The Kingdom of God in the Gospel of Matthew

The Kingdom of God According to the Gospel of Matthew

            “Your kingdom come your will be done.” Jesus’ familiar words from the “Lord’s Prayer” evoke a sense of power and curiosity as we desire God to bring this kingdom to earth, but at the same time we question what it could look like. This idea of kingdom which may seem innocuous at first is in fact a crucial doctrinal issue in not only the Gospel of Matthew but for the entirety of the New Testament.

            Therefore, what exactly is the kingdom of God in the eyes of Matthew? We shall see how in the gospel of Matthew the kingdom of God is summed up as the process by which God becomes king in the world. We shall see how Jesus fulfilled Old Testament prophecies and intertestamental allusions in a way which the author of the gospel uses to confirm the divine and kingly status of Jesus. This revelation is presented to the new covenant community who are being encouraged to remain faithful to their new heavenly king despite the persecution and cultural shunning they were receiving. This gospel then is a testimony of how the actions, teachings and parables of Jesus confirm his kingly rule and demonstrates how followers of this persecuted yet heavenly king are to live upon the earth.

What is the Kingdom of God?

            The kingdom we speak of is more than a theological or ethereal concept, it is one of the foundational pillars of understanding the scripture. Theologians such as Thomas Schreiner are correct when he speaks of the kingdom of God being “of prime importance in New Testament theology,”[1] and others speak of this applying to the entire Bible.[2] The kingdom of God then “serves as a leading image of Jesus’ mission.”[3] A mission marked by the fulfillment of God’s long awaited promises that He through Christ would assume full rulership of Earth and those created in His image.

            On a technical level “a kingdom involves at least three things: first, a king who rules; second, subjects who are ruled; and third, the actual exercise of the function of rulership.”[4] For Matthew’s original readers they would have been familiar with this concept through the political power of Rome and its local governors in Syria and Judea. In terms of Christ and His kingdom we can see how the terminology could better be understood as being “translated as “kingly rule,” “reign,” or “sovereignty” rather than “kingdom.””[5] These definitions goes beyond mere political borders and speak of a ruler being recognized through exercising authority and not just territorial control.

            Given the Jewish undertones of the gospel of Matthew it could be assumed that the author sought to apply verses such as 1 Chr. 28:5, 2 Chr 13:8, Ps 103:19 and 145:11-13 which speak of the power of the kingdom of YHWH. This data can be combined with various declaration in Psalms[6] which speak about God as being the king of Israel. The word for kingdom often used here is “the Hebrew malkut which means “rule, reign, dominion…When malkut is used of God, it almost always refers to his authority or to his rule as the heavenly King.”[7]

            Even with these allusions the phrase “Kingdom of God” is not found in this form in the canonized scriptures. However, we do find this phrase used elsewhere in apocryphal literature such as in Psalm of Solomon 17:3-4; “But we will hope in God our savior, because the strength of our God is forever with mercy, 4and the kingdom of our God is forever over the nations.”[8]

Original Audience and Context

Literary Context

            The Gospel of Matthew is written in a style of an ancient biography and perhaps more specifically as a “hero story”[9] with a plot, setting and characterization which emphasizes the author’s key points. The author of Matthew selected specific stories and structure to convey the realities of Jesus’ actions and words in a manner which will inspire his original audience. Jesus then is presented not just as being divine, but also king and savior and through this hero motif we see how the narrative unfolds.

            It is also possible that the author of Matthew viewed his work as a continuation of the Old Testament and more specifically 2 Chronicles, the last book in the Tanakh. This is significant as 2 Chronicles emphasizes the genealogy of David, the destruction of Jerusalem and “ends with the commission to rebuild the temple.

Struggles of the Original Audience  

            The general consensus is that this gospel was written post-70AD to an audience feeling the aftereffects of the Roman-Jewish war and the renewed zeal of the surviving Pharisees trying to protect what was left of their faith. In following the post-70AD date we see a community of Jewish believers who were faced with a growing number of gentile converts as both struggled to fit into this new world. Matthew’s gospel had to preserve the traditions of the Jews to accommodate the gentiles and do it in a way which not only presented the truth of Christ but also demonstrated how they were to live within this new invisible kingdom.

Messianic Expectations

Longing for a King

            The original audience would have been familiar with the traditions of a coming Messiah who would rule the world from Jerusalem. Therefore, it is necessary that if we are “to understand the man from Nazareth, it is necessary to understand Judaism. More, it is necessary to see Jesus as firmly within Judaism rather than standing apart from it.”[10] The Messianic expectations of the coming King from the lineage of David who would rule the world stems from these intertestamental Jewish understandings. In many ways this “messianic hope was the response in early Judaism to the failure of the Davidic line to sustain even itself, much less the nation as a whole.”[11] It was the hope that God would no longer allow Israel to be oppressed by the likes of the Babylonians, Seleucids or the Romans.

Old Testament Promises

            The words of the prophet in Isaiah 40:9-11, 52:7-10 speaks of the theme of YHWH returning to Zion with imagery of a king, conqueror and as a comforter. This “theme is especially pronounced in Isaiah and grows out of the prophet’s vision of “My eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” (Isa 6:5).”[12] But the most graphic expectation in the Old Testament comes from Daniel 7:13–14 where “a human being is ushered into the very presence of the “Ancient of Days” (i.e., God) and given universal dominion over the kingdoms of the earth.”[13] In this vision we witness YHWH upon his throne distributing his power and authority to a being like himself, yet also a human worthy of exercising eternal rulership. This “language takes us well beyond any normal idea of Messiahship such as the title ‘King of the Jews’ might have suggested.”[14]

            The words of Daniel was so clear that when Jesus confessed that “But I tell you, from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.” The Sanhedrin knew instantly that Jesus was declaring himself to be the Son of Man from Daniel’s vision and was claiming the title of the coming eternal king. We see then that “Only in the New Testament were these mysteries fully revealed. The Old Testament, therefore, must be viewed in the light of a preparatory economy, which comes to its perfect fulfillment in Christ.”[15]

Apocryphal Influences

            The intertestamental writings are also a treasure trove of these messianic and kingdom expectations. For Matthew’s audience and the people Jesus encountered they would have been familiar with these writings and in many ways they shaped how Jesus’ hero story is portrayed in the gospels. For instance, in 1 Enoch “the elect people of God, including those who are resurrected (1 En. 22), will live in a final paradisiacal state on earth where God, whose throne is on a mountain, is an “eternal King,” “King of Kings,” or “King of the Universe.””[16]

            Along with the expectation of a coming messianic king there was also the hope of one being sent by God to once and for all to destroy Satan and his power. Assumption of Moses 10:1:3 declares that “his kingdom will appear throughout his whole creation. Then the devil will have an end. Yea, sorrow will be led away with him.”[17] A sentiment repeated in Jubilee 23:29-30

“all of their days they will be complete and live in peace and rejoicing and there will be no Satan and no evil (one) who will destroy, because all of their days will be days of blessing and healing.”[18]

Matthew’s original audience had a rich and varied expectation for a soon coming divine king who would restore the world, put an end to Satan and inaugurate the full rulership of God.

Matthew’s Use of the Kingdom of God

Kingdom of Heaven vs Kingdom of God

            First, the apparent division or differences between the concept of the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Heaven must be addressed. The reasoning for this use of “heaven” in place of “God” when speaking about the great kingdom is less of a doctrinal issue and is instead a matter of culture. Both terms mean the same thing and are interchangeable with one another, and in the case of Matthew his use of the “kingdom of heaven” is an attempt to follow the intertestamental protocol of avoiding saying the name of God (YHWH). The author of Matthew “is not speaking of a different kingdom but is simply using a very Jewish way of referring to the Creator.”[19] Understanding this we can then use “kingdom of God” and “kingdom of heaven” interchangeably.

Jesus as a Legal Descendant of David

            Matthew begins his discourse on the kingdom by first pointing out Jesus’ royal ancestry and confirms Jesus’ claim of leadership. From the beginning Jesus was recognized as a king but was misinterpreted as a natural competitor to Herod’s dynasty, a theme which continued up to the cross when Jesus was labeled the “king of the Jews” by Pilate. Theologically Jesus’ genealogy is important because it demonstrates how “the one promised in 2 Samuel 7, who will sit on David’s eternal throne, is now revealed to be more than just a man.”[20] Understanding this it is no wonder why “One of the most distinctive titles for Jesus in Matthew is Son of David. It occurs nine times, eight of which are unparalleled in any of the other Gospels, whereas Mark uses it only three times and Luke four.”[21]

John the Baptist

            Next Matthew moves to the introduction of John the Baptist whose mission was to preach repentance and announce the coming kingdom. John preached this message knowing “full well that the Jewish leaders are not fleeing from the coming wrath. This wrath forms part of the full arrival of the kingdom, which will lead to judgment of God’s enemies as well as blessing for his followers. ”[22] His declaration of “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand”[23] leads into Jesus’ arrival and baptism where God announces his favor upon Jesus and in a way inaugurates his journey to kingship. In the narrative John plays the role of Elijah who was to herald the end of the age and usher in the coming king.

God as King

            Between John’s preaching and the theophany at Jesus’ baptism we see that this was no earthly king coming to set up a purely political kingdom. Rather it could be seen as God returning to his original intent for himself to be the king of Israel, making this a reversal of 1 Samuel 8-10 where the people rejected God’s kingship in favor of Saul. Therefore, this matter of Jesus’ kingship is of such importance to Matthew as:

Jesus ‘fulfils’ the institution of kingship in the Old Testament: he is the ‘son of David’, the ‘greater than Solomon’ (see on 12:3–4, 42)…The mission of Jesus was to establish God’s kingship. The phrase ‘the kingdom of God’ therefore points not to a specific situation or event, but to ‘God in control’, with all the breadth of meaning that that phrase could cover.[24]

Kingdom and authority exerted by God echoes back to the Exodus where God himself through the Angel of the LORD[25] lead and cared for the people. The idea is that God was taking back his rulership over creation and those in covenant community with Him. “Scripture begins with the declaration that God… is the sovereign ruler and King of the universe… the entire universe is God’s kingdom since he is presently Lord and King.”[26] It represents a return to Eden where the bridge between Heaven and Earth would be restored and expanded and God through Christ would once again be in total control of the world with a people loyal to himself.

Kingdom of God Through Preaching

            Matthew 4:17 records Jesus saying “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” and other exhortations imploring the people to recognize the season of God’s arrival. It was a message of change and reprioritization much like the prophets of old as “The message of the kingdom, preached by John, Jesus, and the disciples, included both the need for repentance and the announcement of the imminent coming of the kingdom.”[27]

            However, Jesus went beyond the call to repentance and the expectation of the kingdom. Following Matthew’s narrative of the temptation and arrival in Galilee we are presented with Jesus the teacher. Upon the mountain Jesus lays out the commands for how his people are to live under the laws of the new kingdom he was bringing to fruition. The Beatitudes portray a “family portrait of those who inhabit the blessed realm of the kingdom of God,”[28] and it teaches us how to live, pray and have faith in this new paradigm.

Kingdom of God Through Parables

            Beyond the discourses such as the Sermon on the Mount Jesus often conveyed the coming realities of the kingdom through the use of parables. Matthew 13 is a prime example of this use of parables and “illustrate how Jesus retells and even subverts competing understandings of Israel’s place in the divine drama.”[29] The weeds, the pearl, the hidden treasure and the net are used to show not only entry into the kingdom but the cost one must pay for citizenship. The parables in Matthew also furthers the use of divine ironic reversals in how many who expected to enjoy the Messiah’s benefits are the same ones being denied entry into the new kingdom, as we see with the parable of the vineyard in Matthew 21.

Kingdom of God in Action

            The greatest sign of the manifestation of the kingdom of God was seen in Jesus’ works of divine power and authority. Through divine healing, rebuking evil spirits or exerting control over nature Jesus is presented as having true and final authority over the natural realm. In many ways Matthew’s author paints his portrait of Jesus “by identifying him with Israel’s God. What is true of God is true of Jesus. In that vein, Jesus is often identified with the divine warrior motif found throughout the Old Testament (e.g., Ps 18:7–15; 24:7–10; 68:4; 104:1–3).”[30] The case of the calming of the storm in Matthew “is thick with Old Testament influence, particularly in Matthew’s retelling of the event. In the Old Testament, the sea symbolizes rebellion and hostility toward God’s creation… only the Lord has the ability to judge sea monsters and calm the chaotic waters” [31] (see also Ps. 74:13-14, 65:5-7, 89:6-10, 107:23-32, Ezk. 32:2, Dan. 7:2).

The Spiritual Dimension

            By exerting power and authority over creation, sickness and evil spirits Jesus states that through these signs the arrival of the kingdom has finally taken place. But with these announcements comes the warnings of rebellion, resistance and retaliation from both natural and spiritual forces. Going back to Matthew 4 we see how “Jesus’ victory over temptation appears to have prepared him to conquer the one who was the ultimate satanic prince of the Canaanites and of all wicked nations and to conquer the land in a way that Israel had not been able to.”[32]

            It is a one-sided battle which harkens back to earlier Apocryphal expectations of the coming Messiah destroying Satan. Jesus’ miracles and actions then are testimonies of his divine power and his authority over the fallen spiritual forces who control and enslave humanity. Jesus, by “Comparing a divided Satan to a divided kingdom strongly implies that Jesus understands his great foe as the head of a kingdom that, by further implication, opposes God’s kingdom.”[33] An opposition which is defeated to one degree at the cross but still active in other ways through humanity’s continued rebellion.

Already but Not-Yet

            While the author of Matthew portrays Jesus’ power and authority the coming kingdom seems to be a divided conquest. On the one hand there are tangible signs of an immediate inauguration but at the same time there seems to be an incompleteness to this newly arrived kingdom. The kingdom had established a foothold through Jesus but the totality of the conquest is far from over. Matthew’s audience is to be comforted by this realization that while the fulfillment of the kingdom is assured, they would have to endure as representatives or ambassadors of his established yet distant kingdom no matter where they lived. There is the hope then that the world is filled with embassies of the king but the fullness of that kingdom had not yet fully arrived.

Duty of Believers as Ambassadors of the Kingdom of God

            The concept of the kingdom in Matthew acts as an encouragement for his audience who had received adoption, redemption from sins and a restored relationship with God. Yet there is still work to be done and suffering which is to be endured. All of this speaks to not only an expectation of God’s involvement in the world but also an eternal hope. Matthew through the discourses and parables chosen for his hero story about Jesus lays out the expectations for the covenant community going forward. As the ultimate “mission of the kingdom includes both evangelism and edification, both worldwide proclamation and comprehensive teaching.”[34]

            Followers of Christ are to live with the expectations of God’s assistance and the reality of persecution, they are to proclaim a gospel of not only salvation from sins but also a loyalty to a truly divine king, unlike the self-assumed divinity of the Caesars. These disciples “must be prepared to give up everything that would stand in the way of wholehearted commitment to the priority of the kingdom of God, as emphasized in the parables of the hidden treasure and the pearl merchant.”[35] The cost presented in the gospel is real but the rewards are ultimately greater than the cost therefore continued faithfulness to Christ despite persecution by Romans and Jewish religious leaders alike is a small price to pay for eternal citizenship in the already but not-yet kingdom of God.


            The ultimate meaning of the kingdom of God in the gospel of Matthew is the realization that finally after thousands of years of prophecy, wandering, suffering and expectations God has become king on the earth. Albeit in an already but not-yet fashion where the kingdom is marked by outposts and not assumed territory. Christ’s kingship is demonstrated through acts of authority, preaching and the call for his followers to spread the message of the coming eternal kingdom to the whole earth. From this place of expectation Matthew’s original audience was encouraged to endure suffering, persecution and the monotony of waiting as Christ’s kingdom remains present but still at a distance from its full eschatological power and authority.

            This does not mean that the kingdom is absent but instead “we may say the kingdom of God is present wherever the king is to be found. Jesus is present by his Spirit both in the church and in the world.”[36] The author of Matthew through his presentations of Jesus’ power, authority teaching, claims to Daniel 7, the titles of Son of Man, Son of David and revealed Messiah point towards the fact that the kingdom, its coming and our citizenship in it through the cross was a core narrative of the gospel.

[1] Thomas R. Schreiner, New Testament Theology: Magnifying God in Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2008), 41.

[2] Peter J. Gentry and Stephen J. Wellum, God’s Kingdom through God’s Covenants: A Concise Biblical Theology (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2015), 243.

[3] Leland Ryken et al., Dictionary of Biblical Imagery (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 478–479.

[4] Alva J. McClain, “The Greatness of the Kingdom,” Bibliotheca Sacra 112 (1955): 12.

[5] Dennis C. Duling, “Kingdom of God, Kingdom of Heaven: OT, Early Judaism, and Hellenistic Usage,” ed. David Noel Freedman, The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 50.

[6] Ps 44:4; 48:2; 68:24; 74:12; 84:3; 93:1; 95:3; 98:6; 99:4; 145:1

[7] Walter A. Elwell and Philip Wesley Comfort, Tyndale Bible Dictionary, Tyndale Reference Library (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2001), 775.

[8] Rick Brannan et al., eds., The Lexham English Septuagint (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012), Ps Sol 17:3–4.

[9] Leland Ryken, Jesus the Hero: A Guided Literary Study of the Gospels, Reading the Bible as Literature (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016), 35–36.

[10] Ben Witherington III, The Indelible Image: The Theological and Ethical Thought World of the New Testament: The Individual Witnesses, vol. 1 (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009), 68–69.

[11] Witherington III, 71.

[12] Craig A. Evans, “Inaugurating the Kingdom of God and Defeating the Kingdom of Satan,” Bulletin for Biblical Research, Vol. 15, 2005, 51.

[13] Craig L. Blomberg, “Matthew,” in Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI;  Nottingham, UK: Baker Academic;  Apollos, 2007), 33.

[14] R. T. France, Matthew: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 1, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1985), 50.

[15] H. Orton Wiley, Christian Theology, vol. 2 (Kansas City, MO: Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, 1940–1952), 144.

[16] Dennis C. Duling, “Kingdom of God, Kingdom of Heaven: OT, Early Judaism, and Hellenistic Usage,” ed. David Noel Freedman, The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 51.

[17] James H. Charlesworth, The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, vol. 1 (New York; London: Yale University Press, 1983), 931.

[18] Craig A. Evans, “Inaugurating the Kingdom of God and Defeating the Kingdom of Satan,” Bulletin for Biblical Research, Vol. 15, 2005, 56.

[19] Barney Kasdan, Matthew Presents Yeshua, King Messiah: A Messianic Commentary (Clarksville, MD: Messianic Jewish Publishers, 2011), 29.

[20] Sandra L. Richter, The Epic of Eden: A Christian Entry into the Old Testament (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2008), 216.

[21] Craig Blomberg, Matthew, vol. 22, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1992), 28.

[22] Blomberg, 1992, 78.

[23] Scriptures taken from the ESV unless otherwise noted.

[24] R. T. France, Matthew: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 1, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1985), 48–49.

[25] Likely a preincarnate form of the Son as seen in the conversation with Abraham and the pre-70AD Jewish concept of the Second YHWH.

[26] Peter J. Gentry and Stephen J. Wellum, God’s Kingdom through God’s Covenants: A Concise Biblical Theology (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2015), 243.

[27] Mark L. Bailey, “The Doctrine of the Kingdom in Matthew 13,” Bibliotheca Sacra 156 (1999): 443.

[28] Leland Ryken et al., Dictionary of Biblical Imagery (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 480.

[29] N. T. Wright and Michael F. Bird, The New Testament in Its World: An Introduction to the History, Literature, and Theology of the First Christians (London; Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic; SPCK, 2019), 204.

[30] G. K. Beale and Benjamin L. Gladd, The Story Retold: A Biblical-Theological Introduction to the New Testament (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic: An Imprint of InterVarsity Press, 2020), 44.

[31] Beale, 2020, 45.

[32] G. K. Beale, The Temple and the Church’s Mission: A Biblical Theology of the Dwelling Place of God, ed. D. A. Carson, vol. 17, New Studies in Biblical Theology (Downers Grove, IL; England: InterVarsity Press; Apollos, 2004), 173.

[33] Craig A. Evans, “Inaugurating the Kingdom of God and Defeating the Kingdom of Satan,” Bulletin for Biblical Research, Vol. 15, 2005, 67.

[34] Mark L. Bailey, “The Doctrine of the Kingdom in Matthew 13,” Bibliotheca Sacra 156 (1999): 448.

[35] Bailey, 447.

[36] Gerald Bray, “The Kingdom of God,” in Lexham Survey of Theology, ed. Mark Ward et al. (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2018).

Creative Commons LicenseThe Kingdom of God in the Gospel of Matthew Cameron Conway is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
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