It is funny how words affect us. Recently there has been some publicity surrounding the story of a bakery department in a grocery store that refused to write a little birthday boy’s name in frosting on his cake. Why the refusal? Because his first name is Adolf and his middle name is Hitler. Amazingly, the bakery staff did not want to wish Adolf Hitler a happy birthday. What is in a name? Apparently more than we like to admit.
Words carry meanings—long-held, socially accepted meanings that are not easily shaken. Take the word “gay,” for example. Although the primary meaning is “happy,” it has become the word of choice to describe a homosexual. The newly attached significance is not likely to change in the minds of the general public any time soon.
The first century general public had the same problem with words that we do today. Jesus came preaching, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17; all scripture quotations from the ESV unless otherwise noted). Surely some heard the word “repent,” and they understood the significance of it for their lives, but there were many Jews in Jesus’ audiences who only heard “kingdom.” The word stirred in them thoughts of conquest, thrones, and territory. They could not help but think of the fall of Jericho, of David’s battles against the Philistines, and of the great King Solomon who expanded Israel’s borders.
On one occasion, these kingdom-minded Jews even attempted to make Jesus their king by force (John 6:15). Jesus had just fed five thousand of them with five barley loaves and two fish. This Prophet who declared that the kingdom was at hand, this Messenger of God who had the power to feed a host was just the sort of man they wanted to bring Israel back to her former glory. They believed that Jesus was the Prophet that Moses promised (John 6:14; see Deuteronomy 18:15, 18), the One who would be like Moses. Perhaps they even believed that this Prophet would lead them out of Roman rule just as Moses led Israel out of Egypt. But, although Jesus certainly was announcing the kingdom, and although He certainly is the Prophet and King, He had a different idea of “kingdom.”
As Jesus answered Pilate’s examination on that dreadful and glorious day of His crucifixion, He did, indeed, claim to be King of a kingdom (John 18:36-37). But, Jesus made it clear that this was not the kingdom that Pilate or the Jews had in mind. Jesus eloquently and effectively declared, “My kingdom is not of this world.” Jesus’ kingdom certainly was a kingdom of conquest, thrones, and territory, but He was battling for the territory of the hearts and minds of men.
And, so, Jesus, as He taught His disciples to pray, said, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). With poetic parallelism, Jesus expresses the great plan of God: to redeem and reconcile the world; to bring the ways of heaven to earth once more.
In the beginning, when God had created the heavens and the earth, plants and animals, and human beings, He looked at His work and called it “very good” (Genesis 1:31). But, it did not take long for “very good” to become “cursed” (Genesis 3:14-19). The created who had been made to do God’s will failed to fulfill their purpose.
The coming of the kingdom that John the Baptist heralded and that Christ preached was to be a conquest. Rebellious humanity, men and women created in God’s image, had departed from God’s will. We were evicted from Eden over it. We were destroyed in the Flood because of it. We were rebuked, disciplined and chastised time and again through prophets and famine, disease and war. But now, a conquest was in order.
Daniel 7:13-14 says,
I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. 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.
In prophetic imagery God explained to Daniel and to us the mission of the Messiah: Jesus Christ was made King of an everlasting kingdom that He might conquer the world. God intends that “all peoples, nations, and languages should serve [Christ].” Like a king leading his army to bring foreign and rebellious territories under subjection, Christ came from heaven to subjugate the earth. But, He does not conquer by sword and the killing of others. He conquers by the persuasion of His own death. He says in John 12:32, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” He conquers by teaching men to turn from sin and follow God. He says in Matthew 7:21, “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.” Jesus conquers by conviction.
The ministry of Jesus was defined by this conquest, this mission to turn people back to God. “Repent, for the kingdom is at hand,” the summary of Christ’s teaching, is an offer. Jesus offers the world the opportunity to change. Jesus offers all men the option of being a part of God’s plan to do His will on earth as it is in heaven. This is just another way of saying that we can be part of the kingdom.
But, Jesus was not interested in only proclaiming this kingdom; Jesus Himself was the fulfillment of the coming of the kingdom. This was true not just because of His status as the Anointed One, and not just because He was the rightful King, being the descendant of David. Jesus was also the fulfillment of the coming of the kingdom because He did the will of God: “For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me” (John 6:38). God reigned in Jesus’ heart and life. God’s will was carried out in Jesus’ suffering and death. The kingdom came because Jesus carried out God’s will on earth as it is in heaven—perfectly (see Hebrews 4:15; 1Peter 2:22; 1John 3:5). He came from heaven to do this very thing, to bring heaven to earth.
And still, the kingdom has not totally come because God’s will is not done in all the earth as it is in heaven. The conquest is not complete. Much of the world remains to be conquered. Much of humanity remains in rebellion. Much remains to be accomplished before the world can be returned to its “very good” status, but it can be done. We know it can be done because Jesus prayed for it. We know it can be done because the kingdom has the power of God on the throne.
So, what part do we play in all of this kingdom business? We must make kingdom business our business. We must make doing the will of the Father the purpose and goal of our lives. We must bring heaven to earth. This is the point of the Sermon on the Mount: to teach us what the will of God is so that the kingdom can expand in and through us. Jesus wants to call us citizens of the kingdom, to be able to say of us, “Theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (see Matthew 5:3-12).
In short, the kingdom of heaven demands our serious, thoughtful, whole-hearted devotion. The King requests our loyalty. What will we do with His request?
Go on to the next article in the series: Taking Jesus Seriously 002