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Kingdom of God & Heaven

The New Testament writers used the phrases "kingdom of God" and "kingdom of heaven" almost interchangeably. However, there are some key differences between what these scriptural terms mean in their respective contexts. The phrase "kingdom of God" appears in the New Testament 76 times (see here), while the "kingdom of heaven" appears 34 times (see here). Out of the 34 times that "kingdom of heaven" appears in the New Testament, 31 of those belong to Matthew. This means that Matthew replaced the phrase "kingdom of God" with "kingdom of heaven" when reporting the same narratives that Mark and Luke had also written (cf. Matt. 4:17 & Mark 1:15). Matthew was writing to a markedly Jewish audience with the intent of proving Jesus' messiahship to them. So, he observed the Jewish tradition of extreme caution when writing God's name (cf. Exod. 20:7).

Kingdom: A Political & Spiritual Reality

At the very beginning of his ministry, Jesus read from the Isaiah scroll in his hometown synagogue in Nazareth. He said, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor" (Luke 4:18-19; cf. Isa. 61:1-2a). Churchgoers today often choose between a conservative reading of this passage that emphasizes salvation themes and a liberal one highlighting social justice—to the exclusion of the other. However, such a distinction is not only unnecessary, but also flawed and rather anachronistic.

 

The first-century Jews understood the prophet Isaiah's words to foretell of Israel's sovereignty, or a time without empire and gentile oppression. However, Jesus was promising something better than mere politics: true existential freedom in the present and the future. Truth be told, salvation for us Christians is not some religious duty; it is God resurrecting us to build the kingdom of heaven here on earth. This is the essence of true discipleship, learning how to evangelize both the spiritual poor as well as the economic; to bring healing and justice; and to proclaim God's mercy.

 

In the West, our church leaders often reduce the gospel to "going to heaven." However, God's purpose in becoming the incarnate Jesus was to bring heaven to us on earth. The previous rites and traditions of the Jerusalem temple were shadows of the kingdom of heaven, but there were not the actual kingdom. Neither were the reigns of David and Solomon the kingdom God in its fullest sense. First-century Jews expected that kind of kingdom, for the Messiah to overthrow the Romans and to form an independent Jewish state. In their perspective, Jesus proved to be a false messiah on that point alone. However, we know that Jesus is the Messiah in the most real way, so we have to be ready to define God's kingdom in a manner that satisfies the political and the spiritual overtones that scripture gives the word. Remember after Jesus' resurrection when his apostles inquired, "Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?" (Acts 1:6). Notice, Jesus did not downplay the political reality of God's kingdom. He then emphasized a future revelation of that very thing with a present spiritual application:

 

It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth (vv. 7-8)

Conclusion

In the Acts of the Apostles, Luke made the apostles' mission clear: proclaiming the kingdom of God. The phrase appears eight times in Acts, starting with this testimony about Jesus: "After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God" (v. 1:3). The kingdom began on Pentecost (cf. Joel 2:28-32; Acts 2:15-36), and Luke reveals how the apostles—especially Paul of Tarsus—went on to preach the kingdom coming into the world. In fact, Paul suffered much violence to that end (cf. Acts 14:22; 19:8; 20:25; 28:23, 31).

 

Make no mistake: Jesus and the apostles did not risk death over the religious belief in an afterlife. Rather, they knew God was really bringing his kingdom into the world in full. The Anglican theologian N. T. Wright (b. 1948) explains this at length in How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels (HarperOne, 2012). Yes, through his only-begotten Son, Jesus, God became King in a world that wanted nothing to do with him. The word "kingdom" should make us uncomfortable to say the least, especially those of us who live in Western democracies and demand to have our "unalienable rights" upheld no matter what. God's kingdom is not a republic, but neither is God a lawless tyrant. By becoming Christians, we accept that we are mere citizens of a monarchy, and that we give up our rights to self-governance. Remember when the ancient Israelites wanted a king like their pagan neighbors rather than the heavenly rule of God? (cf. 1 Sam. 8). Today, we must not do the same thing by lionizing our political leaders over Jesus, not confusing cheap soundbites and talking points for gospel truth. The kingdom of heaven is here, but only when we see justice and righteousness as the rule of law for all humankind. God's kingdom is also here whenever we see evil be overcome by good (cf. Rom. 12:21). Nevertheless, the kingdom of heaven is not yet, because we await Jesus' return to earth to bring a thousand-year reign and then final victory over Satan. Just as ancient Israel had its capital in Jerusalem, we hope for the New Jerusalem as the capital of God's kingdom that has yet to arrive (Rev. 21:1-3). As Christians, we believe that Jesus has died, he has risen, and that he will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead. 

Prayer

Blessed are you, LORD our God, King of the universe, for you guide our feet into the way of peace, having taken away the sin of the world by the death of your Son, our Lord, Jesus the Messiah. He will open the kingdom of heaven to all who believe in him, saying, "Come, blessed of my Father; inherit the kingdom prepared for you." Amen.

Bibliography

Attridge, Harold W., ed. The NRSV HarperCollins Study Bible, Revised and Updated with Apocryphal and Deuterocanonical Books. San Francisco: HarperOne, 2006.

 

The Book of Common Prayer. Huntington Beach, CA: Anglican Liturgy Press, 2019. p. 257. 

http://bcp2019.anglicanchurch.net/wp-content/uploads/2019/08/BCP2019.pdf.

​Dobson, Kent, ed. NIV First-Century Study Bible: Explore Scripture in Its Jewish and Early Christian Context. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014.

Kaiser, Walter C., Jr., and Duane Garrett, eds. NIV Archaeological Study Bible: An Illustrated Walk Through Biblical History and Culture. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006.

Keener, Craig S., and John H. Walton, eds. NRSV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible: Bringing to Life the Ancient World of Scripture. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2019.

Pratt, Tom. "The King & His Kingdom are Coming." Tysons, VA: Institute for Faith, Work & Economics, 2021. https://tifwe.org/the-king-his-kingdom-are-coming.

Strauss, Mark L. Four Portraits, One Jesus: A Survey of Jesus and the Gospels. Second ed. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2020.

Strong, James. Strong's Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible: Updated and Expanded Edition. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2007.

Theopedia, eds. "N. T. Wright." Theopedia: An Encyclopedia of Biblical Christianity. Midvale, UT: Christian Web Foundation, 2022. https://www.theopedia.com/nt-wright.

Wright, N. T. How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels. San Francisco: HarperOne, 2012.

⸻. Simply Jesus: A New Vision of Who He Was, What He Did, and Why He Matters. San Francisco: HarperOne, 2011.

⸻. Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church. San Francisco: HarperOne, 2008.

Wright, N. T., and Michael F. Bird. The New Testament in Its World: An Introduction to the History, Literature, and Theology of the First Christians. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2019.