From the beginning of Jesus’ ministry his message was, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17). Even before he began preaching this message John the Baptist had been preaching the identical message; “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2). All through his ministry Jesus preached the same “gospel of the kingdom.”
Matthew 9:35 “And Jesus went throughout all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction.”
Matthew 24:14“And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.”
Many of the parables of Jesus were designed to explain the kingdom.
Matthew 13:44 “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.”
Matthew 13:47 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and gathered fish of every kind.”
Jesus even said that the kingdom had already come in some manifestation during the time he lived in this world. “But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you” (Matthew 12:28). How so? God’s influence over the demons was a manifestation of his kingdom. God had the right to rule over the demons and they recognized that right. They could not refuse to do Jesus’ bidding when he was casting them out.
Following his resurrection he talked with his disciples about the kingdom (Acts 1:3). The disciples were still asking about the kingdom moments before he ascended into heaven (Acts 1:6). The conclusion of Peter’s sermon on the day of Pentecost was that Jesus was now Lord and Christ (or King). Thus, the sermon amounted to the “gospel” or “good news” that the kingdom of heaven had come into the world and that people could now enter into it and receive its benefits.
Let us be clear what we are talking about here when we refer to the kingdom of God or the kingdom of heaven. The word kingdom refers to the dominion or domain of a king. A dominion is the extent of the influence or rule of a king. Heaven is where God is as he exercises his rule or exerts his influence, therefore the kingdom or influence originating in heaven as opposed to whatever dominion or rule that originates from any other source such as the kingdoms of the world is what God’s kingdom is (Matthew 4:8).
God has always had a kingdom. That is, there has never been a time when God did not exert his influence over his creation. The problem since the fall of man has been that man has deposed God from his rightful place over his life – kicked him out of the place he belongs over the whole of creation – especially over man.
In the Roman letter Paul described the process by which man did this terrible deed. He says there that though man from the beginning knew God he imagined himself to be wise and refused to acknowledge God as his rightful ruler. The result was that humanity degenerated into a moral morass and brought on himself the judgment of God he deserves for his rebellion.
There have been men down through the ages who recognized the right of God to rule over all that he made. Even idolatrous kings like Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon saw and confessed this fundamental truth.
Daniel 4:3 “How great are his signs, how mighty his wonders! His kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and his dominion endures from generation to generation.”
This same king had had a dream of a great image like a man made up of different kinds of metal. When his wise men could not interpret the dream he called upon Daniel, a servant from the captive Jewish people, to tell him the meaning of his dream. Daniel explains that the different parts of the image represented different kingdoms of men, of which his, Nebuchadnezzar’s was the first. He told him that in the days of the last of these kings the God of heaven would set up a kingdom which would never be destroyed.
This prophecy did not mean that God hadn’t had a kingdom before this time. It meant that God’s kingdom would become evident among men and would penetrate the world in ways it had not since the fall of man. This is what was meant by Jesus when he spoke of the kingdom having come during the days of his ministry.
There is an incident recorded by Matthew and Luke, (Matthew11:3-6; Luke 7:18-23), where John, who was in Herod’s prison, sent some of his disciples to ask Jesus if he was the one for whom they were looking (the Messiah, the Anointed One or the King) or should they look for someone else. Jesus told them to go and tell John what they saw …
“Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.” (Luke 7:22-23).
What did Jesus mean? Well, think about it. Where does blindness, lameness, leprosy, deafness, poverty and death come from? Were not all these things the result of man’s sin? If these things which were the results of the curse brought on creation because of sin were being undone, then his healing ministrations were signs that the kingdom – God’s benevolent, redemptive influence – was being exerted in this fallen world.
We understand from the words of Jesus quoted earlier that there was yet to come a fuller manifestation of the kingdom of God. This description of God’s manifest presence and rule over these results of the curse gives us a strong indication of what the kingdom would be like when it came in its fullness. God’s rule has never been by the imposition of sheer power. God does not rule as a tyrant or an imperious dictator. His rule has always been one of gentle healing, persuading, guiding and leading. His rule, presently exercised through the Son, Jesus, who is the King upon God’s throne, is one of restorative, healing love. It is exercised with a view to restoring the human race to its intended place beside him in his good creation. Seen in this light, the kingdom of God is about calling man back into his rightful relationship with his Creator.
Through the process of time it has been demonstrated both how far man has wandered away from God and how persistently and patiently God has sought to bring man back to himself. Everything God has done for man has been directed toward this end. It has always been when man demonstrated that he wanted nothing to do with God that he brought judgment and destruction upon himself. God’s actions always are for man’s good.
Tragically, man has a way of turning even the blessings of God into something hurtful and destructive. God has always made his will for man known. He has always sought by his expressed will to bless man and to promote man’s best interest. His will for man – God’s law – has always been intended by God to be for man’s good. Moses, before he died, said to the children of Israel …
Deuteronomy 6:24 “And the Lord commanded us to do all these statutes, to fear the Lord our God, for our good always, that he might preserve us alive, as we are this day.”
God’s commandments were intended to become a way of life to his people. He intended for them to learn them so that the requirements of the law would be done by them as “second nature.” He didn’t intend for any of his commandments to be a burden to his people. He loved them – that’s why he gave them his law. He gave them the law so that they might not live in such a way as to forget him and hurt themselves as a result. The nations around them were destroying themselves through their idolatry and lawlessness. If his people respected and obeyed his laws they would not only be spared the destruction their neighbors were experiencing, they would be blessed and made to flourish.
But think of what his people did with his law. Just one example will suffice. The Sabbath. God gave the Sabbath as a day of rest. He said that six days were enough for men to labor and gave them the seventh day as a day on which they could enter into restorative rest with him, enjoying him and the good things he had given them. By the time of Jesus, they had made the Sabbath into a burden, encumbering it with so many rules and regulations that no one could remember them all, let alone keep them.
The most bitter criticisms of Jesus and his disciples came as a result of the Jew’s perception of him as a Sabbath breaker – and it did look as though he didn’t respect this holy day. The problem was not that Jesus didn’t respect the law of God – he did respect it. What he didn’t respect was the encrustation of human traditions that clung to the Sabbath like barnacles on the bottom of a boat. On one occasion Jesus said to his critics …
Mark 2:27-28 “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.”
What did he mean by this? I believe he would explain it something like this: “The Sabbath was made for man to rest, to be refreshed and to be restored. It was made to take you back to the beginning with God – back to the way it was before sin spoiled everything. That would include the healing of sicknesses and the restoration of impaired bodies. The Sabbath should have been seen as a rhythm into which life flows easily and naturally. But you have turned it into a legal nightmare that no man can keep with your endless, burdensome rules and regulations. You were given the Sabbath as a gracious gift and you have turned it into a legal burden.”
This is what men have done with the kingdom of God. Churches have turned the simple, natural relationship God intended with man into a religion of rules and traditions. Jesus did not come to establish a religion. He came to bring men under the rule of God. He offers man a yoke, but compared to the burden religion places on our necks, his yoke is easy and light. It should be something we seek and bear gladly.