I recently interviewed Jonathan Pennington, Assistant Professor of New Testament Interpretation at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, on Matthew’s use of the phrase “the kingdom of heaven” (the subject of his 2005 dissertation under Richard Bauckhaum). Here is our exchange:

Jonathan, tell us a little bit about yourself: where you are currently teaching, your family, etc.

For five years I served as the Associate Pastor at an Evangelical Free Church in northern Illinois. At the same time I attended Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. After completing an MDiv there, we moved to St. Andrews, Scotland, where I earned the PhD in NT Studies under the supervision of Richard Bauckham. I am now in my second year of teaching NT (especially Greek and Gospels classes, but a little bit of everything) as Assistant Professor of NT at Southern Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. My wife and I have been blessed with six young children, ages 10 and below. You can imagine we have a very full house and lots of life and joy (and chaos) all the time! We plan to catch our breaths and have a moment to ourselves some time in the year 2025.

I gather some readers will recognize your name as the guy behind Zondervan’s audio products that have helped countless students with Greek and Hebrew vocabulary and pronunciation. How did that come about, and are you still producing new resources in this regard?

Yes, that’s me. As I always say, “I’ve got a face for radio.” It’s a long story how it all came about. The short of it is that I was commuting to seminary myself and realized that audio resources for NT Greek would be very helpful for car time. So, I started producing cassettes of Greek vocab. Through some hard work and incredible blessings from God, the idea took off and eventually Zondervan wanted to take it over (thanks especially to Dan Wallace and Verlyn Verbrugge). I’ve been part of the Zondervan Empire for many years now and it has been a very positive relationship – especially the free lunches at SBL. I’ve also done similar work with Cambridge University Press, both while Stateside and while I was over there. I am glad that these projects have helped many students. I’ve even gotten letters from people studying Greek in prison!

What was it like working with Richard Bauckhaum?

It was a great honor to work with Richard. He is an incredible scholar and a very gracious man. I remain in his debt. Maybe surprisingly, however, the most important thing about our time in St. Andrews was the fellowship and stimulation from fellow PhD students. Not only did we make lifelong friends, but we all sensed that we learned as much or more from each other in our weekly seminars and daily conversations than we did from our own particular research topics. We had a special group of guys and there was one of those magic times of “critical mass.” They were indeed golden years.

What was the title and focus of your dissertation?

The title is “Heaven and Earth in the Gospel of Matthew.” I argue that the theme of heaven and earth is a key literary and theological theme all throughout Matthew, and that it ties into several other key motifs in Matthew, such as the Father in heaven and the kingdom of heaven.

Any plans to publish it?

Yes, it will be published later this year (2007) in the Novum Testamentum Supplement Series by Brill (Leiden). I’m honored and thrilled it will appear in this series, even though I won’t be able to afford to buy it myself. I guess I can use the library’s copy.

It’s well known that Matthew tends to avoid using the term “kingdom of God,” preferring instead to render it as “kingdom of heaven.” My understanding is that older dispensationalist interpreters argued that therefore the “kingdom of heaven” was distinct from the “kingdom of God.” According to such an understanding, what was the difference?

This issue is one that my argument deals with quite closely, so I’m glad you ask. The Dispensational argument isn’t quite as you have it. The typical understanding by nearly every scholar for at least the last 100 years has been that Matthew is avoiding the phrase “kingdom of God” out of a desire to avoid the name of God. In tune with Matthew’s “Jewish sensibilities,” he replaces the occurrences of “kingdom of God” in his sources with the expression “kingdom of heaven.” This is the standard understanding; we may call it the “reverential circumlocution” view. Within Dispensationalism, however, there developed another view that fit with their ecclesiology and eschatology. The issue is not one of avoiding the name of God, but instead, they believe there is in fact a difference in referent between “kingdom of God” and “kingdom of heaven.” For Classical Dispensationalism, the “kingdom of God” is a spiritual kingdom that contains only true believers, whereas “kingdom of heaven” is the millennial kingdom that occurs at Christ’s Second Coming, but before the final judgment and the eternal state. This difference is understood in temporal terms, with the kingdom of heaven as Christ’s earthly manifestation of the fuller kingdom of God to come. I’m not exactly sure what today’s Progressive Dispensationalists would say. The problems with the Dispensational view are legion, and virtually no one outside their theological system holds to this view. One obvious problem is that clearly many of Matthew’s uses of “kingdom of heaven” are paralleled in the other Gospels by the phrase “kingdom of God.” That is, both expressions are on the lips of Jesus interchangeably in parallel situations, but the only difference is that for whatever reason Matthew has chosen to use “kingdom of heaven” rather than “kingdom of God.”

I was taught that this interpretation has largely faded away, and that it’s now a scholarly consensus that there’s no difference between the kingdom of heaven/kingdom of God. Matthew penned his Gospel for a Jewish audience that would have reverentially and scrupulously avoided mentioning the word “God.” Therefore Matthew used “heaven” as a sort of gloss for “God,” and his audience would have recognized that. Is that a fair restatement, and is this indeed the basic consensus these days?

You’re right that this “difference in referent” view has passed away. The alternative is as you mention – what I call the reverential circumlocution view. This has indeed been the consensus for some time. One of the arguments I make extensively in my book, however, is that this view is also mistaken. It has become the consensus through the arguments of one scholar at the turn of the last century and has been uncritically adopted by everyone since. However, the reverential circumlocution view doesn’t correspond either with the use of “heaven” in the Second Temple period literature or with its use in Matthew. Additionally, there is the simple fact that Matthew doesn’t avoid the word “God” – he uses it all over the his Gospel, both by itself and four times in the phrase “kingdom of God.”

Instead of the rev-circ view, I argue that Matthew’s “kingdom of heaven” is an important part of his four-fold use of the heaven and earth theme. “Kingdom of heaven” does not stand alone in Matthew, but relates closely to his unique emphasis on the “Father in heaven,” the repeated use of “heaven and earth” pairs, and a subtle distinction he makes between singular and plural forms of the Greek word for heaven. “Heaven’ is indeed a gloss for “God” in Matthew, but not out of reverential circumlocution, but as part of his elaborate and beautiful heaven and earth theme. Or to put it another way, “kingdom of heaven” and “kingdom of God” denote the same thing but connote differently. For the full arguments you’ll have to purchase the book – several copies, please. It is really quite fascinating and awe-inspiring to observe how Matthew has carefully crafted and developed this theme throughout his Gospel. It is no accident that this book has stood at the head of the NT canon forever.

What then is the difference between Matthew’s singular use (“heaven”) and the
plural use (“heavens”)?

Simply, Matthew always uses plural forms of “heaven” to refer to the divine realm – such as in the phrases “kingdom of heaven” and “Father in heaven” – and he uses singular forms when “heaven” refers to the earthly realm (such as the “sky” sense of heaven) as well as whenever he pairs “heaven and earth” together. Again, you’ll have to see that chapter in the book to get the full story and how it works out.

How, then, would you define “the kingdom of heaven”?

I would define the kingdom of heaven as God’s coming kingdom in Christ, the great eschatological hope of the NT, and the central theme of the biblical message from Creation to New Creation. The power of Matthew calling it the “kingdom of heaven” as part of his heaven and earth theme is that it puts great emphasis on the contrast between God’s way of doing and ordering and bringing about kingdom (as seen in heaven) compared to humanity’s views and expectations and vision of kingdom or rule (as seen on earth). Matthew picks up on the rich biblical language of heaven and earth (from Gen 1:1 on) and uses it in a contrastive way – to highlight the current tension that exists between God’s reign in heaven and humanity’s reign on earth. This radical contrast is shown through the counter-intuitive nature of Jesus’ teachings (such as the Beatitudes, etc.) and the ways in which he pictures the kingdom of heaven in parables (see the upside-down nature of the teachings in Matt 13 and especially 20:1-16), culminating of course in the ultimate act – the king who rides into town on an ass and then willingly gets beaten, spat on, and crucified. We live now in the time of tension between the kingdom of heaven and the kingdoms of earth. And notice, then, that at the core of the Lord’s Prayer (which is the precise center of the entire Sermon on the Mount), we are taught this fundamental posture – “Thy will be done; thy kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven.” This is supposed to be our vision and direction and hope. This is beautiful and powerful truth! There’s much more I could say, but I must stop!

What, in your view, is the relationship between the kingdom of God/heaven and the gospel?

This is a good question and one I am constantly asking myself. I would say that the gospel is the message about God’s coming kingdom in Christ. This is undeniable from even the most naïve reading of the Gospels – Jesus was preaching the kingdom. (As an important aside, notice the fascinating Matthean expression, “the gospel of the kingdom” which he uses at three crucial places in the narrative.) This is not to deny or denigrate the importance of justification by faith on the basis of the Cross; this is the means by which any can enter into a king-subject relationship with Christ. But I am consciously understanding the NT’s message as first and foremost kingdom-eschatological centered; the NT is forward-looking more than anything else. It’s clear this is the Evangelists’ view. I believe Paul would say no less. We see in his sermons in Acts that he is going from town to town preaching the kingdom of God. The same can be found in his letters. It is exciting to see a rebirth of this awareness in many pockets of Christianity today, though as is always the case, some take things too far. As Luther observed, the church is like a drunken peasant who climbs up one side of the donkey only to fall off the other. This is certainly happening today. The NT’s message is both kingdom-oriented and intensely personal to us, including explanation of what it means to relate to God by faith. We mustn’t jettison either element.

For those who want to study more on the kingdom of heaven/God, any books
that you would recommend?

Students always ask me this and I never have a satisfactory answer – I do hope to write a popular level book on these issues myself! For readable books on the central theme of kingdom in Scripture, a couple good ones are: Bartholomew and Goheen, The Drama of Scripture; and Vaughan Roberts, God’s Big Picture.