Phrase Study: basileia tōn ouranōn

 

I.       Basic Definitions (BAG):

  • basileia – “kingship,” “royal power,” “royal rule,” “kingdom”
  • ouranos – “heaven”

 

II.     Brainstorming

·       kingdom refers to some sort of ruled area and involves a king

·       heaven is the place where God dwells

·       kingdom of the heavens could be God’s ruling in the heavens

·       kingdom of the heavens could refer to God’s ruling of the earth from the heavens

·       kingdom of the heavens could refer to God’s ruling of everything, both heavens and earth

·       the kingdom could be something yet to come

·       the kingdom could be something already here

·       the kingdom could be something both here and yet still to come in some sense as well

 

III.    Word/Phrase Usage

 

A.    “Kingdom”/“Kingdom of Heaven”/“Kingdom of God” in Matthew

·       Matthew 3:2—John the Baptist proclaims that Israel should repent because the kingdom of God is near. 

 

Nearness can imply proximity in time, space, or both.  Perhaps heaven is coming to earth, perhaps soon.  Nearness seems to imply it is not here yet.  The perfect tense implies, however, that the kingdom has gone from being somewhat distant to being “near” and that it remains near.

 

Whatever the arrival of the kingdom might be, it evidently requires repentance on the part of John’s audience.

 

·       Matt 4:8—The Devil shows Jesus the kingdoms of the world.

 

Kingdom is here used in its normal sense: a domain ruled by a king.  Does Matthew make an implicit contrast between the kingdoms of this world and the kingdom of heaven?  The word Matthew uses for worship in 4:10 (quoting Deut 6:13) is the normal word for the obeisance one gives to a king.  You could argue, therefore, that the kingdom of heaven relates to God being king.  Those on earth are to worship the king of heaven, not the kings of earth.

 

·       Matt 4:17—Jesus also preaches repentance and the nearness of the kingdom.

 

Note that Jesus does not say it has arrived.  Like John, he only proclaims its decisive nearness.

 

·       Matt 4:23—The near arrival of the kingdom is apparently a “gospel,” good news of a momentous sort.

 

In conjunction with his proclamation of the kingdom’s near arrival, Jesus heals diseases and casts out demons.  Presumably this implies that the arrival of the kingdom contrasts with the current state of things in terms of disease and demon possession.

 

·       Matt 5:3—Jesus says that the kingdom of heaven belongs to the “poor in spirit.”

·       Matt 5:10—In an inclusio, Jesus says that the kingdom of heaven belongs to those who are persecuted because of righteousness.

 

Both of these verses seem odd unless they mean that such individuals will specially participate in the kingdom of heaven when it arrives because of their misfortune in this world.  It could, however, also refer to some inner reward.  The parallel comments regarding future reward (e.g. 5:4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9) imply that this kingdom is future and involves comfort (5:4), inheriting the earth (5:5), being filled with righteousness (5:6), receiving mercy (5:7), seeing God (5:8), and being called the sons (and daughters) of God (5:9).

 

The mention of inheriting the earth may imply that the arrival of the kingdom of heaven could involve inheriting the earth in some way.

 

·        Matt 5:19—Breaking small commandments of the Jewish Law now diminishes one’s status in the kingdom of heaven.

 

Jesus here seems to imply that there are different levels of honor in the kingdom of heaven, yet he seems to imply that one can break commandments and still be in the kingdom!

 

·       Matt 5:20—Only a righteousness superior to that of the scribes and Pharisees enables entrance into the kingdom of heaven.

 

Again, the implication is that the kingdom of heaven is future from Jesus’s standpoint at that time.  The particularization in the chapters that follow implies that this righteousness is one that keeps the heart of the Law rather than the letter (cf. 23:23).  This understanding probably affects our interpretation of 5:19.

 

We now know that entrance into the kingdom involves a certain superior kind of righteousness and that repentance was involved for Israel.

 

·       Matt 6:10—God’s kingdom coming implies his will being done “on earth as it is in heaven.”

 

This verse is potentially very helpful!  It may imply that the kingdom of heaven is not (only) a kingdom in heaven, but one that is coming to the earth as well. 

Time out: The kingdom of heaven relates to the will of God or the rule of God coming to the earth.  John the Baptist and Jesus announced that with their ministries this rule of God had taken a decisive step toward nearness.  The implication is that the rule of God had not been as manifest to this extent on the earth prior to their ministries. 

 

The healing and exorcist ministry of Jesus seems to point to one key way in which the rule of God had not been on the earth—the presence of sickness and demonic influence.  The world was headed for a reversal of fortunes in which the poor in spirit, the suffering, the meek, and in general those persecuted for righteousness would receive reward. 

 

Interestingly, Jesus implies in 5:19 that there would be various levels of honor and reward in the kingdom of heaven.  This reward related to keeping the “least” commandments in the Jewish Law.

 

·       Matt 6:33—This verse implies that the audience is to seek God’s kingdom and his righteousness.  Their reward for such seeking is the satisfaction of their needs.

 

Here is another indication that the topic of discussion in the Sermon on the Mount is kingdom righteousness, particularly as it relates to Pharisaic/scribal righteousness.  From this verse alone it would be unclear whether the kingdom could come while on earth from such seeking or whether it is the seeking of something yet to come in and of itself that results in material needs before the kingdom comes.

 

·       Matt 7:21—Simply calling Jesus “Lord” is not adequate for entrance into the kingdom when it arrives.  Only doing the will of the Father counts!

 

It will be interesting to relate this passage to other passages where entrance is denied into the kingdom to those thinking they belonged in!  The passage implies that the kingdom will arrive on a certain day.

 

·       Matt 8:11-12—The arrival of the kingdom of heaven will include a feast involving not only heroes of Israel’s past (and thus the resurrection of individuals like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob), but also Gentiles with faith.

 

The “subjects of the kingdom” in 8:12 would appear to be Jews in contrast to the Gentile centurion.  Were these individuals ever really a part of the kingdom, or was the kingdom originally aimed at them as primary candidates for participation?  Ironically, many of the very ones at whom the kingdom was most directed will not participate in it at the end.

 

·       Matt 9:35—Similar indication 1) that the good news (gospel) of the kingdom was the primary message of Jesus as he went around to all the cities and villages, and 2) that his healing ministry was part of the preparation for its arrival.  This verse is also in the context of recruitment for the kingdom, harvesting.

 

·       Matt 10:7—Another “kingdom has come near” verse.  As John the Baptist and Jesus preached, so the disciples are to preach.  The context of chapter 10 seems to stretch beyond the earthly ministry of Jesus into the post-resurrection ministry of the disciples.  The implication may be that the kingdom had not fully arrived (it was still near) long after Jesus’s resurrection.

 

·       Matt 11:11-12—Puzzling verses in some respects.  They clearly indicate that the kingdom of heaven had not arrived with John the Baptist.  However, the verses talk as if the audience (either Jesus’s or Matthew’s or both) might find themselves participating in the kingdom.  The implication seems to be that the kingdom will be on earth rather than in heaven, since presumably JB would be in a heavenly kingdom. 

 

The statement is difficult that the kingdom of the heavens suffers violence and violent individuals plunder it.  Some brainstorming about the meaning: 1) perhaps it refers to the opposition to Jesus’s ministry—the kingdom is suffering violence.  2) perhaps it refers to revolutionary activity in Israel trying to force the kingdom of Israel to return to the earth.  If we have to choose between these two, the first seems to fit the context better.

 

·       Matt 12:25, 26, 28—In these verses the Pharisees accuse Jesus of casting out demons by the power of Beelzebul.  Jesus says that a kingdom divided against itself cannot stand.  These verses make it clear that Jesus uses the word “kingdom” very similarly to the normal sense; that is, of a domain of rulership with a king.  Jesus indicates that the kingdom of heaven is definitely not the kingdom of Satan.

 

12:28 is very important because it indicates that the kingdom is something “invading” the earth in Jesus’s exorcist ministry.  Jesus speaks of the kingdom in the present tense here.  Note also that Matthew refers to the kingdom as “the kingdom of God” here.  Is this synonymous with the “kingdom of heaven”?

 

Time Out: It seems that the developing picture is a situation in which the earth has been the domain of Satan and his demons.  One of the primary manifestations of Satan’s kingdom has been sickness, oppression, and demonic possession.  With Jesus, however, the kingdom of heaven had taken a decisive step toward the earth.  God’s rule, already the case in heaven, was returning to the earth in the ministry of Jesus.  Every demon Jesus cast out was an indication that the kingdom was arriving. 

 

Given the verses that refer to the kingdom as coming in the future in conjunction with a Day of Judgment, perhaps Jesus is speaking proleptically (that is, while the kingdom will literally arrive in the future, it is so strongly represented in Jesus that we can speak of it as arrived) or in an inaugurated sense (it has arrived in a sense with Jesus but is not yet fully here).  

 

·        Matt 13:11, 19, 24, 31, 33, 38, 41, 43, 44, 45, 47, 52—These references are all in the Parable Discourse.  The following is a summary of lessons relating to the kingdom that these parables teach:

a.     The Parable of the Seeds relates to various reactions to the “word of the kingdom” (13:19).  A smaller percentage hear and accept it.  Some don’t understand; some fall away with persecution (“suffer violence”? 11:12); some are distracted by worldly concerns.  It is possible to see the kingdom as future here, and the reaction as the faith or lack of faith in its coming.  You might also argue that it is present to those who have faith, but not clearly visible.

b.     The Parable of Weeds is also about what the kingdom of heaven is like (13:24).  The interpretation supports our division of the universe into the kingdom of God/heaven and the kingdom of the evil one (13:38).  This parable almost pictures the kingdom of heaven on earth alongside the kingdom of Satan (13:41).  Yet the fullest presence of the kingdom pertains to the time after the “consummation of the ages” when “the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their father” (13:43).  The Parable of the Net (13:47) has similar overtones.

c.     The Parable of the Mustard Seed (13:31) and the Parable of the Yeast (13:33) both picture the kingdom as present on earth, yet growing—at times imperceptibly.  It is infiltrating; it will dominate.

d.     The Parable of the Hidden Treasure (13:44) and the Parable of the Pearl (13:45) seem to indicate the immense value of submitting to the kingdom of heaven.  It is worth selling all you have.

e.     13:52 speaks of “scribes who have been schooled in the kingdom of heaven.”  The meaning in context seems unclear.  Some have taken it as self-referential—The author/editor of Matthew indicating that he is a scribe by profession.  Some have taken it as permission to modify/invent kingdom sayings to scribes of the kingdom.  

 

·       Matt 16:19—Jesus gives Peter the keys to the kingdom of heaven.  This verse seems very enlightening.  It seems to imply that the kingdom of heaven is a heavenly kingdom because the authority resides in heaven.  Yet the focus of interest in Matthew’s references to the kingdom is what is happening on earth.  By giving Peter the keys to the kingdom, Jesus gives Peter the authority to unlock the authority of heaven on earth.

 

·       Matt 16:28—Jesus says that some standing there would not taste death before the Son of Man came (went?) in his kingdom.  This verse is problematic, in that all of Jesus’s audience have died, yet it is not clear that anyone has yet seen “the Son of Man coming in his kingdom” (16:28) “with the glory of his father with his angels, and then he will repay to each according to his practice” (16:27).  You might interpret the verse in reference to the resurrection.  Or you might take it of the consummation of the ages of earlier references.  All in all, the latter fits the context better.

 

·       Matt 18:1, 3, 4, 23 (also 19:14)—This chapter is the so called “Church Discourse.”  Becoming like a child is said to be requisite for entrance to the kingdom of heaven, and those who humble themselves like a child are said to be greatest in the kingdom.  Later in the chapter the kingdom of heaven is likened to a king who wanted to settle accounts but who is extraordinarily merciful in so doing.  He does not do this cheaply, however.  When those he has forgiven do not treat others similarly, he expects the entire debt to be paid.

 

This parable reinforces the notion that the focal meaning of the arrival of the kingdom relates to the Day of Judgment (for some, the Day of Salvation, to use Paul’s language, for others).  Jesus’s message of the kingdom’s good news (gospel) relates to the mercy and forgiveness that God as king is extending to the earth.  God has expectations, however, as we will see in the remaining kingdom references.

 

·       Matt 19:12—Another difficult verse.  This verse relates to those who “make themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven.”  A possible interpretation is those who suffer shame in this life because of their wives (they do not divorce them) for the sake of the kingdom.  They have allowed themselves to be made eunuchs in terms of their shame for the sake of submitting to the kingdom.

 

·       Matt 19:23, 24—The phrases “kingdom of heaven” and “kingdom of God” are used synonymously in these verses.  They refer to the difficulty involved in a rich person entering into the kingdom of God.  The timing of such an entrance is unclear.

 

·       Matt 20:1—Introduction to the Parable of the Day Laborers.  The context of the preceding verses is the “renewal of all things” (19:28) when the disciples will sit on twelve thrones judging the kingdom of Israel, obviously a post-resurrection context.  The focus of kingdom language is thus once again future.  This parable points once again to the mercy and graciousness of God the king and his kingdom.

 

·       Matt 20:21—The mother of James and John asks for them to have seats of honor in Christ’s kingdom.  This verse once again pictures a post-resurrection context similar to 19:28.  There seem to be strong Jewish messianic overtones in these passages in which Christ as messiah is king over a restored Israel.

 

·       Matt 21:31, 43—Interpretation of the Parable of the Two Sons.  Tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God (sic) before the chief priests and elders.  They are so entering because they accepted the gospel and repented, while the leaders of Israel rejected it.  Given other teaching in Matthew, it is difficult not to see the Parable of the Tenants as an indictment of Israel for its rejection of Jesus.  The people to whom it is given may largely refer to Gentiles (21:43), although we probably should not read into this a wholesale rejection/replacement of the Jews.

 

·       Matt 22:2—Introduction to the Parable of the Wedding Banquet.  This parable reinforces our interpretation of 21:43.  Israel was invited to participate in the kingdom of heaven, but they killed God’s servants.  22:7 appears to be an allusion to the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans, a key datum in the dating of Matthew to post-70, since Luke’s version does not have this verse.  It seems a Matthean expansion of the parable. 

 

Others are invited (presumably the Gentiles), both good and bad (similarity to the Parable of the Weeds).  One of these is not dressed appropriately and is rejected (Gentiles without appropriate righteousness?).  This verse seems to relate to the “Lord, Lord” passage in Matthew 7, the Parable of the Weeds, and the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats of chapter 24.  Not everyone who claims to be a part of God’s kingdom are really a part of God’s kingdom.

 

·       Matt 23:13—Relates to the Pharisees misunderstanding of God’s plan, their unacceptability for the kingdom, and the hindrance they pose to others entering the kingdom.

 

·       Matt 24:7—Normal use of the word kingdom in reference to earthly kingdoms.

 

·       Matt 24:14—Indication that the end (the kingdom) will come after the gospel of the kingdom has been preached to the whole inhabited world.  Caution on reading this as a modern missiological datum (cf. Colossians 1:23).

 

·       Matt 25:1, 34—Parable of the Ten Virgins and the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats.  These verses clearly associate the kingdom of heaven with the kingdom that will exist on earth after the judgment.  Jesus urges readiness in the Parable of the Ten Virgins, while the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats demonstrates that the kingdom is for those with the right kind of righteousness (not Pharisaic righteousness).

 

·       Matt 26:29—Jesus says he will drink again with his disciples in the kingdom of his father.  The verse fits well with the post-resurrection of the disciples envisaged in Jesus’s comments to the mother of James and John earlier.

 

 

Tentative Conclusions: The Kingdom of Heaven in Matthew

  1. Matthew uses the phrases “kingdom of heaven” and “kingdom of God” synonymously.
  2. The kingdom of heaven is a kingdom whose authority originates from heaven and that includes heaven, but the focus of Matthew’s use of the phrase relates to the kingdom’s arrival on earth.
  3. The kingdom of Satan is the competing kingdom that had prevailed on earth prior to Christ’s arrival.  Jesus’s exorcist ministry indicated the beginning of the end of Satan’s rule on earth and the beginning of the “renewal” of all things.
  4. There is a sense in which the kingdom has already arrived in the person and work of Jesus—it is the “kingdom among you” of Jesus’s exorcist ministry (12:28), it is the mustard seed that may not be visible yet but it’s growing (13:31).  On the whole, however, Matthew’s kingdom language is oriented toward the future on the Day of Judgment/Day of the renewal of all things.  He pictures a kingdom on earth with the twelve disciples judging/ruling Israel.  The kingdom is thus post-resurrection of the disciples.  One verse indicates it is post-general resurrection, including Abraham and resurrected Gentiles as well.
  5. God’s kingdom involves extraordinary mercy to those who have not erstwhile kept God’s covenant (toll collectors, prostitutes, Gentiles), but is equally as harsh and unforgiving of those who reject the gospel and Jesus.  Appropriate attire required, including childlike submission to God’s will!

 

 

B.    “Kingdom (of God)” in Mark and Luke

 

In parallel passages where Matthew uses the phrase “kingdom of heaven,” Mark and Luke use the phrase “kingdom of God.”  This confirms that Matthew is using the phrase synonymously with kingdom of God.  The total uniqueness of Matthew’s use in contrast to the rest of the New Testament probably indicates that the phrase is an aspect of Matthean style/redaction.  A possibility is that Matthew uses this phrase as a reverential circumlocution—he avoids using God for reasons of piety and refers instead to the place where God dwells.

 

Mark and Luke corroborate the range of nuances present in Matthew.  Presuming Markan priority, Matthew has preserved the futuristic, “within a generation” aspect of Mark’s kingdom language.  Luke, on the other hand, has diminished the “within a generation” overtones.  Acts 1:6 confirms that the “kingdom of Israel” is part and parcel of the background to kingdom expectation.  The implication is that Matthew’s audience would probably have understood kingdom language to relate to the restoration of the earthly kingdom of Israel, at least in the first instance.  

 

 

C.    “Kingdom/Kingdom of God in the rest of the New Testament

 

Most significant is probably Paul’s use of kingdom language in reference to future events.  The unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 6:9-10; Gal. 5:21).  Paul places the kingdom into a post-resurrection context in 1 Cor. 15:50: “flesh and blood are not able to inherit the kingdom of God.”  The occurrences in Revelation support this context as well.  In other words, the rest of the NT pictures a similar focus of meaning for kingdom language.

 

 

D.    Septuagint

 

Perhaps the most relevant passage to mention as OT background to Matthew’s/ Jesus’s use of kingdom language is Isaiah 52:7.  This verse not only speaks of the gospel message of salvation, but it understands this message to be that “Our God reigns.”  The context in Isaiah is that of the return of Israel from the Babylonian captivity to their land.  We can easily suppose that some first century Jews understood this context in reference to the restoration of the kingdom of Israel and liberation from Roman rule/rule of ungodly Jewish leaders.

 

E.    Background Literature

 

We could draw on any number of historical/literary sources to indicate that many Jews looked for the eventual restoration of the kingdom of Israel.  The Dead Sea Scrolls certainly expect the vindication of a righteous sub-group by God accompanied by the judgment of the unfaithful.  Psalms of Solomon 17 expects a “Lord Messiah” to kick the Gentiles out of Israel.  Even the non-eschatologically oriented Philo expects Israel to one day win the admiration of the world with restored independence.  The Similitudes of Enoch picture a Son of Man sitting on a throne judging the nations.  While Matthew clearly has its own understanding of such events, its teaching fits into this overall milieu.

 

 

IV.   Range of Meaning

·       Matthew can use the word kingdom in its normal sense of an earthly king.

·       Matthew can use the word kingdom in the sense of the kingdom of Satan.

·       Matthew can use the phrase kingdom of heaven as his way of referring to the kingdom of God.  All uses of basilea refer to a domain of kingship.

 

V.    Conclusions

 

Our further examination of the broader NT, OT, and other literature supports our initial conclusions.  To reiterate them:

 

1.     Matthew uses the phrases “kingdom of heaven” and “kingdom of God” synonymously.

2.     The kingdom of heaven is a kingdom whose authority originates from heaven and that includes heaven, but the focus of Matthew’s use of the phrase relates to the kingdom’s arrival on earth.

3.     The kingdom of Satan is the competing kingdom that had prevailed on earth prior to Christ’s arrival.  Jesus’s exorcist ministry indicated the beginning of the end of Satan’s rule on earth and the beginning of the “renewal” of all things.

4.     There is a sense in which the kingdom has already arrived in the person and work of Jesus—it is the “kingdom among you” of Jesus’s exorcist ministry (12:28), it is the mustard seed that may not be visible yet but it’s growing (13:31).  On the whole, however, Matthew’s kingdom language is oriented toward the future on the Day of Judgment/Day of the renewal of all things.  He pictures a kingdom on earth with the twelve disciples judging/ruling Israel.  The kingdom is thus post-resurrection of the disciples.  One verse indicates it is post-general resurrection, including Abraham and resurrected Gentiles as well.

5.     God’s kingdom involves extraordinary mercy to those who have not erstwhile kept God’s covenant (toll collectors, prostitutes, Gentiles), but is equally as harsh and unforgiving of those who reject the gospel and Jesus.  Appropriate attire required, including childlike submission to God’s will!