I’ve been reading lately from a book entitled “Heaven on Earth”, written by Jonathan Storment and Josh Ross, and it’s got me looking at some scriptures with fresh eyes.
So, for the next several weeks, I’d like to talk with you about heaven, about heaven’s connection to earth, about the kingdom of heaven. And about how all of that affects our Christian walk. I’m excited to share these things with you, and I think you’ll find them both challenging and motivational.
This morning, by way of introduction to this series, I want to talk with you about the kingdom of God. One of the most important themes that runs throughout the scriptures is the concept of the kingdom. Unfortunately, the very idea of a kingdom is a 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. Can you imagine if the whole world was indeed a magic kingdom? Think about it. Everything would be clean; everybody would be nice; the only work would be play, and the only object would be fun; and life would be a thrill a minute.
There would, however, be a couple of big problems if this world was a magic kingdom. First of all, most of the world couldn’t afford to get in (I don’t know if you’ve noticed the prices at Disney World lately). But the other problem is this: Has it ever occurred to you that in the Magic Kingdom there is no king?
Well, the scriptures tell us about another kingdom. Unlike the Magic Kingdom, it is not a make-believe kingdom, it is a real kingdom. Unlike the Magic Kingdom, it is not a kingdom you can see, but rather a kingdom you cannot see. Unlike the Magic Kingdom, which will someday disappear, this kingdom lasts for all eternity.
This kingdom is not the “Magic kingdom,” it is the kingdom of God. It is a kingdom where Christ is King, and Jesus is Lord.
But 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 the kingdom. For example, Isaiah prophesied of the Messiah, “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).
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, the heart of everything Jesus taught centered around the kingdom of God. That phrase is found 61 times in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Jesus even said the reason he came to this earth was to introduce the kingdom of God. He said, “I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns as well; for I was sent for this purpose.” (Luke 4:43)
And so, as you read through the gospels, you will find that many of Jesus’ parables were about the kingdom of God or the kingdom of heaven, which incidentally are simply two different terms for the same thing. Matthew tends to use the phrase “kingdom of heaven” because he is writing to Jews who are more comfortable with that terminology, while Mark and Luke prefer to use the phrase “kingdom of God”. But they both 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 other times I use the other. 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 16:18-19, 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.” I don’t think Jesus is talking about two different things there; I think he’s talking about the same thing. The church is the kingdom of heaven.
In Mark 9:1, 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.” 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, what is sometimes called the Lord’s Prayer, I have 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. For example, in Matthew 25 where Jesus describes the last day when the sheep will be divided from the goats and Jesus will say to those on his right hand, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” (Matthew 25:34). We all understand that we are not going to inherit the church on the Day of Judgment, and so we understand that, in this passage, when Jesus uses the word “kingdom”, he’s talking about heaven.
So now we feel comfortable saying that the kingdom is always either the church or heaven, one of those two things. But again, there are many verses where neither the church nor heaven is being talked about, 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, there’s a very familiar passage in Matthew 6:33, where Jesus said, “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” Now, that’s a familiar verse. We quote it a lot. We sing it a lot. But what does the “kingdom of God” mean in that verse? Is Jesus saying, “Seek the church first along with God’s righteousness”? No, that doesn’t even make any sense. So what is the kingdom of God in that passage?
In Luke 9:2, Jesus called his twelve apostles out and “sent them out to proclaim [preach] the kingdom of God and to heal.” What exactly did they preach? Did they preach about the church? That doesn’t seem very likely to me because they didn’t have an understanding of what the church was all about. So what is the kingdom of God in that passage?
Later in Luke 9, there was another 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). What was Jesus telling him he needed to preach? Was it the church? That hardly seems possible since this man just met Jesus. So what is the kingdom of God in that passage?
In Luke 10, Jesus sends out seventy men to preach in cities and villages. Among his many instructions were these words, “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 come near to them. But the church hadn’t come near to them. And heaven hadn’t come near. 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). Did you notice that — “The kingdom of God has come upon you.” 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. Heaven 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 the “kingdom” in the scriptures doesn’t always refer to the church, and it doesn’t always refer to heaven. So we keep coming back to this question — what is the kingdom of God?
I think the best way to answer that question is to look at another way of translating the word “kingdom”. The Greek word used in the New Testament is the word “baseleia” and it can be translated as “kingdom”, “reign”, “sovereignty” or “power”. Let me suggest to you 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 and do his will.
There’s a song that we sometimes sing that expresses this idea well 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 the coming kingdom, or reign of God in the future. But Jesus also indicated that God’s reign came to the earth during his ministry. As I read earlier, Jesus said, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matthew 4:17). Some translations (NLT, ISV, NET, GW, etc.) read, “The kingdom of God is near.”
That term “near” can be a bit misleading, because it makes it sound like Jesus is saying the kingdom is coming soon – it’s not far off. It’s not here yet, but it won’t be long.
But the Greek word for near, “engidzo” can mean “to join one thing to another”. 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. It is the joining of two things together. 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 sovereignty. Through Jesus Christ, we understand the power and the authority of God. And 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.” What they meant by that was that when the Red Sea parted, God’s power was demonstrated in an amazing way. It was as if a giant hand reached out of the sky and parted the waters, allowing the Israelites to walk across on dry land. 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 people 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 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!
Jesus says 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.
Remember 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 after Jesus’ resurrection, they were asking the question, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6). And we can be critical of them, but it’s easy to understand why the Jews wanted that kind of kingdom. Under Herod’s reign, public crucifixion and torture were commonplace and taxes were oppressive. The only Jews who prospered were the tax collectors and the corrupt priests, who had sold out to the Romans. So the Jews longed for God to establish a kingdom of justice by purifying their nation from its corruption and freeing it from their Roman oppressors.
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 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 was truly 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 the one, 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. His would be a kingdom built up not by destroying the enemy but by forgiving them and atoning for their sins.
No wonder Jesus spent so much of his ministry proclaiming the kingdom. Because this is why Jesus came into the world — to open the way for all people to come back to God. And when we enter into a relationship with God, it is “entering into God’s reign”.
When we make the commitment to follow God, to obey his commandments, we are bowing down before God, and making him our king. We proclaim our faith in God and we pledge to live under his reign. When we understand that, it makes perfect sense that Jesus would say, “the kingdom of God is in the midst of you.” (Luke 17:21).
So when Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are the poor in Spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3), he is saying that those people who have acknowledged they do not have the power within themselves to achieve righteousness have the kingdom of heaven. Why? Because they acknowledge God’s right to reign in their lives.
When Jesus said, “Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” (Luke 18:17), he is saying that we can’t approach the kingdom like self-reliant adults. We have to have the attitude of a small child responding with trust, and a total dependence on God. That’s when we have the kingdom of God. That’s when God reigns in our hearts.
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. Here was a young man who was refusing to accept God’s kingship over his life right then. How difficult it is to put God first when our life is filled with “stuff”.
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 enthrone God in our hearts by doing what he asks us to do.
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, I’m in the kingdom and 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 in the kingdom of God today?” Is God reigning in my life? Am I letting him make the decisions? Am I letting Him guide me?
And if we see the kingdom in this way, then we want to continue to pray fervently, “Father, thy kingdom come”. In fact, I think in that prayer, Jesus is repeating what he says in the very next phrase. “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”. Those two things are connected. Because wherever God’s will is done, the kingdom is there. And wherever the kingdom is, you’ll find people doing God’s will. 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!”
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. 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 perhaps this morning, it is your desire to be a part of that kingdom. Jesus said to Nicodemus, “Unless one is born again — of the water and the Spirit — he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” (John 3:3,5)