From Matthew’s Gospel:
Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the lake, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: “Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles – the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.” From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Matthew 4:12-17 – April 27, 2012)
Another reading of that proclamation is “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” To my hearing, this alternative version is a bit more imperative; the kingdom seems a bit more imminent when it is “at hand” rather than simply has “come near.” We used to live in that part of northeastern Kansas known as “tornado alley”. If we said a tornado had “come near” that was as good as saying “It missed us! It didn’t hit us.” On the other had, if someone had said a twister was “at hand”, I would have thought it was coming right at our front door! So . . . theologically I prefer the latter reading, but must confess that personally I breathe a sigh of relief if the kingdom merely has come near. A miss, after all, is as good as a mile, and it gives me time to do this repenting and reforming that Jesus calls for. ~ So what is this “kingdom of heaven”? Let’s get one thing clear right off the bat – it is not something different from the “kingdom of God”. Some try to make a distinction (like the notes in the Scofield Reference Bible towards which I acknowledge great antipathy), but a comparison of the gospels demonstrates that they are the same thing (compare these verses: Matthew 4:17 with Mark 1:14-15; Matthew 5:3 with Luke 6:20; Matthew 13:31 with Mark 4:30-31). ~ This kingdom also is not a place far away or near by. The Greek here is basileia ; the Hebrew for the same concept in the Old Testament (e.g., Ps. 103:19) is malkuwth. While both can refer to a physical place, an actual nation state, they are better understood to refer to a condition or fact or authority of sovereignty or dominion; they might better be translated is “rule” or “reign”. This kingdom also is not a time – past or present or future. It isn’t some place or state or condition at which we arrive after death; it isn’t some place or state or condition which will arrive on earth at some future time. So what is it? ~ Well . . . in Luke’s gospel, Jesus is asked by the Pharisees about the signs of the kingdom’s arrival, to which he replies, “The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or, ‘There it is!’ For behold, the kingdom of God is in your midst.” (Luke 17:20-21) The Greek here is entos which means (and in other versions is translated literally as) “within you”. Other things the Christian scriptures tell us are found within human beings are the “word of Christ” richly dwelling (Col. 3:16), spiritual gifts (1 Tim. 4:14), and sincere faith (2 Tim. 1:5). The Hebrew scriptures mention peace (e.g., Ps. 12:8), God’s commandments (Prov. 7:1), and “a new heart and a new spirit” (Ezek. 36:26). In other words, the kingdom is an internal, spiritual characteristic of human beings characterized by these things. That’s coming about as “near” as you can get! That’s even more imminent than being “at hand.” If it’s within me, within you, within us, right here in the midst of us . . . that’s a matter of some urgency! We’d best be paying attention to it. ~ It is also characterized by the things revealed in the eight “kingdom parables” of Matthew 13, but that is too much to write about in a short meditation on a sunny day. I’ll leave those to the reader’s own contemplation. ~ Just one final note . . . if the kingdom (in all its characteristics) is truly within a person (or within a community), it will be very apparent by that person’s (or community’s) outer actions, his or her (or their) conduct, his or her (or their) relationships with others and the whole of creation. Here, the words of the Letter of James apply: “Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. But someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith.” (James 2:17-18) If the kingdom of heaven is truly within, truly come near, truly at hand in the lives of Christ’s followers, then it will be made clear in works of mercy. I think that’s the repentance and reformation Christ encourages here.