What is God’s Kingdom and how does one prepare to arrive there?
Jesus talked about “the kingdom of heaven” in many of his parables in the Bible. In order to be better prepared for this kingdom, I attempted to analyze sections of the Bible related to the kingdom. I then made an effort to synthesize this analysis, bringing the scattered pieces together like completing a jigsaw puzzle, but with some pieces missing.
One of the more confusing parts of the Bible to me is Judgment Day, determining whether we will enter God’s kingdom. Is there one judgment or are there multiple judgments? After we repent and accept Jesus as our savior, thus receiving God’s grace, is that the first judgment? Is there a second judgment when we die, based on our faith and actions after repentance? Or do we go to hell, separated from the nonbelievers, where our actions will be tested in a very different, difficult, and deceitful environment? Or is heaven a destination where believers await the second coming or the end of times?
We know that our sins are forgiven by God’s gift of grace since His son suffered and died for us. This is called justification. If this is the first test, many Christians will do very well. It requires faith in and the acceptance of Jesus Christ as your savior.
I will use many citations from the Book of Romans, since it is perhaps the best study of Christian theology, but I also will refer to the parables of Jesus and the Book of Revelation. Romans, written by Paul, reveals God’s plan of righteousness and salvation for all humankind through both justification and sanctification. One of the questions that I fairly raise in this article is whether these two are so intertwined that they form a single basis for Judgment Day or are they separate tests for purposes of judgment? And if so, which judgment?
Romans 5:1 states, “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ…” The Bible tells us that we cannot receive God’s grace through works, yet we also know that works are important. But how important are they?
A minister who was working with a prisoner heard him shout that he was saved. The prisoner’s cellmate asked the preacher if that were true or not, and the response was: “We will see.” This uncovers the danger of “cheap grace” first coined by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Grace is not a get-out-of-jail-free card and it is not an entitlement and it is not free. Grace is granted at a great cost: (1) Jesus Christ, who was tortured and crucified for us, poured out His blood for us and (2) God provides grace to believers who, after receiving this grace, need to work hard to become like Jesus, who should become their role model.
Once we receive God’s gift of grace, we cannot continue sinning. Romans 6:1-2 provides, “What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?” We are united with God through Jesus and our conscience is linked to the Holy Spirit so that we cannot sin any longer. This is called sanctification.
Titus 2:11-12 provides that God has enabled us, through grace: “Teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present world.” And Ephesians 2:8-10 states: “For by grace are ye saved through faith, and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God. Not of works, lest any man should boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.” Thus, it appears that grace comes first and then works follow like a horse and carriage on our journey to God’s kingdom.
So, is there one judgment or multiple judgments? The Eastern Orthodox Church believes in two judgments: (1) the Particular Judgment that occurs at the time of death and (2) the Final Judgment that will happen after Christ returns. The Protestants are not as clear on what happens after death but before the Final Judgment. Some believe that the dead sleep in hell; others say that believers dwell in heaven leaving nonbelievers to wander the earth; but some think that there will be no time separating death and the second coming. Many Protestants believe that Jesus will carry out the judgment of believers at the end of times, and God will judge the nonbelievers. I’m not certain it matters since God and Jesus are united in the kingdom.
However, some Protestants also believe in two judgments. One is conducted at the end of time by Jesus sitting on a white throne judging the dead according to what they had done, Revelation 20:11-15. The other is the God’s judgment seat, sometimes called the bema judgment, which is based on works in determining heavenly treasures. Protestants believe that this judgment only applies to believers. It is mentioned three times in the Bible. Romans 14:10 provides, “For we all stand before God’s judgment seat. 2 Corinthians 5:10 states, “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.” It is not clear whether “things done while in the body” means while alive and/or after death if you still have a body in hell. The Book of Romans mentions that the judgment is made by God, while 2 Corinthians indicates that it will be made by Christ. I do not believe it matters since the judgment will be the same.
It is unclear to me about the sequence of judgments. There could be a judgment entirely based on faith when we declare our faith in Christ and an additional judgment when we die based on faith as proven by our acts or this faith judgment could be continuous. It seems logical that God and/or Jesus would have to separate the believers and nonbelievers first, before administering any additional judgments. A belief in Jesus is not a subjective test, so even if individuals think that they believe, it is an objective test determined by Jesus/God, who know everything about us. This faith judgment could be during life or at death or continuously.
Some Christians believe that there is an earthly location which Jesus visited for three days after His death. In Matthew 12:40, Jesus foretold that He would spend three days and three nights in the heart of the earth, which may be a location or destination where believers and nonbelievers are separated, rather than the lake of fire mentioned in Revelation 20:14-15. However, this would be a faith judgment days after death. Whether these three faith judgments discussed are separate or one continuous judgment, I cannot find sufficient evidence in the Bible to prove one way or the other. However, Matthew 10:22 states, “… he that endures to the end shall be saved.” Matthew 12:32 also states, “… whosoever speaks against the Holy Ghost, it shall not be forgiven him, neither in this world, neither in the world to come.” These come pretty close to saying that the faith judgment is continual during life, carried to the end or into the world to come.
Logic also tells me that the faith judgment probably continues throughout your life. My wife and I approached a minister to baptize us since we had been baptized when we were younger when we did not have the faith that we have now. The minister asked me if we could get married again, and I told him yes. A couple could remarry since it would be a marriage between two new people, whose experiences had changed them and had made them different than when they first were married. Since they were not the same people, they could remarry. Baptism is the same. Our current faith walk would make this a completely different baptism and, in our opinions, a new one. We were not the same people who were baptized decades ago.
The minister was trying to say that you can only get married or baptized once, but that is a legalistic examination. That is a manmade limitation. A spiritual marriage develops continuously over the years, so that at any point in time, you could take a snapshot of that marriage and declare it to be a new marriage based on the couple’s progress in loving and believing in each other. Baptism should be the same as a marriage. My wife’s and my love for and faith in Jesus and God had developed over the years, so we were completely different people coming before Jesus and God for holy baptism.
After death, there could be three additional judgments after believers are separated from the others: (1) the end of times judgment, (2) the glorification judgment, and (3) the rewards-of-heaven judgment. It seems logical that the end of times judgment would occur before the glorification and rewards judgments since the end of times may be a second faith judgment of both believers and nonbelievers, but this time including a thorough evaluation of their works. God can do anything, so God has the power to select special nonbelievers who converted to Christianity during their stay after death and showed by their good deeds in the earth that they should be accepted into His kingdom. But, unfortunately, there will only be a few selected for His kingdom.
The glorification judgment will be God’s testing of our remnants of humanness, squeezing out those remaining selfish aspects of our characters. Jesus asked God to glorify Him with God’s own self, filling Jesus with the glory that He had with God before the world existed in John 17:5. In effect, before the fall of man in the Garden of Eden, the humanness of man did not exist, so glorification removes those human characteristics and glorifies us before God.
The rewards judgment appears to be based on a thorough analysis of all of our deeds and misdeeds with God finally deciding what our lives will be like in His kingdom. What is this judgment based on? In 1 Corinthians 3:13-14 we are told that in this judgment, “… his work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man’s work. If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward.” Does this provision mean that all our actions during life will be examined in detail? My wife and I have wondered if it would be like watching a movie of ourselves in humbling detail. And is this judgment only for believers to determine what rewards they will receive in God’s kingdom? I have not discovered the answer yet.
But we know that there will be consequences for our choices made during life. Many Christians believe Jesus died for their sins, and eternity is their entitlement based on their faith. However, the Bible clearly refers to judgments before God, evaluating your actions.
James, perhaps the best analysis of works in the Bible, states in 1:22-26: “But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves. For if any be a hearer of the word, and not a doer, he is like unto a man beholding his natural face in a glass; for he beholdeth himself, and goeth his way, and straightway forgetteth what manner of man he was. But whoso looketh into the perfect law of liberty, and continueth therein, he being not a forgetful hearer, but a doer of the work, this man shall be blessed in his deed. If any man among you seem to be religious, and brideleth not his tongue, but deceiveth his own heart, this man’s religion is vain.” This seems to say that we have freedom of choice and our actions will be judged.
James 2:14 offers, “What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? Can faith save him? Then James 2:17-18 answers the questions, “Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone. Yes, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works.” James concludes in 2:24 and 26: “Ye see then how that by works a man’s justified, and not by faith only…. For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.”
It makes sense that faith and works are both judged since Christ told us that only a few will pass into God’s universe. Matthew 7:13-14 quoted Jesus, “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” Jesus also said, “The harvest truly is plenteous, but the laborers are few…,” Matthew 9:37. Revelation 14:1 indicated that there would be only 144,000, who would enter the kingdom. Matthew 22:14 stated, “For many are invited, but few are chosen.”
Most of us do not like to hear bad news, particularly when the Bible focuses primarily on the Good News. There is absolutely nothing wrong with the Good News of the coming of Jesus to save us from our sins, as long as we are realistic about what we need to do in response to the Good News. The actions that we take after receiving God’s grace are critical to our final judgment.
If you study the Beatitudes, Jesus told us that we could not even think about evil things. So, Jesus took a big step from the Ten Commandments, telling us that we should not lust for others. Don’t even think bad thoughts. Who among us can reach that level? There probably are only a few. And God will know your every thought both during your life and when standing before Him in judgment. Perhaps the best approach to this difficult task is to take baby steps. For example, if you can limit your lusting to your spouse that would be a good start. As Jesus and the Holy Spirit take up more room in your heart, it will become easier.
If you believe in God, you may have passed the first test, but your journey to God has just started. If you follow the teachings of Jesus and do your best to have good works during your life, you probably are on your way to passing the second test. However, there is no guarantee that you will be selected by God to enter His eternity. Only God knows what He will be examining on the final Judgment Day. He may examine both our thoughts and deeds, so that few of us will pass into His kingdom. That seems to correspond to what Jesus said.
In Matthew 13:24-30, Jesus used the parable of the weeds and wheat to explain Judgment Day. He said that the weeds, the people of the evil one, would grow beside the wheat, the people of God’s kingdom. The wheat would not be harvested until it matured when it would be easier to distinguish between the weeds and the wheat. Matthew 7:1 also stated, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. So, man should not do any “weeding” or evaluating in advance of God’s judgment. In other words, leave the judging to God.
Some of the weeds will die out before the harvest because they could not compete against the wheat. In advance of death, you know whether you believe in God or not, so you also know whether you will be in the harvest or not. God will conduct a harvest even though there are still weeds in the field. The weeds will be separated out and burned and the wheat will be gathered and taken into the kingdom. Revelation 14:14-20 also references a final harvest.
John, the last living of the twelve disciples, wrote Revelation in exile on the small island of Potmos. He included enigmatic visions that were difficult to understand, but I included an analysis of John’s word pictures written in an apocalyptic style since he wrote about the end of times. In Revelation 20:12-13, the dead would be judged according to what they had done. This is the end-of-times judgment. Revelation indicated that those being judged would be the dead coming from the earth. This makes one think that part of God’s test of your works is how you did both above and below ground.
So, what do we do? Well, I believe the answer is that we do the best that we can, knowing that we are human and will make mistakes. If you fall back one step into sin, then try to move forward two steps along the path of Jesus.
I have no idea what Judgment Day or Days will entail. Jesus, himself, may have gone below the earth before being raised with His Father. It would not surprise me if those of us who were believers had to go through the tests of fire itself. We might have to endure the same suffering that Jesus went through. Perhaps we will be tested by the evil denizens to see how strong our faith really is. I do not know, and this is one of the biggest missing pieces for me in the jigsaw puzzle.
I guess the best advice is to be prepared. In Matthew 22:11-13, Jesus told about the king who invited everybody to his wedding banquet, which has been interpreted to be the kingdom of heaven. There was one group that did not enter the kingdom of heaven because they did not accept the invitation. In other words, they didn’t even believe. There was a second group that had entered the kingdom, but was then kicked out into hell, not properly preparing for the event. This guest did not wear proper wedding clothing. What does this mean? Some interpret it to mean that this individual accepted the invitation, but did not conduct himself properly. In other words, he may have sounded righteous by his acceptance of the kingdom, but his deeds and actions showed otherwise. Jesus described these as two separate events: (1) accepting the invitation and (2) being judged for wearing inappropriate clothing. Even though, faith in God and acts supporting this belief are linked together, the judgments for these two events do not have to occur simultaneously. Jesus may have been talking about two separate judgments.
Your imagination and your thoughts may be your worst enemy, so it makes sense that we cannot make it through our earthly travels or the afterlife without God’s help. That seems to be the importance of unification with God, who provides control and peace. If you are separated from God, you will face chaos alone in both the present world, but also in the following world.
There are two parables in Matthew that related to workers in a vineyard. The vineyard may have been analogous to the kingdom of heaven, which Jesus had been discussing in Matthew, including Chapter 20, verses 1-16, the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard. In this parable, a landowner agreed to pay a denarius to men who would work in his vineyard. He would continually add workers as the day progressed, finally hiring workers for the eleventh hour of a twelve-hour workday. He paid all the workers a denarius, even those who joined at the final hour. The workers who started early in the morning were not happy because even though they received what they had been promised, the workers who worked for less than an hour got the same wages. The landowner told them that he had the right to do what he wanted with his money and he wanted to reward the last man the same as the first.
There may be several interpretations, but the most logical is that all those who work to enter the kingdom of heaven will be considered equally, even those who convert at the eleventh hour. If a murderer receives Jesus as his savior right before the fatal injection, he might still enter the kingdom of heaven. The real test of Judgment Day is did the murderer truly confess his sins and turn his life over to God or was he just hedging his bets at the last minute? Only God will know that.
In Matthew Chapter 21, verses 28-32, the Parable of the Two Sons, a father asked his two sons to work in his vineyard. The first son flatly stated that he would not, but after thinking about it, he changed his mind and worked for his dad in the vineyard. The second son politely responded, “I will, sir.” However, he walked away and did not do the work. Jesus asked the people inside the Temple in Jerusalem, “Which of the two did what his father wanted?”
They answered, “The first son.” The chief priests and the elders condemned themselves by this answer since they were more like the second son, because they agreed to serve God, yet refused to have anything to do with Jesus. Their actions betrayed their mouths.
In the military, we called it “Walking the walk.” There were two primary types of soldiers: (1) those whose actions showed the courage of their convictions, and (2) those who told a good story, but were nowhere to be seen when the actions started. We called this “Talking the talk.” Jesus seemed to be saying that the Scribes and the Pharisees were only “talking the talk,” but not “walking the walk.”
As it turned out, Jesus was correct, because the elders forced the Romans to torture and crucify Him. They proclaimed that they were devoted to God, but had the Son of God put to death.
There may be a second level in this parable. Jesus may have been talking about two judgments. The first judgment would be based on what you say or believe. In this case, the second son, falling in the category of those who preach and attend church, would pass the first judgment as a believer in God. However, the second test may be the final judgment, which is based on your acts that showed your true faith and beliefs. In this case, the first son, representing those who originally were sinners, did what was right and obeyed God’s will after accepting Jesus as his savior.
In effect, the first son did not initially have enough faith to enter the vineyard to do works. But he had a change of heart and did good works in the kingdom. The second son initially had the faith to enter the kingdom, but he never did good works. As between the two, the son who actually did the works for God entered the kingdom ahead of the second son, who had no works. Sinners, who initially renounced God but later decided to work for God, could enter heaven before preachers, who mouthed words without matching them with deeds.
The perfect son was Jesus, who answered his Father that he would obey and then acted accordingly, accepting lashings and crucifixion. Jesus is our only role model, and we should try to be like Him in every way. Jesus both talked the talk and walked the walk.
In Matthew 13:1-23, the first parable given by Jesus was the story of a farmer who scattered his seed on (1) a hard path, (2) a thin soil, (3) a thorny ground, (4) and a rich soil. The birds ate the seed on the hard path, the plants died from lack of water in the shallow soil since there were no deep roots, the thorns chocked out the plants, but the good soil produced a great crop.
Jesus instructed the disciples to study the parables because they contained the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, Matthew 13:11-13. The disciples were instructed to question and study the parables in depth to better prepare for the kingdom.
The traditional interpretation of the Parable of the Sower is that the seeds of wisdom about God’s kingdom can fall on a hardened heart, a shallow heart, a distracted heart, or a deep heart. Those who would inherit the kingdom of heaven would have the deep heart. The belief in God would allow the seed to germinate, so that only the hardened heart prevented germination. The shallow and distracted hearts allowed the plant to grow through belief in God, but the plant withered and died because it did not have a strong faith. Matthew 13:23 summed it up by saying that good soil is found in the “understanding” of God’s word. In other words, ask questions. What does the parable mean? What was Jesus trying to say?
Another lesson of the Parable of the Sower may be that a farmer continues to sow his seed even though he knows that some of the seed will be wasted. Jesus knew that his parables were falling on deaf ears and even the disciples did not fully understand, but He knew that His parables would be studied later and would serve as the keys to understanding the kingdom of God. It was worth it since His word would be studied later in good soil.
Perhaps the most important parable about God’s judgment is found in Matthew 25:31-46, the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats. It talks about Jesus separating people like a shepherd separating the sheep from the goats with the sheep on the right and the goats on the left. The basic test behind this judgment is “What did you do to make life better for others?” And the evaluation is not based on how much money you gave or how many people you impacted, but is founded on selfless generosity and kindness to others. As Jesus said, “… whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.” If your charitable acts are based on personal rewards, this will not earn many points with Jesus. For example if you give to the poor because you expect this will be your ticket to heaven, you may be disappointed.
Matthew 25:46 discusses eternal punishment and eternal life. It is important to think about our universe as being infinite with time going on forever and God’s world as being eternal where time does not exist. In our closed universe, matter and energy can neither be created nor destroyed. God’s kingdom is outside our closed universe, where creation may occur. Being trapped forever in our closed universe would lock you into a recycling nightmare. God’s kingdom allows you to escape from this universe for perpetuity. In Luke 21:33, Jesus said that both heaven and earth would pass away at the end of times. He may have meant that the destinations of heaven and hell are both within our closed universe and will be left behind after the end of the Messianic Age.
These musings are not meant to interpret the parables and the teachings of Jesus with any degree of certainty, because that may not be possible. Our humanness will prevent a perfect understanding of Jesus. However, by asking questions and by probing the parables and other parts of the Bible, we may stir up some thoughts from the depths of our minds that may help us understand and reach the kingdom.
God bless us one and all on our journeys to reach the kingdom.