The Kingdom of Heaven in the Gospel of Matthew -- By: Jonathan T. Pennington
SBJT 12:1 (Spring 2008) p. 44
The Kingdom of Heaven in the Gospel of Matthew
*Jonathan T. Pennington is Assistant Professor of New Testament Interpretation at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He received his Ph.D. from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. Along with numerous articles, Dr. Pennington has authored works on both Greek and Hebrew vocabulary. He is the author of Heaven and Earth in the Gospel of Matthew (Brill, 2007) and is the co-editor (with Sean McDonough) of Cosmology and New Testament Theology (Continuum, 2008).
One does not have to read very far in the Gospel of Matthew before noticing that the Evangelist has a distinctive way of speaking about the kingdom of God—by using the phrase “the kingdom of heaven” (ἡ βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν). This phrase is not only frequent in Matthew (thirty-two occurrences), but is also unique compared to the other Gospels, the rest of the New Testament, and all literature preceding Matthew. It is not until writings that post-date the NT that we begin to encounter this Matthean way of talking about God’s kingdom. Indeed, in the second-century and beyond, this phrase becomes a dominant mode of expression in Christian writings, undoubtedly due to the great influence that the First Gospel had on subsequent Christianity.
This article will explore the meaning of Matthew’s distinctive expression “the kingdom of heaven” and suggest that Matthew’s careful choice of words has great theological import and practical application for the ongoing mission of the church.
The Centrality of the Kingdom
In recent years there has been a spiked increase in talk about the kingdom of God—in the academy, from the pulpit, and in the pews. The issue of the journal you are holding is evidence of the same. This trend to think about the Bible’s message in terms of the kingdom is a helpful and important move because there is no doubt that the kingdom is the central message of Jesus’ teaching. Moreover, a good argument can be made that the same is true for the rest of the Scriptures, Old and New.1 Of course, there is nothing new under the sun, including in theological discussion, and we would be both ignorant and shortsighted to think that we are the first generation to discover the centrality of the kingdom in Scripture. Nevertheless, each age does have its blind spots, and it seems that our recent predecessors—especially our evangelical forerunners—have not frequently spoken of the kingdom nor seen it as the unifying theme of Scripture. Each generation has its own theological battles to fight, views to articulate, and contributions to make. We can be thankful to b...
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