Tuesday, February 21, 2023

A Distinction Too Fine

Some writers distinguish between the phrases “kingdom of heaven” and “kingdom of God” in the New Testament, asserting they are intended to mean different things. This post from KJVBible.org is a typical example. Gaines R. Johnson claims, “Knowing the doctrinal difference between the terms ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ and ‘Kingdom of God’ is the key to understanding the complete time line of Biblical history past, present, and future, the proper place of the Church and the prophetic future of Israel.”

That’s a stack of pretty impressive claims, and it warrants a bit of investigation.

Assessing the Data

By my count, there are 161 uses of the word ‘kingdom’ in our New Testaments. These break down as follows:

Kingdom of God (68 times):

Matthew (5), Mark (15), Luke (32), John (2), Acts (7), Romans (1), 1 Corinthians (4), Galatians (1), Colossians (1)

Kingdom [unmodified] (62 times):

All NT writers except Mark, John and Jude

Kingdom of Heaven (31 times):

Matthew only

Gaines Johnson says the phrase “kingdom of heaven” refers to the literal, earthly kingdom offered to the Jews that they will finally receive during the millennial reign of Christ, while the phrase “kingdom of God” refers specifically to the rule of God that exists in the hearts of the redeemed.

Does that claim hold up to a bit of microscrutiny? Let’s see.

Parallel Passages

One indication the two phrases are essentially synonyms is that there are at least eight parallel passages in the synoptic gospels where the Lord gives similar teaching and Matthew reports him using the phrase “kingdom of heaven” while Mark, Luke or both use “kingdom of God”:

  1. Matthew 3:2 has John preaching the kingdom of heaven, Mark 1:14-15 has him preaching the kingdom of God.
  2. Matthew 4:17 has Jesus preaching that the kingdom of heaven is at hand, Mark 1:14 has Jesus preaching that the kingdom of God is at hand.
  3. Matthew 5:3 has the poor in spirit inheriting the kingdom of heaven, Luke 6:20 has the poor inheriting the kingdom of God.
  4. Matthew 8:11 has many coming from east and west to sit down in the kingdom of heaven, Luke 13:29 has them coming from east, west, north and south to sit down in the kingdom of God.
  5. Matthew 11:11 says the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than John the Baptist, Luke 7:28 says the least in the kingdom of God is greater than John.
  6. Matthew 13:11 says the disciples are given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, Mark 4:11 and Luke 8:10 say the mysteries of the kingdom of God.
  7. Matthew 18:3 says unless you become as little children you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven, Luke 18:7 says the kingdom of God.
  8. Matthew 19:23 says the rich have a hard time entering the kingdom of heaven, Mark 10:23 and Luke 18:24-25 have kingdom of God.

That makes distinguishing the two expressions a little more difficult to do intelligibly.

The Clincher

But the final word on synonymy really should be this parallelism in Matthew:

Matthew 19:23-24: “Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven. 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.”

When you can use one expression to restate another, as the phrase “Again I tell you” strongly implies, you are either looking at a synonym or something so close to it as makes no difference. That clinches it for me. I agree with Gaines Johnson’s eschatology but not his methodology. It just doesn’t hold up. The dispensational teaching of scripture stands on a foundation more solid than the use of a couple of phrases. It is so clearly present elsewhere in the Bible that we have no need to try to find it where it isn’t.

What is the Kingdom?

Most writers agree the kingdom is a system of government ruled by God. The three ways of referring to the kingdom listed above carry a broad range of intended meanings. Context determines which is intended in each instance, where that is possible to determine with certainty. Three of these are listed below:

The Lord twice said in his conversation with Nicodemus that citizenship in the kingdom depends on individual spiritual regeneration: “Unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”

“Kingdom” also refers to the millennial reign of Christ on earth. It is clear from the first chapter of Acts that the disciples expected the kingdom to be restored to Israel at one point. The Lord does not correct their impressions, but simply notes that this is something they do not have the right to know.

Paul taught that the kingdom of God had both a present aspect (“The kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit”), as well as a future aspect (“Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God”, “The unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God).

We should probably expand our investigation and take that thought further.

The Eternal Kingdom

God’s dominion is eternal. Father and Son exercised and exercise their authority during the following timeframes:

  • Before Jesus was born (“Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and your dominion endures throughout all generations”). This comes from the Psalms, long before the Lord Jesus came into the world.
  • During Jesus’ Lifetime (“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.” You don’t fight to preserve something that doesn’t yet exist.
  • Now (“The kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit”). It is not just salvation but the entire Christian life that is to come under God’s rule.
  • Millennially (“ ‘Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?’ He said to them, ‘It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority’ ”).
  • Eternally (“There will be richly provided for you an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ”).

Matthew’s Use of Kingdom of Heaven

So then, if there is no major difference in meaning between the “kingdom of heaven” and the “kingdom of God”, why does Matthew use the former expression so much more often (31-5)?

One reason I have seen put forward is that Jews, to whom Matthew primarily wrote, were extremely reluctant to use the personal name of God, so Matthew substituted “heaven” instead. This was true back then, when they pronounced YHWH as something like “ADNY”, or adonai. It remains the case today; I have a Jewish friend who is so delicate about the matter that he uses “G-d” for God in correspondence, which is a common way to get around the problem of talking about Someone Very Important while remaining reverent. Older English writers do something similar when they capitalize God’s pronouns.

But this argument from concern about potential offense turning off Matthew’s Jewish readers just doesn’t hold water. The writers of the New Testament all use the Greek generic theos when talking about God rather than invoking the tetragrammaton, and Matthew is no different in that respect, employing theos 55 times to Mark’s 52. Clearly Jews were not offended by a generic reference to deity in the same way they were by the indiscriminate use of God’s self-revealed personal name.

Bear in mind Matthew was the only writer we know for sure could have been present when the Lord actually spoke these words, so Matthew is more likely to be reporting these events in the words the Lord actually used than the other two, who got their information second-hand. Mark and Luke (who both traveled with Paul) wrote their accounts based on the testimony of others, so they may have picked up the expression “kingdom of God” from Paul, who was using it in Romans, 1 Corinthians and Galatians as early as a decade prior to any of the synoptic gospels being written. It is also possible the Lord repeated many of the same concepts in slightly different wording over the three years of his ministry.

Heaven’s Kingdom in the Old Testament

But I believe Matthew uses “heaven” instead of “God” so often because, as he does so often in his gospel, he is making reference to familiar Old Testament concepts for his Jewish readers.

The phrase “kingdom of heaven” never occurs in the Old Testament, but the concept is definitely there by any other name. The book of Daniel uses the word “heaven” 31 times in a mere 12 chapters, way more than any other Old Testament book. Daniel identifies his God to Nebuchadnezzar as the “God of heaven” [ĕlâ šᵊmayin]. To Nebuchadnezzar, the greatest monarch of his day, is revealed the truth that there is a kingdom connected with heaven that will one day rule this planet:

“In the days of those kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed, nor shall the kingdom be left to another people. It shall break in pieces all these kingdoms and bring them to an end, and it shall stand forever.”

Later, Nebuchadnezzar is to learn that the heavens rule earth from a distance even now:

“Your kingdom shall be confirmed for you from the time that you know that Heaven rules.”

Daniel then goes on to mention this same eternal kingdom and his people’s portion therein five times in chapter 7. No serious Old Testament scholar of the first century could have missed that.

If Matthew overuses the phrase “kingdom of heaven”, I suspect it is to unambiguously identify the kingdom of which the Lord Jesus spoke with the historic kingdom-hope of Israel. That seems to me to be an adequate explanation for the difference in emphasis between the gospel writers.

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