What is the kingdom of heaven?

Following is chapter 1 of The Kingdom According to Jesus. You may order the entire study from a number of the nation’s leading booksellers.

The terms “kingdom of God,” “kingdom of heaven,” and “kingdom” (with reference to the kingdom of God/heaven) appear nearly 150 times in scripture. None of these references gives a simple, straightforward definition of the kingdom, and many passages appear to be contradictory. Yet the kingdom is the primary focus of Jesus’ teaching. Many of His parables describe the kingdom. The apostles preach the “gospel of the kingdom.” And end-times prophecy points us toward the day when God’s kingdom will come in its fullness.

So, what is the kingdom of heaven? Are the kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of God the same thing? Is the kingdom here already, or are we to wait for it? What does it look like? Who’s in the kingdom and who’s not? And what is required to enter the kingdom? We will explore these and other questions in this book, mostly through the lens of Jesus’ parables in Matthew on the kingdom of heaven. To begin, we need to understand what the Bible says the kingdom of heaven is – and is not.

What the kingdom of heaven is not

There are many incorrect views about the kingdom that have emerged over the years – among them, that the kingdom of heaven is:

  • An inward power; a purely subjective realm of God’s power and influence in our lives.
  • An apocalyptic realm – altogether future and supernatural – that God will install at the end of human history; it is by no means present or spiritual.
  • The church – either the ever-expanding church as the world is Christianized, ushering in the kingdom, or the true church hidden within professing Christianity.
  • The universe – all of God’s creation over which He is sovereign.
  • Heaven – in contrast to earth.

As we’ll see, none of these views holds up under a careful study of Scripture.

So … what is the kingdom of heaven?

The kingdom of heaven simply is God’s reign – His authority to rule. The following truths help us understand the kingdom in more practical terms:

  • The kingdom is God’s conquest, through Jesus Christ, of His enemies: sin, Satan, and death.
  • The kingdom comes in stages. It was foretold by Jewish prophets as an everlasting, mighty and righteous reign involving the nation of Israel and its coming King – the Messiah. It came humbly through the virgin birth of the Son of God and exists today as a “mystery” in the hearts of all believers. In the Second Coming, the kingdom will at last appear in power and glory. And after Christ’s millennial reign on earth, He will deliver the kingdom to the Father, having finally put away sin (it no longer is a reality to be dealt with), Satan (he will be cast into hell to be tormented night and day forever), and death (there is no longer physical or spiritual death).
  • The Bible describes this three-fold fact: 1) Some passages refer to the kingdom as God’s reign, rule, or authority; 2) some passages refer to the kingdom as the realm into which we may now enter to experience the blessings of His reign; and 3) some passages refer to the kingdom as a future realm that will come only with the return of Jesus. All three are true.
  • As all kingdoms must have a king, Jesus is King of the kingdom of heaven. As King of kings and Lord of lords, Jesus is the eternal Son of God to whom, one day, “every knee should bow … and every tongue should confess …” (Phil. 2:10-11).
  • People enter the kingdom and become its citizens by faith in Jesus Christ.

The paradox of the kingdom

When we turn to the Scriptures, we find a perplexing diversity of statements about the kingdom, many of them focusing on the now-vs.-future aspects of the kingdom of heaven:

  • The kingdom is a present spiritual reality (Rom. 14:17); at the same time, it is a future inheritance that God will give His people when Christ returns in glory (Matt. 25:34).
  • The kingdom is a realm into which Christians have already entered (Col. 1:13); then again, it is a future realm we will enter when Christ returns (Matt. 8:11; 2 Peter 1:11).
  • The kingdom will be ushered in with great glory (Matt. 13:41-43, 24:30); yet, its coming is without signs (Luke 17:20-21).
  • The kingdom is present and at work in the world (Luke 13:18-21); still, Jesus tells Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36).
  • The kingdom is a present reality (Matt. 12:28) and a future blessing (1 Cor. 15:50-57).
  • The kingdom is an inner spiritual redemptive blessing (Rom. 14:17) that can only be experienced through the new birth (John 3:3); yet, it will involve world government (Rev. 11:15).
  • People enter the kingdom now (Matt. 21:31) and in the future (Matt. 8:11).
  • The kingdom is a gift God will give the redeemed in the future (Luke 22:29-30) and yet it must be received in the present (Mark 10:15).

How do we reconcile these seemingly contradictory teachings? Simply by setting aside our modern notion of a kingdom as a physical boundary over which a king rules. “The primary meaning of both the Hebrew word malkuth in the Old Testament and of the Greek word basileia in the New Testament is the rank, authority and sovereignty exercised by a king. A basileia may indeed be a realm over which a sovereign exercises authority; and it may be the people who belong to that realm and over whom authority is exercised; but these are secondary and derived meanings. First of all, a kingdom is the authority to rule, the sovereignty of the king.” (The Gospel of the Kingdom: Scriptural Studies in the Kingdom of God by George Eldon Ladd, p. 19).

Certainly God’s kingdom has a realm – the believer’s heart today, the earth throughout the millennium, and the restored heavens and earth after sin, Satan and death are finally put away – but our understanding of the kingdom will advance more quickly if we remember that the kingdom first and foremost is God’s authority to rule.

The kingdom of heaven vs. the kingdom of God

The terms “kingdom of heaven” and “kingdom of God” are interchangeable. Only Matthew uses the term “kingdom of heaven,” possibly because his gospel is written to Jews who for fear of taking God’s name in vain used the word “heaven” when referring to God. Even more likely, Jews would be familiar with the phrase “kingdom of heaven” or “kingdom of the heavens,” while most Greeks would not. Therefore, Mark, Luke, and even Matthew on occasion (Matt. 19:23-24, for example) prefer the term “kingdom of God” to make the text more understandable to Greek readers.

Some commentators believe there is a distinction between the kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of God. They say the kingdom of heaven refers to professing Christianity throughout the church age (Pentecost to the Rapture), while the kingdom of God spans across time and eternity. But this view does not hold up since some of Jesus’ parables about the kingdom of heaven in Matthew are recorded in other gospels as relating to the kingdom of God. We should not try to force a separate meaning on the kingdom of heaven just because Matthew preferred that term.

The “world” vs. the “age”

There are two Greek words translated “world” in older translations of Scripture: kosmos and aion. They are not the same, and translating both words as “world” obscures what God’s Word says about His kingdom. 

Kosmos refers to something in proper order or harmony. In its most common usage in Scripture, kosmos is the created universe. In contrast, aion designates a period of time and ought to be translated “age.” Matt. 12:32 is a good example of aion being translated “world” in the King James Version, when it should be translated “age:” “Whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man, it will be forgiven him. But whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit, it will not be forgiven him, either in this age or in the one to come” (HCSB).

When kosmos and aion are properly translated, we begin to see that God’s Word tells us about two ages: This Age (from the fall to the Second Coming of Christ), followed by The Age to Come. This Age is dominated by sin (Gal. 1:4), while The Age to Come will be characterized by righteousness. For a graphic depiction of this teaching, see the chart, “The Conflict of the Ages.”

The mystery of the kingdom

Finally, it’s important to understand that many of Jesus’ parables deal with the “mystery” of the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 13:11). The Greek word for mystery, or secret, is mysteria and means what we can know only by divine revelation. This has particular value in helping us understand the kingdom of heaven in this present age. The Jews were looking for a political and military kingdom based on their understanding of the Old Testament; they completely bypassed the prophecies in Isaiah 53 and elsewhere about the Suffering Servant and thereby rejected Jesus as Messiah.

And so the kingdom of heaven is here in the Person of Jesus. But the mystery of the kingdom is that it must first come without fanfare in the Lamb of God who, through His death, burial and resurrection, would take away the sin of the world. The kingdom will come in power and great glory one day when Jesus returns as the Lion of the Tribe of Judah (see Rev. 19:11-16).