The phrase “kingdom of heaven” occurs exclusively in Matthew’s gospel. He uses the phrase 33 times, while no other gospel writer employs it at all. How is this significant?
Some teach that the kingdom of heaven is distinct from the phrase “kingdom of God.” Matthew actually uses this counterpart phrase five times, whereas Mark uses it 15 times, Luke 32 times, and John twice. Of course, the gospel writers reference the “kingdom” in a variety of ways, but that is not my topic here. While there may be shades of different emphasis between “kingdom of heaven” and “kingdom of God,” it seems short-sighted to assume that these terms are not related. The gospel writers appear to use them in overlapping fashion.
Some teach that Matthew used this phrase to avoid undue displeasure from Jews who are sensitive to an overuse of God’s name. While this may be true, Matthew did not entirely avoid the issue. He did, in fact, allude to the “kingdom of God” five times. This alone indicates a unity between the “kingdom of God” and “kingdom of heaven” conceptually.
It seems to me that Matthew uses the phrase “kingdom of heaven” for another reason, though it may not be the only one.
If Matthew addressed his gospel to Jewish people announcing the promised Messiah in clear, unquestionable terms, then he risked a fatal misunderstanding. The Jewish people anticipated a heroic Messiah that would deliver them from the political dominion of Rome. This type of misunderstanding could easily have sparked a Jewish revolution. This was certainly not the intention of Matthew or the Messiah. So Matthew emphasized the heavenly, spiritual nature of Christ’s kingdom as a safeguard against Jewish misunderstanding.
The kingdom of God apparently does contain a physical, earthly element. But Matthew did not want national Israel to be distracted by that element at the time he wrote the gospel. He intended for them to understand the broader, spiritual, personal reality of Christ’s kingdom. Though Matthew alone uses “kingdom of heaven,” the concept itself is not unique to his gospel. For instance, John records these words of Jesus as evidence of this dimension of the kingdom:
“Jesus answered, My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews: but now is my kingdom not from hence” (John 18:36).
The physical aspect of Messiah’s kingdom apparently is not a dimension for “now.” His kingdom is not based out of this world in a national, political, or geographical way. Awareness of this distinction is vitally important for me today, as a Gentile Christian. It warns me against the idea that God’s kingdom can be expanded by political means. Though I am an American (and both glad and grateful to be so), I am a Christian first. My allegiance is to a spiritual kingdom, and that kingdom is not in competition with the governments of this world. It transcends them. I will obey the government that God has placed over me and pray for its leaders (Matt.22:21; Rom. 13:1-6). I will vote and fulfill by obligations as a citizen (and my votes will certainly reflect my Christian world view). But I must not attempt to harness government or overthrow it to forward God’s kingdom.
Thomas Overmiller serves as a Bible professor at Baptist College of Ministry in Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin.