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I attended college in Boston, but a University of Michigan flag flies outside my home to signify my enduring childhood loyalty to Wolverine football.

Wherever I have lived or traveled, the Wolverines have been a consistent concern. They send me into an emotional tumult on any Saturday when they fail to win, especially against the dreaded Buckeyes (do I really have to write the name?).

This type of emotional loyalty, born from within, was nurtured in my youth and inextricably woven into the fabric of my life through a thousand sights and sounds. As deep as this loyalty might be, it is mild compared to the passionate faithfulness Jesus expects from those who would claim his kingdom as their own.

Jesus spoke about the kingdom more than we do today. When he began his ministry, he taught in the synagogues (Luke 4:14-15), and the following passage confirms that his message was about the kingdom:

And when it was day, he departed and went into a desolate place. And the people sought him and came to him, and would have kept him from leaving them, [43] but he said to them, “I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns as well; for I was sent for this purpose.” [44] And he was preaching in the synagogues of Judea.

Luke 4:42-44 ESV

When we speak about the kingdom of God, we tend to speak about a group or a people. When Jesus spoke, he described a vision. This vision was of a world changed by his kingdom, and those who listened were transfixed.

And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written, [18] “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, [19] to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” [20] And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.

Luke 4:17-20 ESV

John the Baptist would later question the validity of Jesus from prison, and the strengthening answer Jesus provided was that his kingdom vision was becoming a reality.

Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples [3] and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” [4] And Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: [5] the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. [6] And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”

Matthew 11:2-6 ESV

Jesus spent his final moments with his disciples talking about the kingdom, which should give each one of us pause. Why did Jesus make certain that his final emphasis to the apostles was the kingdom?

… In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach, [2] until the day when he was taken up, after he had given commands through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. [3] He presented himself alive to them after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.

Acts 1:1-3 ESV

If we are living in a post-Christian world because of the decline of Christianity, perhaps we should consider the spiritual reasons behind this trend. One might be our failure to understand and/or embrace the kingdom.

The kingdom within

Once, having been asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, “The kingdom of God does not come with your careful observation, [21] nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is within you.”

Luke 17:20-21 NIV (84)

The Pharisees, who were among the preeminent religious leaders of their day, could not understand the kingdom because their passion was for outward appearance rather than internal substance (Matthew 23:25-28). They came to Jesus in Luke 17:20-21 asking for times and dates indicating when the kingdom would appear.

Jesus responded by telling them the kingdom wasn’t a “here” or “there,” meaning it isn’t a label or location. When we describe the kingdom as a certain denomination, building, or set of structured rituals, we make the mistake of Israel in Jeremiah’s time. The people sought confidence from having the “temple of the Lord” rather than the right heart condition (Jeremiah 7:1-11).

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Some will argue the translation of “within you” can be “among you” or “in your midst.” Whatever phrase we choose, Jesus left little question that the spiritual target of his intentions, here and throughout the gospels, was the heart.

Whether we call ourselves Christians, disciples, or some other term, there must be a transformation of the heart if we are to experience and be his kingdom. This is why the axis point of Jesus’s first sermon is Matthew 5:20, which cautions those who follow him to go deeper than the Pharisees.

For I tell you this: you will not enter the kingdom of heaven unless your righteousness goes deeper than the Pharisees’, even more righteous than the most learned learner of the law.

Matthew 5:20 Voice

Why is all of this important? We live in constant danger of becoming Pharisees who superficially address the spiritual issues of our lives, then build organizations we call churches which have little resemblance to the kingdom of God.

Jesus wants us to build his kingdom, not our own. This means every Christian needs to become familiar with the qualities of his kingdom on the inside so that together we can be the kingdom on the outside.

The kingdom influence

Then Jesus told another story: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and hid in a large tub of flour until it made all the dough rise.”

Matthew 13:33 NCV

God’s kingdom is meant to be an influence on the world. When his kingdom takes hold within our hearts, we become the means by which he exercises this influence.

Jesus compares the kingdom to yeast to teach us about “its quiet and secret influence” (see the Pulpit Commentary). The influence of yeast is based on its exponential rate of growth. Consider the fact that human cells divide at a rate of once every 12 hours, while yeast divides once every two hours.

If, in fact, the woman in this parable symbolizes the church, our purpose as a collective body of believers is to spread the yeast of the kingdom. If we are truly people of the kingdom, our permeating influence should equal or exceed the transformative effect of Jesus (John 14:12-13). That transformative effect is change.

The kingdom of change

About that time John the Baptist began preaching in the desert area of Judea. [2] John said, “Change your hearts and lives because the kingdom of heaven is near.”

Matthew 3:1-2 NCV

We can become so preoccupied with our particular church that we can forget this truth: the yeast we are working into the “dough” of the world is the kingdom. Instead of asking whether we meet the human expectations or qualifications of our church, we should be asking ourselves whether we are fulfilling the spiritual vision of Jesus as the kingdom.

The New Century translation is particularly helpful in answering this question because it translates the religiously familiar word ‘repentance’ as ‘change your hearts and lives,’ which is clearer to those unfamiliar with the Bible. It is also a nice cold splash in the face for those of us who could use a fresh look at an old concept.

Instead of asking whether we meet the human expectations or qualifications of our church, we should be asking ourselves whether we are fulfilling the spiritual vision of Jesus as the kingdom.

John the Baptist, who preceded Jesus, was the first to introduce the kingdom to us, and he said, “Change your hearts and lives because the kingdom of heaven is near.” Jesus followed John with the same message in Matthew 4:17 (NCV), then again in Matthew 18:3, where he said, “You must change and become like little children. Otherwise, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

In Mark 1:4 (NCV), Scripture teaches that John preached a “baptism of changed hearts and lives for the forgiveness of sins.” He again preached change in Mark 1:15 (NCV). Finally, in Luke 3:7-9 (NCV), he warned those relying on their religious background or heritage that this new kingdom could only be inherited by those willing to change.

Jesus brought this same message in Luke 5:31-32 (NCV) when he said, “I have not come to invite good people but sinners to change their hearts and lives.” His preaching emphasized transformation:

  • He warned resistant cities (Luke 10:13, Luke 11:32 NCV).
  • He taught that all sins require change—not only the sins we consider particularly scandalous (Luke 13:3,5 NCV).
  • He explained that a changed heart is what fills heaven with joy (Luke 15:10).
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This kingdom message of change continues in the book of Acts without Jesus, where his disciples advanced the kingdom and built his church. In the first gospel sermon, Peter told people to change their hearts and lives and be baptized (Acts 2:38 NCV). We learn from him that this opportunity to change our hearts and lives and have our sins forgiven is the gift of Jesus (Acts 5:31 NCV).

Paul followed Peter with the message of change:

“In the past, people did not understand God, and he ignored this. But now, God tells all people in the world to change their hearts and lives.”

Acts 17:30 NCV

Later, Paul told King Agrippa about his vision from heaven and the purpose for his life:

“I began telling people that they should change their hearts and lives and turn to God and do things to show they really have changed.”

Acts 26:20 NCV

The kingdom of God is a kingdom of change. Those who seek his kingdom must embrace, live, and teach the message of change.

The kingdom Christian

But their minds were closed, and even today that same covering hides the meaning when they read the old agreement. That covering is taken away only through Christ. [15] Even today, when they read the law of Moses, there is a covering over their minds. [16] But when a person changes and follows the Lord, that covering is taken away.

[17] The Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. [18] Our faces, then, are not covered. We all show the Lord’s glory, and we are being changed to be like him. This change in us brings ever greater glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.

2 Corinthians 3:14-18 NCV

Broadly speaking, there are essentially two types of Christians in the Scriptures (Ephesians 2:14-22). One group, like the Pharisees, legalistically measures performance and compares appearance to determine success. The other group travels a more spiritual path, emphasizing their walk with God and the transformative change brought about by the experience. I have been both types, and I can assure you that the latter represents our goal—which is to be kingdom Christians.

For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, [15] by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, [16] and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.

[17] He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. [18] For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.

Ephesians 2:14-18 NIV

Kingdom Christians have removed the superficial coverings of religious tradition, labels, and other status-producing categorizations that blind their minds to the ultimate intention of God, which is transformative change.

This change is not merely about removing the moral failure of sin, but experiencing transformation. It means we literally become a completely different person (Colossians 1:27)—the person hidden beneath the surface whom we know but have been afraid to be (Colossians 3:1-3).

To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.

Colossians 1:27 NIV

Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. [2] Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. [3] For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. [4] When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.

Colossians 3:1-4 NIV

We uncover this person when God digs us out from under three things:

  1. Hardness from the pain of life,
  2. Guilt from the sin of life, and
  3. Hopelessness from the disappointment of life.

This process is usually easier for those without a church history because they don’t come to the kingdom with preconceived notions about the Scriptures, attachment to tradition, or nostalgic memories of times gone by.

Those with a church history often have an outer layer of religiosity covering their hardness, guilt, and hopelessness. This religiosity is an outward performance learned from growing up around churches. These individuals may have perfect attendance at church, but they lack the power to break through and discover the person God means for them to be.

To experience transformative change, those with a church history need a particular type of courage where they look in the mirror of God’s Word not to measure their performance but to find their kingdom destiny. This destiny is buried deep in their heart, yearning to be displayed, full of energy and life, and ready to change the world (James 1:22-25).

What is the importance and urgency of being kingdom Christians? We live in superficial times where problems mount, solutions are shallow, and the failure of humanistic institutions leaves us hopeless and polarized. These are the dark moments when God’s people should shine brightest—not by pointing fingers but by manifesting the unmatched power of God through our lives and churches. When we do this, we can show the world the greatest hope known to man, which is God’s kingdom.

We live in superficial times…these are the dark moments when God’s people should shine brightest.

The kingdom church

We have learned that the kingdom of God is within. Its influence is permeating and exponential, manifested through changed people who change the world. This results in what we call kingdom Christians. These kingdom Christians were the workers Jesus told the apostles to pray for, without which the ripe fields of hearts in need would go untended.

Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. [36] When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. [37] Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. [38] Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.”

Matthew 9:35-38 NIV

When these kingdom Christians gather and unify, we have a kingdom church. This kingdom church is what Jesus desired. He spoke to Peter about this kingdom church in hopes that the vision would pass down from the first generation of believers to those alive today.

Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. [18] And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. [19] I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

Matthew 16:17-19 NIV

The debate around the meaning of “Peter” and “rock” in this passage can sometimes obscure an important truth. Jesus was building the church to represent his kingdom on earth. In this sense, the way we build our church will determine how people see God’s kingdom (Ephesians 3:10-11).

For this reason, every Christian should concern themselves with the spiritual condition of their church. Are we building the kingdom from within the heart of every Christian? Are our lives and message so attractive that we are spreading the transformative, permeating influence of the kingdom? Are we making every effort to live as kingdom Christians and, through the Spirit, being guided into the extraordinary unity which allows Jesus to call us a kingdom church?

These questions and their derivatives should guide us throughout our lives in God’s kingdom. They should fill our hearts and minds with passion and purpose which, flowing into our marriages, families, and friendships, will change the world.

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As the editor in chief for Deep Spirituality, Russ Ewell writes, teaches, and innovates with his eyes on the future. His teaching is rooted in providing hope for those turned off by tradition and infused with vision for building a transformative church. His passion to inspire even the most skeptical to view God through fresh eyes can be found in his book, He's Not Who You Think He Is: Dropping Your Assumptions and Discovering God for Yourself.

The Kingdom of Change 10

As the editor in chief for Deep Spirituality, Russ Ewell writes, teaches, and innovates with his eyes on the future. His teaching is rooted in providing hope for those turned off by tradition and infused with vision for building a transformative church. His passion to inspire even the most skeptical to view God through fresh eyes can be found in his book, He's Not Who You Think He Is: Dropping Your Assumptions and Discovering God for Yourself.

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The Kingdom of Change 11