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In the New Testament there are two kingdoms being preached. There is the kingdom of heaven, which is only found in Matthew’s gospel [mentioned 31 times], and the kingdom of God. John preached “… the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” [Matt 3:1-2]. Jesus preached not only the kingdom of heaven but also the kingdom of God [Mk 1:15]. While men have often taught that these two kingdoms are the same, the fact is they are different.
The kingdom of heaven is not about the heaven where we go when we die. You see, the word “heaven” doesn’t only refer to the place where saints go when we die. It also refers to two other places. In Gen 1 we find these three places. In Gen 1:1 God created heaven, the place to which we typically refer when we say “heaven.” In Gen 1:6-9 God created a firmament [outer space] called heaven, which separates the seas on earth from a body of water beyond outer space. And in Gen 1:20 God identified the area around earth in which birds fly as heaven.
So, there are three heavens: the first containing the earth and “sky,” the second containing the solar system and outer space, and the third where God’s throne is. Paul was caught up to the third heaven in 2 Cor 12:1-4. Notice that the water above the firmament in Gen 1:6-8 separates the first two heavens from the third heaven [Ps 148:1-4].
The kingdom of heaven is a kingdom over the first heaven. It is a kingdom concerning dominion over the earth and everything that is in it. Adam had dominion over the earth and everything in it [Gen 1:26-28] so he was the first king of the kingdom of heaven. The king of this kingdom now is the devil, who offered all the kingdoms in this kingdom to Jesus if he would bow down and worship him [Lk 4:5-7].
Jesus was born king of the Jews. He was God’s king to rule in the kingdom of heaven and, therefore, when he was here in his earthly ministry, the kingdom of heaven was at hand. However, he didn’t establish his kingdom when he was here [Jn 18:36]. He will establish it when he returns for his millennial reign [Rev 20].
The kingdom of God, on the other hand, is a spiritual kingdom into which you enter when you are born again [Jn 3:1-7]. It is not a kingdom that comes with observation but it is a kingdom that is within you [Lk 17:20-21]. Notice that this kingdom is righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Ghost [Rom 14:17] and it is undefiled since the devil and sin are not in it.
There are many disparities that clearly distinguish these two kingdoms. Here are a couple of them. In the kingdom of heaven there is an element of man’s righteousness [Matt 5:19-20]. His righteousness must exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees. But in the kingdom of God, our righteousness is given to us by God when we receive Jesus Christ [2 Cor 5:21, Rom 10:3-4]. By comparison to Christ’s righteousness, Paul counted his own righteousness as dung [Phil 3:8-9].
According to Matt 11:12, the kingdom of heaven suffers violence and the violent take it by force. This has certainly been true throughout history when every world ruler has fought to gain the ascendancy and every world religion has been advanced through bloodshed. All the talk of peace is only to get others to lay down their weapons making it easier for the conquerors to gain control of their enemies. Likewise, when Jesus returns he is going to take over by violence [Rev 19:11-16]. He comes as the King of kings and the Lord of lords.
But in the kingdom of God, there is no violence. World rulers cannot control what goes on in this kingdom. Furthermore, the devil cannot control what goes on in this kingdom. Jesus Christ is the king of this kingdom and the only ones allowed to “enter” [Jn 3:5] this kingdom are those who have been born again. As long as the Lord tarries, in order to “see” [Jn 3:3] this kingdom, those who are born again must die since flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God [1 Cor 15:50-55]. This should be some comfort for those of us who have loved ones in heaven.
When men equate the kingdom of God with the kingdom of heaven, they commonly teach one of two doctrinal errors. They either teach that New Testament salvation has something to do with keeping the law or else they teach that Jesus is spiritually ruling over the kingdoms of the earth and deny his literal return to rule for 1,000 years. Both of these are wrong.