Sunburst over Earth

Image via Wikipedia

What did Jesus mean when he said that the kingdom of heaven is “at hand”? I always thought he meant “out there, but coming soon.” I assumed it was meant as a threat for sinners and an insider’s promise for those on the spiritual A-list.

But it was actually meant to encourage sinners and put religious peacocks in their place. That’s why it was (and is) such good news.

Those who considered themselves spiritually elite—namely, the Pharisees, chief priests, and religious “experts”—were far from God. Whereas they wouldn’t associate with “unclean” sinners lest they defile themselves, Jesus not only associated with them, but physically touched them. The folks that religious elitists had labeled as outsiders were the very people with whom Jesus walked, dined, conversed, and lived.

So his context of heaven at hand was really a divine myth-buster, as I’ll attempt to show in this series of posts. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” holds multiple surprises today just as it did in the first century!

Kingdoms Clarified

We normally think of kingdoms as political realms or state entities having a physical location, such as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia or the United Kingdom. While this is partially true, a kingdom is actually a system; and it may or may not have physical boundaries.

Dallas Willard clarifies this beautifully in his book, The Divine Conspiracy. On page 21 he explains that a kingdom is the range of effective will the ruler has. It’s not merely a location where he/she lives; it’s the range of “say-so” or rule. Thus, a kingdom is any system where a ruler has authority to exercise his or her will. The ruler gets to say how things are, and whatever the ruler says is what gets done. Everything within that say-so is within that kingdom.

So the kingdom of heaven is simply the range of God’s effective will. It’s the reach of His authority and say-so. From this perspective, we can see that the kingdom of heaven is more than we’ve imagined. Rather than a place to go when we die, it’s a system we enter when we live. To live in the kingdom of heaven is to live in God’s will.

Thus, when Jesus said that the kingdom of heaven is at hand, he didn’t mean “out there” or coming soon. He meant literally nearby, surrounding us, among us, touching us, available. The reality of its power, authority, and glory are available to humanity because God is available to humanity. And the good news is that anyone—from peons to princes—can live with God in His vast kingdom at hand. But unless we get beyond the “righteousness” of scribes and Pharisees, we’ll never enter the kingdom. (Mat. 5:20)

A Kingdom of Heavens

Dr. Willard sheds further light on heaven’s context that Jesus proclaimed, manifested, and connected to everyday life rather than death. Briefly:

“…all the basic elements of our existence—food and drink and clothing and other needs of life—can only be supported on a clear-eyed vision that a totally good and competent God is right here with us to look after us. And his presence is precisely what the word heaven or, more accurately, the heavens in plural, conveys in the biblical record as well as through much of Christian history….

“The ‘heavens’ are always there with you no matter what, and the ‘first heaven’, in biblical terms, is precisely the atmosphere or air that surrounds your body…it is precisely from the space immediately around us that God watches and God acts…. And that, of course, is ‘The Kingdom Among Us’….

“The inability to accept the fact that our familiar atmosphere is a ‘heaven’ in which God dwells and from which he deals with us leads to some curious translations of biblical texts. In Acts 11:5-9, within a span of five verses, exactly the same phrase, tou ouranou, is translated in three different ways by the New American Standard Version, and by most others. It is translated ‘the sky’ in verse 5, ‘the air’ in verse 6, and ‘heaven’ in verse 9.”

A Breath of Fresh Air

The passage he refers to is Peter’s encounter with a sheet being “let down” from heaven:

I was in the city of Joppa praying; and in a trance I saw a vision, an object coming down like a great sheet lowered by four corners from the sky; and it came right down to me, and when I had fixed my gaze on it and was observing it I saw the four-footed animals of the earth and the wild beasts and the crawling creatures and the birds of the air.

I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ But I said, ‘By no means, Lord, for nothing unholy or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ But a voice from heaven answered a second time, ‘What God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy.’ This happened three times, and everything was drawn back up into the sky.” (Act. 11:5-10 NASV)

Dr. Willard then explains:

“A consistent translation of tou ouranou drawing upon the biblical context could use ‘air’ or ‘atmosphere’ in each occurrence…and thus give the precise context of Peter’s experience. God spoke to Peter from the surrounding ‘thin air’, where birds fly and from which the sheet came…Similarly, God spoke to Moses from the midst of the fire on Sinai and from the ‘Mercy Seat’ in the tabernacle (Num. 7:89).

“In each case it was from our ‘air.’ But the ideology that dominates our education and thought today makes it hard to accept this straightforward fact….”

He summarizes the resulting damage to our faith in Christ as “incalculable.” Rather than heaven always present with us, as Jesus meant, we perceive it as far away and/or far future. It should therefore come as no surprise, he says, that we feel ourselves alone.

We’ll continue this fascinating perspective on Jesus’ good news of the kingdom in Part 2. In the meantime, your comments are welcome.