The average Christian today does not seem to realize it, but there is a fundamental difference between the concept of Heaven preached today and the Kingdom of Heaven or the Kingdom of God that Jesus, the Apostles, and the Early Church preached! The concept of Heaven, as it is presented in most Gospel messages today, is primary about a glorious place where believers go after death. It is presented as the ultimate and eternal reward of the righteous. Now, while that is indeed ‘good news,’ IT IS NOT the good news or the gospel that Jesus preached!
When we preached about Heaven, we’re talking about a place of reward in the future, but when Jesus preached about the Kingdom of Heaven or the Kingdom of God, he was primarily talking about a realm of existence or a way of life in the present! If we would carefully study the preaching and teachings of Jesus as they are related in the gospel accounts (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), we might be shocked to discover that Jesus really didn’t say much about the ‘Heaven’ we preach so much about today! But rather, Jesus was obsessed and consumed with the message about the Kingdom of Heaven or the Kingdom of God!
We read of the inauguration of Jesus’ public ministry in Matthew 4:12-17: “Now when he heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew into Galilee. And leaving Nazareth he went and lived in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: ‘The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles–the people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light, and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death, on them a light has dawned.’ From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matt. 4:12-17 ESV) Notice what the Bible says that Jesus began to preach: ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!’ Jesus didn’t preach: ‘Repent, so that you might go to Heaven when you die!’ No! He preached: Repent (the Greek word that is translated as ‘repent’ literally means; ‘to change one’s mind or to change the way one thinks!) for the Kingdom of Heaven (primarily, a reference not to the ‘place’ called Heaven, but rather to the rule or authority of Heaven/God) is at hand (near, present). Jesus was calling for his listeners to submit to the rule or the authority of Heaven/God in their lives! It was a call for them to change their thinking or their way of thinking (which would subsequently cause a change in their actions) in light of the presence of the Kingdom that was being manifested in his (Jesus’) life and ministry. The Kingdom of Heaven was at hand because it was present in the life and ministry of Jesus. The main message of Jesus was for his followers to submit to the rule and authority of God in and over their lives!
Now, if you were to look up the Greek word that is translated as ‘kingdom’ in the phrase; ‘kingdom of God’ or ‘kingdom of heaven’ in the Strong’s Dictionary, you would find the following: ‘royal power, kingship, dominion, rule 1a) not to be confused with an actual kingdom but rather the right or authority to rule over a kingdom 1b) of the royal power of Jesus as the triumphant Messiah.’ In the Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament based on Semantic Domains commonly known by biblical scholars and students as; Louw-Nida, we find this notation: ‘It is generally a serious mistake to translate the phrase ἡ βασιλεία τοῦ θεοῦ ‘the kingdom of God’ as referring to a particular area in which God rules. The meaning of this phrase in the NT involves not a particular place or special period of time but the fact of ruling. An expression such as ‘to enter the kingdom of God’ thus does not refer to ‘going to heaven’ but should be understood as ‘accepting God’s rule’ or ‘welcoming God to rule over.’ [Johannes P. Louw and Eugene Albert Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains (New York: United Bible Societies, 1996), 479.] As an aside, the term ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ is used in Matthew’s account whereas in parallel passages in Mark and Luke, we encounter the term; ‘Kingdom of God.’ This is because of Matthew’s Jewish tendency to avoid the direct use of the term ‘God.’ Hence the Kingdom of Heaven and the Kingdom of God are both references to the same concept.
But, not only was the message of the Kingdom of Heaven/God the message or the gospel that Jesus preached, it was the only message he commanded his disciples to preach! In Luke 9:1-2, we read: “Then he called his twelve disciples together, and gave them power and authority over all devils, and to cure diseases. And he sent them to preach the kingdom of God, and to heal the sick.” (KJV) When a would-be disciple wanted to delay following Jesus until after his father died, Jesus said to him: “Let the dead bury their dead: but go thou and preach the kingdom of God. (Lk. 9:60 KJV) Luke’s last record of the Apostle Paul at the end of the book of Acts says: “And Paul dwelt two whole years in his own hired house, and received all that came in unto him, Preaching the kingdom of God, and teaching those things which concern the Lord Jesus Christ, with all confidence, no man forbidding him.” (Acts 28:30-31 KJV)
Jesus said that we are to seek first the Kingdom of God (the rule and authority of God in and over our lives) and his righteousness (God’s way and God’s standards) and all these things (the things we need in life, that the world is so stressed over) will be added to us. The Kingdom of God is the answer to stress and anxiety! The Kingdom of God should be our first and ultimate priority and concern! It was for Jesus! So much so, that even after his resurrection, we read in Acts 1:3: “He presented himself alive to them after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.” (Acts 1:3 ESV) His first words were about the Kingdom of God and his last words were about the Kingdom of God! If the Kingdom of God was of such importance to Jesus, then surely it should be of importance to us!
Personally, I think the church has missed it! We’ve been preaching the wrong message! We’ve been preaching about Heaven as a ‘place’ of rest AFTER death, when the message Jesus wanted and wants us to preach is about the Kingdom of God as the ‘power’ for life BEFORE death! In all of my years, I have discovered a fundamental truth that is often over-looked! There is one thing everyone must do before they die! They must live! The church has done a good job of preparing people for life after death, but it has traditionally and historically done a poor job of preparing people for life BEFORE death! We’ve gotten the ‘later’ aspect down pretty good, but the Kingdom of God is about NOW and LATER! When we get the ‘now’ right, the later will take care of itself!
I encourage you to do the research and read the Bible for yourself! If you would take off the lenses of religious traditions, you just might discover the Bible contains, not out of date principles for another world, but dynamic principles for living life on earth today! The message of Jesus has not changed! The need of mankind is still the same! The answer to the world’s stress and anxieties is still the same! It is the message of Jesus! It is the message Jesus commanded us to preach: “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven/God is at hand!” If we get the message of the Kingdom right and apply its principles and teachings in our daily lives, we will not only experience the eternal life that Jesus promised for us later, but we will also experience the abundant life that Jesus promised for us now!