The Kingdom of God (Matthew 1-13)

As I said last week, we’re going to spend the next six months or so taking a look at each of the books of the New Testament.  And this morning, we begin with the book of Matthew.  We’ll actually take two weeks with Matthew, and so this morning, we’ll look at the first half and next week, we’ll look at the second half.

But before I get into my lesson, I’d like for us to take a look at this overview of Matthew chapters 1-13 from The Bible Project.

VIDEO (Matthew 1-13)

If you’re like me, you may have been a little bit surprised to hear that the book of Matthew presents Jesus as a new Moses, and I actually considered spending this entire sermon exploring that concept.  There certainly are a lot of similarities between Moses and Jesus, both in the gospel of Matthew and throughout the New Testament.

For example, in the book of Exodus, there was an evil king who killed all the Hebrew babies, but Moses was saved.  And then, in Matthew, we have an evil king who killed all the Hebrew babies around Bethlehem, but Jesus was saved.

Moses fled from Egypt, but he later returned.  Jesus fled to Egypt, but he later returned.

Moses gave up the riches and benefits of his position in Egypt.  Jesus gave up the riches and benefits of his position in heaven.

Moses was a shepherd.  Jesus was the Good Shepherd.

Moses redeemed Israel from slavery to Egypt.  Jesus redeemed humanity from slavery to sin.

Moses went up on a mountain to receive God’s law.  Jesus went up on a mountain to give God’s law.

Moses fasted for 40 days on the mountain.  Jesus fasted for 40 days in the wilderness.

Moses performed signs and miracles to show his authority.  Jesus also performed signs and miracles to show his authority.

And, perhaps most importantly, Moses was the mediator of the old covenant through the blood of bulls and goats.  Jesus was the mediator of the new covenant through his own blood.

It’s a fascinating comparison and some of you might want to take some time to explore that in more detail, but this morning, I decided to go in a different direction.  Because another key theme in the book of Matthew is the concept of the kingdom of God.  Matthew uses the word “kingdom” 53 times. 

In Matthew 3:2, John the Baptist said, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

In Matthew 4:17, Jesus began to preach saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

In Matthew 4:23, Jesus “went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom.”

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus mentions the kingdom of heaven 7 times. 

In Matthew 10:7, Jesus told his apostles to, “proclaim as you go, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’”

I would go so far as to say that the concept of the kingdom of God is not just one of the most important themes in the gospel of Matthew, but it’s one of the most important themes throughout the entire Bible.  Now, unfortunately, the idea of a kingdom is a little bit foreign to us because we don’t have kings in our country, so we don’t have kingdoms. 

In fact, the most famous kingdom in our country is a make-believe place called the Magic Kingdom which is found in Disney World.  But there’s something very unusual about the Magic Kingdom.  Has it ever occurred to you that there is no king in the Magic Kingdom?

            Well, unlike the Magic Kingdom, the kingdom of God is not a make-believe kingdom, it is a very real kingdom.  It is a kingdom where Jesus Christ rules as king.

Even when we go back into the Old Testament, we find that the concept of the kingdom was at the very heart of Jewish thought.  All through the Old Testament, the prophets looked forward to the establishment of God’s kingdom.  For example, Daniel prophesied of the Messiah, “And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed.”(Daniel 7:14).

And so, for centuries, the Jewish people looked forward to that coming kingdom.  The kingdom is coming, the kingdom is coming!  So, you can imagine the excitement generated by John the Baptist when he began preaching and his sermon was summed up in one sentence – “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” (Matthew 3:2). 

When Jesus began teaching shortly after that, his message was also summed up in the exact same words – “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matthew 4:17).  And, in fact, everything Jesus taught centered around the kingdom of God. 

As you read through the gospels, you find that many of Jesus’ parables were about the kingdom of God or the kingdom of heaven, which are simply two different terms for the same thing.  Matthew tended to use the phrase “kingdom of heaven” because he was writing to Jews who were more comfortable with that terminology, while Mark and Luke preferred to use the phrase “kingdom of God”.  But both those phrases refer to the same thing.  The kingdom of heaven is the kingdom of God, so don’t be confused if I sometimes use one term and sometimes the other one.  In the scriptures, they refer to the same thing.

And so, in his parables, Jesus said the kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed, the kingdom of heaven is like a man sowing seed, the kingdom of heaven is like a treasure in a field, the kingdom of heaven is like ten virgins waiting for a bridegroom, and so on. 

And we have often taught that the “kingdom” in the New Testament is equivalent to the “church” so that every time Jesus mentions the kingdom, he’s talking about the church.  And there are definitely some passages where those two terms are used interchangeably.  For example, in Matthew 16, Jesus said to Peter, “on this rock I will build my church” and then he says right after that, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 16:18-19).  I think Jesus was talking about the same thing there.  The church is the kingdom of heaven.

In Mark 9, Jesus said to his apostles, “There are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God after it has come with power.”  (Mark 9:1).  I think it’s clear that Jesus is talking about the establishment of the church in Acts 2, when the Holy Spirit came upon them with power.  The church is the kingdom of God.

But we have often made the mistake of thinking that every time the word “kingdom” appears in scripture, it’s talking about the church.  So, for example, when we look at Jesus’ prayer in Matthew 6, which is sometimes called the Lord’s Prayer, I’ve often heard it taught that Christians can’t pray this prayer anymore because part of the prayer says, “Thy kingdom come.”  And kingdom equals church, so what Jesus was praying for was for the church to come, and since the church has already come, we can’t pray for that anymore.

The only problem with that view is that there are many, many scriptures where it is evident that kingdom doesn’t equal church.  And we have pretty much just ignored those verses (or at least not really thought much about them) because they don’t fit into our neat little package.

            For example, in Luke 9, there was a man that Jesus encountered just walking down the road who wanted to follow Jesus but he asked to bury his father first.  Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and preach the kingdom of God.” (Luke 9:60).   It doesn’t make any sense that Jesus told this man to gopreach about the church.  He had just met Jesus, and the church hadn’t yet been established.  So, what is the kingdom of God in that passage?

            In Luke 10, Jesus sent out seventy men to preach in cities and villages.  He told them to “Heal the sick…and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’” (Luke 10:9).   Notice, their message wasn’t that the kingdom of God will come near to them.  No, their message was that the kingdom of God had already come near to them.  But the church hadn’t come near to them.  So, what is the kingdom of God in that passage?

            In Luke 11, Jesus was accused of working for Satan and he said that it wouldn’t make sense for Satan to cast out demons because he’d be fighting against himself.  Then he said, “But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.” (Luke 11:20).  The church hadn’t come upon them.  So, what is the kingdom of God in that passage?

            In Luke 17, Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come.  Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is not coming in ways that can be observed, nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you.” (Luke 17:20-21).  But the church wasn’t in the midst of them.  So, what is the kingdom of God in that passage?

            There are a lot of other examples that I could give, but I hope that these are sufficient for you to see that “kingdom” in the scriptures doesn’t always refer to the church.  And so, we keep coming back to this question — what is the kingdom of God?

I think the best way to answer that question is by looking at another way to translate the word “kingdom”.  The word for “kingdom” is the Greek word “baseleia” and it can be translated as “kingdom”, “reign”, “sovereignty” or “power”.  So, let me suggest to you this morning that it might be helpful to view the kingdom of God as “God’s reign” or “those whom God reigns over”.

Now this is a concept that the Jews were very familiar with, although they didn’t fully understand what it would look like.  But the Jewish people always believed that God was going to redeem the world by bringing it under his reign.  In fact, the Jews had been praying Jesus’ prayer for the kingdom to come for centuries. 

For most of us, “thy kingdom come” has always sounded like a prayer for the church to arrive.  But it’s more of a prayer to expand God’s reign, to bring all people into relationship with God so that they might submit themselves to his authority.   

There’s a song that we sometimes sing that expresses this idea entitled “Lord, Reign in Me”.  The words of that song say, “Over all the earth, you reign on high, every mountain stream, every sunset sky.  But my one request, Lord, my only aim, is that you reign in me again.”

That song does a good job of pointing out that God already reigns over all this earth.  He is King of everything, he is the sovereign Lord.  But not everyone has acknowledged God as their king.  So, we pray that God will reign in our hearts, and we pray that God’s reign will come into the lives of people we know and love, and we pray that God’s reign will come into the lives of everyone on the face of this earth – “Thy kingdom come!”

So, we look forward to that day.  But Jesus also indicated that God’s reign came to this earth during his ministry.  As I read earlier, Jesus said, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matthew 4:17).  Many translations (NLT, ISV, NET, GW, etc.) read, “The kingdom of God is near.”

It’s possible that Jesus was using the Hebrew word “karav” which means “near” in the sense of “intimately near”.  For example, in Isaiah 8:3, we read that the prophet Isaiah came “near” to his wife, and she conceived a son.  You can’t get much nearer than that.  That word “near” means to be with someone in a very close way.

So, when Jesus said that the kingdom of God was near, we sometimes make the mistake of thinking he’s saying, “it’s not quite here yet” but it will be in another two or three years.  No, Jesus said, “When I came to this earth, the kingdom of God came near in the same way that a husband comes near his wife.”  Heaven and earth connected.  Heaven and earth were joined together in a way that they never had been before.

Through Jesus Christ, God was revealing his power and his authority to be our king.  Every time someone who was sick was healed, God’s power and authority was made clear and the kingdom of God was near.  Every time a demon was cast out, God’s power and authority was made clear and the kingdom of God was near. 

Every Sabbath, the Jews remembered how Israel was redeemed from Egypt by the power of God.  And they would say, “Your people saw your kingdom as you separated the sea before Moses.”  And what they meant by that was that when the Red Sea parted, God’s power was demonstrated in an amazing way.  By performing that great miracle, God was showing his people (and his enemies) who is really in charge of the universe.  And that’s what the Jews mean when they say, “Your people saw your kingdom as you separated the sea before Moses.” 

In a similar way, when Jesus healed people, when Jesus cast out demons, God’s kingdom was seen in a greater way than ever before.  In fact, after Jesus cast out demons and the Jewish leaders accused him of working for Satan, listen again carefully to what Jesus said: “But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.” (Luke 11:20).

The Jewish leaders would not have missed the significance of those words Jesus used.   Because Jesus was referring back to the story of the Exodus, to the scene where the Egyptian magicians had witnessed God’s power in the plagues and they exclaimed, “This is the finger of God” (Exodus 8:19).   It was at that moment that Pharaoh’s men realized that they had been beaten. God’s power was way beyond any demonic force they could conjure up.  It is the finger of God!

And Jesus said to the Pharisees, “That’s the power that I have.  I have the ability to cast out demons by the finger of God.  The power of God is evident, the authority of God is evident, and the kingdom of God has come upon you!”

And this was his way of introducing himself as the Messiah because all of the Jews expected the Messiah to bring God’s kingdom to earth.

Listen to Isaiah’s prophecy.  “Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore.”  (Isaiah 9:7).

Jesus came to establish the kingdom of God.  Now many of the Jews misunderstood.  Many of them expected the Messiah to be a military conqueror who would establish a physical kingdom on this earth. They were looking for a mighty king who would ride in on his white horse and destroy Israel’s enemies.

Even Jesus’ disciples misunderstood.  Even John the Baptist had trouble understanding.  Remember when John was put into prison?  After a while he began to question who Jesus really was.  And even though he had proclaimed that Jesus was the Lamb of God, even though he had heard God’s own voice acknowledging that Jesus was His beloved Son, John still had some doubts.  So, he sent his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” (Matthew 11:3).

I think what John wanted to know was if Jesus truly was the king he claimed to be, and if so, how long was it going to be before he started acting like a king and getting him out of prison.  But Jesus said, “Go and tell John what you hear and see:  the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.” (Matthew 11:4-5)

Jesus responded by reassuring John that he was indeed the promised Messiah, but he was completing God’s mission in a very different way from what John had imagined.  Instead of God’s reign involving a violent overthrow of the Romans, Jesus linked the kingdom of God to his works of healing and forgiveness. 

No wonder Jesus spent so much of his ministry proclaiming the kingdom. Because that’s why Jesus came into the world — to open the way for all people to come back to God. And he gives us the opportunity to be a part of God’s kingdom.

But that’s not an easy thing for us to do, because there’s a part of us that wants the right to choose what is right and wrong for ourselves.  We don’t want someone forcing their views on us. We want to be in command of our lives.  We want to be our own king. 

But when we make the commitment to follow God, to obey his commandments, we are bowing down before God, and giving him the right to rule over us as king, as we pledge to live under his reign.

When Jesus said, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 7:21), he was saying that we put God on the throne of our hearts by doing what he tells us to do.

Remember what Jesus said to the rich young ruler who turned down a chance to become one of his disciples?  He said, “How difficult it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” (Luke 18:24).  Jesus wasn’t saying it’s hard for a rich man to get into the church.  But he’s saying if you have money, it’s hard to let God rule your life.

Once we begin to see the kingdom not as “the church”, but as God’s reign in our lives, it changes our perspective on the kind of life we live.  Because if I see the kingdom simply as the church, then once I’m baptized and I become a member of the church, there’s not much else I need to do. 

But if I see the kingdom as God reigning in my life, then every day I’m confronted with choices that make me answer the question, “Am I looking to God as the king of my life?  Am I letting him make the decisions?  Am I letting him guide me?”

And if we see the kingdom that way, then we will want to continue to pray fervently, “Father, thy kingdom come”.  And when Jesus prayed, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”, I think he was basically saying the same thing twice.  Because those two things are connected.  Whenever God’s will is done here on this earth, the kingdom is there.  And wher­ever you find the kingdom of God, you will find people doing God’s will here on this earth. 

So, that’s what we pray for.  We pray that God will rule in our hearts.  We pray that God will rule in the hearts of everyone on the face of this earth.  “Thy kingdom come!”

John Calvin once said it is the task of the church to make the invisible kingdom visible. We do that by living in such a way that we bear witness to the reality of the kingship of Christ in our lives – in our jobs, in our families, in our schools, and even the way we spend our money and our free time, because Christ is king over every aspect of our lives.

And this morning, I want to offer you an invitation.  Not an invitation to be a part of the church, because you may make the mistake of seeing that as just an opportunity to join up with a nice bunch of people so that you can have fun.  No, my invitation this morning is for you to be a part of the kingdom of God.  It’s an invitation to let God truly reign in your life, to bow down before him and acknowledge his right to tell you what to do and how to live. 

Because, I’ll be honest, I think there are a lot more people interested in being a part of the church than those who are interested in being a part of God’s kingdom.  But God’s kingdom is at hand, and Jesus Christ invites you to be a part of it.

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