* - Teaching a great Sabbath School lesson - *
The Kingdom of God
As we explore books of the Bible it is important to remember that these are texts written for a purpose. They are from a time and place and, while they may be powerfully meaningful in our time, their original purpose was to speak to the world in which and to whom they were written.
Matthew is a narrative structured to lead to a point by presenting the life, teachings, miracles and death of Jesus. Recognising the fact that Matthew is told as story leads us to ask: Why is he telling this part of the Jesus story? What is he teaching at this point? Where is he heading? While the book of Matthew is an accurate record of the life of Jesus, it is also a reconstructed telling of that life – told for a purpose structured and in a purposeful way.
There are six basic sections in the book of Matthew and in defining those sections we will see the author’s intent and purpose for writing his narrative of the life of Jesus.
Part 1: Matthew 1:1-4:16 – The Character. We are introduced to Jesus as the leading character of the book and, indeed, of the entire plotline of the Bible.
Part 2: Matthew 4:17-11:1 – The Plot. Jesus introduces us the “Kingdom of Heaven” as a workable and in fact necessary replacement worldview for the people previously caught up in the Kingdom of this Earth.
Part 3: Matthew 11:2-16:20 – Personal Conflict. Responses to Jesus. Doubters scoff. Haters hate. Believers question. The “Kingdom of Heaven” as described and demonstrated by Jesus doesn’t meet the expectations of anyone – whether they were for or against Him.
Part 4: Matthew 16:21-20:34 – The Goal. Jesus introduces “The Cross” as the difference between the Kingdom of this Earth and the Kingdom of Heaven.
Part 5: Matthew 21-27 – Kingdom Conflict. Jesus’s Kingdom of Heaven is put to the test as a worldview and is pushed to the wall. Seemingly it fails. Jesus is crucified. The Kingdom is defunct.
Part 6: Matthew 28 – Death Concurred. The Cross is applied in a new way due to the Resurrection. No cross has ever been followed by life. An empty tomb demands a new look at the entire narrative. What does this Jesus and His Kingdom mean to you and me? How does it have Authority in our lives?
So, what is the point of the book of Matthew? To prove the Kingdom of Heaven – in which the cross and empty tomb feature – is the new reality of the people of God. The new Israel.
To help his readers take this leap, Matthew writes specific things. He chooses carefully which statements of Jesus he will include, which miracles of Jesus he will include and which stories about Jesus he will include.
Matthew 11:1-15 is a prime example. John the Baptist, who declared Jesus the Lamb of God and baptised Him, now languishes in prison and doubts his gift of prophecy. He sends his followers to ask Jesus if He really is the promised Messiah. Jesus response is: tell John what you see, tell him what you hear. Matthew the storyteller reminds the reader: Tell doubters what you saw in chapters 8 and 9! Tell them what you heard on the mountain in chapters 5 to 7. And tell them (chapter 10) the pep-talk Jesus gave His disciples before sending them out to apply all He said and all He showed them! It’s happening! Tell John, the Kingdom of Heaven is here! He was right!
Then Jesus goes into a little sermon about John. In effect, He says God’s people have been listening to prophets for eons and John is the ultimate prophet in that kingdom. But there is a new kingdom being inaugurated right now – the Kingdom of Heaven – and anyone who believes and joins up to this kingdom is more significant than any prophet in the previous kingdom. John the Baptist was the final preacher before the coming of the Kingdom of God. Not only was he right, he was on to something so big it was going to change the world. And change is hard – for everyone!
Jesus’ Kingdom seems like a great idea to many of us, today. But back then, they wanted freedom from Roman oppression. They looked back to their forefathers being liberated from Egypt and expected that kind of freedom again – only better, longer – the eternal Kingdom of God on Earth. But instead, they got beatitudes and healed beggars. The poor were blessed and the Roman oppressors were seemingly ignored. Jesus suggested that welcoming persecution made you a Kingdom citizen rather than destroying your enemies. His Kingdom was about hearts, not pocketbooks.
Jesus took the purpose of the Temple – reconciliation – and put it into the heart of each believer. Our bodies became the Temple of God and we – each and every one of us – became the priests overseeing that temple. A Kingdom of priests. The reconciled became reconcilers.
No wonder it was hard to understand. No wonder John questioned Jesus. It wasn’t just a new idea – it was a return to an old idea. God was building His final Kingdom by reclaiming His first temple – the people created in His image. In Genesis, God put us at the heart of the Garden – Humanity: a garden temple crowning His work of Creation. Now, He reclaims us through the death and resurrection of His Son and places us at the nexus of Creation today – the highways and byways of this world – Humanity: a temple on every corner.
Even today, the pious balk at the core idea of the Kingdom of Heaven for which Jesus lived, died and lives again. This Kingdom – the new Kingdom of God that Jesus started and which grows like a rock flying in from outer space preparing to crush every Kingdom set up by mankind – is one based on the many rather than the few. A Kingdom of priests – living temples, each of us, revealing God’s image to the world.
The success of this Kingdom comes from the healing power of Jesus’ death and resurrection being applied by millions of believers on the ground all around the world. As we believe, we are changed. As we are reconciled with God, we begin reconciling with others. Such a Kingdom cannot be stopped. And it never will be!
Today’s leaders, religious and political alike, need the Kingdom of God to be about buildings, infrastructure, money and power. But, instead, the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life, and the Good News is being preached to the poor. Go and tell John. And tell him: ‘God blesses those who are not offended by me.’
That is what the Kingdom of God really, truly, honestly looks like.
And that’s what Matthew’s story is about.