The Only Way to the Kingdom

When Jesus proclaims that “the kingdom of God has come near” (Mark 1:15), He draws upon a powerful idea that pervades the Hebrew Scriptures and history. There was an expectation in the Hebrew Scriptures that God’s kingdom would catastrophically break into the world. The Scriptures described a figure—the Messiah or Son of Man—who would inaugurate God’s kingdom and bring renewal and change to earth. But even as He proclaimed the kingdom’s arrival, Jesus also offered a radically different understanding of what the kingdom was all about.

To help us understand that, let me offer a quick overview of four other approaches to the hope of God’s kingdom that were prominent in Jesus’ day. I am drawing upon the helpful summary of these approaches in Craig Bartholomew and Michael Goheen’s book The True Story of the Whole World.[1]

  1. The Pharisees – The Pharisees were a religious group deeply concerned about compromising with culture. Because of this they advocated for strong religious separation from pagan corruption and radical obedience to God’s Word. They worked within the existing religious structures, the synagogues, to urge the people to influence culture by being different. The wanted to bring the kingdom by forceful separation.
  2. The Essenes – Like the Pharisees, a second group had a similar desire to be different from the culture but took a very different approach to that. The Essenes withdrew from society, forsaking even the existing religious structures to form entirely separate communities centered on God. It is likely that the area of Qumran, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found, was an Essene community. The wanted to bring the kingdom through withdrawal.
  3. The Zealots – A third group, the Zealots, were furious with the Roman occupation of God’s land. Like the Pharisees, the Zealots called for radical obedience to God’s Word, but took it to another level. They promoted violent revolution against Rome. While the Zealots were not really one organized movement, these groups took their religious commitment frightfully seriously, sparking revolutionary movements against Rome that eventually led to reprisals from Rome, culminating in the  destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. They wanted to bring the kingdom by violence.
  4. The Sadducees – A fourth group was known as the Sadducees. The Sadducees were largely a priestly group responsible for the maintenance of the Temple. They held positions of power with great influence under the Roman occupation, but often made politically compromises with the occupying forces of Rome in order to stabilize the country and maintain their power. They sought to bring hope and God’s kingdom through compromise.

Each of these groups wanted to bring in the hope of God’s kingdom, but they took different approaches toward making that happen: forceful separation, withdrawal, violence, or compromise. Jesus’ approach is distinct from all of these. So let’s examine first what it is that Jesus declares and then what it is that Jesus does.

First, in Luke 4:16-21, Jesus declares that He is the One who fulfills God’s promises in the prophets – the One who is to come and usher in the kingdom. After reading in His hometown synagogue from Isaiah 61, which speaks of the arrival of God’s kingdom, Jesus boldly declares:

“Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:21)

 And when Jesus begins His public ministry, as we have already read in Mark 1:15, He says:

“The time has come…The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15)

This is a bold proclamation—a declaration that something new has come. The only response to such a thing is to repent; that is, turn around, pay attention, and respond to this new reality.

To those holding various other views, such as the Pharisees, the Essenes, the Zealots, and the Sadducees, Jesus essentially says, “Turn away from your current approach. God is doing something new in Me. Turn from your old ways of bringing in God’s kingdom and follow after Me and My way.” Yes, repentance is a turning from sin, but it is also a turning from alternate ways of living and alternate philosophies.

In a world that offers all sorts of philosophies of life, Jesus says there is one philosophy that truly brings in God’s kingdom and reflects God’s kingdom and it only comes from and in Him.


[1] Craig Bartholomew and Michael Goheen, The True Story of the Whole World: Finding your place in the biblical drama (Grand Rapids, MI: Faith Alive Christian Resources, 2009), 102-103.

Can We See and Change Our Blind Spots?: three possibilities for growth

blind spot

One of the greatest challenges for all of us is the reality that we have blind spots in our lives. The concept of the blind spot is probably best known from driving a vehicle. Those of us who took driving classes probably remember the explanation of that space between your peripheral vision and the reflected images of your mirrors that you cannot see. Driver’s education teachers remind everyone to always check their blind spot before changing lanes or merging into traffic. It is relatively easy to resolve blind spots with a quick glance over your shoulder when driving, but much harder to resolve in our lives.

In the larger context of life, blind spots are those aspects of our approach to living, character, or thinking that we simply do not see. Unlike with driving, it is much harder to deal with the blind spots in our larger life context. Why? Because we do not see what we do not see. At least part of the reason for this is that we are too close to our own lives and experiences to see patterns, behaviors, thinking, or speaking that has become second-nature to us.  Because of this, we often discover our blind spots in one of three ways: 1) we smash into them; 2) we have a friend who is close to enough to point them out to us and help us change; or 3) we encounter a different way of thinking or being that confronts us with the need for dramatic change.

The first way of discovering our blind spots is perhaps the most challenging because it causes pain to us and others around us. This painful discovery may sometimes be relatively small, such as the person who realizes their lack of time-consciousness hurts their friendships. At other times it is devastating, such as the person whose serious character flaw causes the end of their marriage, their career, or their friendships. The Apostle Paul had an experience like this. His blinding encounter with the glorified Christ on the road to Damascus ironically opened his eyes to his theological blind spot about the nature of the Christ (see Acts 9:1-19). He was never the same after that painful realization. Like a child who discovers heat is real by putting their hand on a burner, however, we rarely forget our blind spots after encountering pain. It forces us to change whether we want to or not.

Thankfully, this is not the only way to discover our blind spots. We can also learn to see our blind spots through the careful intervention of friends who know us well. When a true friend sees us veering into our blind spots again and again, they will lovingly address that blind spot with us. A friend who loves us does not gloss over difficult things. This is why Scripture tells us: “Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses” (Proverbs 27:6). This is, of course, different than a critic who forces their view of someone’s error upon them without the trust-filled context of friendship. That approach is more like another proverb that tells us “a harsh word stirs up anger” (Proverbs 15:1). To have a friend who gracefully brings a painful but good word about our blind spots paves the way to change. I still can point to various times when good friends—my wife, my roommates in college, an accountability partner, a ministry colleague—have spoken to my about blind spots. Their wisdom and grace helped me to see myself through their eyes; seeing what I could not see so I could grow.

Seeing through another’s eyes is a fitting description of a third way we can deal with our blind spots. We have all likely experienced the striking moment where a flash of insight came to us to about the way things are in the world. When that happens in relation to our own lives, it often shines light upon a blind spot in our lives that needs to be dealt with. This can happen when we hear a message or lecture, read a book, watch a movie, participate in an event, travel to another country, spend time with others unlike us, or participate in personality profiled or self-assessment. The flash of insight that comes through these experiences has the power to change us as our blind spots are illuminated. When I first traveled cross-culturally, I had a powerful revelation about how task-oriented I was in comparison with more relational cultures. While I still tend toward task-orientation, I am at least aware of that tendency, even if I struggle to operate in other ways. The Apostle Peter’s visionary encounter with God on the rooftop of Simon the Tanner is an example of this. This vision opened Peter to his blindness and prepared him for a radical new understanding of and approach to Gentile inclusion in the church (see Acts 10:9-48). The breakthrough brings insight of tendencies that provide the opportunity for change in relation to blind spots we have.

In my own experience, seeing and addressing my blind spots has often come through a combination of the three ways mentioned above. I have sometimes encountered an insight that quickly was paired with either the rebuke of a friend or the pain of smashing into my blind spots. Sometimes a friend’s gracious attempt to point out a blind spot was something I resisted until I read or experienced something that brought that to clarity. My own sense is that it is very difficult to see our blind spots. The moment we think we see them all is the moment we are probably most dangerously blind to something. I have found it sometimes shockingly easy to see others’ blind spots, but difficult to help them see it themselves. Sometimes, I have found that blind spots in others that I turn a critical eye toward often parallel a blind spot in my own life that I see later. Again and again, I return to the final verses of Psalm 139 as a helpful prayer for the revelation of blind spots in my own life:

Search me, God, and know my heart;
test me and know my anxious thoughts.
See if there is any offensive way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.
(Psalm 139:23-24)

July 4th: 4 Considerations for the Church

As we celebrate the independence of our nation, here are four thoughts that we would do well to consider as believers in the United States.

  1. Remember: When we come to July 4th, we remember. We remember our history as a nation; we remember sacrifices given over time; we remember who we are as Americans. The concept of remembering is important. It is important to remember good things, so that we might not take them for granted. It is also important to remember things that are not good, that we might work toward change on them. As an increasingly rootless society with little to no sense of our past, we need to move into the future and face the present in light of our past. Memory is important for us as people. July 4th gives us a time to stand in the living memory of our nation. It is a practice that should be normal for those of us who consider ourselves Christians. As Christians we are called to run the race of life within that “great cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1)—the saints past, present, and future who have gone before us. We need to remember who we are.
  2. We Are Citizen Exiles: As we live on earth, we are legally citizens of specific nations and states. I am a citizen of the United States of America. I am thankful for the many benefits I enjoy as a citizen of this country, while also recognizing the shortcomings of our country. I work for change where it is needed, and I also savor what is good. However, as the Apostle Peter wrote in his first epistle, we are “aliens and strangers in the world” (1 Peter 2:11). Even though we are legally citizens of certain countries on earth, we will never truly belong here. Because the great confession of the Christian faith is “Jesus is Lord” (Romans 10:9), we also remember, as Paul writes elsewhere, that “our citizenship is in heaven” (Philippians 3:20).  So, as we mark this holiday with fellow citizens of the United States, we do well to also remember to live in the tension as citizens of heaven whose primary allegiance is to King Jesus and ultimate home is in the presence of God.
  3. Seek the Common Good: When the prophet Jeremiah wrote to the exiled Israelites in Babylon, he gave these instructions: “Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper” (Jeremiah 29:7). Although we are citizen-exiles, we exist here for God’s glory by seeking the common good of the city and nation in which we live. We do not belong here, but we must steward our lives here to the glory of God and the benefit of those around us. Our nation, the United States of America, is the place where God has ‘exiled’ those of us who are citizens of it. We honor God when we seek the common good of this place. The common good is developed by recognizing the benefits and shortcomings of this nation, and seeking to bring them to all equitably. We fail to honor God when we seek only our own benefit and not the benefit of releasing the resources God has given us into the community around us.
  4. Celebrate True Freedom: As we mark the freedom we enjoy as a self-governing democracy in this nation, we must simultaneously not lose sight of the fact that political freedoms—even freedom of religion—cannot compare to the true freedom that we experience as followers of Christ. Paul writes to the Galatian church, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free” (Galatians 5:1). Paul is speaking to that early gathering of believers about the essential spiritual freedom we experience through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. While many of the early disciples and contemporaries of Jesus expected Him to institute a new earthly kingdom, He instead started a revolutionary movement of living free with God in the fully available Kingdom of God. Any celebration of freedom within our nation is small compared to the boisterous celebration of freedom available in Jesus Christ for now and unto eternity.

The Significance of Jesus’ Ascension

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Edward Bolwell, ascension day, Acrylic Paint on MDF Board; 2017

Yesterday was Ascension Day, when celebrate the ascension of Jesus to the Father in heaven after His resurrection from death (Luke 24:49-51; Mark 16:19; Acts 1:3-10). I believe the ascension is one of the most-neglected aspects of the life of Jesus with greater significance for our life with God as disciples of Jesus than we usually realize.

I wrote three posts in 2018 about the importance of the ascension for our faith because of Jesus’ reign as King, Jesus’ mediation eternally, and Jesus’ future return in glory, and would encourage you to join me in considering the significance of Jesus’ ascension.

Read them here:

Living Out the Dream: 3rd Annual Martin Luther King, Jr., Day Celebration

Milwaukee Declaration Event 2020_Lobby

Join us on Monday night at 6:30 PM for the 3rd annual Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Day Celebration sponsored by The Milwaukee Declaration and hosted at Eastbrook Church. We will have a worship service led by multiple churches and pastors as we stand together across racial divides in our city for the goal of racial reconstruction in Milwaukee.

Find out more and get connected to this movement at The Milwaukee Declaration Facebook page or web-site.

Also, listen to Dr. King’s statement from many years ago about the need to stand together as God’s people.