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Gospel of Matthew 4: 17-25 (NIV)
17 From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.”
23 Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people. 24 News about him spread all over Syria, and people brought to him all who were ill with various diseases, those suffering severe pain, the demon-possessed, those having seizures, and the paralysed, and he healed them. 25 Large crowds from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea and the region across the Jordan followed him.
Matthew’s Gospel attributes to Jesus a message identical to that preached by John the Baptiser, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” Throughout Galilee, Jesus was “preaching the good news of the kingdom” (verse 23) and we interpret that this refers again to the kingdom of heaven.
Most commentators agree that “kingdom of heaven”, the term most often used in Matthew’s Gospel, and “kingdom of God” are synonymous. I share that view. Matthew possibly favoured “kingdom of heaven” because he wrote for an audience predominantly Jewish.
What is this “kingdom of heaven” of which both John the Baptiser and Jesus preached?
A somewhat shallow definition could represent the kingdom of heaven (the kingdom of God) as God’s sovereign rule over all of creation encompassing the entire universe and all time. This, however, does not describe the kingdom of heaven nor does it assist us to grapple with the apparent inconsistencies we observe during our temporal lives from our vantage point on earth.
Why, for example, has Jesus been quoted as saying, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place” (John 18: 36)?
Why did Jesus describe the kingdom of heaven as a secret? “The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them (the people) …” (Matthew 13: 11).
Jesus invested much original thought in his teaching – to his disciples and to the crowds – about the kingdom of heaven. The so-called “Sermon on the Mount”, chapters 5-7 of Matthew’s Gospel, serve as our initial guide. Parables of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel, particularly in chapters 13, 18, 20 and 22, begin with “the kingdom of heaven is like…”. There is a future dimension to the kingdom of heaven too: “At that time, the kingdom of heaven will be like …” (Matthew 25: 1).
If Jesus found it necessary to use many different parables to try to describe the nature of the kingdom of heaven, I doubt that any attempt of ours to describe it would prove adequate. That being the case, is it possible for us to know whether we are inside or outside this kingdom?
For those who have recognised the call of God on their lives and who have responded positively there can be assurance of being in the kingdom. Those who have decided to live under the authority, under the sovereign rule, of Almighty God now belong to his kingdom. This kingdom is not a locality nor even a dimension but a state of being – of being children of God through his Son Jesus Christ – and of gladly recognising this status and choosing to renew a commitment to it, day by day and hour by hour.
This gives us purpose and hope as we pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done” (Matthew 6: 10). Amen.