There is an inherent tension in Christian living. Once a person believes in Jesus and receives Him as their Savior, there is a significant shift in purpose. Without Christ, one lives in the here and now, because that is all there is. Once one is in Christ, hope is found in something much greater. Living as a Christian then means living in the present, while also having an eternal perspective. The priorities and purpose of a person focused only on the temporary, will be very different from a person who is living with eternity in mind.
Christians also must live as citizens of an earthly kingdom and a heavenly one. When we receive Christ as our Savior, we are not then called to renounce our earthly citizenship. On the contrary, Christians recognize that Jesus has called us to live essentially as ambassadors of the kingdom of heaven while residents of an earthly kingdom. When Jesus prayed for His followers, He conveyed as much:
“I (Jesus) do not ask You to take them out of the world, but to keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world.” John 17:15-16 (NASB)
With this in mind, it should not come as a surprise when people are puzzled by how invested Christians in the United States are in politics. Within the past few years it has now become common to see Christians endorse political candidates, form political action committees, attend political rallies or protests, endorse the military, and the list goes on. If Christians are called to live as ambassadors of a heavenly kingdom, why are we placing so much importance in an earthly one?
Over the years, I have had numerous conversations with Christians wherein they will argue that it is in fact “christian” to be involved in politics and building of an earthly kingdom. These individuals believe there is no inherent tension between the earthly kingdom of the USA and the kingdom of heaven; there is no tension between the finite and the infinite. One only has to open their social media page or watch the news to realize that such thinking has come to dominate Christendom in recent years. For this reason, such a concept warrants further evaluation.
When Jesus began His earthly ministry, His first proclamation was for people to “repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Jesus’ arrival ushered in the kingdom of heaven. He spent the next three years showing people what the kingdom of heaven looks like. He also spent three years trying to help his disciples shift their priorities from that of building an earthly kingdom (Israel) to a heavenly one. It is important to understand it was difficult for Jesus’ disciples to shift their priorities from earthly kingdom building to heavenly kingdom building. The truth is that even though Jesus’ disciples were present with Him in His ministry, they did not fully understand the concept of the kingdom of heaven until after His death and resurrection. Recognizing this shift in priorities was difficult for Jesus’ disciples, we should seek to approach this topic with other Christians with patience and grace.
So what does the kingdom of heaven look like? By what rules does it operate? This will not be an exhaustive exploration, but let’s look at a few of the teachings of Jesus regarding the kingdom of heaven:
Looking at the list above, it is easy to see the tension that should exist between the kingdom of heaven and an earthly kingdom. In an earthly kingdom, wealth and influence are important, in the kingdom of heaven humility and simplicity are important. In an earthly kingdom power and authority are important, in the kingdom of heaven those who are great will be as servants. In an earthly kingdom we kill our enemies and take from them, yet in the kingdom of heaven we pray for our enemies and bless them.
The contrast could not be more stark.
I will often hear people say we need more Christians in politics, but when I look at the lives of politicians and compare them to the teachings of Jesus I wonder, How is it possible that a Christian could be a politician? Have you ever seen a politician who lives out the teachings of Jesus above? The two identities of Christian and politician are nearly in direct opposition to each other, it is almost as though by claiming one, the person would have to deny the other. I am not saying it is impossible for a politician to be a Christian, but I also think it is not nearly as easy as we make it out to be.
Jesus demonstrated clearly in His teachings and life what building the kingdom of God will look like, and if we are honest it does not look at all like political action committees, protests, political lobbying, or waging war. Jesus clearly called His followers to do the opposite and pursue servanthood, self-sacrifice, humility, simplicity, generosity, and peacemaking. Such living looks like foolishness to the world, but as followers of Jesus we are simply called to live out His example. (John 13:13-16)
I want to be careful to point out I am not stating Christians should not advocate for the poor, or the unborn, or should abstain from voting. When speaking of politics and the tension between an earthly and heavenly kingdom I am referring to politics in so much as it is the pursuit of power/authority. Followers of Jesus are called to live in and engage in our communities; it is how we engage in our communities that is important and should set us apart from those who do not know Jesus or follow His teachings.
Do we need more Christians to enter politics, or do we need more politicians to become Christians? Though our intentions may be good, when we engage in politics for the purpose of spreading Christianity, the end result seems to be that politics only corrupts the Christian and Christian church. If we take a moment to think about it, this makes perfect sense. In order to engage in politics, we incorporate strategies, tactics, and techniques of earthly kingdom building. These may seem to be successful at first, but ultimately fail in building the kingdom of heaven.
As we navigate the tension between our earthly residence and our heavenly citizenship, may we fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith (Hebrews 12:2). May eternity be our priority, and may our actions demonstrate that we are not of the world, just as our Savior was not of this word. May God give us eyes to see where the tensions exist between the earthly kingdom in which we reside and the heavenly kingdom of which we are citizens; and may our actions and our lives demonstrate clearly where our citizenship stands.
Are there additional tensions between the kingdom of heaven and an earthly kingdom that you can identify? Feel free to share in the comments, use of scripture for reference is encouraged.