A friend of mine tells the story of having to do street evangelism for a course he was taking at a Christian college a number of years ago. One had to “win” x number of souls to receive a passing grade. Regarding one attempt to present the gospel, he recalls this response: “You don’t care about me. You just care about when I die.” It made him wonder if the Good News was really good if it was simply about a ticket to God’s Kingdom when you die. Dallas Willard calls this “barcode Christianity” by which we “swipe” our “decision” through the “great scanner in the sky” to guarantee our passage into the Kingdom of Heaven. But Jesus didn’t say, “Go and give out barcodes to heaven.” It’s not just a swipe! He said, “Go and make disciples.” He said, “Follow me.” And as Scot McKnight explains, “The only way we can follow him is to take up his kingdom vision and let it shape everything we do.”
Which leads to the question:
What is his Kingdom vision? Surely, it’s more than this once-popular brand of Christianity. In fact, when we pay attention to Jesus’ announcement of the good news, we understand that it’s the good news that the Kingdom of God is near, here and now! The phrase Kingdom of God (or Matthew’s equivalent, the Kingdom of Heaven) “appears 122 times in the first three gospels—most of the time (92) on the lips of Jesus himself ” and rarely in reference to life after death.
When we reduce the Kingdom to life after death, not only can the good news not be good news to those struggling with daily life here and now (“You don’t care about me”) but God’s people are excused from the call to follow and become more and more like Jesus—loving God, neighbor, enemy, and all of creation! After all, if the afterlife is what it’s all about, then life on earth is just a waiting game. Why bother worrying about climate change or be concerned about social justice? And if I already have a “ticket to go,” does it really matter how I behave? Our actions on earth become a moot point, so much so that some, including those in leadership, have justified (at least in their own minds) all sorts of immoral and unethical behaviors. Such actions and inactions have clearly distorted what it means to be a Jesus follower and detrimentally affected not only personal lives and local communities but our global witness.
Might it be time for us to pause
—no, actually, to hammer the brakes, check the GPS, reorient, and set a new/ancient direction—in response to Jesus’ primary proclamation: “The Kingdom of God is near!”? For when we turn to the Scriptures, there is little room for doubt that there is more to God’s Kingdom than life in the hereafter.
The biblical account informs us throughout that the universe and everything in it is God’s Kingdom:
“The Lord sits enthroned over the flood; the Lord is enthroned as King forever” (Psalm 29:10, see also Psalm 9:7).
“For God is the king of all the earth” (Psalm 47:7).
“O Lord the God of Israel, who are enthroned above the cherubim, you are God, you alone, of all the kingdoms of the earth; you have made heaven and earth” (2 Kings 19:15, nrsv).
The Creator who made all things, including you and me, is the Lord of heaven and earth (see, e.g., Psalm 24:1; 1 Corinthians 10:26). “Who can fathom [it]?” exclaims the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 40). God is sovereign over wind and waves, wombs and wanderers, those who know him and those who are yet to. Ezekiel is reminded of God’s immanent dominion through a vision that he receives in foreign Babylon of all places (Ezekiel 1–2), the same exilic place where Jeremiah also declares that God is at work (Jeremiah 29). Jonah, too, discovers that God is reigning in countries beyond his sphere such that even sinful Ninevites are invited to recognize and be a part of his Kingdom (Jonah 3). Prophets, priests and kings, peasants, servants, and even donkeys reveal that all things, heavens above and earth below, little sparrows and common lilies, all are under God’s loving rule:
Yours, O Lord, are the greatness, the power, the glory, the victory, and the majesty; for all that is in the heavens and on the earth is yours; yours is the kingdom, O Lord, and you are exalted as head above all.
1 Chronicles 29 : 11, nrsv
Old Testament writers keep telling us this, pointing to it, describing it, longing for it. They employ images of beautiful feet, of wolves lying down with lambs, of trees singing for joy, of swords being beaten into plowshares, of everyone sitting under their own fig tree and feasting together at the banquet of abundance with a dance in their heads. All too often, however, they also have to remind God’s people of this Kingdom, and the faithful God who reigns over it with everlasting love and justice—and of how far from and far short of God’s dream they keep falling. We are not there yet. Repent! Listen! Look! They cry, “Listen, you that are deaf; and you that are blind, look up and see!” (Isaiah 42:18, nrsv).
The judges, prophets, and kings also remind us that we would rather bow down to lesser kings (like our castles, institutions, nations, politics, and ideologies) even when they fail us over and over. God may be King, and all that is may be his Kingdom, but his people remain “deaf and blind” until after four hundred years of silence a voice is heard in the wilderness, as John the Baptist proclaims: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news” (Mark 1:15, nrsv).
Jesus himself declares that he has come to “proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God” (Luke 4:43, nrsv). This is the core announcement that the Christ not only taught but lived and died: The Kingdom of God has come near—is here! Jesus’ message and ministry both serve and are derived from, directed toward, and understood in the context of this Kingdom proclamation, and this message—that the reign of God is at hand— shaped his mission, and that mission now determines the mission and mantle of his followers. Jesus commissions and sends them, in all their coming and going, to “proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near’” (Matthew 10:7, nrsv).
Adapted from “The Kingdom of God Is Here” by Karen Wilk, chapter 2 of Kingdom and Country: Following Jesus in the Land that You Love, edited by Angie Ward. Copyright ©2022. Used by permission of NavPress. All rights reserved. Represented by Tyndale House Publishers, a Division of Tyndale House Ministries.