The Essence of Jesus' Teachings - Living in the Kingdom of Heaven
Chapter 5 of In Search of the Loving God
esus came to Galilee at about the age of thirty to be baptized by John. In reverence, John said it should be Jesus rather than he who did the baptizing, but Jesus wanted John to baptize him, in order to "fulfill all righteousness." Although Jesus brought in a revolutionary new teaching, his aim was not to overthrow the existing religious Law, but to fulfill it, and many of his teachings refer to Old Testament passages, and are clearly developments of the old Law. Nevertheless, his teachings about how to live in the "kingdom of heaven" with God in the here-and-now were radically new, and have never been well understood, in his time or since.
The Jews were expecting a Messiah to establish a new "kingdom of God" in the form of a powerful Jewish nation which would rout the Romans and dominate the world. But although its name was the same, Jesus' kingdom was diametrically opposed to the kingdom of worldly power and wealth many Jews were looking for. For Jesus there was the way of the world, Satan's way, bound to lead to misery, or the way of God, leading to eternal happiness. We are free to choose either one, but we must choose between them. Jesus told us we can't serve both God and Mammon, just as a servant can't serve two masters (Matt 6:24). The Zealots almost certainly wanted to recruit Jesus to their cause. The devil, presumably in the form of one of these Zealots, took Jesus "to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor." He tried to entice Jesus to his cause, saying, "All this I will give you, if you will bow down and worship me." In modern words, we can imagine a Zealot saying, "Join and devote yourself to our cause - serve our interests - and I will make you king of all you can see from this high mountain and more!" Jesus, however, was beyond being tempted by worldly power, and replied, "Away from me, Satan! For it is written: 'Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.'" (Matt 4:10)
Having set himself apart from worldliness, Jesus began to preach about the "kingdom of heaven," and drew together his disciples. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gathered these disciples around him, and taught them how to live in the kingdom of heaven, showing them how joyful it is compared with living in a worldly way (Matt 5-7). In the Beatitudes he said,
The kingdom of heaven can only be lived in by those who are humble, and prepared to put aside their spirited, preconceived notions and surrender themselves, so they can learn as disciples. Those who place the greatest value on worldly riches, or even on knowledge of the world, cannot make much spiritual progress. But those who come to value spiritual things highly will consider themselves "poor in spirit," and mourn not having found God. Since they mourn their spiritual poverty more than any material lack, God will comfort them by revealing Himself to them. One might wonder how such humble people, not valuing material things, would survive in this world. The common view is that the meek will be trodden under foot. Jesus, however, had a different view. He said,
This is a strange statement, at first sight. When we consider the ways of the rich and power seeking, though, it begins to make sense. Those who possessively hunger for money and power often don't enjoy their lives much, as they are too busy making more money, and worrying about how to protect what they have. By contrast, the "meek" do not have these anxieties, and have the time, energy, and loving attitude necessary to really enjoy the world they live in. The world is their oyster. And being meek doesn't necessarily imply being unassertive and put-upon. Meekness, as the word is used here, rather embodies the virtues of not being possessive or power seeking, of preferring to give rather than take, serve rather than dominate, cooperate rather than compete, and of letting things unfold in a natural way rather than forcing issues. Jesus later elaborated on this meekness, advising people not to be anxious or worried about food, clothing or shelter, for:
Jesus taught that there is a liberating freedom in living this way:
He also said,
The first of these three quotes introduces the concept of God's righteousness. It is also there in one of the Beatitudes:
What is this righteousness of God, which Jesus would have people hunger and thirst after? Quite simply, it is God himself, and his will for our lives. Our righteousness is our own view about what the right thing to do is; God's righteousness is His view. Jesus advised people to seek God's will rather than their own, and he lived to this himself, right to the bitter end, when he said, just before being crucified, "Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done." (Luke 22:42) Living by faith means actually being prepared to do what God asks, even if it seems ridiculous or impossible at first sight. People can become apprentices to God, the true master of living, and go on a great adventure with Him, if they are prepared to learn from Him. This can never happen, though, while the ego is still in control, and insists a person does things their own way. But by letting go of their own ideas and anxieties, surrendering to God, and becoming receptive to new possibilities, people can place themselves under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Little children rarely spend much time worrying about the past, or being anxious about the future, and they have the humbleness and faith to accept the guidance of older people. They live in the present much more than adults. This is why Jesus said, "I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven." (Matt 18:3) Fear comes from dwelling on the past, and being anxious about the future. It also comes from holding certain wrong attitudes with regard to other people, which are bound to make us worry about what has happened and might happen. Avoiding these negative, fearful and selfish states of mind, Jesus called being "pure of heart." One of the Beatitudes says: "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God."
Jesus goes on to explain that being pure of heart also means having pure, unselfish, motives, yet he points out how being this way is in a person's own enlightened self-interest in the long run. He says people should not judge others, or it will come back on themselves. Rather, they should readily forgive and forget the wrongs others have done them, in order that they can be forgiven for, and forget, their own past wrongs. It is not sufficient to just avoid harming others; people should also avoid even becoming angry, as this will separate them from God and land them in misery. They should be loyal and faithful to their friends. They should not fight back when they know they can win, and not get upset when people wrong them. They should be kind and merciful, and do good deeds out of love, without seeking recognition for them. Above all, they should love all others, even their enemies, as they love themselves. This is because all people are one in God, and God is love. In loving others they love themselves, and in hating others they hate themselves.
When people surrender themselves, and their intractable problems, to God, let go of their anxiety, and just live in the present, hungering and thirsting for the presence of God, they soon become pure of heart, and God reveals Himself to them. But how does God reveal Himself? Jesus is very clear about it. He explains that the kingdom of God is not found outwardly, as any external manifestation, for:
Through conscience and intuition God speaks to people, and through their inner thoughts they can talk to God. There are certain things people can do to foster this inner communion with God. The foremost is to spend time quietly alone, silently meditating and waiting on God, concentrating on the thought of Him, and letting worldly thoughts pass by. As Psalm 4 says, "Stand in awe, and sin not: commune with your own heart on your bed and be still." In this quietness, intuitive perception of God grows. Psalm 46 says, "Be still and know that I am God." Jesus spent much time like this, by himself, quietly absorbed in God. Luke says, "Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed," (Luke 5:16) and "One of those days Jesus went out into the hills to pray, and spent the night praying to God." (Luke 6:12)
This is the basis of Jesus' teachings on the kingdom of heaven - an uncompromisingly spiritual teaching, yet a very practical one. He told many parables to illustrate it, often starting with the words: "The kingdom of heaven is like..." You can read the Gospels for yourself if you wish to explore these. For various reasons, which I will go into in later chapters, the established churches have always largely ignored Jesus' teachings about how individual people can attain the kingdom of heaven in their lives, and have concentrated instead on some of his words about himself, and a lot of St Paul's teachings about him. Many would agree with Wilhelm Nestle when he says, "Christianity is the religion founded by Paul; it replaced Christ's gospel with a gospel about Christ." This was a problem Jesus had in his own lifetime. He said,
No doubt he foresaw it would be a problem in the future too. The teachings of the kingdom of heaven really are about how every person can individually come through the eternal Christ to an inner communion with God, to be guided by Him and have life in abundance. However, since the church is more concerned about who Jesus was, than with heeding his teachings, let's look briefly at what Jesus is recorded as having said about himself.
As a man, Jesus was very modest. He said, "By myself I can do nothing." (John 5:30) And when addressed as "Good teacher," he answered, "Why do you call me good? No-one is good - except God alone." (Luke 18:19) But Jesus also embodied the eternal Christ, which Paul defined as "the power of God and the wisdom of God." (1 Cor 1:24) In reference to this eternal Christ, Jesus made very exalted claims, but we must remember they were not personal claims, nor anything he took personal pride in or credit for, but statements about the universal Christ through which God created the world, which is the "Word" itself, the very reflection of God in creation. This Christ he talked about always existed, and always will, as that part of the fabric of the universe which is the one and only direct link between people and God, referred to in the Bible as the "only begotten of God." Consequently whenever and wherever people seek God and find Him, whatever race or religion they come from, it is always this Christ which connects them with God. It was in this context that Jesus said,
The church has often used this claim to say only followers of Jesus can come to God, and all religions other than Christianity must be invalid. This is denying the universality of Christ, a universality that Paul was very aware of, stating that Christ was the spiritual strength of the children of Israel during the Exodus, over a thousand years before Jesus was even born:
Jesus affirmed this universality by saying "I tell you the truth, before Abraham was born I am!" (John 8:58) And he stressed that it was not his historical flesh-and-blood body which mattered, but the spiritual essence of his teaching:
Jesus referred to himself most often as "the son of man" to emphasize his humanness and concern for humanity. Where his humanness and divinity overlapped lay his power to redeem humankind. He said,
Christians very often, and quite rightly, quote this as a reference to the importance of the crucifixion in saving people from their sins, but rarely if ever mention the passage which follows it:
Traditional Christianity, in its narrowness and exclusivity, does not like the scope this gives for other religions to share in the universality of Christ, so it ignores it.
Although the church gives more weight to who Jesus is than to his teaching, it is also fairly selective as to which of Jesus' statements about himself and his mission it quotes, as much of what he says doesn't fit comfortably with its doctrine. Another example of this is the church frequently referring to Jesus being the "son of God," but largely ignoring his teaching that we are all heirs to God's kingdom. When the Jews were about to stone Jesus for blasphemy for claiming to be God, Jesus answered: "Is it not written in your Law, 'I have said you are gods'?" (John 10:34) Jesus went on to argue: how can you say I am blaspheming for saying I am God's son, when you are divine too? He added, as one modern writer put it, that "the only difference between them was that he had been 'sanctified' by the Father, a fulfillment they had yet to achieve." Jesus further emphasized that we can all attain to his heights when he said,
The church has traditionally put a huge gulf between Jesus' perfection "up there" in heaven, and our baseness "down here" on Earth, with the gap being bridged after we die if we are good and do what the church says in the meanwhile. But this was by no means Jesus' attitude. Nor was it Paul's, which makes it doubly interesting that the church chose to override it. There are, in fact, understandable, though worldly, reasons why the church selectively ignored many of the teachings of Jesus, and these will become apparent in chapters to come.
Reform of existing religion was a vital part of Jesus' ministry. The early Christian church appears to have been continuous with the Essene "church," but encompassed many new teachings and reforms. The three main areas of Essene belief and practice which Jesus reformed were: the existence of a privileged caste of priests who established themselves as intermediaries between man and God; a lack of moderation and compassion, including an insistence on the strict observance of the laws of Moses; and a belief in predestination, whereby it was claimed only a select few had been chosen from the very beginning to be saved, and the rest of the world was predestined to damnation. This last view was an excess peculiar to the Essenes, but the other areas of belief and practice needing reform existed right across Jewish religion.
The high-priestly Sadducees were corrupt, and Jesus was often in dispute with them, as when he threw the money changers out of the temple. (e.g. Mark 11:15-18) It is fundamental to the nature of Jesus' teachings that separate priests, acting as intermediaries between man and God, are not necessary - that all believers are their own priests. He taught that "the kingdom of heaven is within you," and that religion should be practiced in private:
He also taught that "Where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them." (Matt 18:20) Jesus made it clear that all people can commune with God the Father directly, and this certainly makes a separate priestly class superfluous. Unfortunately, it didn't take long for this reform of Jesus' to be reversed and for priests to return to the Christian church as intermediaries between people and God. During the Reformation the principle of the "priesthood of all believers" was re-established in some denominations, but to this day the Roman Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans and Episcopalians still have ordained priests as their leaders, and only these priests can preside over the Holy Communion or Mass. How can so much of the church have so blatantly disregarded one of Jesus' most important reforms for so long? It is a question to keep in mind while looking at the history of the church.
Jesus certainly spoke and acted against blind obedience to the Laws of Moses, or for that matter to any teaching, and instead taught and acted out of thoughtfulness and compassion. Among the many examples of this are his healing on the Sabbath, and his justification of it to his critics by saying, "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath," (Mark 2:27) and "Stop judging by mere appearances, and make a right judgment." (John 7:24) In an appeal to the keeping of the spirit of the law, rather than its letter, Jesus elevated just two commandments above all the rest:
That Jesus thought the law should be looked at and taught in a fresh way, depending on the circumstances, is shown by his saying:
Jesus' moderation and compassion fill the Gospels. The way he didn't judge the Samaritan woman at the well, even though he knew of her many sexual partners, but rather offered her "living water" by discussing great spiritual truths with her, is an inspiring example to all. And many Samaritans came to believe in Jesus as a result of the gentleness, love and respect he showed her (John 4:4-42). Then there is the story of how he saved the woman caught in the "very act" of adultery from being stoned to death under the Law of Moses, by saying, "He that is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone at her." (John 8:7 AV)
Yet how long did this compassion and moderation last in the Church? When you read about the Inquisition, it is hard to believe the medieval church had anything at all to do with Jesus. And what happened to the respect and equality Jesus showed to women? Even in our time, how does our compassion compare with that of Jesus? Yet his example did make early Christianity more moderate and compassionate than the Jews and Essenes were, and it has reached down through the ages and into the hearts of many, and made the world a better place than it might have been. And finally, in Western countries in the twentieth century, the laws of our lands have started to reflect Jesus' non-judgmental, caring attitude to moral offenders. Jesus was clearly saying that adultery, and other moral sins, should not be punishable offenses, yet it is only recently that laws against "moral" crimes have been repealed. Sadly, it has been humanists outside the church who have, for the most part, pushed for this new compassionate state of the law, and church people have often opposed it. It is a matter for concern in modern Christianity that large parts of the church are still pushing for a return to criminal status of homosexuality, prostitution and abortion. Jesus' example and teachings are finally being heeded in our society, but not as much by Christians as by non-Christians. What must well-informed, perceptive people think of this? Is it any wonder revival is not coming to the church in the West, and people are looking to New Age organizations and other religions for their spiritual well-being? If it is to regain Christ's mantle, the church and the people in it need to let go of their pride, and realize that "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven." (Matt 7:21) It is not too late to change: it is time for people in the church who are still opposing Jesus' reforms to stop doing so. Jesus is no longer ahead of his time - his time has come, and the time has come for the church to fully accept his teachings.
Finally, in the matter of predestination, Jesus made it clear again and again that privilege plays no part in salvation, and that it will be those who produce the right fruit, and love and help their fellow human beings, who will be saved. In paving the way for Jesus, John the Baptist said,
Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37), the parable of the Wedding Guests (Matt 22:2-14), and the story of the Sheep and the Goats (Matt 25:31-46) to bring home the point that anyone can qualify for salvation if they produce fruit in keeping with the kingdom of God. One of Jesus' other sayings talks of the additional need to come to him for salvation, but says that whoever does this will possess eternal life:
Yet, despite this, St Augustine, St Thomas Aquinas, and the reformation theologians Martin Luther and John Calvin, all believed in predestination, and many in the church still believe in it. We should be aware that predestination is a belief which goes back to the Essene church, before it became Christian, and that it is not compatible with Jesus' teachings.
It is sad to see how often Christians are prepared, "in the name of Jesus," to ignore many of Jesus' teachings and reverse his reforms. And in doing so they get a church which closely resembles the Essene church which existed before Jesus was even born. However, Jesus' life was by no means in vain. He knew his teachings would be written down and carefully preserved, even if they would not be properly understood for a long time, because the Jews had a tradition of recording the words of their Prophets. In this way, Jesus' teachings have survived to inspire people through the ages, and profoundly influence our laws and way of thinking, even if large parts of the church have never yet really come to grips with them. But this situation in the church can't go on forever; hopefully the church is on the verge of deciding to remodel itself on Jesus' teachings, and of deciding to focus its attention on what he considered important. The church, like society, consists of the sum total of its members, and these changes can only take place in the church if large numbers of individual Christians decide to embrace them. If and when this happens there will be a major revival of Christianity in western countries, and throughout the world. If it doesn't happen, Christianity will continue to dwindle, and could even be largely replaced as the bearer of Jesus' message of salvation by one or more other religions or spiritual movements.
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Chapter Summaries and Excerpts