We’d like to share with you an eye-opening exercise that we’ve done with groups of pastors and ministry leaders. We pass out a two-sided sheet of paper to everyone with all the Scripture references from Matthew’s Gospel of Jesus’ “Gospel of the Kingdom.” Fifty-one times the Good News that Matthew presents is that the “Kingdom of Heaven” is open!
First, some background on Jesus’ Gospel of the Kingdom of the Heavens.
Dallas Willard explains in Divine Conspiracy that today we mostly use two partial Gospels.
The main way we present the Gospel is Jesus went to the cross to die for our sins so we could go to heaven when we die. Of course, this is essential! In this context we say that Christ forgave our sins, redeeming us by paying off the impossible to pay debt that we owed to God, and he justified us by giving us his righteousness. We say that Christ absorbed the wrath of God for our sin and experienced the hell of separation from God so that we could be accepted by God. We say that Christ’s redemption of us transferred us from darkness and death into light and life.
The other way we present the Gospel is to emphasize that Jesus came to set the oppressed free. God has come to care for the poor and needy, the wounded and struggling, the left out and lost. It’s a Gospel of social justice. This is important too.
The Larger Gospel
But the Gospel is larger than “Jesus died for our sins.” Forgiveness of sins and heaven when I die are essential, but they are not the whole gospel. Even when we add in the social gospel of “Jesus came to set people free” it still isn’t large enough. These partial Gospels do not normally make disciples of Jesus who live with enthusiastic devotion to God and generosity and kindness toward others, even when under stress.
But rarely do we describe the Good News of Jesus as being about God’s Kingdom. When we do the understanding of the Kingdom is usually that it’s for later, in heaven or in the millennial reign of Christ. The idea we have is that when Jesus brought the Kingdom of God the people rejected it and got rid of him so now we have to wait until Jesus returns and brings his kingdom again.
But the teaching of the Bible about Gospel of The Kingdom of God — not just in Matthew’s Gospel, but in all four Gospels and throughout the New Testament, even in the Old Testament — is that the reign and realm of God is eternally present and available to those who seek it, trusting in God’s mercy through Christ.
This is the Gospel. The cross of Christ opens the door to the Kingdom. Redemption is about being transferred from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of God.
The Kingdom of the Heavens is Here!
In most instances Matthew uses a special term for the Kingdom of God in his Gospel, referring to it as “the Kingdom of the Heavens.” Notice the plural. If you check Young’s Literal Translation (you can do this on BibleGateway.com) you will see that in every instance Matthew is referring to the heavens, not heaven. In fact, this is normally true throughout the Bible.
Why heavens in the plural? It’s actually a very important point! The Jews in Jesus’ day understood the heavens to have three main levels: the heavens of the birds and clouds, the heavens of the stars and moon, and the heavens of the angels. There is a “highest heaven” and there is the heaven that’s in the air that we breathe.
In other words — and here is the all-important point — When Matthew presents Jesus’ Gospel of the availability of the Kingdom of the Heavens he is emphasizing that it is near, it is here and now present for us. But we tend to think the exact opposite. When we sing of heaven we’re referring to “by and bye”! We probably think of heaven as a far off and a way later.
But the heaven of the birds and clouds touches us. And sure enough we see repeatedly throughout the Bible that God keeps showing up right where people are!
In the accounts of Jesus’ baptism we read that when Jesus came up out of the water the heavens opened with the Father speaking words of love and the Holy Spirit descending as a dove (Matthew 3:13-17, Mark 1:9-11, Luke 3:21-22, John 1:32-34). Mark adds the detail that the heavens were “torn open.” No doubt it was the hands of God our Father who parted the heavens for us!
What a wonderful theophany! Father, Son, and Spirit manifested as One God in one place! In Jesus Christ the heavens were opened in a new and special way!
And nowhere do we read that the heavens were later closed! They are still open! The floodgates of heaven have opened! When we put our confidence in the person of Jesus — his cross, but also the holy life he lived, and especially his resurrection, including the resurrected life he continues to live all around us today — we live with him in “the heavenly realms” today and there we have “every spiritual blessing in Christ” (Ephesians 1:3).
Always we have the choice whether to live by our flesh (natural human abilities) or the Spirit of God; whether to live from our visible circumstances or the invisible Kingdom of the Heavens (John 3:3-6; Romans 8:13; Galatians 5:16).
As you read these verses from Matthew’s Gospel (from NIV84 unless indicated otherwise) try to imagine Jesus talking to you with a welcoming smile. He’s inviting you to learn from him how to take your whole life and your whole self into the Kingdom of the Heavens. Smile back at Jesus and rejoice with the Psalmist, “He brought me out into a spacious place!” (Psalm 18:19, 31:8).
(All verses are from the NIV84 unless indicated otherwise. Note the insertion of “the heavens”.)
“After Jesus was born in Bethlehem… during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, ‘Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him’” (2:1-2).
“John the Baptist came, preaching… ‘Repent, for the kingdom of the heavens is near’” (3:2).
“From that time on Jesus began to preach, ‘Repent for the kingdom of the heavens is near’” (4:17).
“His disciples came to him, and [Jesus] began to teach them, saying, ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of the heavens… Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of the heavens’” (5:3, 10).
“Whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of the heavens” (5:19).
“Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of the heavens” (5:20).
“Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth, as it is in the heavens” (6:10, KJV).
“Seek first [your heavenly Father’s] kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things [food, drink, and clothes] will be given to you as well” (6:33).
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of the heavens, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (7:21).
“Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness” (9:35).
“These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions… ‘As you go, preach this message: “The kingdom of the heavens is near”’” (10:5, 7).
“From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of the heavens has been forcefully advancing, and forceful [people] lay hold of it” (11:12).
“But if I drive out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you” (12:28).
“Jesus replied, ‘You’ve been given insight into God’s kingdom. You know how it works. Not everybody has this gift…” (13:11, MSG).
“When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in his heart. This is the seed sown along the path” (13:19).
“Jesus told them another parable: ‘The kingdom of the heavens is like…’” (13:24; see also 13:31, 33, 44, 45, 47; 18:23; 20:1; 22:2; 25:1).
“The righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father” (13:43).
“The kingdom of the heavens is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field” (13:44).
“Every teacher of the law who has been instructed about the kingdom of the heavens is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old” (13:52).
“I will give you the keys of the kingdom of the heavens” (16:19).
“‘Some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.’ After six days… [Jesus] was transfigured before [Peter, James, and John]” (16:28, 17:1-2).
“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 the heavens” (18:3-4; see also 19:14).
“It is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of the heavens” (19:23).
“At the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones” (19:28; see also 25:31).
“The tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you… You did not repent and believe” (21:31-32).
“The kingdom of God will be taken away from you [chief priests and elders] and given to a people who will produce its fruit” (21:43).
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of the heavens in men’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to” (23:13).
“This gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world” (24:14).
“I will… drink [the fruit of the vine] anew with you in my Father’s kingdom” (26:29).
“[Pilate] asked him, ‘Are you the king of the Jews?’ ‘Yes, it is as you say,’ Jesus replied” (27:11).
“Above [Jesus’] head they placed the written charge against him: This is Jesus, the King of the Jews” (27:37).