“The time is fulfilled. The kingdom of God is at hand.” Mark 1:14
The phrase “kingdom of God” is used 68 times throughout the New Testament. As a comparison, “kingdom of heaven” is only used 32 times and found exclusively in the book of Matthew. Many (in fact, very many) theories exist about the difference between the “kingdom of God” and “kingdom of heaven,” and some even say they are the same thing. It seems there is no one, straight forward answer.
Why would the other New Testament writers use “kingdom of God,” but Matthew only uses “kingdom of heaven?” Is there a difference between the two terms at all?
Let’s examine a few of these theories and why Matthew may have written his book the way he did.
Vine’s View of the Kingdoms
A very clear description of “kingdom of God” and “kingdom of heaven” (which I will abbreviate as KG and KH, respectively) is found in Vine’s Expository Bible Dictionary. According to Vine’s, the two are not the same.
KG is the realm where God exists in complete authority, full of righteousness and holiness, and where His rule is acknowledged in the hearts of believers. Vine’s goes on to say that God is the antithesis of man and the world. So, the KG indicates all of God’s rule, which has a moral and spiritual force that man does not have outside of the Holy Spirit’s presence in our lives.
The KH, on the other hand, is meant more as a distinction from the earth. One is holy, and one is not and will remain that way until Jesus’ triumphant return in power and glory when heaven and earth will finally become one. Until then, heaven is limited in its relation to the earth.
Vine’s also explains that God is not the equivalent of heaven. God is everywhere, but heaven is not. Though the KH is always the KG, the kingdom of God is never limited to the kingdom of heaven. At least for now.
To sum it up, the KG is the opposite of man, and the KH is the opposite of the earth. So, when we read about the KG in the New Testament, the Bible is describing God’s overarching authority and His universal kingdom. The kingdom of heaven, on the other hand, is the opposite of the earth and the sin the earth contains. Therefore, the KH must refer to the coming millennial kingdom.
Scofield’s View of the Kingdoms
The Scofield Reference Bible makes five distinctions between the KH and the KG, but they boil down to two main points.
First, the KG is made of only believers, both human and angelic, who willingly subject themselves to God’s authority. The KH is made only of humans who profess God, whether they are actual believers or not.
Second, the KG is eternal and spiritual in nature, while the KH is temporary and physical.
Both of these ideas relate to what’s called dispensational theology, which we won’t get into here. But they can quickly be dismissed if you believe the KG and the KH are one and the same.
The Theory of Similarity
Most theories say KG and KH are the same thing. We find the best example in Matthew 19: 23-24.
“Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to 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 man to enter the kingdom of God.”
Here, Jesus uses KG and KH synonymously. Likewise, the apostles Luke and Mark use KG while Matthew used KH when they wrote about the exact same parable. So, it appears the two phrases are interchangeable.
Know Your Audience
A supporting idea to this theory of similarity is that the book of Matthew was written primarily for a Jewish audience. In the Jewish faith, any attempt at using God’s name in any way is a sin because it’s very likely you will get it wrong. This is why you might sometimes see references to God in Jewish texts as G*d or YHWH.
So when we talk about KG and KH, the idea goes that KH is merely a substitution for KG so that a devout Jew will not break the third commandment which says, “You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain (Exodus 20:7).” This is called the Circumlocution Theory.
Author Marcus Jastrow stated in 1903 that the Aramaic translation of “heaven,” which is very much like the Hebrew translation, was commonly used as a substitution or nickname for God. He points out that Daniel wrote this way many years before Jesus ever walked the earth and that it is very likely the substitution was put into practice while the Israelites were still in Babylonian captivity. Which means substituting KH for KG was a very common part of the Jewish faith hundreds of years before Jesus came.
A final point is the KG is not commonly found in Jewish texts, but KH is frequently used, especially in literature that discusses the end times of the world. In fact, their text is much like the Messianic themes of the New Testament. Just as Jastrow asserted, the Jewish people were very familiar with the term “kingdom of heaven.”
If Matthew’s goal was to be as effective as possible in teaching Jews that Jesus really is the promised Messiah that the Old Testament prophesied, he very likely used terms the Jews fully understood while offering a way to talk about God without offending or violating any Jewish laws.
The Political Kingdom of God
Many Jews expected the Messiah to come as a political or military figure, someone who would come charging in and save them from Roman rule. So, when Jesus showed up, they were expecting Him to be a revolutionary or some kind of political rebel. Of course, Jesus ended up behaving very differently. But we know from the book of Revelation that He will indeed come charging in one day to assert His authority at His second coming (Revelation 19:11-16) bringing the full KG with Him.
At the same time, we know the KH will also come sometime in the future. It will be a literal kingdom ushered in by Jesus after the Father destroys the existing heaven and earth (Revelation 21:1).
In a slightly different perspective, some have theorized that the KG has already come because Jesus has already come (the first time), and the KH is still yet to come.
“Now after that John was put in prison, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent, and believe the gospel.” Mark 1:14
Kingdom of God or Kingdom of Heaven?
So, which theory is correct? Are the KG and the KH the same thing or not?
While Jesus indeed did walk the earth and brought a tiny slice of the KG with Him, we must remember He ascended again to the right hand of the Father (Acts 1:9) and that slice is no longer here with us. For the time being, His authority is contained in the KG with God the Father.
We also know the KH is not here because, quite frankly, the earth is running amok in sin. So, the coming of the KH is clearly something that will happen in the future.
While it seems both the KG and the KH have a few distinctions that make them unique, I’m inclined to agree with one author who says the KG and the KH are the same thing, but they will not be entirely the same until Jesus comes again and everything becomes as one. The KG and the KH will merge as Jesus establishes His kingdom on a new earth, and we who believe will be caught up with Him.
What a day, glorious day that will be.