Sound bites can mislead… and here is one of those cases where inappropriate expectations of what we read in the Gospels can get Christians into serious trouble.
If you read about the “kingdom” in the Gospels, particularly with the parables of Jesus, you will notice that Matthew exclusively uses the term “kingdom of heaven,” whereas a variety of Gospel writers (including Matthew) use “kingdom of God.” Some draw the conclusion that “kingdom of heaven” and “kingdom of God,” are from the lips of Jesus, and therefore must mean different things. Is this a correct way to interpret Scripture?
Kingdom of Heaven vs. Kingdom of God?
Throughout much of the 20th century, one popular approach to the “kingdom” had insisted that the “kingdom of heaven” is physical. It is Christ’s millennial reign on earth, part of the fulfillment of God’s Old Testament promises to national, ethnic Israel, with earthly Jerusalem as its capital. The “kingdom of God,” on the other hand, is about a “spiritual” kingdom, an unseen reality, for all people who believe in Christ.1
Two proof texts are often cited to support this distinction:
- ” From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.“(Matthew 11:12 ESV)
Advocates of this view reason that the “kingdom of heaven” must be physical, since “violence” only makes sense in a physical, and not a spiritual context.
- ” Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you.”“(Luke 17:21 KJV)
Likewise, if the “kingdom of God” is “within you,” it must be spiritual.
At first glance, this viewpoint may sound quite reasonable. But when you dig more into the Gospels as a whole, you will begin to realize how unworkably complicated this theory really is. Consider just two parables: the parable of the hidden treasure and the parable of the pearl of great price.
- ‘”44 The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. 45 Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls,46 who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it.”
(Matthew 13:44-46 ESV)
Holding to a radical distinction between the kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of God puts the Bible reader in a complicated trap. For if the kingdom of heaven is about a physical, and not a spiritual promise, what do you do about the kingdom being something of great value?
Remember those sermons that told you that the kingdom is of such great value, that you will do anything to obtain it? Well, if the kingdom of heaven is really about a future promise to national, ethnic Israel, with Jerusalem as its capital, then these two parables probably would not mean anything to a non-Jewish person. You do not find the parable of the hidden treasure, or the pearl of great price, in any other Gospel, other than Matthew. There is no specific reference to the spiritual kingdom of God, regarding these two parables, in the New Testament. Therefore, unless you are Jewish, all of those sermon lessons are pretty much useless.
If that does not make you stop and think, consider how Matthew and Luke differ on their telling of the parable of the leaven:
- ” He told them another parable. ‘The kingdom of heaven is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened.’ ” (Matthew 13:33 ESV)“
- ” And again he said, “To what shall I compare the kingdom of God? It is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, until it was all leavened.’” (Luke 13:20-21 ESV)
So, what is the difference between these two versions of the same parable? Matthew uses kingdom of heaven, whereas Luke uses kingdom of God. Otherwise, we have the same thing. There are no other striking differences. But if the kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of God are radically different, then you have boxed yourself into yet another trap. You have just created for yourself a discrepancy, if not an outright contradiction, in Scripture, that need not exist!
This is not a good solution.
For these, and many other reasons, most Bible scholars today reject the idea of a radical distinction between the kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of God. In other words, the kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of God are really just two different ways of saying essentially the same thing. There is no need to overcomplicate the Scriptures.
However, you might still wonder: Why the difference in terminology if these statements are direct quotations from Jesus? As I have written about before, “Red Letter Bibles,” where the words of Jesus are written in red, may cause people to have misleading expectations, if folks are not careful. While it is possible that we have at least some (if not many, many!) direct quotations from the mouth of Jesus, in the Gospels, there is nothing with respect to the inspiration or inerrancy of Scripture that would have required the disciples to be carrying around ancient “tape recorders,” making sure that every syllable uttered by Jesus would be accurately recorded in each of Matthew’s, Mark’s, Luke’s or John’s Gospels.
As anyone knows, who pays attention to modern media, it is possible to cherry pick accurately transcribed statements made by someone in the news, and then to frame those statements in ways that completely misrepresent what that person really believes. We call those statements sound bites, and sound bites do not necessarily help us to better understand the truth. The Gospels, on the other hand, are more concerned about properly framing the entire 30+ year life, ministry, and message of Jesus, in compressed narrative form, than are modern people who are obsessed with sound bites.
The Gospels were not modern legal court transcripts, and they did not need to be. Instead, it would have been sufficient for each writer to be able to faithfully record the exact meaning of what Jesus was communicating, and then faithfully adapt that message to the unique audience that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John each were specifically trying to reach.
Think about it.
If the whole idea of the Gospels was to give us verbatim transcriptions of what Jesus said, then what would be the point of preaching? If this was indeed the case, would it not be better, to simply record the words of Jesus on an MP3 player, hook it into your church’s sound system during sermon time, press play, and then tell your pastor to take the rest of the day off?
No, of course, not.
The value of preaching is that we look to pastors, teachers, apologists, and evangelists to take the message of Jesus, and present it in the cultural context we are living in, some twenty centuries later, so that we might better understand it. What we do have with the Gospels is a divinely authorized, divinely inspired set of texts that the earliest Christians used to proclaim the truth of who Jesus really was and is, in their day. Christian pastors and teachers today are given the privilege to use these Gospels as authoritative templates for doing the same type of thing, in our own day.
So, then, how do we explain why Matthew alone uses the kingdom of heaven terminology, whereas someone like Luke favors kingdom of God? The verdict is still out on this question, but there are some credible, compelling answers.
The majority view accepted by scholars today is that Matthew was addressing primarily a Jewish audience, who hesitated to speak the name of God, for fear of using the Lord’s name in vain. Being sensitive to Jewish concerns, Matthew merely substituted the word “heaven” for “God,” so as not to needlessly offend his audience.
There is the merit of simplicity to this argument. However, there are some who are not so sure that this adequately explains all of the data, thus calling for a more nuanced solution. For Matthew, even in other contexts, will use the word “God” throughout his Gospel without embarrassment (some 51 times!!). So, there must be something more going on, than just a sign of being reverential before his audience. In this view, some suggest that Matthew is specifically using the language of “heaven” in contrast with the “earth.” For Matthew, God’s kingdom is about bringing the rule of God down from heaven to earth. We see this most memorably with his version of the Lord’s Prayer:4
- ” Your kingdom come, your will be done,on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 13:33 ESV)
There is a lot more to unpack here, a theme that I have touched on before, but the primary lessons learned should be straight-forward:
- The kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of God are essentially interchangeable concepts, though the Gospel writers will express these ideas slightly differently, per their respective audiences.
- Overly simplistic theories, that try to supposedly “defend the Bible,” can get rather complicated, creating more problems than they try to solve.
- The Gospel writers adapted the teachings of Jesus to address their specific unique audiences, but this does not imply that they were “making things up.”
- The Gospel writers were faithful to Christ’s message, and we can learn something from their different perspectives.
- You can trust your Bible.
This post is a “rabbit trail” on the Veracity series concerning “Christian Zionism.” You can find out more about the blog post series here.
1. You can thank the Scofield Bible for popularizing the basic outline of this view, associated with classic dispensationalism. Classic dispensationalism acts as a type of grid that many 20th century, fundamentalist Bible interpreters have used to understand the Bible. The main idea behind classic dispensationalism is that there is a distinction between national, ethnic Israel and the New Testament church. that runs throughout the whole Bible. More recent forms of dispensationalism, have backed off on the extreme elements found in the classic view, popular in the 20th century. There are also some other views that go in a different direction, that no sound Bible scholar would advocate, but that are still found in some “Bible-believing” churches, that tend to overly complicate the Scriptures. ↩
2. More recent advocates of dispensationalism tend to downplay the classic dispensationalist hard distinction between the kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of God. But it is difficult to figure out how this all works out. Some say that the kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of God look the same in the present age, but that their true differences will be revealed in a future age. Mmmm…. Is this an insight drawn from the Scriptures, or an ad hoc explanation as to why Matthew sometimes uses the terminology interchangeably? (See Matthew 19:23-24 for the clearest example). If you drill down into the interpretation of the parable of the hidden treasure, the difficulties increase. The standard, historical view holds that the parable is about the day laborer, representing the follower of Christ, who gives up everything to obtain the Kingdom, found in Christ, the true treasure. But some dispensationalist interpreters reject this view, saying that the treasure; i.e. Christ, is not for sale, and that a follower of Christ has nothing to offer to obtain the treasure. Instead, they reason that the parable is about what Christ does, who finds the treasure, and does what He does to obtain that treasure; i.e. Israel. This might have some traction, except that it is nowhere obvious in the Bible that the treasure is uniquely a symbol for Israel. Jesus also says in Matthew 6:21, “for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Would such dispensational interpreters recast this as “for where Israel is, there your heart will be also?” How far does one take this line of reasoning? Moreover, this view completely ignores the immediate context of the parable, that indicates that the field worker discovered the treasure hidden in the field. So, in what sense did Christ discover the “hidden” treasure, we know as Israel? Compound this with the Scofield Bible’s insistence that the next parable, about the pearl of great price, associates the pearl that Christ recovers, as being the New Testament church. Well, it is true that God gave up His only Son, that He might rescue and obtain a people, to be reconciled to Him, as we read this elsewhere in the Bible. But is this really the message we are to draw from this particular text, for these parables? So, how does this fit in with the idea that the kingdom of heaven is about a physical kingdom, with Jerusalem as its capital? Beats me. …. Well, this is all very interesting, but it looks more like a theological system grid in search of Bible verses to support it, instead of an unbiased examination of the text. ↩
3. Most Bible scholars today prefer solutions that adhere to the principle of Ockham’s Razor. William Ockham was a medieval philosopher who advocated solutions to problems that were simple, but not simplistic. In other words, take the most simple concept that has the greatest explanatory power. With respect to the issue of the “kingdom of God” as a theme in the Bible, no other modern evangelical scholar has done more to influence today’s preachers than George Eldon Ladd, a 20th century professor of theology at Fuller Theological Seminary. Though he did not think of it himself, Ladd popularized the idea that the Kingdom of God/Heaven is both “now” and “not yet.” In other words, there is a present aspect of the kingdom as well as a future aspect of the kingdom, that Jesus preached about. The beauty of Ladd’s thesis is that while it tries to explain a lot, it is a fairly simple concept. Ladd was a severe critic of the classic dispensational view that divided the kingdom of. heaven from the kingdom of God. Ladd was also an historical premillennialist, that makes room for a future fulfillment or restoration of the Abrahamic land promise to national, ethnic Israel, which is the core idea behind today’s Christian Zionism. So Christians who fear that the specific promises given to national Israel are being somehow “replaced” by the church, need not be threatened by Ladd’s ideas. What is extraordinary about Ladd’s teaching is that both contemporary dispensationalists and covenant theologians appeal to Ladd’s “now” and “not yet” ideas to support their doctrines, albeit in different ways. Here is a sample sermon from pastor John Piper that lays out Ladd’s ideas for the average evangelical Christian. ↩
4. Jonathan Pennington, a professor of theology at Southern Baptist Seminary, has done the most work to challenge the current “reverential circumlocution” view that dominates the thinking of most pastors and scholars today. The Gospel Coalition has an interview with Pennington that summarizes his views. ↩