The Inverse Kingdom
“It will be said on that day,
‘Behold, this is our God;
we have waited for him, that he might save us.
This is the Lord; we have waited for him;
let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.’” (Isaiah 25:9)
Last week, when a newly met Christian guest was leaving our home for the airport, I wished her a safe, peaceful, and uneventful trip home. She unexpectedly responded: “When any of my boys leave to go somewhere I wish them an eventful time. I want them to be challenged and stretched by their experiences. I love to see how they respond and how God works to shape them toward their potential.”
Wow! That’s not the usual mom-sendoff. It’s not our “normal” human attitude either. Generally, I wish challenges away rather than embracing them—for myself and even more for my loved ones. As another friend said, “You don’t have to wish difficulties on anyone; life will bring them.” (Life? Or God? We’ll come back to this.) Lately, I’ve been feeling especially weary of hard things and even anxious about facing those I know are coming.
As our guest was heading out the door, I hadn’t anticipated her parting response to my well wishes. She wasn’t a boisterous, showy kind of person, who was just putting something out there to possibly impress us. It gave me pause.
Through what she had shared of her story (because we asked), we had already seen she has a passionate love for her boys and others. The way she has obviously delighted in being “there” with and for them was part of the evidence of her love.
At the same time, we saw that though she has been passionate, she has also tempered her passion with something else—surrender to God’s will. Through the way she’s lived, she’s shown herself to be a humble, patient soul who’s been willing to watch and wait in full submission to God’s will, and a bold soul, who’s unabashedly practiced real faith in the better outcomes God has promised.
Along with these characteristics, I had to admire the additional courage reflected in her parting words. Her attitude toward life’s challenges increased my liking and respect for her even more.
Submission and courage. These are usually seen as opposites.
If nothing else, Jesus, whom I admire and want to follow above all, showed His ways and His kingdom to be unexpected. His way is generally one of contrast with the world’s (human) understanding and systems. Yet, it’s a way of balance or right-timing that reconciles seeming opposites like submission and courage.
Jesus taught things like: “Whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it” (Mark 8:35).
And: “Those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Matthew 23:12).
Also “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34–35); and, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26).
In contrast to the world’s governing systems:
Jesus called [His disciples] together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:25–28)
He reiterated this teaching by poignant example before His false arrest, crucifixion, and death (See: John 13:3–5, 12–17).
The supreme antithesis is that through Jesus’ death, we can live forever. Somehow, justice and mercy are both fully met in Him through His substitutionary atonement for us. As the Apostle Paul declared to the Romans: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23), so on our behalf, Jesus “was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification” (Romans 4:25).
By God’s Spirit, Isaiah foresaw the unexpected, the inverse of what people would expect, encompassed in the Anointed One (Messiah, Christ), Jesus, the primary Servant God would send—so many opposites:
See, my servant will act wisely;
he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted.
Just as there were many who were appalled at him—
his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any human being
and his form marred beyond human likeness—
so he will sprinkle many nations,
and kings will shut their mouths because of him...
Who has believed our message
and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?...
He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,
nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by mankind,
a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.
Like one from whom people hide their faces
he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.
Surely he took up our pain
and bore our suffering,
yet we considered him punished by God,
stricken by him, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
and by his wounds we are healed...
He was oppressed and afflicted,
yet he did not open his mouth;
he was led like a lamb to the slaughter,
and as a sheep before its shearers is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.
By oppression and judgment he was taken away.
Yet who of his generation protested?
For he was cut off from the land of the living;
for the transgression of my people he was punished.
He was assigned a grave with the wicked,
and with the rich in his death,
though he had done no violence,
nor was any deceit in his mouth.
Yet...though the Lord makes his life an offering for sin,
he will see his offspring and prolong his days,
and the will of the Lord will prosper in his hand.
After he has suffered,
he will see the light of life and be satisfied;
by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many,
and he will bear their iniquities.
Therefore I will give him a portion among the great,
and he will divide the spoils with the strong,
because he poured out his life unto death,
and was numbered with the transgressors.
For he bore the sin of many,
and made intercession for the transgressors. (Isaiah 52:13–15; 53)
Instead of coming to free His people as a militant political leader—as expected—Jesus came to die for us to free us from the greater, more binding oppression of sin by reconciling us to God—“the God who gives life to the dead and calls into being things that were not” (Romans 4:17c).
Jesus taught another unexpected word, concerning the works He was doing on earth and would do, including going to the cross for us. When the people “...asked him, ‘What must we do to do the works God requires?’
Jesus answered, ‘The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent’” (John 6:28–29). Earlier Jesus had taught this same thing to “a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council,” who had come to Him at night.
Nicodemus said to Him:
“Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”
Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”
“How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”
Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”
“How can this be?” Nicodemus asked.
“You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things? Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man. Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up [on the cross], that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. (John 3:1–18)
On this same theme, the Apostle Paul later reminded the Romans about what the Scriptures say in Genesis (15:6) and a Psalm of David (32:1–2): “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and,
“Blessed are those
whose transgressions are forgiven,
whose sins are covered.
Blessed is the one
whose sin the Lord will never count against them.”
Paul reiterated that David was speaking “of the blessedness of the one to whom God credits righteousness apart from works” (Romans 4:6). And about Abraham, he went on to explain:
Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed and so became the father of many nations, just as it had been said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” Without weakening in his faith, he faced the fact that his body was as good as dead—since he was about a hundred years old—and that Sarah’s womb was also dead. Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised. This is why “it was credited to him as righteousness.” The words “it was credited to him” were written not for him alone, but also for us, to whom God will credit righteousness—for us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification.
Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand...And...God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us [because of this grace].
You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 4:18–25; 5:1–2, 5–8)
“Just believing” seemed like a contradiction to the Jewish leaders and many people of both Jesus’ and Paul’s time (and many religious leaders and people of our time), who were certain that a person had to earn salvation or eternal life with God through their own works. They thought they could have life through obeying the Law of God—imagining they could obey it.
The Lord did set before them, and us, a choice between “life and prosperity [or] death and destruction” (Deuteronomy 30:15). The difference between these two extreme ends was, and is, determined by their, and our, obedience to the Law. In ancient times—but at the same time, speaking to us today (along with all succeeding generations)—through Moses, after the Lord gave the Law, He said: “This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live” (Deuteronomy 30:19). He also reiterated He will respect, or in other words enforce, our choice: “See now that I myself am he! There is no god besides me. I put to death and I bring to life, I have wounded and I will heal, and no one can deliver out of my hand” (Deuteronomy 32:39).
Jesus also warned His disciples:
“I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him [God] who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him. Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows. (Luke 12:4–7)
But He also immediately declared:
“I tell you, whoever publicly acknowledges me before others, the Son of Man will also acknowledge before the angels of God. But whoever disowns me before others will be disowned before the angels of God. And everyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit [of God] will not be forgiven. (Luke 12:8–10)
Why would Jesus give this warning to His disciples? “Because through Christ Jesus the law [guidance] of the Spirit who gives life [sets] you free from the law of sin and death” (Romans 8:2).
Why would anyone want to disown Jesus? Following Him is not easy. Following His Spirit goes against our flesh, world systems, and the devil.
We can only obey God through His Spirit. In the flesh, everything of God seems to be and is an impossible contradiction. As Paul taught the Romans:
The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace. The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. Those who are in the realm of the flesh cannot please God.
You, however, are not in the realm of the flesh but are in the realm of the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, they do not belong to Christ. But if Christ is in you, then even though your body is subject to death because of sin, the Spirit gives life because of righteousness. And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you.
Therefore, brothers and sisters, we have an obligation—but it is not to the flesh, to live according to it. For if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live.
For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory. (Romans 8:6-17)
It appears suffering could be part of the order of the day, and yet at the same time we are repeatedly encouraged to remain faithful—to believe in God’s work and promises through Jesus.
Submission and courage. These, like so many other things, go together in God’s inverse kingdom. They are not opposites at all.
Because of Jesus, and the Holy Spirit God gives through His works and God’s grace, it can be as the Lord said a long time ago, first through Hosea and then as a reminder through Paul:
“I will call them ‘my people’ who are not my people;
and I will call her ‘my loved one’ who is not my loved one,”
“In the very place where it was said to them,
‘You are not my people,’
By the myriad difficulties that all these “opposites” present to us when seen through the eyes of our flesh, or as the world sees them, it’s almost like the Lord wants us to understand in some way the human impossibility of saving ourselves or our loved ones by our own works. It’s like He wants us to realize the only way out of this conundrum is to trust Him and submit to His will by His Spirit. Almost!?
As Paul observed:
None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. However, as it is written:
“What no eye has seen,
what no ear has heard,
and what no human mind has conceived” (Isaiah 64:4)
—[these are] the things God has prepared for those who love him—
these are the things God has revealed to us by his Spirit.
The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God.
(1 Corinthians 2:8–10)
Lord, help me to embrace—even the idea of—difficulties that may come my way and always trust that You will use them to make me more like You. Even more, help me to trust You with my loved ones who are walking with You. And, even more than that, help me to trust my loved ones who are not walking with You, that You will keep Your word concerning them.
Help me to wait humbly and patiently while you do the work that needs to be done in them that only You can orchestrate and do. Help me submit to You in all things You give or allow with courage! Let us “glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope” (Romans 5:3–4).