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Kingdom of God, Kingdom of Heaven

The kingdom of God and the kingdom of heaven are terms that refer to God’s rulership over creation.


Today in Western civilization the idea of being ruled by king or queen is seen as irrelevant at best or tyrannical at worst. Yet the kingdom of God is one of the most prevalent themes in the whole Bible. The teaching that God is the king or lord over all of creation weaves together both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament in a unifying refrain. In the Hebrew Bible God is regularly described as the king over all the world (Ps 22:8; 1Chr 29:11) and particularly over the people of Israel (Exod 19:6; Ps 114:2). The Jewish people looked forward to a time when a descendant of their great king, David, would reestablish Israel’s place in the world (2Sam 7:12-13). In the New Testament, the gospels make clear that the main emphasis in Jesus’s teachings was the kingdom of God (Matt 4:17, Matt 4:23; Mark 1:15; Luke 4:43) and that Jesus himself is the true Son of David and therefore the king (Matt 1:1; Matt 9:27; Matt 21:9; cf. 2Sam 7:12-13).

Did you know…?

  • The Gospel of Matthew is the only biblical book that talks about the “kingdom of heaven” (thirty-two times) while the rest of the Bible refers to “the kingdom of God.”
  • Matthew’s “kingdom of heaven” is the same thing as the “kingdom of God” but emphasizes the contrast between God’s heavenly kingdom versus human earthly kingdoms.
  • The Gospel of John sometimes refers to the kingdom of God but prefers to speak about “eternal life” which is an overlapping idea in Jewish understanding.
  • The idea of Jesus as a wise teacher is an important part of the argument that he is the king because of the ancient belief that a great king must also be a great sage.
  • Christianity in the West has tended to emphasize Jesus as suffering savior while Eastern Christianity generally highlights Jesus as emperor or king.

What does the idea of the kingdom of God have to do with life and society in the modern world?

In modern civilization we have little experience with kings and queens except as figureheads. In the few countries that still have a royal family exercising authority this often results in great inequity of wealth and opportunity and the oppression of sundry people. Even in democratic societies today, suspicion shrouds any leader who exercises great power. Therefore, the notion of God ruling as king over all of creation is typically understood only in abstract, spiritual ways that have little effect on modern life.


However, the biblical idea of the kingdom of God is not abstract, oppressive, or irrelevant. Rather, the message of God’s kingdom is that God promises to bring his liberating and life-giving reign from heaven to earth. God will do this through a messiah, one anointed as a ruler with absolute power, not an elected official. The purpose of this ruler, however, is not to oppress or concentrate power upon himself but rather to be the conduit of blessing, peace, and justice in the world. The New Testament teaches that Christians must personify the kingdom realities of care for the poor and needy (Matt 25:35; Jas 1:27), forgiveness and reconciliation (Matt 18:21-35; Eph 4:1-6), and bringing life and light to all nations (Matt 5:13-16). The people of God are called to exemplify now the kingdom that is yet to come, a time and place when there is no distinction or inequity between ethnicities, genders, or positions in society (Gal 3:28). In so doing Christians reflect the eternal kingdom of heaven and impact life on earth today.

Why did Jesus sometimes say the kingdom of God is already here and at other times say that it won’t come until he returns at the end of the world?

Through many parables and other teachings Jesus describes the kingdom as present already. The kingdom is said to be like a seed sown in people’s hearts (Mark 4:3-20) and like a treasure that can be found hidden in a field or a great pearl purchased in a market (Matt 13:44-46). When a thief crucified next to Jesus asks him to receive him into his kingdom Jesus responds that on that day he will enter into paradise (Luke 23:42-43). Most directly, when Jesus is asked when the kingdom of God will come he states the kingdom is not something that can be directly observed because “the kingdom of God is among/within you” (Luke 17:20-21).


At the same time, many of Jesus’s sayings about the kingdom indicate that it is not yet present but will come when God finally sets right the world. According to the New Testament, this coming kingdom coincides with Jesus’s return from heaven to earth as the glorified Son of Man. Jesus speaks of a future time of judgment when those who have done the will of God will enter into the kingdom and eternal life (Matt 7:21-23), when he will sit as ruler separating the good and the bad like sheep and goats (Matt 25:31-46). In the Lord’s Prayer (Matt 6:9-13) and during the last supper (Mark 14:25) Jesus teaches his disciples to look forward to the future when the kingdom will finally come.


The solution to this seeming incongruity is to understand that the kingdom of God is not primarily a physical place but rather the state of God’s sovereign rule and authority. God’s kingdom is present now and forever because he rightly rules over his own creation. Also, there is a time and place to come when God will fully establish his reign in vanquishing evil and bringing justice and peace. Jesus speaks of both of these realities because the reign of God may be described as both “already and not yet,” or “now with more to come.” At the same time, there is a mystery in all of this, and Jesus teaches that not everyone can understand or accept his teachings about the kingdom (Mark 4:11; Matt 19:11).

  • pennington-jonathan

    Jonathan T. Pennington (PhD, University of St. Andrews, Scotland) is Associate Professor of New Testament and Director of Research Doctoral Studies at Southern Seminary in Louisville, KY. He is the author of many works on the gospels including Heaven and Earth in Gospel of Matthew (Brill, 2007), Reading the Gospels Wisely (Baker Academic, 2012), and The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing (Baker Academic, 2017).