Matthew is the only New Testament author to use the phrase “kingdom of heaven.” While the other Gospels frequently reference the kingdom of God, “kingdom of heaven” is unique to Matthew. His extensive use of this phrase (thirty-two times) invites the question, “What does Matthew mean by ‘kingdom of heaven’?”
Two main answers have been given. Early dispensationalists (Scofield, Walvoord, Darby, Larkin, Chafer, Feinberg, and early Ryrie) argued that the kingdom of Heaven could be distinguished from the kingdom of God. Nearly every nondispensationalist and almost all later dispensationalists (Saucy, Toussaint, McClain, later Ryrie) argue that Matthew used “kingdom of heaven” not to indicate a difference between the two kingdoms but to avoid using the divine name.
There are significant exegetical reasons to doubt the first answer. Space does not allow for an extended treatment, but there are two key problems with this distinction. First, Matthew’s use of kingdom of Heaven matches the use of kingdom of God in the other Gospels. Out of Matthew’s thirty-two uses of kingdom of Heaven, twelve are in narratives which are also recorded in either Mark or Luke (and sometimes both). In every account, Mark or Luke (or both) uses “kingdom of God” instead of “kingdom of heaven.” In Jesus’ sermon in Matthew 5–7, Matthew records that the poor in spirit will inherit the kingdom of Heaven, while Luke records Jesus as saying that the poor will inherit the kingdom of God. An exegetical reason to doubt the distinction between the kingdom of Heaven and kingdom of God is based on the synonymous parallelism evident in Matthew 19:23, 24. Here Matthew mentions both the kingdom of Heaven and the kingdom of God, connecting them with “again I say unto you,” signaling a repetition of the same idea.
The second possible answer, that Matthew uses kingdom of Heaven in order to avoid using the divine name, is the nearly unanimous view of modern scholarship. Rather than using God’s name, the Jews would practice circumlocution, substituting another word or phrase for the divine name. For instance, in Mark 14:61 the high priest asks Jesus if He is the “Son of the Blessed?” Luke 15:18 comes closer to Matthew’s use when the prodigal, in rehearsing his repentance speech, says, “Father, I have sinned against heaven.”
According to the circumlocution view, Matthew avoids the use of the divine name for one of two reasons: not to accidently break the third commandment or to avoid offending the Jews to whom he is writing. Neither is valid. The avoidance of the divine name is an example of the multiplication of human traditions Jesus argues against in the Gospel (Matt. 15:1–8), and Matthew does not appear reticent to offend the Jews elsewhere within his Gospel. Matthew’s background as a tax collector incensed some Jewish sensibilities. Further, the entire Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5–7) is an attack against the Jewish system of thought that was at the root of the circumlocution habit. If Matthew is using circumlocution to avoid offending the Jews, it appears strange that he is not reticent to offend them in other ways. Another reason circumlocution is a poor explanation for Matthew’s use of “kingdom of heaven” is Matthew’s expansive use of God’s name. If Matthew sought to substitute another term for the divine name, why does he use the divine name fifty-one times? Further, if Matthew is seeking to avoid the formulaic “kingdom of God,” why does he fail to substitute “kingdom of heaven” for “kingdom of God” in at least four instances (12:28; 19:24; 21:31, 43)?
Drawing a Distinction
A careful study of the first Gospel will reveal that the use of the phrase “kingdom of Heaven” is not an isolated element of Matthew’s Gospel; instead, Matthew maintains a theme of heavenly language that orients the reader to the distinction between the kingdom that will come from Heaven and the kingdoms of this world.
The distinction between Heaven and earth is a basic fact in Scripture (Gen. 1:1). The heavens are the abode of God, while the earth is the abode of man (Ps. 115:16). The kings of the earth battle against the God of Heaven (Psalm 2). Most important to Matthew, however, was Daniel 2:44, which reveals that the God of Heaven will one day establish a kingdom that will replace the kingdoms of this world. The idea of this kingdom from the God of Heaven quickly caught the hearts of the Hebrew people, who longed for political freedom from Babylon’s rule. This longing remained from the time of Daniel all the way to the writing of Matthew’s Gospel.
Matthew uses “kingdom of Heaven” to directly correlate the kingdom Jesus will establish with the long-awaited hope promised in Daniel 2–7 and to make a contrast with the kingdoms of this world. Just as Daniel’s original audience took hope under the oppressive regimes in the exile, so Matthew’s audience could take hope under the oppressive regime of the Romans in their day. Matthew emphasizes the heavenly realm in his Gospel. A simple comparison of the use of “heaven” will show that Matthew speaks of Heaven much more (82 uses) than does Mark (18), Luke (35), or John (18). Matthew speaks of Heaven more than all the other Gospels combined! Further, Matthew connects Heaven with the Father more than twenty times, while the only other Gospel to connect these terms is Mark, and he connects them only once.
It is also clear that Matthew’s Gospel centers on the concept of kingdom. Matthew, of all the Gospel writers, references the kingdom the most (55 times). He shows that while Jesus’ lineage runs all the way back to Abraham (stressing His Jewish heritage), it runs through David as well (stressing His kingship). The kingdom appears at the most central parts of Matthew’s text: the genealogy of Jesus (1:1), the start of John the Baptist’s ministry (3:2), the start of Jesus’ ministry (4:17), the Sermon on the Mount (5:3, 10; 6:9–13), the kingdom parables (13:1– 52; 20:1–16; 22:1–14; 25:1–46), the Passover meal (26:29), and the Great Commission (24:14; 28:18).
Two Major Themes
These two major themes in Matthew—Heaven and kingdom—come together in Matthew’s unique phrase “kingdom of heaven.” While Matthew connects language concerning heaven and earth in more than twenty instances, Mark does so only twice and Luke only five times. “The language of ‘heaven and earth’ as contrasting realities is found at the most important theological points throughout the gospel such as in the Lord’s Prayer (6:9–10), the ecclesiological passages (16:17–19; 18:18–19), and the Great Commission (28:18–20).” Putting all of Matthew’s themes together presents the reader with God as the King of the heavenly realm, which stands in opposition to the earth. But Matthew’s emphasis on the earth also includes the idea of kingship. From the very beginning of his Gospel (2:1–3), Matthew notes that Jesus is the King in opposition to Herod as the archetypal earthly king:
- Jesus was born in the days of “Herod the king”;
- the magi asked, “Where is he that is born King of the Jews?”; and,
- “Herod the king had heard these things.”
“Matthew sandwiches the Kingship of Jesus amidst the two proclamations of Herod’s kingship.” Later Matthew brings into stark contrast the kingship promised to Jesus from the Father in Heaven with the kingship offered from Satan, king of this world (4:8). Matthew speaks of the kingdoms of the earth in both human and satanic terms, an analogy likely derived from Daniel 10:13. This theme of heavenly kingship and earthly kingship runs throughout the text, culminating in the Great Commission when Jesus notes that the authority in Heaven and earth has been given to Him.
The clearest text in Matthew that brings all of these themes together is the Lord’s Prayer (6:9–13):
Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen.
The prayer begins with a recognition that the Father is in the heavens, from which the kingdom will come. Further, it presents a contrast between the things done on earth and those done in Heaven. The implication is that God’s will is accomplished in the heavens because that realm is presently subject to His kingly authority. The earth, by contrast, is not presently under the kingly authority of God, but one day, in God’s timing, it will be subject to Him. The prayer further recognizes that though the earth is not in total subjection at the present moment, God has control over the physical (earth’s resources) and spiritual (forgiveness) aspects of existence on earth.
In union with past believers in Babylon and Rome, today’s believers can also have hope that, while the world’s kingdoms continue to rage against the King of Heaven (Ps. 2), the kingdom of Heaven will one day supplant all the unrighteousness of this earth. And while earthly kingdoms appear to be independent of the sovereignty of the Father, they are subject to His power. Though modern believers are often ostracized and rejected, they are ultimately members of the kingdom of Heaven and will be united to Jesus in His kingdom at His second coming. Matthew masterfully concludes his Gospel with the promise of this kingdom, noting that Jesus has been given all authority in Heaven and earth (28:18). He will return on the clouds of Heaven to take His royal throne (24:30; 26:64). The battle is already over, and those aligned with God’s kingdom await the future victory march.
Tim Miller holds advanced degrees in theology and is working on his dissertation for his PhD. He has served as an assistant pastor and is currently teaching at Maranatha Baptist Bible College.
(Originally published in FrontLine • July/August 2013. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)
- For extended critiques see David Edward Hagelberg, “The Designation ‘The Kingdom of Heaven’” (Master’s Thesis, Dallas: Dallas Theological Seminary, 1983), 11–24; George Eldon Ladd, Crucial Questions about the Kingdom of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1952), 109–111; Stanley D. Toussaint, Behold the King: A Study of Matthew (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2005), 65–67. [↩]
- C. C. Caragounis, “Kingdom of God/Heaven,” in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, ed. by. Joel B. Green, Scot McKnight, and I. Howard Marshall (Grand Rapids: IVP Academic, 1997), 426. [↩]
- Pennington notes that “the assumption of reverential circumlocution is so widespread that it functions as a consensus in Matthean studies” (Jonathan T. Pennington, Heaven and Earth in the Gospel of Matthew [Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007], 32). [↩]
- Hagelberg, “The Designation,” 25. [↩]
- Hagelberg, “The Designation,” 30. [↩]
- There is a textual problem in Matthew 6:33. [↩]
- See Pennington, Heaven and Earth in the Gospel of Matthew, 268–72. [↩]
- Jonathan T. Pennington, “The Kingdom of Heaven in the Gospel of Matthew,” Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 12.1 (2008): 47. [↩]
- Ibid. [↩]
- Hagelberg, “The Designation,” [↩]
- Hagelberg notes, “This combination of human and supernatural leadership over the kingdom of earth is reminiscent of Daniel 10:13 where the angel speaks of his battle with the ‘Prince of the Persian kingdom,’ the ‘King of Persia’ ” (Ibid., 40). [↩]
- While Matthew does not explicitly mention the kingdom in Matthew 28, he does mention that the gospel of the kingdom will be preached to the whole world in Matthew 24, which seems to be fulfilled through the Great Commission. Further, the reader who has caught the constant repetition in Matthew between the kingdom of Heaven and the kingdoms of earth will not miss the implication of Jesus’ statement when He states that all power has been given to Him in Heaven and earth. Daniel 7:14 argues that the kingdom will embrace people from every tribe and tongue, and Matthew’s text expresses the authority of Christ to those who are to take the gospel to the ends of the earth. [↩]
- Matthew stresses God’s provision over both of these in other places in his text. In Matthew 9:6 Jesus states that He has been given authority on earth to forgive sins, and in 6:33 he notes that seeking God’s kingdom results in God’s meeting the believer’s physical needs. [↩]