By Kyle Rapinchuk
Castles, moats, knights, faraway lands, fairy tales, tyrants, wars. All of these images come into my mind at the mention of the word kingdom. I am an avid reader, and my love of fantasy novels, fairy tales, and classic literature all provide me with a wide range of stories on the theme of kingdom. Perhaps this broad range of images is one reason that kingdom is no longer associated with the gospel message of Jesus. It’s about heaven, and forgiveness of sin, and peace, our culture tells us, and so we buy in. And yet, although the gospel certainly affirms these things, the gospel of the kingdom is much bigger and more beautiful than these simple statements. Perhaps more importantly, I believe it is more biblical. When Matthew summarizes Jesus’ teaching, he calls it the gospel of the kingdom. When Jesus tells his disciples how to live in the Sermon on the Mount, he will focus time and time again on the kingdom.
Now I am certainly not trying to diminish heaven or the importance of the forgiveness of sins. I simply want to communicate that limiting the gospel to “Jesus died for my sins so I could go to heaven” is not the full gospel message. Sometimes, our perceptions even make it the wrong message. For example, when many think of heaven, we think of a place in the clouds where our friends and family will be. It’s like a lazy-Sunday-afternoon-on-the-porch-on-a-spring-day-for-eternity kind of vision. But it’s often a vision without Jesus. As startling as that may sound, the western church has followed the western culture into believing that heaven is simply a place for good people to have fun forever after they die. Whether Jesus is there or not makes no difference at all. But the Scriptures present a vastly different picture. Not only is heaven good because Jesus is there, heaven as we often think of it is not the end. We are not going to spend eternity floating amongst the clouds. The Bible tells us that we will spend eternity in the presence of God in the New Jerusalem, and Revelation 21 tells us that New Jerusalem is a kingdom that will come down from the clouds to take up residence on God’s restored earth.
For many this thought is shocking. For many, I expect, they cringe with concern. This world is so evil, they think, I have simply been waiting all along until I can leave it—and now you’re telling me we’re coming back! This is not comfort. And I can sympathize. One look at the world in which we live, a world full of hunger, sickness, death, distorted sexuality, evil, sadness, and despair, and I am sure most of us have days when we long to leave it, too! Yet the promise of the gospel is a promise of a kingdom to come where all the wrongs of this world will be righted. All the pain and sorrow and sadness will pass away. Just read the vision of the New Jerusalem in Revelation 21:4—“He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” Matthew’s gospel tells us that the king of this kingdom is here! And when the king comes, the kingdom comes with him. The kingdom to come has already been inaugurated (initiated) in the present. This reality means that we, as kingdom people, have work to do now for the kingdom. We are called to proclaim the gospel of the kingdom, to bring justice to an unjust world, and to develop the virtues in the present that we will have in the kingdom that is yet to fully come. N.T. Wright explains this truth well in his book After We Believe. He writes, “God’s future is arriving in the present, in the person and work of Jesus, and you can practice, right now, the habits of life which will find their goal in that coming future” (103). I hope as we spend time wrestling with the Sermon on the Mount that we might learn better and better how to live as kingdom people in light of the coming kingdom!