So I’ve spent some time in the past two articles surveying both the Old Testament and New Testament in regards to the kingdom of God (article 1; article 2). In all, we could easily sum up the kingdom of God as this:
‘The kingdom of God is His kingship, His rule, His authority.’ (George Ladd, The Gospel of the Kingdom)
God is King and there is no debating this truth. And it was His Son, Jesus Christ, who came to establish the kingdom rule of God. As the King, He was faithful to announce the good news that the rule of God had broken into human history (Matt 4:17, 23; Mark 1:15; etc)!
But let’s move on to a rather interesting discussion to consider with this topic. When reading the Gospels carefully, and considering the teachings of Jesus about the kingdom, one notices there are two main phrases used to describe God’s kingdom:
- Kingdom of God
- Kingdom of heaven (literally kingdom of the heavens)
Mark, Luke and John always speak of the ‘kingdom of God’, while Matthew speaks of both the ‘kingdom of God’ (12:28; 19:24; etc) and the ‘kingdom of heaven’ (3:2; 4:17; etc).
There are some who would look to distinguish between these two different phrases in regards to God’s basileia (Greek word for ‘kingdom’):
- Kingdom of heaven – refers to God’s spiritual, celestial reign in the heavens, which is not closely related to His activity on earth
- Kingdom of God – refers to God’s rule on the physical earth, usually tied in with Christ’s return for a millennial, or 1000-year, reign.
Yet, if one studies the Jewish culture and theological mindset of the day, one will see the two terms are actually synonymous.
Though somewhat legalistic, the Jews of Jesus’ day stayed away from using God’s name in any sense in case they should break the commandment, ‘You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain…’ (Exodus 20:7). Thus, they used Lord (Adonay in Hebrew) or The Name (Hashem in Hebrew) to refer to God.
Also, when referring to the God’s kingdom, they would many times speak of the ‘kingdom of heaven’, or as we said, ‘kingdom of the heavens’.
The attempt to not speak God’s name is known as the divine passive.
So, as we turn to the Gospels and note that Matthew’s audience was mainly Jews, we then understand that he would regularly use the phrase ‘kingdom of [the] heaven[s]’ to avoid offending Jewish readers. The other Gospel writers, especially Mark and Luke, primarily had a Gentile audience. Thus, they would have used the phrase ‘kingdom of God’, all that their message would have been more accessible to Greek-speaking Gentile readers.
Therefore, we can see that, ‘kingdom of heaven’ and ‘kingdom of God’ are synonymous terms. They do not refer to two different realms or entities. This is confirmed when we read these words from Matthew’s own Gospel:
23 And Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven. 24 Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” (Matthew 19:23-24)
And as Ladd claims in this brief statement:
‘Apart from the reign of God, heaven is meaningless.’ (The Gospel of the Kingdom)
In all, N.T. Wright sums it up well:
‘The reverent [expression] “kingdom of heaven”, so long misunderstood by some Christians to mean “a place, namely heaven, where saved souls go to live after death”, meant nothing of the sort in Jesus’ world: it was simply a Jewish way of talking about Israel’s [G]od becoming king.’ (Jesus and the Victory of God)
In my next article, I plan to share how the New Testament teaches that the kingdom of God is a present reality now and will, then, move on in the following post to look at how Jesus and the New Testament writers taught that there was still a future aspect to God’s kingdom.