Theological Essays

The Kingdom of Heaven vs. The Kingdom of God
By Pastor Donnie Hale

Usage

It’s helpful to have a sense of the frequency of where these phrase are used.

Book(s) Kingdom of God Kingdom of Heaven
Matthew 5 32
Mark 14 0
Luke 32 0
John 2 0
Acts 6 0
Paul 8 0
Rest of NT 0 0

Note that these counts are only for the use of the phrases, not the word “kingdom” by itself or outside of these phrases.

Parallel Passages

There are two particularly strong arguments for believing that each phrase refers to the same kingdom. The first is that of parallel passages in which an account in Matthew uses the phrase “kingdom of heaven” and the equivalent account in Mark and/or Luke uses “kingdom of God.” Here is a table of such parallel passages.

Matthew 3:2 Matthew 22:1-14 Luke 13:18-19
Matthew 8:11 Mark 1:15 Luke 13:20-20
Matthew 13:31-32 Mark 4:30-32 Luke 14:15-24
Matthew 13:33 Luke 13:29



Note that the references are Reftagger links which you can hover over to preview.

Matthew 19

As the table above shows, Matthew does use the phrase “kingdom of God” 5 times. One of those uses, found in Matthew 19, is another strong argument that these phrases refer to the same kingdom.

In Matthew 19:23 , we read: “And Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven.” Then, in Matthew 19:24, Jesus restates his point using a metaphor: “‘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.’”

Note two things in the repeated statement: First, the word “again” (πάλιν in the Greek) appears explicitly in the text. Jesus wants us to know that he is repeating his point: “Again, I tell you…” Second, Jesus uses “kingdom of heaven” the first time; while he uses “kingdom of God” the second time. In both cases, Jesus teaches that it is difficult for a rich person to enter a kingdom.

One might say it’s more difficult for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than to resist the conclusion that the kingdom referred to by each phrase is the same kingdom.

Why the Difference?

If the kingdom referred to by each phrase is the same kingdom, why then are different phrases used; and why is “kingdom of heaven” exclusive to Matthew? Here we enter the realm of the slightly speculative.

Keep in mind that Matthew is a particularly Jewish-focused gospel. A major aim of Matthew’s gospel is to convince the Jewish people that Jesus is the expected Messiah. Thus he frequently says, “This was to fulfill…”

With that in mind, the most commonly given explanation for Matthew’s use of the phrase is out of reverence, to avoid anything that approaches the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew tetragrammaton (YHWH). This could be a stumbling block to the very people he was trying to persuade.

Another explanation has to do with the Messianic expectations of the Jewish people. The people hearing Jesus use the phrase “kingdom” and the original audience reading Matthew’s gospel didn’t ask what Matthew was talking about. They understood the concept of a Messianic kingdom ruled over by a king from the line of David. If Matthew did successfully convince Jewish people that Jesus was the Messiah, what was the risk if he used the phrase, “kingdom of God?” The risk might be that they would expect it to be the earthly kingdom they were expecting, where the Davidic king would overthrow Rome and restore Jerusalem and Israel to its rightful place as the set apart promised land. By using the phrase “kingdom of heaven,” Matthew could persuade the Jewish people that Jesus was the Messiah while making it clear that the kingdom He was bringing was not of this world.

Again, this is a bit of inductive reasoning given the available textual data. Apart from that, it seems clear that “kingdom of God” and “kingdom of heaven,” while not synonymous, do in fact refer to the same kingdom.