Time Periods in the Bible: Questioning Classical Dispensationalism – Kingdom of God and Kingdom of Heaven

Time Periods in the Bible: Questioning Classical Dispensationalism – Kingdom of God and Kingdom of Heaven

In the previous article, we questioned the ultra-dispensationalist view that the words of Jesus belong to the Law Administration. I believe that Jesus’ words are recorded for the benefit of the Church. In this article, we will question the classical dispensationalist view that the kingdom of heaven is distinct from the kingdom of God. As we saw in the introductory article in this series, classical dispensationalism believes that the kingdom of God refers to God’s rule throughout time. The kingdom of heaven, on the other hand, refers to the political kingdom to be set up by the Messiah after his return. As we saw in that article, modern dispensationalists have largely rejected that distinction (as reflected in the revised and progressive dispensationalist positions). Why did modern dispensationalist scholars change their mind on the kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of God? 

Already and not yet

Before we delve into the topic of the kingdoms of the Bible, I think it would be helpful to consider the Biblical concept of “already and not yet.” The concept of “already and not yet” is used to explain Christian realities that are in some sense available now but in a fuller, more complete sense not available until after the return of Jesus Christ. Let’s look at a few basic examples to see what is meant by “already and not yet.”

One example is the concept of healing throughout the Bible. In the Old Testament, the way that God healed people is by sending a prophet to minister to the person needing healing. Here is just one example:

II Kings 5:1-14 (ESV)
Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Syria, was a great man with his master and in high favor, because by him the LORD had given victory to Syria. He was a mighty man of valor, but he was a leper.
Now the Syrians on one of their raids had carried off a little girl from the land of Israel, and she worked in the service of Naaman’s wife.
She said to her mistress, “Would that my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.”
So Naaman went in and told his lord, “Thus and so spoke the girl from the land of Israel.”
And the king of Syria said, “Go now, and I will send a letter to the king of Israel.” So he went, taking with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten changes of clothing.
And he brought the letter to the king of Israel, which read, “When this letter reaches you, know that I have sent to you Naaman my servant, that you may cure him of his leprosy.”
And when the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his clothes and said, “Am I God, to kill and to make alive, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy? Only consider, and see how he is seeking a quarrel with me.”
But when Elisha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had torn his clothes, he sent to the king, saying, “Why have you torn your clothes? Let him come now to me, that he may know that there is a prophet in Israel.”
So Naaman came with his horses and chariots and stood at the door of Elisha’s house.
And Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, “Go and wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored, and you shall be clean.”
But Naaman was angry and went away, saying, “Behold, I thought that he would surely come out to me and stand and call upon the name of the LORD his God, and wave his hand over the place and cure the leper.
Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them and be clean?” So he turned and went away in a rage.
But his servants came near and said to him, “My father, it is a great word the prophet has spoken to you; will you not do it? Has he actually said to you, ‘Wash, and be clean’?”
So he went down and dipped himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God, and his flesh was restored like the flesh of a little child, and he was clean.

Even the little girl from Israel knew that God’s prophet could cure leprosy by the power of God! Even though Naaman was reluctant at first, eventually he heeded Elisha’s instructions, and as a result of his obedience, he was healed. 

How did healing change over time? During the life and ministry of Jesus, healings were much more commonplace than what is recorded throughout the Old Testament. Remember that in the Old Testament time, the spirit was upon those who had a special work or mission: kings, judges, prophets, priests, and the occasional tradesperson. And while healings did occur throughout the Old Testament, they did not occur with the number and frequency exemplified in Jesus’ ministry. Here is one example of an episode in Jesus’ ministry which has no precedent in the Old Testament:

Mark 1:21-34 (ESV)
And they went into Capernaum, and immediately on the Sabbath he entered the synagogue and was teaching.
And they were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as the scribes.
And immediately there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit. And he cried out,
“What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are–the Holy One of God.”
But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!”
And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying out with a loud voice, came out of him.
And they were all amazed, so that they questioned among themselves, saying, “What is this? A new teaching with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.”
And at once his fame spread everywhere throughout all the surrounding region of Galilee.
And immediately he left the synagogue and entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John.
Now Simon’s mother-in-law lay ill with a fever, and immediately they told him about her.
And he came and took her by the hand and lifted her up, and the fever left her, and she began to serve them.
That evening at sundown they brought to him all who were sick or oppressed by demons.
And the whole city was gathered together at the door.
And he healed many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons. And he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.

This kind of power had never been displayed before by any prophet recorded in Scripture. Jesus had the power and authority to heal all types of diseases, to cast out spirits, and to raise the dead. And he taught his disciples that they could do the same in his name. In the post-Pentecost Church, all of those who claim Jesus as Lord have the holy spirit, the ability, and authority to do the works of Jesus Christ. Throughout the book of Acts, there are many examples of those who have been healed by the power of God. However, there will be a healing and a wholeness available in the future kingdom after Jesus comes back that is greater than anything that is available now.

Revelation 21:1-4 (ESV)
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.
And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.
And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.
He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”

In the future kingdom, there will be no more sadness, no more tears, no more sickness, no more death. In other words, no one will need to be healed. Even though what is available now is fantastic, it pales in comparison with what will be available in the new heaven and new earth, the future kingdom. 

There are other concepts in the New Testament that have “already and not yet” aspects to them. 

Ephesians 2:4-7 (ESV)
But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us,
even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ–by grace you have been saved–
and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus,
so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.

Look at how the language represents multiple tenses! We were dead, were made alive, raised up with Jesus, seated with Jesus so that God might show us the greatness of His grace in the coming ages! In some sense, we are already dead, alive, and seated with Christ. In another sense, we have to acknowledge that the culmination and final fulfillment of this is still in the future. 

Similar to this is the use of the word “salvation” in the New Testament. The word salvation is used with multiple verb tenses. Here are some examples:

Romans 10:9-10 (ESV)
because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved [future tense].
For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved [not a verb – literally this reads “unto salvation”].


I Corinthians 15:1-2 (ESV)
Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand,
and by which you are being saved [present tense], if you hold fast to the word I preached to you–unless you believed in vain.


II Timothy 1:8-10 (ESV)
Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, nor of me his prisoner, but share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God,
who saved [past tense] us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began,
and which now has been manifested through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel,

In some sense, we are saved and have been called to a holy calling. In some sense, we are still in the process of being saved, the work of Christ still being developed and expanded in our lives. And in yet another sense, we still anticipate the final consummation of our salvation in the future, at the return of Jesus. 

Are there two types of kingdoms in the Bible?

The next question to ask is: are there two types of kingdoms in the Bible? The short answer is, “Yes!” But before we go looking for Biblical examples, let’s take some time to define our terms. When we talk about God’s kingdom being in effect throughout all of time, what are we talking about? We can say that God is the Ruler of Earth and Heaven (Deuteronomy 10:14; I Corinthians 10:26; Psalms 24:1). But God’s will is not done on Earth as it is in heaven yet (Matthew 6:10). So, throughout the Bible, there is a clear sense that God is ruling and that He has ultimate authority. However, that authority and rulership is not all-encompassing—God still allows people to disobey His will for their lives. In addition, many of the prophecies from the Old Testament about the coming kingdom discuss perfect government, how the land will be restored, and the triumph of true justice. We can say that God is King now, and in a large sense He is, but He will be King in an even greater sense after the return of Jesus. So, the current aspects of the kingdom are related to God’s power, authority, and rulership in a more spiritual sense. The future aspects of the kingdom are related to God’s power, authority, and rulership in a truly all-encompassing sense. To see these two aspects, let’s look at several verses in the book of Daniel. 

Daniel 2:44-45 (ESV)
And 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,
just as you saw that a stone was cut from a mountain by no human hand, and that it broke in pieces the iron, the bronze, the clay, the silver, and the gold. A great God has made known to the king what shall be after this. The dream is certain, and its interpretation sure.”

These verses are at the end of the passage where Daniel interpreted the dream of Nebuchadnezzar. Daniel explained the types of political kingdoms that would rise and fall after the Babylonian empire, culminating in an all-encompassing kingdom that the God of heaven would set up forever. This is a clear reference to a future kingdom.

Daniel 7:13-14 (ESV)
“I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him.
And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed.

 Here is another clear reference to the future kingdom that God will establish. And here, there is the additional information offered about the Son of Man who is given the kingdom to rule. So here, we have a future eternal kingdom with the Messiah as its king. 

However, in the book of Daniel (and elsewhere in the Old Testament), there are also references to a current kingdom of God. These references are usually in the context of praise and worship towards God, indicating devotion on the part of the person proclaiming the kingdom. In the book of Daniel, this usage tends to identify God as the Source behind the power of the current political kingdom, so there is a political element to this. But, and this is a key point, the political nature of the kingdom being referenced is not perfect, nor is the power of that kingdom limited to political power. Let’s look at some examples in the book of Daniel and elsewhere in the Old Testament. 

Daniel 4:1-3 (ESV)
King Nebuchadnezzar to all peoples, nations, and languages, that dwell in all the earth: Peace be multiplied to you!
It has seemed good to me to show the signs and wonders that the Most High God has done for me.
How great are his signs, how mighty his wonders! His kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and his dominion endures from generation to generation.


Daniel 4:34-37 (ESV)
At the end of the days I, Nebuchadnezzar, lifted my eyes to heaven, and my reason returned to me, and I blessed the Most High, and praised and honored him who lives forever, for his dominion is an everlasting dominion, and his kingdom endures from generation to generation;
all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, and he does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand or say to him, “What have you done?”
At the same time my reason returned to me, and for the glory of my kingdom, my majesty and splendor returned to me. My counselors and my lords sought me, and I was established in my kingdom, and still more greatness was added to me.
Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and extol and honor the King of heaven, for all his works are right and his ways are just; and those who walk in pride he is able to humble.


Daniel 6:25-27 (ESV)
Then King Darius wrote to all the peoples, nations, and languages that dwell in all the earth: “Peace be multiplied to you.
I make a decree, that in all my royal dominion people are to tremble and fear before the God of Daniel, for he is the living God, enduring forever; his kingdom shall never be destroyed, and his dominion shall be to the end.
He delivers and rescues; he works signs and wonders in heaven and on earth, he who has saved Daniel from the power of the lions.”

The two Daniel 4 accounts are before and after Nebuchadnezzar went crazy for a period of time. God permitted Nebuchadnezzar to go insane due to his lack of meekness. At the end of that trial, Nebuchadnezzar “came to his senses” and finally realized that God is the One Who rules over all. So, again, this aspect of God’s kingdom is current, not future. And while there is a political nature to this kingdom (i.e.-God exerts some control over who rules earthly kingdoms), this kingdom is not limited to political power. Instead, this kingdom extends spiritually to the people who worship and praise God; that kingdom is felt and seen through the manifestation of God’s power in the lives of those devoted to Him. In the Daniel 6 record, there is the added element of God’s power being present for His people in the working of signs and wonders. Let’s look at additional usages beyond the book of Daniel.

Psalm 145:11-13 (ESV)
They shall speak of the glory of your kingdom and tell of your power,
to make known to the children of man your mighty deeds, and the glorious splendor of your kingdom.
Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and your dominion endures throughout all generations. [The LORD is faithful in all his words and kind in all his works.]


Psalm 103:17-19 (ESV)
But the steadfast love of the LORD is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him, and his righteousness to children’s children,
to those who keep his covenant and remember to do his commandments.
The LORD has established his throne in the heavens, and his kingdom rules over all.

In both of these Psalms, the psalmist mentions an eternal kingdom of God. In Psalm 145, the context refers to the power of God, much like Daniel 6. In this context, God’s kingdom is His authority over the affairs of man throughout time. His power, goodness, and faithfulness encourage men to enter into a relationship with Him. In Psalm 103, it is the love of God to those who are in covenant relationship with Him that is highlighted. In any case, this concept of “kingdom,” while related to the concept of a future, all-encompassing kingdom, is distinct. In other words, the concept of “kingdom,” as used in the Bible, has at least three major usages: the future (all-encompassing) kingdom of God, the present rule of God spiritually throughout all time, and human kingdoms.  We can successfully identify these different kingdoms in the Bible. 

“Kingdom of God” and “kingdom of heaven” in the Gospels 

Now, we will take some time to discuss the usages of “kingdom of God” and “kingdom of heaven” in the Gospels. As we saw in a previous article, many dispensationalists believe that the two terms refer to separate kingdoms. The “kingdom of heaven” is used to refer to the future, eternal, all-encompassing kingdom that the Messiah will set up, while the “kingdom of God” refers to God’s rulership over all time. And while we have seen that there are definitely two aspects to the term kingdom as used in the Bible, it remains to be seen if the phrases “kingdom of heaven” and “kingdom of God” fit neatly into those two categories. 

The phrase “kingdom of God” occurs 67 times in the ESV, with most of those occurring in the Gospels. The phrase “kingdom of heaven” occurs 32 times in 31 verses, all in the book of Matthew. This should get our attention. What should also get our attention is that the phrase “kingdom of God” also occurs in the book of Matthew. So, we definitely have some data points to make a comparison. Can we identify two separate usages of “kingdom” based on the specific phraseology? 

The first way to answer this question would be to use parallel passages. This is a helpful technique, because even though many Christians believe that the Bible is inerrant to one degree or another, many inerrantists understand that God had to work within the vocabulary and conceptual framework of the human writer of the book in question. In other words, Paul had a different vocabulary from Peter and Luke. Matthew had a different vocabulary than John. So, even if the language is somewhat different, comparing parallel passages can help us determine if the concepts being communicated are the same. Let’s take a look at the parallel passages to see if “kingdom of heaven” and “kingdom of God” are used similarly or differently. 

Matthew 13:24 (ESV)
He put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field,


Mark 4:26 (ESV)
And he said, “The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground.

At the beginning of the parable of the sower (one of the kingdom parables), Matthew has Jesus referring to the “kingdom of heaven” while Mark has Jesus referring to the “kingdom of God.” In this case, the parallel records have the “kingdom of heaven” and “kingdom of God” referring to the same idea. 

Now let’s look at some passages that are roughly parallel. Even though these are not perfectly parallel passages, they still discuss similar ideas. 

Matthew 18:2-3 (ESV)
And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them
and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.


Mark 10:14 (ESV)
But when Jesus saw it, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God.


Luke 18:16 (ESV)
But Jesus called them to him, saying, “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God.

Entering the “kingdom of heaven” requires becoming like little children, to whom belong the “kingdom of God.” Again, the similar accounts are suggesting that these terms are equivalent. 

Matthew 10:5-7 (ESV)
These twelve Jesus sent out, instructing them, “Go nowhere among the Gentiles and enter no town of the Samaritans,
but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.
And proclaim as you go, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’


Luke 9:1-2 (ESV)
And he called the twelve together and gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases,
and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal.


Luke 10:1,9 (ESV)
After this the Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them on ahead of him, two by two, into every town and place where he himself was about to go.
Heal the sick in it and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’

When Jesus sent out the twelve, he asked them to proclaim the “kingdom of heaven,” which apparently was the same thing as proclaiming the “kingdom of God.” Later, he sent out the 72 to do the same. 

Matthew 13:11 (ESV)
And he answered them, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given.


Luke 8:10 (ESV)
he said, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God, but for others they are in parables, so that ‘seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand.’


Mark 4:11 (ESV)
And he said to them, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables,’

The disciples asked Jesus about the secrets of the “kingdom of heaven,” which were the same as the secrets of the “kingdom of God.” These accounts make it clear that the “kingdom of heaven” and the “kingdom of God” are the same concepts. 

Matthew 3:1-2 (ESV)
In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea,
“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

John’s proclamation that the “kingdom of heaven is at hand” is essentially identical to Jesus’ proclamation in Mark 1:

Mark 1:14-15 (ESV)
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God,
and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”

Again, the concepts of “kingdom of heaven” and “kingdom of God” appear to be completely parallel, with no major distinction between them. Please note Matthew 4:17 for another example. 

Matthew 5:3 (ESV)
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Again, we have a roughly parallel example from another Gospel, this time the gospel of Luke. 

Luke 6:20 (ESV)
And he lifted up his eyes on his disciples, and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.

Yet again, we find no distinction between “kingdom of heaven” and “kingdom of God.” And even though there is no direct parallel to Matthew 5:10, the use of “kingdom of heaven” is controlled by the context, which includes Matthew 5:3. 

Matthew 5:19-20 (ESV)
Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

The next example from Matthew involves the phrase “enter the kingdom of heaven.” This phrase is also used in Matthew 7:21, Matthew 18:3, and Matthew 19:23. The phrase “enter the kingdom of God” is used almost identically in Mark 9:47, Mark 10:23-25, Luke 18:24-25, John 3:5, and Acts 14:22. 

Matthew 8:11 (ESV)
I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven,

Again, there is a roughly parallel concept mentioned in another gospel. 

Luke 13:28-29 (ESV)
In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God but you yourselves cast out.
And people will come from east and west, and from north and south, and recline at table in the kingdom of God.

Reclining at the table in the “kingdom of heaven” is the same as reclining at the table in the “kingdom of God.” 

Another way to answer this question would be to use the internal evidence of Matthew. Did Matthew use terminology (in a general sense) differently than the other Gospel writers? In other words, can we discern any differences in how Matthew used the phrases “kingdom of heaven” and “kingdom of God,” since he is the only New Testament writer who used both? Let’s look at some examples of how Matthew used the phrase “kingdom of heaven” to see if we can distinguish it from how Matthew used “kingdom of God.” Since Matthew mostly used the phrase “kingdom of heaven,” let’s see what we can learn from the times he used “kingdom of God.” Here are the five times where the phrase “kingdom of God” occurs in Matthew:

Matthew 6:33 (ESV)
But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.


Matthew 12:28 (ESV)
But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.


Matthew 19:23-24 (ESV)
And Jesus said to his disciples, “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.”


Matthew 21:31 (ESV)
Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you.


Matthew 21:43 (ESV)
Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits.

In Matthew 6:33, the “kingdom” is something that can be sought now. In this location, the kingdom aspect being emphasized is the “now” aspect. In Matthew 12:28, we see a similar occurrence. The power of God in operation (in this case, to cast out spirits) shows that God is spiritually present, demonstrating his kingdom through the ministry of Jesus. However, in Matthew 21, we find occurrences that seem to be a bit more general. In particular, verse 31 looks like it probably refers to the future kingdom. The phrase “go into the kingdom” is similar to the “entering the kingdom” we find in other places in the New Testament (see Matthew 5:20; Matthew 7:21; Matthew 18:3; Mark 9:47; John 3:5; Acts 14:22). Additionally, verse 43 does not fit the mold of a typical “kingdom of God” usage. Jesus was using this language to indicate that God would turn his focus away from Israel, but some from Israel were saved even after this transition took place. Therefore, I think that it is best to view this as a specific warning to that group of people (i.e. – the chief priests and elders of the people) and not Israel generally. And again, the language here seems to be focused on salvation (the result of believing the gospel message) and therefore has both kingdoms in view (living under the spiritual authority of God now and enjoying the future kingdom under the rule of the Messiah). 

It is also instructive to consider the opposite possibility: are there usages of the phrase “kingdom of heaven” that refer to the current kingdom? One strong example is one we saw already above (Matthew 3:2), along with other similar occurrences. 

Matthew 3:2 (ESV)
Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.


Matthew 4:17 (ESV)
From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”


Matthew 10:7 (ESV)
And proclaim as you go, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’

These are clear references that the “kingdom of heaven” was close to the people in the first century. As we know looking back on it, the ultimate, all-encompassing kingdom was not coming in its fullness anytime soon (we are still waiting for that with great anticipation and hope). So, the kingdom of heaven being “at hand” means that there is a current aspect to the kingdom of heaven, making it synonymous with “kingdom of God.” It is vital to note that the kingdom of God was “at hand” in the nearly parallel account (see Mark 1:15). 

To this point, we have addressed 13 of the 32 usages of “kingdom of heaven” in the gospel of Matthew. In each case, we have determined using parallel or nearly parallel accounts that the phrases “kingdom of heaven” and “kingdom of God” are synonymous. I believe that this is enough to suffice. 11 of the remaining usages are in parables; these usages have parallels in the other Gospels as well. This means that we can account for at least 3/4 of the usages of “kingdom of heaven” and “kingdom of God” being used interchangeably. I think that’s enough to demonstrate that these are basically identical terms. However, let’s look closer at one of the sections that I briefly mentioned above, because it is one example where Matthew records Jesus as using both terms in the same context. 

Matthew 19:23-24 (ESV)
And Jesus said to his disciples, “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.”

This is an example of Hebrew parallelism, which we find frequently in the Psalms, Proverbs, and prophetic writings.[1] The use of the word “again” at the beginning of verse 24 is of vital importance to our understanding. The word “again” is the Greek palin, and Thayer categorized this example as “again, i. e. further, moreover (where the subject remains the same and a repetition of the action or condition is indicated).”[2] Jesus spoke about entering the kingdom of heaven as identical to entering the kingdom of God! The only real counterargument that I can find to this is that there are a few ancient texts that have kingdom of heaven in both places in Matthew 19 (the ancient Syriac and some Greek texts). However, most modern scholars believe that the best reading of this is “kingdom of God.” When we consider this in addition to what we have already seen with the parallel (or nearly parallel) passages, there are many reasons to believe that the kingdom of heaven and kingdom of God are essentially interchangeable, synonymous terms.

Why did Matthew use the term kingdom of heaven?

I think the next question to consider is this: if Matthew used both terms, why did he use “kingdom of heaven” at all? Why not just use “kingdom of God” like every other New Testament writer? Scholars have suggested various possibilities. One theory hinges on the idea that the sacred name or even the title of “God” was avoided by Hebrews as much as possible. So, in that case, since Matthew appears to be more comfortable than the other Gospel writers leaving Hebraisms in his Gospel without explaining them, “kingdom of heaven” is a Hebraistic way of saying “kingdom of God,” and he could trust his first century readers/listeners to understand the identicalness of the two terms. Under this theory, Jesus probably used the term “kingdom of heaven” more than “kingdom of God,” and the other Gospel writers, being led by the spirit and conscious of Gentile audiences “translated” kingdom of heaven into “kingdom of God” for ease of understanding. 

In order to demonstrate the feasibility of this particular theory, we would have to find instances in the Bible (and preferably the Gospels themselves) where the word “heaven” is used as a placeholder for God. Can we find any such examples? 

Mark 11:30-31 (ESV)
Was the baptism of John from heaven or from man? Answer me.”
And they discussed it with one another, saying, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’

This account is also recorded in Luke 20:4-5. The phrase “from heaven” literally means “from God” or “Godly.” Was the baptism of John ordained by God or was it an expression of human invention? 

Luke 15:18 (ESV)
I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you.”

The “prodigal son” admitted in his mind that he had sinned “against heaven.” But heaven is an inanimate object, so again, the force of the statement here is this: “I have sinned against God and before you.”

John 3:27 (ESV)
John answered, “A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven.

Again, heaven is an inanimate object. No one can literally receive anything from “heaven.” The understanding here is that we receive things from God Who is in heaven. 

Matthew 16:1 (ESV)
And the Pharisees and Sadducees came, and to test him they asked him to show them a sign from heaven.

And finally, an example from Matthew—the Pharisees and Sadducees asked for a sign from heaven. Again, heaven is inanimate; they were asking for a sign from God. As a result, we see that this theory could work based on the Biblical data: perhaps “kingdom of heaven” was used in Matthew to more literally reflect the Hebraic way that our Lord Jesus spoke. 

Another (not mutually exclusive) theory is that the terms “kingdom of heaven” and “kingdom of God” both come from the same section in the book of Daniel. 

Daniel 2:44 (ESV)
And 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,

Steve Gregg (among others) has noted that the phrase “the God of heaven will set up a kingdom” could be the source for both phrases: “kingdom of heaven” and “kingdom of God.”[3] This is not mutually exclusive with the first theory but provides a possible Biblical precedent for using both terms (and for their equivalence). 

Third, as I mentioned earlier in the article, given the parallel passages and the use of “kingdom of God” and “kingdom of heaven” in Matthew, it is possible that Matthew wanted to highlight different aspects of the kingdom. When he used “kingdom of heaven,” he was emphasizing the future aspects; when he used “kingdom of God,” he was emphasizing the present aspects. This works with the other two possibilities; none of them are mutually exclusive. All three could be true at the same time. 

More on “already and not yet”

Since the word “kingdom” is used to denote two different ideas (a kingdom of spiritual authority and a real, all-encompassing kingdom in the future), and since we have determined that we cannot separate “kingdom of heaven” to identify with one and “kingdom of God” to identify with the other, what do we do? Is the phrase “kingdom of God” only used to denote the future kingdom? Or can that phrase also express some current realities? Prominent New Testament scholar N. T. Wright has taught for years that the “kingdom of God” is “already and not yet.” In other words, there are aspects of the kingdom that are “now,” and there are aspects of the kingdom that await complete fulfillment in the future. Since we see that related ideas have some flavor of “now and not yet,” let’s turn to the topic of the kingdom again. What aspects of the kingdom of God/heaven are future? What aspects of the kingdom are present? The aspects of the kingdom that are currently present are related to the spiritual aspects of the kingdom as seen earlier in this article. We will spend an article on each of these subjects at a later date, but here is a short list of “kingdom now” realities: obedience, power, radical love, and justice. The future aspects of the kingdom will include the openly political aspects of the kingdom, including: judgment, restoration, government, and lifestyle. There is one quick note that I want to make here before closing the article. There is truth to the statement that true justice will not be perfectly available until the return of Jesus. But that fact should not keep Christians from fighting for justice in the here and now. In fact, Jesus calls us to help those less fortunate than us, working for justice in many ways (sharing money and resources with those less fortunate, fighting for oppressed groups of people, recognizing the worth and value of each individual, and more). 


We began this article seeking to answer the question: are the kingdom of heaven and kingdom of God synonymous or not? As we have seen, the terms do refer to the same kingdom. As prominent scholar George Eldon Ladd wrote in his landmark work on the kingdom, The Gospel of the Kingdom: Scriptural Studies in the Kingdom of God,

“In passing, let us note that these two phrases, ‘the Kingdom of God’ and ‘the Kingdom of Heaven’ are obviously interchangeable…. The difference between the two phrases is to be explained on linguistic grounds. The Kingdom of Heaven is the Semitic form and the Kingdom of God is the Greek form of the same phrase. Our Lord taught in Aramaic, a language very similar to Hebrew, whereas our New Testament is written in Greek. Jesus, teaching Jews, probably spoke of ‘the Kingdom of the Heavens’ which would be the natural Jewish form of expression. We have extensive evidence from Jewish rabbinic literature that this phrase was in common usage. To the Greek ear, these words would be meaningless; and when the phrase was translated in our Greek Gospels for Greek readers, it was uniformly rendered ‘the Kingdom of God.’ In the Gospel of Matthew, which was probably written to Jewish believers, the original phrase ‘the Kingdom of the Heavens’ was usually retained. The terminology in Matthew 19:23-24 makes it quite clear that the two phrases are interchangeable and that no difference of meaning is to be sought between them.” [4]

Since this book was written in 1959, from a historical perspective it is important to note that Ladd’s work on the kingdom put great pressure on classical dispensational scholars, leading to the revised and progressive dispensationalist movements in later years. As Ladd remarked and as we have seen in this article, the evidence points towards the two terms being interchangeable and synonymous. 

In addition, we have seen that the kingdom has current practical ramifications for our lives, as well as final future fulfillment. As scholar N. T. Wright said in The Day the Revolution Began,

“How easy it has been for the later church, not least the Western church of the last three or four hundred years, to imagine that this redefinition of the hope of the kingdom was a ‘spiritualization,’ a move away from ‘worldly’ reality into a ‘heavenly’ dimension. How easy it has been for some to suppose that Luke has in mind a postponement of the kingdom, so that Jesus’s answer to his followers is not, as I have suggested, a kind of ‘Yes, but in a way different from what you were thinking,’ but rather a ‘No, not yet, but you have a job to do in the meantime.’ Of course, the ultimate kingdom is yet to come. Luke makes this very clear: Jesus will return to judge and restore all things (Acts 1:11; 3:31; 17:31). But, just as Jesus had said at the Last Supper, the events of his death and resurrection really were going to usher in the new day, the reality of the kingdom (Luke 22:18). If comparatively modern readings of Luke and Acts have shrunk the meaning of the ‘kingdom’ simply to the final return of Jesus, that is our modern problem, not Luke’s.” [5]

To sum Wright’s point up succinctly, we can live some kingdom realities now, even though we anticipate the fullness of the kingdom in the future. 

For further study:

The Gospel of the Kingdom: Scriptural Studies in the Kingdom of God by George Eldon Ladd
Restitutio class on kingdom – https://restitutio.org/2017/06/01/89-kingdom-in-the-new-testament-kingdom-of-god-5/
God’s Kingdom First website – http://godskingdomfirst.org/heaven.htm


1 See these sources for more information and some great examples:

2 See https://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=G3825&t=ESV

3 See https://www.thenarrowpath.com/topical_lectures.php#Kingdom_of_God

4 See page 32. 

5 See page 161. 



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