Do you want eternal life…or the Kingdom of God?

There are two types of Gospels. We call the first type the Synoptic Gospels. The Synoptic Gospels are Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Synoptic means something like “looking with.” We call these three the Synoptics because they look at Jesus in a similar way. This leaves the Gospel of John as the other Gospel.

In fact, only about 8% of the Gospel of John overlaps with the Synoptic Gospels. The chronology is different, the few events are different order, and the style of Jesus’ ministry is different. Rather than showing Jesus performing many miracles like in the Synoptics, John focuses in on 7. Rather than short teachings grouped together with stories, John is mainly comprised of long discourses of Jesus, often in ongoing discussion with Jewish religious leaders.

One difference of interest: eternal life.

Kingdom of God vs. Eternal Life

Matthew, Mark, and Luke characterize Jesus as teaching about the Kingdom of God (or the Kingdom of Heaven, in Matthew). The summary statement of his ministry is “repent, for the Kingdom is at hand” (Matt 4.17 and parallels).

In John, by contrast, Jesus regularly speaks about eternal life.

What are we to make of this? Did Jesus have two different ministries? Why are John and the Synoptics so different from each other on this point?

Two sides of the same coin

Before answering this, consider for a moment the following two statements:

  1. I am a Christian.
  2. I am a follower of Jesus.

What is the difference between these two? While the language is distinct and they certainly have different emphases, they are basically equivalent. I prefer the second expression to the first because I think the identity “Christian” has too much cultural baggage associated with it to be useful in many contexts. But, both expressions are essentially synonymous.

I contend that this is what we see in kingdom of God and eternal life in the Synoptics and John. Two different ways of expressing the same basic idea. And ways that would make sense to different sorts of people.

Kingdom of God and eternal life in the same context

Consider John chapter 3. In John 3.3 and 5, Jesus is talking with Nicodemus about entering the Kingdom of God:

3.3 Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.

3.5 Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God

All well and good. This sounds like Jesus from the Synoptics. But note that as the conversation continues, suddenly the topic changes. In John 3.14-16 we read:

14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 16 For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.

In this one conversation Jesus and Nicodemus move from discussing entering the Kingdom of God to having eternal life without any obvious break in the discussion. This suggests that these two phrases represent the same basic idea.

This suggestion is confirmed in Mark 9.42-10.31 where we again see kingdom of God and eternal life occurring in close connection.

Mark 9.47: And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell

Then again, the Rich Young Ruler comes and asks Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” (10.17). In the follow up discussion Jesus has with his disciples, he tells them,

“29 Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, 30 who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life.”

In between those two mentions of eternal life, Jesus says this:

23 And Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” 24 And the disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how difficult it is to enter the kingdom of God!

The takeaway? The Kingdom of God and eternal life are two different ways of talking about the same central reality.

The Kingdom of Life, the eternal kingdom

There are a couple benefits from recognizing that “kingdom of God” and “eternal life” are similar concepts.

First, it helps us to see that although the Gospels are different from each other in a variety of ways, some of the differences are more cosmetic than actual. It appears that John, in writing his Gospel, used the “preacher’s prerogative” to shape his message to his audience. The language of eternal life requires less Jewish and OT background to understand what it means as part of God’s plan.

Second, it reminds us that the language and concepts we have for understanding humanity and God and the relationship we are created to have through Jesus is flexible. We are not stuck with just one idea.

Growing up, I don’t remember hearing much Kingdom of God theology, but lots about eternal life. I personally find “kingdom of God” more evocative and prefer that. Both are right ways to understand truths about what it means to follow Jesus. They bring distinct nuances.

As we think about our personal lives and about explaining and living gospel truths before others in our lives, it can pay to be flexible. We have more than one set of conceptual tools in our toolbox for understanding how we, and other people in our lives, are meant to relate to God in this life and in the life to come.

The generous justice of God

Justice is all the rage these days.

What exactly justice is is a complicated notion, full of complicated sub-discussions and issues. In the Parable of the Generous Vineyard Owner (or the Laborers in the Vineyard) in Matthew 20.1-16, an interesting wrinkle in justice stands out.

Remember the basic story: a man hires workers for a full day for an agreed upon wage, then goes out several more times throughout the day and hires more, finally paying everyone the same amount no matter how long or short they worked. Understandably, the guys hired first are ticked that the latecomers who worked for 1 hour got paid as much as they did, after working for 12 hours. That is not at all fair.

And you know what? The vineyard owner never talks about being fair. The key word he uses in arranging payment with the latter hired workers is that he will pay them whatever is “just/right” (Mt 20.4).

Justice is a key aspect of God’s dealing with the world. The vineyard owner is like God. While it can be perilous to press every detail of a parable into profound theological points, humor me for a second as we think about his promise to pay them “whatever is just.”

The vineyard owner does not prorate the salaries based on hours worked, giving the 1-hour workers 1/12 of a denarius, and so on. That is what I would expect for a “just” payment arrangement if I was employed under similar circumstances. And that is what the first set of workers expected. If the last group got one day’s wage, certainly it was all but right for them to get more.

Instead, the vineyard owner calls it “just” to give everyone a whole day’s wage regardless of how long said worker worked. He doesn’t give anyone more than he had promised to pay; he doesn’t give anyone less than he had promised to pay; and he gives generously all at the same time. Justice, in this parable, does not involve skimping or short-changing anyone, but it also doesn’t involve rigidity; justice is allowed to be generous.

The Justice System

At risk of raising ugly political feelings, humor me in an exercise to think in a Christian way about justice. When I think of “justice,” the most prominent institution that comes to mind is “the (criminal) justice system.” What is “justice” within this system? While, it is many things, but what strikes me at the moment is that justice is mainly a negative thing. That is, justice is usually measured in retributive punishment. Someone commits a crime and justice is a certain jail sentence, or fine, or sentence to community service, etc. Justice is “paying off one’s debt to society.”

Justice, in this context, has room for concepts like “grace” and “leniency,” as well as “severity” and “penalty.” But a word that has never come to my mind in thinking about the justice system: generosity.

Justice in the Kingdom of God

In the Kingdom of God, justice is not (only) a negative thing. It is not (only) about punishing those who break the law. It is also a reality that is rich in generosity. Justice comes from a perspective of abundance of love, not scarcity of resources.

In applying this parable to our own lives, this parable gives us a model of justice to follow. The vineyard owner’s actions of unfairly paying those who worked less the same wage is described as “just.” Justice in the Kingdom of God is a positive concept animated by love and mercy.

The vineyard owner hires multiple workers at multiple times and this is an exercise in justice. Justice, in this view, looks a lot more like aiming to help others fulfill their potential and meet their needs rather than aiming to punish.

Is punishment part of justice? Of course. But if you are like me, the punishment side of justice is far easier to understand than the generosity side of justice. Being generous with his goodness is part of God’s justice in his kingdom.

Being people who live in God’s Kingdom (under his rule) and who pray for his kingdom to come on this earth as it is in heaven, we probably need to square with the generous justice of God.

Parable of the Two Builders (Mt 7.24-27): It’s not what you build, but where

Take a couple minutes and watch this awesome LEGO© version of the Parable of the Wise and Foolish builders that someone put together.

LEGO Wise and Foolish Builders

Pretty cool, right?

The parable and the house(s)

Notice that in this video version of the parable, the houses which the two builders build are completely different. One builds a hovel on a rock—and he is wise; one builds a mansion on the beach—he is a fool. I’ve looked at many different visual adaptations of this parable and see this theme over and over again. The foolish builder either builds a lavish house, or a slovenly quick-pop-up house, etc. The wise builder, by contrast, is often depicted as building a strong and simple house. His house lasts because it is well put together and not ostentatious. The foolish builder loses his house because it is poorly built or an extravagant waste of money.

The above video well illustrates this line of interpretation (and yes, videos and pictures are interpretations). The houses of the two builders are completely opposites of each other, so the foolish builder comes off both as a critique of where he builds and as a condemnation for his ostentatious wealth as displayed in the type of house he builds.


While fun, the interpretation in the video is not actually found in the parable at all. Notice that there is no actual discussion of how the house was built or what kind of house was built. The discussion in the parable is based entirely on where the house was built. We can imply that there was some difference in the house that was built and possibly that there was more work involved in the one than the other, but even in Luke’s version (Luke 6.46-49), the focus is entirely on the foundation. Not the house.

Letting our focus drift from the foundation to the sort of house that is built—and how much work goes into building that house—can desensitize us to the heart of the parable. The parable strikes a nerve and importing the notion of wealth and sensibility into it can make it miss some of that nerve. Jesus has lots to say about wealth, but that is not the point of this parable.

You see, in this parable Jesus’ point is not to condemn wealth or laziness. The point of the contrast is not that one builder worked hard to build the house and the other did not. The contrast is what kind of foundation they built on.

Keeping the main thing the main thing

I think the element of wealth and laziness vs. industriousness which this video introduces functions to lessen the strikingness of the parable. It makes it easier to swallow. When we turn the parable into teaching the virtue of working harder and smarter, it is suddenly easy to position ourselves as the “good guy” in the parable: “I am willing to work hard and I am not wealthy, so I must be the good guy in the parable, not the bad guy.” The problem though—and this was an endemic problem in Jesus’ ministry—was not that he was dealing with people who were too lazy to work hard at following God. In point of fact, many of the religious leaders who opposed Jesus most vociferously were extremely devoted to religious life. Jesus’ parable challenges their understanding not of how hard someone must work to get into the Kingdom of God, rather of how that work must be oriented.

There is a big part of us that likes the message “work harder, work smarter, and you will enter the Kingdom of God.” The problem, though, is that Jesus doesn’t say “work harder.” This parable is not about how hard the builders work, but about where they work. If you work hard building on sand, when the flood comes, whatever you built, no matter how hard you labored at it, will come crashing down. By contrast, if you work hard building on the rock, it will stand. The outcome is not based on how hard you work—it is assumed that you will be working at building your life. The outcome is based entirely on where you build.

Jesus does not call us to work harder. I should say, Jesus calls us to something more profound than working harder. Working hard is assumed. Likewise, Jesus doesn’t just tell us to work smarter. Again, that is assumed. Jesus challenges the very foundational principles of our lives. Where is our hope? What are we banking on to bring us through in the end? What are we turning to to find meaning for our lives? What is love and how do we show it to other people? These are the sorts of foundational principles of life which Jesus challenges.

You are building your life-house on something, and you are working hard at it. Jesus challenges us to be sure that the hard work we are doing is on the right building site.