Thursday, March 19, 2015

The Calling to Change: Understanding Matthew 4:17 and Jesus' Announcement of the Kingdom

Jesus begins his public ministry by preaching, "Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is near" (Matt 4:17). 

Many students of Matthew's Gospel consider 4:17 "From this time on Jesus began..." as a major heading for the middle portion of the Gospel (4:17-16:20).  Careful readers will note that 16:21 begins in identical fashion: From this time on Jesus began....  Thus, 4:17 is not only a snippet from the preaching of Jesus but also a heading for the presentation of Jesus' public ministry in Matthew's Gospel. This raises a number of questions for us. What is the meaning of Jesus' sermon "Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is near"? How does it function as a general heading for Jesus' ministry?  Why does Jesus begin his ministry in this fashion?

I cannot answer these questions exhaustively, but let us begin by breaking down the passage itself.

The central exhortation is Jesus' call for repentance.  Repentance involves changing or turning.  It is a radical "about face" in one's life. I think that a better way of expressing "repent" is to use the word "realign." Jesus is calling for conversion. When he proclaims the good news of the kingdom, it is imperative for his hearers to align or realign themselves with the values and ethic of God's kingdom.

Often times this text is misread as a one time event in a person's life.  Repentance is typically associated with a person's conversion experience.  This is certainly true, but it misses some of the force of this text.  This text does not exhort a one time "Repent" but rather it could accurately (although somewhat clumsily) "Be repenting" or "Repent continuously."  In the Greek, the verb is in the present aspect which suggests that this verbal form carries on-going/durative force.  This is an important observation because it suggests that repentance or realignment is a way of life for a follower of Jesus rather than one time event or precondition for salvation.

It is also worth observing that our text does not indicate of what one needs to repent.  I think that this carries two implications.  First, Jesus' call to repent is comprehensive. Second, what it means to repent can only be discovered by reading further into Matthew's Gospel. In other words, following Jesus involves a continual willingness to realign one's life with the ethos of the Kingdom of heaven.

The Kingdom of heaven
Instead of giving specific directions on repenting/realignment, Jesus provides a single rationale for his exhortation "for the Kingdom of heaven is near."  This clause however has much that needs to be unpacked.

First, the phrase “kingdom of heaven” is synonymous with the more common “kingdom of God” which is found throughout the other three Gospels.  “Kingdom of heaven” is a distinctive of Matthew’s Gospel.  Matthew routinely makes use of indirect ways for referring to God.  Many scholars attribute this phenomenon to Matthew’s Jewish-Christian audience, which would have been used to such efforts to avoid taking God’s name in vain per the Ten Commandments.    

Second, “Kingdom” may perhaps better be translated “reign.”  In other words, it is a more dynamic term that the static term “kingdom” suggests.  It is the active realm of God’s rule. It is the long awaited age of salvation previewed in the proclamation of Israel's prophets. It is the sphere in which God’s will is done “on earth as it is in heaven” as the familiar language of the Lord’s Prayer says.

The power in the phrase “Kingdom of heaven” comes as one attempts to flesh out or define the ethos implicit in this.  The phrase “Kingdom of heaven” begs at least two questions: What sort of King? What sort of kingdom?  This would have been a burning question for the hearers of Jesus who were all too well acquainted with powers, kings, and kingdoms of the world.

The Gospel answers both of these questions in due course.  God is of course the King, but Jesus is portrayed as the regent who has come to inaugurate the eternal reign of God.  By observing Jesus, we can gain insight into the nature and character of his kingship, the kingship of God.  Let me highlight briefly two elements of the Kingdom:

1) Jesus came to bring salvation.  From the report of his birth to his death and resurrection, the mission of Jesus was “to save his people from their sins” (1:21).

2) Jesus expanded the reach of God’s grace.  By “expanded” I am by no means suggesting that God was somehow limited in terms of salvation before the coming of Jesus.  Rather Jesus incarnated and modeled for God’s people the necessity of moving to a missional engagement model for ministry.  With few exceptions, God’s people in the Old Testament embodied a “Come to” missiological practice.  In other words, the nations were invited to come to Israel to experience God’s best.  Yes, we can point to Jonah and certain oracles in Isaiah to dispute this, but these exceptions point to the reality of an essential “come to” practice in ancient Israel.  In contrast, the modus operandi for Jesus was go.  Jesus went and sought out lost persons in order to bring them back into God’s fold.  After his resurrection, Jesus fully unleashed his disciples to make disciples of all nations.  This involves going.

What sort of ethic is found in the Kingdom?  It is one that subverts the power structures of Jesus’ day.  It invites the outsider to the table. 

Consider these two passages in terms of what they say about culture of God’s Kingdom:

Matthew 5:1 Now when he saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, 2 and he began to teach them, saying: 3 "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4 Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 5 Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. 7 Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. 8 Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. 9 Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God. 10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11 "Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Notice in particular how Jesus subverts power structures but reversing the expectations for who will be considered blessed. In Jesus’ kingdom, it is the downtrodden and excluded who are blessed. Scripture is not glorifying a marginalized life. Instead, Jesus is emphasizing that those in such position are most open to God’s grace because they are desperate for what only God can provide for them.

Matt 22:37 Jesus replied: "'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.'

Jesus elevates an ethic of love for God and for others.

Is Near
The verb predicating “The Kingdom of heaven” is provocative.  It is in the Greek Perfect tense.  I know that most of my readers don’t know Greek, but bear with me. The Greek perfect carries the basic force of completed action with on-going affects into the present/future.  In other words, Jesus is declaring that God’s Kingdom has indeed come.  Jesus’ ministry involved tangibly demonstrating this truth.  Jesus healed the sick, raised the dead, and cast out devils as actions that provided convincing evidence of the presence of God’s kingdom. Yet we have to be careful here because there is a tension present.  In the person of Jesus, God has brought near his end time salvation, but at the same time, the present age remains as well.  With the advent of Jesus, we live in a time of overlap between the present age and future reign of God. Biblical scholars often talk about the coming of God’s kingdom in terms of a tension between the “already” and the “not yet.”  In other words, Jesus inaugurated the reign of God through his life, death, and resurrection, but its full consummation awaits a future date.  God’s kingdom is present now wherever and whenever God’s will is done, but there still remains a day in which God will usher in God’s eternal reign and bring an end to the present age.  This is the essence of the lines of the “Lord’s Prayer” that read: “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (6:10).

The very fact, however, that Jesus is announcing the reign of God in his person is reason enough for responding to his call for conversion.  Anyone who desires to be part of the world as God intended it was to take notice.  In fact, from our perspective, this gets at the missiological or missional point of this text.  Jesus’ proclamation at its core is a call to conversion.  This is the essence of the repent.  Jesus is calling everyone to repentance: from the devoutly religious to the most hardened sinner.

To the religious he proclaimed: Align your beliefs and practices to what God is doing through Jesus.  To those on the outside he issued this invitation: Come and join the new community that God is raising up in our times.  

When we understand Jesus' first message, we must ask ourselves, "Am I (are we) ready to (re)align with the good news of God's long awaited age of salvation?"

© 2015 Brian D. Russell  

Interested in learning more about (re)aligning with God and using it as an interpretive approach to the rest of the Bible? Check out my book (re)Aligning with God: Reading Scripture for Church and World  

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