What is the Kingdom of Heaven?
To understand Jesus, we must comprehend the primary motif of His life: The Kingdom of Heaven. But this primary emphasis of Jesus ministry is often misunderstood.
In this teaching, I will outline what Jesus meant with the words Kingdom of God and Kingdom of Heaven, and how he proclaimed, explained, illustrated, and demonstrated that core message.
Kingdom of God or Kingdom of Heaven?
Jesus operated fully within the Hebrew matrix, language and people of His day. He dressed, ate, drank, worshipped, and lived as a Jew.
The Hebrews held the Name of God, given by Himself to Moses at Mt. Sinai, Y-H-W-H, with an utter reverence. They held the Name in such high regard that they refused to say it, and then developed end-around words (“circumlocutions”) that every Jew knew meant the holy Name, without saying the holy Name.
One of these end-around ways of saying the Name was to use the word “heaven” in it’s place. We see and example of this in the parable of the prodigal son, where, upon confessing his sin, the prodigal says to his father, “I have sinned against you and against heaven.” The prodigal was not saying that he sinned against a place, but against the LORD Himself.
For many years, even some of the brightest scholars have confused the scriptures on this point, believing the word heaven, used as such, to have some difference from “Kingdom of God.” But the historical context dictates that we ought to understand it as merely another way of saying the Name of God. The way we use the english axioms, “For Heaven’s sake” or “Only Heaven knows” is similar.
The Roots of Meaning
Knowing that kingdom of Heaven and kingdom of God are simply two ways of saying the same thing, what is the kingdom of Heaven, anyway?
If you use a concordance to find the phrase “kingdom of heaven” (or kingdom of God) anywhere in the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament), we find a surprising number of results: Zero.
Yet we do know that Jesus himself did not make this term up. “The kingdom of Heaven” was a highly developed term at this time in Jesus’ life: Israel’s sages used the term to describe the ruling, saving, liberating, redemptive acts of God.
According to Israel’s teachers, the first instance of the kingdom of God in the Hebrew scriptures can be found in the book of Exodus, in the “Song of Moses” where Israel is celebrating one of the definitive events of their history: The rescue from the harsh bondage of Egypt.
The Song opens:
“Then Moses and the people of Israel sang this song to the LORD, saying, “I will sing to the LORD, for he has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea. The LORD is my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation; this is my God, and I will praise him…” (vss. 1-2)
The LORD had “become their salvation” in that final, rescuing act of demolishing Pharoah’s army in the Red Sea. At the end of the song…
“You will bring them in and plant them on your own mountain,the place, O LORD, which you have made for your abode, the sanctuary, O Lord, which your hands have established. The LORD will reign forever and ever.” (vss. 17-18)
The verb “to reign” malak is at its root verb form of the noun used for “king,” melek. To perform his duties, a melek would palak.
In the case of the Exodus, their King, the LORD, had broken in, and corrected a situation and set right something that he found to be against His will.
Concisely then, for the sages of Israel, the “kingdom of heaven” became of a way of saying that God had broken into the world with a redemptive, restorative, saving act.
Jesus took this well-known term and made it His own, proclaiming that the “kingdom of heaven is at hand” at the initiation of His public life and ministry. “At hand” was just a way of saying, it’s here, now.
Proclaiming the Kingdom of Heaven
It should pique our attention that the one who prepared the way for Jesus public ministry proclaimed the message, “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” (Matthew 3:2)
Shouldn’t also be significant for us that the very first words of Jesus public ministry contained the exact same message “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” (Matthew 4:17)?
We can conclude that Jesus opened his ministry with these words to say that the King-Messiah had arrived in the person of Himself. Since the King was here, the kingdom was here.
But Jesus didn’t just proclaim the kingdom’s arrival…
Explaining the Kingdom of Heaven
Jesus also used this phrase to describe those who were a committed part of His movement. In the opening of that passage we call “The Sermon on the Mount,” Jesus said,
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven.”
In other words, to be a part of the kingdom of God required a certain humility (“poor in spirit”).
Jesus then went on use the term many times over in this core body of His teaching to teach a way of living for those in His movement. In fact, it was to be their very first priority:
“But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6:33)
Jesus went on to use “the kingdom of God” in his teaching about prayer (Matthew 6:10), persecution (Matthew 5:10) and obedience to God’s word (Matthew 5:19).
Illustrating the Kingdom of Heaven
Jesus used another unique literary device, (found only in Jewish literature and the Bible) Parables, to illustrate the core message of His ministry.
To illustrate the nature of His movement, he compared it to:
• a mustard seed (Matthew 13:31)
• leaven (Matthew 13:33)
• planting seed (Matthew 13:24)
• a treasure hidden in a field (Matthew 13:44)
• a fishing net (Matthew 13:47)
• and several others…
Demonstrating the Kingdom
The most dramatic communication of the Kingdom comes through Jesus acts of healing, rescuing from demonic oppression, etc. For example, upon casting out one demon, Jesus said,
“But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.” (Luke 11:20)
By rescuing this a man from the horrors of demonic oppression, Jesus said the kingdom had broken in upon that man at that moment. Jesus would go on to perform many other acts of redemption and healing to show that the Kingdom had arrived on earth.
By means of His death on the cross and victorious resurrection he would provide the ultimate means of healing, redemption and restoration for those wishing to become a part of the Kingdom of Heaven.
This raises a whole new set of questions for those desiring to follow Jesus.
Have we been missing out on the true message of Jesus?
If the core motif of Jesus ministry was the kingdom of Heaven, why do we talk about it so little?
The Kingdom of Heaven: Crucial Implications
This is what we have laid out so far: That Jesus took a well known term from the teachers of His day and used it for His own movement…
- Proclaiming the kingom’s arrival with His arrival
- Teaching His followers how to live in the kingdom as His follower
- Illustrating it with parables
- Demonstrating it with acts of healing and redemption
In other words, Jesus would use the phrase to refer to:
- The Person of Himself, for the King had arrived
- The Power of redemption breaking in (through the Holy Spirit) to restore
- A People who voluntarily took up whole hearted dedication to this movement.
Central to Jesus, But is it Central to Us?
The very centrality of the kingdom of heaven to Jesus raises a whole set of questions:
Have you heard the kingdom of heaven talked about often in your church, Bible study, or gathering of other followers?
Is it a defining priority of your life? (Matthew 6:33)
Do other Christians you know talk about it?
In any of the “Christian” contexts you participate in, can anyone explain what it means?
If those of us who claim to know Jesus do not have the faintest idea, priority, or exposure to the idea of the Kingdom of Heaven, then are we really following Jesus at all?
For me, this is earth and church-shattering. I’ve had years of “Bible-based” education at both the undergrad and graduate level yet no one ever mentioned, taught on, or explained the implications of the Kingdom of Heaven!
What about “The Gospel?”
What is the most important thing that followers of Jesus have to communicate? Many would answer “the gospel.” It’s become something of a cliché word.
But what is the gospel, or good news? Many would answer that the gospel is that Jesus died on the cross for your sins so that you can go to heaven someday.
The problem is, you don’t really see Jesus say this anywhere in any of the gospel accounts.
You don’t really find it anywhere in the Bible.
Then why do we keep teaching it?
What then, really is the gospel? I find that the “gospel” can be consistently and coherently explained by the Kingdom of Heaven.
The Gospel of the Kingdom of Heaven…
I would propose to you that the former definition of the gospel (“Jesus paid for our sin so that we could go to heaven someday”) is truncated, shortened, and cheap. The message of the gospel is much fuller and deeper. In fact, the gospel writer Mark opens his whole account with…
“The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God…” (Mark 1:1)
Mark uses the word gospel in this way because the good news about Jesus includes his birth, life, teaching, miracles, death, resurrection and acension. And Jesus proclaimed, explained, illustrated, and demonstrated this very good news.
The early church preached this gospel:
“But when they believed Philip as he preached good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women.” Acts 8:12
“And he entered the synagogue and for three months spoke boldly, reasoning and persuading them about the kingdom of God.” Acts 19:8
“From morning till evening he expounded to them, testifying to the kingdom of God and trying to convince them about Jesus both from the Law of Moses and from the Prophets.” Acts 28:23
“For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God.” Ephesians 5:5
In fact, it appears that the gospel is indeed about being forgiven, but even more so about reconciliation and restoration.
Because of what Jesus has done, we are reconciled to God now. Our relationships can be mended and restored. We become more like God intended us to be now. We enter into a lifelong process of growing into that aim.
The apostle Paul even contended that all of creation, in fact, all things would be healed through the work of Jesus. (See for example Ephesians 1:10 and Romans 8:20-21)
If this is all true, then how should it change the way we live and communicate the good news? How should it change your priorities and the priorities of our churches?
Kingdom of Heaven Questions…
Could the reason some many self-identified “Christians” live poorly is because their gospel has more to do with going to heaven someday than becoming part of Jesus movement now?
(In fact, the gospel has more to do with God coming down than us going up. But that’s the subject of another article)
Does your understanding of the good news of the Kingdom of Heaven align with Jesus’? If we understood the gospel as the arrival of Jesus’ kingdom, where we have covenanted with Jesus to…
…learn His teachings, walk in obedience to the King, to love God by loving our neighbor, and proclaim the healing of the cross and resurrection starting now, for “the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand”…
…would the people of Jesus look different, live different, and become a better witness for the King of kings?
I welcome your feedback.