Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Kingdom of Heaven

From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
Matthew 4:17

What would you say was the primary message of Jesus' preaching? My guess is that many would answer with something like "love your neighbor" or "treat others as you would have them treat you." There is no doubt that Jesus preached both of these things, and perhaps an argument could be made for them; but it is telling that at least two of the gospel accounts record the beginning of Jesus' preaching ministry with the same message. It is no less telling that we pay little attention to this message and have even less understanding of it. That message is found in Matthew 4:17 and in Mark 1:15 (c.f. Luke 4:21). Since two of the four gospel writers chose this simple sentence to sum up the content of Jesus' earliest preaching, it is worth further examination.

Since we live in a culture that is 2,000 years removed from that of Jesus' first audience, some context and background will be helpful. The Old Testament prophets spoke of a coming day of the Lord. This day of the Lord often had a dual fulfillment for the prophets. It applied not only to Israel's immediate situation, but also to a final day of the Lord when the whole world would be set right. Isaiah 13, for example, speaks of the day of the Lord in this dual sense. Isaiah uses this term to refer to the rapidly approaching destruction of Babylon while also it in reference to the far distant final day of the Lord when the whole world would be judged.* (Hoekema p.9) By the first century the Jewish nation had fallen prey to the great Roman Empire. They were ruled by Rome and forced to pay taxes to Caesar. Faithful Jews believed that when this day of the Lord came at least three things would happen: 1) The wicked would be judged and punished. 2) The righteous would be rewarded for their good deeds. 3) The world would be set right and all of God's promises would be fulfilled, especially the promise of a special land for the people of God. Thus, Jesus' contemporaries expected this final day of the Lord to come at the end of history all at once to usher in the kingdom of heaven (sometimes called the kingdom of God), and they hoped it would come soon so they could be liberated from the oppression of Rome.

Jesus enters into this context and makes the statement, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” It seems that Jesus was saying. "These are the last days! You don't want to be caught off guard. Prepare yourselves for the coming king. Do you really want to be living like this when the king comes? Put your sin away and prepare yourselves!" It is easy to imagine what His first century audience expected of Him with a message like that. They expected Him to fulfill all the Old Testament promises. They expected an earthly kingdom, judgment on their enemies, and blessings for themselves. Throughout the gospels we get glimpses of Jesus' followers struggling to understand why He is not meeting these expectations. Instead of a political revolution and a glorious earthly kingdom, He brought a religious/moral revolution and an inaugurated but not yet visible kingdom. His followers struggled to understand how the Messiah could be victorious by being slain. How can the Messiah conquer evil by being crucified? Jesus' death looked much more like defeat than any victory they had ever imagined. But, all of this changed with the resurrection.

The resurrection, combined with the teachings of Jesus and His apostles, reveals to us that the coming of the kingdom of God has always had two parts. First, the kingdom was to be inaugurated by the coming of the Messiah. With His first advent (coming) the Messiah would come not as judge or conqueror but as a Savior to forgive men's sins and call out a people for Himself from all nations (c.f. John 12:47I Peter 2:9-10 , Matthew 25:32). By His death and resurrection He would not only make forgiveness possible but deal the decisive blow against death and sin thus securing His victory over the enemy. In the first advent the kingdom of God truly did come. It is here among us now even though it has not yet been fully realized. In one parable Jesus describes it as being like a little leaven that is mixed in with a batch of dough (Matthew 13:33). It starts small, but over time it spreads and grows until it accomplishes its full purpose. So too, the kingdom of heaven is here even now. Those of us who belong to Christ are already citizens of the coming kingdom of God and are no longer properly understood as being "of this world" even though we still live in it. It is our calling and privilege to advance the spread of the kingdom until the second coming of Jesus. 

It is at this second coming that the kingdom will be fully realized. Christ will return with a trumpet shout (I Thessalonians 4:16-18). The dead will rise and Jesus will judge all men. The wicked will be cast into the lake of fire, while those who have been declared righteous in Christ will receive their reward- a share in the glory of the Father and the Son in the new heavens and new earth (see Revelation 20:11-22:21). Therefore, since we look forward to an impending second coming of Jesus it is fitting that we circle back to the words with which He began His ministry and say "Repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near." Jesus' return could be soon. You don't really want to be living like this when the king comes do you? Repent and believe. Turn from your sin. Bow the knee to Jesus. Seek His forgiveness and confess Him as Lord and Savior before it is too late.

For further reading...
Hoekema, Anthony A., The Bible and the Future. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdman's Publishing Co., 1979), 9.

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