Tim Miller Matthew is the only New Testament author to use the phrase “Kingdom of Heaven.” While the other gospels frequently reference the Kingdom of God, Kingdom of Heaven is uniquely Matthean. His extensive use of this phrase (thirty-two times) invites the question, What does Matthew mean by this Kingdom of Heaven?
Two main answers have been given to this question in modern church history. The first answer, given by the early dispensationalists (Scofield, Walvoord, Darby, Larkin, Chafer, Feinberg, and early Ryrie), argued for a denotative difference between Kingdom of God (KG) and Kingdom of Heaven (KH). They believed that the KH could be distinguished from the KG. The other answer, given by nearly every non-dispensationalist and almost all later dispensationalists (Saucy, Toussaint, McLain, and later Ryrie), argued for a connotative difference between the phrases. They believed that Matthew used KH, not to indicate a difference between the two kingdoms, but to avoid using the divine name.
The purpose of this article is to argue that both of these answers are mistaken. Instead, Matthew used KH for a theological purpose, which had important implications for Matthew’s readers. To get to these implications, however, we will need to show why the two prevailing answers to why Matthew uses KH are fundamentally flawed. Next, we will develop Matthew’s theological purpose in using KH. Having laid this groundwork, we will then be able to show how applicable Matthew’s theme of the KH was to his audience.
Kingdom of God vs Kingdom of Heaven
While denotative distinctions between the KG and the KH have been proposed elsewhere, the distinction became widely known through the popular Scofield Reference Bible. Scofield noted five ways to distinguish between the KH and the KG. The essential differences, however, can be summarized in two points. First, the KG only contains beings who willingly subject themselves to the rule of God—whether human or angelic. The KH, however, contains only earthly creatures who profess to be subject to God. Thus, the KH contains both believers and unbelievers, while the KG contains true believers. Second, the KG is eternal and spiritual in nature, while the KH is temporal and physical in nature.
While early dispensationalists used this distinction as a way to argue for their dispensational, premillennial position, it is widely understood that maintaining a distinction between the phrases is not essential to dispensationalism. Walvoord, while arguing for the distinction, noted that maintaining the difference “does not affect premillennialism as a whole nor dispensationalism; and the system of theology of those who make the terms identical can be almost precisely the same as that of those who distinguish the terms.” In other words, one does not challenge dispensational theology when he denies that there is a denotative difference between the two phrases in the gospels. This is important to recognize, as some still maintain that this distinction is essential to dispensational thought.
There are significant exegetical reasons to doubt the denotative distinction between KH and KG. While the limitation of space does not allow for an extended treatment, I would like to indicate three central problems with the distinction. First, parallel passages show that Matthew’s use of KH matches the use of KG in the other gospel writers. Out of Matthew’s 32 uses of KH, 12 are within narratives which are also recorded in either Mark or Luke (and sometimes both). In every parallel account, the other synoptic writer (Mark, Luke, or both) chose to use KG instead of KH. This would indicate that what Matthew called the KH, the other gospel writers identified as the KG. For example, in Jesus’ famous Sermon in Matthew 5–7, Matthew records that the poor in spirit will inherit the KH. Luke, citing the same sermon, records Jesus as saying that the poor will inherit the KG.
The second exegetical reason to doubt the distinction between the KH and KG is based on the synonymous parallelism evident in Matthew 19:23–24. In verse 23 Jesus declared that it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven, and in verse 24 he declared that the rich man could not enter the kingdom of God. Here Matthew mentions both the KH and the KG, connecting them with “again I say to you,” signaling a repetition of the same idea. If there is a distinction between the two kingdoms, it is difficult to imagine why Matthew does not explicitly express this distinction. Indeed, it appears that the proponent of the distinction has to bear the burden of proving that Matthew makes a clear distinction.
The text just referenced provides the third textual reason to avoid making a distinction between the KH and the KG. Jesus argues that it is difficult for a rich man to enter into the KH. But if the KH is merely the realm of Christian profession (and not necessarily true possession), it does not appear that entrance into this kingdom would be as difficult as Jesus claims. Further, Jesus in Matthew 7:21 maintains that “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter,” but saying “Lord, Lord” without a submissive heart attitude appears to be the very definition of mere profession!
These three exegetical insights should cause great caution to those who would propose a denotative distinction between the KG and the KH. Combining these insights with the following facts indicates that we should look elsewhere for an explanation of Matthew’s use of KH: (1) no other author in Scripture argues for a distinct KG, (2) Matthew sometimes uses Kingdom without delineating to which (KG or KH) he is referring, and (3) Matthew never explicitly expresses a distinction between the two phrases even though he uses both KG and KH.
Kingdom of Heaven as Circumlocution
That Matthew used KH in order to avoid using the divine name is the nearly unanimous view of modern Matthean scholarship. It is widely accepted that the Hebrews avoided using God’s name to avoid breaking the third of the Ten Commandments. Rather than using God’s name, the Jews would practice circumlocution, which derives from the Latin circum and locutio meaning “to speak around.” In sum, the Jews would substitute another word or phrase for the divine name in order to avoid accidently breaking the divine law.
Circumlocution appears to be found in the Jewish intertestamental literature and may also be evident in Scripture. For instance Mark 14:61 appears to use circumlocution for the divine name when the High priest asks Jesus, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One?” Luke 15:18 comes closer to Matthew’s use when the prodigal, in rehearsing his repentance speech, says, “I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee.” Daniel 4:26 likewise indicates that Daniel, in his speech to Nebuchadnezzar, refers to heaven when clearly referencing God. These latter two texts give evidence that, at least at times, Jewish custom allowed for heaven to be substituted for the divine name. If so, could Matthew’s use of KH align with this reverence for the divine name?
Jonathan Pennington argues strongly against the circumlocution view: “The history of the reverential circumlocution idea [in Matthew] is an example of an unsubstantiated suggestion becoming an unquestioned assumption through the magic of publication, repetition, and elapsed time.” Nearly all literature related to the circumlocution view in Matthew traces back to the seminal work of Gustaf Dalman. However, Pennington shows that there are substantial reasons to doubt the validity of Dalman’s conclusions. If so, the entire foundation of the circumlocution view is shaken and another explanation for Matthew’s use of KH should be sought. Regardless of whether the faulty view can be traced back to Dalman, there are two clear reasons within the Gospel of Matthew to reject the circumlocution view.
First, according to the circumlocution view Matthew avoided the use of the divine name for one of two reasons. He could have avoided the use so that he would not accidently break the third commandment, or he could have avoided the use in order to avoid offending the Jews for whom he was writing. That Matthew wrote to avoid using the divine name for the sake of his own conscience appears indefensible in light of the teaching of his gospel. The avoidance of the divine name was an example of the multiplication of human traditions and rules Jesus argues against in the gospel of Matthew (15:1–8). Hagelberg concludes, “It is not conceivable that Matthew could have held to and been motivated by this false view of holiness.” For this reason, the nearly unanimous view of commentators has been that Matthew used heaven to avoid offending his audience. But this proposal is likewise suspect. Matthew does not appear reticent to offend the Jewish brethren elsewhere within his gospel. For instance, Matthew’s background as a tax collector could potentially incense their Jewish sensibilities. Further, the entire Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5–7) is an attack against the Jewish system of thought that was at the root of the circumlocution habit. If Matthew was using circumlocution to avoid offending the Jews, it appears strange that he was not reticent to offend them in other ways.
The second reason circumlocution is a poor explanation for Matthew’s use of KH is Matthew’s expansive use of God’s name. If Matthew sought to substitute the divine name for another term, why does Matthew use the divine name 51 times in his gospel? Further, if Matthew is seeking to avoid the formulaic KG, why does he fail to substitute KH for KG in four instances (12:28; 19:24; 21:31, 43)? John Drane, who believes in the circumlocution proposal, argues that these four instances “can readily be understood if we suppose that Matthew overlooked these four occurrences of the word.” Not considering how this explanation could potentially affect one’s understanding of inspiration, it is simply unbelievable that Matthew overlooked these four texts. For example, in the text already examined above, Matthew synonymously related the KG and the KH (19:23–24); it is hard to imagine that Matthew changed KG to KH in one sentence and forgot to do so in the very next sentence. Overall, Matthew shows little reluctance to use the divine name; therefore, while the circumlocution proposal has enjoyed nearly universal acclaim in Matthean studies, it does not hold under the weight of careful study.
Metonymic Difference: Kingdom of Heaven
vs Kingdoms of the Earth
Sensing the failure of the circumlocution proposal, some scholars have attempted to propose alternate explanations. For instance, while D. A. Carson is not willing to completely overturn the circumlocution thesis, he argues that there seems to be more to Matthew’s choice than merely avoiding the divine name. Perhaps Matthew intentionally avoided KG in order to leave open the possibility of Jesus also being King. Leon Morris adds that Matthew may be stressing the comprehensiveness of the kingdom by using KH, denoting that the kingdom not only pertains to the earth, but is also expressed in the heavenly realm. Margaret Pamment and James Gibbs suggest that KH pertains to the future kingdom while KG references the present kingdom expressed in the lives of Jesus’ disciples. Stanley Toussaint offers another perspective, arguing that KH references the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies, while KG speaks of the character of God’s kingdom. A final proposal, given by J. Julius Scott, contends that Matthew avoided KG because of its military connotations among his Jewish audience. While the present article will not be arguing for any of these positions, the multiplicity of suggested explanations for Matthew’s use of KG shows that the classic explanation has been found wanting. The rest of this paper will give an alternative explanation that honors both the theology and text of Matthew’s Gospel.
A careful study of the first Gospel will reveal that KH is not an isolated element of Matthew’s gospel; instead, Matthew maintains a theme of heavenly language that orientates the reader to the distinction between the kingdom that will come from heaven and the kingdoms of this world. Hagelberg summarizes,
“The Kingdom of Heaven” is used by Matthew because it supports and supplements Matthew’s theology which is centered around the concept of the two kingdoms in conflict; this support and supplementation is by the natural pairing of the kingdom of heaven with the kingdom of earth and by the culture’s stock of ideas, ie. [sic] when the kingdom of heaven was mentioned, its opposite, the kingdom of earth, came to mind.
The distinction between heaven and earth is a primeval fact in Scripture (Gen 1:1). Later revelation would confirm that the heavens are the abode of God, while the earth is the abode of man (Ps 115:16). Further, the kings of the earth battle against the God of heaven (Psalm 2). Each of these Old Testament themes was evident to Matthew and his audience. Most important to Matthew, however, was Daniel 2:44, which reveals that the God of Heaven will one day establish a kingdom that will replace the kingdoms of this world. The idea of this kingdom from the God of heaven quickly and pervasively caught the hearts of the Hebrew people, who longed for political freedom. This longing remained in their hearts from the time of Daniel through the intertestamental period all the way to the writing of Matthew’s gospel.
Matthew, writing to Jews who still embraced the hope of a future kingdom from the God of heaven, termed the KG as the KH to directly correlate the kingdom Jesus will establish with the long awaited hope established in Daniel 2–7. While it is possible Matthew could have used the more general phrase KG to denote this kingdom, he chose to use KH to remind his readers of Daniel and to make a contrast with the kingdoms of this world. Just as Daniel’s original audience took hope under the oppressive regimes in the exile, so Matthew’s audience could take hope under the oppressive regime of the Romans in their present day.
While the preceding explanation is theologically possible, the reader may be wondering whether it is exegetically tenable. This article will seek to prove that it is exegetically sound by examining the language of Matthew’s text. First, Matthew emphasizes the heavenly realm in his gospel. A simple comparison of the use of οὐρανός (“heaven”) will show that Matthew (82 uses) speaks of heaven much more than Mark (18), Luke (35), or John (18). In fact, Matthew speaks of heaven more than all the other gospels combined! Further, Matthew connects heaven with the Father more than twenty times (Heavenly Father or Father in Heaven), while the only other gospel to connect these terms is Mark, and he connects them only once.
Second, it is clear that Matthew’s gospel centers on the concept of Kingdom. Matthew, of all the gospel writers, references the kingdom the most (fifty-five times). In fact, Matthew references the kingdom more than all of the non-gospel NT books put together. Whereas Luke traces Jesus’ genealogy back to Adam, Matthew takes pains to show that while Jesus’ lineage runs all the way back to Abraham (stressing Jewish heritage), it runs through David as well (stressing kingship). The careful reader of Matthew will not miss that the kingdom appears at the most central parts of Matthew’s text: the genealogy of Jesus (1:1); the start of John the Baptist’s ministry (3:2); the start of Jesus’ ministry (4:17); the Sermon on the Mount (5:3, 10; 6:9–13); the kingdom parables (13:1–52; 20:1–16; 22:1–14; 25:1–46); the Passover meal (26:29); and the Great Commission (24:14; 28:18).
These two major themes in Matthew—Heaven and Kingdom—come together in Matthew’s unique phrase KH. But it is not yet clear why Matthew connects these two ideas. The third point will fill the gap: Matthew frequently emphasizes the distinction between heaven and earth. This distinction is evident in each of the synoptic gospels but is particularly emphasized in Matthew. While Matthew connects language concerning heaven and earth in more than 20 instances, Mark does so twice and Luke only five times. Further, as Pennington notes, “The language of ‘heaven and earth’ as contrasting realities is found at the most important theological points throughout the gospel such as in the Lord’s Prayer (6:9–10), the ecclesiological passages (16:17–19; 18:18–19), and the Great Commission (28:18–20).” Taking it all together, it is hard not to conclude with Pennington that “Matthew is consciously developing a heaven and earth theme.”
Putting all of Matthew’s themes together presents the reader with God as the King of the heavenly realm, which stands in opposition to the earth. However, Matthew’s emphasis on the earth also includes the idea of kingship. From the very beginning of his gospel (2:1–3), Matthew notes that Jesus is the king in opposition to Herod as the archetypal earthly king: “Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is he who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.’ When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.” Here Matthew sandwiches the Kingship of Jesus between the two proclamations of Herod’s kingship. Later Matthew brings into stark contrast the kingship promised to Jesus from the Father in heaven with the kingship offered from Satan, king of this world (4:8; cf. 12:26). In this passage, Matthew speaks of the kingdoms of the earth in both human and satanic terms, an analogy likely derived from Daniel 10:13. This theme of heavenly kingship and earthly kingship runs throughout the text, crescendoing in the Great Commission when Jesus notes that the authority in heaven and earth has been given to him.
The clearest text in Matthew that brings all of these themes together is the Lord’s Prayer (6:9–10):
Our Father who is in heaven,
Hallowed be Your name.
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
The prayer begins with a recognition that the Father is in the heavens, from which the Kingdom will come. Further, it presents a contrast between the things done on earth and those done in heaven. The implication is that God’s will is accomplished in the heavens because that realm is presently subject to his kingly authority. The earth, by contrast, is not presently under the kingly authority of God, but one day, in God’s timing, will be subject to him. The prayer further recognizes that though the earth is not in total subjection at the present moment, God has control over the physical (earth’s resources) and spiritual (forgiveness) aspects of existence on earth.
Implications for Matthew’s Readers
On the basis of the findings above, KH in Matthew is not designed to show a denotative difference between the KH and the KG. Neither is it designed to avoid the divine name. Instead, KH functions to orientate the Jewish reader back to Daniel 2–7, where the Kingdom from the God of Heaven was promised to supplant the kingdoms of the earth. This understanding matches Matthew’s themes perfectly, and it provides a rich understanding of Matthew’s theological purposes.
First, it is clear from the intertestamental literature that the expectations for the coming Kingdom were not going to be fulfilled as many Jews expected. In fact, even the expectations of Jesus’ followers were off mark. For example, John the Baptists’ doubt appears to have been motivated by his lack of understanding how the future King’s ministry could be almost entirely non-political (11:2–6). For this reason, Matthew intentionally emphasized the prophetic language of Daniel by calling the kingdom the KH, affirming the kingdom Jesus promised was the same one Daniel predicted years before. While the kingdom was to progress in ways the Jews were not prepared for (13:31–33), it was the same kingdom, and it would one day usurp all the kingdoms of the earth.
Second, just as the Kingdom coming from the God of Heaven reassured Daniel’s listeners that God’s plan was still functioning despite their historical context in Babylon, so Matthew’s KH reassured his readers that God’s plan was still moving forward despite the historical context in Rome. In both situations, the Jews wanted to be free from the political reigns of a domineering captor. And in both situations, God, through his inspired writers, gave glimpses of the future fulfillment of that hope. Rome, the final beast, will be conquered, and the kingdom from heaven will be finally and fully established. Though many hoped it would be fully established at Jesus’ first coming, the future is still secure—the statue will be toppled (Dan 2:35).
Third, Matthew’s use of KH assured his readers that those who embraced Jesus were on the side of the God in heaven who would establish his kingdom in the future on the earth. Though the kingdoms of the earth presently persecute Jesus’ followers (5:10; 23:34), believers will one day inherit the earth as members of God’s kingdom from heaven (5:5, 10). Their treasures, likewise, are stored in heaven for them (6:19–21). Though they appear fatherless in this world (23:9), they have a devoted Father in heaven (5:16; 12:50). On the other hand, the religious leaders have Satan as their father (13:38–39). They joined with the rulers of this world (both spiritual and political) against the KH (27:1–2), and they will share in the fate of the spiritual ruler of this world (25:41). They are of the type who will mourn when the Son comes from the heavens to take his throne (24:30). The contrast could not be presented more sharply. In the popular religious thought, Jesus’ followers were deceived and received persecution as a result of being found on the wrong “team.” Matthew’s gospel clearly displays that persecution is not proof that people are on the wrong team; rather it is proof they are on the right team (5:12)! They were not members of the kingdoms of this earth but had been granted access to a new family and kingdom through obedience to Christ (12:50). While it appeared they were missing the true Kingdom, Matthew assured his readers that they were the true recipients of God’s coming kingdom.
Finally, Matthew used KH to stress the superiority of heaven over earth. Because Matthew’s readers were sons of the Father in heaven, they should be confident in the future establishment of the Kingdom. That the King sitting in heaven has control over the earth is evident throughout Matthew’s Gospel. First, Matthew masterfully weaves two Old Testament references together when he identifies heaven as the throne of God, the earth as God’s footstool, and Jerusalem as the city of the Great King (Ps 48:1, 2; Isa 66:1; Matt 5:34, 35). Hupopodion (“footstool”) denotes subjection to a superior force. This terminology is often used to describe a victor putting his foot upon the conquered enemy’s neck. Second, Matthew records Jesus describing the Father as “Lord of heaven and earth” (11:25), a clear indication of God’s sovereignty over the earth. Third, Matthew describes God as having power over the earth through earthquakes. Matthew is the only gospel to record the earthquake at the crucifixion, noting that the “earth shook and the rocks broke in pieces” (27:51). Matthew is referring his readers back to the Old Testament’s depictions of God’s power and anger expressed through earthquakes. Matthew is also the only Gospel writer to record that the angel who rolled the stone away caused an earthquake. Clearly the weight of the stone itself did not cause the quake; instead, God was expressing his power over the earth through the resurrection of his Son. Though Jesus was three days in the heart of the earth (12:40), God’s power is shown in conquering both the spiritual (Satan) and political (Roman and Jewish) kingdoms of the earth in the resurrection of his Son. The earthquake serves as a vivid expression of God’s sovereignty over the world. Overall, Matthew’s emphasis on God’s power over the kingdoms of the earth served to give his readers confidence that though they were sometimes persecuted, reviled, and killed, God maintained ultimate control over the earth. Though the kings of the earth may appear to have power, they are unaware that even now their neck is under the foot of God, awaiting the day when God will bring his kingdom from the heavens to the earth.
While this paper has emphasized the effect Matthew’s KH language would have had on the original recipients, it has a significant impact on modern believers as well. In union with historic believers in Babylon and Rome, modern believers can also have hope that, while the world’s kingdoms continue to rage against the King of Heaven (Ps 2), the KH will one day supplant all the unrighteousness of this earth. And while these kingdoms appear independent of the sovereignty of the Father, they are subject to his power. Though modern believers are often ostracized and rejected, they are ultimately members of the KH. Though presently strangers and exiles, they will be united to Jesus in his kingdom at his second coming. They share in common with both Daniel’s and Matthew’s readers the hope of the future earthly kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ. Matthew masterfully concludes his gospel with the promise of this kingdom, noting that though the kings of the earth hate the king of heaven, Jesus has been given all authority in heaven and earth (28:18). He will return on the clouds of heaven to take his royal throne (24:30; 26:64). The battle is already over, and those aligned with God’s kingdom await the future victory march.