IV. The Subjects of the Kingdom
"Blest are the pure in heart,
For they shall see their God,
The secret of the Lord is theirs,
Their soul is Christ's abode."
The Subjects of "The Kingdom of Heaven" — who are they?
The subjects of a kingdom are, in a general way, those who have been born within its limits, and who submit to its laws and accept its king. But when we enquire into the teaching of our Lord about the subjects of "The Kingdom of Heaven," we are met at once with the difficulty that, in the days of His earthly ministry, the Kingdom was not yet founded. The King was only preparing the way for His Kingdom to be set up. And there is necessarily a great difference between joining a Kingdom in the act of being founded, and being born under its laws and within its limits.
Consequently with respect to His teaching about the Subjects of "The Kingdom of Heaven," two things have to be considered. First, the conditions under which men are permitted to join His Kingdom; and, secondly, the life which His subjects are required to lead.
At the very commencement of His ministry a divine picture was drawn of the character and life of the true subjects of "The Kingdom of Heaven." For as He "went about all Galilee preaching the Gospel of the Kingdom, there followed Him great multitudes of people. And seeing the multitudes, He went up into a mountain: and when He was set, His disciples came to Him: and He opened His mouth, and taught them, saying, Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven" (S. Matt. iv. 23-v. 3). Thus He began the Sermon on the Mount by declaring the blessedness of His subjects, though they would be very different from those whom the world commonly counts blessed. And the last Beatitude ended, as the first began, with distinct reference to the Kingdom, "Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness' sake; for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven" (S. Matt. v. 10); as though to make it clear to His hearers that the blessedness spoken of throughout all the verses was connected with His Kingdom.
He then addressed those who, in their hearts, accepted Him, as "the salt of the earth;" and as "the light of the world" (S. Matt. v. 13, 14). They would not only be blessed in themselves, as His subjects, but they would also be a blessing to others. They were to be the salt which should preserve the world from corruption; and the light which should lead men to "glorify their Father which is in Heaven" (S. Matt. v. 16).
Having thus described, at the beginning of His Sermon, the general character and office of the subjects of His Kingdom, our Blessed Lord went on to answer a question, which would doubtless arise in the minds of His hearers. Would the Kingdom of which He spoke destroy, or be opposed to the Law, under which God's People had lived from ancient times? The answer was most distinct: "Think not that I am come to destroy the Law and the Prophets; I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil. Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the Kingdom of Heaven. For I say to you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees, you shall in no case enter into the Kingdom of Heaven" (S. Matt. v. 17-20). So far from coming to destroy the Law, He had come that it might be fulfilled by His subjects, as it had never been fulfilled before. For they would be required to surpass even the Scribes and Pharisees in their observance of it, by keeping it in the spirit, as well as in the letter; otherwise they would prove themselves unfit for His Kingdom. And then followed examples of the observance of some of the laws of old — such as the law of purity, and the law against murder — in this enlarged spiritual sense; ending with the exhortation, "Be you therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in Heaven is perfect" (S. Matt. v. 21-48).
One of the chief ways in which God's People had failed in their service towards Him, was in the spirit in which they had discharged their religious duties. Righteousness had become but another name for formality. Prayers and alms and fasts had been turned into opportunities for showing off before men, and for gaining the reputation of sanctity. Consequently it was necessary that He should lead back His hearers to the real meaning of these duties; and set forth the principle which must guide His subjects in all their religious acts — almsgiving, prayer, and fasting — namely, this; the desire to please their "Father which is in Heaven" (S. Matt. vi. 1-18). And that there might be no mistake about the kind of rewards which they might look for, He declared that they must "lay up for themselves treasures in Heaven" (S. Matt. vi. 19-21); that is to say, they must love and long for spiritual rewards, setting their hearts upon higher things than this world can give. And the only way in which they could do this, was by devoting themselves with their whole strength to the service of God. For no half-service of God was possible: "You cannot serve God and Mammon" (S. Matt. vi. 24). Then if they lived for God, they might lay aside all over-anxious thoughts about this present life. If they really gave themselves up to be His subjects, they would certainly have all things ordered for them for the best. "Seek you first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you" (S. Matt. vi. 33).
The Sermon ended with mentioning some of the difficulties which the subjects of "The Kingdom of Heaven" would have to meet in the practice of godliness. In the first place, in order to become His subjects they would have to enter through a narrow gate, upon a path which few would find. For while, on the one hand, "Wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and many there be that go in thereat," on the other hand, "Strait is the gate and narrow is the way which leads to life, and few there be that find it" (S. Matt. vii. 13, 14). And when they had entered upon this narrow way, He warned them that they must be on their guard against being misled by foolish professors, because mere profession of obedience would neither prove them to be subjects of His Kingdom, nor win for them admission "in that day" into His glory and joy, "Not every one who says to Me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the Kingdom of Heaven, but he that does the will of My Father which is in Heaven" (S. Matt. vii. 21-23). Therefore they must set to work to do the will of God, and so be true subjects of Messiah's Kingdom. And then, as doers of His words, and not hearers only, they would be building like wise men "upon a rock" (S. Matt. vii. 24).
The description thus given by the King Himself of the character and life of His subjects sets vividly before us the difficulties which a Christian must overcome. It may not be always easy to decide whether the expression "Kingdom of Heaven" refers to the Kingdom as it is now on earth, or as it will be hereafter in Heaven; but it is clear that our Blessed Lord would teach in this Sermon both the difficulty of becoming a professing Christian at all, and also the need of earnest strivings after holiness in order that a subject of His Kingdom of Grace should find a welcome when that Kingdom shall have become the Kingdom of Glory. And when we think of the very different standards until the point in time aimed at either by Jews or Gentiles, we see at once the reason which prevented so many of His hearers from accepting "The Kingdom of Heaven." For it is clear that a man who had been brought up either as a Jew or as a Gentile would have to lay aside almost all his previous habits and modes of thought — he must become a new man altogether — to enter in.
Who then would enter in? Who would become subjects of the Kingdom of Heaven?
The Lord Jesus declared at once, what modern missionary experience still finds to be the case, that little children were the most likely to become His subjects, and the fittest to enter into "The Kingdom of Heaven." Some mothers once brought their little ones for His blessing; and when the disciples were hindering their coming, "He was much displeased and said to them, Suffer little children to come to Me, and forbid them not; for of such is the Kingdom of God" (S. Mark x. 14). And not only did He declare that little children were the most suitable to become His subjects; but He said also, that those who were grown up and wished to enter His Kingdom must become like children to do so. For He added, "Verily I say to you, Whosoever shall not receive the Kingdom of God as a little child, he shall not enter therein" (S. Mark x. 15). And on another occasion He expressed His thankfulness that only child-like hearts could take in the mysteries of the Kingdom, saying, "I thank You, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that You have hid these things from the wise and prudent, and have revealed them to babes" (S. Luke x. 21).
When we read in such passages as these of the difficulty of entering into "The Kingdom of Heaven," it becomes very important to remember that the Kingdom was not then set up; and that the words were spoken with respect to men who had grown up under other conditions and modes of thought. For while the words still apply literally and exactly to the case of converts from among the Heathen, they are not applicable at all, in the same sense, to persons who have long ago entered "The Kingdom of Heaven" as children, and have lived under its influence. Thus, for instance, when we read that "a rich man shall hardly enter into the Kingdom of Heaven" (S. Matt. xix. 23), there is no need to suppose that the rich, who have grown up as His subjects, have less hope of Heaven than others. The temptations which come with riches are great, but the grace of God will enable His subjects, whether rich or poor, to serve Him faithfully, if they seek for it. The words clearly referred to the difficulty which the rich Jew or the rich heathen would find in declaring himself a subject of Jesus Christ. It is easier for the poor and the unlearned to become a Christian, than for the rich and the learned. In after years S. Paul found this to be the case at Corinth. "You see your calling, brethren, how that not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble are called" (1 Cor. i. 26). And the same thing is still happening in heathen lands. The chief successes in India have been among the low castes of Tinnevelly, the hard-working Kols of Chota Nagpur, the simple Karens of the hills of Burma; and among the wealthy merchants and the learned Brahmins converts have been few. Experience confirms the truth of our Lord's teaching. He declared beforehand, that the rich, and the learned, and those who had enjoyed the greatest privileges, would be the most unwilling to be won over to His Kingdom. And the prediction has been fulfilled.
It might have been supposed that, when at last Messiah's Kingdom was set up, all who had enjoyed the privilege of knowing the true God, and had been taught to expect a Deliverer, as their King, would have eagerly sought admission into His Kingdom. But to one who made the remark, "Blessed is he that shall eat bread in the Kingdom of God," He spoke the Parable of "The Great Supper," teaching that many, who have the opportunity and the invitation will refuse to enter in, and make all kinds of excuses; and that others will have their places (S. Luke xiv. 15-24). And on another occasion He warned the Jews, that many would come from all quarters of the world, "and sit down in the Kingdom of God" (S. Luke xiii. 28, 29), while they themselves were thrust out. And we know how literally the warning has come true. And lest any one should be deceived into thinking that it was an easy thing to become His subject, He referred again and again to the difficulties which men must be prepared to meet and overcome in entering "The Kingdom of Heaven." To those who said that they would follow Him, He explained that entire devotion of self to God would be required of His subjects. A man must count the cost beforehand. "The dead" must be left to "bury their dead," while the man fulfils the commission which God entrusts to him, to "preach the Kingdom of God;" and "No man having put his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the Kingdom of God" (S. Luke ix. 57-62). But, on the other hand, for those who gave up freely all that they loved, "for the Kingdom of God's sake," the reward should be "manifold more" even "in this present time, and in the world to come life everlasting." (S. Luke xviii. 29, 30). And He encouraged the few, who in their hearts accepted Him as their King, in such words as these, "Him that comes to me I will in no wise cast out" (S. John vi. 37); "Fear not, little flock; for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the Kingdom" (S. Luke xii. 32).
The thought that the difficulties thus described referred in the first instance to those who were outside of "The Kingdom of Heaven," may well fill us with thankfulness that we have been brought into the Kingdom through the piety of our parents, without even an effort on our parts. We have been so far helped already, that we have been placed upon the narrow way that leads to life; and though temptations of many kinds assail to entice us from the road, and though the difficulties of the way are great, we have the hope to encourage us, that, if we are in earnest, the grace of God the Holy Ghost will preserve us, that we may be welcomed at last as faithful subjects, and admitted into the Kingdom of Glory.
But at the same time we must remember that, in another sense, the words about the difficulty of entering "The Kingdom of Heaven" still apply to ourselves. For we have been admitted as subjects of the Kingdom, only that we may loyally serve our King; and we have been placed upon the narrow way, only that we may struggle up the steep ascent to Heaven. "The Kingdom of Heaven" is as yet in an imperfect condition here on earth. Here we are in a state of trial and probation, as well as of grace and blessing. And a day will come when the Kingdom of Grace will become the Kingdom of Glory. Then, they who have served their King, and proved themselves in the time of their trial to be His faithful soldiers and servants, will be welcomed into the joy of their Lord. But they who have professed to be His subjects, and have been satisfied with a mere profession, will cry, "Lord, Lord" (S. Matt. vii. 22-23), in vain.
Therefore, our King still cries to us, as to His hearers before the Kingdom was set up, "Strive to enter in" (S. Luke xiii. 24). He still bids us build "upon the Rock," by being "doers of the word, and not hearers only" (S. James i. 22). And He still warns us of the dangers of riches; "The love of money is the root of all evil" (1 Tim. vi. 10). For we have still to be "the salt of the earth" and "the light of the world" (S. Matt. v. 13, 14). And the standard which He has set us is still, and ever will be, far above us; "Be you therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in Heaven is perfect" (S. Matt. v. 48).
The teaching of our Lord about His subjects is thus seen to correspond with what His Apostles, in time to come, taught their converts when they addressed them, as "called to be saints" (Rom. i. 7, Ephes. i. 1, etc.). We know that the world would like to find some easier course than this. But it is impossible; because the subjects of "The Kingdom of Heaven" are called that they may be ready for the life in Heaven. And "without holiness no man shall see the Lord" (Heb. xii. 14).
In subsequent chapters we shall consider the means provided by the King to enable His subjects to become such as He described them. For the present, let the thought of our holy calling increase our sense of the infinite love and mercy of our King.
Let us think of His own description of His work. "The Son of Man is come to seek and to save that which was lost" (S. Luke xix. 10). When we were wandering in the ways of sin, ignorant of God our Father, and unfit to be admitted into our home or to enjoy it if admission were possible, He came to seek us out and bring us into His Kingdom. And now that He has "overcome the sharpness of death and opened the Kingdom of Heaven to all believers," our efforts after holiness are so imperfect, and our weakness and love of wandering are so great, that we should be in despair, if our King had not taught us His unceasing care. But this He has set plainly in a well-known series of Parables; first, under the figure of a shepherd finding a stray sheep and calling friends and neighbours to rejoice over its recovery; then under the figure of a woman finding the lost coin; and, lastly, under the figure of a father welcoming home his prodigal son (S. Luke xv).
Therefore, our position is this. As subjects of "The Kingdom of Heaven," we are called, according to our Lord's own teaching, to a high and holy life; and the more we realise this truth the greater do our imperfections appear, and the clearer becomes our sense of the need of mercy, as well as help. But the King, who thus described His subjects, has also described His enduring love; and His invitation, still and for ever, applies to all who feel their unworthiness: "Come to Me all you that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest" (S. Matt. xi. 28).
 See S. Matt. xvi. 18. Pearson on the Creed, p. 336.
From The Kingdom of Heaven - What is it? by Edward Burbidge M.A. Published under the direction of the tract committee by Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge in August 1879. Lightly updated to the language of the 21st century by D. N. Pham. (c) 2012.
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Kingdom of Heaven - E. Burbidge
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