First we should note that this statement by Jesus has been translated variously by the different versions:
"Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near." (New International Version 2011)
"Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." (King James version)
"Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!" (Hebrew Names Version)
"Repent, for the kingdom of the heavens has drawn nigh." (Darby Translation)
"Repent ye; for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." (American Standard Version)
"Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." (Revised Standard Version, English Standard Version, New American Standard Bible)
These are all translated from the same Greek phrase, μετανοεῖτε ἤγγικεν γὰρ ἡ βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν.
Regardless of the translation, these words were used to describe the preaching of Jesus following his hearing of John the Baptist’s imprisonment:
From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” (Matt. 4:17)
It should be made clear that this was not solely Jesus' message. He was passing on the same teachings of his own teacher, John the Baptist taught, following John being imprisoned. How do we know this? Consider these two verses in addition to Matt. 4:17:
In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the Desert of Judea and saying, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near." (Matt. 3:2)
"As you go, preach this message: 'The kingdom of heaven is near.'" (Matt. 10:7)
The first describes clearly that John taught this very same teaching. And this second verse is being spoken by Jesus to his own disciples. In other words, Jesus taught what John taught, then told his own students to teach the same thing to others.
So what does this generalized description of the teachings of John, Jesus and Jesus' students mean?
The meaning of the word “repent” is critical. "Repent" is being translated from the Greek word μετανοέω (metanoeō), means "to change" or "to change one's mind" according to the lexicon. It means to have a change of heart. It means to make a serious change in one's life.
In other words, "repent" in this context would be to divert from those activities focused upon our own selves - exercised by our seeking satisfaction within materialism. To "repent" from these activities would mean to refocus towards regaining our relationship with the Supreme Being.
The word "kingdom" here is being translated from the Greek word βασιλεία (basileia). The lexicon describes this word to mean, "royal power, kingship, dominion, rule: not to be confused with an actual kingdom but rather the right or authority to rule over a kingdom."
Many might add that "repent" also includes humbly asking for forgiveness. The two are connected, because the Supreme Being is a person, and we have been ignoring the Supreme Being. In order to regain our relationship with God we must approach Him with humility, recognizing our past offensive behavior as we've continued to ignore Him.
This is contrary to the popular definition of "repent" as professed by many ecclesiastical institutions and their teachers. Many see repentance as some sort of public proclamation. To proclaim “I repent,” in a public ceremony, or “I surrender to Jesus” is not the same as having a personal change of heart - as Jesus, John and Jesus' disciples were requesting from us.
A real change of heart does not come with public proclamation or grand-standing. It is rather the opposite: It is an extremely personal and private decision to redirect ones life towards coming to know and love the Supreme Being.
And this is precisely relevant to the meaning of the phrase: "the kingdom of heaven is near."
Yet ecclesiastical institutions and their teachers want us to believe this statement relates to a coming end of the world or some kind of apocalypse. This is quite simply a preposterous interpretation.
First consider the audience of Jesus' teachings. To whom was he preaching? Certainly he was preaching to those with whom he lived and traveled among. And yet some 2,000 years later, the end of the world has not come (Here is a list of many who have incorrectly predicted the end of the world).
Was Jesus lying to his students then? What was the purpose of him threatening the end of the world to them - as "near" - since it would not happen during their lifetimes or even within the lifetimes of their children - or even in the next 2,000 years?
Would Jesus falsely threaten people about a coming end of the world in order to convert them? Or was Jesus predicting an event that might occur thousands of years later? And if so, what would that event have to do with his audience, since they would be long dead by then?
And why, if he is predicting an event that will take place more than 2,000 years later, would he use the word "near"?
The reality is, this statement has been misinterpreted.
The word "near" (or in the case of other translations "at hand") is being translated from the Greek word ἐγγίζω (eggizō), which means, according to the lexicon:
1) to bring near, to join one thing to another
2) to draw or come near to, to approach
The proselytizing that this indicates a point in time would therefore be incorrect. The word indicates "closeness" in terms of distance - not time.
Thus Jesus is speaking of the kingdom of heaven - the Kingdom of God - being nearby. Close.
The true meaning of “for the kingdom of heaven is near” is that each of us can reach the kingdom of God immediately by turning to the Supreme Being - by worshipping Him and relying upon Him.
By dismissing ourselves ("repenting") from our search for happiness in a materialistic world of emptiness and physical gratification; and instead reaching out to the Supreme Being from within our hearts, we have the opportunity to immediately enter the kingdom of God.
To limit the kingdom of God to a place outside of the physical universe we currently reside in would be to also limit God’s ability to be present in a place of His creation. God owns everything, and every part of His creation is His kingdom.
Certainly if we accept that God created this world, we can also accept that He has the ability to be here. Nearby.
He simply designed the physical body in such a way so that the physical eyes cannot see Him.
Thus we have to open our hearts in order to see Him from within. If He can be here, nearby, and we can refocus ourselves upon Him with humility and love, then we have the ability to enter the kingdom of God where ever we are. This translates to becoming focused upon doing His will rather than our own will.
The statement, "the kingdom of heaven is near," is thus stating that we can immediately reject our self-centered chase for materialism and give ourselves to the Supreme Being. We can immediately decide to dedicate our lives to coming to know and love the Supreme Person and learning to do His will. This will immediately transport us to the Kingdom of God, even as our physical bodies might remain here in the physical world.
Yes, God's kingdom is that near.