|On Jordan's banks the Baptist's cry
Announces that the Lord is nigh;
Awake and hearken, for he brings
Glad tidings of the King....|
When the Saviour of the world was about to enter upon His public ministry, the Jewish nation was startled with the cry, |The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand| (S. Matt. iii.2).
Such was God's call to His people of old time, to prepare themselves to take part in the fulfilment of the promises, on which their faith and hopes were founded. The fulness of the times had come; and Christ, the long-promised and long-expected Saviour and King, was nigh at hand.
And ever since that day, as the good news of the Kingdom has spread from land to land, it has been the portion of the Lord's people to endeavour to realise their high position in that Kingdom, and to discharge their duties loyally to their Heavenly King.
But the words -- |The Kingdom of Heaven| -- are apt to lead away the thoughts from the present to the future, from this world to a better one. And since men are not in Heaven now, but are surrounded with earthly cares and troubles, there is danger lest they should forget or be ignorant of the intimate connection which these words have with their daily life as Christians, and with its duties, privileges, and blessings.
And yet the practical importance of this subject to Christian men and women will be seen clearly after a moment's consideration. For any one, who is at all acquainted with the words of Holy Scripture, will recall to mind at once the frequent reference to |The Kingdom of Heaven| in the Gospels. And though it will probably seem a somewhat startling assertion to most persons, yet it is nevertheless a true one, that from the day when our Lord began His public ministry, until He ascended into Heaven, His teaching was almost wholly occupied with this one subject -- |The Kingdom of Heaven.| And it is the purpose of the following pages to bring together the various statements about it, in such a way as to lead to a clear understanding of |The Kingdom of Heaven| -- what it is -- and of our position in this Kingdom, with its present blessings, privileges and duties, and its future glories.
|The Kingdom of Heaven| -- What is it?
There are three things which are necessarily included in the idea of a Kingdom -- a King to rule over it; subjects to be ruled; and a place where they dwell. And since it is necessary, if we would enquire into the nature of |The Kingdom of Heaven,| first of all to understand clearly who is the King, and who and where are His subjects, let us begin with taking a general view of these chief points; and then afterwards enter more fully into the consideration of the various passages of Holy Scripture which describe the details of the Kingdom.
The Jews expected the Messiah as their King. And when the Wise Men came from the East, and asked |Where is He that is born King of the Jews| (S. Matt. ii.2), we read that King Herod referred their enquiry to those who were learned in the Scriptures, in this form, |He demanded of them where Christ| -- i.e. Messiah, The Anointed One -- |should be born| (S. Matt. ii.4). And that there should be no doubt at all about the person of the King, so long expected, God in His providence had arranged that one should go before Him to announce His coming. For John the Baptist acted as a herald going before a king, proclaiming his approach. And this was the proclamation, |Repent ye; for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand| (S. Matt. iii.2). And then the Herald declared that he was come as foretold by the prophet Isaiah, and that the people must prepare at once to receive their King, saying, |I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord, as said the prophet Esaias| (S. John i.23; Isaiah xl.3).
The proclamation of |The Kingdom of Heaven| by John the Baptist defined the exact time in the world's history when this Kingdom took its rise. And our Lord afterwards called express attention to this, saying, |The Law and the Prophets were until John: since that time the Kingdom of God is preached, and every man presseth into it| (S. Luke xvi.16). And because John was only the Herald going before, and was not himself enrolled as a subject of the Kingdom, He added, (after referring to the greatness of John the Baptist), |Notwithstanding, he that is least in the Kingdom of Heaven is greater than he| (S. Matt. xi.11).
Thus we are assured that |The Kingdom of Heaven| began from the proclamation of John the Baptist; and, therefore, we know for certain that the Lord Jesus Christ, whose coming he proclaimed, is the King of this Kingdom.
This is the great truth which forms the foundation of all the teaching of the New Testament; and it is of the utmost importance to have a clear idea of it. The Lord Jesus Christ came to be the Saviour of the world by becoming King of a spiritual Kingdom of grace and blessing, whose subjects were to be purchased and redeemed by His own Blood shed upon the Cross. He was not merely the greatest of God-inspired teachers: but He came to found God's Kingdom upon earth, and to rule in love over the hearts of men of all nations and ages, and thus prepare them for life everlasting. And when Nicodemus, one of the rulers of the Jews, thus addressed Him, |We know that thou art a teacher come from God,| He at once endeavoured to lead him to grasp this truth, by the abrupt reply, |Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the Kingdom of God;| and again, |Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the Kingdom of God| (S. John iii.2-5). In other words, men must not merely listen to His teaching; but they must have their eyes opened to see Him as the promised King, and receive the principle of a new Life as His subjects; or, else, His coming would be in vain.
Taking now as our starting-point the great truth that the Lord Jesus Christ came to found a Kingdom, our next enquiry must be respecting the subjects or citizens of this Kingdom.
Who are the subjects of |The Kingdom of Heaven?|
One of the woes pronounced by our Lord against the Scribes and Pharisees was for this, |Ye shut up the Kingdom of Heaven against men; ye neither go in yourselves, neither suffer ye them that are entering to go in| (S. Matt. xxiii.13). They would not themselves enter this Kingdom by accepting Him as Christ the King; and they hindered others from doing so. The Jews had thought themselves to be the subjects of God, whilst all the rest of the world were castaways. But from these words, as well as from those referred to above, which were spoken to Nicodemus, we conclude that the subjects of Messiah's Kingdom are they, and only they, who |believe and confess that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God| (1 S. John iv.15, v.1), and, having thus accepted Him as their King, have been admitted by a formal act into His Kingdom.
When the Herald proclaimed |The Kingdom of Heaven is at Hand| (S. Matt. iii.2), he was calling upon the whole Jewish people to enter into it. But the call to enter Messiah's Kingdom was not to be confined to the Jews. It was to be published far and wide throughout the world.
The Prophets had foretold a day when |The Gentiles shall come to Thy light, and kings to the brightness of Thy rising| (Isaiah lx.3), and that |in the place where it was said unto them, Ye are not My people, there it shall be said unto them, Ye are the sons of the living God| (Hosea i.10). And this was now about to be fulfilled. And in the homage which the Wise Men from the East paid to the infant Saviour, |born King of the Jews,| we see the first sign that free and full salvation was henceforth placed within the reach of all the nations of the world without distinction. And thus it came to pass that, in after years, the Apostles addressed their converts, taken equally from amongst Jews and Gentiles, in such words as these, |God hath called you unto His Kingdom and glory| (1 Thess. ii.12); God |hath translated us into the Kingdom of His dear Son| (Col. i.13).
In other words, |The Kingdom of Heaven| is a real Kingdom, though a spiritual and heavenly one. The Lord Jesus Christ is King, and all the nations of the world are called to be His subjects.
And where is |The Kingdom of Heaven|?
The answer is clear. Wherever they are who have accepted the King and been admitted as His subjects.
|The Kingdom of Heaven| is not as yet in Heaven, so far as its subjects are concerned. It is true that the King Himself has ascended His throne in Heaven. And as members of Christ we share in some degree in the exaltation of our Head, so that S. Paul does not hesitate to say of the Lord's people here on earth, God |hath raised us up together and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus| (Ephes. ii.6). But such words seem to apply to that part of our nature to which our hopes and affections belong. So far as our duties and difficulties are concerned, we are still surrounded with earthly temptations. We are still in a state of trial here, however much we may be looking for and longing after our home. And Heaven will not be opened to receive the subjects of |The Kingdom of Heaven| until the Great Day, when they will be welcomed with the words, |Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you| (S. Matt. xxv.34).
Christ's Kingdom |is not of this world| (S. John xviii.36), as He declared plainly to Pilate when he questioned Him about Himself. But for the present we may consider that, practically speaking, it is in the world though not of it. For its subjects are not yet in Heaven: but are partly at rest in Paradise; partly here on earth still warring against evil.
We can now express in few words the chief points respecting the nature of that |Kingdom of Heaven| which John the Baptist, in his office as Herald, proclaimed to be |at hand.|
The Lord Jesus Christ came to found a Kingdom. He is the King of |The Kingdom of Heaven.|
All who will accept Him as their King -- all the men and women and little children in the world, of every land and of every age -- may be admitted as the subjects of |The Kingdom of Heaven.| For |He died for all| (2 Cor. v.15).
And |The Kingdom of Heaven,| though it is a spiritual and heavenly Kingdom, is as yet here on earth, and will not be in Heaven, until the subjects of the King have been tried and found faithful, and the number of the elect shall be accomplished.
It follows that the statements of Holy Scripture respecting |The Kingdom of Heaven,| which are to be considered in the following pages, refer not merely to the world to come -- to that which we commonly understand by the word Heaven -- but to that Kingdom which has been founded here on earth; and into which, as Christians, we have been already called. And the subject becomes of infinite importance to us all, when it is understood that |The Kingdom of Heaven| is, at this present time, that Kingdom of grace in which we may obtain salvation through our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. He has called us all to be subjects of this Kingdom now, that, by obtaining a share in His precious merits, we may be brought into a state of present salvation; and that, by continuing in this state through His grace, we may be recognised as His subjects in that great day, when the Kingdom of Grace will have become the Kingdom of Glory Everlasting.
Christ is the Greek word which corresponds with the Hebrew word Messiah, meaning |The Anointed One.| Amongst the Jews three classes of men were anointed to their official duties -- Prophets, Priests, and Kings. And the name |Messiah| implied that they expected the Deliverer to bear office in these ways; and especially as King, the highest of these offices.
In a similar passage of S. Matthew the difficult expression occurs, |The Kingdom of Heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force| (S. Matt. xi.12); but the meaning seems to be the same. Our Lord was calling attention to the fact that the expected King had come and His Kingdom was open to the eager zeal of such as would seize upon it and press into it.