To Whom Has the Kingdom of Heaven Come Near?
Last week we looked at the passage about the three temptations of Jesus. We mentioned that Jesus was re-enacting the wandering of the Israelites in the Wilderness. When we read about their journey, we discover that they were always grumbling, disobedient, and lacked faith in God’s promise. Jesus, on the other hand, bears the forty days in the wilderness without complaint. He does not accuse God whose Holy Spirit led Him into the desert of sending Him to die of hunger and thirst there. Moses tempted the Lord in the Wilderness. Jesus turns down the temptation to tempt God by throwing Himself off the pinnacle of the Temple. And finally, the Children of Israel were tempted by the riches of the land they entered to forget the Lord who brought them there and to give worship to the Canaanite gods of fertility, whereas Jesus refused to bow down to Satan in exchange for all the riches of the world.
Jesus, by His obedience, rewrites the history of Israel. Israel is now a righteous nation in the presence of God because it is seen in the righteousness of Christ rather than the sinfulness of Adam. We also might have wondered and thought what has that to do with us today. The simple answer to that is if we are not Israel, it does not mean anything to us. But if we are Israel, then it means everything. It means that Jesus has not only relived the history of ancient Israel, He has also relived our history as well. Jesus, the one who never sinned died the sinner’s death in our place, and His righteousness and obedience becomes ours. This is the hope of our salvation.
We have seen from the beginning of the Gospel of Matthew just who Israel is. A great mistake is made in my opinion by those who separate the people of God into two separate chosen people, Israel and the Church. The question would come up then of who is the more chosen. Most commentators have concluded that Matthew was written mostly to Jewish Christians with a crumb or two of Gentiles included. Matthew has been used in an attempt to divide God’s church, a Jewish one and a Gentile one.
But when one looks at the Gospel of Matthew as being addressed to the people of God who happened formerly to have been either Jew or Gentile, one gets a clearer picture. Gentile women are included in Matthew’s genealogy. The wise men were Gentiles and there is no mention of the circumcision of Jesus or His presentation in the Temple. He went to Gentile Egypt and when Joseph, Mary and Jesus returned to Nazareth of Galilee, it was a fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah 9 that a light would shine in Galilee of the Gentiles. As we continue to go through the study, we will see many other Gentile references including this morning.
Jesus comes back from the temptation to the land of Galilee, to the city of Capernaum. Galilee of the first century was of mixed ethnicity. This mixed ethnicity was characteristic of the early church as well. Here Jesus begins His mission to preach repentance and the Kingdom of Heaven. He preaches the same message as John the Baptist had preached. By this time John had been cast into prison. The fact that the Apostle John mentions a ministry in Judaea and Samaria indicates that some time elapsed from the temptation and this message. The text gives the sense of immediacy like it happened right away, but that is the trouble with writing historical data as time is compressed.
But to whom was this message delivered? It was obvious that the areas Jesus first preached at were primarily Jewish. The Jews heard the message first and experienced his miracles and signs. And the first disciples were all ethnically Jewish. Most of them were fishermen, but one who would be called later was a tax collector, Matthew, the writer of this Gospel.
But something very interesting is said in verse 24. It says that the news went all over Syria, not just Galilee and Judaea. Syria was a large Greco-Roman province which included Antioch, the city whose churches in my opinion were the earliest recipients of Matthew. So not just Jews but Gentiles heard the message. The fame of Jesus reached Antioch years before the first missionaries came there. Gentiles were numbered among the followers of Jesus from the very beginning of His ministry, even as John shows how the Samaritans were included. Jesus was already preparing the way for His message to go out into all the nations. The twelve would have noticed this as well. When they were called to be fishers of men, it meant all of humankind.
Gentiles would come to be included in the healings and other miracles. They were to be included in Israel as well. When we read the verses at the end of chapter four it tells us of the audience who came to the mount where Jesus would preach the Sermon on the Mount. It mentions the ethnically mixed Galilee, Decapolis, a Gentile area, and Judaea and Jerusalem, Jewish areas. Those who would hear the words of Jesus and put them into practice would be His true disciples. These make up the true Israel, not just a ethnic enclave of Jews. In fact Jesus like John the Baptist savages the Pharisees who thought along ethnic lines. So I see this gospel also being used as an antidote to Pharisaic claims against the early church because they were ethnically impure and did not submit to circumcision at any rate.
If this message of the Kingdom was for everybody in Jesus’ earthly ministry, is it any different today? When we read the Great Commission at the end of this gospel, it is a declaration to make disciples of all the Gentiles (nations). This isn’t anything that Jesus had not done Himself. The Jew is the one who believes the same promise given to Abraham while he was still uncircumcised. Everyone who believes is to be included. And since Jesus mentions that this is to be done until the end of the world, it is just as true today.
We must proclaim the gospel to everyone, regardless of their religious or ethnic background. There is no such thing as a hyphenated Christian. Hyphens join together two names on an equal basis. But who is equal to Jesus Christ? We cannot be American-Christians, Methodist-Christians, Jewish Christians, or the like. We are simply Christians, the people of God. We must all come by faith in Jesus, regardless of where we came from. What is important to the Christian is our identity in Christ as the people of God. So we would do well to stop emphasizing what once made us different and start emphasizing our common Christian identity. There are no Gibeonites in God’s kingdom to draw water and hew wood. We are no better nor any less than any other Christian.
Finally, we are called to continue to do what Jesus began to do and teach. We have no authority to change His message. Repent because the Kingdom of Heaven has come near. When we preach this to the unbeliever, our lives must be such that they will see the Kingdom has come into their presence. When people see us, do they see the nearness of the Kingdom. The coming kingdom is more than just a future event. It is that, of course. We must believe in the coming of Jesus to set up the Kingdom in the future, but it is our job as much as that of the early disciples to do as Charles Wesley put it “Anticipate your heaven below, and know that love is heaven.”
One comes into this kingdom by the eager desire to escape the coming wrath. John Wesley made this the first condition for joining the Methodist societies which he took from John the Baptist’s warning to the Pharisees. Repent is a forgotten word in too many pulpits. The message is more than God is love or God loves everybody. This love has to be understood in the context that God is holy and that every person is a sinner who cannot save himself or herself. God’s love has to be understood on His terms and not ours. This proof of God’s love, this Jesus who came into the world that everyone who believes should not perish. This tells us that people are truly perishing in this world who needs to hear the message. “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near.” It is near for those who are church members as well as to those who are not. Church membership does not get you into heaven any more than the Jews who trusted in their ethnicity. We become the people of God, we become Israel, when we believe and act on the words which the Lord of the Covenant spoke. Repent and believe that Jesus has lived a perfect life in your place and bore your sin on the cross. Believe in Jesus who also rose and ascended on high, who has promised to return for us. Believe that your sins have been forgiven by Jesus and let the chains fall off. Rise up and follow Jesus. And in your life and with your tongue proclaim to the world to repent because the Kingdom of Heaven has come near.