(Mat 4:17 ESV) 17 From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
Matthew next records the calling of some of the apostles with the repeated command, “Follow me.”
Matthew then narrates,
(Mat 4:23-25 ESV) And he went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people. 24 So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought him all the sick, those afflicted with various diseases and pains, those oppressed by demons, epileptics, and paralytics, and he healed them. 25 And great crowds followed him from Galilee and the Decapolis, and from Jerusalem and Judea, and from beyond the Jordan.
So what is this “kingdom of heaven”? And what is “the gospel of the kingdom”? And how could Jesus preach the gospel before he is revealed as the Messiah? And how can there be a gospel before he died for our sins?
To most of us, “gospel” means the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus and the grace that we receive because of that. And yet Jesus was a gospel preacher three years before all this happened!
In the Churches of Christ, “kingdom” means “church.” And this is not entirely wrong, but it’s like defining “my wife” as “a female.” True, but it doesn’t really tell you anything about my wife. So why does Jesus describe the church as a “kingdom”? What does that tell us and why is that important? What about the church is kingdom-ish?
To us, it’s just a little surprising that Matthew doesn’t bother to define these terms. The only mention of the “kingdom of heaven” prior to the ones quoted above is John the Baptist’s declaration that “the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt 3:1). Again, no definition. And there are no earlier references to the “gospel.” Matthew assumed that his audience — largely Jewish, the commentators say — already knew what these terms meant. As did John the Baptist and Jesus. Why?
Well, because the Old Testament defines these terms quite well, as did the Roman culture. In the Roman Empire, euaggelion (good news) referred to the announcement of a new king or emperor. When Octavian became Caesar Augustus, announcements were sent around the Empire announcing “Good News!”
The prophets used the same language in a similar sense —
(Isa 40:3-10 ESV) 3 A voice cries: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 4 Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. 5 And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.” … 9 Go on up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good news; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good news; lift it up, fear not; say to the cities of Judah, “Behold your God!” 10 Behold, the Lord GOD comes with might, and his arm rules for him; behold, his reward is with him, and his recompense before him.
(Isa 52:7 ESV) 7 How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness, who publishes salvation, who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”
(Isa 61:1-3 ESV) The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; 2 to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; 3 to grant to those who mourn in Zion– to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit; that they may be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, that he may be glorified.
(Nah 1:15 ESV) 15 Behold, upon the mountains, the feet of him who brings good news, who publishes peace! Keep your feasts, O Judah; fulfill your vows, for never again shall the worthless pass through you; he is utterly cut off.
(Joe 2:32 LXA) And it shall come to pass that whosoever shall call on the name of the Lord shall be saved: for in mount Sion and in Jerusalem shall the saved one be as the Lord has said, and they that have glad tidings preached to them, whom the Lord has called.
In Joel 2:32, I quote a translation of the Septuagint because the text differs from the best Hebrew texts we have.
So the gospel is the good news that God is now reigning in his kingdom through the Messiah Jesus. Jesus is the King, not Herod and not Caesar. At last, the Messiah has claimed the throne of David to rule over the nations!
Daniel’s prophecies had a huge influence on New Testament thought. In particular, this prophecy —
(Dan 2:44-45 ESV) 44 “And in the days of those kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed, nor shall the kingdom be left to another people. It shall break in pieces all these kingdoms and bring them to an end, and it shall stand forever, 45 just as you saw that a stone was cut from a mountain by no human hand, and that it broke in pieces the iron, the bronze, the clay, the silver, and the gold. A great God has made known to the king what shall be after this. The dream is certain, and its interpretation sure.”
Daniel prophesied the rise and fall of Babylon, the Medo-Persian Empire, the Alexandrian empires, and the rise of Rome. And during the time of Rome, he says God will establish a kingdom that will never be destroyed — the kingdom of God.
In “kingdom of heaven,” “heaven” is a euphemism for “God,” many Jews considering the name too holy to be uttered. In Mark and Luke, “kingdom of God” is more commonly used.
Of course, all the prophecies about the Messiah are also kingdom prophecies. You can’t have a king without a kingdom or a kingdom without a king.
And so, the “good news of the kingdom of heaven” is the announcement of a new king, who will establish God’s kingdom as promised by Daniel (and others). And this is the announcement that immediately precedes the Sermon on the Mount.
It’s no wonder that the Sermon uses such sayings as,
(Mat 5:3 ESV) 3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
(Mat 5:10 ESV) 10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
Good news! The Messiah is coming to establish his kingdom, a kingdom that will belong to the poor in spirit and the persecuted. The last shall be first. The kingdom’s values will be upside down and backwards. Those of least value in this world will be most honored in the kingdom.