Matt 3:1-3 In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, and saying, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!" For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah, saying: "The voice of one crying in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord; Make His paths straight.'" (NKJV)
When John said the kingdom of heaven was near, he knew it. He knew he was born to fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah 40:3 as quoted in Matt 3:3. He knew it because that was the prophecy given to his father in Luke 1:16-17 even before he was conceived. He knew it because the Holy Spirit revealed it to him. John 1:32-34 Then John gave this testimony: "I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him. I would not have known him, except that the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, 'The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is he who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.' I have seen and I testify that this is the Son of God." (NIV)
So what exactly is the kingdom of heaven? The New Testament has 32 references to the kingdom of heaven in Matthew and four references to the kingdom of God. There are another 62 references to the kingdom of God in the other books of the New Testament. The kingdom of God and the kingdom of heaven are interchangeable since Matthew recorded Jesus using the Kingdom of heaven in Matt 4:17 and the kingdom of God in Mark 1:15 in exactly the same way. If I were to look at all of these references, I could come up with a lot of details about the kingdom of heaven. However, those who heard this first use of the phrase by John didn’t have all these verses. What did they understand?
At that time, people were familiar with the book of Daniel. They knew of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream that Daniel was able to interpret. God gave that interpretation to Daniel. Dan 2:28 but there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries, and he has made known to King Nebuchadnez'zar what will be in the latter days. (RSV) Daniel then tells that the dream was about kingdoms down through history, one replaces another as time passes and the “latter days” arrive. Dan 2:44 And in the days of those kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom which will never be destroyed, and that kingdom will not be left for another people; it will crush and put an end to all these kingdoms, but it will itself endure forever. (NASB) This is what the people understood when John or Jesus first spoke of the kingdom of God or the kingdom of heaven. It would be a physical kingdom that God would establish and it would dominate every other kingdom on earth. It would last forever.
They didn’t view this kingdom as a kingdom of another spiritual realm. That view was also available to them from the book of Daniel. Dan 4:3b His kingdom is an eternal kingdom; his dominion endures from generation to generation. (NIV) Nebuchadnezzar, the first king in the interpretation above, provided that view. He knew and recognized it because God took his sanity from him until he humbled himself under God.
As the book of Matthew unfolds, Jesus’ primary references to the kingdom of heaven describe who will enter or not and who will be greatest or least. There are only two places where He gives any indication that it isn’t an eternal physical kingdom. Matt 12:28 But if I drive out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. (NIV) Jesus certainly did drive out demons by the Spirit of God, which means that the kingdom of God was right there at that time. Yet it was not manifested physically as prophesied in Daniel. Jesus had just spoken about Satan’s kingdom. With this in mind I can safely assume that just as there is a spiritual realm in which Satan is ruler, so is there a spiritual realm where Jesus in currently king. Speaking of God’s power to raise Jesus from the dead, Paul gave us a glimpse of the kingdom. Eph 1:20-21 [The power] which he exerted in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. (NIV) This provides us with the dual nature of the kingdom of God, the current spiritual kingdom and the one to come.
Luke 17:20-21 Once, having been asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, "The kingdom of God does not come with your careful observation, nor will people say, 'Here it is,' or 'There it is,' because the kingdom of God is within you." (NIV) The only way Jesus could make this statement is in reference to the spiritual kingdom when the Holy Spirit lives in us. This is a kingdom that can not be seen. However, Jesus also makes it clear that there is more to come. Mark 14:24-25 And He said to them, "This is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. “ Truly I say to you, I shall never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God." (NASB) I think He was referring to His millennium reign when we will reign with Him. Rev 20:6 Blessed and holy is the one who has a part in the first resurrection; over these the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ and will reign with Him for a thousand years. (NASB)
This is all cool, head-knowledge type stuff. How does God want me to apply this to my life?
Since God’s kingdom is everlasting and endures from generation to generation it means I need to find out which side I’m on. Am I part of His kingdom or Satan’s kingdom? Jesus didn’t give any room to be anywhere else. There is no question that one day everyone will realize this. As I read through Rev 20 and 21 it is evident that everyone will be resurrected from the dead. Some will enter eternity in heaven in God’s kingdom and others will enter into eternal punishment along with Satan. I have to make sure that I’m in His kingdom before I die. Heb 9:27 And just as each person is destined to die once and after that comes judgment, (NLT) makes it clear that there are no second chances after this life.
Assuming that I’ve decided that I want to be in God’s kingdom, I need to realize that I can’t act any way I want and call myself a Christian. Matt 7:21"Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” (NIV) John 6:40 “For my Father's will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day." (NIV) I can’t believe anything I want. I must believe Jesus and what He has said. Some of those things follow.
Matt 18:3-4 And he said: "I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. (NIV) A child is totally dependent on adults. When I depend on myself to earn my way into heaven, I will never make it. I have to be like a child and depend totally on Jesus and His atoning sacrifice for my sin. I can’t depend on baptism, being good, tithing, or any other work. If I don’t humble myself in this way, I’ll have no part of His kingdom.
Matt 13:45-46 "Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.” (NIV) Attaining God’s kingdom is so valuable that there is nothing in this life that is more important or valuable. If I’m not willing to give up everything in this world to enter, then I’m not worthy of the kingdom. This is not a matter of buying or working my way into heaven. It is about the attitude of my heart. When I face persecution, am I willing to die rather than denounce Jesus? Am I willing to do what is right in my business practices or work ethic and possibly lose everything so that I don’t tarnish the name of Jesus?
The chief priests and elders in Jerusalem were the religious leaders who believed they were going to earn their way into the kingdom of god but challenged Jesus’ authority. From Matt 21:23 through 43, Jesus has a dialog with them. He told them a couple of parables. The first had to do with obeying God and repentance. He declared that prostitutes and tax collectors were entering God’s kingdom before the leaders because these sinners had not initially obeyed but repented and obeyed. The religious leaders said they obeyed but didn’t. The second showed them that they would completely reject Jesus and even have Him killed. Jesus finished with Matt 21:43 “Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit.” (NIV) I need to produce fruit that is consistent with His kingdom. By using a negative example (the religious leaders), and the parables, I can see that obeying God and receiving Jesus are things I must do.
If I want to see what my fruit should look like, I can look at Gal 5:22-24 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires. (NIV) When I belong to Jesus, I die to my sinful nature, passions, and desires and let His Holy Spirit control me to produce the fruit of His kingdom.