If one pays attention to what is unique in a gospel, very often the divine purpose for the Spirit writing the book becomes known. Each of the four gospels has a different emphasis, a different character, and express different glories of Christ. One of these differences which stands out in Matthew’s gospel is the use of the phrase “the kingdom of heaven.” In Matthew, it is used thirty-two times. It cannot be found anywhere else in Scripture. It is unique to Matthew and therefore its use is significant.
Many people would tend to explain away this oddity by saying it is just something Matthew himself has done in his writing, and that it has no importance separate from the other writers using a similar phrase “the kingdom of God.” They would have us believe Matthew is simply using different words to express the same thought or event, taking this liberty upon himself and expressing his own style as an author. They would encourage us to just pass over it as an idiosyncrasy personal to Matthew. However, I am convinced that the Spirit of God alone is the author and that Matthew is simply the human instrument in His hands. How else will we be able to say this is the infallible, inspired, word of God, if the Spirit of God isn’t the one in control of its writing? For the gospel to be the word of God, in the greatest sense, God alone must be the author. Therefore, the presence of this unique phrase thirty-two times in Matthew’s gospel, and it being exclusive to his writing, must be understood as part of the divine purpose. The Spirit of God has engineered this change. As Christian believers, we must seek to understand why.
In a previous chapter we proposed a three-fold purpose for the Spirit of God’s writing of Matthew’s gospel. The first two purposes are generally acceptable to most teachers – in Matthew, the Spirit presents Jehovah/Messiah to the Jewish mind, and secondly, the Spirit shows the rejection of this presentation by the Jews. God was long-suffering and faithful to His chosen people, so that He never did anything which would compromise His dealings with them in this relationship, until the Jews, in fact, had rejected the Son whom He sent to them. By rejecting Jesus, the Jews were rejecting the One in whom all their promises were contained. And with this, in Matthew, the Spirit shows the testimony of God’s rejection of His people. The Jewish dispensation would soon come to a close because God was ready to judge Israel and set the Jews aside as “not my people.” (Hosea 1:9)
It is the third purpose for the Spirit’s writing this gospel that is the most important to see and understand. Why would I say this? Because the third purpose is the resulting one, the one to which God is bringing us to as a conclusion, based on the previous two being accomplished. Matthew’s book is a dispensational gospel. Over and over again it shows the evidence of a transition taking place from the Jewish to the Christian dispensation. This is the divine purpose of the Holy Spirit in writing Matthew’s gospel.
What then is the meaning of Matthew’s phrase, “the kingdom of heaven?” My premise is it is specific to the divine purpose of the writing. Matthew contains many passages showing the transition between the Jewish and Christian dispensations. But there are many who do not see this. Many teachers would tell us that Jesus and His disciples would never teach anything different about the kingdom of God than what is found in the Old Testament – the promise of a Messianic kingdom in Israel. After all, Jesus is the promised Messiah now come to Israel. If a kingdom is being offered, it has to be this. Therefore, in their logic, “the kingdom of heaven” phrase must refer to a Messianic kingdom for Israel. When the Baptist and Jesus use the phrase early in the gospel saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” their reasoning points only to a Messianic, Jewish, understanding of the phrase (Matt. 3:2, 4:17).
A Messianic kingdom of prophecy is an external geopolitical kingdom in the world, one of power and glory ruling over Israel, and one which would throw off from the Jews all Gentile power and oppression. If you hold to the Messianic kingdom interpretation for the phrase, then you must do so for all thirty-two times it is used in Matthew’s gospel. This is where you would run into some real problems. The mistake is understandable for the first two times the phrase is used in the gospel (mentioned above). There isn’t much detail given in those two verses. It is beyond the first two that the descriptive details associated with the phrase simply do not agree with any proper understanding of a Messianic kingdom.
The “kingdom of heaven” is well defined by the descriptive details associated with this phrase in Matthew thirteen. This is what makes that chapter so significant. More than any other place in Matthew, the details of this chapter help us define the proper meaning of this phrase. Many of the parables in the chapter are similes of the kingdom of heaven – it is like this or that, describing to you what the kingdom will look like outwardly in the world or what its general prophetic history will be. The descriptions don’t paint the picture of a Messianic kingdom of power and glory in Israel, throwing off Gentile dominion. Instead of God’s ancient people being described, it is a new planting by Jesus, who represents and works for God (Matt. 13:3, 24, 37) – the Sower goes out to sow, and He who sows the good seed is the Son of Man. Then further details show that while men slept, the enemy came in and sowed tares among the wheat, practically ruining the crop. The mixture remains in this spoiled condition for the entire time of the present age (Matt. 13:24–30, 37–43). In the time of harvest at the end, the wheat is removed from the world, while the tares are bundled together and left in the world to be judged. None of these details sound anything like a Messianic kingdom of power and great glory.
The picture painted for us of the kingdom of heaven is that of Christendom growing up in the world. This is the new work of God, His new planting. The time of this present age is the Christian dispensation. Early on, men were sleeping and failed in their responsibility to watch over the crop, and this allowed the devil to come in and plant tares among the wheat. Christendom is a spoiled crop of wheat and tares, the work of God mixed in with the work of Satan. It stays this way for the entire Christian dispensation. In the time of harvest at the end of the age, God will take the responsibility to separate the wheat from the tares. The wheat will be removed from the world – this is the true church.
“The kingdom of heaven” points to Christendom as the crop in the field. This is the form the kingdom of God takes in the world during the Christian dispensation. There shouldn’t be any doubt that the wheat and tares’ parable is not referring to a form of the kingdom of God known as Messianic or Jewish. Nor is it reference to a kingdom of power and great glory in Israel. Rather, it points directly to Christendom and the time of the Christian dispensation. In this sense, the Spirit of God through Matthew gives us a title or label for the new Christian dispensation – the kingdom of heaven.
Knowing this, we must take this understanding and apply it to every passage in Matthew where the Spirit of God uses “the kingdom of heaven” phrase (all thirty-two times). We soon find that the only proper association of the phrase is in reference to teachings concerned with:
- Christendom as a corporate group
- the Christian dispensation as the period of time
- the practical teachings and practice of Christianity as the present sanctioned religion by God.
When we go back to the beginning of Matthew and re-consider the Baptist and Jesus declaring, “Repent, the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” we now can correctly reason these are transitional passages. Christendom and the Christian dispensation were not yet present in the world but were soon in coming – it was “at hand” but not yet. From other teachings, some of which are other parables of the kingdom of heaven, we comprehend that this form that the kingdom would take in the Christian dispensation could not begin or be established on the earth until Jesus had, Himself, gone away to heaven (John 16:7, Matt. 25:14, Luke 19:11–12).225 Jesus could not begin to build His church until after He was glorified, and the Spirit was sent down from heaven to accomplish this work (John 7:37–39, Matt. 16:18).
225 [The two phrases – “the kingdom of God” and “the kingdom of heaven” – are both found in Matthew’s gospel, but at times their individual use by the Spirit of God shows a distinct contrast. In Matt. 12:28 Jesus says, “If I cast out demons by the Spirit of God, surely the kingdom of God has come upon you.” Here the kingdom of God was there because the Son of God was present – because God was present and working; He was exercising His power and ruling over the demons. In contrast to this, whenever the kingdom of heaven phrase is used in Matthew, it always refers to a kingdom “at hand” (Matt. 4:17) – one soon in coming, but not really existing as yet. Instead of referring to the present exercise of God’s power, it refers to the developing purpose of God concerning the coming Christian dispensation – the mind and order of God concerning this new dispensation. The kingdom of heaven was always “at hand” as long as Jesus was still on the earth and in the flesh. The “kingdom of God” was upon them because Jesus was present with them; the “kingdom of heaven” could not be established or upon them while Jesus remained present]
One is soon led into the spiritual understanding of the Holy Spirit’s choice of the word “heaven” in the phrase. Why replace “the kingdom of God” in certain places in Matthew with the phrase “the kingdom of heaven?” There seem to be numerous reasons for this. Above we mentioned that Jesus, the Son of Man, had to leave the earth and go back to heaven. I do not think this stipulation concerning His physical location for the purpose of establishing the kingdom of heaven is just coincidence. If we know at least some measure of Christian doctrine, we begin to understand that the position and privileges of the Christian believer, and for that matter, those of the corporate church, entirely depend on where Jesus is located today – glorified to the right hand of God in heaven. This is true concerning the individual believer (Eph. 2:4–7) as well as His body, the church (Eph. 1:17–23). Jesus glorified and physically located in heaven during the entire Christian dispensation has the greatest significance on proper dispensational teaching.
Also consider the calling of individual Christians and the true corporate church – we have a heavenly calling (Heb. 3:1), a heavenly citizenship (Phil. 3:20). All those in Christ are destined to sit in heavenly places and to be blessed with every spiritual blessing from God while sitting there (Eph. 2:6, 1:3). Heaven is our eternal home. It is where we will enter the Father’s house as glorified sons of God. This is promised as the privileged place for all the Father’s sons by faith in Jesus (John 14:1–3, Gal. 3:26). The true church is a heavenly body. It is gathered on the earth by the Spirit at this present time. If “the kingdom of heaven” references Christendom, the use of the word “heaven” shouldn’t be a great puzzle. Christendom contains the true church, the heavenly body of Christ.226
226 [In John three, Jesus told Nicodemus, “If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things?” Because Nicodemus was a teacher of Israel (a Pharisee – John 3:1, 10), he should have easily understood earthly things, for they are about Israel and the Jewish dispensation. But heavenly things are about Christians, Christianity, and the Christian dispensation. And heavenly things were part of the mystery of God hidden from the revelation of the Old Testament. If the individual Christian and the corporate church have a heavenly calling and citizenship, and are destined to sit in heavenly places in Christ Jesus, then we will never find any scriptural support for these heavenly things in the Old Testament. Please notice that all the scriptural support listed above for heavenly things are verses from the New Testament. There are many passages in John’s gospel which serve the purpose of dispensational transition – this one from the third chapter is certainly one of them. The kingdom of heaven in Matthew’s gospel is a new form of the kingdom of God for the new Christian dispensation, and it involves association with heavenly things, which are entirely new revelations only found in the New Testament]
One of the biggest parts of Christianity is the new relationship Christians have with God as their Father. This is decidedly a Christian revelation belonging to the Christian dispensation. Jesus came specifically to reveal the Father and this new relationship (John 1:18, 17:25–26, Matt. 11:25–27). Often when speaking of the believer’s Father, Jesus gives His location – your Father in heaven. This is done nine separate times in Matthew’s gospel, seven times in his rendering of the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5, 6, 7). This use gives the impression that the kingdom of heaven will eventually be a kingdom in heaven and that the Father is its true King. This is confirmed in the interpretation given by Jesus of the wheat and tares’ parable in Matthew thirteen. As stated in a previous chapter, the interpretation reveals the eventual existence of two distinct kingdoms – the earthly kingdom of the Son of Man and the heavenly kingdom of the Father (Matt. 13:41–43). Christians, the sons of the kingdom (Matt. 13:38), will eventually shine forth as the sun in the glory of the kingdom of their Father. The kingdom of heaven phrase perfectly fits with all this doctrine. By realizing the divine purpose the Spirit has in this gospel and seeing the details associated with the use of the phrase itself, it no longer is a mystery why the phrase is found so many times in Matthew.
There are a few other things uniquely placed in Matthew’s gospel that serve the divine purpose of dispensational transition.
- In the Sermon on the Mount the Lord makes many direct comparisons between Judaism and Christianity. He does this by using a certain word formula He repeats a number of times in this gospel (Matt. 5:21–22, 27–28, 31–32, 33–37, 38–42, 43–48). In every case Jesus is comparing the limited duty of the Jews under the law with the greater responsibility of a Christian disciple. It is a contrast between the words of Moses and the words of Jesus. Christianity is the practice of obeying the words and commandments of Jesus Christ (Matt. 7:24–27, 28:20, John 14:21). In Matthew nineteen we find this formula again, only in clearer detail – Moses said this and allowed this, but Jesus says something very different to us now (Matt. 19:3–9).
- Of the four gospels, Matthew’s is the only one in which Jesus speaks of the church, mentioning it briefly two separate times (Matt. 16, 18). After Israel was set aside by God, ending the Jewish dispensation, Jesus would build His church during the new Christian dispensation (Matt. 16:18). Jesus doesn’t build a kingdom, and this is an important distinction in the passage. He builds a bride, a body, the church. Peter is given administrative authority (the keys) of the kingdom of heaven as men build up Christendom in the world. These words from the Lord directed to Peter are unique to Matthew because they deal with dispensational transition (vrs. 18, 19).
- Other than in the Lord’s prayer, which is also found in Luke, Matthew’s gospel is the only one to have another direct reference to the Father’s kingdom in the heavens (Matt. 13:43). This is a distinct kingdom, separate from the Son of Man’s earthly kingdom during the millennium (Matt. 13:40–42). From the passage in Corinthians, it seems that the Lord’s millennial kingdom is only a subset of the broader topic of the kingdom of God – after He reigns on the earth for a thousand years, putting all God’s enemies under His feet, Jesus will give up His kingdom to God the Father, so that in the eternal state, God may be all in all (1 Cor. 15:24–28).
- The beginning of Matthew’s gospel has a genealogy which presents Jesus to the Jewish mind as the Messiah of Israel. It centers on His descent from the two great heads of the Jewish race – David and Abraham (Matt. 1:1). But this gospel ends with a distinctly Christian commission (Matt. 28:18–20) – going to the Gentile nations and baptizing then in the name of the Christian Trinity, teaching them to obey His commands (Christianity). This commission was given to them after they had come to Galilee of the Gentiles as instructed by the Lord and His angel (Matt. 28:7, 10, 16). This shows the overall theme of transition between the first two dispensations.