What Is the Kingdom of Heaven that Jesus Proclaims? (Excursus 1)

by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Audio (9:22)

Many centuries before Christ, when the nation of Israel was constituted on Mt. Sinai, the people accepted the Covenant of God their King.

"Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation." (Exodus 19:6)

A desert palace was made for the King called the tabernacle in the wilderness, his throne (the ark) was a gilded seat between two cherubim, and his presence was evidenced by a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. When he gave the orders to march the people broke camp, and when he signaled a halt they stopped again. They followed the King, his commands communicated through Moses, his prime minister.

But the people grew restive. "We want a king over us," they cried. "Then we will be like all other nations, with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles" (1 Samuel 8:19-20). God was displeased. "It is not you they have rejected," he told the prophet Samuel, "but they have rejected me as their king" (1 Samuel 8:7).

Nevertheless, the Lord acquiesced to their wishes and appointed a king for them. First, Saul, and when he proved unfit, David, who came from the tribe of Judah and was born in the village of Bethlehem. Note carefully that this was the Kingdom of God, not a human kingdom. Yes, David reigned, but he reigned for Yahweh the King as a kind of vice-regent. The prophet Nathan delivered to him an awesome promise:

"Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me; your throne will be established forever," and one of your sons will always sit upon it (2 Samuel 7:16).

Son of David, Messianic King

Carl Heinrich Bloch (Danish painter, 1834-90), Christ and Staff,
Carl Heinrich Bloch (Danish painter, 1834-90), "Christ and Staff," oil on canvas.
Larger image.

Jesus himself was that Son of David who had come to take up the Reign of God once more and restore the Kingdom to Israel. But it was not a kingdom with human glory like David's or Solomon's, but one with spiritual glory like the Kingdom in the Wilderness, where the King himself dwelt in the midst of his people. It is a spiritual kingdom which extends to every heart and life that acknowledges his kingship and obeys his commands.

So when Jesus came preaching, "Repent for the kingdom of heaven is near" (Matthew 4:17), he was speaking of himself. The kingdom was near in the King who was now in their midst. He proclaimed this truth to the Pharisees who surely did not have the kingdom in their hearts: "The kingdom of God is in the midst of you." (Luke 17:21, RSV).

This Reign of God, this Kingdom of God in the person of Christ, was resisted and rejected by the religious establishment, but received and embraced by the common folk, "the poor in spirit." Indeed, theirs was the kingdom.

Kingdom of Believers

The Kingdom once was the exclusive sphere of the Jews and those who joined themselves to them. But in one foreboding parable (Matthew 21:33-46), Jesus hints of a change. He tells of a landowner who plants a vineyard and then rents it out to tenants. When he sent his servants to collect the owner's share of the harvest, the tenants beat and killed them. Finally, the landowner sends his son to them, and they kill him, too. This is an allegory. The landowner is God, the vineyard his Kingdom, the tenants the Jews, the servants the prophets, and the son Jesus. In rejecting the King, the Jews have made themselves ineligible to be part of his Kingdom any longer. Jesus concludes the parable with the awesome words,

"Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit" (Matthew 21:43).

Now for a quick trip into the Letters of Paul to see the big picture. The physical Kingdom consisted of the descendents of the Twelve Tribes. The spiritual Kingdom consists of the spiritual descendents of the Twelve Apostles, "the Israel of God" (Galatians 6:16). While the Jews have been rejected (Romans 11) for now, "until the full number of the Gentiles has come in", then Israel will turn to the Lord and finally be included in the Kingdom and Jesus' salvation (Romans 11:26). Finally, Jesus will deliver the kingdom to his Father (1 Corinthians 15:24-28). Various Christian groups have developed elaborate doctrines and timetables in which to fit these events. We will not venture yet another. God is the timekeeper, and will bring about all these things in the fullness of his time.

Kingdom of Heaven or Kingdom of God?

But what does the phrase "kingdom of heaven" mean? Is it the same as the phrase "kingdom of God"? I've heard a lot of theories, but when you compare Matthew's gospel with the many parallel passages in the other Synoptics, Mark and Luke, you find that where Matthew says "kingdom of heaven," Mark and Luke say "kingdom of God." The explanation is this: Matthew was writing especially for a Jewish audience who were careful not to utter the name of God, lest they be guilty of breaking the Third Commandment, "to take the name of the Lord your God in vain" (Exodus 20:7). We hear people doing the same thing today. "For heaven's sake!" someone will exclaim. They've trained themselves to speak that way so as not to dishonor God.

When you see "kingdom of heaven" in Matthew, it means exactly the same thing as "kingdom of God" in the other gospels. It refers to the Reign of God which has come in the person of Jesus Christ himself, and will culminate in the coming of Christ and his reign on earth, the time looked forward to in the Lord's Prayer: "Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven" (Matthew 6:10). The Kingdom is now in the presence of the King in our lives through his Spirit. Yet we look forward to the future when that "earnest of the Spirit" (KJV, 2 Corinthians 1:22; 5:5; Ephesians 1:14), that down payment we've received, will be completed when the King returns and establishes his kingdom on earth where there was once human resistance and rebellion.

References to the Kingdom in the Sermon on the Mount

"Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." (5:3)
"Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." (5:10)
"Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven." (5:19-20)
Sermon on the Mount: The Jesus Manifesto, by Ralph F. Wilson
Sermon on the Mount: The Jesus Manifesto
is available in paperback and ebook formats
"... Your kingdom come,
your will be done
on earth as it is in heaven." (6:10)
"But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well." (6:33)
"Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven." (7:21)

Copyright © 2024, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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