To summarize this article, the phrase "the kingdom of heaven," one of Christ's most common phrases, the actual phrase used means "the kingdom of the skies," since when the word for "sky" most often appears as the plural "skies". However, the English idea of "sky" doesn't capture the sense of the Greek word either since "the skies" was everything above the surface of the earth, that is, the rest of the universe, especially aspects of the universe that were ethereal, that is, not like matter as we know it.
The phrase "the realm beyond" captures the general idea better, or, because the phrase so often occurs in the plural, "the realm of the regions beyond this world." However, "the realm of the skies: is more literal. a strong argument can be made that the realm describes a state of mind more than physical places so "the universal state" also works.
Confusion About "Heaven"
Does this phrase refer to the "kingdom of heaven" of the eternal life? This article focuses on that specific Greek phrase. It spends a great deal of time on how Christ used the phrase, as opposed to just the meaning of the words in Greek. i For more on the Greek word translated as "heaven" in other phrases, see this article on "The Earth, the World, and Heaven."
Our concept today of "heaven" has been so heavily influenced by children's stories and ideas from other religions, that it is difficult to understand "heaven" in the sense that Christ used it. After all, the word simply means "sky." Today, a clearer idea of Christ's view of "heaven" is communicated by translating it that "beyond the earth" in sense of place, as "the high places," (since it is often used in plural) in the sense of position, and, most simply as "the universal" as opposed to the "earthly.
The New Testament Greek that is translated as “kingdom of heaven” is, basileia (reign, rule, or kingdom) ouranos (heavens, sky, universe). This can also be translated as “the universal rule,” "the realm beyond earth," or even “the highest realm” as well as “the heavenly rule.” To avoid our idealizations of heaven, I used the term, “universal rule” in my early discussions of Christ’s words. However, more recently I have begun mixing in the idea of the "higher realms" and "that which is beyond earth" to give a more complete picture of what Christ meant by the word.
Strangely enough, when Christ uses this phrase, both "kingdom" and "heavens" can appear in the plural even though it is always translated in English into the singular. Sometimes one word, sometimes the other, and sometimes both together. For example, in a typical "the kingdom of heaven is like" verse, Mat 18:23, both words are plural, "the kingdoms of the heavens."
Did Christ refer to the afterlife as “the kingdom of heaven?” Was he describing the community of Christians? Or was he describing our increasing understanding of the natural, social, and personal nature and the healing of the divisions within them? Or was he describing the place of our afterlife? These a difficult questions, but well worth examining, at least, in terms of how Christ uses the words.
The Meaning of "Kingdom"
To know, we first need to look at "kingdom", the Greek word (basileia).
Speaking linguistically, the Greek word translated as "kingdom" means that which is controlled by a central authority. It is generally the rule of kings, but it was also applied to the Archon of Athens, who was elected. It can mean the place that is ruled, the people who are ruled, or the person who is ruling (if she is female because the word's form in the Gospels is feminine). It can mean the capital city of an empire or the ruler's castle. Our English word "basilica," meaning the seat of power for a bishop comes from this word. Generally, it refers to the concept of hereditary rule, the passing of authority from one generation to the next.
Though it is consistently translated in the NT as "kingdom," we can think of it as a "dominion", "that which is under a central authority", "being controlled by a leader," or, more simply as "rule" or "reign." The word always means that which is controlled by a specific person, a "basileus," which means "leader", "prince", "commander," or "king." Basileia is not a synonym for a state, a country, or any social group of people though we often think of a "kingdom" in those terms. A basileia is defined by its control or ownership by the master or leader and refers both to people and property under that control.
For example, the Catholic Church who follows the pope in Rome is a basileia. This "kingdom" includes not only the Papal States but all the property owned by the Catholic Church worldwide. It also includes all the people employed by the Catholic Church. As we extended it to mean the members of the Catholic Church, however, the definition gets into a gray area. Church members are not really controlled by the pope but they do follow the pope.
Would Christ have recognized other of our modern organizations as a basileia? Do the United States, Apple Computer, or the United Auto Workers qualify as "kingdoms." They all have a central executive leader that is the controls the organization's people and property. However, in these kingdoms central authority more limited in terms of controlling their members because these leaders' word is not "law" except within boundaries. Again, this lack of complete authority gets us into a fuzzy area.
However, since the question here is about the "kingdom of heaven," these gray areas are all swept away. The ruler here is clearly the Divinity, God. When Christ says "the kingdom of God," the meaning is clear, but when he says "the kingdom of skies," we can also be pretty certain that the king he is referring to is God. We are pretty certain that the ruler is not "the skies."
The Meaning of "Heaven"
The biggest problem with the word "heaven" is that when we hear it today, we have a set of images that have nothing to do with the way Christ meant the word. We see clouds, angels with wings, streets of gold, and pearly gates. Much of this is from childhood stories and, unfortunately, at least some of it, is borrowed from stories taken from other religions. None of these images were meant by Christ or envisioned by his listeners.
The primary meaning of ouranos is "the sky," that is the vault above us when we look up. The blue sky, the clouds, the sun, the moon, the planets, and the stars are all part of heaven. More generally, the word metaphorically means everything outside of our world. This is generally called the rest of the universe and "the universe" is another meaning of the word. The heaven especially include everything "above" our world both in a literal and figurative sense. The sky was the realm of the ethereal, the spiritual, and the absolute. The objects there were not earthly because didn't fall do earth like the material stuff we know. They were thought to be closer to abstract ideas and universal ideals than material objects.
Note: This same word for "sky", ouranos, also means a "chamber pot." So there is always something humorous about describing something as "the kingdom of heaven" since it also means "the kingdom of the piss pot." This meaning comes from the Greek word oureter, the source of our word ureter.
Note: This same word for "sky", ouranos in its various forms is also a verb in various forms the means "to remove to heaven" or "to diefy." However, this word almost always appears with a definite article whose form makes it clearly the noun form, not the verb. However, this still seems to be a clear play on words.
To get those images out of our heads, it may be best to think of "heaven" as simply "that which is beyond earth." However, this loses some of the sense of "great height" that we get from the Greek idea of "heaven" and "up in the sky." This "height" is very important to Christ in a philosophical sense and for much of his word play. Heaven is the realm of the highest concepts. It is beyond earth both in the sense of being physically out of reach and in the sense of being higher in the sense of superior.
The phrase, "realm of the stars," might capture more of the feeling since "stars" has a double meaning of the celestial objects and famous people. The region was the home of the "stars" of the period, for the Greeks, these were the gods, but for the Jews, it was the patriarchs and prophets. However, that would exclude the clouds, Sun, and moon, which were all also beyond earth.
We should also point out that "of heaven" a lost always appears with the definite article, "the," but it is seldom if ever translated that way. Greek is very serious about the use of the article, and when it appears, it should always be translated. The real phrase is "the kingdom of the heaven" or, commonly, "the kingdom of the heavens."
This universality, beyondness, and highness of heaven extend to the divine. Christ refers to the "heavenly Father", "the Father in heaven," and "Father in the heavens". In other words, referring to the Father, he frequently uses the plural.Christ uses the plural "Father in the heavens" the same way as he does the singular (Mat 6:1).
If beings lived in the sky, they were spirits, demons, or gods. These beings were "universal" in the sense that they could travel everywhere, from heaven to earth. They were "higher" in a sense that they were not bound by matter. "Heaven" was out of reach to mortal men but not out of reach to the gods. Of course, the celestial bodies were named after gods: the Sun was Apollo, the moon Diana, and so on. Some thought that they were the gods themselves, others that they were the abodes of the Gods. More to the point, "the heavens" were the unreachable, mysterious territory that people could see in space and time but never touch, feel, or understand.
The problem with using the term "universe" for the Greek concept of "heaven" and "the sky," is that as an adjective, "universal" has a sense of generality and sameness that does not apply to the Greek. Perhaps a better word is "the transcendent."
The Meaning "Of" in "Of Heaven"
Before we get deeper into a discussion of "heaven," we need to discuss the meaning of "of," as silly as that sounds. There actually isn't any word for "of" in Greek, at least, not one that is used in this phrase. The "of" comes from the form of word "heaven" in this phrase. It is what we call the genitive, that is, the possessive form. In English, we express this form is as "of" something or by adding an apostrophe "s." So this form of "heaven" can be translated as "heaven's" or "of heaven."
As in English, this form has many meanings. In Greek, this form is used to describes 1) a producer ("the Gospel by Matthew"), 2) the nature of an object ("love of the Gospel") 3) an attribute (The Gospel with the most words) 4) ownership ("The Gospel Book owned by Same"), 5) a part of a whole ("Verse 5:3 in Matthew") 6) materials used ("Gospels on paper" "Gospel in the heart." ) and a few more meanings if we want to get even more specific. In the examples above, this word from can be translated to capture is sense as "by", "of", "with," owned by", "in", "on" and even more.
So, here are the questions raised by the "of" in "of heaven":
- Does heaven produce the kingdom?
- Is heaven the nature defining the kingdom?
- Is heaven an attribute of the kingdom?
- Is heaven the owner of the kingdom?
- Is heaven the whole of which the kingdom is a part?
- Is heaven the material out of which the kingdom is made?
To answer any of these questions, perhaps we need to know a little more about what Christ meant by "heaven."
What is it "Like"
Christ offers many analogies ("parable" is the Greek word for analogy) for "the kingdom of the skies". He introduces these with the word that is translated into English as "is like." This verb means "to make like" and, in the passive, as used here, "to become like" or "to be made like." A more ordinary way of saying this in today's English might be "The realm of the stars turns out to be like" this or that thing.
Often these analogies must be read carefully to understand what Christ means. For example, Christ says that the realm of the stars is like a merchant seeking fine pearls. Does this means that it is like the merchant or the search for pearls? The latter seems more likely. Another example is when Christ says it is like a king throwing a wedding feast. Again, though the subject of the sentence is the king, the comparison is to the complete picture: the king throwing a wedding for his son.
From these many analogies, however, we get a complex picture of the idea of the kingdom of the heavens.
Is Heaven the Afterlife?
There are several statements that Christ made that seem to indicate that the “kingdom of heaven” is not merely the afterlife or the Christian community, but the entire social order of the world as established by God. For example, Christ said: Mat 11:12 “And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force.”
How does this statement make any sense of the kingdom of heaven is the afterlife or the community of believers? However, if the kingdom of heaven describes the worldly order of things, and that order changed with the coming of Christ, then it does make sense. After Christ’s coming, human society began to change: the meek began to inherit the earth. Those ruled by spirit were no longer totally dominated by those who ruled by violence. Today’s, though our world is far from perfect, this process if very far advanced compared with the ancient world. Today, those who are violent are much less successful than those who embrace more cooperative methods. Much of the world is ruled by consent rather than coercion. This results from our increased understanding of the world.
Christ refers many time to the afterlife as "eternal life" or "life everlasting." However, in not of these references does he equate it or even mention it in the context with "the kingdom of heaven" or even "heaven." When Christ talks about the "kingdom of heaven," he uses very different terms and analogies than he does when he talks about "life everlasting."
In the Gospels, "the kingdom of heaven" is described as many things--a growing tree, yeast in bread, a net that catches all fish, and a place of harvest that includes both weeds and wheat. At least part of what is meant is the last judgment, separating saints from sinners, but that is only a part of what is meant.
For example, if Christ was referring to the afterlife, how can the afterlife change in the way that Christ describes the kingdom of heaven? How can it start small and grow like a mustard see? How does it get mixed through everything like the dough? This does describe the community of believers but specifically how they affect and changes the worldly order arising from our increased understanding.
This kingdom is hidden, a secret. In Mat 6:6, Christ departs from his usual formulation of describe God as the “Father in heaven” and instead describes Him as “Father in secret.” The Greek word is kryptos, which means “secret” or “hidden.” We cannot see the kingdom of heaven in our everyday lives, because we are too close to it. We see heaven by looking at the sky. The sky literally covers everything in the sense that we might say, “the big picture.” So the kingdom Christ talks about is a hidden, big picture of what is really going on.
The kingdom of heaven includes all type of people, but it makes a judgment filtering out the good from the bad. There is “a natural selection,” but only because God’s will works through nature. The hierarchy of the kingdom of heaven is important. but it is something more than the mere judgment of men.
One thing we can know for certain, the "reign of the universe" is different than the "kingdoms of the world." It is also likely the same as "the Kingdom of God" because in Mar 1:15 Christ uses that phrase in a statement similar to this. If that is the case, then the "kingdom of heaven" may be a state of understandings. This is what Christ describes in Mar 12:34 "You are not far from the kingdom of God."
According to Christ, the Universal Reign is:
Near or coming to all places and times. Mat 4:17 From that time Jesus began to preach, and to say, Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. Mat 10:7 And as ye go, preach, saying, The kingdom of heaven is at hand.
Mysterious, but we can understood it. Mat 13:11 Because it is given unto you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it is not given.
It offers the greatest value. Mat 13:44 Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto treasure hid in a field; the which when a man hath found, he hides, and for joy thereof goes and sells all that he hath, and buys that field.
Until Christ, it was overwhelmed by violence. Mat 11:12 And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force.
Offers the greatest value. Mat 13:45 Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a merchant man, seeking goodly pearls:
Promotes both new and traditional values. Mat 13:52 Therefore every scribe [which is] instructed unto the kingdom of heaven is like unto a man [that is] an householder, which brings forth out of his treasure [things] new and old.
How the Superiority of the Understanding Evolves
The universal rule starts small and grows big and has lots of room. Mat 13:31 The kingdom of heaven is like to a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and sowed in his field:
It gets mixed through everything. Mat 13:33 The kingdom of heaven is like unto leaven, which a woman took, and hid in three measures of meal, till the whole was leavened.
There are secret keys to its control. Mat 16:19 And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.
The Hierarchy of Understanding
There is a hierarchy among people under the universal rule. Mat 11:11 Verily I say unto you, Among them that are born of women there hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist: notwithstanding he that is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.
Both those who break minor commandments and teach others to do so can still be part of it. Mat 5:19 Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach [them], the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. Mat 18:1 At the same time came the disciples unto Jesus, saying, Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?
Humility makes you great under it. Mat 18:4 Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
Who Can Be a Part of the Superiority of Understanding:
People of all types. Mat 8:11 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.
Both good and bad, but in the end, their acts are sorted out. Mat 13:24 The kingdom of heaven is likened unto a man which sowed good seed in his field: Mat 13:47 Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a net, that was cast into the sea, and gathered of every kind:
Those who are In and Out of the Awareness of the Universal Reign
In Spirit: Those lacking spirit. Mat 5:3 Blessed [are] the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
In Spirit: Those who are hounded for perfection. Mat 5:10 Blessed [are] they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Out of Spirit: Those who aren’t better than scribes and Pharisees. Mat 5:20 For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed [the righteousness] of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.
Out of Spirit: Those who only praising Christ (or God)
In: Those whose actions follow God’s will. Mat 7:21 Not every one that says unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that does the will of my Father which is in heaven.
Very In Spirit:: Those become little children. Mat 18:3 And said, Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. Mat 19:14 But Jesus said, Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven.
Hard to Get In Spirit: The rich. Mat 19:23 Verily I say unto you, That a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven.
In Spirit: Those who God admits. Mat 20:1 For the kingdom of heaven is like unto a man [that is] an householder, which went out early in the morning to hire laborers into his vineyard.
Out of Spirit: Those who have other priorities. Mat 22:2 The kingdom of heaven is like unto a certain king, which made a marriage for his son,
In Spirit: Those who are productive. Mat 18:23 Therefore is the kingdom of heaven likened unto a certain king, which would take account of his servants.
In Spirit: Those who are vigilant and patient. Mat 25:1 Then shall the kingdom of heaven be likened unto ten virgins, which took their lamps, and went forth to meet the bridegroom.
Those who are out of Spirit want to keep others out of Spirit. Mat 23:13 But woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye shut up the kingdom of heaven against men: for ye neither go in [yourselves], neither suffer ye them that are entering to go in.