The Kingdom of Heaven (literally, the Kingdom from the Heavens) is a term used only in Matthew’s Gospel to represent the realm of professing Christians from the time of the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry (Matthew 4:17), through the present, and forward to the time of His second coming.
The Kingdom of Heaven is different than the Kingdom of God. These are not inter-changeable terms, as many suggest. The Kingdom of Heaven is an imperfect, earthly realm, inhabited by both the good and the bad. This is illustrated in many of Jesus’ parables, which begin with the phrase “the Kingdom of Heaven is like...” In these parables there is a comparison made between those who will enter the place of blessing or celebration, and those who are sent to a place of everlasting punishment (the wheat is gathered to the Master’s barn, but the weeds are burned; the wise virgins go in to the marriage feast, but the foolish virgins are denied entrance; the good fish are separated from the worthless fish, so the worthless can be cast aside; and so on). The Kingdom of Heaven actually precedes the final fulfillment of the Kingdom of God.
Therefore, the things Jesus taught regarding the Kingdom of Heaven apply to this age. This is important, because His teaching exposes current deceptions in the church. In groups that many would consider liberal, the deception is that God is a benevolent Being, willing to accept all who make an attempt at being religious or moral. In more conservative, evangelical groups, the deception may be just as deadly. It goes something like this: anyone who, at some time in their life, agrees with the simple Gospel and makes a profession of faith in Christ, is guaranteed entrance into God’s Kingdom. This guarantee is based on what is generally called the “doctrine of eternal security”.
However, the things Jesus said about the Kingdom of Heaven make it clear that neither of these positions can be defended. The real issue is, and forever will be, relationship! Jesus does not teach us that salvation may be found in following certain religious traditions or rituals. His on-going battles with the religious leaders of His day are proof enough of that. Neither does He describe salvation as something that is established by making a profession of faith. A profession of faith is to salvation, what an introduction is to a relationship. When one person is introduced to another, the introduction does not constitute a relationship - only the possiblebeginning of one. And that’s all a profession of faith could possibly be - an introduction to Jesus. It’s what happens after the introduction that determines whether or not a real relationship exists, and that is what determines true salvation.
The question will always be: “Do you know Him?” It will never be: “Do you belong to a church?” or, “Do you attend church regularly?” or “Have you made a profession of faith in Jesus?” John 17:3 makes it clear enough, “Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.” The verse is a simple equation. On one side of the equation is eternal life, and on the other side is what constitutes eternal life - knowing the Father and knowing the one He sent, Jesus Christ. The key issue is, knowing God.
Throughout this presentation, I will italicize know and knowing to remind you that the issue is knowing God, that is, having a relationship with Him that is real. Knowing is not determined by what you’ve been taught about God in class. It’s not determined by what may have happened in a moment of time at some point in the past. It’s determined by what happened yesterday, what you’re doing today, and what you’re going to do tomorrow. It’s a continual, moment-by-moment existence with God characterized by your real experiences with Him, your understanding of Him, of what He wants to do in your life and your submission and obedience to that.
If anyone thinks that knowing God is not the determining issue in who goes to Heaven and who goes to Hell, look at Matthew 7:21-23, “Not everyone who says to me, Lord, Lord, will enter my Kingdom, but only the ones who do the will of my Father who is in Heaven. There will be many who will say to me on the day I come to separate the sheep from the goats, Lord, Lord, don’t you remember all those great things we said about you, and how we were always yelling at the Devil, and all those powerful things we did that impressed so many people? Then I’ll tell them (and this will be the first time they have ever really heard my voice), I don’t know you, so you must leave now. You were evil, because you disregarded the things I clearly taught.”
This passage illustrates the difference between knowing God and knowing aboutGod. These people obviously knew about God and about religious matters and were willing to do things that, in their estimation, were things God would approve of. It is also obvious that they were able to live this kind of life without ever really knowingGod, because this is the indictment He delivers against them - “I don’t know you.”
There is a deception in the church today that is related to the question of who, or how many, will actually be saved. In the preceding passage, Jesus says that on the occasion of His Second Advent, “many” will experience the sad event described. It was evident to some, on the basis of what Jesus taught that salvation would be difficult to achieve. This was the case in the following passage found in Luke 13:23-30:
“Then someone asked Him, Lord, are only a few people going to be saved? And this is how He answered. Earnest effort is required to force your way through the narrow door that leads to salvation - to God! Many, and I’m telling you this for your own good, think they will enter this door; but they will not be able to, because they were never willing to do what was required. They made the fatal mistake: they should have been serious in their pursuit of God; but, instead, they simply followed the foolish crowd. (Compare Matthew 7:13,14) When time runs out, the Master will shut the door, and many are going to find themselves on the outside looking in. They’ll be saying, Lord, there’s been a terrible mistake, open the door and let us in! But He’ll tell them, I’m sorry. I don’t know you. Where did you come from? I’ve looked, and you’re not on my list. Then, they’ll try to argue their way in, saying, Lord, we’ve known about you all our lives. We know all the rituals, we’ve done some really good things, and we’ve listened to countless sermons and Sunday school lessons. Come on; ask us anything, we can prove it! But the master’s reply will be abrupt and final, Your kind of knowing and my kind of knowing are two different things. You may know something about me, but you don’t really know me. And I don’t know you either; so now you must leave, because you did not care enough to look for the truth. What a commotion that’s going to cause, they’re going to panic. You can’t imagine the loud wailing and the unbelievable anguish there will be as they watch their heroes, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and all the prophets, going in, just as they are being thrown out! And as they’re being led away to their appointed place, they’ll turn and see others coming from all directions, being taken into the Master’s house. And they’ll be confused, wondering, What happened? We don’t understand. Then, in an instant, everyone in this rejected multitude will be made to remember this penetrating truth, this all-important truth they had chosen to ignore: The one who is willing to humble himself (and do what God commands) will be exalted, but the one who insists on exalting himself (doing only what he thinks will make him look good) will be humiliated.” (This last part of verse 30 is a paraphrase of Matthew 23:12, which is used interchangeably in some texts for the phrase “there are last which shall be first, and there are first which shall be last”)
If this paraphrase is accurate, and I believe it is, then the issue of making a simple profession of faith has been addressed. The religious notion of knowing God has more to do with a simple acknowledging of His existence accompanied with some degree of knowledge about Him. God’s idea of knowing Him has more to do with a relationship in every true sense of the word (there is time spent, information exchanged, a connection is made that influences behavior and decisions, intimacy is enjoyed, etc.). A true relationship can never be defined by what one person knowsabout another, it must be defined by what one person has experienced with another on a personal level. And this is how we must define our relationship with God. It was never God’s intention for us to simply know about Him, He wants us to experience Him. He wants us to know that He is real, and not just an idea or concept (Hebrews 11:6).
In John 5:39 Jesus confronts the religious notion that knowing about God is tantamount to salvation: “You’re continually studying the scriptures, taking great pains to learn all you can about God; because you think mere words are the way to eternal life. But with all the knowledge you’ve gained, you still don’t understand that these same scriptures point to Me as the only way of salvation.”
Jesus’ point must be taken seriously - salvation cannot be found in words on a page! There is no such thing as a “simple plan of salvation”. It is not 3, 4, or 5, easy steps, then back to living your life the way it was, business as usual (except, maybe you go to church sometimes, so you can learn more about God).
Real life, eternal life is found only in the person of Jesus Christ. He is life (John 1:4; 5:26; 6:35; 8:12; 11:25; and 14:6). Without Him, there is no life!
Another point that must be mentioned, if only briefly, is what Jesus says in verse 24, “earnest effort is required to force your way through the narrow door that leads to salvation - to God.” Having a relationship with God isn’t easy. It’s hard, because it is opposite everything we see, or know, or want in our natural senses. It requires effort to discipline ourselves and set the right priorities in our lives, so we have time to spend with God. Then, it takes determination to focus on Him, and not let our rebellious mind wander (it’s amazing how my mind wants to think about everything except God, when I try to get alone with Him).
Jesus talked about this in John 6:27-29, “Stop wasting your time and energy on the things that don’t matter. Instead, give the best of both to gain the only thing that does matter - eternal life. If you do what I’m telling you to do, I have the Father’s permission to give you this life. Then, those who were listening to Him asked, What are we supposed to do? What does God want? And Jesus answered, This is what God requires: that you learn (by experience) to trust in the One Who He has sent.”
Making your relationship with God your first priority in life would be a foreign concept to most people today. For many, putting marriage, family, career, even hobbies or leisure time before God is perfectly acceptable. Think about this: the world, the flesh and the Devil want to make salvation easy. But, God says salvation is difficult, because, to achieve it, we must overcome the world, the flesh and the Devil.
There are about 48 parables in Matthew. Jesus used many of them to teach different aspects of the Kingdom of Heaven. Some illustrate various characteristics of the Kingdom itself, others point out either good or bad qualities found in those who inhabit the Kingdom.
The English word “parable” comes from the Greek parabole, and means comparison. Jesus used parables to illustrate truth and clarify it by comparing it to things familiar to those listening. However, it is evident that, even though the illustrations were familiar, the spiritual truths were not apparent to all who heard them.
This is why the disciples came to Jesus in Matthew 13:10 and asked Him why He used parables instead of speaking more plainly to the people. The following is Jesus’ answer:
“Then after Jesus had finished the story about the sower, the seeds and the different kinds of soil, the disciples came and asked, Why do you speak to the people in stories that are hard to understand? And this is how He answered, You are given insight into the secrets of the Kingdom of Heaven, but this is not for everyone. Only those who have a willing heart, a real desire to know God, will be given this understanding, and they will receive a rich abundance. But these people aren’t looking for God. They came to see miracles. They’re looking for excitement - they want to be entertained. So, what little insight they might gain from listening to Me tell them stories will soon be forgotten, because that’s not what they’re interested in. And that’s why I do it. They have eyes like you, they see the same things you see; and they have not recognized Me. But you have. They have ears. They hear the same things you hear; and they don’t understand what I’ve said. But you do. Don’t you see the difference? The more you know, the more you want to know. But, this is all going right over their heads. Isaiah said it best, Your ears aren’t plugged, you can hear just fine; but you pretend not to understand, because you don’t want to. And your eyes are wide open, you can see everything clearly; but you act as though you don’t see anything at all, because it’s too convicting. These people don’t want to face the truth. They’ll cover their ears, so they can’t hear; and they’ll shut their eyes as tight as they can, so they can’t see. Why? Because, they don’t want their sin exposed! They don’t understand the Father only wants them to repent, so He can heal them. But, they won’t - they love their sin too much. But, good for you! You want to see everything and hear everything. You want to know all you possibly can about God. The truth is, there have been many prophets and other good men who have longed to see what you’re seeing and hear what you’re hearing; but they couldn’t, because it wasn’t time. Now, let me explain the story about the sower, the seeds and the different kinds of soil. I want to make sure you understand it completely.” (Matthew 13:10-18)
As I’ve already mentioned, the end of the Kingdom of Heaven is described in detail in Matthew 25:31-46, when the sheep are separated from the goats. This separation is mentioned in many of the parables, as well. And here, in Matthew 13, as Jesus is explaining to His disciples why He teaches the people with parables, the same idea of separation is evident. Jesus taught parables to separate those who were interested in knowing God from those who weren’t.
This same principle of separation is in operation today. In Luke 13:24 Jesus said earnest effort was required to push your way through the narrow door that leads to salvation. In other words, knowing God requires effort, it does not come easily - it is not automatic. If we are going to know God, it will require determination on our part. Be assured, God will bless the effort. He wants us to know Him, and He’s not hiding (His promise today is the same as it’s always been - if we seek Him, we will find Him, He’s not far from any one of us, Deuteronomy 4:29-31; Jeremiah 29:11-13; Acts 17:27). But, effort is required. A simple profession of faith, church membership, or even consistent church attendance will not suffice.
This is what separates the sheep from the goats in the Kingdom of Heaven today. Those who are content to trust in their religion are the ones taking the broad, easy road that leads to destruction. Their religion is teaching them to know about God. On the other hand, those who expend the time and effort necessary to know God are the ones forcing their way in to God through the narrow door (remember Matthew 7:13,14; Luke 13:24).
The thought has occurred to me that this whole presentation might seem to be somewhat critical, or that I’m attempting to judge everyone’s salvation. I don’t want to appear critical, nor do I have any desire to judge. My only purpose is to tell any who are interested what I believe Jesus is saying. I only want the truth to be known and understood. However, I’m afraid this message will be no more popular with people today than Jesus’ message was with the religious leaders of His day. However, the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand, and God is revealing His heart to those who will listen.
One more thing and this paper will be concluded. Some have asked me if I thought it possible for so many to be deceived. In our circles, it was more or less accepted that the more liberal of the denominations were, in fact, deceived and did not so much as have a clue when it came to salvation. But, to say that the evangelical groups are deceived as well is frightening - it’s too close to home. But, this deception is documented in many of Jesus’ parables. Let me just mention one of them here. The parable of the mustard seed is found in Matthew 13:31,32, and says:
“The Kingdom of Heaven is like a single mustard seed, which a man planted in his field. Even though it is the smallest of seeds, it grows into one of the largest plants. And when it is grown, it is the size of a tree, and birds come to live in its branches.”
Since parables are comparisons, what Jesus pictures here is fairly obvious. The analogy of the mustard seed vividly contrasts the smallness of the seed with the greatness of what the seed produces. During the time of Jesus’ public ministry, His influence in the relatively small area surrounding Jerusalem seemed insignificant when compared to the whole world. Yet, that influence became world encompassing!
But, it is the last part of this parable that is relevant to our discussion at this point. The term “birds of the air” represent deception sponsored by the enemies of God; specifically, Satan himself. This term (peteinon, that which is able to fly, used with ouranos, heavens) literally means “those who are able to traverse the heavens”, a reference to demons.
In Matthew 13:3-9, Jesus tells the parable of the sower, the seeds, and the different types of soil. In verse 4 He talks about the seeds that fall by the side of the road and are quickly eaten by the birds. Then, later in this same chapter, He gives the disciples an explanation of the parable to make sure they understand it. In verse 19 He explains that the birds are those sent by the wicked one. From this we can easily conclude that the birds are demons under the supervision of Satan, sent to lodge in the Kingdom of Heaven for one purpose: to destroy truth and deceive the inhabitants of the Kingdom. Jesus uses this prophetic parable of the mustard seed to illustrate a worldwide, earthly Kingdom filled with religious deception, and that's exactly what it is.
So, let’s go back to our original question. Could so many be deceived? The answer is, yes. Jesus predicted it. The parable of the leaven, which follows the parable of the mustard seed in Matthew 13:33 illustrates much the same point, but from a little different perspective. Here, Jesus uses the illustration of how yeast is added to a flour mixture and has the ability to spread its way through the whole lump of dough in a short time. The result is that the whole lump is changed by the presence of the yeast. Yeast illustrates corruption, in this context, it's deception. The point is that traditional religion is completely affected in every part and in every way by this deception.
There are a couple of applications that should be made here. The first is that it's not possible to find good, useful things in religion. Some like to think they can participate in religion and benefit by it because they think they have the ability to take the good and reject the bad. As I've said before, I believe Jesus makes it perfectly clear that we can't have religion and God at the same time. They just don't mix.
The second is that there are always those who think they can go into the midst of the corruption and deception and change it because they have this great revelation of truth all of a sudden. Wrong! Why do you think there were far more who opposed Jesus than who ever believed and followed Him? Why did they kill the prophets? Most people are dominated by their fleshly natures and they don't want the truth. And, like it or not, this includes most religious, self-professing Christians.
How many today are trusting in church membership, what they know about God, or even their profession of faith to get them to heaven? I happen to know that it’s a very large percentage. Eternal life is found in only one thing, a real, personal, experiential relationship with God. This puts Matthew 4:17 in proper perspective:
“And from that time on, Jesus began to preach this message, saying, Change your minds and acknowledge the truths that I’m giving you, and change your ways so they line up with these truths, because the Kingdom of Heaven is here.”
The Kingdom of Heaven is here. The realm of professing Christians needs to take relationship with God seriously. This is the time that determines who will be the sheep and who will be the goats. Jesus is warning us. The time of final separation may be closer than we think.
Let me encourage you, find a red-letter edition of the Bible and just read the red letters in the four Gospels. Don’t just read these papers and try to determine if what you’re reading is right or wrong. Submit yourself to God and to His Holy Spirit and let Him reveal the truth to you. That is the only thing that will give you the understanding and determination you need to truly follow God.