According to The Wycliffe Bible Commentary, the kingdom of heaven “refers to the Messianic kingdom promised in the OT [Old Testament], of which Jesus was about to be presented as king.” Wycliffe goes on to note that the term kingdom of God “often has a wider connotation, but usually in the Gospels the two are used interchangeably.” In other words, Wycliffe is saying that, generally, the terms kingdom of heaven and kingdom of God are essentially the same.
Unger’s Bible Dictionary gives more emphasis to the distinction between the kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of God. According to Unger,
The “kingdom of God” is evidently a more comprehensive term than the “kingdom of heaven” and embraces all created intelligences both in heaven and on earth who are willingly subject to God and thus in fellowship with him. The “kingdom of heaven,” more precisely the “kingdom of the heavens,” is a term descriptive of any type of rulership God may assert on the earth at a given period . . . .
Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible adds that the kingdom of heaven was opened “to all believers, by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is a kingdom of which Christ is the Sovereign. . . . It is a kingdom of heaven, not of this world, a spiritual kingdom. . . .”
But, is the kingdom of heaven (or the kingdom of God) a specific place or location? If so, why did Jesus Christ say in Luke 17:21, “[T]he kingdom of God is within you”? [Note: When we quote Scripture in this article, we use the wording in the New King James Version of the Bible.]
Before addressing the question as whether or not the kingdom of heaven (or the kingdom of God) is a specific place or location, it is important to understand that the term “heaven” is not synonymous with the term “kingdom of heaven.” Furthermore, whereas the Bible is clear that heaven is a place (e.g., see John 14:1-3, there is no indication in the Bible that the kingdom of heaven (or the kingdom of God) is a place.
Wycliffe explains that the Greek word translated in Luke 17:21 as “within” may mean “among,” a viewpoint that Henry acknowledges. Wycliffe goes on to say, “Jesus asserted that the kingdom of God was already present and needed only to be recognized. He had brought the kingdom with him and was living among them.” This explanation is compatible with the view expressed earlier by Unger, and it seems to suggest that the kingdom of heaven began while Jesus Christ was still ministering on Earth and that it is not a specific place.
However, if the kingdom of heaven (or the kingdom of God) began when Jesus Christ initiated His ministry, why did He say, “the kingdom of heaven [or, the kingdom of God] is at hand” (Matthew 4:17; 10:7; Mark 1:15), which indicates that the kingdom had not yet come? Also, why would Jesus have said that some of those to whom He was speaking would “not taste death till they see the kingdom of God . . .” (Mark 9:1; Luke 9:27)?
The key to answering why Jesus Christ said that the kingdom of heaven is at hand seems to be clarification of the Greek words that have been interpreted “is at hand.” There are basically two points of view in this regard.
According to Wycliffe, the Greek words interpreted as “is at hand” can also mean “has come near,” an interpretation that is supported by Strong’s Concordance of the Bible. Thus Jesus Christ may have been informing the people to whom He was speaking that they did not have to wait for the kingdom of heaven to come; it was immediately available to them, if they trusted in Him for their eternal salvation.
On the other hand, if Jesus Christ intended to indicate that there would be a relatively short waiting period before the kingdom of heaven would come, He may have been referring to the subsequent coming of the Holy Spirit, which would occur on the day of Pentecost, 50 days after His death on the cross. Either explanation is plausible with regard to why Jesus told His audience that some of them would “not taste death till they see the kingdom of God.”
There does not seem to be a credible reason to believe that the kingdom of heaven (or the kingdom of God) has not already come and will not come until Jesus Christ returns to the earth (i.e., the second advent).
Regardless of the reason why the people to whom Jesus Christ was speaking needed to wait for the kingdom of heaven to come, we can be confident that we do not need to wait. If we have sincerely trusted in Jesus Christ for eternal salvation, we will experience the kingdom of heaven. [For a discussion of how to be assured of eternal salvation, click on “What Must a Person Do to Be Assured of Eternal Salvation?”]