Not Far From the Kingdom?
John Wesley was born in 1703, the fifteenth child of Samuel Wesley, the rector of Epworth, and his wife, Susanna. He enjoyed a good upbringing under his unusually talented and dedicated mother, and went on to a brilliant career at Charterhouse and Oxford, where he was elected fellow of Lincoln College in 1726. There he served as a double professor of Greek and logic. After serving on his father’s curate on two occasions, he was ordained a priest in the Church of England in 1728.
Returning to Oxford, he joined a group of undergraduates led by his brother, Charles, and the later-to-be-great evangelist George Whitefield, a group dedicated to building a holy life. It was derisively nicknamed by fellow Oxonians the “Holy Club.” Though Wesley was not yet truly converted, he met with these men for prayer, the study of the Greek New Testament, and devotional exercises.
He set aside an hour each day for private prayer and reflection. He took the sacrament of Holy Communion each week, and set himself to conquer every sin. He fasted twice a week, visited the prisons, and assisted the poor and the sick. Doing all this helped him imagine he was a Christian.
In 1735, still unconverted, he accepted an invitation from the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel to become a missionary to the American Indians in Georgia. It was a great fiasco. He utterly failed as a missionary—undergoing miserable conflicts with his colleagues, and almost dying of disease. When he returned to England, he wrote: “I went to America to convert the Indians; but, oh, who shall convert me?” His mission experience taught him the wickedness and waywardness of his own heart.
However, not all was lost, because in his travels aboard ship he met some German Moravian Christians whose simple faith made a great impression on him. When he returned to London, he sought out one of their leaders. Through a series of conversations, to quote Wesley’s own words, he was “clearly convinced of unbelief, of the want of that faith whereby alone we are saved.”
Then, on the morning of May 24, 1738, something happened that Wesley would never forget. He opened his Bible haphazardly, and his eyes fell on the text in Mark 12:34—“You are not far from the kingdom of God.” Wesley said that the words reassured him. And well they should, because before he went to bed that night, he crossed that invisible line into the Kingdom of God. This text was to become Wesley’s life verse, a reminder of the shape of his life for the first thirty-five years of his existence—“You are not far from the kingdom of God.” It is also part of the final verse of the passage under consideration in this chapter.
Beautifully, not only the verse, but its setting (the Lord conversing with a scribe, a lost clergyman of the house of Israel), bears remarkable parallels to Wesley’s own lostness. Both were clergymen. Both were highly educated. Both were Bible scholars who knew the Scriptures inside and out. Both were confronted with Christ, who said to both, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”