The Gospel of the Kingdom
Have you ever had an experience where there’s been a word that you’ve heard your whole life, you’ve used many times in your life, but you’ve never really thought very much about what it means? And then you have that “a ha” moment where it finally clicks in?
I think I was well into my 20s when I figured out that we call “sandals” “sandals” because they are worn on sand, where it’s hot and so on. And I felt really smart until I told someone else and they said “You’re how old and you haven’t figured that out before?”
I’ve been having this same experience a much larger scale in recent years with this word “kingdom” or, particularly, the phrase “kingdom of God” or “kingdom of heaven.” I grew up going to church and hearing this word or those phrases used probably thousands of times over the years, but never really clued in on what it meant. For me it was just a bit of Christianese that I never paid too much attention to. And in all honesty, I was never asked to pay too much attention to these words.
But that’s been changing in recent years as I’ve been reading the Bible more carefully and reading other good books which have been helping me understand the Bible more accurately.
When you read the Bible carefully, it’s hard to miss the word “kingdom.” It’s used a lot. And not just in the Old Testament to talk about Israel’s kingdom. It shows up aa lot in Matthew, as we’ve seen and will see. Mark, Luke and John all speak often of the kingdom. The early church continued this theme. Acts 8:12 says that “…they believed Philip as he preached good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ…”
Acts 14 says that Paul and his team “…returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:21–22).
When Paul went to Ephesus, “he entered the synagogue and for three months spoke boldly, reasoning and persuading them about the kingdom of God” (Acts 19:8). Speaking later to the elders of the church in Ephesus, He said, “I know that none of you among whom I have gone about proclaiming the kingdom will see my face again” (Acts 20:25).
And finally, Acts 28, the very last chapter in the book, when Paul is in prison in Rome, we read that “When they had appointed a day for him, they came to him at his lodging in greater numbers. From morning till evening he expounded to them, testifying to the kingdom of God and trying to convince them about Jesus both from the Law of Moses and from the Prophets…He lived there two whole years at his own expense, and welcomed all who came to him, proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance” (Acts 28:23, 30–31).
And as we look at the rest of the New Testament, we see that most of the books—Romans, 1 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, 2 Timothy, Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, Revelation—talk openly and often about the kingdom.
What is the Kingdom?
So what is the kingdom? We can’t ignore it; we need to understand it.
In the language of the New Testament, just like in English, the word “kingdom” is related to the word “king.” A kingdom is where a king reigns or rules. In the beginning, this world was God’s kingdom. He was the king, and you’ll remember that He appointed Adam and Eve to have dominion as His representatives here on earth. They were supposed to be like the Governor General, representing the crown here in this land.
But Adam and Eve followed the serpent and committed treason against the King. And ever since then, this world has been filled with rebellious spirits and rebellious humans who have tried to set up their own power structures in opposition to God’s royal crown.
And so God’s plan of salvation has always been about His kingdom. It’s always been about rescuing His people from these false kingdoms and bringing them back safely under His protection, His saving rule.
When God called Israel out to Mt. Sinai He said, “and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6). God promised David a Son and that He would “…establish the throne of his kingdom forever” (2 Samuel 7:13).
And what we need to hear there is not just “Oh, that’s Israel, and of course they had a king because they were all political and everything.” What we need to hear there is God’s plan of salvation unfolding. God claiming back what was His, God extending His saving rule back over humanity as He brings them back into His kingdom.
And as you know, the Psalms and the Prophets taught God’s people to pin their hopes on the Messiah, which is really just another way of saying God’s king, the One who would rule and extend salvation over the earth. And it was for that king, that Messiah, that Anointed One, that the people were waiting for during those long centuries of silence. Silence that was shattered by John’s proclamation that “the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” The long-awaited saving reign of God is at the door.
And now, His temptation past, His ministry begun, Jesus proclaims the the same theme, the same message, and begins to make it very clear by His words and actions that He Himself is that Messiah, that king. The Kingdom of God is at hand because the King Himself has arrived.
And that’s what our passage today is about. The arrival of the kingdom as proclaimed by the king.
We all know that the kingdom which Jesus was bringing challenged the expectations of the people Jesus ministered to. And maybe you’re starting to realize that this kingdom challenges some of your expectations as well. So the way we’re going to organize the material in our passage today is by considering what it has to teach us about the kingdom—what it’s like, and who it’s for.
So in our passage this morning we’re going to see that, first, the kingdom is for Jews and Gentiles. Second, the kingdom is for followers of Jesus. Third, the kingdom is already here. And fourth, the kingdom is not yet here.
1. The Kingdom Is for Jews and Gentiles
So let’s dive in and see how, first, the kingdom is for Jews and Gentiles. This truth shines out in the first four verses of our passage today, which speak about Jesus’ relocation to Galilee. Galilee was where He was from, far away from Jerusalem which was the cultural and religious hub of Jewish life.
There were many Jews in Galilee, but also many Gentiles. In Capernaum, for example, there was a Roman garrison and a tax collector’s booth. And Matthew understands that Jesus’ intentional relocation to this Gentile-rich area was a direct fulfillment of this prophecy from Isaiah chapter 9.
In Isaiah’s day, Galilee had been overrun by the Assyrian empire, which is why he calls it “Galilee of the nations” or “Galilee of the Gentiles.” And even in Jesus’ day, the population of Galilee was still significantly mixed between Jews and Gentiles.
But Isaiah foresees that in this dark land a light will dawn. According to Isaiah 9, that light will come in the form of a child who will be born, a son who will be given, and on whose shoulder the government will rest (Isaiah 9:6). “Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this” (Isaiah 9:7).
Notice the kingdom language in that passage. And Isaiah writes that all of this good kingdom news is coming to “Galilee of the Gentiles.” And Matthew says, “here it is.” Light dawns on the darkness as the kingdom of God is preached in this land to both Jews and Gentiles.
This is confirmed by verses 23-25. As Jesus goes throughout all Galilee, He does focus on the Jewish people by preaching in their synagogues. But look at verse 24: “So his fame spread throughout all Syria.” Far beyond the borders of Israel. Verse 25: “And great crowds followed him from Galilee and the Decapolis, and from Jerusalem and Judea, and from beyond the Jordan.” The Decapolis and the region “beyond the Jordan” were mostly Gentile regions as well. Just like the magi, Gentiles are travelling long distances to come and follow Jesus.
So what we’re seeing here is something Matthew has been telling us all along, which is that the kingdom of God is for Jews and Gentiles. This would have been challenging to some of the Jewish people of Jesus’ day, who despised the Gentiles and called then dogs and regularly thanked God that they weren’t born a Gentile.
This might be challenging to some contemporary Christians who have been taught that Israel and the church are two totally separate entities with two totally different programs and two totally different futures. Passages like this challenge some of those assumptions by showing us that from the very beginning of Jesus’ mission, the kingdom was for Jews and Gentiles together.
And this passage prepares us for the Great Commission of Matthew 28, where Jesus will use kingdom language to tell his very Jewish apostles that “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:18–19).
So, the kingdom is for all followers of Jesus, Jews and Gentiles.
2. The Kingdom is for Followers of Jesus
The second truth about the kingdom our passage teaches us is that the kingdom is for followers of Jesus. We see this truth shine out in verses 18-22, where Jesus calls His first disciples. Don’t miss the connection here: right after He starts proclaiming that the kingdom of heaven is at hand, He meets these fishermen and says to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men” (Matthew 4:19).
Follow me, and I will make you the kind of people who will draw others to follow me. The kingdom is for followers of Jesus.
We should note that, for these men, “following Jesus” wasn’t poetic language. No, verse 20: “Immediately they left their nets and followed him.” And verse 22: “Immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him.” They walked away from family and income and began to build their lives around the person of Jesus.
That’s what the kingdom does. It does not offer Jesus as a nice addition to an existing life. It beckons people to stop their existing life and go where Jesus is going instead. We see this again in verse 25: “And great crowds followed him from Galilee and the Decapolis, and from Jerusalem and Judea, and from beyond the Jordan.” Those great crowds were likely not following Jesus with the devotion and commitment of Peter and Andrew and James and John. But at least at that point they were actually, actively, following the person of Jesus.
Being a part of the kingdom was a lifestyle decision. Following Jesus meant uprooting yourself from your life and going after Jesus. We’re going to come back to this idea at the end of the message, but remember this: the kingdom is for followers of the king.
3. The Kingdom of God is Already Here
Let’s speak to this third idea now, that the Kingdom of God is already here. And what I’m pointing to there are the reports of healing and deliverance that come in verses 23-24: “And he went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people. So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought him all the sick, those afflicted with various diseases and pains, those oppressed by demons, those having seizures, and paralytics, and he healed them” (Matthew 4:23–24).
Many people, many Christians, misunderstand the healings of Jesus because they miss the connection between healing and the kingdom. But to the Jews of Jesus’ day, the healings of Jesus were more than just miracles. They were signposts that the king was here and the kingdom had arrived.
That’s because the Old Testament taught that when the Messiah comes to reign as God’s king over the world, he will totally reverse of all of the suffering and pain that have come into the world because of our sin. His kingdom will return this world to Eden.
Think about Isaiah 11. “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit” (Isaiah 11:1). That’s talking about the Messiah, God’s anointed king (see also v. 4; compare with Psalm 2:9).
And what will happen when this righteous king comes to reign over the earth? Verse 6. “The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together; and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze; their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder’s den. They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Isaiah 11:6–9).
So in other words, when the Messiah comes to reign—when the kingdom of God arrives—He will reverse the curse and bring the world back to a Garden-of-Eden like experience where pain and death are no more.
Isaiah 35:5-6 says that when God comes to save His people, “…the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy…” (Isaiah 35:5–6).
Again, we see there an undoing of the pain and suffering caused by sin. Which implies that God is going to deal with sin itself, which we see in Isaiah 53. God’s perfect servant is going to suffer and die in the place of sinners to make them righteous. And because sin itself is death with, the effects of sin will be reversed and life in God’s kingdom will be whole and perfect again.
So if that’s all in the back of our mind, then when we read in Matthew 4:24 that he was “healing every disease and every affliction among the people,” that means one thing: the kingdom of God had arrived. The Age of the Messiah had begun. The curse of Eden was being reversed as “all the sick, those afflicted with various diseases and pains… those having seizures, and paralytics” were healed by Jesus (v. 24).
After last week I hope you see the significance in the mention of “demons” in verse 24. The Kingdom of Heaven was at war with the kingdom of darkness, and there was no contest between the two. Dark powers who had enjoyed controlling and tormenting people fled before the King of Heaven.
So this is what the healing and deliverance ministry of Jesus was about. It was about the gospel—the good news—that the Kingdom of God was here. The Age of the Messiah had dawned and God had begun to reverse the curse. And ultimately, it was about the good news that God was about to deal with sin, once and for all. The effects of sin were being turned back in anticipation of the cross, where the sin of God’s people would be dealt with once and for all.
So it’s no wonder that the people got all excited about Jesus. They would have though that this was it. These were the last days. The New Heavens and the New Earth were just around the corner. It won’t be long until Jesus smashes the Romans and reigns forever just like He promised. The Kingdom of God was here.
4. The Kingdom of God is Not Yet Here
And they were partially right. The kingdom of God was there. But the kingdom of God was also not quite there. It had arrived, but not fully.
And our first clue of this actually comes right at the beginning of our passage, in verse 12. “Now when he heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew into Galilee” (Matthew 4:12).
Whoah, whoah, whoah, just wait a second. John was arrested? This voice crying in the wilderness, this new Elijah, was arrested? And instead of marching into Herod’s prison to set him free, Jesus just withdrew into Galilee and started His ministry up there?
How does that make sense? Wasn’t the Messiah supposed to “bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness,” like Isaiah promised he would (Isaiah 42:7)? If the kingdom of God is here, and people are getting healed up in Galilee, why is John still sitting in prison down in Judea?
This question smoulders up until Matthew chapter 11, where we read about John sending some of his disciples to Jesus to ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” (Matthew 11:3). John himself began to question whether Jesus was the Messiah, because this just didn’t line up.
And this introduces us to the tension of Jesus’ ministry, a tension that runs right up to our present moment today. The kingdom is already here. And the kingdom is not yet here. Already, but not yet.
Just think about the healings of Jesus. He healed many people—the kingdom is here! But He did not heal everyone—the kingdom is not yet here. And we know He didn’t heal everyone because there were still lots of sick people left over for His apostles to heal in the book of Acts. And even those apostles did not heal everyone, which is why Paul told Timothy to drink wine for his stomach (1 Timothy 5:23) had to leave “Trophimus, who was ill, at Miletus” (2 Timothy 4:20).
The kingdom of God is already here. And the kingdom of God is not yet here. The kingdom of God has been inaugurated. But the kingdom of God has not yet arrived in its fullness.
I don’t know if you’ve ever been to a restaurant when you’re really hungry, and you get an appetizer to share with your table. It’s so good, and so wonderful, but doesn’t it also leave you wanting so much more? That’s what the healings of Jesus were like. They were a taste of the New Creation. A preview of the Age to Come. A signpost of the kingdom. But not the full meal quite yet.
And so it is for us, all these years later. We are still waiting for the fullness of the kingdom. We are still waiting for the New Creation when every captive will be set free and every sickness is healed and everything will be like the Garden of Eden, but better.
The kingdom of God is not yet here. And the kingdom of God is already here. As followers of Jesus, we already have begun to live as citizens of heaven, already already uprooting ourselves from this age and living under the authority and values of the king.
That is very much what the Sermon on the Mount is about, which we will begin to explore next week. (We made a small update to the series outline.) The Sermon on the Mount teaches followers of Jesus how to live in the kingdom that is already here but not yet here.
Following Jesus Today
And so as we end, I want to ask you if you’re ready for this. Are you ready to be called to be a real follower of Jesus, who lives first and foremost not as a citizen of Nipawin or Saskatchewan or Canada but as a citizen of the kingdom of heaven? Who deliberately shapes their lives around this kingdom which is here and yet not yet here?
Life in the kingdom changes everything. Don’t think that following Jesus was a lifestyle decision only for those crowds in Matthew 4. Don’t think that following Jesus today won’t mean big changes to our status quo. Don’t think that you can have Jesus and have the safe, comfortable, easy North American life that you’ve always dreamed of.
“Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it;” (Matthew 16:24–25).
Crosses are for dying, and the kingdom of God is made up of people who are steadily walking towards their own death, having lost their lives for Jesus, and using up whatever life they are given back for the service of their King.
So being a Christian means you did give Jesus your job and your house and your family just as much as Peter and Andrew and James and John. If you work at a job now, it should be because you know Jesus wants you to work at that job for His glory. If you live in a house, it’s because you know that Jesus wants you to use that house for Him. If you have family, it’s again for His sake.
A way that we can sum this up is that being a Christian means Jesus has a blank cheque to your life. No holds barred. “Another of the disciples said to him, ‘Lord, let me first go and bury my father.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead’” (Matthew 8:21–22).
“Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:37–39).
Leaving everything for Jesus, living like a citizen of heaven—these aren’t some advanced form of Christianity for some super spiritual people. No, it’s Christianity 101. This is the ground level. Jesus has all of you, or He has nothing at all.
When I was dating Aimee I knew that God wanted me to be a pastor, and I knew that this could lead us to all kinds of interesting places, and I wanted to make sure she was up for that. So I asked her one day on a walk, “Would you go to Africa with me if God led me there?” And if she had said no, we would have been done.
And as I’ve reflected on this in recent years, I’ve realized that the “would you go to Africa with me” question isn’t just for pastors and pastor’s wives. Ask yourself this morning: would you go to Africa, or Southeast Asia, or the Arctic Circle, or a slum in South America, if that’s where Jesus led you?
If you are a follower of King Jesus, then your answer should be an immediate “Of course I would. I’m a follower of Jesus. I’d go anywhere my king sent me.”
If your answer is “no, there’s no way I’d do that,” then you may need to ask yourself if you are even a follower of Jesus in the first place. In other words, whether you are even a Christian in the first place. Because Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24).
To be a Christian is to be willing to be crucified alongside of your king. And if you’re willing for that, then suddenly going to a tough spot on planet earth doesn’t seem like such a big deal anymore, does it?
This is what grieves me about the reaction so many Christians have had to the COVID-19 stuff. So many people who identify with Jesus have been all focused on their rights, their privileges, and have dug in their heels at any suggestion that they might need to do anything that they don’t freely choose to do.
Does that seem to fit someone who has given Jesus a blank check to their life, and who is following after Jesus, cross on bloody shoulder, ready to die beside their master for His sake and the sake of others?
If we’ve taken up our crosses, then is putting on a mask such a big deal? I’m just asking the question. You answer that question between you and Jesus—the Jesus whom you have signed your life away to, the Jesus who did not fight back, the Jesus who is your king.
The kingdom of God is for followers of Jesus. And even for us here in the West in 2020, perhaps especially for us here in the West in 2020, following Jesus will disrupt our lifestyle. It will unsettle our comfort. It will cost us something, and sometimes everything. And if you’re not up for that, then you need to ask yourself if you’re really up for being a part of this kingdom in the first place.
As we close here, let’s not forget what this kingdom is about. What makes us a kingdom is that Jesus is our king. We are followers of the person Jesus. And when you really know Jesus, when the Holy Spirit has begun to give you genuine love for Jesus, then leaving everything for Him suddenly doesn’t seem like that big of a deal anymore. Because Jesus Himself is the treasure that we’ll sell everything to obtain.
“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it” (Matthew 13:44–46).
So if you struggle with this idea of following Jesus, of handing Him a blank cheque of your life, then ask God to show you Jesus. I can’t imagine God not being eager to answer that prayer. “Father, reveal your Son to me. Let the glory of Jesus shine brightly into the eyes of my heart.”
Let’s join our voices now together as we invite God to come and do this work in us, and as we invite Jesus to come and reign in us as the king.