Jesus initiated His public life with a simple but stiff challenge to repentance (Matthew 4:17). It was actually a familiar messageidentical, in fact, to the message of John the Baptist, Jesus forerunner (Matt. 3:2). Both urged their listeners to repent, to change their minds and hearts, not merely for the sake of change, but in light of what they called “the kingdom.”
The most important thing to notice is that a kingdom exists because Jesus is the King. He is the Messiah, the Savior promised by God in the Old Testament (1:22-23; 2:6; Is. 7:14; Mic. 5:2). He is not only Israels King, but the international Christ for all the nations (see “Jesus Roots,” Matt. 1:1-16, and “Jesus Global Connections,” (8:10). At the beginning of His life, magi came to Herod, asking where they could find the King of the Jews (2:2). At the end of His life, Pilate asked Him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” He affirmed that He was (27:11-12), and Pilate sanctioned His crucifixion on that basis (27:37).
So in 4:17-25, the King was declaring His kingdom. Foretold by Scripture and announced by John, Jesus had come to establish His rule. However, He disappointed the expectations of many peopleboth then and now.
For a few brief decades, Israel had enjoyed a relatively prosperous, peaceful monarchy under David and his son, Solomon. Some Old Testament passages prophesied that the Messiah would reestablish that sort of kingdom. Was now the time? Would Jesus overthrow the iron rule of the Romans and set up a political state? He did not. In fact, He told the Roman governor Pilate that His kingdom was not of this world, that He did not have an army fighting on His behalf (John 18:36). And He told the Pharisees that the kingdom was not something tangible and observable, but was “within” them (Luke 17:20).
Then is Christs kingdom simply a spiritual concept, a powerful but abstract ideal? No, because He made a definite promise to His disciples that they would rule the tribes of Israel in His kingdom (Matt. 19:23,28). They apparently took Him literally (Acts 1:6).
No less puzzling is the question of when the kingdom has or will come. As they began their ministries, John the Baptist and Jesus declared that the kingdom was “at hand.” But a few years later, when Jesus followers asked whether He was ready to restore Israels kingdom, He put them off; that was something that only His Father could know, He told them (Acts 1:6-7). Sometimes the kingdom seemed to be a present reality (Matt. 12:28; 13:18-23; 21:43). At other times, it seemed to be a hope for the future (16:28; 20:20-23; 26:29).
Even today, theologians stridently debate over whether and in what form the kingdom has already been established, is currently in the process of being formed, is coming in the future, or is not coming at all. Like most questions that cannot be answered definitively to everyones satisfaction, agreements are few and positions strongly defended.
Is there any simple way to understand this puzzling doctrine of the kingdom? Probably not. Jesus followers have not ceased to puzzle over His statements about it since the moment they were made. But most would generally agree that Christs kingdom began in some way with His first coming. It continues to advance as His people live the gospel message throughout the world. However, it will not realize its ultimate completion until He returns.
Whatever else we can say, the kingdom has to do with whatever Christ the King rules. Thats why Jesus began His ministry with a call to repentance. Repentance means to change ones mind or purpose. In terms of the kingdom, it involves:
(1) A change in ones allegiance. If Christ is the King, He deserves our honor, loyalty, and obedience. We put ourselves under His authority and power. Whatever He says, we determine to do. Thats the point of the oft-repeated lines in the Lords Prayer, “Your kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10). Kingdom people submit their own will to the will of the King.
(2) A change in ones expectations. One of the difficulties people have with the idea of a kingdom is that it doesnt appear to be in place yet. The world seems to grow father away from God by the day. As a result, its easy to live for the here and now, as if this present life is all that matters. But the hope of the kingdom is that there is far more to life than what we see right now. Jesus made extraordinary promises in regard to a future kingdom, not only for Israel, but for all who follow Him as King. The kingdom may not yet be fulfilled completely, but it has been established and will last forever (6:13).
(3) A change in ones values. Our culture values achievement, success, independence, and image. Other cultures value other qualities. But the values of the kingdom reflect what matters to the King. Jesus described a number of His values in Matthew 5:3-10, a section of the Sermon on the Mount known as the Beatitudes (or, as some call them, the “beautiful attitudes”). Kingdom people adopt the Kings values and make choices that reflect those valuesin their jobs, families, and communities.
(4) A change in ones priorities. The real test of peoples values is how they spend their time and money. Jesus spoke directly to that issue in terms of the kingdom (6:24-34). He did not demean the value of work or diminish the need for material goods. But He challenged His followers to bring kingdom values into their day-to-day lives. “Seeking first the kingdom” (6:33) puts a Christlike perspective on ones work and its outcomes.
(5) A change in ones lifelong mission. Some people are driven to accomplish great tasks with their lives. Others live aimlessly from day to day, lacking purpose or direction. Either way, Jesus affects the outlook of a persons life. He gives His followers purpose and a missionto live as subjects of the kingdom and promote kingdom values in everyday life and work. Ultimately, He wants His followers to extend His message to the ends of the earth, so that all people have the opportunity to give their allegiance to Him as their Savior and King (28:18-20).