If we believe that the Biblical phrases “Kingdom of God” and “Kingdom of Heaven” refer to the same thing (which I think is essentially true), then we can draw some important conclusions. First, I’ll briefly try to show why I think these phrases are often, if not always, synonymous.
In Matthew 19:23-24, Jesus uses both phrases when speaking of the same thing. He says: “‘assuredly, I say to you that it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. And again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.’” Matthew 4:17 records Jesus’ first words after beginning his ministry as: “repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Mark 1:15 records these same words as: “…the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.” These examples show that “Kingdom of Heaven” and “Kingdom of God” often, if not always, refer to the same thing.
Interestingly, the phrase “Kingdom of Heaven” is only found in Matthew’s gospel. Some say this is because Matthew was writing to a Jewish audience, and was respecting the Jews’ tradition of using the name of God as sparingly as possible, using the word “heaven” instead. The terms God and heaven aren’t as different as they might seem, since the writers of scripture understood “heaven” NOT as a specific place believers go, but as something like: “the higher ways of the divine, based on love and unity,” as opposed to the lower ways of natural man. In that sense, “heaven” is not a “place” we will go to, but a spiritual life/power/realm which first comes to us and to which we then can begin to conform.
So having established that, (for those who are willing and able to hear it), I want to briefly share and expound on something that came to me while I was half-asleep and still in bed a few days ago. Maybe it’s unusually profound, maybe not, but I want to get it down and share it.
Luke 17 (NKJV): “20 Now when Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, He answered them and said, “The kingdom of God does not come with observation; 21 nor will they say, ‘See here!’ or ‘See there!’ For indeed, the kingdom of God is within you.”
The pharisees, that is the religious leaders and scholars and experts of Jesus’ day, were often perplexed by Jesus. I think they probably felt toward Jesus both curiosity and interest, and jealousy and resentment. They would often ask him questions, sometimes to try to get him to make a “mistake” that they could expose. In this passage, they are asking him when the Kingdom – that is, the reign, of God would come. They expected that it would come in some sort of a violent overthrow of the existing political powers, and be established as a physical and domineering hierarchy, with Jews at the top. STill today, most Christians look for Jesus to return and physically kill and overthrow those they view as “wicked.”
However, what Jesus told them was very different than they expected. He told them to quit focusing on things that can be outwardly observed, because the rule and reign of God won’t arrive that way. Instead, he taught that the rule and the reign of God -that is, the establishment of his Kingdom – is first and foremost invisible, inward, and spiritual. What what may be going on in the outward world which we can “observe” is a separate issue (though not a trivial one). Sadly, in our day and age, few have heeded this truth that Jesus was sharing. Although the Roman government remained largely brutal, and the religion of the Jews remained corrupt and murderous, Jesus was saying that he walked in the Kingdom of God, and that anyone could do the same, by his Father’s grace, if they were willing.
The primary thing I want to point out is that if, as Jesus said, the Kingdom of God is something spiritual and inward, then the same is true of the Kingdom of Heaven. Remember, the two terms are interchangeable. Despite this, most Christians are quite focused on “going to heaven” when they die…not realizing that Jesus said heaven is an inward kingdom, and that it is here and now that we are to begin to dwell in heaven. Paul understood this as well, saying that we are “seated in heavenly places in Christ Jesus” right now (Ephesians 2:6).
Yes, Jesus, the firstborn from the dead, is the one who made this possible. Yes, it is in him that sins are forgiven, and in him that we are seated with God in heavenly places – RIGHT NOW. I believe the sooner we realize this, realizing that heaven is a reign which has come to us, a reign characterized by radical love and mercy and forgiveness and reconciliation, the sooner we will begin to see these ways of heaven invade our lives, families, and world. If we’re always waiting till later or till we die, we won’t expect or seek to establish and live in the Kingdom NOW. But we have to! Let’s bear with one-another, be patient and kind with one-another, until we all come to the unity of the faith and true maturity, that the body of Christ will truly rise and minister Life once again (Ephesians 4:13, Romans 5:17). I am certain this will not be instant, elegant, or easy. I am even more certain, however, that love will not fail as it eventually dissolves all things formed in the mind of man, all fear-based understandings and ways, and instead rejoices with the truth and abides in the Father through Christ to the ends of the earth, and even beyond. Amen.