In the book of Matthew, Jesus spoke a great deal about the kingdom of heaven. In the very beginning of his ministry, he declared, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matthew 4:17)
I’ve been thinking about that lately. What did he mean by kingdom of heaven? We don’t live in the kingdom of the United States, so my concept of kingdom has been a little vague.
What did the people think he meant by it, when Jesus came declaring that the kingdom of heaven is at hand?
Did they think empire? Like Rome, Persia or Egypt; massive, powerful, wealthy. Ruled by an emperor, king or pharoah. Conqueror of other nations, other rulers. Collector of tribute and taxes. Conscriptor.
Or did they think nation like Judea, Arabia, Macedonia? Ruled by a local king but under the thumb of the Roman Empire?
Or did they think city state, like Damascus or Jericho? Thick walls, crowded buildings, narrow streets. Ruled by a dictator whose domain was small, weak and poor compared to those above.
A kingdom might begin and end at an ill-defined border. Trade routes and trading posts existed throughout the civilized world and criss-crossed the tiny nation of Israel. Coarse camps and inns were scattered about where travelers could rest for the night, where for a few coins you could have a campsite, food or water.
Some borders featured check points where fees were collected on behalf of local officials for the privilege of crossing from one territory to the next. (The bribe system has been going on a very long time in the world, civilized countries or not…)
Borderlines changed frequently, as rulers gathered warriors and expanded kingdoms by force. Ordinary citizens received this news by way of traders: don’t go down to Egypt that way, don’t go up to Syria that way, skirmishes are going on, it’s not safe.
Nothing certain but death and taxes? Taxes have always been around it seems; even Jesus and his disciples paid taxes. Rome needed money to build roads, palaces and ships, equip soldiers and pay administrators.
So, what did the people think Jesus meant? Whatever their experience with kingdom, it couldn’t have been good. Overthrow attempts happened with some regularity.
But kingdom of heaven? That’s different. Heaven is good.
“At hand.” Nearby, or coming soon. Okay, maybe that’s why “repent” was included. If God was going to set up his kingdom soon, and everyone knows only the righteous can be included in His kingdom, and if maybe I haven’t been too righteous lately – or if I have no idea how righteous is righteous enough – maybe I need to repent.
Is that what the people thought? I feel sure the people would have liked for God to obliterate their present rulers, from Caesar to Herod and Pilate and all the other ungodly governors. Call fire down from heaven. Wipe them off the face of the earth, bring justice and peace and a good life.
It took Jesus a while to correct their thinking and turn their attention from the external to the internal, the physical to the spiritual. Along the way he had to more accurately define kingdom of heaven, identify himself and lay out God’s actual agenda. It couldn’t have been an easy task.
Kingdom of heaven is an interesting subject. The more I learn about it, the more certain I am that we all need to learn more about it.