Kingdom of God or kingdom of heaven?
Matthew writes “kingdom of heaven” approximately 30 times in his gospel, while “kingdom of God” is used elsewhere in NT approximately 80 times. They both mean the same thing. The Jews used indirect references to God so that they would avoiding taking His name in vain. “Kingdom of heaven” is used by Matthew because he wanted to be sensitive to his primarily Jewish audience. We also see Jesus using “kingdom of heaven” and “kingdom of God” in the same context (see Matt. 19:23-24), providing further evidence that they refer to the same thing.
It was customary for Jews to use “heaven” as a synonym to refer to God Himself because they felt that uttering His name (the Tetragrammaton, “YHWH”) was taking it in vain. When reading Scripture aloud, Jews today continue the practice of periphrasis. “Yahweh” is replaced with an indirect reference to God, such as El Shaddai, Elohim, or Adonai. Jews also apply this practice to writing by using “G-d” in place of “God.”
Meaning in a name
Everything with which we associate holds significance in our names. Upon hearing our name, people who know us do not only think of us, but our behaviors, hobbies, traits, and associations. Our names carry our identities, and with God’s name, His identity is carried. “Yahweh” puts together the pronoun “I” and the verb “to be.” There is no specific tense He used, so His name could be translated as “I am what has always been, I am, and I will be what I will always be.” Take this translation with a grain of salt, as there are many interpretations as to what exactly “Yahweh” means. However, the overall meaning is conveyed. Commonly, it is translated “I AM” or “I AM WHO I AM.”
In Hebrew culture, to know someone’s name was to assume that person’s authority and claim power over him. When Jacob wrestled the angel in Gen. 32:22-32, the angel refused to give Jacob his name. Attempting to assume the authority of God would be blasphemous enough, but to try and assume power over Him would be heinous.
While God’s name doesn’t change (neither does He), we see in Scripture that He changed people’s names to reflect their change in identity. Some name changes include Abram to Abraham (Gen. 17:5), Jacob to Israel (Gen. 32:28), and Simon to Cephas, or Peter (John 1:42). Within the Hebrew language, we see how deeply the meaning penetrates. The Hebrew word for soul is neshamah. The middle two letters, shin and mem, make up the Hebrew word shem, or “name.”
We see that the language itself reflects the centrality of one’s name in one’s being, so changing one’s name is deeply changing one’s identity. The pagan Abram became the God’s servant and father of many nations, Abraham; Jacob the deceiver became the father of the twelve tribes, Israel; the fisherman Simon became Christ’s fisher of men, Peter. When God changes names, He doesn’t simply change their outward identity; instead, it’s a reflection of how He has changed their spiritual identity.