Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near

From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

Matthew 4:17

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John Knox Preaching. Photo by Kim Traynor (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

My parents took me to church from a very young age. As a child, there are various stages of church life. Initially, I sat at the back and played with toys from a large, brown, plastic box. As I got a little older I attended Sunday School, leaving the grown ups in peace. Then, when I reached an age deemed to be old enough, I stayed in church for the sermon, and attended Sunday School after that. It was at this stage that I started to think that, actually, church was quite dull. I had no real interest in listening to some bloke at the front droning on about something or other. That was probably true until I went to university, and was persuaded by a friend to attend a church in a village close to our campus. It was there that I discovered that actually, preaching could be interesting, thought-provoking, and, dare I say it, incredibly powerful. After listening to the vicar of the church I few times, the sermons actually became the highlight of the service rather than the dull bit sandwiched between the songs.

There is something about listening to a powerful preacher faithfully expounding the word of God that has the ability to make a person sit up and think. I have not the slightest doubt that Jesus was just such a powerful preacher. Certainly preaching was of vital importance to Jesus; it is one of the very first things we see him do.

In today’s verse, we see Matthew’s first record of Jesus preaching. And what a way to start. He didn’t kick off with a humorous anecdote but went straight for the jugular, just as John the Baptist had done. “Repent!” Jesus commands. “Turn away from your sin, ask for forgiveness from God, and start a fresh, new life,” he essentially says. He knows that left to our sin we are dead. Jesus does not want that, since he loves all people. His number one priority for those listening to him was to accept that they were sinners and renounce evil.

Why is it so important for Jesus to make this his opening statement in his teaching ministry? Because “the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Through his life, and his subsequent death, Jesus began ushering God’s kingdom into the world. Ultimately we will not fully experience God’s kingdom until after death and judgement, but it has nevertheless “come near.” Those people who follow Jesus’ commandment to repent are citizens of the kingdom of heaven, ambassadors of Christ in a sinful world. And the day will come when our current world of sin will pass away, and the kingdom of heaven will be fully revealed. That’s why it is so important to repent; it is our only hope of gaining citizenship of the coming kingdom, the kingdom that is now near, but someday will be here.

What can we learn from today’s passage? Well, we see the importance in Jesus’ mind of quality preaching that does not duck from the central issues of the gospel. Secondly, Jesus calls on all of us to repent, and turn from our sins. Finally, Jesus makes it clear that the kingdom of heaven has come near; if we repent we are almost like the advance party of the kingdom, waiting for the day when it will full come. Why not join with me in saying sorry to God today, and making a resolution to consciously avoid sin and temptation so that we might be better citizens of the kingdom of heaven?

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