Let’s take the world by force

Jesus never moves far from the topic of the Kingdom of God.  He is always trying to get us to see it, grasp it, embrace it.  It is like a seed, like soil, like leaven, like something valuable buried in a field. Something ordinary, sometimes hidden, that possesses an unexpected strength.

In the book of Matthew, Jesus uses a word that reveals yet another surprising thing about the Kingdom.  He says, ‘From the days of John the Baptist until now, the Kingdom of God has suffered violence and the violent take it by force” (Mt. 11:12).  Another version phrases it this way:  “The Kingdom has been forcefully advancing, and the violent take it by force.”

The Greek word used here is biazetai.  Depending on how you use it in a sentence, it can have either of the meanings noted above (“suffering violence” or “forcefully advancing”), though they are markedly different.

So which is it?

Is the Kingdom of God suffering passively, enduring the violence of a non-believing world until the day when it finally conquers? Or is the Kingdom of God actively, forcefully pushing through, refusing to take no for an answer, refusing to be laid aside by people who are surprised by the way it looks?  Refusing to be distracted by … us?

Which is it? Is it suffering violence or forcefully advancing?

Tim Tennent says the answer is yes.*  The Kingdom of Heaven suffers the violence of people who don’t get who Jesus really is. The Kingdom suffers the violence of laziness, the violence of unbelief, of hard hearts and broken hearts. The Kingdom suffers the violence of the dark, of a kind of deafness to the sound of holiness.

But the Kingdom never quits coming. It never gives up, never gives in, never lets go, never loses sight of the work. If John (and we) wants to understand how the Kingdom of God forcefully advances, tell him this: The blind see, the lame walk, the dead are raised, the possessed are set free and the good news is preached to the poor.

That’s why John was asking questions. Because this isn’t what he expected. He (and we) want force to look like force. We want Jesus to kick butts and take names. But instead, God’s Kingdom forcefully advancing looks more like average people talking over coffee, telling stories of transformation. “This is how Jesus changed my life.”  

It looks like someone taking a box of food to single mom simply for the privilege of praying with her for better days. It looks like groups of people quietly gathering in buildings to bind up broken hearts and proclaim freedom to captives. It is people praying it forward, praying hopefully toward the day when there is no more pain, no more tears, no more racism, no more adultery, murder, divorce, anger, unrighteous judgment.

This is how the Kingdom comes. It comes in the willingness of ordinary souls to make room and time for the gentle practice of caring for souls so no one is left behind. It is seeds, leaven, oil, a cup of water, time, patience, stories.

That’s the force of it and for a lot of people that’s an offense.  It simply isn’t what we expect.

But that, Jesus seems to say, is how it is done.

 

* Some years ago, I heard Dr. Tennent, president of Asbury Theological Seminary, preach on this verse and his remarks have stayed with me.

 

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Faithfulness breeds blessings.

If you are someone’s child (any age) but not yet a parent, you should know that your life has messed with your parents’ heads. Assuming your parents are at least in some way functional people, you have incredible power over them — power you may not realize you have. Yes, your parent will come after you like a spider monkey when you do something wrong but have the school counselor say you have behavioral issues, and your mom will come after her like ten spider monkeys.

Your parents will take a bullet for you without thinking twice. And will do it again the next time. They will walk into the thick of a Hell’s Angel gathering to snatch you up and take you home without breaking a sweat. They’ll leave you in jail, even if it rips their heart out over and over to do so, because they want so much more for you than you want for yourself.

They will go without food if it means you will get a better education. Any ER nurse will tell you there is no wrath like the wrath of a mama whose baby is sick. You can make the worst possible mistake — forget to call on Mother’s Day, lie about the person you went on a date with, tell us you hate us — but the next time you cuddle up next to us on the sofa and tell us we’re the best mom/dad ever, parental amnesia sets in.

The slate wipes clean.

In a way, parental love is like being possessed. It is a fierce love. And while parental love isn’t always biologically bound, it is definitely not the same as the love we have for all children everywhere or even for the other people we love. A parent’s love is different. Fierce. Strong.

So when Abraham chooses to obey God and take his son up a mountain to make a sacrifice out of him, there is no other story in the whole story of God that shows more profoundly what faith requires of us when God asks us to have no other gods before him. Because Abraham is possessed. He has parental insanity. He is a one-hundred year-old man who finally has a boy of his own. There is no other story that more accurately and starkly paints what God means when he tells us to love him with all our hearts, all our souls, all our minds, all our strength.

Abraham’s love for that boy is surely a fierce love yet, knowing what he is asking of this man, God comes to Abraham and says, “I am going to make you into a great nation and you will be the father of many people. What you have in this boy, you will have in more children than you can count. But to get there, you and I have to walk through a valley together, the darkest kind of valley. That valley will lead you to the point of laying down your deepest earthly loves so there is nothing left between us, so I can pour all my hopes for the world through your family line.

“Abraham,” God seems to say, “This is what faith means. It is a decision to believe when it doesn’t make sense, accompanied by a love so fierce that nothing can compromise it.”

Can you imagine what that offer must have felt like for a man who would take a bullet for his son, who would walk into the thick of a violent mob to pull him out, who would have gladly taken his son’s place in that moment?

Can you imagine?

Isaac was probably not a child at this point. Some say he could have been as old as thirty, certainly old enough to know that wood for a sacrifice needs a lamb to go with it. Isaac says to his daddy, “I see the wood, but where is the sacrifice?” And Abraham, with the full weight of mature faith on his shoulders, stands between Isaac and God and replies, “The Lord himself will provide the sacrifice.”

At the top of the mountain Abraham and Isaac build the altar together and Isaac allows Abraham to lay him up on it. Isaac didn’t have to do this. Surely he could have muscled his way out if he’d wanted to but Isaac is his father’s boy. He has his father’s spiritual DNA coursing through his veins. He is the second generation of a breed of people whose faith is centered on the person of God, not on personal tastes.

We wonder how a man can lay his child up on a pile of firewood but as it turns out, this is how it is in the Kingdom of God. Nothing is what it seems. To get life, we have to lay it down. To be first, we have to be willing to be last. To save our children’s lives, we have to be willing to put God above them at any cost. To save our families, our marriages, our reputations, our country, our you-name-it, we have to be willing to lay it up on the altar.

This is what Abraham’s story shows us about the Kingdom of God: Faithfulness breeds blessings, the kind that pour out over your children and your children’s children. The kind that raise dead things, that redeem relationships, that restore purpose and health. The kind that change the world.

The blessings of God will always run through a fire fueled by faith. Make no mistake about this: anything else that looks like blessing is merely a cheap imitation.

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How would Jesus vote?

Jesus lived in a corrupt and perverse generation, and what he taught was subversive. Revolutionary.

The people of Rome had been taught Caesar was something like a savior. This had been the accepted truth for generations, since Julius Caesar was declared a deity by the Roman senate. Then Jesus showed up, ushered in an alternative Kingdom, set it down directly next to that mindset and dared the Roman Empire to choose. He publicly announced there was a government greater than Rome’s — a government blessed by God. He taught that poor people and those being held captive and those who were oppressed would find relief in this other Kingdom and that in fact, it was the hope of the world.

Jesus was a rebel.

He was arrested on a charge of treason and put to death. On the day he died the sky went dark and the earth shook. Ominous signs, these were the sound effects of a cosmic shift in power, a curtain falling on the old order. The Romans had just been played by the God of the universe, who used the moment to unleash a whole new religion. Christianity would spread throughout the Roman world, pull down the empire, and become the single most powerful voice of all time.

By the time Paul was converted, Jesus was the reigning eternal King of the Kingdom of Heaven, seated in all his glory in the presence of God the Father Almighty. Revelation tells us he holds the power of hell and death in his hands. When Paul tells the Philippians (3:20), “Our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ …” he is not talking about a feel-good religion. He’s talking about a cosmic government and a citizenship that transcends any human system. This is why Paul took the message beyond the Jews; this Kingdom — the Kingdom of Christ — wasn’t just for one nationality or one group of people. This was a new worldview.

Hear that: The Kingdom of Heaven is bigger than any one nationality.

Nero was Emperor in 64 A.D. when a huge fire broke out in Rome. It burned seventy percent of the city. Some people blamed Nero for this devastation; to divert attention he tortured Christians. He fed them to lions as entertainment and used them as human torches at his garden parties. The effect of the persecution was the spread of Christianity. Once again, the Romans had been played by the God of a greater Kingdom.

For the last 2000 years, this has been our pattern. Where Christians are persecuted, Christianity grows. Where Christians become comfortable, it stagnates. We have never flourished by giving our primary allegiance to a government. That isn’t how our faith works. Our citizenship is in Heaven.

So how should a citizen of Heaven vote in this election? 

Faithfully.

What drives your decisions, your conversations, your opinions? Are you making your choices under the Lordship of Christ? Friends, our vote should be powered by our faith. Our allegiance as citizens of Heaven is not to a political party or to a national strategy. Our allegiance is to the Lordship of Christ. We who follow Jesus are citizens of the Kingdom of God first of all … or not at all.

Prayerfully.

If I could wish one thing on the Christian culture in the U.S. right now, it would be this: That we would spend as much time in prayer as we spend online. Don’t just ask God who you ought to vote for; ask for his character to flow through you so that your words, actions and attitudes reflect his heart, especially when it comes to those with whom you disagree.

Friends, I suspect real Christian character is proven not by how we pray before the election, but by how we pray after the election. Commit now to wake up on November 9th and pray for whoever is elected. We want that person to be a great President — to be true, honorable, just, pure, commendable, excellent, worthy of our gratitude. This is the heart of humble, patriotic, God-honoring prayer. It is that desire to see our country and its leaders and its people succeed, whoever is President.

Non-anxiously.

Governments rise and fall and God is still God. Countries come and go, and God is still God. November 8th will not stop the coming of Christ or the defeat of Satan. The purposes of God will be accomplished. When Jesus hung on the cross and said, “It is finished,” he meant that no enemy, no other kingdom, no other power would have ultimate control of the universe. The battle belongs to the Lord. We know how the story ends. We win.

Humbly.

Humility (the primary personality trait of Jesus, always characterized by self-sacrifice) is the fruit of genuine repentance. There is something to be said for sober judgment, for falling down before God in an honest recognition of our imperfect state, with a less arrogant defensiveness. There is something attractive about a sincere acknowledgement that we’re on a journey and not there yet.

Kingdom-mindedly

Jesus came to save the whole world, not just our corner of it. As followers of Jesus and citizens of the Kingdom of God, we must live with a memory of the more than two billion people in the world who have never heard they have a citizenship in Heaven. Jesus loves those people. All of them. I’m convinced that the names on the November 8th ballot don’t matter nearly as much as the names in the Lamb’s Book of Life. Those names ought to have our greatest attention. They ought to occupy the vast majority of our brain space and the greatest part of our prayers. As citizens of the Kingdom, our lives cannot matter more to us than their lives.

Because that’s who Jesus voted for. The cross is proof.

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