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The Kingdom Of God

Why Is It Termed "The Kingdom Of Heaven"?

Leslie M. Grant

What child of God has not been stirred by the challenging words of the Lord Jesus, “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you?” (Mt. 6:33). It is a great mercy of God that where faith is in exercise, though intelligence may not clearly discern what this involves, there is an understanding of heart that gives blessed compensation.

Still, if it is so with us, and our heart is drawn with willing ardour by such words, shall we be content to allow our intelligence to remain uninstructed as to our Lord’s own teachings concerning the kingdom of God? – in other words, not to know intelligently what we are seeking? If the heart is to be kept with all diligence, the mind too must be kept by no less a power (cf. Phil. 4:7). It is well if neither lags behind, but both keep proper pace with one another.

However, it is the writer’s conviction that, in order to obtain the clearest understanding of the kingdom it is necessary to consider the scriptural terms used in connection with it. They are many; but the most prominent of these are “the kingdom of God” and “the kingdom of heaven.”

Neither of these terms occur in the Old Testament, but the former is used extensively in the New, the latter only in the Gospel of Matthew – and there 33 times. On the other hand the term “the kingdom of God” is used 33 times in Luke’s Gospel. If in Matthew, in blessing the poor, the Lord says, “theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” in Luke it is rather, “yours is the kingdom of God” (Mt. 5:3; Lk. 6:20). Likewise in Matthew “the kingdom of heaven” is symbolized in the parable of the mustard seed and of the leaven hid in three measures of meal, while in Luke the same is said of “the kingdom of God” (Mt. 13:31-33; Lk. 13:18-21). Mark also uses the expression “the kingdom of God” in reference to the parable of the mustard seed (Mk. 4;30-32).

In these cases therefore it is manifest that the same kingdom is referred to, but in different terms. This must be clearly recognized or we shall find the whole subject obscured, together with many passages of scripture. Nor must we think lightly of the fact of these distinct expressions being used; for the wisdom of God has ordered it so, and every shade of variation in scripture language is of definite significance. Shall we not then in a spirit of godly concern inquire into the divine reasons for this difference?


While neither of the terms is found in the Old Testament, yet the kingdom of Israel is called “the kingdom of Jehovah,” this being God’s covenant-name in relation to His earthly people (1 Chron. 28:5). Did God then have a kingdom on earth during the Old Testament period? Definitely so, for His kingdom implies the establishing of His authority publicly in whatever sphere. Tis was not so among any of the Gentile nations, but absolutely so in Israel.

Responsibility to administer this kingdom rested upon rulers, priests, elders in Israel, and authority for this was centered in Jerusalem, where God was pleased to set His name. When Jereboam rent the ten tribes from Judah and Benjamin, setting up his kingdom in Samaria, this was in no sense recognized as “the kingdom of Jehovah;” for God’s authority remained in Jerusalem, the place of His choice (2 Chron. 13:8). Let us observe however that, since this God-given authority was vested in an earthly center, this could not at all be called “the kingdom of heaven.”


However, Matthew 21:43 shows that “the kingdom of God” had actually been given to Israel. The parable of the vineyard and the husbandmen (vv. 33-41) illustrates God’s entrusting His kingdom to the rulers of the nation, who, upon every effort of God to seek their recognition of His rights, rejected not only His voice in the prophets, but in the very person on His Son. Had Israel not been guilty of the shameful corruption of Jehovah’s kingdom? What only could result? “Therefore I say unto you, the kingdom of God shall be taken from you, and given to a nation bringing forth the fruits thereof.”

It is obvious that this “nation” cannot refer to any particular Gentle nation. It may more likely look forward to the Millennium, when a renewed Israel will bring forth fruits worthy of the kingdom; yet it may also have a present application as seen in 1 Peter 2:9: “But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people.” Peter speaks here of a people chosen of God from among all the nations, not with any earthly basis or center of gathering whatever. This of course the Jews would not understand, but it was not necessary that they should.

Matthew 21:43 is one of the few verses in which Matthew speaks of “the kingdom of God.” He could not say “the kingdom of heaven” in this case, for it was not as the kingdom of heaven that God’s authority had been established in Jerusalem. But why then does Matthew use this term so constantly in his Gospel? If God were now taking His kingdom from Israel, and authority would no longer be cerntered in Jerusalem, where now would be the headquarters of this authority? The answer is simply that God was withdrawing authority entirely from earthly headquarters or earthly representatives: His kingdom would be the kingdom of heaven, its authority now centered in heaven. The King Himself was rejected on earth, and is now in Heaven: therefore all authority is administered from heaven.

This is particularly necessary in Matthew’s Gospel; for he writes from a Jewish point of view, and powerfully presents the great change in God’s dispensational ways, with its spiritual and moral reasons. In Judaism God has spoken on earth: now He is speaking from heaven (Heb. 12:25). The King of glory Himself had come, with no credentials from Jerusalem, but from heaven itself. If the Jews question the source of His authority, He will challenge them as to recognizing authority “from heaven of men” (Mt. 21:23-27).

In Matthew 5, 6, and 7 let us remark that in laying down the principles of the kingdom of heaven, our blessed Lord contemplates a condition in Israel utterly foreign to a true state of subjection to the King. This is seen especially in the beatitudes, everything being out of course in the nation; and hence a path of discipleship would be one of suffering. This dark and dreadful background would but serve to enhance the exquisite beauties of true subjection to the authority of heaven.

It may be well to mention in reference to the above, that some have considered that the kingdom of God is a term inclusive of all history, since God has always been King; and this is supported by 2 Peter 1:11: “the everlasting kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” However, it should be evident that the verse presses the unchanging character of the coming kingdom, in contrast to all previous kingdoms: it replaces all others, but will never be replaced. Hence, it would seem an unwarranted forcing of the verse to make it apply to the past eternity also. While indeed God has always been in absolute authority over creation, yet that authority was first established in a public sphere on earth, in the nation Israel.

In the opposite direction another objection has been made, to the effect that certain scriptures appear to teach definitely that the kingdom of God did not begin until New Testament times. Thus Mark 1:15 quotes the Lord Jesus, “The kingdom of God did not begin until has drawn nigh” (J.N.D trans.). Again, “There is not a greater prophet than John the Baptist: but he that is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he” (Lk.7:28). Also, “The law and the prophets were until John: since that time the kingdom of God is preached” (Lk. 16:16).

Here we surely need extreme care, that we give these scriptures their full weight, and to consider them together with others also. For it is just as plain that the Lord Jesus told the Jews, “The kingdom of God shall be taken from you, and given to a nation bringing forth the fruits thereof” (Mt. 21:43). The Lord refers to the vineyard, the kingdom of Israel, in which God’s authority had been established. The Jewish leaders would be stripped of all the authority with which God had first endowed them. If this is a seeming contradiction, is the answer not simply in this, that the kingdom of God was now to be in a different form completely? Being on an earthly level in the Old Testament was merely an interim arrangement, by which men were proven totally unfit as the dispensers of God’s kingdom; and now the Lord Jesus speaks as totally ignoring this earthly form of things, as though it never had been the kingdom of God. The true King Himself had come: it was the sowing of a new crop, a kingdom that would not be limited to Israel. Moreover the kingdom of Israel never had been the subject of God’s testimony: rather the law and the prophets had given God’s mind to the nation: now the kingdom of God was preached. John the Baptist preached it, yet in a certain form of it, he did not enter it.


Let us however consider the distinct aspects of the kingdom today. The parables of the mustard seed and of the leaven hid in three measures of meal (Mt. 13:31-33; Luke 13:18-21) clearly teach us that this kingdom (whether called “the kingdom of God” or “the kingdom of heaven”) would degenerate into an evil condition, allowing both internal corruption (leaven) and external reception of Satan’s emissaries (the birds of the air). This has been drastically fulfilled in present-day Christendom, and it is self-evident that both of these terms apply to that sphere of things that professes to be Christian, but has included a mixture of evil principles, and of actual unbelievers.

But here is also another distinctive aspect, - the only aspect that John’s Gospel considers. For there we are told , “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (Jn. 3:3). This excludes unbelievers completely. Does this not give us the vital, true character of the kingdom? Many are in the kingdom in a public, outward way, who are not so in any vital, real way. John deals with this vital connection in life with the Son of God, this aspect in fact is seen even in Matthew 13, where, up to verse 35 the public character of the kingdom of heaven is seen, but later, in verse 45 and 46, where the Lord is in the house, speaking only to His disciples, He uses the term in connection with “the pearl of great price,” that is, the true Church of God, in which there is no mixture. Connected with this aspect also is the lovely expression of Colossians 1:13: “Who hath delivered us from the power of darkness, and hath translated us into the kingdom of the Son of His love.” This term can apply only to the inner blessedness of the kingdom.

It will be seen, however, that both terms, the kingdom of God and the kingdom of heaven, are used in reference to public profession; and both are used in describing the inward, true character of the kingdom. A walnut may be called by the same name, whether including the shell, or after being divested of the shell, therefore, during the present dispensation at least the kingdom of God is rightly called “the kingdom of heaven.” Either expression is appropriate, depending on the connections involved.


In the vital, inward sense, the kingdom is entirely in the hand of God, in the outward sense it has been committed into the hands of men as regards responsibility for public administration, but with no earthly headquarters. This is explicit in our Lord’s words to Peter in Matthew 16:19: “And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Heaven reserves final and full authority. But the keys here are certainly not of the Church, the body of Christ, and certainly not of heaven itself; but involve clearly the public admittance of souls into the sphere of professed Christianity, or the public refusal of them. It has been well observed that Peter used these keys freely on the day of Pentecost, - “the key of knowledge” in faithfully declaring the testimony of God concerning His Son, and the key of baptism, which is the means by which in a public sense souls are admitted into the kingdom of heaven.

This initial opening of the kingdom of heaven was particularly committed to Peter, whose ministry is characteristically that of the kingdom; yet it is of course evident that the same keys were used subsequently, and rightly, by the other apostles also, and by disciples who were not apostles. However, while Paul tells us that he did baptize, yet he adds, “Christ sent me not to baptize, but to preach the Gospel” (1 Cor. 1:17). For he was emphatically “minister” of the Church (Col. 1:24-25), not of the kingdom. The ordinance of baptism is solely connected with the kingdom. On the other hand, Paul was given a special revelation as to the Lord’s supper (1 Cor. 11:23-26), for this is an ordinance strictly for the Church, the body of Christ (1 Cor. 10:16-17).

But to return to Matthew 16:19: as regards loosing, this involves a public loosing from sins, as is implied clearly in the water baptism of the three thousand converts at Pentecost. Compare Acts 2:38-40; 22:16). These passages do not speak of eternal remission or washing away of sins, but of governmental forgiveness, which is not necessarily eternal, but conditional upon continuance. This is illustrated in Matthew 18:23-35, which presents a likeness of “the kingdom of heaven.” A servant deeply in debt is “loosed” on the ground of his outward submission to the king. But his subsequent cruelty to a fellow servant manifests a heart untouched by grace. His forgiveness is therefore rescinded, and by the word of the king he is again “bound.” – delivered to the tormentors. A solemn example of the truth here portrayed is seen in Simon the sorcerer (Acts 8:9-24). Loosed by Philip, in baptism, he continued for a time; then when Peter and John came to Samaria and through laying on of their hands the Spirit of God came upon believers there, Simon offered them money for the power to give the Spirit to others. This manifested him as still actually the slave of Satan, and Peter does not hesitate to “bind” him again, by words that deny Simon either “part or lot” in this matter: he has forfeited all title to any place in the kingdom of heaven.

The complete purging out of the false, however cannot take place until the coming of the Lord. While the wheat and tares grow together in the field (not in the Church), yet the coming of the King will manifest clearly who are truly “the children of the kingdom,” and who are not (Mt. 13:24-30; 36-43). Again, Matthew 22:1-14 is a parable of the kingdom of heaven, clearly teaching these same truths. When the King comes in, He finds a man with no wedding garment: he is bound hand and foot, taken away and cast into outer darkness. The parable of the ten virgins also declares this solemn separation, the foolish locked outside the door (Mt. 25:1-13).

We must press home seriously however the truth that the kingdom of heaven is not the Church, the body of Christ. If some would insist that the Church is to receive every mere professor of Christianity, without question of his true faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, they would thereby reduce the Church to the level of the kingdom of heaven. 2 Cor. 6:14-8 firmly forbids all such mixed fellowship. Discipline in this respect is the solemn responsibility of every member of the body of Christ. Church or assembly administration is on a far higher ground than that of the kingdom; and there must be godly concern that assembly fellowship is limited only to those who are saved by the grace of God. 1 Timothy 5:22-15 is also a serious warning as to this, implying that not everyone can be truly known at first acquaintance, and therefore godly caution is to be always in exercise. It was “while men slept” that the enemy sowed tares among the wheat; and to find anything similar to this in “the Church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth,” would be a contradiction of her character.

While therefore the Church is definitely in the kingdom of heaven today, yet she is responsible to maintain a fellowship of faith and love on a higher level than that of the kingdom, and in separation from everything that is contrary to the blessed nature and authority of her great Lord and Master. For while being in the kingdom, she is therefore a subject of the King, yet she is more than this: she is espoused as a chaste virgin to her Husband (2 Cor. 11:2). Thus, as her place and privileges are immeasurably greater than those belonging to the mere subjects of the King, so indeed must her responsibilities rise to a higher elevation. The epistles of Paul particularly reveal these infinite blessings and the godly order becoming to them.


But there are aspects of the kingdom of heaven in which the Church is not included at all. In Matthew 13:44 we have again what is vital and real in the counsels of God: “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto treasure hid in a field; the which when a man hath found, he hideth, and for joy thereof goeth and selleth all that he hath, and buyeth that field.” This treasure is the godly, hidden remnant of Israel, typified by Sara buried in the field in hope of a better (national) resurrection. The field is the world, and Christ, buying the field, secures the treasure, an earthly people. The nation will rise again. But during the present period of the gathering of the Church, Israel is hidden by the Lord’s own hand, in view of coming glory.

Let us observe here that the kingdom of God will not be established in Israel again until the authority of the Lord Jesus form heaven is recognized. “The Lord whom ye seek shall suddenly come to His temple” (Mal. 3:1). Therefore, the term “kingdom of heaven” is used in reference to the regathering and blessing of Israel, until such time as authority is again communicated to Jerusalem in her fully restored state. Following this there seems no indication of the continued used of the term “the kingdom of heaven,” but the kingdom of God certainly continues. We are told of “the Son of Man coming in His kingdom,” and this is surely the kingdom of God, but termed appropriately to the circumstances (Mt. 16:28). Also there will be the heavenly side of the kingdom, “the everlasting kingdom of the Father,” or “His heavenly kingdom” (Mt.13:42; 2Tim. 4:18). The everlasting kingdom is another term used to denote its eternal character in a purified state. But “the kingdom of God” is a general term that includes all of these aspects.

“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a net, that was cast into the sea, and gathered of every kind: which, when it was full, they drew to shore, and sat down, and gathered the good into vessels, but cast the bad away” (Mt. 13:47-48). In this case, the sea and the fishes can hold no allusion to the Church or to Israel, but rather to the Gentile nations (cf. Rev. 17:15) and to individuals gathered from them. Matthew 25:31-46 speaks also of the great separative judgment that will take place at the end of the age, when “all nations” will be gathered, but the judgment as such not national, but individual. This too, taking place at the end of the tribulation period, will introduce millennial blessing for Gentiles. But again, let us remark that it is from no earthly center that this authoritative action is taken. The Son of Man comes in His glory: the authority of heaven takes sovereign action.

Are we not to gather from all these things that true results for God are not achieved by authority being committed into the hand of the creature, but by direct authority from heaven? May we seek nothing less than this, but in serious reality “seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God” (Col. 3:1). Here we have both the blessedness of every spiritual joy, and sovereign, untarnished, holy authority. Blessed object of adoring faith and of willing, devoted obedience!