The first public pronouncement by Jesus – as well as his forerunner John the Baptist – was fashioned as a call for repentance because the kingdom of heaven was drawing ever closer. (Matthew 3:2 & 4:17) But in discussing what – or where – the kingdom is, Jesus often dealt in characterizations; hinting at what the kingdom was like. As in, “The kingdom of heaven is like…”; a mustard seed (Matthew 13:31,32), yeast dispersed throughout a bowl of dough (Matthew 13:33), treasure hidden in a field or a pearl of great value (Matthew 13:44,45), a fishing net (Matthew 13:47-50); or from the perspective of judgment – a farmer with weedy fields (Matthew 13:24-30), and a king settling accounts. (Matthew 18:23 – 35)
Rather than being coy in his description of heaven, I believe Jesus was attempting to convey all the subtle nuances the kingdom entails; the varied way of picturing the kingdom found even in its scriptural titles. Mark, Luke and John using the phrase kingdom of God in their effort to connect with a broad Greek audience, Matthew referring to it as the kingdom of Heaven, a more culturally correct way of invoking God and/or his realm within the Jewish community; which used various titles in reference to him – never his name – out of respect for his person and to guard against over-familiarity with a “supernatural” being. Both, however, alluded to His actions, dominion and reign as much as a place of residence. (Possibly referring to the kingdom as we experience it – or live it out – on earth. Very few specific descriptions being made of heaven outside of Revelation 21:4)
For instance, when Jesus instructed his disciples as to the message they too were to convey as they evangelized their own earthly kingdom, it was – at least in part – that, “The kingdom of heaven is near.” (or at hand.) Matthew 10:7 Which referred not only to the possibility of one meeting their maker at any moment but also conveying the idea that God’s character and kingdom purposes were being uniquely revealed in Jesus and his ministry. And even though many failed to recognize him for who he was, God none-the-less exercised his sovereignty by actively involving himself in the affairs of men, redeeming the world to a higher purpose and men to life everlasting through his son and our Savior – Jesus Christ.
Much of Jesus’ ministry entailed the fulfilling of Old Testament prophecy relating to the Messiah. So why didn’t everyone recognize him as such? Because Jesus revelation of the meaning of Messiah-ship didn’t mesh with how many of his contemporaries defined it. The Zealots and Essenes expected a military-style leader who would vanquish their oppressors and enemies both inside and outside their borders. The Pharisees and Sadducees, representing the conservative and liberal thinkers of the day, looked for financial, political and social influence as much as religious persuasion; seeking a Messiah they could mold and manipulate as the need arose and they saw fit.
It’s not too difficult, however, to see where some of their misconceptions originated, as numerous passages of scripture refer to a great and terrible “day of the Lord”; when judgment would indeed be inflicted on Israel’s enemies. Having been a subjugated people for long periods of time they longed for that day to come fervently. There absolutely were hints of a “suffering servant” (Is. 53) and a “Prince of peace” (Is. 9:6) inserted throughout scripture, but naturally the image of a mighty king who would judge the wicked and defeat Israel’s enemies would capture their imagination and sustain their hope for the future. (The problem, from our perspective is that many of these insertions appear rather randomly throughout scripture, there being no definitive dissertation on a servant Prince and Savior.)
A broader understanding of what Messiah-ship really involved was crucial to the nation of Israel and, eventually, the rest of the world. Recognizing him as the “Promised One” and accepting his ministry as the legitimate outgrowth of his being, however, was not easily accomplished, even for those closest to him. (See John the Baptist’s query of Matthew 11:1-3, which served as the basis for questions from countless others – friend and foe alike – who couldn’t quite get beyond their time-honored preconceived assumptions and grasp the reality of what they were seeing and hearing.) The surety of judgment being one aspect of Messiah’s reign, patient redemption being a hallmark of kingdom rule Jesus strove to pass on to his disciples as well. (Luke 13:1-9) Those who focused on his role as judge weren’t entirely wrong though, as Jesus confirmed that aspect of his messiah-ship at his second-coming in places such as Matthew 25:31-46; they just prematurely focused on the secondary role of his overlordship to the detriment of his primary focus – saving people largely from themselves.
As such, he had to change their expectations regarding the Messiah and transform their understanding of God. Rather than a wrathful God intent on the elimination of all opposition, Jesus revealed a God of compassion; who could get angry and did set standards, but was willing and even eager to allow mercy and grace a chance to work in a person’s life as well. (Human standards dictating that judgment is the logical response to the problem of sin and evil, God’s stand dictating a response to sin, but allowing for a reprieve from the punishment for sin in the truly sorrowful and repentant. See Acts 17:30)
What has frustrated many – then and now – is that mercy possesses certain side-effects or “contraindications”; one of which is that it allows evil to exist alongside righteousness. God’s purpose being to allow people to come to their own realization of who he is, making their own reasoned response to his offer of grace and redemption; sometimes responded to in refusal – which does indeed lead to judgment and damnation. (John 3:16-18) God’s timing not being determined by our sense of justice but by his desire to see no man left behind, but for everyone to come to him in repentance. (2 Peter 3:9)
Jesus came to earth – and died on the cross – to provide a way for us to reconnect with God, which doesn’t imply universal forgiveness or a forced fellowship. Jesus is the means by which God offers us mercy and salvation, depending on our response to his invitation to , “Come, follow me.”
The problem is that many of us long to experience God more deeply, but few want to genuinely commit themselves to following him to the degree “relationship” entails, missing the point that in the midst of any king’s offer of provision, safety and protection, there is likewise an expectation that we will conform our lives to His. (See Matthew 7:21 & John 14:15) Those who choose wisely hearing the King say, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.” Matthew 25:34 Those failing to do so hearing something entirely different. “I never knew you. Away from me, you evil doers!” Matthew 7:23
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