The biggest reason we struggle to understand what Jesus meant by “the kingdom of God” was the way he presented it. He kept on about the kingdom, without claiming to be king. And if you don’t see Jesus as the king, you don’t see the kingdom.
If you want to be president of the USA, you spend billions convincing everyone you’re the best candidate, because power comes from the people. If you want to be a dictator, you gain control of the army, because power comes from force. But the kingdom of God does not arise from popular vote or bloody revolution; it comes from another source — appointment by heaven.
That’s why Jesus spent zero effort to convince people he was king or coerce them to recognize him. Instead of trying to get people to serve him, he served them. Using his regal authority to serve his kingdom, the king evicted demons and alleviated suffering. He inspired people with hope, sketches of God’s restored reign. But his parables of the kingdom felt like puzzles to those who were missing the key piece — who was king.
You see, if his kingship comes from God, self-promotion is out. Jesus had to wait for God to reveal it to people. After three years, one person finally got it!
While others saw a prophet like Elijah or Jeremiah, a Galilean fisherman got the divine revelation, “You are the Christ!” (16:16). Christ (or Messiah) means anointed. Peter recognized Jesus as God’s chosen king, the Son with the authority of the living God.
Hear Jesus’ joy! Without any human promoting Jesus as king, Simon recognized that God had decreed it: This was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven (16:17).
In recognizing Jesus as divinely appointed king, Peter became a rock for Jesus to build on. As others recognize Jesus as the Christ also, Jesus establishes the community that gathers around its king (ekklēsia). The fortresses of those who kill their competition for power (the gates of death [hades]) cannot prevail against his kingship (16:18).
This moment — when someone finally recognizes Jesus’ kingship — marks the turning point of the synoptic Gospels (Matthew 16:16; Mark 8:29; Luke 9:20). The gospel is the good news that Jesus is the Christ (God’s anointed ruler), because that changes everything. If heaven’s anointed has authority over the earth, earth is a kingdom of heaven.
That’s why the New Testament refers to Jesus as Christ more than 500 times! It’s our core message. In the words of Peter’s first gospel sermon,
God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ [i.e. ruler and anointed king] (Acts 2:36).
So, how do we proclaim this gospel?
Evangelicals claim to be gospel people, for euangelion is the word for gospel. But Evangelicalism today is often focused on manufacturing responses, coercing people into a decision. We’ve devised invitations ranging from colourful tracts and websites to commitment moments with soft lights and beautiful music where we call out people’s felt needs (guilt) and offer them the free goods (forgiveness) promising it will be the best choice of your life.
Doesn’t it strike you as strange that we spend all this time and energy in trying to do exactly what Jesus refused to do?
Jesus is not king because we make decisions about him, but because God decreed it. Rather than coercing people into making decisions, we need to get on with living as his kingdom — a life where evil no longer holds sway, alleviating suffering, enacting justice, extending mercy, walking humbly before our king in the way we treat each other.
Ultimately, people recognize their king where he is present — in his people. “Decision” is the wrong word: it implies something we do, our own choice. People don’t need decision moments; they need revelation moments. New life is the God-birthed awareness that Jesus is God’s anointed, and therefore our Lord.
So let’s stop trying to create decision moments. Let’s get on with kingdom life where the birth of new life (regeneration) is an act of God, the work of the Holy Spirit.
Let’s look for those wonderful God-birthed “Ah hah” moments when someone awakens to the reality, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God!” Waiting for God to reveal his Messiah to people will feel like a longer and slower process than coercing people into decisions, but it’s the only way. True conversions are revelations. Jesus waited three years to see the first one.
This is great news for the church. It frees us from so much that we’ve been doing, to get back to the living gospel. We can drop all our coercive methods, and focus on being the people who recognize his kingship. We’re saying that Jesus is God’s anointed ruler, the Son with the authority of the living God to being earth back under heaven’s kingship. As we engage in this reality — the body of the Christ, Spirit-empowered to enact what the king wants to happen on earth — God reveals his Son as the Christ.
What would we do differently if we expected God-revelations rather than human-decisions in response to the good news that Jesus is the Christ?
Open Matthew 16:16-18.