On “seeing the kingdom of God”

Words are so very important, and the right use of vocabulary is crucial to understanding what we or anyone else is talking about. One of my main interests is in trying to reclaim traditional, biblical language by pointing out what may be unfamiliar understandings of what it means — unfamiliar, but not novel, because what I’m wanting to do is clear away some popular misunderstandings.

The number of words needing such treatment are legion. The beginning-point is almost arbitrary, and the struggle to reclaim the traditional language for the power of a radical gospel it once represented is challenging indeed. We could start with that word “gospel,” for example: a simple word that means good news. It’s not, on its face, even a religious word; in fact, looking behind the familiar religious overtones of many words is one way we might approach the reclamation of their power.

We might look at words like:

  • Christian
  • faith
  • repent
  • kingdom of God
  • born again
  • redeem
  • holy, saint, sanctify, consecrate
  • preach
  • righteousness
  • justify
  • atonement
  • sin
  • eternal
  • destruction
  • hell (hades, she’ol, gehenna, tophet)
  • soul
  • spirit
  • flesh
  • perish

and on and on.

Today, I want to go to some very familiar (to North American Evangelicals, a category that includes me) sayings of scripture to see what is the scope of the problem, and lay out where I intend to go with it.

Let’s start with the content of the early preaching of John the Baptist and of Jesus:

Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.

And shortly, I’l move to a familiar response of Jesus to a well-remembered inquiry:

Unless a man is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.

Let me first of all paraphrase how each of these is often read:

Feel sorry for your sins, because the world is about to end
Without a particular religious experience, you’ll never make it to heaven someday.

Now I recognize that these renditions might be a bit overdone, but I think many people would nod their heads and consider these versions unremarkable. But look at them again:

Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand
Feel sorry for your sins, because the world is about to end.

Do these really look like the same thing?

How about the other one:

Unless a man is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.
Without a particular religious experience, you’ll never make it to heaven someday.

Now let me give you what I believe is a much more accurate rendition of these two sayings.

Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.

Change your way of thinking, because you have access to the way God is at work in the here and now.

I’ll treat that one in detail in another place, and will link to it from here when it’s available. Now for the other:

Unless a man is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God

Without beginning life all over again, a person cannot perceive how God is at work in the here and now.

Now that I have put my cards on the table, it’s time to bring back the context of this passage so that the reader can judge if I am treating it fairly. The scene is somewhere in Judea near Jerusalem. Jesus receives a visitor under cover of darkness, obviously wanting to speak with him privately. He is a member of the party of the Pharisees, part of the religious elite, most of whom are hostile to Jesus and resent his popularity with the common people. He’s checking this Jesus out for himself, and is inclined to be a bit more generous in his assessment of what he has seen than his colleagues. No doubt, after the customary greetings, he is anxious to get the conversation off on a good footing, so he starts with a compliment:

“Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him.”

Jesus responds with: “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.”

Nicodemus could see that God was at work in Jesus. It might be that Jesus was returning his compliment, attributing to him the new birth of which he spoke; or, more likely, that he was saying that there is much more to be seen of the way God is at work, but only for those who, having been born “from above” (an alternate reading of “born again”) and are able to see what is, to the world, still invisible: that God reigns, that God is king, that “miraculous signs” are merely one evidence of God’s sovereign presence in the world.

But in any case, it is highly unlikely that Jesus was completely changing the subject from Nicodemus’ statement about God’s presence in current events, to a discussion of an afterlife or the final destination of the soul. He does indeed make mention, later in the encounter, of eternal life, as the present possession of those who “believe”in him; but here at the beginning of the conversation he is not talking of heavenly things, but of earthly things, as stated explicitly in verse 12. Thus we conclude that “seeing the kingdom of God” has to do with the plain meaning of the words: immediate perception —seeing— of the kingdom of God.

So what is the kingdom of God? How can we know if we see it?

In John’s gospel, the kingdom of God is spoken of less often than “eternal life,” which is that evangelist’s preferred choice of words; but we can take it that it is identical with the “kingdom of Heaven” spoken of in Matthew in connection with many parables, and with the “kingdom of God” mentioned in Mark and Luke repeatedly, also in Acts and many of Paul’s letters. An exhaustive catalogue of the passages shows that it has many shades of meaning, including an anticipated future: “I will not drink of this fruit of the vine until I drink it new with you in the kingdom of God” says Jesus; but that day of fulfillment is only part of the story, as the entire life of faith is seen as pertaining to the kingdom of God, as any reading of the parables will show. “To what shall I compare the kingdom of God?” he muses, and tries one story after another in an effort to get his disciples to “see” what is so clear to him: how God is at work in many ways, bringing about the growth, healing, new life and restoration that will find its culmination at that great eschatological feast. Both “the kingdom of God” and “eternal life” have huge meanings in terms of the this-worldly activities of those who “see” the one and “have” the other. One suspects that failure to “see” God at work in the here and now will mightily interfere with the prospects of participation in that final feast.

There is a paradox at work here, of course: because in faith we are called to see what is invisible, and by faithfulness to make manifest what is hidden. One cannot see love, or life, only the activity that it brings about; therefore he says:

The wind blows where it wills, and you hear its sound, but cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with every one who is born of the Spirit.

The one who has been born (again, from above, of the Spirit) is motivated and animated by something that is not visible to physical eyes or ordinary analysis. That something empowers such a person to act in ways that are not predictable and that have an impact on the visible world. This something is what the New Testament calls eternal life, living water, light, love. No one can see it directly, but it is what the kingdom of God is made of: “for the kingdom of God,” says Paul, “is not food and drink, but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.”

Lord, open our eyes, that we may receive this sight. Bring this kingdom to birth in us. Amen.


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