The Kingdom of Heaven vs the Kingdom of God

As you read through the different Gospel accounts, you may notice a few common phrases Jesus uses when speaking and teaching. Perhaps the most memorable difference is “The Kingdom of Heaven” and “the Kingdom of God.” These phrases are very similar, yet not quite the same.

What is the difference between the “kingdom of heaven” and the “kingdom of God”?

Are they the same thing? Are they unique? Is that difference important theologically?

Let’s dive in.

First, we need to recognize which gospel authors use which phrase. Matthew’s Gospel says “kingdom of heaven,” and Mark and Luke both use “kingdom of God.” The answer lies in the context of their respective audiences and their intended purposes for writing each Gospel.

Matthew most often uses the expression “kingdom of heaven” to communicate it to his Jewish readers (Matthew 4:17), while Mark and Luke use the term “kingdom of God” as they communicate Jesus’s message to their Greek and Roman audiences (Mark 1:15; Luke 4:43).

It follows that these terms are functionally synonymous. Both expressions refer to the divine and Messianic authority of Jesus that was foretold by the prophets. The kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of God each share the core promise that the Lord will establish a physical, political government upon the earth with Himself and/or His Messiah as its King. This kingdom will eternally prosper under His administration of divine laws.

Moreover, many of the teachings and parables Matthew records Jesus saying about the kingdom of heaven are also said by Jesus about the kingdom of God in Mark and Luke’s narratives. Matthew 4:17 and Mark 1:15 is one example of this phenomenon. A few other examples where “kingdom of heaven” is used in Matthew while Mark and Luke use “kingdom of God” are:

  • The disciples were granted to understand mysteries of the kingdom (Matthew 13:11; Mark 4:11, and Luke 8:10)
  • Jesus explained the kingdom in the Parable of the Sower (Matthew 13:24; Mark 4:26)
  • Jesus explained the kingdom in the Parable of the Mustard Seed (Matthew 13:31; Mark 4:30, and Luke 13:18)
  • The kingdom belongs to children (Matthew 19:14; Mark 10:15, and Luke 18:17)
  • Entering the kingdom as a child (Matthew 19:23; Mark 10:25, and Luke 18:24)

But even though these passages functionally describe the same prophetic reality, have similar usages, and share the same core meaning, “the kingdom of God” had different cultural connotations from “the kingdom of heaven.” These different cultural connotations are subtle but important. The respective terms were most likely chosen and implemented based upon the author’s intended audience.

Matthew, whose primary readers were Jews, chose the term “kingdom of heaven” because it was more appealing to Jewish sensibilities. Mark, Luke, (and even John) may have used the term “kingdom of God” because it was more relatable to the Gentiles, who were their primary readers.

There are three ways each term conveyed the same core meaning, but did so more effectively to each culture.

The first reason for the cultural difference relates to how Jews and Gentiles speak of God. Jews revere God’s name and are not inclined to speak directly of God. The term “kingdom of heaven” is less direct than “kingdom of God,” and is therefore more agreeable to Jewish sensibilities. Gentiles expected to speak directly of God.

An additional reason “kingdom of God” may have been more appealing than “kingdom of heaven” to Mark’s Roman and Luke’s Greek audiences is because in Greek and Roman minds, the term “God” was a more familiar and more specific term than “heaven.” The Gentiles had many gods. This phrase “the kingdom of God” (singular) reflected a claim that God is the One True God, and was therefore over all other gods. The phrase “kingdom of heaven” could have been heard by Gentiles to include the many pagan gods that dwelt in the heaven of the Greco-Roman pantheon.

Additionally, in the Greco-Roman pantheon, heaven was accessible to humans. By using the term “kingdom of God,” the message being communicated to the Gentile audience is that Jesus’s ministry and salvation extends down from heaven and onto earth. It extends beyond the Jewish nation to everyone!

The third and related cultural difference between the phrase “kingdom of heaven” (Matthew) and “kingdom of God” (Mark and Luke) seems to be the lens with which the dominion of the kingdom is viewed.

The “kingdom of heaven” focuses on God’s rule over the earth. We get a sense of this meaning in Jesus’s prayer to His Father in heaven, that:

“Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
On earth as it is in heaven.”
(Matthew 6:10)

This phrase makes it clear that “heaven” is a place where God’s will is done. It is a prayer for God’s authority to become as apparent on earth as it is in heaven.

As a quick aside, the Gospels were written in the Greek language. Jesus most likely spoke to His Jewish audience in some form of Aramaic, which was the common tongue of Judea in the first century. Therefore, the Gospel writers would have translated Jesus’s words into Greek, through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Although, it seems likely that Matthew’s gospel was originally written and circulated in Aramaic, and later translated to Greek.

To learn more about the use of language as it relates to the Gospels, see: “The Four Languages of Jesus’s Judea.”

The Spirit inspired Matthew to translate Jesus’s expression as “kingdom of heaven” and Mark and Luke to translate Jesus’s same expression as “kingdom of God” to their respective audiences.

Check out our other commentaries:

  • Luke 3:15-18 meaning

    John confesses that he is not the Messiah. John is only a lowly forerunner of the Messiah. ......
  • Matthew 15:15-20 meaning

    Peter asks Jesus to explain what He meant when He told the crowd “It is not what enters into the mouth that defiles the man,......
  • Revelation 19:11-16 meaning

    John sees the moment of Jesus’s second coming. In contrast to Christ’s first advent (that of a poor suffering servant, born in a stable, riding......
  • Genesis 14:17-20 meaning

    After all the battles and wars, the king priest Melchizedek blessed Abram, and Abram gave to Melchizedek a tenth of the spoils of the wars. ......
  • Deuteronomy 9:7-14 meaning

    Moses recounts Israel’s disobedience with the molten calf at Mount Sinai to demonstrate God’s assertion that they are not gaining the land because of their......