If you grew up evangelical, you know that the gospel is this: Jesus died for our sins so we can go to heaven when we die.
The problem is, that’s not true. Or rather, it IS true, but it’s not the gospel–not the whole gospel, not even really the point of the gospel.
The gospel is not about going to heaven. The gospel is about heaven coming to us.
The gospel has a lot to say about “when we die,” but it has just as much (or more) to say about “how we live.”
THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN HAS COME NEAR
With his accounts of Jesus’s birth and early life, the coming of John the Baptist, and of Jesus’s baptism and temptation, Matthew has set the stage for us to see Jesus not just as an interesting teacher or leader but as the focal point of history, as the fulfillment of thousands of years of prophecy and typology, as God’s light breaking into darkness.
It all leads to this moment, to Matthew 4:17:
From then on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, because the kingdom of heaven has come near!”
Jesus’s ministry had officially begun. But there’s a bigger picture here. Ostensibly, Jesus’s ministry lasted three years. Actually, it lasted three years in Judea. After that, Jesus ascended into the heavens and continued his ministry from the right hand of God.
What Jesus proclaimed in Matthew 4:17 is still true:
The kingdom of heaven has come near.
It is STILL near.
It is still, as some translations have it, “at hand”–within reach, at our fingertips, no longer distant or inaccessible.
What does that mean?
A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE KINGDOM OF GOD
Matthew is unique in his use of the term “kingdom of heaven,” or more accurately, “kingdom of the heavens.” Writing for a Jewish audience, he presumed on their understanding of the term: heaven in Old Testament understanding is not the distant home of the righteous dead but the invisible, spiritual realm where God is. It coexists with the physical realm and directly impacts it. God’s throne exists in the heavens. Angels and even demons also exist in the heavens–in the invisible realm. Heaven is the source of all authority and rule on earth.
Luke, writing to a Gentile audience that may not understand heaven in the same sense, uses the term “kingdom of God,” as do Mark, John, and Paul. The terms are synonymous, because heaven in Jewish understanding was the realm of God.
It’s unfortunate that we’ve grown so used to talking about heaven as a far distant afterlife, a place removed from us. That concept has more in common with pagan notions of a palatial home of the gods, a Mount Olympus where mortals cannot ascend.
The Old Testament picture is of a heaven that is immediate: an invisible reality that may be revealed any time God chooses to draw back the curtain and give us a glimpse. The word “heaven” or “heavens” is just as validly (and often) translated “sky.” Birds fly in the heavens. Sun, moon, and stars shine in the heavens. Heaven is as immediate as the air we breathe.
We, of course, can’t see it. We are physical beings who are, as George Eliot said, “well wadded with stupidity.” Unless and until God grants us glimpses, we do not see the ocean we swim in.
THE KINGDOM AT WAR
Historically speaking, we are also in rebellion against the kingdom of God. God is sovereign, and he rules sovereignly in the invisible realm that lies behind everything we can see and touch. But mankind has been fighting that rule since Eden, as have the whole swath of spiritual beings under Satan’s rule.
There is no question of whether or not God reigns. He does. But that doesn’t mean everyone is willingly submitted to that rule. In fact, the reality is emphatically the opposite. This is why the kingdom can be simultaneously here and not here: God reigns, but not everyone bows. Jesus is on the throne now, but he is waiting for his enemies to be made his footstool. We are in the kingdom of heaven now, but we wait for the day when the war will cease and everything is reconciled in him.
This is a really significant thing to understand, because a sovereign, all-powerful kingdom is a wonderful thing when it’s on your side and a terrible thing when it isn’t.
An earlier post in this series talked about Jesus as the heir of David. David’s kingship, which was to extend to all the earth, was intended to join the kingdoms of earth with the kingdom of heaven. Through a man after his own heart, God would rule his people. But David’s children rebelled and turned to idols, until God at last cursed his line and left this kingdom of heaven-on-earth with an empty throne.
Jesus came to fill that throne. He came to end the war between God and man and bring the peace–the harmony and wholeness–of reconciliation, extending the direct rule of God to the ends of the earth. Fully human and fully divine, Jesus is God putting himself on David’s throne through David’s seed, just like he fulfilled the promise to Abraham to bless the whole world through a child of Abraham who just happened to be himself.
THE KINGDOM AT HAND
So what exactly IS it that Jesus came preaching? He wasn’t creating the kingdom of heaven or setting up the kingdom of God: the kingdom had always existed. Rather, he was bringing the rule of God directly to earth, no longer mediating it through other kings or powers. He was making the throne accessible to us. He was ending the war.
When he said the kingdom had “come near,” he meant it in a wondrously literal way: the kingdom of the heavens was walking, visibly, in Galilee: calling disciples, eating and drinking, teaching, preaching, and healing people.
The kingdom had come in the person of one man.
And Jesus showed us what it means to LIVE in the kingdom. He showed us what it means to be fully submitted to the rule of God and to have direct access to him. He gave us a picture of the kingdom as a life source.
This is what I meant when I earlier said the gospel is about “how we live”: not only in the sense of “things we should or shouldn’t do,” but in the sense of our access, our life source, our path, our way of being human and relating to God.
Jesus himself is the kingdom of heaven. He is the rule of God personified. He demonstrates what it means for God to reign directly within a human being, to dwell with his spirit in perfect harmony.
Jesus shows us what it means to NOT be at war with God and so to have total access to him, to be under kingdom provision, kingdom law, kingdom goodness, kingdom life.
NOW AND NOT YET
Paul sums up our situation as believers in Colossians 1:13:
He has rescued us from the domain of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of the Son He loves.
The kingdom of the heavens is here, accessible, at hand.
The kingdom of God, as Jesus said in Luke 17:21, is among us.
Yet, the Bible is clear, the kingdom is still coming. Until the whole world is reconciled as we are reconciled, there is a sense in which we still wait, and pray, for “the kingdom come.”
In the meantime, we have access to the kingdom through Jesus. “I am the door,” he told his disciples in John 10:9. “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6).
THE GOSPEL OF THE KINGDOM
The gospel of the kingdom–or, in more modern English, the good news of the kingdom–is that the kingdom of God is here, and rather than relating to it as rebels, we are invited to repent and become full citizens. “The kingdom of God,” Paul declares in Romans 14:17, is “righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.” Hebrews 12:28 declares this “a kingdom that cannot be shaken,” in which God’s promise to the Son is fulfilled:
“Your throne, O God, is forever and ever, and the scepter of Your kingdom is a scepter of justice.” (Heb 1:8)
We can benefit from the direct rule of God in our hearts and lives. His righteousness, peace, joy, and justice can be the banner that flies over us. The king has walked among us and opened the door to us all.
In fact, that’s what it means to be “the church”: the Greek word ekklesia (“church”) means a body of citizens. You haven’t been given an entry permit to heaven after you die: you’ve been given citizenship in heaven here and now.
The invisible kingdom is your kingdom. The invisible realm is the source of your life, and you are at harmony with it. Its resources, goodness, and power are yours.
IF, that is, you have come in through the door and knelt at the throne of David.
THE QUESTIONS WE SHOULD ASK
I love Matthew so much because it positions Jesus within the Big Story of creation and redemption: because in Matthew, I come to understand who we are, who Jesus is, and where we’re at in history. Understanding those things (as best as I can, anyway!) leads to a new paradigm that leads to new questions.
If we aren’t in fact just waiting to “go to heaven,” if we’re already in, what does it mean to live in heaven now? (“Don’t rejoice that the demons are subject to you,” Jesus told his disciples in Luke 10:20; “rejoice that your names are written in heaven”).
If Jesus has established the kingdom of heaven on earth and we are full citizens of that kingdom, what is our role in this earth? What are we doing here, actually? (A lot more, I would wager, than “just passing through.”)
The gospel of the kingdom changes our questions, and the possible answers, because it offers a very different paradigm than many of us are used to hearing.
Jesus’s announcement was world-altering in 30 AD: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven HAS COME NEAR.” It’s still world-altering now.
Jesus didn’t immediately vault to an earthly throne and bring the power of the kingdom cracking down dictator style. Instead, he started planting the kingdom in individual human hearts and said it would grow from there. Righteousness, peace, and joy would transform the world from the inside out. The kingdom would be expressed in the obedience of its citizens, who like Jesus would love God and others more than their own lives and would walk in the power of the Holy Spirit.
We don’t just PRAY “your kingdom come,” we help answer the prayer.
Heaven is here. It’s your kingdom, your home country, your inheritance. How does that change your perspective?
How does it change your LIFE?
I invite your thoughts: leave a comment here or on Facebook, or shoot me an email.
(This is Part 16 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.)