The Jews of Jesus’ day had very specific expectations of what the Messiah would accomplish. Because they were God’s chosen people, they assumed was that they and they alone would be the subject of the Messiah’s work, but Jesus insisted that life in the kingdom would not be restricted to the Jews, but it would extend to all people in all places.
This thread of the kingdom’s universal availability runs throughout Jesus’ teaching. We see it in his conversation with a Samaritan woman beside a well. This woman was an outsider in a community of outsiders. She was a Samaritan. She was a woman, and the fact that she came to the well in the middle of the day suggests she was likely an outsider within her own community as well. All of this means a typical Jewish man would never interact with her. But Jesus is no typical Jewish man. He enters into a theological conversation with her.
She says, “Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.” Jesus responds, “A time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks.” (John 4:20, 23) Jesus is changing the central value of worship from the physical setting to the heart of the worshiper. It is not the location of worship that matters, he says, but the heart of the one who worships.
This story pays off in a physical way at the moment of Jesus’ death when “the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.” (Matthew 27:51) The curtain here is the one that prevented anyone from entering the temple’s holy of holies, where the Spirit of God dwelt. It was such a holy place that only the high priest was allowed to enter, and him only once a year. The tearing of the curtain is a physical representation of what Jesus told the Samarian woman. The kingdom is not centered in a certain geographic location or restricted to a certain group of people. The kingdom is in the hearts of all who follow Jesus.
The story continues after the resurrection. As the resurrected Jesus stands in the midst of his disciples they still cling to the old view of the kingdom. They ask, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” His response? “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:6-8) In other words, “Don’t worry about the time, but wait here. Because you are about to go further then you ever imagined. You are about to take my story to all the people of the earth.”
And they did. They took the Gospel well beyond the borders of the Promised Land to people of all races, and God confirmed their actions by pouring out his Holy Spirit on Jews and Gentiles alike. Jesus took the expectations of his people and expanded them exponentially. He opened the kingdom to all people.
This is a critical lesson for us all. If you have not yet decided to follow Jesus, you have to know that you can. No one is excluded. The kingdom life, the life your deepest desires point toward is available to you. You don’t need to get your beliefs right first. It is not necessary to stop smoking, drinking, or clean up your act in any way before you begin to follow Jesus. In fact, it’s likely that when you decide to follow Jesus that you’ll realize he has been by your side this whole time, whispering in your ear, wrapping his loving arms around you and gently inviting you into the kingdom life.
This is also an important lesson for those of us who do follow Jesus, because, like the Jews of Jesus’ day, we have a tendency to think of the kingdom in exclusive terms. We devote way too much energy to excluding people. In some cases we do it very directly and in other cases more subtly, and when we do, we fail miserably at our calling to be a light to world. Let’s stop condemning or trying to fix people. It is not our job to do either. The kingdom is available to anyone who is willing to follow Jesus. Can we just invite people into a relationship with him and see what he can do?