If there is one chapter in the Bible which best describes the kingdom of heaven (in other places, the “kingdom of God”), Matthew 13 is it.
Through seven parables, Jesus spoke to the crowds who came to see him (v. 1). In these parables, he laid out aspects of the kingdom that were both hidden and revealed, spiritual and physical, contested and certain, already and not yet. In short, by looking briefly at each parable we can get a list of the kingdom’s characteristics. Then, as we look at all the parables together, we are positioned to answer the question: What is the kingdom of God like?
What follows are five observations from individual parables (some are taken together), and two larger observations taken from the whole of Matthew 13.
The Kingdom of God Is . . .
. . . Mysterious
Perhaps it would be better to say the kingdom is hidden and revealed. For this is what mysterion means in the Bible. Beginning with Daniel 2, the word “mystery” speaks of a kingdom reality that was once hidden but now revealed.
In the case of the first parable (The Parable of the Sower), Jesus teaches that the announcement of the kingdom is and will be made universally, but that only one of four soils will benefit from its proclamation (vv. 1–9). Only those who hear and understand will enjoy the fruits of the kingdom (vv. 19, 23). Others may rejoice in the prospect of the kingdom for a time, but ultimately through the (permitted) lies of Satan, a lack of roots, or the choking of weeds, they will fail to enter the kingdom.
Interpreted theologically, only those who are granted good hearts will be able to understand the word of God and receive the king of the kingdom. Like Paul says in 1 Corinthians 2:14–16, the ways of God are indiscernible to the natural man. Only the Spiritual man (the one with the Spirit) is able to understand (=receive and believe) the gospel of the kingdom.
In this way, the kingdom of God is mysterious. It is hidden to those who love the darkness, but it is revealed to those children of light for whom Christ came and died. Jesus, in fact, explains the revelation of the kingdom in verses 10–17, where he explains what he earlier extolled (11:25–27)—the hiddenness of the kingdom from the proud and the revelation to God’s children.
As a gift of God’s grace, understanding is given to whom God desires. Enigmatically, the world and the church don’t know who these elect children are; only the triune God does. (And apparently, this mystery brings God great pleasure—see Matthew 11:25–27). For our part, the gospel must be proclaimed everywhere, to everyone, so that every sheep hears the voice of his shepherd-king and is led into safe pasture. Truly, this knowledge is too great for us, and hence God has not (yet) given us this insight. Rather, what he gives to his children is the all-satisfying knowledge of himself.
. . . Contested
The second parable (The Parable of the Weeds) describes the malevolent work of an enemy to plant weeds in a field of wheat. Immediately, the work is detected, but due to the external similarities of these divergent “crops,” the farmer holds back his servants gathering hands. He fears losing the wheat to remove the weeds. Wisely, he instructs his servants to let both grow together, until harvest time when it will be apparent which plant is which.
Interpreted theologically, this parable speaks of the contested nature of the kingdom. From the beginning, God’s people have been opposed. Cain killed Abel, Egypt imprisoned Israel, the Philistines attacked Judah, and the Assyrians and Babylonians exiled Israel and Judah, respectively. To read the Bible is to read a history of spiritual warfare played out on the plains of earth.
Accordingly, the kingdom must come through bloodshed, as Jesus came to die to ransom his kingdom (Matthew 20:28) and to destroy the works of the devil. These facets of the cross cannot be seen in this parable, but only the cross can properly save the wheat and give the Lord of the Harvest authority to burn the chaff. In this way, the kingdom of God is contested.
. . . Gradual
The Parables of the Mustard Seed and the Leaven are two parables with the same point: what begins immeasurably small will like a mustard seed grow larger than all the garden plants and like leaven will leaven a whole batch of dough. In these two parables, two kingdom realities are at work.
First, the kingdom will be universal. While beginning in one place at one time, the kingdom will spread. Eventually, it will be commodious enough to house all nations and concentrated enough to diffuse into all parts of humanity. In other words, these parables speak of the uncompromising power of the gospel to bring the kingdom into all the earth.
At the same time, the kingdom will increase gradually. The kingdom will not come like a prefabricated home. Rather, it spreads progressively, as the Son in heaven sends his Spirit to prepare his people for his place. Now, some (e.g., postmillenials) have taken this gradualness too far, formulating a kingdom that is only brought by the leavening effect of the gospel. But this conclusion forgets the other parables, namely the Parable of the Ten Virgins (Matthew 25:1–13), which describes the king coming with power and glory to claim his people and remove his enemies (cf. Matthew 24–25).
So, while we expect the king to return climactically, we also believe he is currently building his kingdom by means of the gospel proclaimed to all nations. In this way, the kingdom comes gradually, just like a tree grows or dough ferments.
. . . Priceless
The Parables of the Treasure and Pearl (vv. 44–46) are also paired to teach a singular point: those who will enter the kingdom of God must value Christ above all else. Whether one serendiptously “bumps into” Christ, like the man finds a treasure in the field, or whether a man is skilled in religion and searching for truth, like the merchant in search of fine pearls, the end result is the same. Compared to Christ all earthly riches are vain.
In the kingdom, there will be men and women of various backgrounds. Some will be well-groomed and knowledgable, like the merchant perhaps. Some will be plain-spoken, day-laborers who have some means but not much. Others will be utterly destitute—lepers, beggars, idolaters, and thieves. What unifies all of them, however, is their common evaluation of Jesus.
In the kingdom, there is one prize and all citizens of the kingdom are equally smitten over it. Thankfully, because the prize is the infinite, inexhaustible, omnipresent, eternal God, the billions who dwell with him will each be perfectly satisfied. Still, these twin parables teach that the kingdom is worth selling all, including life itself, for the sake of gaining Christ.
. . . Decisive
Finally, the Parable of the Net (vv. 47–50) tells how the kingdom will ultimately divide the righteous from the unrighteousness. Like a fisherman’s net that caught good and bad fish, when the end of the age comes, all the fish will be sorted. Those who trusted in Christ will be brought into the kingdom; those who did not will be separated and thrown into the fiery furnace.
Again, the parable is not meant to explain all the details of the coming judgment. It does, however, affirm the clear teaching of Scripture—every person made in God’s image will spend eternity in heaven or hell, with God in glory or under God’s terrible wrath. There is no third thing, no tertium quid, a purgatory that stands between heaven and hell. No, the kingdom of God will be decisive, just like the way a fisherman evaluates his catch.
. . . Physical and Spiritual
Taking a step back from the individual parables, it is worth observing how tactile these parables are. In one sense, Jesus always used physical objects to teach spiritual lessons. Often his parables function as inspired allegories. That being said, the physical features of these parables depict a future, physical reality. The kingdom is not immaterial. Even heaven, where the Spirit of God dwells, is not metaphysically immaterial, for Christ in the flesh sits at God’s right hand. How much more, God’s kingdom on earth. While there is no current real estate where the kingdom is located, these parables speak to physical realities—flesh and blood image-bearers who will spend eternity with Christ in the kingdom that is to come.
At the same time, Jesus’ parables speak of Spiritual realities. But to be clear, spiritual does not mean immaterial. Just as the Holy Spirit brings to life creation (see Genesis 1:2; Isaiah 32:15), so the Spirit of Christ is working to bring these kingdom realities to bear. While Jesus speaks in parables in Matthew 13, he will eventually speak plainly about how the kingdom will gradually contest the powers of this age. When his disciples ask him about the kingdom in Acts 1:6, he replies that he will send his Spirit and they (his disciples) will be his witnesses—Spirit-empowered witnesses of his resurrection, so that the nations might be saved under his Lordship.
In this way, the kingdom of God is both physical and Spiritual (of the Spirit). Today citizens of the kingdom experience the power of the Holy Spirit (Spiritual), but one day the Spiritual will be eternally conjoined with the physical, as believers of the kingdom are raised the glory and all creation is made new. Therefore, to say the kingdom is Spiritual and physical is another way of saying, that it is already and not yet.
. . . Already and Not Yet
For more than fifty years, inaugurated eschatology has led the way in shaping an evangelical understanding of the kingdom of God. Inaugurated eschatology says that in Christ the kingdom is both present and future, already and not yet. Or more exactly, the future has broken into the present through Jesus’ resurrection. What we find in him is the eternal life given to all those who are declared righteous. At present, he alone enjoys that bodily resurrection. But soon, all those for whom he died will enjoy the same righteousness and bodily resurrection.
Until then, the kingdom of God advances through the preaching of the gospel and the redemption of sinners from the dominion of darkness (Colossians 1:13). This is the mission of the church—to announce the kingdom in its preaching and to animate its ethics and beauty by its living. While the church is not the sum total of the kingdom, it is the place here and now where sons and daughters of the king gather to prepare for the age to come, even as they invite others to join them. In other words, churches are the local manifestation of the kingdom of God, the people who live in this life with priorities and practices that anticipate the next.
In Matthew 13, we find a description of these kingdom characteristics. But it is in the local church where these characteristics are practiced on a regular basis. In this way, Spirit-filled people pray for the kingdom of God to come on earth as it is in heaven. They engage in spiritual warfare and they labor to see others come to faith in Jesus, the king of the kingdom. In all these ways, the kingdom gradually grows and reveals the hidden mystery of Christ.
Do you want to know what the kingdom of God is like? Read Matthew 13. Then find a local Christ-centered, Bible-believing church and see for yourself how the Spirit forms Christ’s children into citizens of the kingdom. In fact, you might just find that you are on the outside looking in. But take heart, the good news of the kingdom is that citizenship is still available to those who submit themselves to King Jesus.
Soli Deo Gloria, ds
[Photo credit: closingstages.net]