Matt. 4:17 Jesus began to preach, and to say, Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.
REVIEW: In Part 1 of this series, I began with Jesus’ first sermon as recorded by Matthew: Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. I made the point that, when Jesus preached this message, He was the earthly incarnation of the kingdom of God. He was God in the flesh – fully God, fully man. The kingdom of God is not just about a place or a people, but about a Person – the person of Jesus, the Christ – the power and authority He possesses, and the relationship we have with him.
Jesus is the PERSONALITY of the Kingdom.
THE PROXIMITY OF THE KINGDOM
A very small word carries a big meaning in this verse.
In English, the word “of” has many uses, such as a preposition that shows possession (the house of my father). The word may also be used “to indicate derivation, origin, or source.” [i]
For example, when the Bible speaks of Jesus of Nazareth, it does not mean that Jesus belonged to Nazareth, but that this was where Jesus lived. When Jesus came to Jerusalem, He came from Nazareth. When we say that Jesus was the son of Mary, we do not mean that Jesus belonged to Mary, although He did in a way. What we mean is that Mary was the source of Jesus’ earthly existence. Jesus came from Mary, his mother.
Substituting the word “from” for the word “of” into Matthew 4:17, the phrase “the kingdom of heaven” becomes “the kingdom from heaven.”
In biblical usage, “the heavens” refers to the atmosphere or air that surrounds our bodies. People of biblical times had no real concept of outer space. Everywhere we go on this planet we live within “the heavens” – within the atmosphere. It is always with us and as close as the skin that covers our bodies.
Why is that important?
The fact that God’s kingdom comes “from the heavens” means “Nothing – no human being or institution, no time, no space, no spiritual being – stands between God and those who trust him.” [ii] Only Christ.
Even though we are in such close proximity to God, because He is Spirit, we would never know He was there apart from revelation. That revelation comes by way of the incarnation of God in the person of Jesus Christ. He is the doorway into the kingdom.
God lives is close proximity to every person – as close as the atmosphere that touches our skin.
Acts 17:28 For in him we live, and move, and have our being…
That’s why the psalmist could write in…
Psalm 139:7 Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence?
Everything we do is in the presence of God. We carry out all of our worship, all of our going to work, all of our marriage relationships, all of our parenting, and all of our sins in the very center of God’s being.
Let me illustrate this idea of what the Bible means when it says that things come “from heaven” or “from the heavenlies.”
Old Testament examples:
In Gen. 22, just as Abraham raised the knife to offer Isaac as a sacrifice in obedience to the Lord’s command, the angel of the Lord spoke to Abraham from heaven and prevented him from killing Isaac and telling him of the ram that God had provided instead.
In Exodus 20, God spoke to Moses in the thunder and from heaven in the presence of the people of Israel while giving the Ten Commandments. The people heard the voice of God in surround sound, booming out of the atmosphere that surrounded them like they were standing in the midst of a powerful storm.
Moses wrote of how God confirmed his covenant with Abraham in Genesis 15.
Gen. 15:17 When the sun had gone down and it was dark, behold, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces (of the animal Abraham had killed).”
This torch did not begin as a far off shooting star and come down through the atmosphere until it arrived in front of Abraham. It just suddenly appeared from the very atmosphere right in front of him.
New Testament examples:
At the coming of the Holy Spirit, while the disciples were praying, suddenly “there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind” accompanied by what appeared to be tongues of fire. (Acts 2:2)
While Peter was on the rooftop of a house in Joppa (Acts 10:9-16), he saw heaven open and a container come down containing animals as well as birds of the air, and heard the voice of God in an audible fashion apparently coming from the sky. The English words, sky, air and heaven, all translate the same Greek word that means “atmosphere.”
We have a corrupted or incomplete understanding of the relationship God has to his creation when, in our minds, we place him off beyond the sky, beyond the stars, beyond the very universe.
Of course, God is beyond the sky, beyond the stars, and beyond the very universe, because He is transcendent. But God is also immanent, meaning that all of God is right here as close to us as the atmosphere – as close to us as the air upon our skin, but we would never know He was there except that He spoke to us.
When Jesus said the kingdom of heaven is at hand, He meant it literally as well as spiritually.
THE PRESENCE OF THE KINGDOM
Jesus said, “…the kingdom of heaven is,” …and then He said the kingdom is “at hand.”
The kingdom of heaven is… That is present tense.
That is why God told Moses that His name is I AM. That is why Jesus declared that He, too, is called I AM. (John 8:58) God is the God who was, and is, and is to come. (Rev. 4:8)
The same is true of Jesus. (Rev. 1:8) Everything we would know or could know about the kingdom of God is present in the person of Jesus Christ. That is the Gospel. The kingdom of heaven is not something to be “accepted” now and enjoyed later. He is here – now – in the very place where you are reading this article.
For those who were listening to Jesus that day near Capernaum, that which had always been a future event – the coming of the Messiah, the coming of the kingdom of God – was suddenly standing in their very presence – in the flesh. They were not prepared for His coming, and they were overwhelmed by it.
Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand.” The phrase is a reference to space and time. It speaks, not only of proximity, but also of immediacy.
Let’s go back to the story of Abraham in Genesis 15.
Genesis 15:6 And he (Abraham) believed in the LORD, and He (God) accounted it to him for righteousness.
What did Abraham believe that led God to declare him righteous? Did Abraham believe that God had forgiven him of sin? Maybe he did, but Genesis 15 does not say that.
Did Abraham believe that God had delivered him from the punishment of hell? Again, Genesis 15 makes no mention of such a belief.
So what was it that Abraham believed, which God counted as righteousness?
The story makes it very clear that Abraham believed God was going to give him a male baby, an heir, and through that baby a multitude of descendants who would possess the land promised to him. He believed that God was going to interact with him right then concerning the events of the future.
That is the view of the kingdom that Jesus wants us to see. We live in “a God-bathed and God-permeated world.” [iii]
God is right here with us…
- interacting with us
- caring for us
- dwelling within our own atmosphere
- dealing with us from very close proximity
And He calls us to think differently, live differently, and act differently than we did before we became a part of the kingdom.
Finally, let’s look at…
THE PRODUCT OF THE KINGDOM
Jesus declared in this nine-word sermon that there is the expectation of a response for those who come into personal contact with the kingdom of heaven. And that expected response is repentance.
Matthew put the response at the beginning of the text. Mark put it at the end. The reason is that repentance does not produce the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God produces repentance.
Jesus said, “Repent for – because – the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
The idea here is that once a person has come to have that eye-opening, face-to-face encounter with the perfect and righteous Son of God, they will experience a transformation of their moral disposition and will abandon the faulty and fruitless pathway of this world which is in constant rebellion against the authority of the God of Creation.
Such an encounter with the living Christ is expected to bring about a change of mind concerning the person of Christ and the purpose of God, allowing that person to enter into the kingdom and to begin to live the abundant life that Christ has promised to those who belong to the kingdom.
Let’s return to our verse for this lesson.
Matt. 4:17 Jesus began to preach, and to say, Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.
Jesus is here – right now – in our presence – in the very atmosphere – as close to us as the air is to our skin – the same air that we are breathing in and out right now.
He may be calling you into the kingdom and to repentance this very moment.
[ii] Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1998), p. 67. I have to confess that this article finds much of its inspiration from The Divine Conspiracy. In fact, if you have read the book, you may recognize other parts of the article that should have been footnoted. If so, please forgive. It was not on purpose. If you have never read it, I highly recommend it.
[iii] Ibid, p. 61.