As I was reading this morning I came across a verse that I’ve read many times that suddenly changed from black and white to full color, like Dorothy in the Land of Oz. It’s a verse that sounds very threatening. It sounds, or it used to sound, like it’s saying, “Turn or burn!” when in fact it’s saying something very good. It’s saying, “Get ready! Something great is coming!” It’s Matthew 4:17.

From that time Jesus began to preach and to say, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

Not “Turn,” But “Get Ready!”

The “turn” part is essentially correct. “Repent” does mean to turn, but it means more than that. More literally it means to change your mind, or to change the way you think (metanoia), and in that sense it means to turn.

When we see the well-intentioned people wearing the sandwich boards at the parade or downtown, their signs decorated with the flames of hell, the word “turn” tends to communicate the need to stop doing bad things. In other words, change your actions. “Stop being bad and be good!” The thing is, we can’t change our actions until we change our thinking. Sure, we can stop, for a time, doing the bad thing, but we still think about it all… the… time. This guarantees that we will go back to that behavior. But, if we can change the way we think about it, if we come to terms with the fact that the thing is bad and contrary to God’s best for us, then we won’t want to do it. This is what Romans 12:2 looks like in action, “be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” As our mind is renewed, our actions change, and our lives are transformed to look more like Jesus.

Not “Burn,” But “Something Great!”

“The kingdom of heaven” is not a threat. Well, not really. In the context of Matthew 4, Jesus is speaking to people who already believe in God, who are very anxiously waiting for God’s Kingdom to come. To His original audience, Jesus really is saying, “Get ready! The thing you’ve been waiting for, the thing God has been promising is just within reach!”

The kingdom of heaven can be described in many ways and has as much theological tradition built around it as anything else. For the purposes of this post, let’s boil it down to this;

The kingdom of heaven is God’s best world, God’s best ways to live, in relationship with Him and with one another.

To quote Jr. Asparagus from VeggieTales, “God’s way is the best way, and that’s the way for me.”

The Mixed Message

The implied reality in this good news of the kingdom, is that it’s Gods way, not our way. It is at this point that this good news feels like a threat. We want our ways, not God’s ways. That is at the very heart of what sin is. Sin is living with the mindset and heartiest of “I’m the boss, not God.”

God’s kingdom is coming, is already at hand, and we have our own kingdom that we have built. It is at this point where there is a kernel of truth to “Turn, or burn.” It’s either God’s kingdom or ours. In the end, God’s kingdom does win. Only one kingdom can stand.

We can either get ready, change our thinking thereby changing our actions, and join God’s best thing now, His present and future kingdom, or not. For those who have reached an end of themselves, who have fought to live their way and not God’s way, this is a very welcomed message. This is it! The thing you’ve been fighting against is the very thing you’ve been looking for! Change your thinking and get in on this!

To those who still want their way, with all the love in my heart, I have to say, you are going to lose. Repent. Change your mind. Change your thinking. If this is ringing true in your head and heart it means that God has already been doing the work inside of you to make the change. That’s the only way it can happen. God does the work, we cooperate, and we get to be a part of His kingdom. There’s nothing wrong with that!

So, is Matthew 4:17 good news, or bad news? I’m praying that if it isn’t good news for you right now, it will be someday.