One morning a few weeks ago, I was reading through the gospel of Matthew, as I have done many times before, when a verse stopped me in my tracks. It’s in chapter 10, when Jesus sends out his 12 disciples. He gives them authority to cast out demons and heal disease. He tells them where to go and what to do, and in the middle of the instructions he says,
As you go, proclaim this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ Matthew 10:7
God and I have had a long running conversation about what I’m supposed to do with his command to heal the sick and cast out demons. That might be a topic for another post. This other piece, to preach a particular message, seems easier! But what does it mean?
I only had the vaguest notion of what Jesus was telling us to tell people, so I looked at mentions of “kingdom of God” and “kingdom of heaven” in various Bible translations. I learned several interesting facts about the concept, but nothing I could explain to a stranger in an elevator.
One extremely helpful verse is Romans 14:17, where Paul writes, “The kingdom of God is not food or drink, but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.” That seems a pretty viable message: “Righteousness and peace and joy are at hand! You too can experience this amazing transformed life! But wait, there’s more! If you act now, we’ll include a second package for your friend or family member, absolutely free!”
If only it were that easy, we’d all send in our three easy payments of $19.99, wouldn’t we? But these characteristics don’t seem to be in very abundant supply, even among Christians. What’s the missing link? Jesus says the kingdom is near us, in our midst, even within us. Why don’t we see it? What stops us from experiencing the kingdom?
One of the more interesting facts I discovered on my survey of this verse in various translations is that the Biblical word translated “kingdom” actually means the reign of God; not necessarily a physical place, but wherever God is the ultimate authority. If I am not experiencing righteousness, peace, and joy, it’s because my heart has put something other than God on the throne. As I was mulling over how to explain that, life provided a real-life object lesson.
A friend of mine started attacking me for doing something in a way that I believed was right and best. The first couple times she fussed about it, I just ignored it, but then it got so intense I felt provoked to defend myself and started to wonder if perhaps our friendship was over. I can tell you, I did not have peace and joy in that moment! The kingdom of God was available to me, but I wasn’t feeling it. Just then, I received a “verse of the day” in my email: Ephesians 4:32. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving one another, just as in Christ God forgave you.
As I thought about the price Jesus paid to forgive my loathsome sins, it put the petty disagreement with my friend into perspective. I realized that I was placing far more value on my right to do things my own way than I was on being kind to my friend. God was not reigning in my heart; my selfish nature had taken over. Just like that, I realized that there was no real harm in letting my friend have her way in this area. What’s more, the entire episode could have been avoided if I had chosen kindness and humility in the first place. As I put God back on the throne of my heart, I could feel the righteousness, peace, and joy of his kingdom come flooding back.
We live in a fallen world, just as Jesus did. There was nothing easy about the circumstances he was born into, the life he lived, or the death he died. But he brought us his kingdom of righteousness, joy, and peace and he wants us to experience it! He said it best: Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.