but feel conviction. With Jesus and the community as witnesses, Zacchaeus stood up and proclaimed his intention to atone for his sins. He said, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold” (Luke 19:8).
This is the kind of impact the holiness of Christ has on our lives. When we’re confronted by Jesus, we realize just how depraved we are.
Yet pay careful attention to how Jesus responded to Zacchaeus. Jesus said, “Today salvation has come to this house” (Luke 19:9). Today. Jesus didn’t say, “Great, Zacchaeus! Once you finish giving your money to the poor and restoring the money you robbed from innocent people, then I will grant you salvation.” Instead, Jesus said salvation came at that very instant.
At the moment we repent of our sins we are granted forgiveness, even though we don’t deserve it. Were we to try and make up for every bad thing we ever did, we would fail. It’s impossible.
That’s not to say Zacchaeus shouldn’t have tried to make things right. The point is that it wasn’t a condition of his salvation. Instead the desire to do right was a product of the grace he received.
Outcasts Are Welcome
To a first century Jew, a Samaritan was just about the worst thing one could be. The Jewish people saw Samaritans as God’s step-children: a mixed breed and unclean heathens from birth.
And yet in Luke 17 we see some Jewish people hanging out with a Samaritan. But there’s a catch. They all had leprosy.
Leprosy rendered the afflicted unclean and banished from normal society. Lowered to this status, you can see why leprous Jews would have no problem accepting a Samaritan leper. The unclean had to stick together, probably just for survival.
When Jesus was passing nearby these lepers, ten in all, they cried out for healing. Jesus told them to go to the priest for examination—a requirement to be declared clean. They obeyed. And as they went, they were healed.
Noticing as much, the Samaritan turned around and fell at Jesus’s feet to give him praise. In response Jesus said, “Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well” (Luke 17:19). But why would Jesus say this when the Samaritan had already been healed of leprosy?
May I propose that Jesus was speaking not of physical wellness, but of the spiritual? I believe Jesus was telling the man that since he had the faith to return to the healer and give thanks, not only was his body made well, but also his soul.
This episode demonstrates that outcasts, whether Samaritan, leper, or both are welcome in God’s kingdom. These are the people Jesus sought out—the tax collectors, the blind, the leprous. As he said in the home of Zacchaeus, “The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10).
As you can see, God’s kingdom is nothing like kingdoms on earth. In our kingdoms we want to recruit the strongest, the wealthiest, the most righteous. Jesus, on the other hand, sought our children, tax collectors, the diseased, and the humble.
While these lessons seem counterintuitive to the world, it is essential we embrace them if we want to be a part of the kingdom of God.
Andrew Gilmore is the author of Walking with Christ, a brand new 30-day devotional spanning Jesus’s last journey to Jerusalem. Click here to check out his books.