Some Bible terminology can seem strange to our modern ears. We are so removed from the original time and place of its writing that understanding its meaning can require some work. I think this is true about the phrase “the kingdom of heaven.”
The kingdom of heaven is a central theme running all the way through the Gospel of Matthew. In fact, the phrase “the kingdom of heaven” is used over thirty times in Matthew’s Gospel. However, many Christians are confused about what it means.
Interestingly, Matthew is the only Gospel writer to adopt this terminology. The others opt to use the phrase “the kingdom of God” instead. So, what is “the kingdom of heaven?”
Many believe that Matthew uses “the kingdom of heaven” instead of “the kingdom of God” simply to avoid using the term “God.” It is certainly true that there was a Jewish tendency to avoid writing the divine name in the first century. However, Matthew does invoke the term “God” on numerous occasions. Moreover, Matthew uses the phrase “the kingdom of God” on four occasions (Matt. 12:28; 19:24; 21:31, 43). So, there must be more going on than merely using the phrase “the kingdom of heaven” to avoid the word “God.” There must be another purpose for this phrase.
A more plausible explanation is that Matthew did not want his Jewish readership to misunderstand the nature of the kingdom. The Jews were anticipating a physical kingdom, not a spiritual kingdom. However, while standing before Pilate at His trial, Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world” (John 18:36).
The use of the word “heaven” would certainly help emphasize and reinforce the spiritual nature of the kingdom.
Proclaiming the Kingdom of Heaven
Both the introduction to John the Baptist and the initiation of Jesus’ ministry are accompanied with the proclamation to “repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 3:2; 4:17). Just a few verses later, Matthew writes, “And he went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people” (Matt. 4:23 cf. Matt. 9:35). Using the phrase “the gospel of the kingdom,” Matthew explicitly connects the kingdom of heaven with the gospel.
When Jesus sends out His disciples, He also commissions them to proclaim, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 10:7). It is significant that John the Baptist, Jesus, and the disciples all preach the same message and each follows with the command to repent. In fact, the call to repentance is grounded in the imminent coming of the kingdom of heaven. Everyone must repent because the kingdom of heaven is near.
Furthermore, those who disobey this command are like chaff that will be separated from the wheat and burned with unquenchable fire (Matt. 3:12). Therefore, rejecting the kingdom of heaven has eternal consequences.
In addition, proclaiming a message that is counter to the kingdom of heaven is condemnable. In Jesus’ seven woes to the scribes and Pharisees, He says,
But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves (Matt. 23:13–15).
This is a stern warning not to draw people away from the kingdom of heaven by presuming that one can enter the kingdom by his own righteousness. In fact, Jesus said, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 7:21).
Describing the Kingdom of Heaven
In contrast to the condemnation given to false teachers, Jesus offers blessings to members of the kingdom. Jesus begins His Sermon on the Mount discourse by blessing the “poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:3). At the end of the Beatitudes, Jesus also references the kingdom of heaven. This time He says, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:10). In either case, the kingdom is offered to those who put God’s kingdom before their own self-interest.
Jesus’ description of the kingdom of heaven almost seems upside-down. Jesus instructs His disciples, saying, “Among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he” (Matt. 11:11–12). Here Jesus is contrasting the natural birth into the world with the spiritual birth into the kingdom of heaven.
Multiple times in the Gospel of Matthew Jesus tells His listeners that they must become like children in order to enter the kingdom of heaven. He says, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 18:3–4). He also said, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 19:14–15). In the same way little children rely on the help and direction of their parents, citizens of the kingdom must rely on their Heavenly Father for everything. Jesus is commanding childlike trust in God to enter the kingdom.
After describing the importance of trusting and relying on God, Jesus gives His famous teaching on the difficulty of the rich person entering the kingdom of heaven. This is not a coincidence. The reader of Matthew’s Gospel is meant to contrast the child, from the previous text, with the rich person. Unlike a child, who is dependent on others, the rich person can fall into the delusion of self-sufficiency. There us only room for one King in the kingdom of heaven, and that position is already taken.
Many of Jesus’ parables focus explicitly on the kingdom of heaven. More specifically, there are a series of references to the kingdom of heaven in Matthew 13 and again in chapters 20 and 22. Each of these gives a glimpse of what the kingdom is like.
In describing the kingdom of heaven, Jesus draws comparisons to everyday experiences. He compares the kingdom to sowing seed in a field, which produces weeds with the wheat. The weeds are allowed to grow up with the wheat until the harvest; however, they will ultimately be bound into bundles and burnt (Matt. 13:24–30).
Similarly, the parable of the dragnet compares the kingdom of heaven to a net containing good and bad fish. They are all gathered together but will later be separated. Jesus explains, “So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt. 13:49–50). Even though God allows believers and unbelievers to live in His world together, they will be separated at the final judgment.
The kingdom of heaven is described as a valuable hidden treasure, which is worth more than all that one owns (Matt. 13:44) and something that should be sought after like a merchant in search of a pearl of great price (Matt. 13:45–46). The listener is meant to see how something that appears insignificant and small is actually of greatest value.
In the parable of the laborers in the vineyard, Jesus makes it clear the no one enters the kingdom based on their accomplishments. Instead, Jesus looks at the heart’s response to His grace. From a human perspective, this seems counterintuitive. However, this parable displays the generosity of God as He gives out more grace than anyone deserves. In fact, the kingdom of heaven is precisely for those who do not deserve it but choose to put their faith in God (Matt. 21:31–32).
Timing the Kingdom of Heaven
The kingdom of heaven is spoken of in both present and future tense. The phrase is repeated that the kingdom of heaven is at hand (Matt. 4:17). Jesus’ first coming is the inauguration of the kingdom. This means that Jesus is the immediate, present experience of the kingdom of heaven. For those who submit to Jesus, He will rule over their lives.
The kingdom of heaven is also spoken of in the future tense. One of the most notable instances of this takes place when Jesus is instructing his disciples on how to pray. Jesus prays, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10). This prayer only makes sense if the kingdom has not yet fully come.
Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is both now and not yet. It is present and it is future. It will finally culminate with the second coming of Jesus Christ. Jesus says,
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne…. Then the King will say to those on his right, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” (Matt. 25:31, 34)
Applying the Kingdom of Heaven
The kingdom of heaven has important applications for us today. First, the message of the kingdom of heaven is a genuine offer from God to rule in the hearts of those who believe in His name. Submission to the kingship of God is what brings true freedom. Those who resist and reject God’s kingdom are in bondage. This may sound counterintuitive, but those outside the kingdom of God are inside the kingdom of Satan (Eph. 2:1–3).
Second, as citizens of the kingdom of heaven, believers should be motivated to build the kingdom through proclaiming the kingdom. This was the central message of Jesus and the disciples, and it should be our message too.
Third, the kingdom of heaven provides comfort and hope for Christians who are suffering. God is King over all circumstances. No matter what happens in this life, all will be made right when God’s kingdom comes.