Episode 24: Discover Jesus in Matthew (4) The Kingdom of Heaven

Laurence and Dan pick up where they left off in Matthew’s Gospel by exploring why Matthew uses the phrase: “the Kingdom of Heaven” so often.  When Jesus says “the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!”  what kind of kingdom is he talking about? Is heaven a location or something else?  Dan and Laurence discover that the kingdom concept is deeply rooted in the message of Israel’s ancient prophets while also carrying a timeless call to action.  Intrigued?  Listen on… a slightly longer episode than usual, but hey… it’s about the Kingdom of Heaven!!

Show Notes

Starting in Matthew 4:17, Laurence and Dan notice how the “kingdom of heaven” summarises the things Jesus taught about. Jesus proclaimed that the kingdom of heaven was “at hand” calling on people to repent. It is therefore an important phrase to understand, and they start to investigate what it means by unpacking each part of the phrase in turn.

The kingdom anticipated in Isaiah

First up is a look back at the context in Matthew 4. After the record of temptations in the wilderness, (covered in the previous episode in this series), Jesus moves to Capernaum by the sea of Galilee. Matthew directs his readers’ attention to how this was fulfilling the first few verses of Isaiah 9.

And leaving Nazareth he went and lived in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: “The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles— the people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light, and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death, on them a light has dawned.”

Matthew 4:13-16

What Matthew is doing here is directing his readers to a very key moment in Isaiah’s prophecy. Like the previous quotation from Isaiah 7:14, (see the episode “God with us”), this is a moment that is rooted in the kingdom of Judah and the line of David. The light that Isaiah anticipated dawning turns out to be the news of a Son being born as king!

So when Matthew quotes this and then immediately tells his readers that Jesus was proclaiming the “kingdom of heaven”, we have a good idea what he’s thinking about; the promise of a king in the line of David – a restored kingdom to Israel and Judah.

Why heaven?

Laurence and Dan move on to consider the next part of the phrase. If the word ‘kingdom’ is referring back to the expected kingdom on earth in Israel, why is it called “the kingdom of heaven”? They compare Matthew’s record with the account in Mark 1:14-15 to notice that the phrase “kingdom of heaven” is actually synonymous with “kingdom of God”. In fact, the word heaven was used as a replacement word for God, sometimes to avoid using the name God in speech or in written form. Dan points out that this can’t be a totally perfect explanation for this question because Matthew isn’t exactly pandering to Jewish sensitivities in other places throughout the gospel. In fact, he even uses the phrase “Kingdom of God” on a handful of occasions. As one commentator puts it:

Matthew’s phrase “the kingdom of the heavens” (literally) is functionally the same as “the kingdom of God” in Mark and Luke, and frequently occurs in direct parallel to it… [Matthew’s] general preference for “heaven” instead of “God” is conventionally explained as a typically Jewish reverential paraphrase to avoid pronouncing the name of God, but since Matthew seems to have no inhibitions about speaking of God by name elsewhere, this is hardly an adequate explanation.

France, R. T. (2007). The Gospel of Matthew (p. 101). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publication Co.

One thing is clear, the phrase is referring to the same thing as the Kingdom of God and therefore isn’t really about the location of the kingdom. Jesus wasn’t telling people to repent because they were going to soon be taken up to heaven. Laurence points out how the apostle Paul can talk about believers being in the heavenly places now, as a metaphor of being under God’s rule, (Ephesians 2:6).

The nation’s visions for the kingdom

Laurence and Dan dip back into the structure of Matthew, building on some of the thoughts from earlier in the series. We get a summary of what Jesus did in Matthew 4:23-25 where it says that he taught and proclaimed. The first of five large blocks of Jesus’ sayings immediately follow this, often known as the sermon on the mount. This is a summary of his teaching, as Matthew 5:1-2 says. The next large block of sayings comes in Matthew 10, which is all about how he proclaimed the kingdom of heaven, and asked his disciples to do the same.

With this in mind they talk about how the common people in Jesus’ day were struggling and living out a poor existence under foreign domination. In this situation, there were competing visions for the kingdom and the nation. One extreme is exemplified in the Pharisees, who wanted to drive the nation to ritual purity in order to separate them further from the wider world and thus bring about the kingdom that way. Another extreme came in the form of violent opposition – the zealot movement that developed later had its roots in the days of Jesus. Yet, there were also people taking a completely opposite approach, such as the tax collectors. Instead of resisting the foreign rule, they were giving in and, it seems, trying to make the most out of the situation by cashing in what they could earn from the empire.

A different vision for the kingdom of heaven

In this politically fraught situation, Jesus chose 12 disciples to proclaim his own vision of the kingdom of heaven. He included one tax collector and someone else who had previously had sympathies with the zealots! And he asked them to further his own radical agenda of teaching, which comes through in the sermon on the mount about loving enemies. This is how the kingdom of heaven ought to operate: if heaven rules, i.e. if God rules, then what does that mean for how I ought to live my life and how I ought to treat other people?

When is the kingdom?

Laurence and Dan finally talk through what Jesus meant by saying the kingdom was “at hand”. They notice how, in Jesus’ mind, there was a sense that the kingdom was arriving there and then, because of his own presence and teaching, (Matthew 12:28). Fascinatingly, these momentous passages, which are crucial in how Matthew is developing the story of Jesus, are when Jesus talks about the Kingdom of God, not the Kingdom of Heaven. It’s as if these are key turning points in the narrative and Matthew is emphasising them by stepping away from the convention of using the word heaven instead of God.

There is a definite feeling of transition within the gospel which Jesus made clear, (Matthew 21:43), and which leads into an anticipation of the fullest sense of the kingdom still to come in the future. This works through Matthew’s gospel into the culminating parable in Matthew 25:31-34 where Jesus is portrayed as admitting people who have lived out the sermon on the mount teaching in their lives into the kingdom that they can inherit; heaven’s kingdom on earth – the restored kingdom with the Son of David ruling over it.

The picture is pretty clear. The kingdom of heaven is not about going away to the skies when we die, or at any point at all. The Old Testament context points us to thinking about a very real and tangible thing on earth. But Jesus and the rest of scripture make it clear what it should mean to those who accept the rule of God in their lives now. They ought to live as if in God’s kingdom now, (Colossians 1:13; Ephesians 2:6), learning from the wise teaching such as the sermon on the mount. The kingdom of heaven on earth will then be a reality that they inherit when Jesus comes again.

More episodes in the same series

(1) First things first

(2) God with us

(3) Tempted by the devil

(5) Who is Jesus?

(6) My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me?