First, we should note that this statement by Jesus has been translated variously by the different Bible 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.
Passing on a teaching of John
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. 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)Matthew 3:2 describes clearly that John taught this very same teaching. Then we find from Matthew 10:7 that Jesus is telling his disciples to pass on this same teaching. In other words, Jesus taught what John taught, then told his own students to teach the same thing to others.
So what does this teaching of John, Jesus, and Jesus' students mean?
The word "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."
Having a change of heart and taking shelter or accepting the sanctuary of God requires humility. It means accepting that we don't know it all. It means accepting that we don't have the means to protect ourselves. It means accepting that the Supreme Being is my only real protector and salvation.
The Supreme Being is a person, and each of us has an innate relationship with God. We have forgotten this loving service relationship as we seek our own satisfaction away from God. In order to regain our lost relationship with God, our approach must come with humility, because we were the ones who decided to leave Him.
This runs contrary to the popular connotation of "repenting" as professed by many sectarian 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.
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 one's 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 sectarian 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. Who was he preaching to? Certainly, he was preaching to those around him at the time. And yet some 2,000 years later, the end of the world still has not come.
Here is a short list of the many teachers who have claimed to represent Jesus, teaching that Jesus was predicting the end of the world on a certain date. The date they predicted to be the end of the world follows their name:
Hilary of Poitiers: 365 AD (the date the end of the world was predicted)
Saint Martin of Tours: 375 to 400 AD
Sextus Julius Africanus: 500 AD
Gerard of Poehlde: 1147 AD
John of Toledo: 1179 AD
Joachim of Fiore: 1205 AD
Pope Innocent III: 1284 AD
Melchior Hoffman: 1533 AD
Benjamin Keach (Baptist): 1689 AD
William Whitson: 1736 AD
The Shakers (Ann Lee): 1792 AD
Charles Wesley (Methodist): 1794 AD
Margaret McDonald: 1830 AD
Joseph Smith (Mormon): 1832 and 1891 AD
William Miller (Millerites): 1843 and 1844 AD
Ellen White (Seven Day Adventists): 1850, 1856 and "early 1900s" AD
Mother Shipton: 1881 AD
Watchtower Bible and Tract Society (Jehovah's Witnesses): 1914, 1915, 1918, 1920, 1925, 1941, 1975, 1994 and others more recent.
Was Jesus lying to his students?
Since the end of the world didn't come, was Jesus teaching an untruth? 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? Does more than 2,000 years later mean "near"?
Furthermore, 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 mistranslated and misinterpreted.
The meaning of 'near'
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 word indicates time is thus incorrect. The word ἐγγίζω (eggizō) indicates "closeness" relative to distance - not time.
Therefore, Jesus is speaking of the kingdom of heaven - the sanctuary of God or the refuge of God - being close: Readily available.
The true meaning of “for the kingdom of heaven is near” is that each of us can gain the sanctuary of God - the refuge of God - immediately by simply turning to the Supreme Being - by worshiping Him and relying upon Him - and dismissing ourselves ("repenting") from our search for happiness in a materialistic world of emptiness and physical gratification.
In other words, Jesus is speaking of surrendering to the Supreme Being - giving one's life to God - and thus taking shelter in the Supreme Being.
Yes, this is a matter of consciousness.
Jesus is not speaking of a physical place being nearby. He is speaking of the fact that taking refuge in the Supreme Being can be accomplished immediately: Because He is nearby. He is available to each of us.
Certainly, if we accept that God created this world, we can also accept that He has the ability to be here. Nearby. Available. Jesus confirmed this in another statement:
"The kingdom of God does not come with observation; nor will they say, 'See here!' or 'See there!' For indeed, the kingdom of God is within you." (Luke 17:20-21 NKJV)
Therefore, 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 on doing His will rather than our own will.
But Jesus also indicates that this consciousness does have a place: Not a physical place, but a context - this is the spiritual realm - evidenced by Jesus' use of the word οὐρανός (ouranos) in this verse - mistranslated to "heaven."
Yes, since Jesus is indicating that this consciousness related to giving one's life to the Supreme Being is available - Jesus is obviously not speaking of a location called "heaven" - as this is far removed from the physical world where Jesus was speaking from.
This is the element of sanctuary. God's sanctuary - or heaven - is not a faraway place. The Greek word οὐρανός (ouranos) indicates the consciousness of the spiritual realm, which can be accessed from any location - because after all, everywhere is part of God's creation. Thus, the use of οὐρανός (ouranos) indicates that consciousness where the Supreme Being is loved and worshiped.
Thus, the more appropriate translation of this teaching of John, Jesus and Jesus' students, as offered by the Gospels of Jesus, would be:
Yes, God is nearby. He is available to us, and we can surrender our lives to Him and take refuge in Him at any time. We each have that choice.