From: Heaven on Earth
John the Baptist and the Kingdom
According to the four gospel writers, Jesus’s public ministry began with the appearance of John the Baptist, who called the Jews to turn away from their self-centered ways and toward the God of their forefathers. John’s message was simple and direct: “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!” (Matthew 3:2).
I have long been able to quote this verse from memory, but I had not pondered its meaning until just a few years ago. Have you ever considered what this verse meant to John’s first-century audience?
First, John called on his audience to do something – “Repent!” They were to obey this command then and there without delay. The message was relevant for them.
Second, John gave them a reason for this action – “for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” He did not say, “The kingdom is 2000 years away,” or, “The kingdom is being delayed indefinitely.” Yet many popular Bible teachers and commentaries hold that the kingdom is entirely in the future. If that were the case, John missed the mark by a country mile, and his message had no application for his audience.
What do you think? Was John correct about the kingdom, or was he misguided? I will stick with the first option. John called the people on the banks of the Jordan to repent in order to prepare for the kingdom’s soon arrival.
Third, John saw no need to explain the phrase “Kingdom of Heaven” because Palestinian Jews of his day were already familiar with the term. They had long anticipated and eagerly awaited the appearance of a deliverer sent by God to defeat Israel’s enemies and usher in a golden age of universal peace, over which God would rule. Although the Jews had countless theories about how this would occur, they all understood the general scheme. In whatever manner it happened, John’s hearers needed to ready themselves lest they miss out on the kingdom.
Fourth, the words “at hand” mean the kingdom was near in time and in space. Both ideas are important. Many Jews believed in the imminent arrival of the kingdom (time) and that its advent would occur in their homeland (space). Even our English word “kingdom” conveys these two concepts. A kingdom consists of a king and a domain. The people of God understood John to mean that God’s rule was “at hand” in both senses.
Jesus and the Kingdom
When John the Baptist was arrested and killed, “Jesus came to Galilee, preaching the gospel of the Kingdom of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God is at hand,” (Mark 1:14-15). Immediately we notice that John and Jesus proclaimed the same message – the good news of the kingdom. But Jesus added a new twist by announcing, “The time is fulfilled.” The kingdom was no longer merely close by. Time was up. This intensified the kingdom message.
We might compare John’s and Jesus’s messages of the kingdom to an announcement of a pregnancy. A woman desires a child but seems unable to get pregnant. One day, she receives word that her life is about to change – she is expecting! This news brings great joy and expectation. Still, she must wait nine months for the baby’s arrival. In the meantime, she prepares herself in anticipation of the blessed event.
Then one day, she suddenly feels a twinge of pain. Labor begins – the time is at hand. As everyone waits with baited breath, the hour arrives and the baby is born – the time is fulfilled. A new day has dawned for everyone. The married couple become parents, and their parents become grandparents.
In like manner, the Old Testament prophets spoke of the arrival of the kingdom. Israel was pregnant with expectation. As the countdown begins, the years and months turn into weeks and days. Measured expectation is transformed into anxious anticipation. With the onset of labor, John the Baptist declares, “The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” His message foreshadows Jesus’s announcement – “The time is fulfilled.” The kingdom is birthed in the person and ministry of Jesus.
In Luke’s version, Jesus makes this announcement in a synagogue in Capernaum, near his hometown of Nazareth. After reading from the scroll of Isaiah, which speaks of the promised kingdom, Jesus concludes by saying, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing,” (Luke 4:21). This verse offers more clues as to the manner of the kingdom’s arrival.
We first notice the words, “This scripture is fulfilled.” Jesus is referring to the inspired words of Isaiah’s prophecy about the kingdom coming to Earth.
Second, we are given the specific time of its fulfillment – today, not tomorrow or next year or in two millennia!
Finally, we are given a geographic indicator of the kingdom’s start – “in your hearing.” Right there in the midst of the synagogue crowd.
When we put the pieces together, we see that the kingdom arrived with Jesus as he launched his public ministry. The Kingdom of God was no longer a future hope, but a present reality. As missionary strategist Lesslie Newbigin so insightfully remarked, “It now had a name and a face – the name and face of the man from Nazareth.” The waiting period was over, and God was in a climactic way initiating his work of salvation on Earth.
Luke tells us that Jesus went on to perform many miracles (which pointed to the inbreaking of the kingdom). But when the crowds requested that he remain among them, he declined by saying, “I must preach the Kingdom of God to the other cities also, because for this purpose I have been sent,” (Luke 4:40-43). Jesus had a singular message. He was a herald of the kingdom. This is evidenced by Luke’s further comment that Jesus went throughout all of Galilee, “preaching and bringing the glad tidings of the Kingdom of God,” (Luke 8:1).
Jesus advised the apostles not to follow their faithless neighbors who worried about life’s daily needs, but instead to “seek the Kingdom of God, and all these things shall be added to you for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom,” (Luke 12:22-32).
Jesus preached the gospel of the kingdom far and wide to every kind of person, including Nicodemus, (John 3:3-5), a rich young ruler, (Luke 18:24-25), a wise scribe, (Mark 12:34), and a convicted thief, (Luke 23:42-43). He used parables, (Matthew 13), beatitudes, (Matthew 5), and object lessons, (Mark 14:25), to teach about the kingdom.
The First Disciples and the Kingdom
As an itinerant teacher, Jesus traveled with a group of disciples who assisted in his mission. He often sent them out on preaching assignments of their own, instructing them to “preach the Kingdom of God,” (Luke 9:2). The narrative reveals that they followed orders: “So they departed and went through the towns, preaching the gospel and healing everywhere,” (v. 6). Luke equates preaching the kingdom with preaching the gospel. The kingdom is the essence of the gospel message.
In Mark’s account of the same event, we learn that the apostles also “preached that people should repent,” (Mark 6:12), which is the same response Jesus expected from his hearers. The disciples called on their listeners to reorient their lives toward God and his kingdom. The good news of the kingdom was relevant, germane, and applicable to their first-century audience.
Jesus invited some who responded positively to the gospel to join his preaching band, and he encouraged others to minister in their own communities. To an unnamed disciple in the latter category, Jesus commands, “You go and preach the Kingdom of God,” (Luke 9:57-60). This shows that Jesus had only one message he wished to get across.
As his fame spread and his ministry grew, Jesus sent out 70 more followers to cities, instructing them, “Heal the sick there, and say to them, ‘The Kingdom of God has come near to you.’” He also told them that if their message was rejected they should say to the townspeople, “The very dust of your city which clings to us we wipe off against you. Nevertheless know this, that the Kingdom of God has come near you,” (Luke 10: 1, 9-11). Judgment was to be pronounced because the people scorned the good news of the kingdom’s arrival. They refused to repent, so they will perish.
On another occasion, when Jesus’s accusers charged him with using black arts and magic to perform exorcisms, he counters, “If I cast out demons with the finger of God, surely the Kingdom of God has come upon you,” (Luke 11:20).
Do you see a pattern emerging? Every preacher mentioned in the four gospels focused on the kingdom. It is the one constant, the central theme of the gospel message.
Prior to the ministry of John the Baptist, the kingdom existed only as a hope. John turned it into a living expectation. This can be seen in Jesus’s words to the Pharisees: “The law and the prophets were until John. Since that time the Kingdom of God has been preached,” (Luke 16:16).
The coming of John the Baptist brought a paradigm shift. The Old Testament law and prophets provided God’s people with a moral guide. When the nation continually failed to abide by these ethical standards, God announced the coming of a future deliverer who would usher in the reign of God and invite penitents to come under his rule. The Baptist was the first to preach the nearness of the kingdom and to identify Jesus as this promises messianic ruler. But John was not the last. Others picked up the torch.