The kingdom of God is one of the most important doctrines in the Bible. But it is also one of the least understood. And one reason it is misunderstood is because it is often confused with kingdom of heaven. The truth is that kingdom of God and kingdom of heaven are distinctly two different things.
For clarification, let’s take kingdom of heaven first because it is easier to understand. Literally, kingdom of heaven refers to Christ’s kingdom on earth, when the Lord will rule the world from Jerusalem for 1,000 years. In other words, kingdom of heaven is a physical place of the future.
We see this plainly in Matthew 8:11 which reads, “And I say unto you, That many shall come from the east and west, and shall sit down with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, in the kingdom of heaven.”
In the above passage, Jesus had just finished conversing with a centurion, a Roman military officer who had trusted in Him as his God and Savior. Being impressed with the centurion’s strong faith, Jesus was saying that many with such faith from all over the world would be joining Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in His physical kingdom.
So naturally, to get into the kingdom of heaven one must first become a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ. And that is what we realize when we read, “Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven” (Matthew 7:21). And the will of the Father is to believe or trust in His Son Jesus Christ.
On the other hand we also read, “From that time Jesus began to preach, and to say, Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17). To comprehend this passage we must understand that Jesus lived and conducted His ministry in the time of the Jews. And they knew nothing of the upcoming church age or age of grace.
Therefore, when Jesus said “the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” He was skipping over the church or age of grace, which would not begin until Pentecost or fifty days after His death, burial and resurrection.
If that sounds strange, it must be remembered that up to the very end of His life on earth, even His own disciples failed to grasp that Israel’s ministry would be set aside and temporarily replaced by the church. So, even though it may seem that Scripture blends the two terms, kingdom of heaven and kingdom of God are different.
Another misconception regarding kingdom of God is that it refers to a certain conduct on the part of Christians, i.e., doing good things unto your fellow man – what some people refer to as being Christian. But displaying a so-called Christian attitude to others is not the kingdom of God.
So, what is the kingdom of God? The easiest way to understand kingdom of God is to think in terms of someone who has trusted in the Lord Jesus Christ; that person resides in the kingdom of God. In other words, kingdom of God is associated with eternal salvation.
This we see when we read, “Now after that John was put in prison, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, 15 And saying, The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe the gospel” (Mark 1:14-15).
Jesus was saying that those who repented, or changed their mind about Him (believed in Him) would be saved or would enter into the kingdom of God. That is why He also said, “And if thine eye offende thee, pluck it out: it is better for thee to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye, than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire” (Mark 9:47).
Further proof comes to us through a dialog between a Pharisee named Nicodemus and Jesus. Responding to Nicodemus, “Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God” (John 3:5).
In the above words, Jesus was making it clear to a very religious Pharisee that physical birth as a Jew and believing one lives according to the law was not sufficient for salvation or entering into the kingdom of God – for, “Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).
Salvation comes from believing or trusting in the Lord Jesus Christ. And when that happens, one enters into the kingdom of God.
Kingdom of heaven refers to a future physical place, whereas kingdom of God refers to a spiritual condition, i.e., eternal salvation.