The Kingdom of Heaven in Matthew (Part 1)

The Kingdom of Heaven?

Matthew 3 begins with John the Baptist proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” (Matt. 3:1-2). It has him calling Pharisees and Sadducees “a brood of vipers” (Matt. 3:7), which hardly matched the exalted spiritual status they gave themselves. Later in this Gospel we see Jesus calling Pharisees (and scribes) hypocrites and “fools and blind” (Matt. 23:13-19). In Matthew the religious leaders get called all kinds of names. Modern scholarship has tried to correct these Matthean malapropisms, and we do know of Pharisees who became followers of Jesus (Acts 15:5). All in all though, the portrait the Holy Spirit has left us in the first Gospel does them no credit at all.

After the temptation of Jesus, which I shall look at from Matthew’s perspective soon, we find Jesus immediately preaching “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 4:17). This is of interest because it means there is a direct continuity between John’s preaching and Jesus’ preaching.1 There was therefore a large swell of expectation of the “kingdom of heaven” in the early days of Christ’s ministry wrought by the attention-grabbing efforts of the two men.

Since Matthew is the only writer to use this designation “kingdom of heaven,” and that often in the same situations as the other Evangelists have “kingdom of God” it is obvious that the two expressions are very similar, if not one and the same.2 Confusingly, Matthew does employ “kingdom of God” in Matthew 6:33; 12:28; 19:24, and 21:31 and 43. So what is happening here? Why does Matthew use what appears to be a circumlocution for “God” most of the time, but not all the time?

In Mathew 6:33 we read,

Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these things will be added to you.

Quite clearly, if Matthew had inserted “heaven” for “God” in this place he would have done away with the subject of the pronoun “His.” The next instance is somewhat similar:

But Jesus knew their thoughts and said to them: “Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation, and every city or house divided against itself will not stand.

If Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then will his kingdom stand?

And if I cast out demons by Beelzebub, by whom do your sons cast them out? Therefore, they shall be your judges. But if I cast out demons by the Spirit of God, surely the kingdom of God has come upon you. (Matthew 12:25-28)

Jesus is speaking about the invasion of the kingdom of Satan (Beelzebub). He explains that He expels demons “by the Spirit of God” (Matt. 12:28). It would sound a bit lame if instead of speaking plainly about “the kingdom of God” he instead had Jesus say “kingdom of heaven.” Heaven is not the antonym of Satan, God is!

In Matthew 19 the context involves the Rich Young Ruler, who is asked “Why do you call me good? No one is good but One, that is, God” (Mat 19:17). The conversation is about moral qualifications, and God is the standard. It would be rather odd if after mentioning God as the standard of goodness to inherit eternal life, Matthew then omitted His name when responding to His shocked disciples. This is how He replied:

Then Jesus said to His disciples, “Assuredly, I say to you that it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. “And again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” (Matthew 19:23-24)

In verse 23 Jesus may be speaking about going to heaven (i.e. inheriting “eternal life”), or about the coming Kingdom itself. In verse 24 He is referring to whose Kingdom it is; ergo, whose righteousness is the benchmark for entrance. In which case, the subject had to be “God.”

Finally, in Matthew 21 we have two mentions of “kingdom of God.”

“Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said to Him, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Assuredly, I say to you that tax collectors and harlots enter the kingdom of God before you.” (Matthew 21:31)

Notice that the Lord has introduced the character of a father. The first son in the story, who was recalcitrant at the beginning, repented and did his father’s will. He was not the son who looked and sounded good but who was disobedient. The first son was like the “tax collectors and harlots” who turned from their sin after considering the will of God through Jesus’ preaching. Hence, the Person of God is the subject of the sentence.

The last time “kingdom of God” is used by Matthew is in 21:43. Here it is with the verse before it:

Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures: `The stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This was the LORD’S doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes’? Therefore I say to you, the kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to a nation bearing the fruits of it.” (Matthew 21:42-43)

Here Psalm 118 is quoted and Yahweh (“the LORD”) is the main Actor. It is God who has disposed history in such a way that “the builders” refused the true cornerstone. Very pointedly, Jesus stated that those kingdom-builders who professed to be in God’s employ were building their own little kingdom. As God would take the rejection of His Son personally, the phrase “kingdom of heaven” would be too impersonal to suit the occasion here.

Those are my brief explanations as to why Matthew uses “kingdom of God” five times rather than his more usual designation of it as the “the kingdom of heaven.” Readers are free to disagree with these reasons, but there must be reasons. To recap then, “the kingdom of heaven” in Matthew is a circumlocution, where possible, of the name of God for His abode.

Photo by Joshua Burdick on Unsplash.

Notes

1 This kind of similarity is what has encouraged some of the more liberal leaning scholars to hazard that Jesus was a disciple of John the Baptist.

2 Some traditional Dispensationalists like Lewis Sperry Chafer and John Walvoord adamantly held that there was a difference in meaning between the two terms. See the explanation in Stanley D. Toussaint, Behold the King: A Study of Matthew, Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1980, 65-68.

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There are 2 Comments

pvawter's picture

Thanks. This is much simpler and more intuitive than positing two kingdoms as those earlier dispensationalists did.

BTW, the first Scripture quotation of Matthew 6:33 has 5:33 as the reference.

Paul Henebury's picture

Thanks for picking up on the mistake Paul.

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

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