Characteristics of Kingdom Members

By J. C. Wenger

1. Regeneration. Turning back again to the teaching of Jesus Himself let us note the characteristics of those who hold membership in the kingdom which Jesus proclaimed and of which He is the spiritual head. First of all we must note that the New Testament places a far greater emphasis on the depravity of man by virtue of being a descendant of Adam, who fell into sin, than does the Old Testament. The classic passage on this subject is found in the third chapter of John's Gospel on the occasion when Jesus was visited by Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. Jesus told him: 

Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except one be born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God. Nicodemus saith unto him, How can a man be born when he is old? can he enter a second time into his mother's womb, and be born? Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except one be born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born anew (John 3:3-7). 

The Saviour here teaches that unless one has experienced a supernatural work of grace accompanied by the infusion of new life from God into the soul he cannot even see, much less enter, the kingdom. According to Christ what men need is not merely a good example or new teaching, but regeneration. The natural man is thoroughly contaminated by sin so that, to use the language of old, "every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually" (Gen. 6:5). "For out of the heart come forth evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, rallings" (Matt. 15:19).

2. Meekness and Love. The most extended discussion on the kingdom of Christ and on the conditions which He lays down for membership in His kingdom is that found in the Sermon on the Mount in chapters 5 to 7 of the Gospel according to Matthew. Jesus begins this great discourse with a series of Beatitudes (Matt. 5:3-12). many of which seem completely paradoxical. "Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." In other words, in complete contrast with the kingdoms of this world, in which men rise to power on the basis of self-aggrandizement and by the use of shrewdness and power, Jesus declares that those belong to the kingdom of heaven who are aware of their own ed. Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth." Once again we have exactly the opposite situation obtaining from that of the kingdoms of this world. "Blessed are they that have been persecuted for righteousness' sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." In other words, membership in the kingdom is normally attended by the hatred of the of this world, those who reject God and His will for their lives.

"Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost its savor, where-shall it be salted? it is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast and trodden under foot of men (Matt. 5:13). In this vigorous figure Jesus likens sin which is in the world to a deadly cancer which is eating at the vitals of society. Christians, on the other hand--those who are members of the kingdom, who exhibit the character of God, and who live in conformity with His nature and will--act as a preserving factor in society. Human society, apart from the influence of the saints of God, falls into and ultimately perishes by bringing the judgment of its own sin upon itself. The world in the time of Noah (Gen. 6-8) and Sodom in Lot's day (Gen. 18, 19) are illustrations of the self-destroying nature of sin in human society. Members of the kingdom, being men of good will, of humility, of meekness, of hungering and thirsting after righteousness, of mercy, of purity of heart; being peacemakers, act as the preserving agents in human society.

In a similar positive way Jesus compares the members of His kingdom to a great light (Matt. 514). In this figure darkness becomes a symbol of sin and of ignorance. Light, on the other hand, illuminates the pathway (cf. Prov. 4:18), that is, it reveals to mankind God's will and His nature. Jesus concludes saying: "Even so let your light shine before men: that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven" (Matt. 5:16).

3. Intensified Old Testament Virtues. Jesus regarded the Old Testament as the very Word of God. On one occasion He declared that the Scripture could not be broken (John 10:35). For Him the Scriptures of the Old Testament were completely authoritative, containing the great fundamental truths upon which He was to build His own teaching program. In a long section, beginning with Matthew 5:21 and continuing to the end of the chapter, Jesus discusses His relationship to the Old Testament. He declares first of all that the Old Testament was eternally true. "Think not that I came to destroy the law or the prophets: I came not to destroy, but to fulfil. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass away from the law, till all things be accomplished" (Matt. 5:17-18). How then did Jesus fulfill the Old Testament? He did it by taking its essential moral principles and spiritual truths and building squarely upon them. It is also true that Jesus gave an even more perfect revelation of the will of God than that found in the Old Testament. For the Old Testament as Jesus Himself indicated also contained, in addition to its eternal truths, temporary concessions to the spiritual immaturity of Israel. These temporary concessions He of course abolished.

In Matthew 5 Jesus gives five illustrations of how He fulfilled the law. First He tells us that the Old Testament forbade all killing. Not did Jesus reaffirm the principle of the sixth commandment of Exodus 20, but He made two extensions of this great principle. The first is

that any activity or attitude which indicates a degree of hatred is also one in kind with the sin of taking human life. He therefore warns against anger as leading to a Jewish court, against calling a man a blockhead ("Raca." a term of contempt.) as leading to the Jewish Sanhedrin; and against calling a man a fool, destined to perish eternally (A term of condemnation is here employed.), Jesus warned of the Gehenna of fire. His second extension of the principle of not taking human life is that one should go out of his way to effect a reconciliation with the one who has been injured. And, declared Jesus, prudence teaches the same principle of love and forgiveness (v. 25). While the kingdoms of this world ask their subjects to take human life judicially and in warfare, Jesus in teaching nonconformity demands of His followers that they shall take an attitude of love toward all, and suffer rather than do wrong, rather than take life.

The second illustration of the relationship of Jesus to the Old Testament is in the case of the seventh commandment, which Jesus vigorously reaffirmed (Matt. 5:27-30). He declared that the lustful gaze in which one sins in imagination is just as truly sin as the overt act. Furthermore, said Jesus, in His kingdom rigorous self-discipline is required He demands it. And once more, prudence teaches the same principle: It is better to suffer a little now than to suffer much hereafter. How far the standards of Jesus are above those of human society as a whole!

The third illustration of the relationship of Jesus to the Old Testament is in the matter of divorce and remarriage (Matt. 5:31-32). Jesus said that one might dismiss his wife only for infidelity to the marriage [i.e. engagement, cf. vv. 19-20, LMH] vows. Loose dismissals, Jesus declared, are not recognized by, God, hence the dismissed wife is an adulteress in her second marriage union, and the second husband is also an adulterer because the woman's first marriage still holds in the sight of God. America today stands deeply in need of this emphatic and clear teaching of the Lord Jesus. And Christians as members of Christ's spiritual kingdom need to remind themselves of the high standard held before us by the Lord Jesus, the violation of which standard is sin.

In the fourth place the Old Testament had commanded Israel to swear true oaths only (Matt. 5:33-37). Christ extended this Old Testament limitation to all oaths: "But I say unto you, Swear not at all; neither by the heaven, for it is the throne of God; nor by the earth, for it is the footstool of his feet; nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. Neither shalt thou swear by thy head, for thou canst not make one hair white or black. But let your speech be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: and whatsoever is more than these is of the evil one." Swearing, declared Jesus, is inconsistent with a recognition of our finite creaturehood. How then shall speak? Always with verity!

The fifth illustration which Jesus gives of His relationship to the Old Testament is the matter of legal retaliation (Matt. 5:38-42). The Old Testament allowed only legal retaliation, not personal. This is clearly described in Exodus 21 and 22. Judges were to impose the same penalty on criminals for a given injury, regardless of the economic or social status of the individual who had done the wrong. Christ extended this prohibition against personal retaliation to all resistance and all retaliation. We shall, says He, suffer wrong rather than retaliate. We shall not fight for our property; we shall go even beyond an unreasonable demand. We shall be indulgent to those who make requests of us. Because only thus is it possible to help the selfish sinner; only thus can one witness to the nature of God within one; only thus can one awaken the sleeping conscience of him who does wrong.

By way of summary Jesus pleaded for perfect love (Matt. 5:43-48). The Old Testament, it is true, required the Israelites to love their neighbors (Lev. 19:18), but it also allowed hatred for national enemies (Deut. 7:1-5). Jesus extended this principle of the neighbor even to the enemy and said that those who belong to His kingdom shall pray for their persecutors, because only thus can they be like God. God gives His showers of natural blessings upon those who love Him and upon those who hate Him. Furthermore, returning love in kind is not above the natural; unregenerated sinners do that. Greeting friends also is only natural; even heathen do that. But the followers of Jesus shall be perfect in love even as God is perfect. Love seeks the welfare of its object even to the point of self-sacrifice, whereas hatred willfully harms its object. "Ye therefore shall be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect." And the perfection here spoken of is a perfection of love.

4. Sacrificial Stewardship. In the Pentateuch various regulations are found which were to keep Israel aware of the fact that what they possessed was not their own but that it all belonged to God. We find the teaching of Jesus regarding earthly possessions even more radical than those given by the Lord to Israel of old. This teaching is found in Matthew 6. Jesus says: "Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon the earth, where moth and rust consume where thieves break through and steal: but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth consume, and where thieves do not break through nor steal: for where thy treasure is, there will thy heart be also" (Matt. 6:19-21). Jesus is saying absolutely that Christians shall not live to hoard money. Even prudence is against this, says Jesus. "For where thy treasure is there will thy heart be also." That is, that upon which you concentrate will captivate your very heart. It will take first place in your life. Money enslaves the miser. Furthermore, in order to be a follower of Jesus it is necessary to have singleness of purpose, and money and God are absolutely incompatible as masters. Those who seek wealth, those who live for money, starve spiritually. Wealth-seeking really means seeking for power and security, and Christians rely for their power and their security not upon money but upon God.

Not only is it wrong, however, to hoard up money (***). Christians in a positive way shall in simple trust rely upon God to supply the natural blessings which the need. God cares for even the birds, says Jesus. God gives us stature (or perhaps length of life; the Greek term is rather ambiguous). God will also supply our clothing and our food. In place of worry the follower of Jesus is to pray. "Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: for every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened. . . . If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father who is in heaven give good things to them that ask him? (Matt. 7:7, 8, 11). But Jesus immediately hastens to add that in order to be God's children men must treat others with love as does God. "All things therefore whatsoever ye would that men should do unto you, even so do ye also unto them: for is the law and the prophets" (Matt. 7:12).

 [***Oriental prohibitions and commandments are often stated without qualification, even when not meant in an absolute sense. Hence we must employ the Scriptures a whole to interpret a given statement. In this case, cf. II Cor. 12 :14 and I Tim. 6:7-19.]

 5. Christian Freedom. As a Jew, Jew, Jesus undoubtedly wore Jewish clothing, observed the Jewish holy days, and ate Jewish food. And yet the following incident from the Gospel story illustrates the insignificant assigned by Jesus to the ceremonial law of Mosaism. 

And there are gathered together unto him the Pharisees, and certain of scribes, who had come down from Jerusalem, and had seen that some of disciples ate their bread with defiled, that is, unwashen, hands . . . . And the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, Why walk not thy disciples according to the tradition of the elders, but eat their bread with defiled hands? And he said unto them, Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written:

This people honoreth me with their lips,

But their heart is far from me.

But in vain do they worship me,

Teaching as their doctrines the precepts of men.

Ye leave the commandment of God, and hold fast the tradition of men. And he said unto them, Full well do ye reject the commandment of God, that ye may keep your tradition  .   .  . And he called to him the multitude again, and said unto them, Hear me all of you, and understand: there is nothing from without the man, that going into him can defile him; but the things which proceed out of man are those that defile the man. And when he was entered into the house from the multitude, his disciples asked of him the parable. And he saith unto them, Are ye so without understanding also? Perceive ye not, that whatsoever from without goeth into the man, it cannot defile him; because it goeth not into his heart, but into his belly, and goeth out into the draught. This he said, making all meats clean. And he said, That which proceedeth out of the man, that defileth the man. For from within, out of the heart of men, evil thoughts proceed, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, covetings, wickedness, deceit, lasciviousness, an evil eye, railing, pride, foolishness: all these evil things proceed from within, and defile the man (Mark 7:1-23). 

The immediate occasion for this discussion was not the law of Moses but the oral tradition which had grown up around the law in the period before Christ. However, in answering the objection of the critics, Jesus went beyond the oral tradition to the great fundamental truth that ceremonial defilement is not the significant thing in the sight of God but the moral defilement which springs from an evil heart. And the Gospel writer specifically declares in verse 19 that the saying of Jesus on this occasion had declared all foods to be religiously edible. As will be noted later, in the teaching of the New Testament epistles, this point receives abundant confirmation by the apostolic writers.

By the way of summary then, the nonconformity to sinful men which Jesus teaches in the Sermon on the Mount could be contrasted with the attitude taken by those who belong to the kingdom of darkness in this way: Those who belong to Satan's kingdom take human life; they break the seventh commandment; they divorce their life companions and remarry at their pleasure; they swear oaths; they retaliate both by the use of physical force and by resorting to courts of law; and they live for money and pleasure. On the other hand, those who belong to the kingdom of God and of Christ seek not even to be angry with their brother; they strive for purity of mind and of life; they are faithful to their life companions; in a simple straightforward way they give a strict statement of the truth without swearing; they offer no resistance to those who abuse them; and they take no measures of retaliation. They seek to be perfect in love because their Father in heaven is a God of love and they want to be like Him. One could summarize the demands of Jesus for the members of His kingdom as found in Matthew 6:38: "Seek ye first his kingdom, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you." In other words, Christians put the kingdom first in their life, and they seek for the righteousness of God.


From Separated Unto God, by J. C. Wenger, pp. 24-31. Copyright 1951 by Herald Press, Scottdale, Pennsylvania. Renewed 1990, by Sword and Trumpet, Harrisonburg, Virginia.

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June 22, 2000