I often cringe when I hear Christians talk about the lists of things they want to do before they die: “I really want to go sky-diving, at least once, before I die” or “I want to, just one time, climb Mount Kilimanjaro before I’m too old to do it” or “I want to see the pyramids, before I’m gone.” There’s nothing wrong, of course, with wanting to do these things, but often the hidden subtext is: “You only live once.”
The assumption behind this is deeply un-Christian, the idea that our span of life is merely the next ten or twenty or a hundred years. If we assume that what’s waiting for us beyond the grave is a postlude rather than a mission and an adventure, we will cling tenaciously to the status quo, or at least the parts of it we like. We will want to, just like the pagans, want to eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we shall die. (Regardless of all this, you probably should see the pyramids, though, if you want to, since the Book of Exodus casts a little doubt as to whether Pharaoh’s monuments will make it to the new earth).
If Jesus is telling us the truth, however, our life planning ought to be about the next trillion years, and beyond. We as Christians need to recover a holistic vision of what the kingdom of Jesus is and what it means for us both now and later. Unless we do, will fundamentally misunderstand how this life relates to the next, and imagine that our earthly years are nothing more than a ferry to take us into eternity.
The Apostle Paul tells us that our citizenship is not here but in heaven (Phil. 3:18-20). But it is crucial to understand that Paul’s main point is not that heaven is away from earth, but that Jesus is in heaven. Of heaven, Paul wrote: “and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself” (Phil. 3:20b-21). That’s why Jesus taught on “seeking first the kingdom” in the context of worry about economic provision (Matt. 6). If we don’t see how the kingdom come informs this life now, we become frantic about the things of this life, wanting to make them ultimate. Or, we act as though justice and righteousness are irrelevant since, after all, what is really waiting for us is worship, so why should we be concerned about those who have no food or clothing, those whose lives are in jeopardy?
When we think this way, we become, either by frantic engagement or by disengagement with the communities around us, worldly (a word that isn’t used much nowadays). Being worldly means to be shaped and patterned by the world around us. Worldliness does not mean caring about what’s happening in the world; on the contrary, James simultaneously says for us to remain “unspotted from the world” and to care for widows and orphans in their distress (Jas. 1:27). Worldliness means that we acquiesce to the priorities and the agenda of the systems now governing the world, in many cases because we don’t even question them.
Jesus’ declaration of the kingdom was quite different. It was not from the world, that is, it didn’t emerge out of evolutionary progress. Jesus was interrupting the direction the world was going, starting with his rather disruptive conception (also a subject for gossip in Nazareth). But Jesus’ message was decidedly for the world. The prophetic oracle isn’t just about surviving biological death, but also about peace with God and with one another about a just society. Implicit in Jesus’ preaching in the synagogue was the message he would preach everywhere else later, to seek first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness. Kingdom first does not mean kingdom only. Since the kingdom is a kingdom of justice and righteousness, seeking the kingdom means that we come to know what to care about in he first place.
If the kingdom is what Jesus announced it is, then what matters isn’t just what we neatly classify as “spiritual” things. The natural world around us isn’t just a temporary “environment,” but part of our future inheritance in Christ. Our jobs—whether preaching the gospel or loading docks or picking avocados or writing legislation or herding goats—aren’t accidental. Our lives now are shaping us and preparing us for a future rule, and that includes the honing of a conscience and a sense of wisdom and prudence and justice. God is teaching us, as he taught our Lord, to learn in little things how to be in charge of great things (Lk. 2; Matt. 25:14-23). Our lives now are an internship for the eschaton.
The moment you burst through the mud above your grave, you will begin an exciting new mission—one you couldn’t comprehend now if someone told you. And many of the things that seem important now—whether you’re attractive or famous or cancer-free—will seem irrelevant. But many of the things that matter little now will take on a cosmic new significance then.
In the kingdom of God, Jesus shows us the goal of the future—of our lives individually and congregationally, and of the galaxies and solar systems around us. Finding ourselves in his inheritance frees us from clamoring and fighting for our own glory or relevance. Seeing our lives now, and the universe around us, as precursors to the life to come, we’re freed from the ingratitude that turns away from God’s good gifts, from the apathy that ignores those God hears. We pour ourselves into loving, serving and working because these things are seeds of the tasks God has for us in the next phase. We don’t invest any of those things with infinite meaning. My life’s meaning is not found in the brief interval between birth and grave—in a happy marriage, a satisfying job, or the kind of “success” my in-laws would recognize at the Thanksgiving table.
At the same time, my sojourn in this interval is shaping and preparing me for what is ultimate, so I cannot shirk off the person I am becoming by the habits I am learning. The goal of the kingdom is the merger of heaven and earth—when the dwelling place of God transforms creation and the kingdoms of this world become the kingdoms of our Lord and of his Christ. We do not bring this about, which is why Jesus teaches every generation of the church to pray for the realization of God’s reign on earth as it is in heaven (Matt. 6).
This article is adapted from my new book Onward: Engaging the Culture Without Losing the Gospel.