The kingdom of God: What does it mean to inherit, or not inherit it

In a recent post, I commented that not inheriting the kingdom of God does not necessarily mean the same thing as going to hell. I was writing about gay marriage and couldn’t follow up on that thought. Many readers may have wondered about it, and one explicitly asked.

In one well-known passage, Jesus spoke of the separation of sheep and goats.

Then the King will say to those on his right, “Come you how are blessed of my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the earth” (Matthew 25:34).

Then he will also say to those on his left, “Depart from me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matthew 25:41).

Eternal fire certainly sounds like hell, doesn’t it? I am not among those (whom I believe to be dangerous false teachers) who deny the reality of hell entirely. On the other hand, it’s important to note that the eternal fire was “prepared for the devil and his angels,” not for humans.

Here and in other places the Holy Spirit shows that some will reject God. Why should they be forced to spend eternity with him if they don’t want to? The only place to avoid God’s presence is that eternal fire. On the other hand, he also reveals that God wants everyone to come to repentance and not perish (2 Peter 3:9).


In the US, “All persons born or naturalized in the United States . . . are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside.” No other nation on earth has that definition of citizenship. We didn’t either, until the adoption of the 14th Amendment.

Since no one writing in the Bible knew anything of our conception of citizenship, we must put it out of our minds when discussing anything that touches on it.

Not everyone who lived in Rome was a Roman citizen. We find from Acts 27:28 that Paul was a Roman citizen by birth. The commander in the Roman army he spoke to had paid a lot of money for citizenship.

Of course, no sinner is ever a citizen of heaven by birth. Since grace is free, no amount of money can purchase citizenship in heaven. The Roman model does not work any better than the American model for explaining how not inheriting the kingdom doesn’t necessarily mean going to hell.

According to the ancient Hebrew model, only descendants of one of the twelve patriarchs (the sons of Jacob, with Joseph getting a double portion) qualified for citizenship.

No one else, no matter how long they had lived in Hebrew territory, could expect any rights of citizenship. Yet as I explained in my post on social justice, God commanded his people not to oppress aliens (Exodus 23:9).

The Gibeonites

When Joshua led the people into the promised land, his mission was to destroy every remnant of Canaanite civilization. It was capital punishment, not genocide. And it was totally justified. But Joshua made one major blunder.

People of the city of Gibeon sent a delegation to him dressed in tatters and carrying the old, worn out luggage and wineskins. They told Joshua that they had come from a far country to make a treaty with him. Neglecting to pray and find out, he believed them.

Once he found out they had lied, his treaty even bound the Hebrews to defend the Gibeonites when other Canaanite cities attacked them. But Joshua couldn’t let them live independently on the land he was supposed to rid of all its natives.

The only remaining alternative? He enslaved them and set them as “hewers of wood and drawers of water” for God’s altar (Joshua 9:23, 27). The law commanded constant fire in the tabernacle, continuous burnt offerings, and many ritual washings.

The Gibeonites did the manual labor. They cut down all the trees, chopped all the firewood, and carried all the water required for those rituals, and maybe for the private use of priestly families as well.

For how long? Centuries later, King Saul tried to slaughter the Gibeonites. That left a mess for David to clean up later (2 Samuel 12:1-6). So they were still living in the land and presumably still enslaved to the altar of God.

David’s atonement for Saul’s treachery is the last we hear of the Gibeonites. Or is it? 1 Chronicles 9:2 says that the first tribe to live in their cities were “the priests, the Levites, and the temple servants.” That would be the Gibeonites, but the chronicler uses the word “nethinim” for servants.

That verse can only mean the Gibeonites, and it can only refer to the time of the conquest under Joshua. If we don’t find any later reference to the Gibeonites, we do find one to the Nethinim. It’s in Ezra 7:24!

Skip past the entire period of the judges, the entire period of the kingdom of David and Saul, the entire period of the splinter kingdom of Judah, and the Babylonian captivity.

That’s more than 1000 years. The descendants of the Canaanite city of Gibeon were still enslaved to the priests and the temple. They had endured captivity in Babylon. They had chosen to return to Jerusalem with their masters. Presumably they continued to serve through the time of Jesus until the Romans destroyed the temple and drove the Jews from Jerusalem in A. D. 70.

And in that entire time, probably at least 2000 years, they had no hope of any of the rights of citizenship in Israel.

Might not the kingdom of God have its citizens and its Nephinim? Might there not be many who will inherit the kingdom by grace through faith, a few who will utterly reject God, and some unknown quantity of others who would rather become slaves than either accept grace or utterly reject God?

Photo credit:
Lamb of God window: Some rights reserved by Trish Steel
Chopping wood. Some rights reserved by Peretz Partensky


The kingdom of God: What does it mean to inherit, or not inherit it — 4 Comments

  1. How can you avoid Gods presence? Is the fire gonna keep you away from being in his presence? Site references when you decide to preach something.

    • I appreciate your comment.

      I suppose your reference is Psalm 139:7-12, which testifies to the impossibility of fleeing from God’s presence. It does not speak of being banished from God’s presence. I cited Matthew 24:51, where it says “depart from me.” A parallel passage is Luke 13:25-28. Five other verses in Matthew declare that some will be cast into the outer darkness or the furnace of fire. Can you cite God’s presence in those places?

      But here is my point: Not inheriting the kingdom is not necessarily the same as being banished from it.

  2. Uhm, I think the answer is in the first few lines. “Know ye not that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God”. A part in the Bible says we are the righteousness of God in Christ Jesus. As long as we believe on the son of God, is death, resurrection and ascension we are the righteousness of God in Christ Jesus. We are dead to sin, we don’t have the ability to sin in us. We all should grow up into the fullness of who we are. I believe the Bible was referring to children that are not saved yet.

    • Thanks for reading and for commenting, but you give the answer to a different question than this post asks: Given that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God, what does that mean for them?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *