When Jesus began his ministry he proclaimed that the kingdom og God was near. What did that mean then and why does it matter today?
Leading up to Christmas, we focused a lot on the birth of Jesus, and we celebrated “baby Jesus” at Christmas. Now it’s post-Christmas, and we’re going to wrap up our series on Jesus & The Kingdom, but today we’re going to move on past “baby Jesus” and look at adult Jesus, and what he was all about.
First, of all Jesus was a Jew. Let’s think for a minute about what being Jewish was like at that time, in the first century.
As a Jew your history is that you USED to have your own king and your own land. You USED to be a people that had God fighting your battles for you and the glory of God living among you. You USED to be the nation that everyone feared and revered. However, your rebellion against God, as a nation/people brought about your ruin. The glory days are hundreds of years behind you.
In the 1st Century you would be living under Roman military/political occupation of your homeland (Abraham/Yahweh’s people). With taxes (constantly increasing) and ancient family properties being re-appropriated and people who used to be landowners now slaves/workers on their family land. Not a pleasant time/situation for the Jews.
I am sure it would have been easy to think back on the glory days! “Oh for the days when God was among us and fought for us and we had a king and a kingdom that prospered and lived without fear of our enemies! As it is, God has been silent, and even his prophets have been silent for over 400 years.
Imagine being one of those Jews, a farmer or fisherman, and hearing about a new teacher, a popular new pastor, making waves in your town. He’s from Nazareth but he’s in town spreading his ideas and you’re interested in going to hear what he has to say.
So you go and you listen to him...what do you hear him talk about? The golden rule? How would you summarize his teachings?
There IS one thing that Jesus talked about more than anything else, and it’s abundantly clear (or should be) throughout all 3 of the synoptic gospels, but today we’re going to focus primarily on the book of Matthew. Our main passage will come from chapter 4. We’re going to pick up the story in verse 12, after Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist, then tested in the wilderness. We come to a shift in the narrative where John’s story leaves off, and Jesus’s ministry begins.
12 When he heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew into Galilee. 13 He left Nazareth and went to live in Capernaum by the sea, in the region of Zebulun and Naphtali. 14 This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah:
15 Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali, along the road by the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles. 16 The people who live in darkness have seen a great light, and for those living in the land of the shadow of death, a light has dawned.
17 From then on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, because the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
Again, imagine yourself as a Jew hearing this, in person, for the first time. You’re a descendant of Abraham living in your promised land, which was given to you by your God, Yahweh. But your land has been occupied by Romans. You’re under the rule of a foreign king, Ceasar Augustus.
You are crowded around your fellow Jews to hear this Jesus guy speak, and there’s one thing that really jumps out at you. And this is the thing that summarizes and encompasses everything he taught about and did. It's that phrase “Kingdom of God” or “Kingdom of Heaven.” The implication is that this guy is claiming that he’s here to bring back the kingship of Yahweh, YOUR god, the Jewish god.
So, that phrase would definitely strike a chord with listeners. Most likely, you would be looking for an anticipating the Kingdom of God, like Joseph of Arimathea:
Mark 15:43 || 43 Joseph of Arimathea, a prominent member of the Sanhedrin who was himself looking forward to the kingdom of God, came and boldly went to Pilate and asked for Jesus’s body. [CSB]
That phrase, “the kingdom of heaven”, is also how Matthew summarized all of Jesus’s teachings. Not to love your neighbor, or the golden rule, those are crucial teachings, but they are just partial aspects of this much bigger idea of the kingdom of God.
But what exactly IS the “kingdom of God”? Well, that’s what we’ll be looking at for the rest of the morning, but we have to warn you that in some ways this topic remains ambiguous and confusing, and nobody can really boil it down to a simple descriptive sentence or two. And this is probably why it hasn’t gotten talked about a whole lot, and why it generally is not the first thing we tend to think about when we think about Jesus. But Jesus talked a LOT about it, and that’s why we’re going to talk about it today.
Now, we’ve been tracking this theme of kingship through the Old Testament, and we looked at Israel’s first kings. But I want to quiz you all and see if anyone knows when the word or concept of a king or kingship FIRST appears in the Bible.
This is somewhat of a trick question; a concordance won’t really help with this one, because the word “king” isn’t actually the word used in English, but the answer I’m looking for is, big surprise, in Genesis chapter 1. Everything traces back to Genesis! Specifically, 1:27-28.
So God created man in his own image; he created him in the image of God; he created them male and female. 28 God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, and subdue it. Rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and every creature that crawls on the earth.”
God, the creator and therefore ruler and owner of the universe, plants a garden, and places two humans in it. He commands them to share his rule. That word “Rule” is essentially the verb form of “king” because that’s what a king or queen does, right? So God gave humans a unique capacity among creation, being made in his image, and with it a great responsibility, a divine calling.
But instead of ruling under God, within the parameters of his kingship, the humans decided to rebel against their creator and elevate themselves beyond their position, essentially out of a desire to create their own kingdom for themselves. Of course, in doing so, they were banished from the garden, the realm which God shared with them, where his rule, his kingship provided safety and abundance.
But God didn’t abandon humanity! When he chose Abraham and brought up a people group to know him and be ruled by him, he was establishing a kingdom, long before Israel demanded a human king. In fact, here’s the next trivia question: Who knows when the word “king” is first used to refer specifically to God? This time it’s not a trick question.
First time God is called king: Exodus 15:18, after he delivers them from the king of Egypt, through the waters of the red sea. The people of Israel sing a song of praise to Yahweh:
1 I will sing to Yahweh, for he is highly exalted; he has thrown the horse and its rider into the sea. 2 Yahweh is my strength and my song; he has become my salvation. This is my God, and I will praise him, my father’s God, and I will exalt him. 3 Yahweh is a warrior; Yahweh is his name.
18 Yahweh will reign as king forever and ever.”
The king Yahweh is a rescuer, and this generation, that saw Yahweh as their protector, provider and rescuer, honored God as king. Horray!
It only takes a couple of generations and Israel outright rejected God as their king. Remember, in 1 Samuel when they demand to have a king, what God says to Samuel:
1 Samuel 8:7 || 7 But Yahweh told him, “Listen to the people and everything they say to you. They have not rejected you; they have rejected me as their king. [CSB]
When the people asked for their first human king, God said they rejected HIM as their king.
So, the Old Testament leaves us not with a solution or a resolution, but with a longing...a hope, and multitudinous prophecies that their longing and hopes would in fact be fulfilled. Someday, God will be restored as the rightful king and establish his Kingdom forever.
We find this theme very clearly and poetically in Isaiah 52:7-10:
How delightful on the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news,
who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation,
who says to Zion, “Your God reigns as a king.”
Good news! That is exactly the meaning of the word “gospel” and according to Matthew, Mark, and Luke, this is exactly what Jesus came to bring.
Bringing it back to our passage in Matthew, when we get to this message:
Matthew 4:17 - From then on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, because the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
Though the concept of the kingdom may have been well perceived, the reality of what it was, how it was manifest and how to live as a citizen of that kingdom was something that certainly needed much teaching - most of which was Jesus did through parables.
If you were that first century Jew and you heard Jesus make this statement, what do you think you would be expecting?
I can imagine that I would be thinking of God restoring us to our land, conquering the Romans and kicking them, and their taxes, out of our nation. I think I would begin to dream of the glory days and start to believe that they would be restored.
So, If Jesus came to reassert Yahweh’s authority as king, how would he do it?
Miraculous healing, unwavering spirituality, and moral purity? Yes, to be sure, but that’s not what got him crucified is it? So, was he a violent rebel who pursued a complex scheme to overthrow the Roman empire? No. In fact, he seemed far less concerned with Rome than with the corruption within the Jewish leadership and religious practices of the day. How is that going to help him establish himself as king?
Well, it turns out that Jesus spent a great deal of time trying to explain the nature of his kingdom, and how it is a radically upside-down way of seeing things compared to what we’re used to and what the Jews were expecting. And even when he was presenting moral teachings, it was generally within the context of how it looks in God’s kingdom.
While the Jews were looking for someone to save them from the oppression of their earthly enemies, Jesus gave them this command:
Matthew 5:43–44 || 43 “You have heard that it was said, Love your neighbor and hate your enemy. 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, [CSB]
Pray for the Romans? Surely that was NOT the way a king would act! Didn’t the prophets say the King from the line of David would give us relief from our enemies?
Surely the king of the Jews would stop us from having to give our money and produce to a pagan government. Of course the King of kingdom of God would free us from the burden of Roman taxes!
Matthew 22:15–22 || 15 Then the Pharisees went and plotted how to trap him by what he said. 16 So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians. “Teacher,” they said, “we know that you are truthful and teach truthfully the way of God. You don’t care what anyone thinks nor do you show partiality. 17 Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” 18 Perceiving their malicious intent, Jesus said, “Why are you testing me, hypocrites? 19 Show me the coin used for the tax.” They brought him a denarius. 20 “Whose image and inscription is this?” he asked them. 21 “Caesar’s,” they said to him. Then he said to them, “Give, then, to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” 22 When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left him and went away. [CSB]
So what about the land that God deeded to us as an inheritance?! If this is god’s kingdom and he gave us that land forever, the Promised land, of course he will want to restore that land to us! He will kick out the infidels and reclaim his borders so we can live at peace in the land once again. That is the promise of the prophets of old.
Right, well, during his trial before Pilate, Jesus was asked point-blank if he was a king. He was on trial for his claim of being a king of a kingdom! His answer teaches us that the Kingdom of God is not about this material world:
John 18:36 || 36 “My kingdom is not of this world,” said Jesus. “If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would fight, so that I wouldn’t be handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” [CSB]
At least, not at this time! There will be a day when all the kingdoms of the world will be under the kingship of Christ, but that it also at the end of time:
Revelation 11:15 || 15 The seventh angel blew his trumpet, and there were loud voices in heaven saying, The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he will reign forever and ever. [CSB]
If God’s kingdom is going to be established again, then it must include all the descendants of Abraham! They are children of the promise, they are a chosen people, a nation set apart for God. Certainly, all that are born Jews will be welcomed as citizens of God’s kingdom!
John 3:5 || 5 Jesus answered, “Truly I tell you, unless someone is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. [CSB]
It is a spiritual kingdom, and each member of it is born into it just like you were born into a nation or people group.
Jesus, through his life and teaching, was showing us what it really looks like to be a citizen of the kingdom of God, and it seems totally upside-down to the world. However, this kingdom is ruled by a God who has given us two simple commands to sum up what Kingdom life looks like:
Matthew 22:35–40 || 35 And one of them, an expert in the law, asked a question to test him: 36 “Teacher, which command in the law is the greatest?” 37 He said to him, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. 38 This is the greatest and most important command. 39 The second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. 40 All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commands.” [CSB]
The kingdom of God is not about physical birthright, geographical location, money, power or any earthly thing, really. The Kingdom of God is about living like God, being the image bearers of God, ruling, but as a servant, in a way that demonstrates love toward God and others.
Jesus’ teaching angered a lot of people – enough so that they killed him for it. As for what got him crucified, it wasn’t his moral teachings but the fact that he did claim to have this authority, the authority of Yahweh himself, as Yahweh incarnate. His claim to the throne is what they mocked when they gave him a purple robe and a crown of thorns, and the sarcastic but formally written charge of “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.”
Of course, we now know that he is not only king of the Jews, but the king of kings and lord of lords, enthroned in heaven and waiting to return, to fully reunite heaven and earth. When that happens, and earth, the realm of humans, is merged with heaven, the realm of God, then the tyranny of all evil, death, and corruption will be completely dispelled by the benevolent and abundant reign of Christ.
The reason the kingdom seemed upside down is because man’s view of the kingdom is very short sighted. It is focused on the physical. Jesus was interested in the eternal.
As Christians, we are citizens of God’s kingdom. Philippians 3:20 says that:
But we are citizens of heaven, where the Lord Jesus Christ lives. And we are eagerly waiting for him to return as our Savior.
So, as citizens we have this incredible future hope in Christ, but also a duty, a mission in the meantime. We are called to emulate the upside-down kingdom on Earth as Jesus did. We are bound to serve and love our King. We are commissioned to live in a way that reflects well upon the King and that demonstrates the priorities and passions of the King.
CHALLENGE: we encourage you, nay, we challenge you in January 2020 to do one of the following:
As you read, pay attention to the kingdom lessons and think about what it means to be a citizen of God’s kingdom. As the Holy Spirit teaches you about the kingdom, feel free to email or text what you are learning to one of us!
Want to learn more about the kingdom? Check out these videos by the Bible Project: