Before there could be a kingdom of God, there had to be a king. This coming king was anticipated throughout the Old Testament. This did not actually keep the announcement of the arrival of the king given to Mary by the angel Gabriel from being a surprise. Mary, a virgin was told, “You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end” (Luke 1:31-33, New International Version [NIV]).
All of this had been foretold but more had to happen than just the birth of a king. People had to be persuaded the kingdom of God had come near to them in their place and time. Later they would have to be kept from thinking the kingdom is a physical kingdom; a kingdom that would fulfill all their fantasies concerning a life of peace and prosperity. This new kingdom that was coming would of necessity mean bad times for the people’s Jewish and Roman overlords. The overlords were not thrilled when they heard about it.
When the time came for the kingdom of God to be announced, it was said by both John the Baptist and Jesus that the near arrival of the kingdom required personal repentance on the part of those who would enter it when it arrived. John and Jesus both preached “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matthew 3:1-2 and Matthew 4:17, NIV). The ministries of John the Baptist and Jesus were directed at preparing people to enter the kingdom. Jesus also made it clear that now was the time to prepare to enter the kingdom. He said, “The time has come,” and “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15, NIV).
These sayings of John and Jesus raise two questions for us. The first is what they meant when they told the people who heard them that the kingdom had come near. The second is why Matthew uses the term kingdom of heaven while Mark calls it the kingdom of God. Theopedia.com tells us “While Matthew primarily uses the term “kingdom of heaven” and other gospel writers (notably Luke) use the term “kingdom of God,” it is clear that these two expressions mean exactly the same thing (e.g. compare Matt. 5:3 with Luke 6:20).”
I suspect that the reason for the difference in the terms used for Jesus’ kingdom turns on the matter of sedition. Sedition is the crime of saying, writing, or doing something that encourages people to disobey their government. The Jewish people at the time of Jesus’ ministry and early in the history of the church tended either to be guilty of sedition or very fearful of being charged with sedition. Sedition was, in fact, the crime Jesus was charged with before Pilate. So the term kingdom of heaven was probably a better one to use than kingdom of God when writing to a Jewish readership, as seems the case with Matthew. Heaven was probably a safer choice. Also, kingdom of God would allow people to raise the uncomfortable issue of which god was meant, the Jewish deity or the Roman Emperor.
The other problem in these sayings is why both John and Jesus say that the kingdom is near. What does “near” mean? If the kingdom came with Jesus, why wasn’t it present then? To see why the kingdom was not yet present, I think we again need to look at the matter of sedition. Some of the Jews were eager for a messianic kingdom. Jesus even had to keep one crowd that was listening to him from seizing him and proclaiming him king (John 6:15). What “near” seems to say is that the kingdom of God will, in the near future, be available to all those there at that time who were willing to repent of their sins.
When Jesus sent out the Twelve “he gave them power and authority to drive out all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal the sick (Luke 9:1-2, NIV).
The healing of the sick and the exorcisms of demons were not the full meaning of the kingdom of God but only a sign of its possibilities. Thus we are told, “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people” (Matthew 4:23, and also Luke 9:10-11, NIV).
We can more clearly see that the kingdom of God was only “near” during Jesus’ ministry to the multitudes when we read that after Jesus died on the cross, “Joseph of Arimathea, a prominent member of the Council, who was himself waiting for the kingdom of God, went boldly to Pilate and asked for Jesus’ body” (Mark 15:43, see also Luke 23:51, NIV). The fact that Joseph of Arimathea was still waiting for the kingdom of God even though he had sufficient faith in the person of Jesus to risk the consequences of going to Pilate and requesting Jesus’ body shows us that even the most believing people of the time had not yet entered the kingdom of God. Yet, we can see that the death of Jesus did not shake Joseph’s faith in a coming kingdom ruled by Christ. The kingdom was near but not yet there for those who believed in Jesus.