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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Kingdom of God (or Heaven)

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KINGDOM OF GOD (or HEAVEN).—To learn what Jesus meant by the term ‘kingdom of heaven,’ or ‘kingdom of God,’ we must go first and chiefly to His own words. The simple fact that He employed a term which was in common use, and which had parallels also in the Jewish Scriptures (e.g. 1 Chronicles 28:5, Daniel 2:44; Daniel 4:3), does not justify one in assuming that His conception can be defined by the current view of His day, or by a study of the OT. It is plain that He might make use of the familiar term, but might put into it a new and higher meaning. Indeed, it is quite certain that Jesus, as a wise teacher, started from the beliefs and longings of those whom He sought to help, and that He aimed at fulfilling rather than destroying. We should expect, then, to find Him using old terms, but pouring into them new meanings. Moreover, the thought of Jesus in regard to the kingdom of heaven is presented to us more fully and clearly than is that of His Jewish contemporaries. Hence there is no occasion for approaching our topic indirectly, either by the way of the OT or that of the Rabbinic usage. It will be best to go at once to the main source of information, and seek the thought of Jesus from His own words, though availing ourselves of any light that can be found in other quarters.

1. Survey of the data.—According to Mk. and Mt., the memorable word in the first preaching of Jesus in Galilee was the announcement of the nearness of the kingdom of God [or of heaven] (ἤγγικεν ἡ βασιλεία τοῦ θεοῦ [or τῶν οὐρανῶν], Mark 1:15, Matthew 4:17); and in the last interview with His disciples, on the evening before His death, He still spoke of the kingdom, anticipating a union with them there (Mark 14:25). In all the interval between these events the term was frequently on His lips both in public and in private. St. Mark records 13 instances of its use by Jesus, St. Luke 34, and St. Matthew 48. Its central importance in the teaching of Jesus is frequently apparent. Thus the gospel itself is spoken of as the gospel of the kingdom (Matthew 9:35); the Twelve and the Seventy are sent out to announce that the kingdom is at hand (Matthew 10:7, Luke 10:9): more than a third of the parables are explicitly said to be an unfolding of the truth of the kingdom;* [Note: The use of the formula ὁμοία ἐστὶν ἡ βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν, or ὡυοιώθη ἡ βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν, cannot be at once attributed to Jesus. In some instances it has no manifest connexion with the thought of the parable (e.g. Matthew 20:1; Matthew 22:2).] the disciples are taught to pray for the coming of the kingdom (Matthew 6:10); it is the preaching of the kingdom of heaven that terminates the period of the Law and the Prophets (Matthew 11:12, Luke 16:16); the kingdom is presented as the summum bonum (Matthew 13:44-45); and the kingdom is the great fact of the future (e.g. Matthew 25:34).

But while the kingdom is thus seen to be of great significance in the teaching of Jesus, it is equally obvious that its meaning varies widely in different passages. Thus Jesus says that the kingdom is to be entered at once by those to whom He is speaking (7:13, 14), and again, that the righteous are to enter it when the Son of Man shall have come in His glory (25:34). At one time Jesus says to the Pharisees, ‘The kingdom of heaven is among you’ (ἐντὸς ὑμῶν),* [Note: See below, § 3.] and at another He teaches that it is the place where Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, with all the prophets, rest and are blessed (Luke 17:21; Luke 13:28). Now the kingdom is thought of as something that can be taken away from the Jews and be given to the Gentiles (Matthew 21:43), and again, it is that for whose coming the disciples are instructed to pray (6:10). The kingdom is thought of at one time as a good that can be obtained by seeking (6:33), and as something to be slowly developed from within the soul (Mark 4:26); at another time, as an event of the future, realized suddenly and by Divine power (8:38, 9:1).

From this survey it is readily seen that the term ‘kingdom of God (or heaven)’ in the usage of Jesus is not easy to be defined; that it appears to be an elastic, poetic symbol rather than the vehicle of a single sharply-bounded conception.

2. The original form of the expression.—With the exception of two passages in Mt. which speak of the kingdom without any qualifying word (Matthew 8:12; Matthew 13:38), and three passages in which the kingdom (always thought of as future) is spoken of by Jesus as ‘His’ [or ‘My’] kingdom (Matthew 13:41; Matthew 16:28, Luke 22:30), His usage fluctuates between ‘kingdom of heaven’ and ‘kingdom of God,’ the former greatly predominating in Matthew, and the latter being the exclusive term in Mark and Luke. It seems probable that the term ordinarily used by Jesus was ‘kingdom of heaven,’ and that for the following reasons. (1) It is the prevailing term in the Logia of Matthew, and the Logia, unlike the Gospels of Mark and Luke, are regarded as directly Apostolic. (2) The presumption is that Jesus used a current Jewish term, and ‘kingdom of heaven’ has a distinctly Jewish colouring, which does not belong to the term ‘kingdom of God.’ For the Greek word for ‘heaven’ in this phrase is a plural (τῶν οὐρανῶν) in accordance with the Hebrew usage (מַלְכוּת שָׁמַיִם), but contrary to the Greek. And, further, the expression ‘kingdom of heaven’ accords better with the popular Jewish belief that the kingdom of the Messiah was to come from above. (3) The originality of the term ‘kingdom of heaven’ is favoured by the consideration that the Second and Third Evangelists, since they wrote for Gentile readers, may more readily be thought to have modified a Jewish expression than that the author of the Logia, who wrote for Jews, modified the term used by Jesus.† [Note: Note the bearing of the words ὁ ἐν τοῖς οὐρανοῖς, which frequently modify ‘Father.’]

But, while there is therefore every reason to conclude that Jesus ordinarily used the term ‘kingdom of heaven,’ we certainly are not justified in saying that He did this to avoid speaking the Divine name (cf. O. Holtzmann, The Life of Jesus, pp. 163, 164; Dalman, Die Worte Jesu, p. 92, English translation ). It is impossible to suppose that the man who called God His Father, and who felt that God was always with Him, the man who brought God near to His disciples and convinced them that He numbered the hairs of their heads, that they could approach Him at any time without priest or outward sacrifice,—that such a man shared the superstitious regard for the Holy Name. If Jesus habitually used the term ‘kingdom of heaven,’ which we believe to have been the case, He probably did so because that was the name in common use among His hearers.

3. Fundamental thought of the term.—To ascertain the central idea of the term ‘kingdom of heaven,’ as used by Jesus, we may well begin with a passage in which He seems to give a general interpretation of it, viz. the second and third petitions of the Lord’s Prayer, ‘Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, as in heaven, so on earth’ (Matthew 6:10). The second of these petitions appears to explain the first. It seems to imply that, where the will of God is done, there the kingdom of God has come. That will is thought of as being done perfectly in heaven; and when it is done thus on earth, then the kingdom of heaven is realized. Accordingly this passage suggests that the fundamental idea of ‘kingdom of heaven’ is the rule of God.

Another passage which, though not using the word ‘kingdom,’ seems to throw light on the conception of Jesus, is that which records His answer to those who, while He was teaching on a certain occasion, told Him that His mother and brothers desired to see Him (Mark 3:31-35). He said, ‘Whosoever shall do the will of God, the same is my brother, and sister, and mother.’ But if these people who sat around Him, listening to His word, were owned as His kindred, it is reasonable to think that what made them His kindred made them also members of His kingdom. And that which brought them near to Him was the doing of God’s will—the very thing which in the Lord’s Prayer seems to explain the term ‘kingdom.’

In line with the thought of these two passages which have been considered, is the conception of a considerable number of important sayings of Jesus concerning the kingdom. Thus, in the Sermon on the Mount, He told His hearers to seek the kingdom and the righteousness of their heavenly Father (Matthew 6:33). Here, as in the Lord’s Prayer, the kingdom is something to be desired and sought. It is contrasted with food and drink and clothing,—things that the Gentiles seek,—and is thus characterized as an inward and spiritual good. We may then regard the word ‘righteousness’ as giving here the dominant thought of that kingdom which is to be sought. Not otherwise are we to understand the word in that passage which deals with the young scribe who answered Jesus discreetly (Mark 12:34). The Master told him that he was not far from the kingdom of God. Now, in these words He was obviously characterizing the moral and spiritual state of the young man; and thus the content of the term ‘kingdom’ is here moral and spiritual. So in the parable of the Automatic Earth. As it is the function of the earth to carry forward the development of the seed lodged in it, so by analogy it is the function of the heart to develop the kingdom of heaven (4:26, 29). Manifestly, then, the kingdom is here thought of as a spiritual principle to be received into the heart.

Another passage in which the content of the term is virtually indicated by Jesus is the reply which He gave to the question of certain Pharisees. They asked Him when the kingdom of God should come, and He replied: ‘The kingdom of God is in the midst of you’ (Luke 17:21). That is to say, the kingdom is already present, already an accomplished fact. It had not come with outward show and noise, but quietly and naturally. There seems to be only one way of understanding this remarkable utterance, for the view that it refers to the future, and means that the kingdom will come as a surprise, rests on the identification of the coming of the kingdom with the Parousia of the Son of Man (see Wernle, The Beginnings of Christianity, i. 62). But this identification cannot be made, for the Parousia will have the very characteristic which Jesus here denies to the coming of the kingdom. It will be ‘with observation’ (μετὰ παρατηρήσεως; see, e.g., Mark 13:24-26; Mark 13:29). We must hold, then, that the utterance of Jesus had a present force, and must find the justification of it in His own experience. He was conscious that the kingdom was realized in His own heart, and was beginning to be realized in His disciples. Thus this passage falls into line with those in which Jesus suggests that He meant by the terra ‘kingdom of heaven’ an inner spiritual fact, viz. the rule of God in the heart.* [Note: The AV and RV rendering of ἑν τὸς ὑμῶν, viz. ‘within you,’ is sanctioned by general usage and by the context (see Godet, Com. in loc.) equally with the marginal ‘among you,’ ‘in the midst of you,’ and possibly receives some confirmation from the 2nd of Grenfell and Hunt’s ‘New Sayings of Jesus’ (see art. Ideas (Leading), p. 770b). But, if adopted, it falls even more readily than the other into line with Christ’s teaching as to the spirituality of the kingdom.]

Now these passages which have been considered present a conception of the kingdom of heaven which Jesus unquestionably entertained. That this conception was central in His usage, and must be called the fundamental content of the term ‘kingdom of heaven,’ is seen from the following considerations. (a) It is the only explanation of a number of most important passages which is suggested by Jesus Himself. (b) It is an explanation in perfect harmony with the other teaching of Jesus. For that teaching, as seen, for instance, in the Sermon on the Mount, is inward and spiritual; and such is the thought of the ‘kingdom of heaven’ as the rule of God in the heart of man. (c) The Fourth Gospel, with the exception of two passages (3:3–5, 18:36), does not employ the term ‘kingdom of heaven’; but the term which it does employ, where the Synoptics have ‘kingdom of heaven,’ is the equivalent of ‘kingdom’ in the sense of God’s rule. This term is ‘eternal life.’ That is the summum bonum in John, as the kingdom of heaven is in the early Gospels (John 4:14; John 5:24; John 6:40; John 10:23). This eternal life, like the kingdom of heaven, is bound up with the personality and mission of Jesus (4:14, 6:27). Again, like the rule of God in the Synoptics, the gift of eternal life in John is both for the present and for the future (4:36, 12:25). Therefore we say that this early interpretation of the Gospel which we have in John helps to confirm the view that the fundamental conception of the term ‘kingdom of heaven’ in the mind of Jesus was the rule of God. (d) And, finally, the correctness of this view is established by the fact that, while the Synoptics use the term ‘kingdom of heaven’ in various other senses, these are all secondary to the thought of God’s rule, and are derived from it. This will be shown in the next section.

4. Special uses of the term—(a) There is a group of passages in which the term ‘kingdom of heaven’ evidently denotes a company of men. This is the prominent thought of the expression when Jesus says that he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than John the Baptist (Matthew 11:11); also in the parables of the Tares and the Drag-net (13:24–30, 47–50), The tares are the evil, one, and at the end of the present age they are to be gathered out of the kingdom. They are therefore in the kingdom up to that time. To be gathered out of the kingdom means to be separated from the sons of the kingdom. The interest of the parable centres in the teaching that these two classes—the sons of the kingdom and the sons of the evil one—must remain intermingled until the end of the age. Hence it is obvious that the kingdom out of which the ‘stumbling-blocks’ are to be taken is the company of those who inwardly belong to God.

Now, while the foremost thought in these passages is that of a certain company of persons, these persons cannot, be defined without the aid of the thought of God’s rule. They are the persons who are under that rule, or at least claim to be under it.

(b) A second special use of the term ‘kingdom of heaven’ is presented in the parable of the Labourers in the Vineyard (21:43). Jesus said to the Jews at the close of the parable, ‘The kingdom of God shall be taken away from you, and shall be given to a nation bringing forth the fruits thereof.’ In this case ‘kingdom’ cannot mean the rule of God, for these Jews were hostile to this, and obviously it cannot mean those who are under the Divine rule. We take it in the sense of the high privilege and blessing which the Jews had enjoyed as God’s peculiar people. It was these things which were actually taken from the Jews when the gospel of Jesus was freely proclaimed to the Gentiles. Another passage which may well be assigned to the same category is the first Beatitude (5:3). The poor in spirit are blessed because ‘theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’ It is now theirs. They experience its blessing by virtue of the fact that they are poor in spirit. They will doubtless experience it in much larger measure in the future, but they have a foretaste of the experience now. In like manner they who hungered after righteousness began to be ‘filled’ by Jesus at once: the satisfaction of their longing was not deferred to a distant future. Again, as purity of heart brought a vision of God to Jesus, even in His earthly life, we cannot doubt that the promise of His beatitude for the pure in heart was a promise not merely of a future good, but of a good to be enjoyed in some measure here and now.

(c) Another special use of the term ‘kingdom of heaven,’ and yet one that is easily derived from its fundamental idea, is found in a considerable number of passages. Thus Jesus said, ‘It is better to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye, than having two eyes to be cast into Gehenna’ (Mark 9:47). Since Gehenna stands here in contrast to the kingdom of God, it is obvious that the latter term denotes the place to which the righteous go at death. Again we read, ‘Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father who is in heaven’ (Matthew 7:21). It is plain from the following verse that Jesus is thinking of the end of the present age, and therefore the kingdom of heaven is here a synonym for heaven as the abode of the blessed. It is used in the same sense when Jesus says that many shall come from the east and the west, and sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven (8:11); and again, in the parable of the Tares, when it is said that the righteous, after the judgment of the wicked, shall shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father (13:43).

The prominent thought in these passages is the place to be occupied by those who are under the rule of God, rather than that rule itself. The kingdom of heaven in this sense alone is wholly eschatological. It belongs entirely to the future. Yet it is by no means the Jewish apocalyptic kingdom even in these passages. It is open to Gentiles as well as Jews (8:11, 12), and it is not a kingdom for this earth. It is where the spirits of the patriarchs are now.

Such are the special uses of the term ‘kingdom of heaven’ in the words of Jesus. No one of them furnishes a conception that binds the various uses together as does the idea of the rule of God.

5. The ideal of Jesus and that of the scribes.—Jesus’ conception of the kingdom of heaven was not developed out of that of the scribes. It was the antithesis of that. The story of the Temptation marks the definite rejection of the popular idea. For there would have been no ground for the temptation of Jesus, in regard to the Messianic office, if that ideal which He put away as fundamentally evil had not been the ideal of His people. His ideal was born out of His own inner experience of the rule of God. Hence for Him the kingdom in its fundamental idea was something to be realized from within, quietly and gradually, by spiritual means. The scribes, on the contrary, looked for a kingdom to be realized from without, in a spectacular and supernatural manner. This is plain from certain references in the Gospel itself. Thus, when Jesus entered Jerusalem riding on an ass, and all the crowds shouted Hosanna, His disciples thought that He was now at last to set up a visible Messianic banner, and they hailed the coming kingdom of their father David (Mark 11:10). Thus the establishment of the kingdom was associated in their minds with outward pomp. The disciples of Jesus, even after the resurrection, seem to have thought that the kingdom was to be set up in some miraculous manner, at any rate it was not to come through them (Acts 1:6).

This idea of the kingdom is common also in other Jewish writings. Thus, e.g., in the Psalms of Solomon we read that the Messiah will destroy the ungodly nations by the breath of His mouth, and He alone will establish the kingdom (17:23–25). Of the same purport is the teaching of the Talmud. Deliverance by the Messiah, like the deliverance of Israel by Moses, is to come from without, miraculously, and not at all from within. The Jews who are alive at the coming of the Messiah seem to have no more to do with the establishment of the kingdom than the Jews who are dead, and who at the beginning of the Messianic age are raised up to enjoy the kingdom (see Weber, Jud. Theol.2 [Note: designates the particular edition of the work referred] pp. 347–354; Hilgenfeld, Die jud. Apokalyptik, p. 86).

Again, the popular conception of the kingdom of heaven in the time of Jesus was thoroughly political and national. This is made plain by the Gospel. Thus, e.g., the third temptation of Jesus presupposes that people thought of the kingdom as a political organism. For the suggestion that Jesus might secure all the kingdoms of the world and their glory—He a carpenter from the little town of Nazareth, poor and as yet without a follower—would have been psychologically impossible, had not the popular view associated world-wide political dominion with Messiahship; and it would not have been a temptation of any power to the mind of Jesus, had it not been deeply rooted in the Jewish heart, and had it not seemed to have strong support in the OT itself.

The Fourth Evangelist tells us that after the miracle of feeding the five thousand, Jesus perceived that the people were about to make Him king (John 6:15). This word is capable only of a political meaning in this place, and therefore shows that the Galilaean idea of the kingdom was political. The character and strength of the popular view are seen in the request of Salome, seconded by James and John (Mark 10:37), and in the question of the disciples who, after the resurrection, asked the Lord if He would now restore the kingdom to Israel (Acts 1:6).

In utter contrast to this view, the fundamental conception of Jesus was, from the first, non-political and universal. The rule which He contemplated was, primarily, the rule of God in the heart, a rule which He doubtless thought of as transforming the entire outward life, social and political, and as bringing it into harmony with the Divine rule, though on this consequence of the inner rule of God He gave no explicit teaching. He dwelt on the fundamental spiritual fact of God’s rule in the heart. If at times He used the word ‘kingdom’ in the sense of the company of men who were under the rule of God, He did so without a suggestion of any political organization. And when by the ‘kingdom of heaven’ Jesus meant the full realization of His ideal in the future age, it is manifest that His conception is wholly religious in character and universal in its scope. Men enter the kingdom from the east and the west—all who have shown the spirit of Jesus; and what they inherit is eternal life (Matthew 8:11-12; Matthew 25:34).

We conclude, then, that just as Jesus derived His conception of God from His own experience, so it was from His experience of the rule of God that He developed His teaching about the kingdom of heaven. This teaching was akin to the spiritual views of the great prophets, but was wholly unlike that of the scribes of His day. See also art. Eschatology, p. 528 ff.

Literature.—Wendt, Die Lehre Jesu [Teaching of Jesus], 1886; V. H. Stanton, The Jewish and the Christian Messiah, 1886; J. Weiss, Die Predigt Jesu vom Reiche Gottes, 1892; W. Baldeusperger, Das Selbstbewusstsein Jesu2 [Note: designates the particular edition of the work referred] , 1892; C. H. Toy, Judaism and Christianity, 1892; J. Drummond, Hibbert Lectures, 1894; Beyschlag, NT Theol., English translation 1895; L. Paul, Die Vorstellungen vom Messias und vom Gottesreich bei den Synoptikern, 1895; W. Lütgert, Das Reich Gottes nach den syn. Evangelien, 1895; A. Titius, Jesu Lehre vom Reiche Gottes, 1895; H. J. Holtzmann, Lehrbuch der NT Theol. 1897; Stevens, Theol. of NT, 1899; Gould, Bibl. Theol. of NT, 1900; G. Dalman, Die Worte Jesu, English translation 1902; W. Bousset, Rel. des Judenthums, 1903; Wernle, Beginnings of Christianity, English translation 1903; Candlish, Kingdom of God; Bruce, Kingdom of God; Orr, Chr. View of God and the World, p. 401 ff., and his art. in Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible ii. 844; Denney, Stud. in Theol., ch. viii.; ExpT [Note: xpT Expository Times.] iv. [1893] pp. 24S, 464.

George Holley Gilbert.


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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Kingdom of God (or Heaven)'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hdn/k/kingdom-of-god-or-heaven.html. 1906-1918.

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