The message John proclaimed was simple, so simple it could easily be summarized in one word: repent (3:2a; cf. Acts 13:24; 19:4). The Greek word (metanoeō) behind repent means more than regret or sorrow (cf. Heb. 12:17); it means to turn around, to change direction, to change the mind and will. It does not denote just any change, but always a change from the wrong to the right, away from sin and to righteousness. In his outstanding commentary on Matthew, John A. Broadus observes that “wherever this Greek word is used in the New Testament the reference is to changing the mind and the purpose from sin to holiness.” Repentance involves sorrow for sin, but sorrow that leads to a change of thinking, desire, and conduct of life. “The sorrow that is according to the will of God,” Paul says, “produces a repentance without regret, leading to salvation” (2 Cor. 7:10; cf. v. 9). John’s command to repent could therefore be rendered “be converted.”
John’s message of preparation for the coming of the King was repentance, conversion, the demand for a completely different life. That must have been startling news for Jews who thought that, as God’s chosen people—the children of Abraham, the people of the covenant—they deserved and were unconditionally assured of the promised King. Knowing what they must have been thinking, John later told his listeners, “Do not suppose that you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham for our father’; for I say to you, that God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham” (3:9). God was not interested in His people’s human heritage but in their spiritual life. “What the King wants from you,” John was saying, “is that you make a complete turnaround from the way you are, that you be totally converted, totally changed.” God calls for radical change and transformation that affects the mind, the will, and the emotions—the whole person. John’s point was simple: “You are in the same condition as the Gentiles. You have no right to the kingdom unless you repent and are converted from sin to righteousness.” He called for a true repentance that results in the fruit of a translated life (v. 8) and that includes baptism with water (v. 11a). Failure to repent would result in severe judgment, as Matthew 11:20–24 and 12:38–41 demonstrate.
Repentance was exactly the same message with which Jesus began His preaching and the apostles began theirs. “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand,” Jesus proclaimed; “repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15; cf. Matt. 3:2; 4:17; Luke 5:32). Mark 6:12 says of the twelve: “And they went out and preached that men should repent.” In his Pentecost sermon, Peter’s concluding words were, “Repent, and let each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins” (Acts 2:38; cf. Acts 3:19; 20:21; 26:18).
The close connection between repentance and conversion is also indicated in texts that do not specifically use the word repentance, yet convey the same idea (see Matt. 18:3; Luke 14:33). The best summary statement may be that of Paul in Acts 26:20, where he states that the objective of his ministry was that men “should repent and turn to God, performing deeds appropriate to repentance.”
The motive John gave for repentance was: the kingdom of heaven is at hand (3:2b). The people should repent and be converted because the King was coming, and He deserves and requires no less. The unrepentant and unconverted cannot give the heavenly King the glory He deserves, do not belong to the heavenly King, and are unfit for His heavenly kingdom.
After four hundred years, the people of Israel again heard God’s prophetic word. Malachi’s prophecy was followed by four centuries of silence, with no new or direct word from the Lord. Now, when His word came to Israel again, proclaiming the coming of the King, it was not the expected word of joy and comfort and celebration but a message of warning and rebuke. The kingdom of heaven is at hand, waiting to be ushered in, but Israel was not ready for it.
Despite many similar warnings by the prophets, many of the people and most of the leaders were not prepared for John’s message. What he said was shocking; it was unexpected and unacceptable. It was inconceivable to them that, as God’s people, they had anything to do to inherit God’s kingdom but simply wait for and accept it. The Messiah was their Messiah, the King was their King, the Savior was their Savior, the promise was their promise. Every Jew was destined for the kingdom, and every Gentile was excluded, except for a token handful of proselytes. That was the common Jewish thinking of the day, which John totally shattered.
But John’s message was God’s message, and he would not compromise it or clutter it with the popular misconceptions and delusions of his own day and his own people. He had no word but God’s word, and he proclaimed no kingdom but God’s kingdom and no preparation but God’s preparation. That preparation was repentance. God’s standard would not change, even if every Jew were excluded and every Gentile saved. God knew that some Jews would be saved, but none apart from personal repentance and conversion.
Although the precise phrase is not found there, the kingdom of heaven is basically an Old Testament concept. David declares that “the Lord is King forever and ever” (Ps. 10:16; cf. 29:10), that His kingdom is everlasting, and that His dominion “endures throughout all generations” (Ps. 145:13). Daniel speaks of “the God of heaven [who] will set up a kingdom which will never be destroyed” (Dan. 2:44; cf. Ezek. 37:25), a “kingdom [that] is an everlasting kingdom” (Dan. 4:3). The God of heaven is the King of heaven, and the heavenly kingdom is God’s kingdom.
Matthew uses the phrase kingdom of heaven thirty-two times, and is the only gospel writer who uses it at all. The other three use “the kingdom of God.” It is probable that Matthew used kingdom of heaven because it was more understandable to his primarily Jewish readers. Jews would not speak God’s name (Yahweh, or Jehovah), and would often substitute heaven when referring to Him—much as we do in such expressions as “heaven smiled on me today.”
There is no significant difference between “the kingdom of God” and the kingdom of heaven. The one phrase emphasizes the sovereign Ruler of the kingdom and the other emphasizes the kingdom itself, but they are the same kingdom. Matthew 19:23–24 confirms the equality of the phrases by using them interchangeably.
The kingdom has two aspects, the outer and the inner, both of which are spoken of in the gospels. Those aspects are evident as one moves through Matthew. In the broadest sense, the kingdom includes everyone who professes to acknowledge God. Jesus’ parable of the sower represents the kingdom as including both genuine and superficial believers (Matt. 13:3–23), and in His following parable (vv. 24–30) as including both wheat (true believers) and tares (false believers). That is the outer kingdom, the one we can see but cannot accurately evaluate ourselves, because we cannot know people’s hearts.
The other kingdom is the inner, the kingdom that includes only true believers, only those who, as John the Baptist proclaimed, repent and are converted. God rules over both aspects of the kingdom, and He will one day finally separate the superficial from the real. Meanwhile He allows the pretenders to identify themselves outwardly with His kingdom.
God’s kingly rule over the hearts of men and over the world may be thought of as having a number of phases. The first is the prophesied kingdom, such as that foretold by Daniel. The second phase is the present kingdom, the one that existed at the time of John the Baptist and that he mentions. It is the kingdom that both John and Jesus spoke of as being at hand (cf. 4:17). The third phase may be referred to as the interim kingdom, the kingdom that resulted because of Israel’s rejection of her King. The King returned to heaven and His kingdom on earth now exists only in a mystery form. Christ is Lord of the earth in the sense of His being its Creator and its ultimate Ruler; but He does not presently exercise His full divine will over the earth. He is, so to speak, in a voluntary exile in heaven until it is time for Him to return again. He reigns only in the hearts of those who know Him as Savior and Lord. For those “the kingdom of God is … righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 14:17).
The fourth phase can be described as the manifest kingdom, in which Christ will rule, physically, directly, and fully on earth for a thousand years, the Millennium. In that kingdom He will rule both externally and internally—externally over all mankind, and internally in the hearts of those who belong to Him by faith. The fifth, and final, phase is the “eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,” which “will be abundantly supplied” to all of His own (2 Pet. 1:11).
Had God’s people Israel accepted their King when He first came to them, there would be no interim kingdom. The kingdom at hand would have become the kingdom of a thousand years, which, in turn, would have ushered in the eternal kingdom. But because they killed the forerunner of the King and then the King Himself, the millennial kingdom, and consequently the eternal kingdom, were sovereignly postponed.
2 John’s preaching had two elements. The first was a call to repent. Though the verb metanoeō (GK 3566) is often explained etymologically as “to change one’s mind,” or popularly as “to be sorry for something,” neither rendering is adequate. In classical Greek, the verb could refer to a purely intellectual change of mind. But the NT usage has been influenced by the Hebrew verbs nāḥam (“to be sorry for one’s actions,” GK 5714) and s̆ûb (“to turn around to new actions,” GK 8740). The latter is common in the prophets’ call to the people to return to the covenant with Yahweh (cf. NIDNTT 1:357–59; Turner, Christian Words, 374–77). What is meant is not a merely intellectual change of mind or mere grief, still less doing penance (see Notes), but a radical transformation of the entire person, a fundamental turnaround involving mind and action and including overtones of grief, which results in “fruit in keeping with repentance” (v. 8). Of course, all this assumes that human actions are fundamentally off course and need radical change. John applies this repentance to the religious leaders of his day (3:7–8) with particular vehemence. (On the differences between biblical and rabbinic emphases on repentance, see Lane, Mark, 593–600.)
The second element in John’s preaching was the nearness of the kingdom of heaven, and this is given as the ground for repentance. Throughout the OT, there was a rising expectation of a divine visitation that would establish justice, crush opposition, and renew the very universe. This hope was couched in many categories. It was presented as the fulfillment of promises to David’s heir, as the Day of the Lord (which often had dark overtones of judgment, though there were bright exceptions, e.g., Zep 3:14–20), as a new heaven and a new earth, and as a time of regathering Israel, as the inauguration of a new and transforming covenant (2 Sa 7:13–14; Isa 1:24–28; 9:6–7; 11:1–10; 64–66; Jer 23:5–6; 31:31–34; Eze 37:24; Da 2:44; 7:13–14; cf. Ridderbos, Coming of the Kingdom, 3–15; Ladd, Presence of the Future, 45–75).
The predominant meaning of “kingdom” in the OT (Heb. malkût, GK 4895; Aram. malkûta, see GK 10424) is “reign”; the term has dynamic force. Similarly in the NT, though basileia (“kingdom,” GK 993) can refer to a territory (4:8), the overwhelming majority of instances use the term with dynamic force. This stands over against the prevailing rabbinic terminology, in which “kingdom” was increasingly spiritualized or planted in men’s hearts (e.g., b. Ber. 4a). In the first century, there was little agreement among Jews as to what the messianic kingdom would be like (cf. Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The One Who Is to Come (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007]). One popular assumption was that the Roman yoke would be shattered and there would be political peace and mounting prosperity. For excellent surveys of this history of interpretation of “kingdom of God/heaven” from the OT documents through to Matthew, see Christian Grappe, Le Royaume de Dieu: Avant, avec et après Jésus (Geneva: Labor et Fides, 2001); Rick Brown, “A Brief History of Interpretations of ‘The Kingdom of God’ and Some Consequences for Translation,” Notes 15 (2001): 3–23; Hannan, Nature and Demands.
Except at 12:28; 19:24; 21:31, 43, and in some MSS of 6:33, Matthew always uses “kingdom of heaven” instead of “kingdom of God” (this reckoning excludes references to “my kingdom” and the like), whereas Mark and Luke prefer “kingdom of God.” Matthew’s preferred expression certainly does not restrict God’s reign to the heavens. The biblical goal is the manifest exercise of God’s sovereignty, his “reign” on earth and among men. There are enough parallels among the Synoptics to imply that “kingdom of God” and “kingdom of heaven” denote the same thing (e.g., Mt 19:23–24 = Mk 10:23–25); the connotative distinction is less certain.
Classic dispensationalists (e.g., A. C. Gaebelein, John Walvoord) hold that “kingdom of God” is a distinctively spiritual kingdom, a narrower category embracing only true believers, whereas “kingdom of heaven” is the kingdom of millennial splendor, a broader category including (as in the parable, 13:47–50) both good and bad fish. The distinction is unfortunate. It comes perilously close to confusing kingdom and church (see comments at 16:17–19), fails to account for passages where the Matthean category is no less restrictive than “kingdom of God” in the other evangelists, and fundamentally misapprehends the dynamic nature of the kingdom. Equally unconvincing is the suggestion of Margaret Pamment (“Kingdom of Heaven”) that “kingdom of heaven” always refers to the future reign following the consummation, whereas in Matthew “kingdom of God” refers to the present manifestation. To arrive at this absolute dichotomy, Pamment must resort to very unlikely interpretations of numerous passages (e.g., 11:12; parables in ch. 13). Many other proposals are stated firmly but cannot withstand close scrutiny.
The most common explanation is that Matthew avoided “kingdom of God” to remove unnecessary offense to Jews who often used circumlocutions like “heaven” to refer to God (e.g., Da 4:26; 1 Macc 3:50, 60; 4:55; Lk 15:18, 21). The suggestion cannot be ruled out entirely but cannot be given much weight in the light of the fact that Matthew is often happy to refer to “God” directly.
Matthew is a subtle and allusive writer, and other factors appear to be involved: (1) “Kingdom of heaven” may anticipate the extent of Christ’s postresurrection authority. God’s sovereignty in heaven and on earth is now mediated through him (Mt 28:18). (2) “Kingdom of God” makes God the King, and though this does not prevent the other Synoptics from ascribing the kingship to Jesus (cf. Lk 22:16, 18, 29–30), there is less room to maneuver. Matthew’s “kingdom of heaven” assumes it is God’s kingdom and occasionally assigns it specifically to the Father (Mt 26:29), though leaving room to ascribe it frequently to Jesus (16:28; 25:31, 34, 40; 27:42; probably 5:35); for Jesus is King Messiah. This inevitably has christological implications. The kingdom of heaven is simultaneously the kingdom of the Father and the kingdom of the Son of Man. (3) Jonathan Pennington (Heaven and Earth) has shown that Matthew contrasts “heaven” and “earth” as two spheres, two kingdoms—one that embraces all that is God-centered and good, the other all that is in rebellion and characterized by corruption. By preferring “kingdom of heaven” to “kingdom of God,” Matthew is sustaining this powerful antithesis and drawing attention to the quality of the kingdom that both the Baptist and Jesus announce.
This kingdom, John preached, “is near” (ēngiken, lit., “has drawn near,” GK 1581). Jews spoke of the Messiah as “the coming one” (11:3) and the messianic age as “the coming age” (Heb 6:5): John says it has now drawn “near,” the same message preached by Jesus (Mt 4:17) and his disciples (10:7). It is possible, but not certain, that the verb has the same force as ephthasen (GK 5777) in 12:28. There Jesus unambiguously affirms that the kingdom “has come.” That passage makes it clear that it is the exercise of God’s saving sovereignty or reign that has dawned. The ambiguous “is near” (3:2; 4:17), coupled with the dynamic sense of “kingdom,” prepares us for a constant theme: The kingdom came with Jesus and his preaching and miracles, it came with his death and resurrection, and it will come at the end of the age.
Matthew has already established that Jesus was born King (2:2). Later Jesus declared that his work testified the kingdom had come (12:28), even though he frequently spoke of the kingdom as something to be inherited when the Son of Man comes in his glory. It is false to say that “kingdom” undergoes a radical shift with the mention of mystery (NIV, “secrets”; see comments at 13:11). Already in the Sermon on the Mount, entering the kingdom (5:3, 10; 7:21) is equivalent to entering into life (7:13–14; cf. 19:14, 16; see Mk 9:45, 47).
These and related themes become clearer as Matthew’s gospel progresses (cf. Ladd, Theology of the New Testament, 57–90). But two observations cannot be delayed. First, the Baptist’s terminology, though veiled, necessarily roused enormous excitement (v. 5). But assorted apocalyptic and political expectations would have brought about a profound misunderstanding of the kingdom being preached. Therefore Jesus himself purposely used veiled terminology when treating themes like this. This becomes increasingly obvious in Matthew. The second observation relates to the first. Just as the angel’s announcement to Joseph declared Jesus’ primary purpose to be to save his people from their sins (1:21), so the first announcement of the kingdom is associated with repentance and confession of sin (v. 6). These themes are constantly intertwined in Matthew (cf. Goppelt, Theologie des Neuen Testaments, 128–88).
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1985). Matthew (Vol. 1, pp. 53–56). Chicago: Moody Press.
 Carson, D. A. (2010). Matthew. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Matthew–Mark (Revised Edition) (Vol. 9, pp. 128–130). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.