The Essence Within: Divinity or Depravity?

by Pastor Larry DeBruyn for Contemplative Spirituality

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The contemplative delusion that the kingdom of God is “within.”

The kingdom of God cometh not with observation: Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you.” Jesus, Luke 17:20-21, KJV

In common with eastern mysticism and New Age religion, contemplative spiritualists assume that all humanity possesses a divine essence within their souls, an essence waiting to be awakened via contact with God through meditation. Because “God is within and permeates all creation,” one contemplative states, “Every person can awaken to this and experience God directly.” She then adds, “. . . anyone can experience this dynamic presence of God, because God is within everything he creates. . . . So ‘The Kingdom of God is within you’ is hardly a heretical statement.” [1]

Her reference to the “kingdom-of-God-within” derives from Jesus’ statement in the Gospels where responding to the Pharisees’ question about when the kingdom of God would come (Luke 17:20a), Jesus replied, “The kingdom of God cometh not with observation: Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you” (Emphasis mine, Luke 17:20b-21, KJV). As assumed by contemplative spiritualists, did Jesus mean to infer that all persons possess a “dynamic presence,” a divine kingdom within them?

In answering the question, it must first be noted that translations vary in how they treat Jesus’ statement (Greek, ‘entós ‘umon ‘estin). They read in one of two ways: first, that “the kingdom of God is within you” (KJV, NKJV, ASV, NIV); or second, that “the Kingdom of God is among you” (NAB, NRSV, NLT), or “in your midst” (NASB). So did Jesus mean to say to His hearers that the kingdom of God was inside you or in your presence? The preposition will bear either meaning. So understanding what Jesus meant will depend upon other relevant contextual and theological issues.

First, the pronoun “you” (plural) refers to Pharisees who broached the question to Jesus. When Jesus said “the kingdom of God is within you,” He was addressing a situation unique to the Pharisees at that time, and not alluding to a spiritual condition that characterizes all humanity. Clarification regarding what Jesus meant about the kingdom within will be gained by knowing something of the Pharisees in general, and one Pharisee in particular, Nicodemus.

The Gospels record the Pharisees were no friends of Jesus. The enmity of the Pharisees against Jesus caused them to plot his death (Matthew 12:14). On numerous occasions they asked Jesus trick questions to entrap him (Matthew 22:15; Mark 12:13). Jesus’ words and ministry angered the Pharisees.

But the Pharisees also aroused Jesus. He warned audiences to beware of “the leaven of the Pharisees,” which referred to their corrupt teaching and hypocritical example (Matthew 16:3, 6, 11, 12). Christ also accused them of being full of “dead men’s bones and all uncleanness” (Matthew 23:27). He pronounced woes upon them (Matthew 23:13-29). The Lord declared to them, “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you shut off the kingdom of heaven from people; for you do not enter in yourselves, nor do you allow those who are entering to go in” (Matthew 23:13). Given Jesus’ negative assessment of the spiritual condition of the Pharisees, it becomes impossible to see how the same religious group that Jesus accused of shutting both themselves and others off from “the kingdom of heaven” were at the same time, indwelt of “the kingdom of God” (Compare Matthew 23:13 and Luke 17:21). As Darrell Bock comments, “Contextually, Jesus is addressing the Pharisees, who are the last group of people that Jesus would say has the kingdom in them (Luke 11:37-52, esp. 11:52).” [2]

Second, the kingdom of God is His rule in the hearts and lives of His people. As indicated by Jesus’ indictment of them, the Pharisees were obviously not disposed to submit to God’s kingdom or authority. Like them, neither is our nature inclined to submit to God. By failing to keep either the spirit and/or letter of the Ten Commandments, humanity demonstrates rebellion against God’s kingdom. To submit to God’s moral laws requires that people be given a new disposition to love God and their neighbors. A person needs a new heart, a new spiritual essence (Ezekiel 11:19-21; 36:25-27; John 3:5). Therefore, the contemplative assumption, that there is a mini-kingdom of God indwelling all persons, raises questions about both the necessity and origin of the new birth, or regeneration as theologians call it.

Do all persons need to be “born again” in order to see or enter “the kingdom of God” (to live in submission to God’s authority), or do they only need to nurture the kingdom of God within? Jesus told a Pharisee named Nicodemus that he needed to be “born from above” (Greek, ‘ánothen) in order to “see [or, ‘enter’] the kingdom of God” (John 3:3, 5, 7). Yet by inference from Jesus’ statement in Luke 17:21, contemplatives would assume that the kingdom of God already resided in Nicodemus and that he was living in submission to God’s authority. Yet from Jesus’ words to him, it is evident that was not the case. But assuming for a moment that it was, why didn’t Jesus just tell Nicodemus that he needed to be born from within? But regeneration (i.e., salvation) does not come to the human heart from that source. As J. Stafford Wright understood, “In the New Testament salvation never comes by developing something that is already within, but by receiving something that comes from above.” [3]

Absent birth by the Holy Spirit from above, any mystical assumption that the human heart possesses a divine essence, a resident kingdom of God within, does not accord with Jesus’ teaching and is therefore, heretical (Compare Mark 7:14-23.). In order to either “see” or “enter the kingdom of Goda person must be born from above. In his teaching, Jesus spoke of persons entering the kingdom. But He did not speak of a kingdom of God residing in people. The New Birth, the requirement for entering the kingdom of God, comes from without a human soul, not from within it.

In dealing with their question regarding the coming kingdom, Jesus told the Pharisees they did not need to look any further for miraculous events signaling the introduction of the messianic age. By the signs and wonders He performed and in accord with Old Testament predictions and Jewish anticipation, Jesus fulfilled the kingdom expectation of Israel (See Isaiah 35:4-6a.). [4] By stating to the Pharisees that the kingdom was “among them,” Jesus informed them that with His presence and by His miracles they were first hand observing the kingdom of God in their midst. Commending this line of argument, Marshall comments that “a kingdom can hardly be ‘here’ or ‘there’, and so the reference must be to the ruler himself.” [5] Thus, in accord with His messianic mission and Jewish expectation, Jesus announced to the Pharisees that in their midst, not in them, the long awaited kingdom of Israel was present. To experience the kingdom, they only needed to direct their attention toward the King and submit to Him!

Ironic isn’t it . . . that contemplative spiritualists hijack a statement Jesus meant to refer to His messianic presence and twist it to affirm their divine essence. Some people, it seems, ever desire to take the glory that belongs to the King and apply it to themselves (See Isaiah 42:2; 48:11.).

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ENDNOTES
[1] Frederica Mathewes-Green, “What Heresy?” November 1, 2003, http://www.ctlibrary.com/bc/2003/novdec/4.22.html
[2] Darrell L. Bock, Luke 9:51-24:53, Vol. 2 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1996) 1415.
[3] J. Stafford Wright, Mind, Man and the Spirits (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1971) 13.
[4] In addition to this Isaiah prophecy (Is. 35:4-6a), the Dead Sea Scrolls witness that the Jews expected a kingdom would be introduced by messianic miracles, including spectacular resurrections of the dead. A scroll fragment called the “Messianic Apocalypse” states: Messiah, “will heal the wounded, and revive the dead and bring good news to the poor . . .” See Dr. James G. Tabor, “Signs of the Messiah: 4Q521,” http://www.religiousstudies.uncc.edu/jdtabor/4q521.html

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