Analyzing the Viewpoints: The Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Heaven (1)

What is the Kingdom of Heaven? Is the term to be understood differently from the Kingdom of God, or are they essentially synonymous? The following two articles relate to this subject, presenting two views for you to carefully consider in coming to your conclusion. This does not imply that the views of these two writers are the only valid interpretations to consider. But while there are shades of differences in other interpretations, these two articles helpfully summarize the thrust of two popular understandings. The purpose of presenting opposing views is not to create controversy, nor to generate the division that marred the church in Corinth (“I am of Paul; and I am of Apollos …” 1Cor 1:12). Neither is it merely for you to assess who formulates a better argument. The purpose is to help you to understand and consider the viewpoints, and to encourage you to study it more deeply yourself in your own time.  Our two writers have read and considered the opposing view and continue to respect one another and enjoy happy fellowship together.

– Matthew Cain

Although I write this with no dogmatism, understanding that there are dear believers on each side of this issue, the following reasons have led me to conclude that the “Kingdom of God” and the “Kingdom of Heaven” are synonymous terms.

The list of parallel passages where the two phrases are used is extensive.

Compare Matthew 4:17 with Mark 1:15.

Compare Matthew 5:10 with Luke 6:20.

Compare Matthew 10:7 with Luke 9:2.

Compare Matthew 11:11 with Luke 7:28.

Compare Matthew 13:11 with Mark 4:11; Luke 8:10.

Compare Matthew 13:31 with Mark 4:30; Luke 13:18.

Compare Matthew 13:33 with Luke 13:20.

Compare Matthew 19:14 with Mark 10:14-15; Luke 18:16-17.

Compare Matthew 19:23 with Mark 10:24; Luke 18:24.

The exhaustive nature of this list requires tedious explanation if the two phrases have two different meanings.

The Lord Jesus used the terms interchangeably in back-to-back verses. In Matthew 19:23-24, Jesus said “Verily I say unto you, that a rich man shall hardly enter into the Kingdom of Heaven. And again I say unto you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the Kingdom of God.” Notice that he connects the two statements with the words, “Again, I say unto you,” emphasizing a repetition of the same idea. If the two phrases do not mean the same thing, why did the Lord Jesus use them this way within the same statement?

It has often been argued that the difference between the phrases is that the Kingdom of God includes genuine believers who are subject to God’s authority, whereas the Kingdom of Heaven also includes those who merely profess to be subject to His authority. In Matthew 7:21, the Lord Jesus said “Not everyone that saith unto Me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.” He is referring to a group professing allegiance to Him. If the Kingdom of Heaven includes those who profess to follow the Lord Jesus, why did Christ not use the phrase “Kingdom of God?” Also, referring again to Matthew 19:23, why would it be so difficult for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven if the requirement is Christian profession? It appears that the qualifications for entrance into the Kingdom of God are the same as those for entering the Kingdom of Heaven (Compare John 3:5 with Matt 18:3).

If the two phrases are emphasizing two different meanings, then how do we explain the term “kingdom” when used without a qualifier? Matthew used the word without qualifying it 10 times (4:23; 6:10,13; 9:35; 13:19; 16:28; 20:21; 24:14; 25:34; 26:29). Are we intended to press one of the two meanings into these passages?

If the phrase “Kingdom of God” includes only genuine believers, how could it be said by the Lord Jesus of the Jewish nation responsible for the death of God’s Son, “The Kingdom of God shall be taken from you, and given to a nation bringing forth the fruits thereof” (Matt 21:43)? Again, we would have expected Him to use “Kingdom of Heaven” here, for the nation merely professed subjection to God’s authority.

It is often pointed out that the parable of the wheat and tares in Matthew 13 demonstrates that there are tares (i.e., unbelievers) in Christ’s Kingdom. It is argued, therefore, that since Jesus used the phrase “Kingdom of Heaven” in the parable, this proves that the Kingdom of Heaven embraces those who merely profess allegiance to Him. But it must be pointed out that in the parable, Christ is about to come and set up His Kingdom, and does not do so until the end of the parable (v43). His action of removing the tares does not necessarily prove they belonged to the Kingdom at all, but were merely living within the realm of His coming Kingdom. At His coming, they are therefore removed.

Even though Matthew did use the expression “Kingdom of God” five times, this still leaves the question as to why only Matthew used the phrase “Kingdom of Heaven.”  Because he is largely writing for a Jewish audience, most readers would connect this phrase with the prophecies of Daniel 2:44 (“And in the days of these kings shall the God of heaven set up a kingdom, which shall never be destroyed”) and Daniel 7:13-14 (“I saw in the night visions, and, behold, one like the Son of man came with the clouds of heaven … And there was given him dominion, and glory, and a kingdom”). It appears that Matthew so often chose to use “Kingdom of Heaven” to remind his readers of Daniel’s prophecy and to make a clear contrast with the kingdoms of earth. Daniel’s audience needed hope as they were under the oppressive regime of the Babylonians. Similarly, Matthew’s readers could receive hope as they were under the oppressive regime of the Romans. Believers in every age can have this same hope, no matter what kingdoms may rage against them. At Christ’s glorious return, He will fulfill Daniel’s prophecies, put down all the kingdoms of this earth, and inaugurate the Kingdom of Heaven.