Pastor's Blog

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Kingdom Confusion

 Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.  

These are the inaugural words of Jesus’ ministry as recounted by Matthew in his gospel, (Mt. 4:17, NIV). Mark’s account of the same event is similar but more detailed: The time has come, Jesus said, The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news, (Mk. 1:15, NIV). Throughout the gospels, the phrases, kingdom of God and kingdom of heaven are used interchangeably to speak of the breaking in of God’s rule, reign and work into human history through the coming of Jesus Christ.  

During the three years or so of Jesus’ public ministry, the kingdom of God was the primary topic of his teaching. Most of the parables that Jesus employed began with the familiar refrain, The kingdom of God is like, or similarly, The kingdom of heaven is like. At other times, Jesus used the phrase, To what shall I compare the kingdom, to begin another parable. 

Later in chapter four of his gospel, Matthew gives this description of Jesus’ ministry: [He] went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people, (Mt. 4:23, NIV). In this brief synopsis of Jesus’ ministry, Matthew highlights the fact that Jesus didn’t come just to talk about the kingdom of God, but to enact it through powerful acts of healing, thus demonstrating what life is like in God’s kingdom under his rule. Further, in chapter twelve of Luke’s gospel, after encouraging his followers not to worry or be afraid regarding the daily necessities of life, Jesus makes an astounding statement recorded in Luke 12:32: Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. (More on this later.) 

Kingdom talk is unavoidably political speech. In Jesus’ day, when the nation of Israel was a small part of the vast Roman Empire and under the thumb of various Caesars and their local representatives, be they puppet kings or Roman soldiers, a no-name upstart preacher proclaiming another kingdom and king as their primary message was bound to get in trouble. Not only did Jesus clash with the political authorities, but when his kingdom talk and kingdom acts challenged rather than validated the current Jewish customs and contradicted and upstaged the teaching and activity of the Jewish religious leaders, Jesus eventually became persona non grata with both the political and religious authorities. 

Noting the kingdom focus of Jesus’ teaching in its political and religious context helps us to understand Jesus’ emphasis on repentance as the starting point of entering God’s kingdom and experiencing the good news – the gospel – of his loving rule in our lives. As Jesus stated directly regarding our relationship with money, No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other, (Mt. 6:24, NIV). In our current setting of religious sectarianism and deep political polarization, Jesus' call to repentance challenges the status quo of both church and state, and even and especially our innate desire to rule ourselves. Taking his opening proclamation of repentance to a deeper and more radical level still, Jesus is quoted in Matthew, Mark and Luke (what are called the synoptic gospels) as declaring, Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.i  

The Greek verb, metanoeo, translated as repent in the New Testament passages mentioned above, literally means to change one’s mind or to reconsider one’s perspective or point of view. Conjoining his message of repentance to the coming kingdom of God, more than calling his followers to repent or turn away from personal immoral activity (sin), Jesus is calling them and us to a radical realignment of our political and religious affiliations. Rather than looking for salvation, security, prosperity, etc. from our own religious efforts or this or that government official or political party, Jesus calls us to follow him as the true savior and king of the present and yet still coming kingdom of God. 

Further politicizing his message, not only does Jesus proclaim another kingdom in opposition to the political and religious realities of the day – and eventually claim to be the king of the kingdom – as mentioned above in Luke 12:32, Jesus comforts his disciples with the radical and politically subversive promise that they should not be afraid because it is the Father’s pleasure to give [them] the kingdom. This passage and promise remind us of Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount recorded in Matthew five where Jesus says that the kingdom of heaven belongs to the poor in spirit and to the persecuted and that the meek will inherit the earth.ii 

In our current time of deep political and religious division, where people are taking sides against one another and seeking the power and influence of both Church and State to impose their preferred vision of civilization on everyone else, can we hear anew the words of Jesus to repent and follow him? Are we willing to deny ourselves, change our minds about how God’s work gets done in the world, and take up the cross of Christ and truly work for the glory of God and the good of our neighbors as he empowers us by his Spirit, trusting that as we do so that we will eventually inherit the kingdom that he has prepared for those who love and serve him?