Distinguishing Between the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Heaven
Throughout the Gospels, and indeed through the entire New Testament, there are references made continually to "the Kingdom." Most of the time, it is referred to as the Kingdom of God, and is somewhat generic in meaning, leaving the reader to determine exactly what is meant by the context.
However, in the Gospel of Matthew, and nowhere else, "the Kingdom" is shown in two distinct settings. In Matthew, there is a specific reference to the "Kingdom of Heaven," and it is contrasted in numerous places with the "Kingdom of God."
While most scholars, and the vast majority of Christians make no distinction between the two, there does definitely appear to be a difference, which we will look at closely. Understanding that there is a difference between the two will go a long way to understanding a number of different passages throughout the New Testament, and will also clarify some of the thought processes used by the Dominion/Kingdom Now eschatologists.
First, let's note that there is more space in the prophetic Scriptures devoted to describing a future rule of God on earth than to any other particular subject. From the OT to the end of the NT, every book contains multiple references to this future Kingdom. In the NT particularly, there are a number of different expressions used to categorize various aspects of God's sovereign rule, both in heaven, and on earth.
In most of the expressions, though, there is a common theme; the rule of God, through Jesus Christ, in the life of those who believe in Him. The Kingdom is thus generally believed to be the rule of God in the heart.
In Matthew, however, there are some not-so-subtle distinctions made between two kingdoms: one is as described, the rule of God in the heart of the individual, the other is the rule of God over the earth itself. Let me say here that there is no doubt in my mind that God is in charge...He is ruler over all, now and forever, and nothing happens that He does not know about, and allow.
However, that being said, it is also quite obvious that God does not rule in the lives of men, from one end of the earth to the other, and universally. That is where the distinctions made by Jesus, and reported by Matthew, are shown.
Again, to clearly define the differences, we'll say that the Kingdom of God is the rule of God in the heart of man through belief in Jesus Christ, and the Kingdom of Heaven is the rule of God in the earth, in a purely physical setting. What we are about to look at is how these differences are defined in Scripture.
All four of the Gospels present Jesus in one of His prophesied aspects. Matthew presents Him as Jesus the King, while Mark depicts Christ the Servant. Luke shows us Christ the Man, while John describes Christ in His Deity. Matthew, as showing us Christ the King, draws heavily upon the OT scriptures and prophecies that spoke clearly to the future Kingdom, and the Jews clearly understood the Messianic nature of Christ, and how He would reign, on this earth, from the throne of David. To them, Messiah was not some spiritual being up in the heavens, nor was He to be understood as controlling the heart and thought, but was to be flesh and blood, physical, able to see and be seen, and in close physical proximity to His people.
We begin with a couple of similarities between the Kingdom of Heaven, and the Kingdom of God. In Mat. 3:2 and in Mark 1:15, we see that both Kingdoms are to be established on the earth. Both will be preached, Mat. 4:23 and Mark 1:14, and there are certain aspects of both Kingdoms that are mysteries, never having been revealed, found in Mat. 13:11 and Luke 8:10. There are several other similarities, but these will suffice for now.
Now for the differences, which are certainly more notable and telling than are the similarities. In John 3:3,5 we see that the Kingdom of God can ONLY be entered into by a new birth, while Mat. 5:20 and 7:21 clearly states that the only requirement for entering the Kingdom of Heaven is by manifested righteousness. More about this distinction later, when we look at the judgment of the nations.
In John 3:18, 5:24, 10:28-29, 2 Tim. 4:18, and James 2:5, we see that those who are in the Kingdom of God are secure in their place. In contrast, we find in Mat. 8:12, 13:41, 42, 47-50, 24:50-51, and 25:30 that those in the Kingdom of Heaven are subject to being cast out.
Daniel 4:2-3 and Hebrews 1:8 tell us that the Kingdom of God is eternal, while the Kingdom of Heaven comes to an end, told in 1 Cor. 15:24 and Rev. 20:6.
Look high and low in the Kingdom of God, and you will only find saved persons (John 3:3,5; 1 Thes. 2:12-13), but one needn't look hard to find the Kingdom of Heaven filled with unsaved people (Mat. 13:37-43, 47-50).
What do we have? Two kingdoms, one spiritual in nature, the other physical. One includes only those who are, as Jesus said to Nicodemus, "born again," while the other is purely physical in nature, and contains both those born again AND those who have not, but have been granted a measure of "righteousness" according to manifested deeds.
Of course, this then raises the question; "is it possible to make it into the Kingdom by works? Again, distinguish between the two kingdoms. Scripture is very clear that the Kingdom of God (the spiritual one), can ONLY be accessed by faith: "salvation is by grace through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God; not of works, lest any man should boast." Then what on earth is Jesus talking about?
Look to Matthew 25:31, most often called the Judgment of the Nations. Jesus says "When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory: (32) And before him shall be gathered all nations; and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats: (33) And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left. (34) Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world."
Here Jesus is speaking of the earthly kingdom that was prophesied throughout the OT concerning Messiah reigning on the throne of David from Jerusalem. The same kingdom is also spoken of in the NT in numerous places.
Keep in mind, that the "nations" gathered before Him are not physical nations, but are the ethnic groups of the world. In the Greek, the word is "ethnos," which means a multitude of individuals of the same nature or genus: the human family: a tribe, nation, or people group. These are the "survivors" of the tribulation period, those who have managed to live through the 21 judgments inflicted upon the earth and people during the reign of the anti-christ, and culminating in the battle of Armageddon when Jesus returns and defeats antichrist and his armies. That there will be survivors is indicated through the explanations given in Revelation about the nature of God's judgments, and how many people will die during them.
Jesus continues in the verses following to describe the "passport" into the Kingdom , and how one obtains entry. He describes the sheep, those being granted entry, as those who have given aid and comfort to His "brethren," even when they did not realize that they were doing so. While many in the Christian community believe that this appellation of "brethren" applies only to Christians, keep several things in mind here. First, those who are saved when the tribulation begins will not be present on the earth, having been "snatched away" (harpadzo-Gr; rapturo-Latin) at the beginning of it. During the tribulation period, there will be those who come to a saving knowledge of Christ, but what Jesus is speaking primarily to at this point is His Jewish brethren. The tribulation period is primarily a time of intense persecution and preparation of the Jewish people to accept Christ as Messiah when He returns, and as such, it is those who give aid and comfort to the Jews that will be classified as sheep. As an example, there were many during WWII who helped the Jews in Europe during the persecutions by Hitler by hiding them, giving them clothing and food, and even smuggling many out of harm's way.
This is a classic description of "imputed righteousness" due to an action. During the dispensation of law, we can see how righteousness is imputed to the people through the observance of the requirements of the law. Some examples of imputed righteousness can be found in Abraham (James 2:23), Zacharias (Luke 1:67), Simeon (Luke 2:25), and throughout the Torah.
Jesus, by judicial decree and as a function of His position as King, makes a righteous judgment and determination as to who is allowed this imputation of righteousness, and grants them entry into His millennial Kingdom on this earth.
The granting of entrance into this Kingdom does not automatically mean that those granted entrance have received eternal salvation, nor does it mean that they are a "believer," as in "born-again." It simply means that they have been granted the right to live under the rule of God on this earth, the "Kingdom of Heaven," and will have the opportunity to believe fully in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. As we will see, though, there will be many who will not come to accept Him during this period of perfect and righteous judgment and government.
Revelation 20 gives a brief, but very important look at the Millennial Kingdom, the Kingdom of Heaven, and what transpires. The length of this Kingdom is delineated quite clearly, being set at 1,000 years. During this time, the devil is bound up in a pit, unable to roam the earth and deceive people (Rev. 20:2-3). During this time, the people of the earth will enjoy unprecedented prosperity (Micah 4:4), no war (Isa. 14:7), thorns and briers disappear (Isa. 32:13), the nature of animals is changed (Isa. 11:6), there will be abundant crops and food (Amos 9:13), and sickness will end (Isa 35:5). All of this will be the direct result of the reign of God over this earth, and in sharp contrast to the wickedness, poverty, pestilence and disease, war and sloth that characterizes the pre-Millennium period when the devil was allowed to roam free.
Rev. 20:7, though, shows us clearly that there will be those living during this wonderful age of God's rule who are not only unrepentant, but unbelieving. Even though these people have been granted the right to live during the Millennial Kingdom, and partake of God's perfect bounty, there will be those who are just like the Hebrews in the wilderness who despised the manna that God provided, and wanted meat instead, seeking to satisfy their own desires. In Rev. 20:7 we are told that satan shall be loosed from out of his prison, and he will go out and deceive many, and will raise a vast army (the number of whom is as the sand of the sea.)
Who is it that he is deceiving? Certainly, it can't be the redeemed saints, those who have been born again. It will be those "sheep" who were granted entrance into the Kingdom of Heaven, and don't like (because of their unredeemed and unrepentant nature) what they have been given. Satan is able to deceive them because of this nature, and their desire for more for themselves. In other words, the "sin nature" of man will rise up again.
Here we clearly see the transitory nature and length of this kingdom, and the fact that both redeemed and unredeemed will be in it, which further underscores the importance of recognizing a difference in the two Kingdoms, rather than generically lumping them together in one.
At this point, one might ask what this all has to do with the Dominion/Kingdom Now theology earlier mentioned. Briefly, D/KN theology is based upon several assumptions that are a serious and egregious breach of Scriptural interpretation. First is the assumption that the Church, the Body of Christ, has completely and unequivocally replaced Israel. As such, the Church is the inheritor of all of God's promises and covenants made with Israel. Included in this assumption is the belief that God has completely dispensed with Israel for all time. This theology is a continuation of the "replacement" theology begun in the late 300's AD, and developed to a fine tune by the Roman Catholic Church. Second is that the Church, being the inheritor of all blessings and covenants, has been given a mandate to "reclaim" dominion over all the earth. Many of the NT scriptures alluding to the blessings that are in Christ are to be, and are being, manifested in the physical realm on this earth.
Deriving from these theological premises, and using selected OT and NT scriptures as proof texts, D/KN believes that Jesus cannot return to earth and take the throne of David until the Church gains total dominion over the earth, and all of its economic and political machinery. Most (but not all) D/KN proponents believe that the "political" machinery needed to govern the earth is the re-establishment of a Theocracy. Some portions of the movement use the term "theonomy."
Many of the D/KN leaders have stated that the Church will take control, and execute such "righteous judgment" in the process of reconstruction, that "even the devil will be converted and hang up his horns (1)." Most believe that until such time as the Church regains total control of Gods creation (this earth and all within it), Jesus will not be allowed to return, therefore it is up to the Church to get control so that He can come back.
Some of the errors of the D/KN movement can readily be seen in assessing the differences between the two Kingdoms, and realizing several other things. First, God is not a man, that He should lie (Num. 23:19), and He is the same yesterday, today and forever (Heb. 13:8), so it automatically follows that what God has promised He will not "unpromise." While many of the promises and covenants made with Israel were conditional, based upon their performance of certain requirements, there were even more made by God to Israel the nation that were NOT conditional. Included in those were Gods promises to disperse Israel (which He did), then to protect them so that they would NOT utterly perish (which He has done), to bring them back again to the land that He gave them (which He is doing), and to re-establish the throne of David in the city of Jerusalem with Jesus Christ sitting on it (which He will do.) These promises quickly indicate that replacement theology is in serious error when understanding and interpreting eschatology, since God has not and will not go against what He has said. Second, scripture says very clearly that Messiah is the one who will "establish His kingdom" (1 Chronicles 22:10, Isa. 9:7), that Jesus is the one who will "rule with a rod of iron," ( Rev. 2:27, 12:5, 19:15), and that Jesus is the one who will subdue the enemy (Psa. 47:3, Phil. 3:21, Rev. 19:11-15).
No where in scripture is there any contextual indication that the Church is tasked with, or granted authority, to subdue the earth and its systems, to re-establish a theocracy or theonomy. The Church is tasked with the job of spreading the Gospel, the good news that Christ has reconciled man to God....and that is it.
In summary, there are two kingdoms...one being the rule of God in the heart, the other being the rule of God on this earth. One is spiritual, one is temporal, and they will co-exist in the future.
1. Bishop Earl Paulk, World Harvester Church, Atlanta, GA