Prepare, for the Kingdom of Heaven Is at Hand!
Vincent Yeung—Cambridge, UK
There is no shortage of warning signs in the Bible. The dramatic pronouncement by Amos—“Prepare to meet your God, O Israel”—reverberated throughout the reign of Jeroboam II and for many generations after (Amos 4:12). The prophet’s visions of a basket of summer fruit (Amos 8:2–4) and two baskets of figs (Jer 24:1–3) signify that the end is coming soon.
In the New Testament, there are also numerous reminders to prepare for the end. Paul exhorted the Romans to wake up from their slumber, saying “the day is at hand” (Rom 13:11–12). He also wrote that believers need to work out their salvation in fear and trembling (Phil 2:12). The imagery may appear in different forms, but the message is clear and uncompromising: the end—ἔσχατον, eschaton—whether it is personal or universal, is near!
The sense of urgency is pointed, yet subtle, in the Gospel of Matthew—both John the Baptist and Jesus proclaimed the same message at the beginning of their ministries: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Mt 3:2, 4:17). This theme runs seamlessly through the gospels, through the sayings, parables and discourses of Jesus. It serves to remind the readers to be alert and sober, preparing them to meet the Lord.
WARNING AGAINST COMPLACENCY
John the Baptist warned the Pharisees and Sadducees against complacency when they came to the place he was baptizing. He said, “[D]o not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones” (Mt 3:7–9). Salvation is not based on entitlement, birth right, or membership of an elite organization. Each person has to produce good fruit or else they will be discarded (Mt 3:10).
In the parable of the two sons, the second son said he would go to work in the vineyard, but did not go (Mt 21:30). He epitomized the social elite who refused to believe—they were the bad tenants who beat, killed, and stoned the landowner’s servants and eventually killed the landowner’s son (Mt 21:33–38). Because of their disbelief, the kingdom of God would be given to a nation bearing fruit (Mt 21:43). Indeed, when Jesus praised the centurion’s faith at the beginning of His ministry, it was a portent of the things to come: many will come from afar to take Israel’s place at the feast of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, outside of which there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Mt 8:10–12).
However, Jesus’ followers should not be complacent—their place in the kingdom of God is not assured. The church comprises a mixed bag of believers. Like weeds and wheat sowed in the same field (Mt 13:24–30), the two are inseparable until the harvest (Mt 13:29). The kingdom is also described as a net, catching both good and bad fish: the latter will be thrown into the blazing furnace, where again there will be “wailing and gnashing of teeth” (Mt 13:50). What distinguishes the good from the bad, and the wheat from the weeds?
In the parable of the wedding banquet, the initial cohort of guests refused to attend (Mt 22:5)—these people represented the Pharisees and Sadducees who paid no attention to God’s invitation. Ultimately, the banquet was filled with all kinds of people, good and bad, but the good ones were those who had prepared, arriving in wedding clothes (Mt 22:11). The portion for the bad ones, who had not prepared, was “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Mt 22:13). So, in what aspects of our lives should we be prepared?
WARNING AGAINST HYPOCRISY
Jesus did not reject the facets of Jewish piety—prayer, almsgiving, and fasting. These good deeds are not discounted, but they should be performed out of the goodness of one’s heart. They are not to be carried out as a demonstration, a performance, or a form of outward piety, as exhibited by the Pharisees, who were called “hypocrites” by Jesus (Mt 6:2, 5, 16). Therefore, we must beware of subconsciously boasting about how many hours we pray, how much we offer, and how much suffering we endure when we work for the Lord.
The seven woes delivered to the scribes and the Pharisees are accompanied by the sevenfold repetition of the word “hypocrites” (Mt 23:13–30). Despite their outward piety, they fail to exercise good deeds out of a good conscience, purity, and sincerity. We should take note that we do not fall into the same trap. We make long prayers to show people that we are religious, not because we feel the need for it. We watch over our own behavior only because we want to project an impeccable image. The means have become the end in itself, and such religion is devoid of any spirituality. In fact, good behavior is not even a means to piety. It is the outer expression of our inner being—we do good deeds by nature without thinking too much about it.
WARNING AGAINST LAWLESSNESS
The opposite of formal religiosity is lawlessness and licentiousness. It is human logic to think that if we are justified by faith alone and not by works, then it does not matter what we do because God forgives. In fact, many Christians outside the True Jesus Church believe that one is saved just by confessing that Jesus is Lord. This form of free-for-all belief means that cohabitation, divorce and remarriage, and gay relationships are acceptable in their churches.
The teachings of the apostolic church have been marginalized and supplanted by love and forgiveness. To many Christians, love surpasses even God’s commandments. They use logic to argue: “How could the all-loving God be so cruel as to condemn those who fail to observe every minute detail in the Bible?” The mainstream Christian faith has become more inclusive, tolerant, focusing on the social aspect of human needs. Paul questioned such rationale, asking: “Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound?” The answer is overwhelming: “Certainly not!” (Rom 6:1–2). He warned against using “liberty as an opportunity for the flesh” (Gal 5:13).
When Matthew collated the sayings of Jesus in his Gospel, he held on to this same message. Jesus came to fulfill the Law, not to abolish it (Mt 5:17–20). The weeds in the kingdom of God are those who practice “lawlessness” (Mt 13:41). The wicked servants who practice lawlessness by eating and drinking with the drunkards are bundled with the hypocrites (Mt 24:50)─they are as bad as the hypocrites. Even those who prophesy, cast out demons, and perform wonders in God’s name, if they “practice lawlessness,” will be rejected (Mt 7:23).
WARNING AGAINST GROWING COLD IN LOVE
In the end time, lawlessness will
abound and we will become less empathetic. Therefore, be on your guard as the
love of most will grow cold. Only the one who stands firm to the end will be
saved (Mt 24:12–13). In the Sermon on the Mount, a simple description of doing
the will of the Father is to be like Him. “Therefore you shall be perfect, just
as your Father in heaven is perfect,” said Jesus—the manifestation of this
perfection is love (Mt 5:43–48). Love for your enemies goes beyond the letter
of the Law, which is the basis on which Jesus interprets the Law and the
Prophets. The fulfillment of the Law, and the will of the Father, a righteousness
that the Pharisees could not reach, starts with love and ends with love. As
Paul puts it, “[T]he purpose of the commandment is love” (
God is love—there are countless instances of God’s mercy and compassion in Matthew. In the debate between Jesus and the Pharisees relating to working on the Sabbath, Jesus added the quotation: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” (Mt 12:3–8; Mk 2:25–28), which He also quoted in Matthew 9:13. Jesus came for the sick and needy, not for those who believed they were healthy—those who deemed themselves more worthy to be saved. Jesus felt compassion for the crowd (Mt 9:36, 14:14). And in the parable of the unforgiving servant, the master was moved with compassion (Mt 18:27). Before the master exercised his judgment on the unforgiving servant, he asked “Should you not also have had compassion on your fellow servant, just as I had pity on you?” (Mt 18:33). We, the recipients of God’s grace, should in turn exhibit the same compassion as our Father.
The key comparisons between “good” versus “bad,” “belief” versus “unbelief,” and “prepared” versus “unprepared” appear repeatedly in Jesus’ parables and sayings. Underlying these contrasts are two opposing mindsets and two different outcomes when the Lord comes to exercise His judgment. On that day, we will be deemed either good or bad.
The basis of that judgment is determined by whether we believe in Jesus or not. We hear, believe, learn, act, and are transformed—this is a lifelong exercise that we need to go through. As Paul put it, “…[Y]ou have heard Him and have been taught by Him, as the truth [belief] is in Jesus; that you put off, concerning your former conduct [action]…and that you put on the new man which was created according to God [transformation], in true righteousness and holiness (Eph 4:21–24). We should become more and more like God through this continuous spiritual cultivation. The transformation takes time, effort, and lots of sacrifice, which Paul describes as “work[ing] out your own salvation” (Phil 2:12).
The idea of preparedness culminates in the parable of the ten virgins. Five wise and five foolish virgins were waiting for the coming of the bridegroom. The former were prepared with extra oil, as the timing of the bridegroom’s arrival could not be determined. The unprepared virgins had to go to buy more oil as their lamps were going out. When they returned, the door was closed and they were shut out of the banquet. Their pleas were met with the response: “I do not know you” (Mt 25:12).
In the parable of the talents, the master who went on a journey represents the Lord (Mt 25:14–30). After a long period of time, the master returned to settle accounts with his servants. The unfaithful servant who failed to produce a return was described as “wicked and lazy.” He was cast into “the outer darkness,” where there was “weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
The moral of these parables is that we should watch (Mt 24:42, 25:13) and be prepared to give our accounts, because we do not know the day or the hour of the Lord’s arrival (Mt 24:50). The wise and faithful servants are the ones who keep watch, prepared for the coming of the Master (Mt 24:42). On the other hand, the wicked ones are those who lapse in their responsibilities, and are caught off guard by the sudden return of the Master (Mt 24:48–51). The outcome for the unprepared is the same in each of these parables: “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Mt 24:51).
HOW SHALL WE PREPARE?
First, we need to shake off our complacency, knowing that our faith needs to be translated into action. Disciples are asked to deny themselves, take up their cross and follow Jesus (Mt 16:24; Mk 8:34). Moreover, Jesus warned that the reward at the final judgment will be given according to what each person has done (Mt 16:27). The difference between good and bad is not simply a matter of whether we are ashamed of Jesus (Mk 8:38); the attitude also needs to be translated into action. We are judged not only by our words and attitude, but also by our works. We should lead a life worthy of our calling, exhibiting the qualities of Christ in our behavior (Eph 4:1–2), and serving God diligently through faith and patience until the end (Heb 6:9–12).
Second, we should not be swayed by the seductive influence of broad societal trends. Society has become more tolerant; everyone is free to do what they think is right. In this way, society has become morally “lawless,” and Christians in general are not immune to this influence. As members of the true church, we should lead a life worthy of our calling, upholding the teachings of the Bible, and manifesting the qualities of Jesus in our servitude.
Third, good deeds alone are insufficient; we need to do the will of the Father. The Pharisees had much to say about works. Paul once testified that he was “blameless” concerning the righteousness in the Law (Phil 3:6). However, the righteousness subscribed by the Pharisees was not the same as God’s righteousness; in fact, they had not submitted to the latter (Rom 10:3). Therefore, simply working for work’s sake is not sufficient to fulfill God’s righteousness.
The same principle applies to Christians—simply performing work outwardly does not guarantee salvation. Those who claim that they prophesied, cast out demons, and performed wonders in Jesus’ name will be rejected if they have failed to do the will of God (Mt 7:21–23). Matthew clearly spells out that we need to do better than the Pharisees: “[U]nless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 5:20). Jesus came not to abolish the Law or the Prophets, but to fulfill them (Mt 5:17).
To achieve this, we need to be transformed from within, as only good works that arise from within the heart, and are conducted with the right frame of mind, are counted as righteous in God’s eyes. Therefore, we need to prepare—our lamps should be filled with oil, signifying the fullness of the Holy Spirit. We cannot simply generate love from within ourselves, as the outflow of God’s love comes from the infilling of the Holy Spirit (Rom 5:5).
We should prepare ourselves to give our account at all times, as we do not know when our end will come. We also need to show love to the little ones, those who are most in need in the community of faith. We should not despise them (Mt 18:10), be unmerciful towards them (Mt 10:42) or cause them to stumble (Mt 18:6). The final scene in the parable of the sheep and goats tells us that we will be judged according to what we did to the least of our brother and sister—the degree to which we exercised God’s love (Mt 25:40).
In God’s kingdom, many are called but few are chosen (Mt 20:16, 22:14). Over the ages, humankind was trapped by the triad of hypocrisy, lawlessness, and the lack of love. As members of the true church, we need to break out of this mode of living and learn to be as perfect as the Father. We are saved by grace, but we still need to do good works and follow the commandments. As Jesus put it, “the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith” should be done without leaving the lesser things undone (Mt 23:23). We cannot just sit back and expect salvation to come automatically. Instead, we should do good deeds and exercise mercy, as the Father is full of mercy.
Let us revisit the cherished verse: “But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness” (Mt 6:33a). It is not simply a choice between money and God, it is also a choice between human-defined righteousness and God’s righteousness. The true and false disciples in Matthew 7:21–23 should no longer be seen to represent those within church and those without; it also depicts the good and bad believers within the kingdom of God (see also Matthew 13).
The new interpretation of Old Testament commandments that Jesus put forth in the Sermon on the Mount—signposted by the repeated phrase: “But I say to you” (Mt 5:22, 28, 32, 34, 39, 44)—revealed how God’s righteousness should be exercised. Sin is not simply an outward action (Mt 5:27). Righteousness is not simply fulfilling the letter of the Law (Mt 5:24, 31). Not only do we need to perform good deeds and guard our outward behavior, we also need to be transformed, to forgive, and to love from within. The Sermon on the Mount culminates with the golden rule: “Therefore, whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets” (Mt 7:12). Love fulfills the Law and the Prophets; it is the basis of God’s righteousness and God’s will. Jesus then concludes with three antitheses: the narrow and the wide gate; true and false prophets; and the wise and the foolish builders (Mt 7:13–27). Each has two opposing paths—the choice is ours to make. Either we are good or bad, prepared or unprepared. Let us make the wise choice and be prepared!