When you have the key to a building, you can open it to let someone in; or you can lock it to make sure a person stays out. Jesus used this picture about the kingdom of heaven. In Mat. 16:19, Peter had just made the first clearly Christian confession of faith: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God!” Jesus told him: “On this rock I will build my church,” and then continued: “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”
Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Christ is the key point of the gospel. This confession is also the bedrock, the foundation of the church. And the church opens and closes the kingdom by declaring to the whole world that salvation can be found in Jesus Christ alone. This preaching of the gospel is the first “key”. By proclaiming the kingdom of Jesus, the kingdom is opened to believers, who receive the gospel, and closed to unbelievers, who refuse to believe. That is the topic of this lesson; the second “key”, church discipline, we will discuss in the next lesson.
The proclamation of the Kingdom.
1. Encouragement to believers
2. A warning to unbelievers
3. God’s judgment in the world
Encouragement to believers
Preaching is a powerful activity. This is not because sitting in front of the pulpit on Sunday is somehow magical. It is not because of the man on the pulpit, or his office as preacher. Preaching is powerful because it presents the gospel. And that gospel is, as Paul wrote, “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.” (Rom. 1:16)
It is important, then, that the preaching we do should only be gospel preaching and not something else. We proclaim the message of the Kingdom of heaven, as Jesus and his apostles taught it. While preachers must apply that message in the world of today, their message should always be the old message, expressing “the faith once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3). Only then can we say that the preaching is indeed the gospel and the Word of God, and only then can we expect it to have the power of salvation.
What is the heart of gospel preaching? We already saw Peter’s confession that “Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Because that is who he is, Jesus is the only possible Saviour. He is “the Way, the Truth, and Life” (John 7:14). “There is no other name given under heaven by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12)
The gospel shows us the Saviour and generously invites us to salvation. There is a way out of a world of evil, out of the guilt of sin, out of the pointlessness of living only for the here and now. Wherever there is preaching, this must be preached. In the words of the catechism, it is proclaimed and publicly testified to each and every believer that God has really forgiven all their sins for the sake of Christ’s merits.
This is why we preach Jesus as the one who was crucified: because in his death he carried away our sin. This is why we preach Jesus as the risen Lord: because the power of his new, spiritual life is for us. But we do not only preach the New Testament message about Jesus. We also preach the Old Testament stories. It teaches us about the same God. And it has a very encouraging message. In the Old Testament, we see God’s covenant nation, Israel, living closely with God and yet they mess up over and over. It is almost unbelievable how often the Lord forgave them, how often he took them back, how he kept declaring his love and promising his goodness. These stories give great comfort to people like you and me, who know the Lord yet often make a mess of it, falter in our faith, and feel guilty about our sins. The Lord is so gracious! And his salvation is free.
The preaching of the gospel is meant to be received in faith. Jesus himself proclaimed: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe the gospel!” (Mark 1:15) And the jailor in Philippi asked Paul: “What must I do to be saved?” he answered: “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.” (Acts 16:31) Faith is the proper response to the gospel. God says it, but do you believe it is true? God promises salvation to you, but do you take hold of it? To underscore this, the catechism adds that the gospel opens the kingdom of heaven to believers as often as they by true faith accept the promise of the gospel.
So, when you come to church and hear the Word of God read and explained, do you see the key turn? Do you see that the kingdom of heaven is open for you, because Jesus paved the way, and because in faith you belong to him? If you receive with true faith the Saviour who is so clearly and beautifully shown in the gospel, then this is the reality. The kingdom of heaven is wide open to you, your sins are forgiven, and you are right with God.
A warning to unbelievers
To be clear, just sitting in church and hearing the preaching by itself is not going to save you. There must be faith; without that faith, the gospel will do nothing to you. On the contrary. Part of the gospel proclamation is the warning. Ignoring that warning means that the key turns the other way. The kingdom of heaven is closed for unbelievers.
Unbelievers come in different kinds. There are obvious unbelievers, who ignore the Lord. There are also people who say they believe, but they blatantly violate God’s laws and don’t seem to care at all. There are people who claim to believe, but their hearts are lukewarm at best, and they live a life that is bland, without clear fruit of the Spirit, without good works, without evidence of true conversion. There are even people who say they believe, and who put up a good front, who know all the right things to say and the outward things to do, but they don’t really care about God; their Christian-like behaviour is only to look good in the community, to be seen and appreciated by people. Their biggest problem is that they don’t really feel bad about sin, not really in need of a Saviour, and they don’t really want to repent. Such unbelievers who pretend to be believers are called hypocrites.
The Bible is full of stories about unbelievers and hypocrites of every kind. Apostate Israelite, blatant Baal worshippers, decadent rich people who oppressed the poor, self-righteous Pharisees, and so on. These stories must be preached about, too, because they are a warning for all of us. The heart of the gospel is that there is salvation for sinners, and that it is still not too late to repent and believe, no matter how badly we have offended God. But the flipside is that those who refuse to believe the gospel and who do not really repent have no part in that salvation.
The catechism is very clear about this, too: It is proclaimed and testified to all unbelievers and hypocrites that the wrath of God and eternal condemnation rest on them as long as they do not repent. That negative proclamation is important part of Christian preaching, too. If unbelievers sit in the pews, if hypocritical or lukewarm church members listen to the minister, they must hear the key turn in the lock: the kingdom of God is closed for you, as long as you stay the way you are.
Not that there is no way back. God’s grace is so great that it can forgive even the sins of stubborn unbelief and insidious hypocrisy. As long as we live in this time of grace, alive here on earth before the return of Jesus, there is still time to come to your senses and return to the Father, like the younger son in the parable of the Prodigal Son. At the same time, the sin of unbelief and deliberate hypocrisy is very dangerous. Because it is a sin that negates the very gospel, silences the gracious Word of God, and quenches the Holy Spirit who gives faith. If you silence this work of God in your life, what message is there left that can convince you to change your attitude? If you have rejected the remedy for sin, how can you be healed? If you have thrown away the key that opens the kingdom of heaven, how can you ever enter? God’s grace is so great that he can even overcome the most hardened heart of the most insolent sinner—but don’t count on it!
The message of the closing of the kingdom is not meant to frighten the sincere children of God. The gospel is not there to make you doubt. Its first and foremost purpose is to reveal the kingdom of heaven, which is wide open because of Jesus. But if you reject the heart of that gospel on purpose, then we must tell you: then the kingdom of shut for you. Please, change your behavior, turn to god, embrace the Savior, and confess your sin, so that the door may be unlocked for you as well.
God’s judgment in the world
The catechism ends by saying that God will judge according to this testimony of the gospel. When the gospel is faithfully preached, both the promise and the warning are very real. If faithful preaching proclaims that the kingdom of heaven is open for you, you can be sure that God will give you a place among his blessed children. If faithful preaching proclaims that the kingdom of heaven is closed to you, you can be sure that you stand condemned, along with Satan himself and all his minions, unless you change your life.
This connects today’s preaching to the future judgment. It is no secret whom the Lord will acquit and whom he will condemn. The difference between the two groups will simply be that between true faith and unbelief.
But the catechism adds one more thing: According to this testimony of the gospel, God will judge both in this life and in the life to come. Not just in the future, but already in this life. In the world today, the gospel is not only preached, but it also has a great impact in the world. The gospel preaching is power in real time. Because the Holy Spirit is at work wherever hear the gospel. He changes their hearts, today; they are saved, today; the holiness of Jesus becomes visible in them, starting today; the community of believers (the church) is clearly visible in the world, today; and her witness even changes societies, even today. When a nation is steeped in the gospel message, it is good for that nation and it will flourish. When a nation forgets the gospel, it will deteriorate in many ways. In that sense, the gospel proclamation brings God’s judgment into the lives of people and countries now already.
Do you hear the key turn? From pulpits throughout the world, from Sunday to Sunday and on other days as well, the gospel is proclaimed. In doing so, we declare on God’s behalf that the glorious kingdom of heaven is open for anyone who will believe. Come, all who look for true rest and peace, embrace Jesus Christ as the only Saviour, and enter into the glory of God, for the kingdom of heaven is for you—what a wonderful, comforting message! But what a terrible thing it is to find the kingdom closed, because you stubbornly refuse to give your life over to that Saviour.
This is the most important message of today, of all ages. Many messages are proclaimed into the world, but none is as important and impactful as the gospel of Christ’s kingdom. God has entrusted that message to us, his church. He wants us to use it properly, so that it is indeed an opening and a closing of the kingdom of heaven.
- What is the heart of gospel preaching?
- Why are the Old Testament stories an encouragement for us today?
- What is the one “condition” for salvation stated in the gospel?
- In what way is the Christian gospel an exclusive message?
- Why is unbelief worse than any other sin?
- By the preaching of the gospel, God is judging the world today already. How?
Suggested Bible reading schedule
|Monday||Acts 16:25-34. How does Paul summarize the gospel? Is that the only thing he proclaimed?|
|Tuesday||Joel 2. How does this prophecy combine warning and promise?|
|Wednesday||Galatians 3:1-9. Why were the Galatians “foolish”?|
|Thursday||Matthew 24:1-27. What does our Lord teach here about the false preachers?|
|Friday||Hebrews 6:1-12. Why is it so serious for believers to fall away?|
|Saturday||John 5:19-29. How is listening to the gospel connected to the judgment of God?|