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If you have a rose bush in your garden, each spring you experience the joy of seeing tiny buds appear on your bush. You have pruned the unwanted canes of last year and sprayed to prevent any infestation. Now you're rewarded by witnessing one of God's often-unheeded miracles. Hour by hour each bud expands until the first petal separates itself slightly from the bud. Then another petal and another. In a few days the bud has become a gorgeous rose in full bloom.

While the sap from the roots and the light from the sun power this amazing development, another miracle is occurring. The coveted fragrance of the rose, hardly detectable at first, increases until the blossom seems to be outdoing itself in sharing its beauty and its fragrance with the whole wide world.

When we are converted, God's presence in our hearts is like a rose bud. As our nourishment we receive reconciliation with God by faith and knowledge of God through His Word. This divine nourishment "powers" us to expand and grow in Christ. Our personal duty then is to protect and nurture our spiritual rose bud so that it will blossom in beauty and fragrance. The mature flower is the character of Christ in us. We are called to present the beauty of His love and the fragrance of His grace to everyone who meets us.

"Be like Jesus, this my song" is the national anthem of the kingdom of God. When John the Baptist burst upon the scene in Judea, he declared that the kingdom of heaven was at hand (Matt. 3:2). A few months later, when Jesus began His ministry, He also declared that the kingdom of heaven was at hand (Matt. 4:17).

The gospel writers don't tell us in so many words what John the Baptist and Jesus meant by "the kingdom of heaven" or "the kingdom of God." But we have the kingdom parables: mustard seed, leaven, treasure hidden in a field, a fine pearl, the sower, and others. Each of these introduces a characteristic of the kingdom of heaven. Each tells us something unique about the nature of this kingdom and what is expected of its subjects.

Bible scholars suggest that the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7) is the charter of the kingdom of God. Here the subjects of the King are defined and the benefits listed. This kingdom is not a physical, geographic kingdom, nor is it based on wealth and military power. It is a kingdom of the minds and souls and hearts of men and women and children. Its power is love. These subjects pledge heart allegiance to no one but the King of kings.

Characteristics of the Kingdom's Subjects

In the first few verses of chapter 5 we find description after description of the kingdom's characteristics. The believer in Christ, coming into His kingdom, will be given the spiritual resources to become:

Humble (verse 3)

Sorrowful over sin (verse 4)

Patient and gentle (verse 5)

Hungry for knowledge of God's ways (verse 6)

Obedient (verse 6)

Merciful (verse 7)

Pure (verse 8)

Peacemakers (verse 9)

Strong under persecution (verse 10)

These characteristics are not natural for us. Upon entering the kingdom of God with high hopes, we may feel undone by this daunting challenge of possessing Christ's traits of character. We should not. Christlike character is not developed in a day or a year. Paul, near the end of his life realized this. He admitted a goal still lay ahead of him: "Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus" (Phil. 3:12-14).

Christ Makes a Radical Statement

At the close of Matthew 5 is an example of Christ's radical teachings: "But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?" (Matt. 5:44-47).

It's totally unnatural to love people who hate us or with whom we are at odds. Yet the reasoning here is perfectly logical. Jesus said in verse 45: ". . . so that you may be children of your Father in heaven." If the King loves them, then His sons and daughters will love them too. It's a family trait. In love Christ came to bring His enemies (sinners) to repentance (Luke 5:32). Very simply, Jesus says, "Love me. Love the ones I love."

Now, comes the lightning bolt. Jesus has just said: "For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have?" Then He closes this teaching with these shocking words: "Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Matt. 5:46, 48). This verse does not stand alone. It is the conclusion of a paragraph that begins with enemies, reminds us that we are all sinners too, and concludes by urging us-commanding us-to love perfectly, as God loves!

For sinners like you and me, such a command seems so unreasonable that at first we reject it. Its message is uncomfortable-to be avoided whenever possible. We are not God, we are not divine, so how can He expect us to relate to the people who hate us as He relates to them?

A Call to Think Unnaturally

First, we must understand that "perfect" means "mature" or "complete," not sinless. Jesus is challenging His hearers to think and act maturely, not childishly. The paraphrase in the Message Bible reads, "Grow up. You're kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you." Second, this command challenges us to plead for the Holy Spirit to cleanse us of our self-protectiveness and judgmental attitudes, so we can join with our Father in extending the hope of salvation to our enemies, even if they don't know it.

The kingdom charter (the Sermon on the Mount) contains other "as" commands for subjects of the kingdom to heed. Luke's account of this teaching reads: "But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful" ( Luke 6:35, 36).

Again, see how logical this is. Grace and mercy are the engine and wheels of salvation. God has provided freedom from guilt and freedom from punishment for everyone who comes to Him in faith. That is mercy. For us to extend mercy to an enemy means extinguishing our bad feelings about him, so he will not be held captive in the prison of our heart, or, literally, not taken to court. Even though he may not know it, by this action of our heart, we give our enemy reconciliation with us. Our first lovely rose petal, appearing on the rose bud of kingdom loyalty, is a call to think unnaturally about mean, irascible people. It means having one of God's attributes transplanted into our personalities. It is the beginning of the Spirit's work to recreate in us the image of our Maker.

Character transplant, for sure!

Forgive as the King Forgives

Another "as" command in the kingdom charter reads: "If you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses"(Matt. 6:14, 15). Forgive as the King forgives. God's merciful gift of forgiveness is essential in the plan of salvation. When we grow sufficiently in our Christian experience to forgive others as God has forgiven us, we will be participating with Him in their salvation.

Our Savior, through His invitation to the kingdom of heaven, teaches us how to be as special in the garden of life as a prize-winning rose. We may develop from a dormant winter state before conversion to a blossom in full bloom, attractive in beauty and fragrance, in the years that follow. Each chapter of this book is in itself like an opening rosebud. It seems there is no end to the petals that appear as our topic of study unfolds. We begin with a single Biblical idea-the kingdom of heaven-which is the bud. As we progress with related truths, we witness petal after petal opening from the perfectly shaped bud. The person who responds to the call to kingdom life will experience a marvelous development in beauty and fragrance of character. He or she becomes "the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing" (2 Cor. 2:15).

Just Ahead: a Vibrant Inner Life

Every aspect of the Christian life requires a decision on our part and the power of the Holy Spirit to fulfill that decision. That power is a gift from God which we receive through faith. We begin the Christian life by choosing to cut ourselves off from worldly principles and connect to Christ (holiness). This choice is the first step in our life-long spiritual development, a journey theologians call "sanctification." At the same time, responding to God's call, we pray for reconciliation with our Father in heaven, which is receiving the righteousness of Christ by faith. This is called "justification."

We then begin learning about the possibilities of a new and vibrant inner life, patterned after the life of Christ. We pray for enlightenment and power over sin. Continuing to grow, we ask the Holy Spirit to teach us what attitude needs to be crucified, what recess of our "heart" needs to be cleansed. Continuing on in faith, we daily rehearse the call to kingdom life found in the Sermon on the Mount and plead our special personal need. We have determined in our hearts that we want to grow in Christlikeness. Above everything else, we want to be included in Christ's inheritance.

Paul's prayer for the Colossians is a prayer for you and me "that you may be filled with the knowledge of God's will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that you may lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him. . . May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, . . . giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints " (Col. 1:9-12).