Classical dispensational teaching makes a clear distinction between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of heaven as used in the Bible. C. I. Scofield defines the two phrases in his reference Bible notes on Matthew 3:2 and Matthew 6:33. According to Scofield, the kingdom of heaven “signifies the Messianic earth rule of Jesus Christ, the Son of David.”
In Scofield’s notes on Matthew 6:33, he states that the kingdom of God can be distinguished from the kingdom of heaven in five respects. The characteristics of the kingdom of God are summarized as follows:
- The kingdom of God is universal and includes angels and saints of all ages.
- The kingdom of God is entered only by the new birth.
- The kingdom of God and the kingdom of heaven “have almost all things in common.”
- The kingdom of God is chiefly inward and spiritual.
- The kingdom of God merges into the kingdom of heaven when Christ puts all things under His feet.
For the sake of space, I have mostly paraphrased the teachings of Scofield, but I believe this to be an accurate representation of his teaching. If in doubt, you can check it yourself.
Now, before I analyze this teaching, I want to give a brief personal testimony. I am a dispensationalist in my understanding of scripture. I believe that a dispensational framework clarifies and explains scriptural doctrine much more accurately than covenant theology or other choices. Therefore, by choice, either by listening in class or in the reading of books, I have sat at the feet of many dispensational Bible teachers. I thank them for the help they have been to me in many areas.
However, each time I have read a book or sat in a class that described the standard distinctions between the kingdom of God and kingdom of heaven, I left unsatisfied. I always felt that the teaching was guilty of proof-texting. That is, several verses are found to support your viewpoint, but many of verses that did not fit the scheme were ignored. Therefore, the whole counsel of God is sacrificed for the sake of what is perceived in a few verses. This article is the result of many years of study and thought on this issue. I hope it will be a help to others.
First, let me concede a major point. The word kingdom is used in scripture in various ways. In fact, it is used in all the ways the dispensationalists teach concerning the kingdoms of God and of heaven. Sometimes, it refers to the Messianic kingdom coming to Israel. Sometimes it refers to the spiritual kingdom of God working in the world today. There are also several other ways it is used in the Bible.
Perhaps a simple definition is in order. A king(dom) is the (dom)ain of a king. Within this broad idea, there is room for many kingdoms. The kingdoms of Israel and Judah existed in the land of Israel before the time of Christ. The kingdom of God is the domain of God as King. In many places, it refers to the spiritual kingdom entered by the new birth (John 3:3) which is not meat and drink (Romans 14:17).
In this article, I do not deny distinctions between the physical kingdom and the spiritual kingdom. I do not even deny that often the phrases we are studying match the classical teaching of dispensationalists. My point is that the distinction does not clearly line up with the two phrases and that much confusion is caused by trying to force this distinction in every case. We are much better employed in the study of context and doctrinal application than we are in insisting that the two separate phrases must have distinct meanings.
First Objection: Confusing Doctrine
My experience has been that the further a teacher attempts to explain the kingdom distinction by going to Bible verses, the more confusing the entire picture becomes. For illustration, I will consider the teaching of C. I. Scofield in his reference Bible note on Matthew 6:33 (p. 1003) as summarized above.
He begins this note with this statement: “The kingdom of God is to be distinguished from the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 3:2, note) in five respects.” So we understand that he is going to give us five distinctions between the two kingdoms. But two of his five distinctions are not distinctions at all. The third distinction is that since the “kingdom of heaven is the earthly sphere of the universal kingdom of heaven, the two have almost all things in common.” That is not a distinction. It is not a difference. It is rather a similarity.
The fifth distinction is just as indistinct. It states that the kingdom of God merges into the kingdom of heaven when Christ puts all things under His feet. In other words, at the end of time, there is no difference between the two. These two points are often used to explain the identical statements that are made in the different gospels concerning the two phrases. They are so alike that the same thing can often be said of both of them. But if this is so, then how do we know that the distinctions are always in the mind of God when He uses the phrases? I fear we do not.
Another cause of confusion in Scofield’s teaching is that the kingdom of God is universal and includes angels and the saints of all ages (point one), yet the kingdom of God must be entered only by way of the new birth (point two). Certainly, no one is teaching that angels must be born again, but this points out some of the inconsistencies of this system of teaching.
In his note on Matthew 3:2, Scofield teaches that the kingdom of heaven “is peculiar to Matthew and signifies the Messianic earth rule of Jesus Christ, the Son of David.” Then, later in the same note, he teaches that the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven in Matthew 13 deal with “the sphere of Christian profession during this age.” This is what we used to call having your cake and eating it too. Which is it? Is it the earthly rule of Christ in His future Davidic kingdom or is it visible Christianity during this age?
The classical dispensationalists say both. But this illustrates the confusion of this teaching. The scriptures do not easily fit our distinctions, so we just keep tweaking our explanations until no one really knows what is being taught. My contention is this: if the phrases have such a clear distinction, why do we have to explain them in such convoluted ways?
Second Objection: Phrase Distribution
God’s kingdom has spiritual aspects and it has physical aspects. Even this cannot be easily split down the middle. There are various characteristics to each of these aspects. That is not the issue. But are these distinctions revealed through the two phrases in question or do they need to be studied out in each biblical use of the word kingdom? By now, you understand that I believe the latter to be the proper approach. One reason for this is the way in which the phrases are distributed in the scriptures.
The phrase, kingdom of God, occurs 70 times in 69 verses—all in the New Testament. The phrase, kingdom of heaven, is used 33 times in 32 verses. Every one of these occurrences is in the book of Matthew. That’s right…every one of them. No one teaches that only the book of Matthew deals with the earthly, physical kingdom. Therefore, defining the kingdom of heaven as the Messianic rule of Christ does not solve the problem of why the phrase is used only in Matthew. The concept is admittedly found elsewhere. Why is the phrase used only here?
An interesting answer to this question is found in The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah by Alfred Edersheim. As a Jewish convert, Edersheim often studied the Jewish Talmud and rabbinic teachings in order to understand the Jewish comprehension of Bible events and teachings. Concerning the use of the kingdom of heaven by the rabbis, he taught that “the word ‘heaven’ was very often used instead of ‘God,’ so as to avoid unduly familiarizing the ear with the Sacred Name” (vol.1, p.267).
The book of Matthew, more than any other gospel, was written to the Jewish people and presented Jesus as their Messiah in the line of David. According to Edersheim, the Jewish teachers understood the kingdom of God and the kingdom of heaven to be the same kingdom. Matthew may have used heaven as a way to reach out to the Jewish population.
Today, orthodox Jews often refer to God as ha-shem. This Hebrew phrase means “the Name.” It is a way to refer to God without saying God. The Jews during the time of Christ did use the name of God. However, in order to avoid using His name in vain, they often used substitutes. One of the common substitutes was heaven. This explains the unusual distribution of the two phrases better than the separate definitions usually given.
Third Objection: Parallel Passages
Another problem with the standard teaching is found in the parallel passages to statements found in the other gospels. Often, Matthew will use the phrase kingdom of heaven in the same story or statement where Mark or Luke use kingdom of God. The classical dispensational teaching tries to cover this by say that Matthew refers to the physical aspect of the kingdom while Mark and Luke deal with its spiritual aspect. And, since the physical and spiritual aspects of the kingdom will be joined in the end, the same thing can often be said about both of them. This reminds me of a familiar statement: Things that are different are not the same. But evidently this does not apply to the kingdoms of God and heaven.
The best way to explain my problem is to give a few examples. I assure you, the ones I give below are not all of them.
Compare Matthew 3:2 – “And saying, Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” – with Mark 1:15 – “And saying, The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe the gospel.”
Compare Matthew 8:11 – “And I say unto you, That many shall come from the east and west, and shall sit down with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, in the kingdom of heaven..” – with Luke 13:29 – “And they shall come from the east, and from the west, and from the north, and from the south, and shall sit down in the kingdom of God.”
Compare Matthew 11:11 – “Verily I say unto you, Among them that are born of women there hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist: notwithstanding he that is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” – with Luke 7:28 – “For I say unto you, Among those that are born of women there is not a greater prophet than John the Baptist: but he that is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.”
Compare Matthew 13:33 – “Another parable spake he unto them; The kingdom of heaven is like unto leaven, which a woman took, and hid in three measures of meal, till the whole was leavened” – with Luke 13:20-21 – “And again he said, Whereunto shall I liken the kingdom of God? It is like leaven, which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal, till the whole was leavened.”
So, time after time, the same thing is said about the kingdom of God and the kingdom of heaven. Yet, that is all right, because the two kingdoms have almost all things in common. But how can the spiritual kingdom of God in the hearts of believers be almost the same as the sphere of professing Christianity? How long can two things be the same and different at the same time?
Objection Four: Inconsistent Verses
At least, if this definition is correct, the kingdom of God should never refer exclusively to the earthly kingdom and the kingdom of heaven should never refer exclusively to the spiritual kingdom. Yet, there are problem verses.
In Matthew 19:23-25, entering into the kingdom of heaven is equivalent to being saved. But what may be the most interesting thing is that the phrases kingdom of heaven and kingdom of God are used in parallel.
Matthew 19:23-25 – “Then said Jesus unto his disciples, Verily I say unto you, That a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven. And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God. When his disciples heard it, they were exceedingly amazed, saying, Who then can be saved?”
According to Mark 9:1, the kingdom of God (a spiritual, inward kingdom) comes with power. In another passage, Joseph of Arimathaea “waited for the kingdom of God” (Mark 15:43). If the kingdom of God is spiritual, what is he waiting for?
In Mark 14:25, Jesus promised to “drink no more of the fruit of the vine, until that day that I drink it new in the kingdom of God.” Luke 13:28 speaks of those who will see Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and “all the prophets, in the kingdom of God.”
Luke 19:11 speaks of those who “thought that the kingdom of God should immediately appear.” How can this expectation refer to the spiritual kingdom? That is not the kingdom expected by the Jews. They were looking for the earthly kingdom.
Some of you who are reading this are mentally throwing your proof texts. What about Luke 17:20, Romans 14:17, 1Corinthians 15:50, and other passages that are obviously referring to the spiritual kingdom? What about the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven in Matthew 13?
But that is not the point. The Bible teaches several aspects of God’s kingdom. I will even admit that the kingdom of God more often refers to the spiritual nature of the kingdom. But those facts do not create a consistent doctrine of distinction as is taught by many dispensationalists. The phrase used in each verse does not settle the interpretation. We must study it out further in order to understand it.
Daniel 2:44 prophesies, “And in the days of these kings shall the God of heaven set up a kingdom, which shall never be destroyed: and the kingdom shall not be left to other people, but it shall break in pieces and consume all these kingdoms, and it shall stand for ever.” The God of heaven will set up a kingdom. Therefore, it is the kingdom of God and it is the kingdom of heaven. Sometimes, these phrases are used for various aspects of the kingdom. But the distinctions are not specific and consistent enough to establish the doctrine many try to establish.
The kingdom of God is the kingdom set up by God. The kingdom of heaven is the kingdom that finds its source in heaven. Though both phrases have various aspects, it is all one kingdom. We do injustice to the teaching of the Bible when we force distinction where God does not.