John the Baptist was the first preacher of the New Testament. He came at an opportune time. Immediately preceding him there had been 400 years of silence, the Jewish Dark Ages, the inter-biblical period. Malachi, the writer of the last book of the Old Testament, had foretold the coming of a great prophet. He said, “I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and terrible day of Jehovah come. And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers” (Mal. 4:5-6 ASV).
Jesus said that John was the Elijah of whom Malachi spoke (Matt. 17:9-13). Those who are devoted to the uniformly literal interpretation of prophetic language cannot consistently accept the Master’s application of Malachi’s prediction, because John the Baptist was not literally Elijah. John came in the “spirit and power” of Elijah (Luke 1:17). He came to prepare the way of the Lord. The faithful Jews had been waiting for four long and weary centuries when John appeared with his simple raiment, his strange diet, and his marvelous message.
This fearless harbinger of the Messiah began his work in the wilderness of Judea by calling the unrighteous to repentance and by announcing the kingdom of heaven as at hand. He said, “Repent ye; for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 3:2). This is the first use of the expression, “kingdom of heaven,” in the New Testament. It is peculiar to Matthew, who uses it more than 30 times. Other phrases used to designate the same institution are, “kingdom of God,” “the kingdom,” “kingdom of Christ,” and the “kingdom of the Son of his love.” These are not the only terms employed to describe this institution, but they are the ones most frequently used to describe it as a kingdom.
Thayer defines “kingdom of heaven” or “kingdom of God” as, “that perfect order of things which He (Christ) was about to establish, in which all those of every nation who should believe in Him were to be gathered into one society, dedicated and intimately united to God, and made partakers of eternal salvation.” Even Thayer does not in this definition attempt to make any microscopic distinctions in meaning between “kingdom of heaven” and “kingdom of God.”
The epitome of John’s preaching, “Repent ye; for the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” clearly teaches two facts concerning the kingdom: first, that it had not been established; second, that it would not be long until it would be established. Certainly, if it had already been in existence, he would not have announced it as being in the future; and if it had been thousands of years in the future, he would not have described it as “at hand” and have urged its immediate approach as a motive to repentance.
When Jesus sent out the 12 and the 70, He commissioned them to preach the same doctrine concerning the kingdom. He said, “And as ye go, preach, saying, The kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 10:7; Luke 9:2). Suppose we had been Jews and had been in the audiences of these primitive preachers and heard them say that the kingdom of heaven was then at hand, and after we heard John the Baptist, the 12, the 70, and Jesus unite in thus testifying, some modern speculator had come along, professing to be a disciple of Christ, and had told that the kingdom of heaven would not yet come for several hundred years, would he not have appeared to us to contradict all that was said by the original witnesses on the subject? How could these inspired preachers urge their hearers to repent in view of the approaching kingdom if they knew that these same hearers would be dead thousands of years before the kingdom would ever be established? A reasonable consideration of their message shows unmistakably that they thought the kingdom would come during the lifetime of those to whom they preached.
Again, Jesus told Peter that He would give him the keys of the kingdom of heaven, with the promise that whatever he bound on earth would be bound in heaven, and that whatever he loosed on earth would be loosed in heaven (Matt. 16:19). Moreover, He used the word “kingdom” in verse 19 as equivalent to “church” in verse 18. So if we can find when the church was established, we will have found when the kingdom was set up. “Upon this rock I will build my church” does not mean that the church had already been built. Nor does it place the establishment of the church, or kingdom, beyond the lifetime of the apostles, otherwise neither they nor Peter could have used the keys which were given to them.
From this language it can be seen that the kingdom of heaven would come sometime between the promise of our Lord and the death of Peter. The Saviour said, “Verily, I say unto you, there are some here of them that stand by, who shall in no wise taste of death, till they see the kingdom of God come with power” (Mark 9:1 ASV). Or, as Matthew records it, “Verily I say unto you, there are some of them that stand here, who shall in no wise taste of death, till they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom” (Matt. 16:28 ASV).
According to this teaching of the Saviour, the kingdom of heaven had not yet come with power, or been set up; in it the “Son of man” had not yet come, but all this would take place before the deaths of many of those then present. This shows that the kingdom was not established in the days of Abraham, the prophets, or John the Baptist. John had fulfilled his mission, but the kingdom was not yet come. And if the kingdom had not yet come, some of those present must yet be alive, since they were told they would not taste death until they saw the “kingdom come with power.”
The kingdom, or church, came on the first Pentecost after the resurrection of Jesus. On that day the Spirit came (Acts 2:1-4), the power came (Acts 1:8), and since the kingdom was to come with the power, it also came on that day (Mark 9:1).
On that day, Peter announced that Jesus had been raised from the dead in fulfillment of God’s promise to David to “set one upon his throne” (Acts 2:30 ASV). Henceforth, the kingdom, or church, is not spoken of in prospect, but as in existence. Paul and the Colossians had been translated into it at the time Paul wrote to the church at Colosse (Col. 1:13).