The concept of the universe as a divine kingdom over which God as King rules sovereignly is a familiar theme in the Scriptures (cp. 1 Chron 29:11-12). The Psalmist for instance wrote: “Jehovah hath established his throne in the heavens; and his kingdom ruleth over all” (Ps 103:19, ASV).
Within the universal kingdom of God, however, various subdivisions exist. Matthew 12:26 refers to Satan’s kingdom, i.e., the sphere of rule which God has permitted Satan. The Scriptures also recognize earthly kingdoms over which God has allowed evil men to rule (Dan 4:17). It was this sphere of the kingdoms of this world which Satan offered to Christ (Matt 4:8).
Within the universal kingdom of God, however, there are other concepts referred to as kingdoms. Principal among these are the kingdom of God, found seventy-two times in the New Testament, and the kingdom of heaven, found thirty-two times, all in the Gospel of Matthew. Many other expressions can be related to the kingdom of God such as “thy kingdom” (Matt 6:10), “heavenly kingdom” (2 Tim 4:18), “kingdom of his dear Son” (Col 1:13), “kingdom of Christ and of God” (Eph 5:5), “my Father’s kingdom” (Matt 26:29), “everlasting kingdom” (2 Pet 1:11), “my kingdom” John 18:36; Luke 22:30), “his kingdom” (Matt 6:33; Luke 12:31, ASV), and many references simply to “kingdom.”
Countless books have been written in an effort to expound the precise meaning of the concept of the kingdom in the Scriptures. Among conservative scholars there is general agreement that God is sovereign over the universe. However, challenging this sovereignty is the kingdom of evil, directed by Satan. A spiritual rule of God also exists in the hearts and lives of those who put their trust in Jesus Christ. The precise character of the kingdom and its place in the unfolding of the divine plan of God remains, however, in controversy.
One of the principal areas of debate is the premillennial versus the amillennial concept of the kingdom. In a word, this is the question as to whether the earthly phase of the divine kingdom will be fulfilled completely prior to the second coming or whether there is a kingdom on earth for a thousand years in which Christ will reign prior to the eternal state. Amillenarians tend to find the concept of the kingdom of God as having its primary earthly fulfillment in the church in the present age. A good example of this is The Kingdom of God by John Bright, the 1952 Abingdon-Cokesbury award winner. Upholding the concept of a kingdom on earth following the second coming of Christ are such volumes as J. Dwight Pentecost’s Things to Come; The Greatness of the Kingdom, by Alva McClain; and the writer’s The Millennial Kingdom.
The present discussion concerns the particular phrase the kingdom of heaven. Generally speaking, most liberal theologians as well as conservative amillenarians have found the kingdom of heaven to be equivalent to the concept of the kingdom of God and fulfilled in a spiritual rule of God in the hearts of those who put their trust in Christ. Many variations exist such as the theory of Albert Ritschl, who regarded the kingdom as the unification of the human race, prompted by universal love. Some considered the kingdom as future, illustrated in the view of Albert Schweitzer, who anticipated a future intrusion of God into history. Neo-orthodox theologians also contemplate a future time when the social order will be brought to perfection, when human history is caught up in divine history.
Narrowing the field of investigation to premillennialism, one is still beset by a bewildering lack of uniformity in interpretation. Generally speaking, premillenarians recognize a difference between the present form of the kingdom and the future millennial form of the kingdom. The precise character of the kingdom in the present age as well as the precise character of the kingdom in the millennial period, however, is still subject to various definitions.
Major Features of the Kingdom of Heaven
As previously indicated, the expression kingdom of heaven is confined to Matthew’s Gospel. To be sure, the expression heavenly kingdom is found in 2 Timothy 4:18, but there is no contextual evidence that this is an identical expression. Daniel also makes the statement that the “God of heaven” will “set up a kingdom, which shall never be destroyed” (Dan 2:44; confirmed in the prophecy of Dan 7:13-14, 27.) For all practical purposes, however, Matthew’s use of the term kingdom of heaven is the only important use of this expression.
Ten major features of the kingdom are revealed in the Gospel of Matthew: (1) pronounced at hand (3:2 ; 4:17 ; 10:7 ); (2) possession and blessing in the kingdom of heaven promised to the righteous (5:3, 10, 19-20 ; 7:21 ) ; (3) Gentiles will be in the kingdom of heaven (8:11 ); (4) kingdom of heaven is composed of both saved and those merely professing faith, the latter to be later cast out (13:24-30, 36-43, 47-51 ; 22:1-14 ; 25:1-10 ); (5) kingdom of heaven subject to rapid growth (13:31-32 ); (6) “birds,” symbolic of Satan, lodge in its branches (13:31-32 ); (7) kingdom of heaven has leaven, symbolic of bad doctrine, externalism, unbelief, worldliness, (13:33-35 ); (8) kingdom of heaven difficult to enter (19:23 ; 23:13 ); (9) some of the features of the kingdom of heaven designated “mysteries” (13:11 ); (10) kingdom of heaven likened unto children (19:14 ).
Major Features of the Kingdom of God
It is clear from the outline of major features of the kingdom of heaven that it parallels many of the major features of the kingdom of God. The New Testament usage of the kingdom of God indicates at least seventeen descriptive facts related to this expression.
Major features of the kingdom of God include the following: (1) kingdom of God pronounced at hand (Mark 1:14-15; Luke 10:9, 11; 11:20 ; 21:31 ); (2) some of its features designated mysteries (Mark 4:11; Luke 8:10); (3) kingdom of God includes the saved or the elect, but excludes the unsaved (Mark 4:26-29 [notice no tares]; Mark 9:47 [kingdom of God contrasted to hell]; Luke 13:18-19; cp. also Luke 13:23 with Luke 13:28-29; Luke 18:24-26; John 3:3, 5); (4) kingdom of God subject to rapid growth (Mark 4:30-32; Luke 13:18-19); (5) kingdom of God to come with power (Mark 9:1; Luke 9:27); (6) kingdom of God likened unto children and childlikeness is a condition for entrance (Mark 10:14-15; Luke 18:16-17); (7) kingdom of God difficult to enter (Mark 10:23-25; Luke 18:24-25; John 3:5; Acts 14:22); (8) Christ to drink fruit of the vine with disciples in kingdom of God (Mark 14:25; Luke 22:18); (9) kingdom of God promised to righteous (Luke 6:20; 1 Cor 6:9-10; Gal 5:21; Eph 5:5; 2 Thess 1:5); (10) “birds,” representing Satan, lodge in its branches (Mark 4:30-32; Luke 13:19 [note that Satan is not a branch, however]); (11) kingdom of God contains leaven, that is, evil in doctrine, externalism, unbelief, and worldliness (Luke 13:20-21); (12) kingdom of God inward and unseen rather than outward and seen (Luke 17:20-21), but the coming of the Son of man will be seen, however (cp. Luke 17:24); (13) kingdom of God not to appear immediately to the world (Luke 19:11-27); (14) kingdom of God characterized by righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit (Rom 14:17); (15) kingdom of God to be delivered to the Father (1 Cor 15:24); (16) kingdom of God inherited only by incorruptible beings (1 Cor 15:50); (17) Gentiles will be in the kingdom of God (Luke 13:29).
Major Features True of Both
the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Heaven
A comparison of these features of the kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of God reveal many similarities: (1) both are at hand; (2) some features of both designated mysteries; (3) both entered only by the righteous as even profession requires outward conformity; (4) both include saved men; (5) both grow rapidly; (6) both have “birds” representing Satan and his angels, but in neither are these an organic part of the tree; (7) individuals in both likened unto children; (8) both are difficult to enter; (9) both have leaven, symbolic of bad doctrine, externalism, unbelief, and worldliness; (10) both contain Gentiles.
Because of the similarity of the two kingdoms and the fact that heaven is sometimes used as an equivalent for God, the majority of scholars have taken the position that the terms are identical or at least are used as synonyms. Based on the principle of interpretation that the context must determine the meaning of an expression, it would seem clear that in parallel passages the emphasis is on similarity of concept. The problem arises, however, in that certain features are mentioned of the kingdom of heaven which seem to contradict statements in some passages relating to the kingdom of God. This has led some to the conclusion that at least in some passages the expression should not be taken as completely identical.
The logical fallacy of assuming that two terms mean exactly the same because they are used in parallel passages is illustrated in the fact that the same term may often be used in more than one sense. For instance, the statement might be made that Mosher Library is located at Dallas. This statement would be equally true whether “Dallas” meant Dallas County, Dallas City, or Dallas Seminary; but this does not make Dallas Seminary equivalent to the City of Dallas; nor is the City of Dallas equivalent to the County of Dallas. In each case the context has to determine the usage. Hence, if it were stated that Neiman Marcus is located in Dallas, it would refer to Dallas County or Dallas City but not to Dallas Seminary. If the statement were made that Richardson is located in Dallas, it would mean Dallas County not Dallas City or Dallas Seminary. In a similar way, while in many parallel passages the same affirmation can be made of the kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of God, it is in passages where distinctions may be observed that the contrasts are indicated.
Kingdom of Heaven Contrasted to the Kingdom of God
Those who distinguish the kingdom of heaven from the kingdom of God do so on the principle that the kingdom of heaven seems to include not only those who are saved, but some unsaved men who profess salvation. By contrast, the kingdom of God when used of a spiritual kingdom includes only saved men and elect angels. In support of this distinction, John 3:3-5 states that one cannot enter into the kingdom of God without being born again or born from above. In this passage it is clear that only those who are born again may enter the kingdom of God. This is supported by Romans 14:17, which states “the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (ASV). The experience of righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit could never be true of one who merely professed salvation. Another confirmation is found in 1 Corinthians 15:24, where the kingdom is declared to be delivered by Christ to the Father as a token of His victory. In this passage the expression is simply kingdom, but it is obviously the sphere of the kingdom of God which characterizes all references to the divine kingdom outside of Matthew. In 1 Corinthians 15:50 additional confirmation is given in the statement, “Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God.” The context goes on to speak of the translation and the resurrection of the righteous. This again could not refer to those who are merely professing faith, but only to those genuinely saved.
By contrast to this, the kingdom of heaven is compared to the sowing of seed in the field which produces both wheat and tares, with the separation coming only at the time of harvest. This is a picture of profession, as the tares look like the wheat, but their true character will be revealed at the final judgment. The same basic concept is also brought out in the parable of the dragnet in Matthew 13:47-50; where the net, which is compared to the kingdom of heaven, gathers of every kind. Those thus gathered are not separated until the final judgment or the harvest, but are distinguished from all fishes in the sea by the fact that they are in the net. The general character of Matthew 13 is that it is dealing with the external aspect of the kingdom, or Christendom in its largest dimension, rather than with the body of the saved particularly.
The Problem of Passages Exactly Parallel
At least five passages in Matthew referring to the kingdom of heaven seem to be precisely parallel to passages in the other gospels in which the expression kingdom of God is used. These passages are Matthew 4:17 (cp. Mark 1:15), Matthew 11:11 (cp. Luke 7:28), Matthew 13:11 (cp. Mark 4:11 and Luke 8:10), Matthew 13:31 (cp. Mark 4:30-31), and Matthew 10:7 (cp. Luke 9:2). How can these parallels be explained, if the terms are not precisely the same in meaning?
Regardless of what solution is followed, the fact remains that the different accounts give different wordings. It is clear that the gospel narratives are reports in which the messages of Christ are condensed and to some extent interpreted under the guidance of the Spirit. Inspiration guarantees that the wording infallibly reveals God’s truth. It is obvious that many quotations in the Bible are not precise, that is, the Holy Spirit quotes with freedom, and quotations may be general when based on a particular statement or particular when based on a general statement. The fact is that Christ probably spoke in Aramaic, and this would require translation as well as condensation. Part of the explanation may lie in the fact that the messages of the four gospels are known to conform to the pattern and theme of the book. This again is under the guidance of the Spirit and does not in any sense misrepresent what Christ has actually said. In every case, however, what is said in Matthew of the kingdom of heaven in these particular verses happens to be equally true of the kingdom of God and vice versa, that is, there is no real contradiction. It is like the statement that Mosher Library is in Dallas Seminary and the statement that Mosher Library is in the City of Dallas. Both statements are true though the City of Dallas is not the same as Dallas Seminary. The parallel usage found in these instances does not require any change in definition of terms.
The Kingdom of God in the Gospel of Matthew
It is of interest that, while Matthew normally uses the expression kingdom of heaven, there are six possible cases where the use of the word kingdom in Matthew refers to the kingdom of God rather than to the kingdom of heaven. In Matthew 6:33 the Authorized Version uses the expression kingdom of God, but the revised versions follow the better Greek text and use simply the word kingdom. It is probable that the reference is to the kingdom of God, for the passage states: “But seek ye first his kingdom, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you” (Matt 6:33 ASV). The passage would obviously have more meaning if kingdom here referred to the sphere of salvation only.
A clear reference to the kingdom of God, however, is found in Matthew 12:28, where it is stated: “But if I by the Spirit of God cast out demons, then is the kingdom of God come upon you” (ASV). Obviously casting out demons would not necessarily prove the coming of a professing kingdom, but indicates the reality of the power of the true kingdom of God.
In Matthew 13:38 another reference is found to kingdom in the statement:”The good seed, these are the sons of the kingdom; and the tares are the sons of the evil one” (ASV). Here again the reference seems to be to the kingdom of God rather than the kingdom of heaven. If the expression had been, “These are the sons of the kingdom of heaven,” it would obviously have destroyed the concept of the kingdom of heaven as a sphere of profession. The fact that Matthew omits the term “of heaven” is in keeping with his other usage.
According to Matthew 13:43, “Then shall the righteous shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He that hath ears, let him hear” (ASV). Here again the phrase “of heaven” is omitted and the reference seems to be to the sphere of salvation rather than to the sphere of profession.
A quite significant reference is found in Matthew 19.24, where Christ said: “It is easier for a camel to go through a needle’s eye, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God” (ASV). The fact that Matthew goes out of his way to use the expression “kingdom of God” here in contrast to his normal expression “kingdom of heaven” is supported by the statement which clearly refers to the sphere of salvation rather than to the sphere of profession. The final reference in Matthew to the kingdom of God is found in Matthew 21:31, where Jesus said: “Verily I say unto you, that the publicans and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you” (ASV). Although the religious rulers of the Jews made a profession of following God which could be said to be in the widest sphere of profession, Christ here again is talking of the sphere of reality or of salvation, and so Matthew’s Gospel uses the expression “the kingdom of God.”
In all of these instances where the context clearly refers to the sphere of salvation, it is most significant that Matthew goes out of his way to use the expression “kingdom of God.” If he had not done so and had substituted the expression “kingdom of heaven,” it would of course be most difficult to maintain that the kingdom of heaven is the sphere of profession.
On the basis of the contextual study of the terms as found in the New Testament, it may be concluded that there is some evidence that while the kingdom of heaven is similar in many respects to the kingdom of God and in some contexts they seem to be used synonymously, in others the kingdom of heaven is contrasted to the sphere of God’s actual spiritual rule. In contrast to the kingdom of God which includes the elect both of men and angels whether in heaven or earth, the kingdom of heaven seems to be limited to the earthly sphere and excludes angels and other creatures, but includes those who profess salvation and who are outwardly identified with God whether or not they were actually saved. By contrast the kingdom of God is everlasting and universal. In some sense it may include all creation, when used as a universal rule, and when used as a spiritual rule, those who are saved in the kingdom of heaven. In contrast to the kingdom of heaven, however, the kingdom of God, when used in a spiritual sense, is entered only by new birth.
The Eschatology of the Kingdom of Heaven
Much of the confusion in the argument concerning the meaning of the kingdom of heaven and kingdom of God has arisen, from the mistaken judgment that the distinction between the kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of God is a dispensational one. The facts are to the contrary, as it is purely an exegetical problem. The dispensational distinction does not stem from the difference in meaning of the kingdom of God and the kingdom of heaven, but rather from the distinction between the present forms of these kingdoms and the future forms of these kingdoms. In a word, it is the issue as to whether the present form of the kingdom, whether it be kingdom of God or kingdom of heaven, is the predicted millennial form. Amillenarians tend to affirm that it is. Premillenarians look for a future fulfillment.
In keeping with the dispensational point of view, it may be pointed out that Matthew 13 presents the mysteries of the kingdom, namely, the truths relating to the kingdom in the present age. The future millennial form of the kingdom is no mystery as this is the subject of much Old Testament prophecy. From these Old Testament prophecies it can be demonstrated that the millennial form of the kingdom will be outwardly a sphere of profession and, therefore, conformed to Matthew’s concept of the kingdom of heaven. At the same time it will also be the sphere of the kingdom of God because it will include many who are saved. Much that is obscure in the present age will be open for all to see in the millennium. The rule of Christ as the King of kings and Lord of lords will be obvious to all in that future dispensation (cp. Ps 72). The distinction between the present and the future form of the kingdom rests, as does the entire case for premillennialism, on the normal interpretation of prophecy as being factual and subject to future fulfillment.
The subject of the kingdom of God and the kingdom of heaven will continue to confuse expositors of the Bible, if for no other reason, because its interpretation must necessarily be contextual with the word kingdom which does not always mean the same thing in different passages.
The sphere of profession today, especially in the United States of America, is comparatively an easy state. It must be remembered that in the first century, as in many parts of the world today, even profession without salvation was difficult and costly. It was difficult for a Jew even to make an outward profession of faith because it would mean loss of friends, family, and wealth. It is true also that even those who are saved often fall far short of what they should be. Their doctrine may not be accurate; and they may be guilty of externalism, a measure of unbelief and worldliness, as symbolized in the leaven. By its nature the professing kingdom or the kingdom of heaven requires outward conformity of such similiarity to the kingdom of God that the wheat and the tares can only be separated at the harvest. Hence, it is not talking about mere profession, but about profession that outwardly deceives and conveys the impression of reality. For this reason, from man’s point of view the kingdom of God and the kingdom of heaven are very similar, but God who sees the heart can distinguish the wheat from the tares even now.
Although scholars will continue to differ on this point, a careful exegesis of the passages on the kingdom of heaven seems to confirm the thought that it is a sphere of profession in contrast to the kingdom of God as the sphere of the actual rule of God. The exegetical decision, however, involved in this case does not affect premillennialism as a whole nor dispensationalism; and the system of theology of those who make the terms identical can be almost precisely the same as that of those who distinguish the term.
This article was taken from the Theological Journal Library and posted with permission of Galaxie Software.
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