At our April 2013 conference an issue came up in one of the workshops that grabbed my attention. What does the expression entering the kingdom mean in the Lord’s teachings in the Gospels? The workshop was an interactive session. The participants were given a list of all the entering the kingdom passages in the Gospels and asked to indicate what the condition was in each case.
Unfortunately, there wasn’t time in the workshop to discuss any of the passages in more than a cursory way. Mainly there was time in the session to indicate what the words of the text said the condition was in each case.
The position presented was that the condition of entering the kingdom in the Gospels is ethical righteousness (i.e., good works). Yet the speaker was not advocating works salvation. The reason is that the speaker suggested that entering the kingdom in most of the passages where it appears in the Gospels refers to entering into a godly lifestyle, a kingdom way of living. The believer who produces ethical righteousness now will experience fullness of life in the life to come. The speaker was arguing that most often in the Gospels the idea of entering the kingdom does not literally refer to entering the kingdom.
The speaker did say that all believers will enter the kingdom in light of Luke 19:16-27 and 1 Thess 5:10. Interestingly, neither of those passages actually uses the expression entering the kingdom—or even mentions the kingdom.
The position presented was this: in the Gospels the expression entering the kingdom refers to calls to believers to live godly lives so that they might have eternal rewards.
I happen to think that all of the entering the kingdom passages actually refer to entering the kingdom. I think that those who do not enter will spend eternity in the lake of fire. But might the workshop speaker be right? As I listened to the MP3 of the workshop, I found myself wondering if at least some of the entering the kingdom passages in the Gospels might refer to entering into a kingdom lifestyle now. I felt I needed to go through all of the entering the kingdom passages again. What if some of them refer to entering and some refer to a kingdom sort of lifestyle now? If so, I’d need to adjust my thinking and exposition.
Twelve Entering the Kingdom Passages
There are only a dozen passages in the Gospels that refer to entering the kingdom, with half being in Matthew (6 in Matthew; 3 in Mark; 2 in Luke; 1 in John). So our task is not too daunting. I have divided them into two categories: those which in my opinion clearly refer to actual entrance into the kingdom and those which in my estimation probably refer to entering the kingdom.
Before I started categorizing these, I expected to have 2 or 3 in the clear category and 9 or 10 in the probably category. However, as I reviewed these texts, the contexts did not support that sort of distribution. Instead, I found that slightly more than half clearly refer to actual entrance into the kingdom.
Seven Passages That Clearly Refer to Entering the Kingdom
Almost all agree that these seven passages actually refer to entering the kingdom.
Matthew 7:21-23. Near the end of the Sermon on the Mount the Lord says,
“Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’” (emphasis added).
The words “in that day” refer to an eschatological judgment, that is, a judgment after this life is over. This either refers to the Bema (the Judgment Seat of Christ), where believers will be judged before the Millennium (2 Cor 5:9-10), or it refers to the Great White Throne Judgment, where unbelievers will be judged after the Millennium (Rev 20:11-15).
While in Paul’s epistles “that Day” refers to the Bema, here the context is completely different. The issue is being with Christ (“shall enter the kingdom of heaven”) or being separated from Him (“Depart from Me”).
The first question is which eschatological judgment is in view?
John 3:3-5. The Lord quickly got down to business with Nicodemus:
“Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.’
“Nicodemus said to 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, ‘Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God’” (emphasis added).
Note that the issue in John 3:5 is entering the kingdom, not a rich entrance into the kingdom and not entering into a kingdom lifestyle now.
We will discuss what “born of water and the Spirit” means in the next section. The point is that future entrance into Christ’s kingdom is in view here.
Matthew 19:23-26/Mark 10:23-25/Luke 18:24-25. Three different passages deal with Jesus’ encounter with the rich young ruler. I am giving the Matthean version, but Mark 10:23-25 and Luke 18:24-25 are parallel to Matt 19:23-24. After the rich young ruler leaves, the Lord and His disciples carry on this conversation about him,
“Then Jesus said to His disciples, ‘Assuredly, I say to you that it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. And again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.’
“When His disciples heard it, they were greatly astonished, saying, ‘Who then can be saved?’
“But Jesus looked at them and said to them, ‘With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible’” (emphasis added).
Notice that Jesus spoke of entering the kingdom and the disciples asked, “Who then can be saved?” In this context salvation refers to spending eternity with the Lord in His kingdom. No other type of salvation would make sense here.
In addition, in the Markan account we learn that the Lord also said, “Children, how hard it is for those who trust in riches to enter the kingdom of God!” (Mark 10:24, emphasis added, Majority Text reading; the so-called Critical Text omits “those who trust in riches”).
Matthew 21:31-32. After giving a parable of two sons, one of which represented the tax collectors and harlots and one the scribes and Pharisees, the Lord said,
“‘Assuredly, I say to you that tax collectors and harlots enter the kingdom of God before you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him; but tax collectors and harlots believed him; and when you saw it, you did not afterward relent and believe him’” (emphasis added).
There is nothing here to suggest that anything other than actual kingdom entrance is in view. The fact that belief, not behavior, is mentioned three times in v 32 as the condition is quite telling.
Matthew 23:13. This seventh text is where the Lord is rebuking and condemning the scribes and Pharisees. He begins with a woe to them:
“But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut up the kingdom of heaven against men; for you neither go in yourselves, nor do you allow those who are entering to go in.”
Here we have a comparison between not entering the kingdom and shutting up the kingdom. The scribes and Pharisees did not enter in themselves. That is, of course, because they did not believe in the Lord and they relied on their flawed works (as the Lord goes on to discuss). And they tried to keep others from entering as well, by trying to keep others from believing in Jesus, or even hearing Him. The reason they sought to kill Him was so that they could silence Him.
Five Passages That Probably Refer To Entering the Kingdom
While some Free Grace people would disagree, nearly everyone else in Evangelicalism holds that these five passages refer to entering the kingdom, which I believe is the natural sense of the passages.
Matthew 5:20. We start with a very famous one: “For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven” (emphasis added).
Without getting into what the condition is, the consequence seems to be actual kingdom entrance. It is hard to see how Jesus’ listeners would understand Him to be talking about anything else. It would not be hard for any believer, even the carnal believers of Corinth (cf. 1 Cor 3:1-4; 11:30) to have personal righteousness that exceeded the personal righteousness of legalistic unbelievers like the scribes and Pharisees. But does that mean that they somehow had entered the kingdom? I don’t see how.
Matthew 18:2-3/Mark 10:15/Luke 18:17. I am citing Matthew 18:2-3 here, but Mark 10:15 and Luke 18:17 are parallel texts. The former reads,
“Then Jesus called a little child to Him, set him in the midst of them, and said, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven’” (emphasis added).
The text speaks of entering the kingdom. There is no reason to doubt that is what is in view.
Mark 9:47. This verse is one of the more puzzling ones since it involves figurative self-mutilation:
“And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye, rather than having two eyes, to be cast into hell [literally, Gehenna, which is a different word than Hades] fire…” (emphasis added).
Various ways to explain this exist.1 What is Gehenna fire? Is this a reference to temporal or eternal torment? If Gehenna is a synonym for Hades, then entering the kingdom actually refers to entrance into the kingdom.
The most natural understanding is that entering into the kingdom here indeed refers to just that.
Is the Condition for Kingdom Entrance Faith or Works?
Obviously if the condition for any of these dozen texts refers to something other than faith or a synonym for faith, then that particular context does not actually deal with entering the kingdom, but to something else.
Let’s review the conditions in the twelve.
First, we do not find a single example where the condition is commitment, obedience to God’s commands (plural), self-denial, taking up one’s cross, following Christ in discipleship, baptism, repentance, or anything at all remotely like that.
Second, we do find belief and faith given explicitly or implicitly as the condition several times. Though the parable of the two sons (Matt 21:3132) gives as the condition doing the will of the Father, that is explained as believing in the Lord Jesus (v 32). In the Matthean passage on becoming as children in order to enter the kingdom, the Lord goes on to indicate that these children whom we are to emulate believed in Him (“one of these little ones who believe in Me,” Matt 18:6). And the Markan and Lukan accounts go immediately from being as a child to the rich young ruler passage, where the ruler illustrates one who is not yet coming as a child in faith, but is coming as an adult, trying to buy his way into the kingdom by his works.
Though faith in Christ is not mentioned in John 3:5, it is mentioned in John 3:14-18 to which John 3:5 is pointing. And though faith in Christ is not mentioned in Matt 23:13 concerning the scribes and Pharisees hindering people from entering the kingdom, they were clearly seeking to keep people from believing in Jesus.
Third, all of the passages in which faith is not mentioned nonetheless give conditions that are synonyms for faith. These include doing the will of the Father (see Matt 12:50; 21:31-32; compare John 6:28-29, 39-40), coming to Jesus as a little child (i.e., with faith, which is so natural for children who have not yet learned how to be cynical and reticent to believe), being born again (which later in John 3 is said to occur only when one believes), and having righteousness which exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees (which the Lord taught only occurs when one believes in Him and gains His righteousness via imputation, John 6:28; 16:8, 10; compare also Rom 3:26; 4:3, 5, 6).
Fourth, the rich young ruler passage seems to give the condition of entering the kingdom as keeping the Law of Moses. Yet we know that it is impossible for anyone to keep the Law (Gal 3:10; Jas 2:10). Indeed, in this very passage the Lord is showing the rich young ruler that he cannot be saved, that is, enter the kingdom, by his works. Compare John 6:28-29 and Eph 2:8-9. Though faith in Christ is not mentioned here, that is what one must do in order to be saved (John 3:16-17; Eph 2:8-9). And remember that the disciples equated entering with salvation and the Lord did not correct them. The rich young ruler passage is really pre-evangelism. The Lord is showing him the impossibility of salvation by works.
Fifth, the lone text that doesn’t seem to fit the rest is Mark 9:47. Is plucking out one’s eye or cutting off one’s hand or foot a figure of speech conveying the idea of faith? No, they clearly are not. However, they could be figures of speech that convey the idea of putting off anything we see or touch, or anywhere we go, that hinders us from coming to faith in Christ. A person who is high on drugs all the time is greatly hindered from hearing or understanding the message of everlasting life. The person who will never go to church and will never listen when a Christian tries to talk with him about Christ is not going to come to faith until his resistance to listening is thrown off.
For those who think this refers to repentance from sins in one’s life, the question is, why didn’t the Lord just say that if that is what He meant? He spoke much of repentance. The fact that He does not speak of repentance here is telling. In addition, it would be odd to speak of repentance as cutting off body parts. Nowhere else in Scripture is repentance likened to self-mutilation.
While this is indeed a hard saying, it most naturally is a call to the unbeliever to give up anything that hinders him from hearing and believing the saving message.
What Is Most Consistent and Contextual?
It seems obvious that when the Lord speaks of entering the kingdom our first thought should be that He is really talking about entering the kingdom. We should not come to some other idea of what that means unless there are some compelling reasons to do so.
But there are no compelling reasons to see entering the kingdom as something else. The Lord never once says, “Entering the kingdom refers to entering into a kingdom lifestyle.” Nor does He say anything at all even close to that.
While hypothetically entering the kingdom could refer to entering into a kingdom lifestyle, the contexts do not bear out this understanding in my opinion. I urge you to be Bereans and study these texts for yourself (Acts 17:11).
Entrance into the kingdom is future. As the speaker said in his workshop, the kingdom is not now. The kingdom is future.
While we can and should enter into a godly lifestyle now, that is not what the dozen entering the kingdom passages are talking about.
Faith in Christ is the sole condition of everlasting life now and of entering His kingdom in the life to come. All who have everlasting life will enter the kingdom. Those who do not have everlasting life are not in the Book of Life and hence they will be cast into the lake of fire, unless they come to faith in Christ before they die (Rev 20:15). The issue of entering the kingdom is one of life (everlasting life) and death (the second death, Rev 20:14).
1. See “Self Sacrifice & Kingdom Entrance,” Parts 1&2, www. faithalone.org/magazine/y1989/89sep2.html and “The Warning of Stumbling Blocks (Mark 9:42-48)” by Barry Mershon, Jr., www.faithalone.org/magazine/y2010/10ja3.html.