It’s always worth listening carefully to what someone says when you first meet them. Those words can tell you a lot about the sort of impression the other wants to make, the foot they’re putting forward and even what matters to them. When the world meets Jesus for the first time (in his public ministry), they hear these words: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew). Or “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark). Or “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me” (Luke).
Jesus doesn’t show up and say, “First things first. Here are four spiritual laws. Believe them and gain salvation.” He proclaims something more fundamental, yet also more robust: the Kingdom of God.
For how much Jesus talks about the Kingdom, we sure don’t. For Jesus, it was not just “a big deal.” It was the deal. He told parable after parable explaining what the Kingdom was like, its worth, and the struggle to enter it.
Perhaps we don’t talk about it because we’ve failed to understand what it is. Dallas Willard is helpful here. While people may not have understood what it meant that the Kingdom was at hand, they did know something important:
“They knew Jesus meant that he was acting with God and God with him, that God’s rule was effectively present through him.” – The Divine Conspiracy, 19.
That’s the Kingdom. Put simply, it’s God’s rule. When Jesus brought it, he brought it in a new way. Where before it had been mediated through the Law and religious ritual, now it was present in a person.
This isn’t the most comfortable thing to realize. For us independent types (who’s with me?), discovering that we have to submit ourselves to someone else’s rule isn’t particularly appealing. But we aren’t mere subjects. We are participants. Willard again:
“This ‘governance’ is projected onward through those who receive him [Jesus]. When we receive God’s gift of life by relying on Christ, we find that God comes to act with us as we rely on him in our actions.” – The Divine Conspiracy, 20.
The Kingdom of God is strange. It’s not marked by treaties that establish its boundaries. It gets carried out by its emissaries, its boundaries constantly expanding.
In Jesus, the Kingdom has manifested and we’re invited to live under God’s rule. As we submit to this rule, the Father-in-Christ-by-the-Spirit acts in and with us. The Kingdom may not be fully arrived, and all things put to right, but that’s sure an impressive start.
If we listen to that first encounter with Jesus, we may find our mentality shifting. Our eyes move away from “salvation” to life in the Kingdom. From the far and away to the here and now. From what we assume is vital, to what Jesus told us is the most important thing. The mustard seed grows, the Kingdom expands, and we get to be a part of it.