The Kingdom of Heaven

This coming Sunday is the 3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time.  In yesterday’s post discussed some insights about fishing in the first century as well as being “caught” in our time. Today we will consider the phrase: “the kingdom of heaven,” a phrase unique to Matthew’s gospel. He often uses it in place of Mark’s “kingdom of God.” Perhaps, if we assume a Jewish background for Matthew, it is a way of avoiding saying and thus possibly misusing the name of God.

The expression appears twice in our reading: “kingdom of heaven is at hand” (v.17) and at the end of the passage. The work kingdom (basileia) can refer to the area ruled by a king; or it can refer to the power or authority to rule as king. We probably shouldn’t interpret the “kingdom of heaven” as a place — such as the place we go when we die; but as the ruling power that emanates from heaven. One commentator translates the phrase: “heaven rules”.

The verb eggizo (“at hand”) is difficult to translate in this passage. It means “to come near”. It can refer to space, as one person coming close to another person; or to time, as “it’s almost time”. The difficulty is with the perfect tense of the verb, which usually indicates a past action with continuing effects in the present. For instance, the perfect: “He has died” or “He has been raised” or “I have believed” can also be expressed with the present: “He is dead” or “He is raised” or “I am believing”. When we say with the perfect tense that “The kingdom of heaven has come near.” That implies that the kingdom is near or even that it arrived. Its “time has come” or “is now”. Given the ambiguity of the perfect tense and the translation in the preceding paragraph, we might say: “Heaven’s rule has arrived and is arriving.”

And what is the proper response to that arrival? In a chapter called “Worship,” Mark Allan Powell in God With Us: A Pastoral Theology of Matthew’s Gospel, states:

Still if worship is an appropriate response, it is not the ideal one. For Matthew, the ideal response to divine activity is repentance. . . . Indeed, Jesus never upbraids people for failing to worship or give thanks in this gospel (compare Luke 17:17-18), but he does upbraid those who have witnessed his mighty works and not repented (11:20-24). We know from Jesus’ teaching in Matthew that people can worship God with their lips even when their deeds demonstrate that their hearts are far from God (15:3-9). Thus, the responsive worship of the crowds in 9:8 and 15:31 is commendable but will be in vain if performed with unrepentant hearts. [pp. 41-42]

What should be our response to the coming of heaven’s rule? Surprisingly, it is not worship or praise, but repentance. Perhaps this is the big problem with the coming of the Kingdom or the coming of Jesus at Christmas or Palm Sunday (or even “praise services”?) – we are satisfied to celebrate and praise, rather than repent.


Image credit: Christ Presenting the Keys to Saint Peter, c. 1636-40, by Nicholas Poussin, Public Domain

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