John the Baptist began his mission preaching, “Repent ye for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Mt. 3:1-2). According to Matthew, Jesus began His ministry preaching the same message (4:17). The expression “kingdom of heaven” is unique to the gospel of Matthew; it does not appear in either of the other gospels. The corresponding expression in the other three gospels uniformly is “kingdom of God” which, although infrequently, is found in Matthew (cp. 12:28). There is no difference between the kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of God. Jesus preached both, but He didn’t preach about two different kingdoms.
Comparing the phrase “kingdom of heaven” in Matthew with the phrase “kingdom of God” found otherwise reveals that Matthew used the phrase “kingdom of heaven” to refer to the same incident others record in which they used the words “kingdom of God.” Consider just a few. Jesus said of John, “Verily I say unto you, among them born of women, there hath not arisen one greater than John the Baptist. Yet he that is but little in the kingdom of heaven is great than he” (Mt. 11:11). Now read of the same event in Luke 7:28 where the phrase is “kingdom of God.” A comparison of the greater contexts of both accounts shows the incident to be identical except Matthew has “kingdom of heaven” where Luke has “kingdom of God.” For more illustrations compare Matthew 6:33 with Luke 12:21; Matt. 13:11 with Mk. 4:11; Mt. 13:31 with Mk. 4:31; Matt. 19:23 with Mk. 10:23-25).
We understand the words “kingdom of heaven” shows the origin of the kingdom, just as “the kingdom of God” shows the same thing. It was a kingdom God would set up: it was from heaven. It was from God. When Jesus was asked, “By what authority doest thou these things and who gave thee this authority?” Jesus answered, “I also will ask you one question which if ye tell me, I likewise will tell you by what authority I do these things. The baptism of John, whence was it? From heaven or from men?” (Mt. 21:24-25). The querists were in a quandary. They reasoned together saying, “If we shall say, from heaven; he will say unto us, why then did ye not believe him? But if we shall say, from men, we fear the multitude for all hold John to be a prophet” (Mt. 21:26). So they feigned ignorance by saying, “We know not” (Mt. 21:26-27). These teachers knew that when Jesus asked them “from heaven or from men” He was asking them if God commanded it or men? In a similar fashion, when John saw the wife, the bride of the Lamb, coming down from heaven, it is true, whatever else may be involved, that John tells us the bride (the church) has her origin in heaven, just as Christ’s kingdom originated there (Rev. 21:2).
The message of both John and Jesus that the kingdom of heaven was at hand excited the nation as few things could. People in that first century in past years had been, and would, in years to come, be led astray by those who falsely claimed to be the Messiah. Jesus warned this would especially be true in the trying years before Rome destroyed Jerusalem (Mt. 24:23-26). In the early days of the church a man named Theudas and another named Judas drew a following who were either killed or dispersed (Acts 5:34-35). Twenty-five years later deceivers still were deluding the people with false claims (Acts 21:37-38). When John and Jesus (both sent from God) came on the scene, proclaiming “the kingdom of heaven” is at hand, thousands of Jews were ecstatic and followed them.
The conviction that a kingdom from God was coming was based on many promises made through the centuries past. Jacob, in blessing his sons at his death, blessed Judah, saying, “The scepter shall not depart form Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from beneath his feet until Shiloh came and unto him shall the obedience of the people be” (Gen. 49:10). Some uncertainty exists whether the meaning of the word “Shiloh” refers to a person or place, but there is no uncertainty of the significance of the word “scepter,” which signifies rule or tribe. The prophecy was uttered at least 200 years before the exodus and 700 years before David, descendant of Judah, became Israel’s second king. This began the royal role Judah would have and maintain until finally Jesus came (also of the seed of Judah) who continues to reign even today as King of kings and Lord of lords. After Jacob’s prophecy concerning his son (and even before in language somewhat vague as the role Jesus would play in His nation) many prophets had promised a coming ruler; the nature of whom was revealed when Jesus asked the Jews the meaning of David’s words, “The Lord said unto my Lord, sit thou on my right hand, till I make all thy enemies thy footstool” (Psa. 110:1). He asked them, “If the Messiah is David’s Lord, how is he David’s son?”
The prophet Daniel spoke clearly of an approaching kingdom. When he interpreted a dream for Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel 2, he said the dream foreshadowed five kingdoms, including the present one (Babylon) and four future (Medo-Persian, Grecian, Roman, and the kingdom of God). Four of those kingdoms were created by men and would fall, but in the days of the fourth kingdom (Rome) God would set up a kingdom that would never fall (Dan. 2:44). This was not the only passage from Daniel to predict a coming kingdom from God. In chapter 7 he mentioned again the same four world kingdoms in a different form from that seen in chapter 2 where the kingdoms appeared represented as metals: gold, silver, bronze, and iron. In chapter 7 those kings (kingdoms) are represented as animals: a lion, bear, leopard, and a diverse beast with great iron teeth (Dan. 7:1-8). Once more those kingdoms cease, but Daniel saw a picture of the coming Messiah: “I beheld in the night visions and behold, there came with the clouds of heaven one like unto a son of man, and he came even unto the ancient of days, and they brought him near before him. And there was given unto him dominion and glory, and a kingdom that all the peoples, nations and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion which shall not pass away, and his kingdom that which shall not be destroyed” (Dan. 7:1-2). Daniel mentioned the Messiah one more time in Daniel 9:25-26, the only prophet who used the word “Messiah” to refer to the coming seed of Abraham, the seed of Judah, the seed of David.
It had been nearly six centuries since the last king of Judah had ruled in Jerusalem when John preached in the wilderness of Judea. During those years the nation first experienced exile in an alien land and then, when they did return to Judea, they had been for most of those years under the oppressive rule of foreign powers. How they longed for freedom! Imagine the joy and excitement many in that nation felt when John came, as a voice in the wilderness, saying, “Prepare ye the way of the Lord. Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!”