How does this term relate to the Kingdom of God? Is heaven where good people go? Why did Matthew use the term the Kingdom of Heaven?
Matthew, the former tax collector turned disciple of Jesus of Nazareth, often wrote about the Kingdom of Heaven. Early in his Gospel account of Christ’s life he stated: “In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, and saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!’” (Matthew 3:1-2, emphasis added throughout).
When the same disciple began recounting the beginning of Christ’s ministry, he recorded: “From that time Jesus began to preach and to say, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’” (Matthew 4:17). All told, Matthew used this phrase, “the kingdom of heaven,” 32 times in the book he authored (in the New King James Version of the Bible).
Although the prophet Daniel had prophesied that “the God of heaven will set up a kingdom which shall never be destroyed” (Daniel 2:44), Matthew is the only writer of the Bible to use the phrase “the kingdom of heaven.” Noting this distinction, some have wondered how this phrase relates to “the kingdom of God.” Do both phrases refer to the same kingdom?
Same kingdom; different names
Closer examination of the book of Matthew shows that this author also used the phrase “kingdom of God.” In Matthew 6:33, he quotes Christ advising people, “But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you.” In addition to this passage, Matthew uses the phrase “kingdom of God” four more times in the book bearing his name (Matthew 12:28; Matthew 19:24; Matthew 21:31, 43). The context of these passages shows that Matthew used these phrases to describe the same kingdom.
In the book of Ephesians, Paul referred to “the kingdom of Christ and God” (Ephesians 5:5). These phrases—the Kingdom of Heaven, the Kingdom of God, and the Kingdom of Christ and God—all refer to the same kingdom. This kingdom belongs to God, the One who “is God in heaven above and on the earth beneath” (Deuteronomy 4:39).
Do good people go to heaven?
Because Matthew described God’s Kingdom as “the kingdom of heaven” and because God is indeed referred to as the “God of heaven” (2 Chronicles 36:23; Ezra 1:2), many have mistakenly assumed that good people go to heaven to be with God when they die. What these people apparently don’t understand is that when Matthew referred to the Kingdom of God as the Kingdom of Heaven, he wasn’t trying to explain what happens to faithful people when they die.
What the Bible teaches regarding those who have died in faith is that they are in their graves awaiting the return of Jesus Christ, when they will be resurrected—brought back to life. The Bible teaches that “the dead know nothing” (Ecclesiastes 9:5) and that when someone dies, “in that very day his thoughts perish” (Psalm 146:4, King James Version).
It will be at “the coming of the Lord” when “the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout” that “the dead in Christ will rise first” (1 Thessalonians 4:15-16). Likening the grave to sleep, Paul described faithful people who have died as “those who sleep in Jesus” (verse 14). For further study, read our article “What Is Heaven?”
Why did Matthew use “the kingdom of heaven”?
Since the phrase “kingdom of God” is the predominant name used by writers of the Bible (this phrase appears 70 times in the New King James Version of the Bible), some wonder why Matthew used “the kingdom of heaven.” While the Bible doesn’t specifically answer this question, understanding the common perceptions of the Jews during the first century sheds light on why it was likely used. Apparently, the author chose this term to counter the Jewish perception that the coming of the Messiah would include the overthrow of the civil government.
What most Jews at that time did not understand was that the prophecies of Christ in the Old Testament would be fulfilled during two different periods of time. Christ was going to come two times—not just once.Commenting on this perception, Albert Barnes states: “The Jews expected a great national deliverer. They supposed that when the Messiah should appear, all the dead would be raised; that the judgment would take place; and that the enemies of the Jews would be destroyed, and that they themselves would be advanced to great national dignity and honor.
“The language in which they were accustomed to describe this event was retained by our Saviour and his apostles. Yet they early attempted to correct the common notions respecting his reign. This was one design, doubtless, of John in preaching repentance. Instead of summoning them to military exercises, and collecting an army, which would have been in accordance with the expectations of the nation, he called them to a change of life; to the doctrine of repentance—a state of things far more accordant with the approach of a kingdom of purity” (notes on Matthew 3:2).
What most Jews at that time did not understand was that the prophecies of Christ in the Old Testament would be fulfilled during two different periods of time. Christ was going to come two times—not just once. The author of the book of Hebrews clarifies this point saying, “So Christ was offered once to bear the sins of many. To those who eagerly wait for Him He will appear a second time, apart from sin, for salvation” (Hebrews 9:28).
Another reason Matthew may have used the term “kingdom of heaven” instead of “kingdom of God” was in recognition of Jewish sensitivity to overusing God’s name. Matthew may have simply used the word heaven as a euphemism to identify the Kingdom as belonging to God.
While it is helpful to understand biblical terminology, which this article provides, spiritual knowledge is of no value unless it is acted upon. After learning about God’s coming Kingdom, we must also take action in order to be part of it. A clear focus on becoming part of the Kingdom of God must be our life’s passion—the guiding force behind our thoughts and actions.
As Christ put it, “But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness” (Matthew 6:33).
To help you better understand how to seek God’s Kingdom and His righteousness, be sure to read the accompanying articles on this website. We suggest you begin with “What Is the Kingdom of God?” and then read the additional articles on the right-hand side of this page. Your eternal future is at stake, and you need this vital information. We are always pleased to provide personal responses to questions you may have. Just use the convenient form below each article.