I received this emailed question:
I would like to know what is the difference between Kingdom of God and Kingdom of Heaven,
Most of us reading the Gospels have wondered this same thing. Why are there two kingdoms talked about? Or are they two names for the same kingdom? And if so, why?
Cultural Context is Key
I never looked for the answer for this question directly but found it just the same. Living in Austin, Texas, I was introduced to the work of the Bible scholar Dr. Roy Blizzard, Jr. who lives there through a friend of his. Blizzard is the co-author of the classic The Difficult Words of Jesus (with David Biven) and is considered by some as the “father of Hebrew Roots” because of it. I was so impressed with his teachings (back before the Internet became my go-to source for Bible research) that I bought nearly all his teaching tapes.
On one of the tapes he addressed this very issue. Per his normal approach (and as you will find me do in my articles) he delved into the cultural context of the First Century Jewish audience who heard those words of Jesus. In that culture, they were under the influence of the ineffable name doctrine. This Jewish tradition maintained that God’s name was too holy to speak and should be avoided through the use of replacements and euphemisms.
If you ever wondered why some people write “G-d” instead of God, this is why. The doctrine is responsible for the use of Adonai or LORD instead of Yahweh/Yehovah in our Bibles as well.
Heaven = God: Examples
One of the euphemisms used to replace the word Elohim or God was (you guessed it) “heaven”. You can see this used in all three of the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke):
Luke 15:18 (HCSB) â€” Iâ€™ll get up, go to my father, and say to him, Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight.
The prodigal son had not sinned against a place called heaven that he had never even gone to. He had sinned against God (as well as his human father).
Mark 11:30 (HCSB) â€” Was Johnâ€™s baptism from heaven or from men? Answer Me.
The options for the source of John’s authority in this verse are not truly parallel as written. It ought to either be “from heaven or from earth” or “from God or from man”. So if you read “heaven” as “God”Â (just as that culture did) it makes sense.
Matthew 23:22 (HCSB) And the one who takes an oath by heaven takes an oath by Godâ€™s throne and by Him who sits on it.
This example is the clearest of all. In it Jesus directly exposes their habit of swearing by “heaven” (instead of by God’s name alone as the Torah commands – Dt 6:13) and shows how ridiculous it was to use a common euphemism like that to avoid being truly bound by the oath. Heaven still connected to God directly who was there sitting on the throne and made you bound!
As you can see, in Jewish culture,Â the word heaven was used in place of God for various reasons. However, if you are still not convinced, here’s the coup de grace. You can frequently find parallel passages in the synoptic gospels that will use the two terms in tandem:
Matthew 5:3 (HCSB)Â The poor in spirit are blessed, for the kingdom of heaven is theirs.
Luke 6:20 (HCSB) You who are poor are blessed, because the kingdom of God is yours.
Matthew 11:12 (HCSB) From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been suffering violence, and the violent have been seizing it by force.
Luke 16:16 (HCSB) The Law and the Prophets were until John; since then, the good news of the kingdom of God has been proclaimed, and everyone is strongly urged to enter it.
Clearly, the Kingdom of Heaven and the Kingdom of God are exactly the same thing.
Once you properly tie in the cultural context of the Gospels or any part of the Bible like this, you can really begin to get to the bottom of many “difficult sayings.”