In reading the Gospel account of Matthew, there is no doubt as to its running theme and message. The phrase “The Kingdom of Heaven” is mentioned 32 times in the Authorized Version. No where else in the scriptures, is this particular term used. No other apostle or Bible writer uses the term; the other Gospel writers use “The Kingdom of God”.
Most Bible expositors believe the terms Kingdom of Heaven and Kingdom of God are used interchangeably, and we have no reason to disagree. In fact, in parallel accounts of the Gospels, the terms are use interchangeably by the writers themselves. (See Matt. 4:17 and Mark 1:15; Matt. 8:11 and Luke 13:28, 29). In fact, Matthew himself uses the term Kingdom of God five times, (cf. 6:33; 12:28; 19:24; 21:31; 21:43).
The Kingdom of Heaven IS at Hand!
John the Baptist, began his preaching work admonishing those around him; “Repent ye; for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” (3:2) interestingly, our Lord himself began his ministry with those same words (4:17); and he taught his apostles to do the same, when he sent them out to preach (10:7). Not only was this kingdom the main thrust of our Lord’s ministry, it was his only thrust!
This is evident in our Lord’s mountaintop sermon, addressing the multitudes; “… he opened his mouth, and taught them, saying, Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” … “For I say unto you, that except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and the Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the Kingdom of Heaven” (Matt. 5:2, 3, 20)
We can see that this “kingdom of heaven” permeates the record of the Lord’s earthly ministry, as well as in the ministry of the 12 apostles, who were both instructed and commissioned by our Lord.
What is the Kingdom of Heaven?
Some scholars believe that the message of the Kingdom of Heaven is a reference to heaven itself, and that the message preached about by the Lord and his apostles was the issue of heaven and how to get there.
Others would teach that the Kingdom of Heaven is but a reference to a spiritual condition, in the hearts of men, resulting in the transforming of lives and eventually the society we live in. What the Lord and his 12 apostles were therefore preaching about, was the need for repentance and letting God reign in the hearts of men. Doing so, God’s will would be done on earth. (6:10)
These are but a few of the commonly accepted ideas as to the meaning behind the “kingdom of heaven.” However, these thoughts are at odds with what the Scriptures themselves declare. A careful search of the Scriptures reveal that the “kingdom of heaven” is not a reference to heaven itself, or to some spiritual reigning of God in the hearts of men, but rather to the Messianic kingdom of peace foretold by the prophets and promised by God himself to the nation of Israel. (Daniel 2:44;45; Isaiah 2:2-5; Micah 4:1-5)
A Promised Kingdom
We read of a covenant relationship in Genesis, between Jehovah God and Abraham. Accordingly, the nation of Israel was to be a “great nation” and “kingdom” in which “all the families of the earth shall be blessed“. (Ex. 12:1, 3) The arrangement was to give land to Abraham, where he and his descendants after him, would forever dwell as this “great nation” and provide for the blessing of the world and administer God’s dominion over it. (Ex. 19:5, 6)
In prophesying about this event, Isaiah proclaimed:
“And it shall come to pass in the last days, that the mountain of the LORD’s house shall be established in the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow unto it. And many people shall go and say, Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths: for out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. And he shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people:” (Isaiah 2:2-4)
We see here how this nation under God, would provide the way for the world of mankind to walk in the path of God. The will of heaven will reign and rule on the earth by way of the kingdom of Israel.
A Rebellious Nation and Her Failures
God raised up prominent ones to lead his people. History shows that despite God’s plans, Israel rebelled. In view of her rebellious ways and failures, God raised up King David and made a covenant with him and his descendants. “And when thy days be fulfilled, and thou shalt sleep with thy fathers, I will set up thy seed after thee, which shall proceed out of thy bowels, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build an house for my name, and I will stablish the throne of his kingdom for ever.” (2 Sam. 7:12, 13; 1 Chr. 17:11-14)
Isaiah rejoiced in this future day and proclaimed to Israel…
“For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to order it, and to establish it with judgment and with justice from henceforth even for ever. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will perform this“. (Isaiah 9:6 7)
Daniel in a vision saw the end of Gentile dominion over Israel and the fulfillment of God’s promises to the nation;
“And in the days of these kings shall the God of heaven set up a kingdom, which shall never be destroyed: and the kingdom shall not be left to other people, but it shall break in pieces and consume all these kingdoms, and it shall stand for ever.” (Daniel 2:44)
We see that Israel’s covenanted kingdom was to be established through her Messiah, the promise seed of David in accordance with the Davidic covenant. He would redeem His people and set up his kingdom dominion in Zion. This is what God’s covenant with Israel called for. This is what the expression “the kingdom of heaven” refers to.
The Kingdom of Heaven AT Hand
When our Lord Jesus was born, he was born for a purpose, a God given mission. To fulfill the Davidic promise as was announced to Mary;
“And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name JESUS. He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David: and he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end.” (Luke 1:31 33)
Jesus, the only-begotten son of God, left his heavenly home, to be born of women, and become the promised seed of David, to sit on the throne of David and establish His kingdom on earth. The “kingdom of heaven“, therefore, was “at hand“.
Not only was the promised Messiah here, but he was right on schedule as the prophets had long foretold (see Dan. 9:24-27). The establishing of the kingdom of heaven was near completion. Which prompted our Lord to tell the masses as he preached; “Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 4:17)
This was the Divine Plan of ages ago. The long awaited Messiah, the promise seed of David, the King of Israel had arrived. To announce that the covenanted “kingdom of heaven” was “at hand“. And as such, the work began to prepare the way. Jesus taught the masses the beatitudes in view of it (5:1-12). He taught how to gain entrance into it (5:20; 7:21; 18:3; 19:23; 24). He expounded on those who would be the “least” and the “greatest” in it (5:19; 11:11; 13:32). He even informed his closes disciples of their special positions in it (19:28) and finally, he warned about the destructive judgments He would execute upon the nations prior to fully establishing the kingdom (chapters 24, 25).
As God’s plan unveils, the Apostles eagerly looked for the restoration of the kingdom to Israel. (Acts 1:6) They, therefore, proclaimed to Israel the arrival of her “last days“, (Acts 2:1 36), as spoken of in the prophets, and exhorted the people to respond positively to the offer of the kingdom. (Acts 3:12 26)
Where is this promise Kingdom?
It is obvious that “the kingdom of heaven” has not yet been established on the earth. None of the prophetic pronouncements concerning its establishment have been fulfilled, however, when our Lord was on earth “the time” was “fulfilled” for it, and so it was preached to be “at hand“. So we ask ourselves, what has happened? Why hasn’t “the God of heaven” set up that kingdom of promise?
Though many have endeavored to explain, we find that God’s own explanation concerning what he has done and what he will yet do is the one that needs to be understood and appreciated.
A New Dispensation
The Apostle Paul tells us the reason behind the delay in the establishing of Israel’s kingdom. We’re told that God has temporarily set aside his plans for Israel, and has ushered in a new dispensation. We read in Romans 11, that when Israel “stumbled” at the testimony of Christ, God did something unexpected. He “blinded” the nation and turned to the Gentiles.
“For I would not, brethren, that ye should be ignorant of this mystery, lest ye should be wise in your own conceits; that blindness in part has happened to Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles be come in.” (vs. 25 – cf John 12:37-40; 2 Cor. 3:14)
Yes, God has “blinded” Israel and has put his plans and His special dealings with her on hold. In doing so, God has turned his attention to the Gentiles and has administered a dispensation of grace. The apostle Paul tells us in Ephesians;
“For this cause I Paul, the prisoner of Jesus Christ for you Gentiles, if ye have heard of the dispensation of the grace of God which is given me to you ward: how that by revelation he made known unto me the mystery;…which in other ages was not made known unto the sons of men, as it is now revealed unto his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit; that the Gentiles should be fellow heirs, and of the same body and partakers of his promise in Christ by the gospel.” (3:1-6)
This dispensation of grace is what God is now working out, and has been working out. We must remember God has “not cast away His people“. He is not through with them. Rather, her “fullness” is yet to come. Since her “blindness” is “in part“, “until the fullness of the Gentiles be come in“, Paul goes on to say;
“And so all Israel shall be saved: as it is written, There shall come out of Sion the Deliverer, and shall turn away ungodliness from Jacob: for this is my covenant unto them, when I shall take away their sins.” (Romans 11:1, 26, 27)
Israel’s “fullness” is yet to come, and when it does, as Zechariah 14:9 says, “…the LORD shall be King over all the earth: in that day shall there be one LORD, and his name one.”
Also, as Isaiah declares to the redeemed and the delivered of Israel in that day;
“…ye shall be named the Priests of the LORD: men shall call you the Ministers of our God:…For as the earth bringeth forth her bud, and as the garden causeth the things that are sown in it to spring forth; so the Lord GOD will cause righteousness and praise to spring forth before all the nations.” (vs 6,11)
The literal Kingdom of God is not to be seen by hands, Jesus will not sit on a literal throne on earth, but this kingdom will be in the literal heavens, thus the Kingdom of Heaven is a spiritual Kingdom, unseen to the human eye, but its influence will be worldwide. When asked about his Kingdom, Jesus replied: “The kingdom of God cometh not with observation, neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you” [or “in your midst” – Rotherham] (Luke 17:20-21)
Israel will be the earthly representatives of that heavenly kingdom, with the ancient patriarchs of old being its rulers. Jesus and His Church will be the heavenly representatives of that kingdom.
Israel’s promised kingdom is yet to be established, God’s word is sure, for He cannot change or alter his promises (Psalm 89:34). However, God’s plan for Israel is set aside and in abeyance. God is working out “the mystery of Christ” in this “dispensation of His grace” and is preparing the “new creation“, the church, the body of Christ, made up of both Jew and Gentile, for a purpose He has in the heavenly places. When that number is complete, “all Israel shall be saved” and their promised Kingdom realized. They shall be the blesser nation, and through them “all the nations of the earth will be blessed.”