From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Matthew 4:17
What did Jesus come into this world to do? His coming wasn’t a wild roll of the dice. He came on a mission, and he succeeded. What was his mission? What is his success? If we understand that, we’ll know how we can join in, confident that we cannot waste our lives.
Here’s one thing Jesus did not come to do – start a new religion. He did not come to add yet one more flavor on the menu of “the world’s great religions.” He is often perceived that way. But where do we see Jesus himself in the New Testament signaling to us any such purpose? Where does Jesus say, “The other religions have their strong points, but I’m here to add my own contribution”? I looked up the word religion in my dictionary. Here’s the definition:
“concern over what exists beyond the visible world, differentiated from philosophy in that it operates through faith or intuition rather than reason, and generally including the idea of the existence of a single being, a group of beings, an eternal principle, or a transcendent spiritual entity that has created the world, that governs it, that controls its destinies, or that intervenes occasionally in the natural course of its history, as well as the idea that ritual, prayer, spiritual exercises, certain principles of everyday conduct, etc., are expedient, due, or spiritually rewarding, or arise naturally out of an inner need as a human response to the belief in such a being, principle, etc.”
When you hear that, do you automatically think, “Jesus”? He cut through all our hifalutin theories when he said this: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” And that’s the difference. Religion is about us improving ourselves. Jesus is about us admitting we can’t. When we finally give up on ourselves and turn to Jesus, it’s like heaven on earth. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
Jesus did not come to start a religion; he came to build a kingdom. The gateway into his kingdom is repentance, and the pathway within his kingdom is the same repentance. Martin Luther wisely wrote, “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent,’ he wanted the whole life of believers to be repentance.” The leading edge of redemption in this world is not success but repentance. And that simple place of honesty – the Lord wants us to go there and stay there and never leave it. Jesus came for defeated people who don’t want to fake it any more and they’re finally open to him. That is his kingdom. And that is the only future of all this world.
The Beatitudes in Matthew 5:3-10 show what that repentance looks like. In Matthew 4:17 Jesus announces his coming kingdom as an outbreak of new health in the cancer ward of this world. But where do we see it? What kind of Christianity does Christ consider Christian? What kind of church does Jesus want to join? The Beatitudes answer that question. What we see here is beauty and gentleness and openness and humility and even a willingness to suffer, all flowing from the repentance of Matthew 4:17. Imagine all the religions of the world suddenly disappearing, and all we have left in our hearts is the Beatitudes. It would be heaven on earth. And that is what Jesus is building in the world today. We see it most clearly in churches that look like the Beatitudes. That what churches are for – to display the beauty of Jesus with no pretense, no bluff, but in honesty. We call that a gospel culture. And he has sent us to this city to invite others to join us the same way we came in – exhausted, fed up, broken, disobedient, and coming to Jesus for something better.
What we’ve seen together this month is how gospel doctrine creates a gospel culture. The message of divine grace creates a community of human grace. It’s the kingdom of heaven on earth. We’ve seen in these recent weeks that a gospel culture is where we are finally free to admit our problems and open up to God’s answers (1 John 1). We’ve seen that a gospel culture is where everyone belongs, because we all come in on the same basis – justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, apart from all our works and claims (Galatians 2). We’ve seen that the gospel builds strong personal friendships where before we were cautious and lonely (1 Samuel 18). We’ve seen that heaven will be a gospel culture forever, where creation will be renewed, community will be perfect, and comfort will be overflowing (Revelation 21). When Jesus said, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” he was saying, “I am launching, here and now, the heavenization of earth. Evil is on the way out. Joy is flowing in. And anyone, with any background, can come to me and enter in freely.” The heavenization of earth forever by his perfect life, his atoning death and his powerful resurrection – that is his mission. And he does not need our success. He shares his own success with us. Wherever sinners let his gospel take full command – that is where heaven is coming down.
Your family can be a gospel culture. Your dorm room can be a gospel culture. Here at Immanuel, let’s stay focused on our gospel culture DNA. We will never outgrow repentance. But there are always distractions. Tradition is an obvious one. Self-admiration is a huge barrier. Church programs can get in the way. What makes us useful to Jesus is the Beatitudes. That is his whole point here. He is painting the picture of the repentance that heavenizes earth, as nothing else can do.
I won’t go into each of the Beatitudes today, because they’re all saying basically the same thing. They are looking at humility from different angles of vision. They are describing how repentance thinks, how repentance feels, so that we can get the hang of it. All the Beatitudes flow out of the first one: “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” Jesus mourned over his church in Laodicea. They said, “I am rich, I have prospered, I need nothing” (Revelation 3:17). All they could think about and talk about was their strengths and successes and assets. But Jesus said they were wretched, pitiable, poor, blind and naked. As long as their mentality was self-admiration, Jesus grieved over them. If they would have admitted their need, he would have rejoiced. Jesus is repelled by self-sufficient people. He is always drawn to weakness, failure and need. And here in the Beatitudes – “Blessed are the poor in spirit” – that word blessed is an encouragement. The Beatitudes are not ideals of what should be. The Beatitudes are descriptions of what is, when we welcome Jesus into our mess. This word blessed is a biblical way of saying, “Congratulations, way to go, three cheers!” Jesus is celebrating us, as he sees us turning to him. There is no way we can live in the Beatitudes and miss out on the blessing of God. What he cares about is not denominational identity; what he cares about is personal humility. That is always where his heavenizing joy comes down. That’s a gospel culture, and any church of any denomination can have it.
So here is the difference it makes for us today. Let’s think of three categories. One, non-repentance. Two, false repentance. Three, true repentance.
Non-repentance says, “What matters to me is my own comforts and preferences, getting my way, having my selfish little world arranged around me just the way I like it, including the religious sand box called my church.” For example, when church members threaten to withhold their money, unless the pastor wears a robe, or if the pastor does wear a robe, or whatever, that is non-repentance. And the more religious non-repentance is, the more poisonous. There is no joy there.
False repentance says, “What matters to me is loss of face. I’ve blown it, I’ve gotten caught, I’m really sorry, and I promise not to do it again. But the reason is, I just hate being embarrassed like this.” For example, when church members try to change not because they want the glory of heaven but because they don’t want the fires of hell. False repentance might look okay. But there is no joy there.
True repentance says, “What mattes to me is that I’ve hurt Jesus. He died for me, and I’ve turned around and betrayed him and stabbed my friend in the back. I am so grieved. And I long for a new heart that will love him and obey him, as he deserves.” When Jesus says, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” he is inviting us into that love for him. And in the Beatitudes, he shows us how gentle that love is toward one another. It’s a gospel culture, and there is joy there.
Nashville has seen plenty of non-repentance and false repentance. But no city has ever seen too much real repentance. No city has seen too much joy coming down, heavenizing it from downtown to the suburbs. I do not believe God wants Immanuel Church to create new power structures to change our city. Power structures are the problem. The remedy that Nashville deserves to see in us is humility. No Christians have ever swaggered their way into influence. Let’s repent our way into whatever influence the Lord has for us. The Beatitudes are the only future for any of us. Everything else is under judgment, because it isn’t Jesus.
Let’s stay humble enough to be useful to the Lord for the heavenizing of this city, one person at a time, for his glory alone.