How is it that on clearly identical occasions the Lord Jesus is reported as using the expression "kingdom of the heavens" by Matthew but the "kingdom of God" by Luke?
It is quite clear from Scripture that the terms “kingdom of the heavens” and “kingdom of God” are to be distinguished. Thus, for example, entrance into the kingdom of God is by new birth (see John 3: 3, 5), whilst entrance into the kingdom of the heavens is in the hands of men (see Matt. 16: 19). That said, it is also evident that there are some occasions where the two expressions are interchangeable (for example, compare Luke 18: 16 and Matt. 19: 14)––for the simple reason that they refer to different aspects of the same kingdom, not two totally separate kingdoms, and these two aspects sometimes coalesce. However, even if the two terms are sometimes interchangeable, it is obvious that in any particular instance the Lord must have used one expression or the other––not both.
Now like most teachers, the Lord repeated what He said on more than one occasion. Thus the specific teaching (right eye; right hand) of Matt. 5: 29, 30 is repeated again more generally (hand; eye) in Matt. 18: 8, 9. The parables of the mustard seed and the leaven, expressed by Luke in terms of the “kingdom of God” in Luke 13: 18–21 could also have been on a different occasion from that recorded by Matthew in terms of the “kingdom of the heavens” in Matt. 13: 31–33. However, this cannot be said of Matt. 11: 11 and Luke 7: 28 which clearly refer to the same instance (the visit to Christ by the disciples of John). Matthew reports the Lord as using the expression “kingdom of the heavens” whilst Luke gives “kingdom of God”. How can this be explained without bringing into question the inspiration of one or the other writer?
Everything that the Lord said and did was divinely inspired but we do not have the record of all that He said and did (see John 21: 25). What is inspired in the record is the Evangelist’s account of what He said and did. Four languages were in use in the land in the time of the Lord: Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek and Latin. Hebrew was the language of the temple and the synagogue, Aramaic the language of the common people, Greek the language of the educated classes and Latin the language of the Roman conqueror. Whether the Lord addressed the people in Hebrew or Aramaic may be arguable. (Aramaic was a development of Hebrew after the Captivity in Babylon). What is not arguable is that he did not address them in the language the Evangelists used in writing their Gospels, namely Greek. The Evangelists used Greek because it was the most universal language in the world, just as English is today. Their record of what the the Lord actually said is thus a translation from the Hebrew or Aramaic original.
Now Hebrew, Greek and Latin all employed figures of speech. The latter two languages had over 200 of these which were clearly identifiable and given names. The answer to the question before us lies in the use of one such figure called metonymy.
In this figure ‘Heaven’ is often used for God Himself. Even today men still say ‘Heaven forbid’ meaning ‘God forbid’—the place is put for the person. When Hezekiah and Isaiah prayed “and cried to heaven” (2 Chron. 32: 20), they clearly cried to God. Simply speaking, “heaven” was put figuratively for the One who dwells there, namely God. Again, when the prodigal determined to say “I have sinned against heaven …” (Luke 15: 18) the meaning is clearly ‘against God’. The expression “kingdom of the heavens” also uses this same figure of speech––that is, “heavens” is used figuratively for God.
Now it would appear that the Lord Jesus, speaking in Hebrew or Aramaic, actually used the words “kingdom of the heavens”. In putting this into Greek, Matthew was inspired to preserve this figure of speech in all but five cases. The other Evangelists were equally inspired to translate the figure, rendering the expression idiomatically as the “kingdom of God”. There is thus no contradiction between the Gospel writers in their use of these expressions. Such expressions simply serve to illustrate different aspects of one and the same kingdom. The presentation of the kingdom by Matthew is dispensational and messianic, and is identified by the expression “kingdom of the heavens”––a term peculiar to his Gospel. By contrast, the other writers present the wider aspect and use the generic expression “kingdom of God”.