By: Garrett Best
In the last post, I tried to ask some important questions about Matthew’s use of the unique phrase “kingdom of heaven.” When I say “unique” phrase, I mean that no other Jewish writer prior to Matthew nor any other writer in the New Testament ever used that exact phrase. If Jesus had actually used the phrase in his teaching as often as Matthew uses it, one would expect to find it at least once somewhere else in Mark or Luke (or even John). However, the other three Gospels report Jesus using “kingdom of God”. In fact, Matthew seems to edit “kingdom of God” out of his sources. Matthew has “kingdom of heaven” twelve times when a parallel Gospel has “kingdom of God.”
Scholars have attempted to explain this phenomenon by pointing to a Jewish aversion to using the divine name. Jews would avoid writing God’s divine name out of respect. To illustrate this, I have two works on Matthew sitting in front of me now, one commentary and one survey of the Gospels. In the famous 2007 book, Four Portraits, One Jesus by Mark Strauss, he says, “In Jewish fashion, Matthew prefers the designation kingdom of heaven (thirty-two times) over the kingdom of God (four times), with the circumlocution “heaven” replacing the divine name out of reverence.” (246). In the 2012 commentary Matthew, Craig Evans says, “Matthew’s preference for ‘kingdom of heaven’ was probably out of respect for the sanctity of God’s name. By saying ‘heaven,’ he avoided saying ‘God,’ though his hearers all knew that ‘heaven’ in fact referred to God. In pious Jewish circles, the name of God was often avoided.” (90-91) This has been the consensus and continues to be propagated by new works and commentaries on the Gospel of Matthew.
I have some questions. If Matthew was avoiding “kingdom of God” to avoid using God’s name, why does he have four instances of “kingdom of God” (cf. 12:28; 19:24; 21:31, 43)? These four passages seem to pose great problems for the consensus view. Especially troubling is 19:23-24 where Matthew uses “kingdom of heaven” and “kingdom of God” within two consecutive verses. He doesn’t seem to be avoiding the the divine name. Further, Matthew actually uses the word “God” (theos) fifty-one times!
So, as promised, I plan to give an alternate explanation to account for this phenomenon. An alternate explanation has been offered by Jonathan Pennington in Heaven and Earth in the Gospel of Matthew. Pennington has convinced me and a number of prominent scholars as well.
Pennington argues that Matthew’s use of “kingdom of heaven” is part of a larger literary motif that pervades the Gospel. Matthew uses the phrase “kingdom of heaven” 32 times. Further, Matthew uses “heaven” 82 times. 82 times! By comparison, Mark uses “heaven” 18 times, Luke 35 times, and John 18 times. 58 uses of “heaven” in Matthew have no parallel. Clearly, Matthew is trying to do something with “heaven”.
Matthew also uses heaven and earth pairs throughout his Gospel (5:18; 6:10; 11:25; 16:19; 18:18-19; 23:9; 24:30, 35; 28:18). In the Lord’s prayer, “your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” After the confession of Peter, Jesus told the disciples “whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Jesus instructed the disciples, “And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven.” Jesus said that “heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” The book ends with, “All authority has been given to me on heaven and earth.” That is just a short glimpse into how comprehensive the heaven/earth pairings are in the Gospel.
Matthew’s Gospel presents earth as in the realm of Satan and heaven as the realm of the Father. Matthew uses the phrase “Father in heaven” 13 times (5:16, 45; 6:9; 7:11, 21; 10:32-33; 12:50; 16:17; 18:10, 14, 19). The Gospel also employs “heavenly Father” 7 times (5:48; 6:14, 26, 32; 15:13; 18:35; 23:9). In contrast, the earth seems to be under the power of Satan. In the temptation story, Satan is able to offer Jesus “all the kingdoms of the world and their glory” (4:8). How is Satan able to offer Jesus the kingdoms of the world unless he already owned them?
This is the central plot line of the Gospel. Two realms are in opposition to one another. One operates according to the will of the Father in heaven. The other operates according to Satan and earthly wisdom. The Gospel is asking readers then and now, “Are you with God’s kingdom which operates according to the heavenly divine will or are you acting according to the values of the dominion of Satan?”
Let me illustrate this in a few passages. First, the temptation narrative in 4:1-11 is so important. In this passage, the two kingdoms come in direct conflict with one another. It is a battle royal. God’s kingdom inaugurated by Jesus is directly in conflict with Satan’s kingdom. Ultimately, Jesus prevails. God’s kingdom defeats Satan’s. Although Satan has lost the direct conflict, he continues to indirectly attack Jesus. After Jesus predicts his impending suffering and death to his disciples, Peter tries to keep Jesus from having to go to the cross. Jesus responds to Peter, “Get behind me Satan!” That’s kinda harsh! But, the reason is that Satan is now trying to accomplish his goal of thwarting the mission of God’s kingdom through one of Jesus’ own disciples. Satan is testing Jesus again, except this time by proxy. Even the disciples sometimes are operating according to the wrong set of kingdom values (cf. 18:1-4; 19:13-15). Disciples of Jesus can sometimes act according to the worldly values of the kingdom of Satan rather than the heavenly kingdom Jesus brought.
The Jewish leaders also seem to carry out Satan’s mission. In chapter 4, Satan went to “test” Jesus in the wilderness. That same word is used multiple times to refer to the Jewish leaders “testing” Jesus (16:1; 19:3; 22:18, 35). Satan is also the “evil one” (13:19, 38) and the leaders are called “evil” multiple times (9:4; 12:34, 39, 45; 16:4; 22:18). Thus, there is a battle royal in 4:1-11 and that battle continues throughout the Gospel. Satan continues attacking Jesus and attempting to thwart the heavenly plan.
This gives insight as to why the blasphemy of the Spirit is such a serious offense (cf. 12:22-32). Here in the clash of the two kingdoms, the Pharisees accuse Jesus of casting out demons by the power of Beelzebul (Satan). Demon possession actually represented a powerful reality. The kingdom Jesus inaugurated dispels and defeats Satan’s influence on earth. However, in an ironic turn of events, Jesus was actually being accused of casting out Satan’s demons by the power of Satan. Jesus says, “If it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.” (12:28) God’s kingdom dispels Satan’s dominion on earth, not furthers it. If Satan is being dispelled, God’s kingdom has come.
I hope this has been enough to show you what I think is going on in Matthew’s Gospel. Matthew does not use “kingdom of heaven” to avoid using the word “God”. He uses the phrase because it is part of an elaborate theme of heaven and earth that continues throughout the rest of the Gospel.
Matthew’s ultimate vision is that God’s “will is done on earth as it is in heaven” (6:10). The hope we have as disciples is that God’s kingdom will continue overtaking the kingdoms of the world until we are fully living in the kingdom of heaven. What a beautiful hope!