by Luke Wayne
No, there is not a difference between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of heaven. They are two terms used interchangeably to point to the same reality. "Kingdom of heaven," is the term Matthew preferred to use in his Gospel, while all of the other New Testament authors use "kingdom of God" or simply "the kingdom," but they are all talking about the same thing. We can tell this in the following ways:
Matthew Uses Them Interchangeably
While Matthew uses the term "kingdom of heaven" almost exclusively, he does occasionally use the term "kingdom of God," and he does so in a way that shows that the two terms mean the same thing. The clearest example is in the story of the rich young ruler. After the man walks away, unwilling to part with his goods, Jesus says to His disciples:
"Truly I say to you, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. 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 19:23-24).
As we can see here, "kingdom of heaven" and "kingdom of God" are both terms for the same place, namely the place into which it is hard for a rich man to enter. Where was the rich man trying to go? His question to Jesus was, "Teacher, what good thing shall I do that I may obtain eternal life?" (Matthew 19:16). Both terms equally apply to the eternal, resurrection hope of the believer.
Comparing the Gospels Shows that They are Interchangeable
There are many occasions where one or more of the other gospels will tell the same story as is told in Matthew, but where Matthew uses the term "kingdom of heaven," the other gospel writer will use the term "kingdom of God" in the same statement. For example, when the disciples of John the Baptist came to Jesus while John was in prison and asked if Jesus was really the promised one, Jesus makes the statement:
"Truly I say to you, among those born of women there has not arisen anyone greater than John the Baptist! Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he," (Matthew 11:11).
Luke reports the same words during the exact same event as:
"I say to you, among those born of women there is no one greater than John; yet he who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he," (Luke 7:28).
There are many examples like this, where very specific statements in very specific contexts are reported by more than one gospel writer, and they will use the words kingdom of heaven/kingdom of God interchangeably, showing us that these terms mean the same thing.
Other Christian Writers Use Them Interchangeably
The Apostle Paul Himself seems to treat the terms as identical. While Paul normally referred to the Kingdom of God, he freely utilized the term "heavenly kingdom" instead in 2 Timothy 4:18. While this is not the exact phrase "kingdom of heaven" used in Matthew, it is quite similar and is used as a synonym for the kingdom of God.
We can also see that the earliest readers of the New Testament understood the terms as synonymous. When we read the earliest Christian writers in the century just after the New Testament, we find that they used the terms kingdom of heaven and kingdom of God interchangeably in their own writings.1 We also see that they occasionally switched one phrase for the other when paraphrasing New Testament passages, such as when Tertullian references John 3:5 as "Unless a man has been reborn of water and Spirit, he shall not enter into the kingdom of the heavens,"2 instead of "unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God." Clearly, when the early Christians read the New Testament, they understood the terms to mean the same thing.
Why Does Matthew Distinctively Use the Term Kingdom of Heaven?
So, while these terms mean the same thing, it is interesting to notice that Matthew is the only New Testament author to use the term kingdom of Heaven. While the text itself never tells us why this is, Matthew seems to have perhaps been drawing from a traditional Jewish vocabulary to make his point. Early traditions and modern scholarship have both generally seen the Gospel of Matthew as originally addressing a primarily Jewish audience, and Matthew may have chosen his wording to better communicate with those to whom he was writing. While the term "kingdom of heaven" itself is not a particularly common phrase in Jewish writing, the title "King of Heaven" is used quite frequently in intertestamental Jewish literature.3 Not only was it used, popular Jewish writings often used it in eschatological contexts similar to the messianic themes of the New Testament. For example, in the legendary book of Tobit, we read:
"A bright light will shine to all the ends of the earth; many nations will come to you from far away, the inhabitants of the remotest parts of the earth to your holy name, bearing gifts in their hands for the King of heaven," (Tobit 13:11).
"How happy I will be if a remnant of my descendants should survive to see your glory and acknowledge the King of heaven. The gates of Jerusalem will be built with sapphire and emerald, and all your walls with precious stones. The towers of Jerusalem will be built with gold, and their battlements with pure gold. The streets of Jerusalem will be paved with ruby and with stones of Ophir," (Tobit 13:16).
So, if Matthew wanted to call his Jewish readers' minds to the coming hope of the glorious new Jerusalem and the Gentile nations joining in worship of the one true God of Israel, the term "kingdom of heaven" might just have been the best way to capture what was meant by the "kingdom of God" that Jesus would bring about. This is only educated speculation, of course, but it might make sense out of Matthew's unique use among the New Testament authors of that particular phrase to communicate their common hope.
- 1. See, for example: Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book 5, Chapter 9, Sections 3-4; Chapter 11, Section 1; Clement of Alexandria, Who is the Rich Man that Shall be Saved?; The Instructor, Book 1, Chapter 5
- 2. Tertullian, On Baptism, Chapter 8
- 3. See, for example: Tobit 1:18, 13:7; 1 Esdras (or 3 Esdras in some listings) 4:46, 4:54; 3 Maccabees 2:2)