Reign or domain?
The Greek word βασιλεια used in the Gospels for “kingdom” and the corresponding Hebrew and Aramaic words, such as Malkuth and Memlakhah, can, like many words in the English language, designate the same conception from two distinct points of view. They may stand for the kingdom as something abstract, the kingship or rule exercised by the king. Or they may describe the kingdom as something concrete, the territory, the sum total of the subjects and possessions ruled over, including whatever of rights, privileges and advantages are enjoyed in this sphere. Now the question arises, in which sense did our Lord mean the phrase when he spoke of the “kingdom of God.”
Kingdom in the OT
In the Old Testament where a kingdom is ascribed to Jehovah, with the exception of Ex. 19:6, where the Israelites are called “a kingdom of priests,” and therefore the meaning is concrete, that of a body of subjects ruled over, the abstract sense is the prevailing one. God’s kingdom is always his reign, his rule, never his domain. When Obadiah predicts “the kingdom shall be the Lord’s,” his meaning is that in the future to Jehovah will belong the supremacy. That such was also the common Jewish usage in our Lord’s time appears from the manner in which the supremacy of Israel over the nations is associated with the idea of the kingdom.
Kingdom = Reign
We have already seen that the relative absence of the phrase “the kingdom of God” from the Jewish sources points to the same conclusion, for it was a lack of interest in the truth that Jehovah would be supreme that prevented this phrase from becoming popular. On the other hand, to Jesus the thought that God would rule was a glorious thought which filled his soul with the most sacred joy. In so far, it is undoubtedly correct when modern writers insist that in interpreting our Lord’s sayings the meaning “reign,” “kingship,” shall be our point of departure, and warn against the misleading associations of the English word “kingdom,” which in modern usage practically always means the territory or realm.
Kingdom = Domain
Still it is advisable to proceed slowly here. Attention has already been called to the significant enlargement which Jesus introduced into the current use of the phrase. If to Him it covered all the privileges and blessings which flow from the coming reign of God, then it is plain how inevitably it would tend in His mouth to become a concrete designation. From meaning at first “a rule” it would begin to mean, if not a territory or body of subjects, at least a realm, a sphere of life, a state of things, all of these more or less locally conceived. To be sure, even so the connotation would always remain, that the kingdom thus understood is possessed and therefore pervaded by God, but after all the rendering “reign of God” would no longer apply. In point of fact a single glance at the Gospel-discourses shows how utterly impossible it is to carry through the abstract rendering in each single instance where our Lord speaks of the kingdom of God.
Briefly stated the matter stands as follows: In a few instances, the translation “reign” is required by the connection, as when it is said “the Son of man shall come in his kingdom.” In some other cases, less rare than the foregoing, it is possible, perhaps slightly more plausible, to adopt the abstract rendering, as when we read of the kingdom “coming,” “appearing,” “being at hand,” “being seen,” although in these and other instances no one can maintain that the substitution of the concrete would make the sense unnatural. While neither meaning is unsuitable, one may in such cases for general reasons be inclined to believe, that the thought of a revelation of God’s royal power lay uppermost in our Lord’s mind. Then there are a great number, perhaps the majority, of passages in which the note of the concrete plainly predominates. When the figure is that of “calling” to the kingdom of God, of “entering ” into it, of its being “shut” or of people being “cast out” from it, of its being “sought,” “given,” “possessed,” “received,” “inherited,” everybody feels, that in such modes of speech not the exercise of the divine rule itself, but the resulting order of things, the complex of blessings produced by it, the sphere in which it works, stand before the speaker’s mind. Taking this into consideration we may say that, if basileia is everywhere to be rendered by the same word, that word ought to be “kingdom.” To introduce a distinction and translate in some cases ” reign,” in other cases “kingdom,” is obviously impracticable, because, as above stated, in a number of cases we have no data for choosing between the two.
Even less satisfactory is the recent proposal to translate everywhere “the sovereignty of God,” for not only is this unsuitable for all sayings in which the concrete usage of the term is undoubtedly followed, it also fails to express with fullness and accuracy the abstract sense where this may be recognized. Sovereignty denotes a relation existing by right, even where it is not actually enforced. In the case of God, therefore, it can be scarcely said to come. The divine βασιλεια includes, as we have seen, besides a right to rule, the actual energetic forth-putting of God’s royal power in acts of salvation.
Kingdom of Heaven?
Besides “the kingdom of God” we find “the kingdom of heaven.” The Evangelist Matthew uses this well-nigh exclusively; only in a few places does he write “the kingdom of God ” or “the kingdom of my” or “their Father,” whereas “the kingdom of heaven” occurs more than thirty times in his Gospel. In 12:28 the use of “God” instead of “heaven” is explained by the preceding “Spirit of God;” In the two other instances in Chapter 21, no reason for the substitution is apparent. In Mark and Luke “the kingdom of heaven” is not found. This raises the question, which of these two versions more literally reproduces the usage of Jesus himself.
In all probability Matthew’s does, since no good reason can be assigned, why he should have substituted “the kingdom of heaven,” whilst a sufficiently plausible reason for the opposite procedure on the part of Mark and Luke can be found, in the fact, that, writing for Gentile readers, they might think such a typically Jewish phrase, as “the kingdom of heaven” less intelligible than the plain ”kingdom of God.” Of course, in holding this, we need not imply that in each individual case, where the first Evangelist has “kingdom of heaven,” this phrase was actually employed by Jesus. All we mean to affirm is the general proposition that Jesus used both phrases, and that in so far Matthew has preserved for us an item of information no longer obtainable from the other two Synoptical Gospels.
But what were the origin and meaning of this phrase “the kingdom of heaven,” and what light does it throw on our Lord’s conception of the kingdom? Among the later Jews a tendency existed to forego employing the name of God. Various substitutes were current and “heaven” was one of these. Apart from the phrase under discussion, traces of this mode of speech are found in Matt. 16:19; Mark 11:30; Luke 15:18, 21. It was a mode of speech which had arisen from the Jewish habit of emphasizing in the nature of God more than anything else his exaltation above the world and unapproachable majesty, to such an extent even as to endanger what must ever be the essence of religion, a true communion between God and man. But this custom, though exponential of a characteristic fault of Judaism, had also its good side, else our Lord would not have adopted it. In his human nature, Jesus had a profound sense of the infinite distance between God and the creature. Whatever there was of genuine religious fear and reverence of God in the Jewish consciousness awakened an echo in His heart and found in Him its ideal expression, from which all the one-sidedness that belonged to it in Judaism had disappeared. If, therefore, Jesus spoke of God as heaven, this did not spring from a superstitious fear of naming God, but rather from a desire to name him in such a way as to call up at once the most exalted conception of his being and character. To do this the word “heaven” was eminently fitted since it draws man’s thought upwards to the place where God reveals his glory in perfection.
Father in Heaven
This can best be felt in another phrase which likewise among the Evangelists Matthew alone has preserved for us, and which likewise our Lord had in common with the Jewish teachers of that age, the phrase “the Father in heaven” or “the heavenly Father.” If in this, the name “Father” expresses the condescending love and grace of God, his infinite nearness to us, the qualification “in heaven” adds the reminder of his infinite majesty above us, by which the former ought always to be held in balance lest we injure the true spirit of religion. It may be affirmed, therefore, that, when Jesus referred to “the kingdom of heaven,” he meant this in no other sense than “the kingdom of God,” except in so far as there was an added note of emphasis on the exalted nature of him whose kingdom this is.
The word “heaven,” however, although it primarily qualifies God and describes his greatness, not that of the kingdom, must also have been intended by our Lord to color the conception of the latter. If the king be one who concentrates in himself all the glory of heaven, what must his kingdom be? We shall not go far amiss in saying that Jesus desired to awaken in his disciples a sense of the mysterious supernatural character, of the absolute perfection and grandeur, of the supreme value pertaining to this new order of things, and desired them to view and approach it in a spirit appreciative of these holy qualities. Although the phrase “kingdom of heaven” is not found in the Old Testament, the word “heaven” appears there already in significant association with the idea of the future kingdom. In Daniel it is said that “the God of heaven” will set up a kingdom, and this means that the new reign will take its origin in a supernatural manner from the higher world. To Jesus also “heaven” and the supernatural were cognate ideas, cf. Matt. 16:17; Mark 11:30. That the thought of the absolute perfection of the heavenly world as determinative of the character of the kingdom may well have been associated with the name “kingdom of heaven” in Jesus’ mind, appears from the close connection between the second and third petitions in the Lord’s prayer: “Thy kingdom come—Thy will be done, as in heaven, so on earth,” cf. also Matt. 5:48. For heaven as the sphere of supreme unchangeable values and the goal of aspiration we may refer to such words as Matt. 5:12; 6:20. In view of the profound significance which Jesus throughout ascribed to the contrast between the heavenly and the earthly world, it is hardly likely that heaven was to him a mere formal circumlocution for God. It meant not God in general, but God as known and revealed in those celestial regions which had been our Lord’s eternal home. Only with this in mind can we hope to understand something of the profound sense in which he called the kingdom “a kingdom of heaven.”