According to Matthew, Jesus begins his ministry with eight simple words: “Repent, for the kingdom of God is near.” These eight words turned the world upside down! With these words, Jesus inaugurated the kingdom of God. The implications of this proclamation are so far-reaching that the rest of Matthew’s gospel account is designed to explain what all this means, through teachings from Jesus.
The Bible tells us we’re citizens of God’s kingdom, and Jesus is the King. Ephesians 2:19-20 says:
So now you Gentiles are no longer strangers and foreigners. You are citizens along with all of God’s holy people. You are members of God’s family. Together, we are his house, built on the foundation of the apostles and the prophets. And the cornerstone is Christ Jesus himself.”
Meanwhile, as we build up God’s Kingdom here on earth, Jesus’ followers are also promised citizenship in his perfect kingdom in heaven:
But we are citizens of heaven, where the Lord Jesus Christ lives. And we are eagerly waiting for him to return as our Savior. He will take our weak mortal bodies and change them into glorious bodies like his own, using the same power with which he will bring everything under his control” (Philippians 3:20-21).
As we work to grow and nurture God’s Kingdom here on earth, we’re charged with modeling kingdom-style living for young people as we remind them where their true citizenship—their true loyalty—lies.
The Jewish religious leaders thought they were the righteous ones, the people who were to inherit the kingdom of God. Ironically, however, they’re the furthest from the kingdom. They misunderstand one important thing: Righteousness depends one’s recognizing Jesus for who he really is, the King.
Once, on being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, ‘The kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, “Here it is,” or “There it is,” because the kingdom of God is in your midst’ ” (Luke 17:20-21, NIV).
We do not enter into the kingdom of God by “careful observation” of God’s principles—the kingdom is not something outside of us that we apply to our lives. It is the lifeblood of the Vine, and only the grafted-in branches share in it.
Scholars have identified five discourses, or sermons, in Matthew’s Gospel that serve as the center of Jesus’ teachings about the kingdom of God:
- Matthew 5:1–7:29—Living As Kingdom Citizens [Key verses: 5:13-15]
- Matthew 10:1-40—The Difficult Mission [Key verses: 10:37-39]
- Matthew 13:1-52—Authentic Faith [Key verse: 13:23]
- Matthew 18:1-35—A Selfless Life [Key verse: 18:4]
- Matthew 24—The End Times (ym-pedia Heaven) [Key verses: 42-44]
Jesus doesn’t sugarcoat the trials and tribulations his followers will face as citizens of his kingdom. But he assures us that he’ll reign as our King from beginning to end. Our faith is built on the rock-solid assurance that Jesus—our King—is also the King of all human history.
I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End” (Revelation 22:13).
Jesus is still King when our personal lives get turned upside down. He’s still King when world events become frightening, horrifying, or even hellish. And he’s still King even when the heavens and the earth pass away. Jesus’ words—his Truth—will never pass away.
As children of the King, Jesus’ followers are heirs of his kingdom. If you were a king or queen and someone professed allegiance to your throne, they’d take on the virtues, ideals, and laws of your kingdom. When Jesus came to earth, he came as a king, inaugurating his kingdom.
But Jesus’ kingdom is different than any other in history. It doesn’t exist within geographical borders, languages, or ethnic groups. It’s international, unseen, and revolutionary. Jesus’ kingdom exists within people.
If a person believes that Jesus is the Son of God—as the Old Testament prophets, the New Testament witnesses, and Jesus himself all claim—then that person must commit wholly to Jesus, his kingdom, and his teachings. We are called to belong to Jesus. To be a citizen of his kingdom. To name him as our king.
That royal heritage comes with both freedoms and responsibilities. To enjoy the freedoms, we must take on the responsibilities. If we call ourselves children of God, we should act like children of God.
Sometimes being a citizen of God’s kingdom feels great. Other times, we may feel out of place. We don’t speak the same “language.” Our citizenship isn’t recognized. Our “home country” isn’t even recognized. Our true identities go unnoticed and our values go ignored. Being a citizen of God’s kingdom can feel isolating and uncertain. We don’t quite fit. We feel both homeless and homesick.
First Peter 1:17 refers to Jesus’ followers as “temporary residents.” A few verses later we read:
Dear friends, I warn you as “temporary residents and foreigners” to keep away from worldly desires that wage war against your very souls” (1 Peter 2:11).
Living this dichotomy, being citizens of God’s kingdom who are waiting for his heavenly kingdom to come, is challenging. While living in the world, Jesus’ followers are called to not be of the world. Christians don’t belong to this world any more than Jesus did (see John 17:16). That’s why it’s important to teach kids to question everything they take in (including Christian stuff).
Jesus often used a formal critical-thinking rhythm to expose the “plausibility structures” that were popular in ancient Palestine: “You have heard it said that [fill in something that’s passed off as the ‘truth’ in the culture], but I say [fill in a truth that Jesus reveals about the kingdom of God].” He’s showing his followers how to push back against lazy thinking and silly beliefs. Contrary to popular assumptions, Jesus isn’t an anti-intellectual. In fact, he’s challenged us to maximize our minds in our pursuit of him, and in the way we live our lives for him. “The Jesus Pushback” (from the book The Jesus-Centered Life, by Rick Lawrence is a critical-thinking skill that will help us get inside the skin of Jesus—to think like he thinks about the influences that are exerting leverage on us. In it, we simply use the framework Jesus has already given us: “You have heard it said…, but I say…” to compare and contrast the common beliefs and conventional wisdoms of our culture. To start, we drag commonly accepted “truths” in our culture into the light, then match them with a kingdom-of-God truth that Jesus revealed.
Train kids to think critically instead of passively taking in the messages in their culture. It’s just like reading the nutrition information on food products. You can use literally anything in popular culture to spur critical-thinking conversations with your teenagers. Soon, when kids are driving alone in their car, they’ll hear something and a little voice inside will ask, Is that really true? When that happens, you’ll have helped change the way they engage with their culture and opened up a new, deeply relevant phase in their relationship with Jesus, as citizens of his kingdom.
Somewhere in the middle of the 20th century, the church (ym-pedia Church) decided that the business world was the “older brother” we most wanted to be like. So we toddled after the models and strategies and formulas our “big brother” was peddling to business leaders as the keys to success, mimicking them in the awkward way little brothers and sisters do.
For stretches of time, it seemed like we could really pull off the impersonation—a lot of the business-strategy ideas seemed like a perfect fit for church ministry, and some of them even seemed to “work.” We “moved our cheese,” evangelized the “seven habits,” spurred “good to great” cultures, morphed ourselves to attract “raving fans,” and even got a little naughty and “broke all the rules.”
But it’s now clear that the Kingdom of God described by Jesus looks very little like a Fortune 500 company. Instead, Jesus almost always revealed the Kingdom of God using the metaphor of botany, not business. We are “dying branches,” he is the “True Vine” (John 15). Truth is like a seed planted in the soil, and “all by itself the soil produces grain” (Mark 4:28). And God’s kingdom is like a tiny seed that, when planted, “grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants” (Mark 4:32).
But there’s still some gold to mine in the business world analogy. An article from Fortune Magazine, written by business guru Verne Harnish, is a treatise on the ways “gazelle” firms have spurred rapid growth. We can extract a Kingdom-of-God truth from each one:
1. Get an edge—Harnish says “gazelle” companies “find an underlying advantage of 10 to 30 times over the competition.” He recommends studying the biggest “cost and time constraints” in your market, then challenging conventional thinking about those constraints.
Kingdom-of-God truth—What are the biggest constraints we face in youth ministry? Two are: Kids’ busyness and a lack of parental involvement in discipling their own children. Challenging the conventional thinking in these two areas might mean ditching a traditional “come to us” ministry model for a “go to them” model, and making it a priority (instead of a difficult add-on) to find ways to serve and disciple parents.
2. Hyperfocus—“Align the entire company around a single measurable priority,” says Harnish. Narrow your focus to an overarching mission.
Kingdom-of-God truth—The “measurable priority” for every youth ministry, everywhere, should be something Ned Erickson calls The Progression:
Get to know Jesus well, because the more you know him, the more you’ll love him, and the more you love him, the more you’ll want to follow him, and the more you follow him, the more you’ll become like him, and the more you become like him, the more you become yourself.”
3. Control your cash—Because growth can siphon away your resources, Harnish says leaders should “construct a business model that fuels your growth without the need of outside capital.”
Kingdom-of-God truth—The “capital” of youth ministry is volunteer leaders—are you recruiting adult leaders as if your group will double in size this year?
4. Write!—The way to capture the attention of potential customers, says Harnish, is to “flood the digital market space with blogs, white papers, YouTube videos, and Twitter messages that align with [your distinct message].”
Kingdom-of-God truth—When it comes to communication, saturation pushes the tipping point. Jesus used preaching (less than we do), parables, experiences, miracles, and modeling to saturate his disciples. What’s your saturation level in these areas?
5. Pulse faster—Businesses that grow faster than the norm have leadership teams that connect much more often than the norm. “The executive teams of the fastest-moving companies huddle daily, as if in constant crisis mode,” says Harnish.
Kingdom-of-God truth—Simply, the more often you connect with your leaders, the more vibrant your ministry will be. It was true of the early believers: “They all joined together constantly in prayer…” (Acts 1:14) and “All the believers were together and had everything in common” (Acts 2:44).
If you feel stagnant and want to do “more” for God’s kingdom, here are some tips for positioning yourself for advancement:
- Find some roomy luggage and crawl in. Right after appointing Saul king, Samuel wanted all the tribes of Israel to march before Saul—kind of like an inaugural parade. Problem was, no one could find the new monarch! Finally he was discovered hiding in some luggage. At this point in Saul’s career, he apparently didn’t seek out the spotlight; in fact, he purposefully avoided it. First Peter 5:6 says, “Humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you at the proper time” (NASB). Jesus wants to promote you; he just doesn’t want you to promote you!
- Keep the surrounding toilets clean. Stay faithful in the little, unglamorous things. Jesus doesn’t want to advance you to fifth grade before you’ve genuinely passed the fourth. He’s pretty candid: “Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much” (Luke 16:10, NIV). It’s a head-shaking moment when a youth leader talks about wanting to run a large ministry. If you aren’t faithful with a ministry of 10 teenagers, how do you expect the Lord to entrust you with a ministry of 100?
- No matter how busy your schedule, plan regular “Arabias.” Right after the Apostle Paul was tagged by Jesus on the road to Damascus, he went alone with the Lord to Arabia. Galatians 1:16-17 chronicles this important choice. So when we get away from life’s normal routine to seek the Lord for ourselves, we call that an Arabia. Sometimes it’s only for an hour. Other times it stretches to several days. Our role in the kingdom isn’t nearly as important as personal closeness with the Boss himself. Churches today seem to consider talent to be an amazing substitute for genuine anointing. But if we’re interested in kingdom-style advancement, Jesus still prioritizes character over charisma.
This isn’t exactly Fortune 500 advice. But then again, Christ didn’t seem too impressed by the big-money guys anyway. After all, he pushed over their tables as he left the temple.
Many of us use “excellence” as our ministry standard in ministry, with the best of intentions. Our thinking is based loosely on Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 10:31: “So whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.” Surely that’s the critical-biblical mass we need to do things “with excellence,” right?
Maybe. But maybe not—especially if our definition of “excellence” is mistaken. As you work and live in God’s kingdom—and raise up kingdom citizens—remember:
- Excellence isn’t the same as perfection—If you’re a perfectionist, this reminder is well-worth repeating. Perfectionism is a personal standard, attitude, or philosophy that demands complete success or conformity, and rejects anything less. God doesn’t place this expectation on us, so we shouldn’t place it on ourselves. When we read in the Bible about God’s admonishment that we be “holy” and “perfect,” the meaning is “completeness”—it’s related to God’s sense of shalom (peace), not a moral expectation.
- Excellence doesn’t simply mean doing your best or working hard or giving your all or making an effort worthy of God—Of course, when we do something “with excellence,” these very-American concepts come into play, but it’s so much more than that. If excellence is limited to this performance-based understanding, we’ve effectively eliminated trusting God from our plans and processes. If all that’s required of me for excellence is that I do my best or I work hard or I give my all or even I make an effort worthy of God, I’ve reduced God to a distant monarch who must be placated instead of a loving Father who wants to be in relationship with me.
So, what is a biblical understanding of excellence?
The literal meaning of “excellence” is “a throwing beyond or above.” In addition to “excellence,” the Hebrew and Greek words are also translated as “extraordinary,” “surpassing,” “beyond measure,” and “excess.” The Greek word for “excellence” has the same root as our English word “hyperbole.” The gist of the word communicates that something is “more than”—a perfect nuance which leaves room for the supernatural intervention of God. If we limit our understanding of excellence to our best human efforts, we are not leaving room for the “more than” of God’s involvement.
Here’s what an aerial view of the 21st-century church looks like. Keep these characteristics in mind as you work in and for God’s kingdom:
- The dialects of eternal love. The Chinese Language has seven major dialects, with scores of sub-dialects. Similarly, there are many forms of “church.” No one expression of church is more sacred or less sacred. The many expressions and forms of church are not cause for worry or division—it’s an expansive and diverse church that is more dynamic and beautiful than ever.
- The omnipresent church. Church is happening everywhere—schools, coffee shops, homes, parks, theaters, and even bars! There are traditional, home, conversation-based, and social-service-based churches. This diversity is a home run—it makes us more like God, who is omnipresent. If we’re going to introduce people to Jesus, we must be everywhere at once. We can’t be bound to one place or one way—we’re bound only to one God. (See example here).
- The transcending of time and space. Church isn’t something we do every Sunday morning. We don’t go to church; we are the Church. Being rather than going means we transcend time and space. Wherever believers glorify God in their workplace, we are being the church. Wherever believers have conversations about life and faith without judging or condemning, we are being the church. Wherever believers serve their neighbors and love them well, we are being the church. Church is not a tradition, a place, a time, a denomination, or a gathering. Church is the body of believers inviting God’s children into a loving relationship with God.
- The primacy of the Bride of Christ. The Church is the Bride of Christ, and this symbolism means we’re closest to him. Therefore, we are to love his children, especially the children who do not yet trust in him. We love them as our own children—caring for them and meeting their needs. My friends’ parent differently than I do, but they are loving and caring for their children as much as I care for mine. The church is expressing God’s love in beautiful, extravagant, new ways.