I’ve written two posts now on the kingdom of God, and I feel like we’re still only scratching the surface as we talk about “Living for the Present and Coming Kingdom” and “Unexpected People in the Kingdom of God.” As we seek to understand God’s kingdom and our role in it both now and in the future, one of the most helpful places to look is the gospel parables. Jesus began many of His parables, particularly in Matthew’s account, by saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like,” and then providing an illustration. We can still read these parables today if we’re curious to learn what God’s kingdom is like according to the One who the Father has put in charge of ruling it.
When explaining the parable of the sower to His followers, Jesus said, “The secret of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you” (Mark 4:11, NET). That’s what’s hidden inside these parables, and this secret is given to us as well if we also listen carefully to the Master’s words. Today’s post is a long one, but I think it’s important to try and look at all these parables together rather than splitting them up into a two-part post.
Something Small that Grows
One of the things Jesus taught in his parables was that the kingdom of God (a phrase used by Mark and Luke), also called the kingdom of heaven (by Matthew), starts out small. With Jesus’s first coming, the kingdom He introduced was not showy or big.
He gave them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. It is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest garden plant and becomes a tree, so that the wild birds come and nest in its branches.”
He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed with three measures of flour until all the dough had risen.”Matthew 13:31-33, NET
Like the tiny mustard seed in the garden or the yeast hidden in 47 pounds of flour (NET footnote), God’s kingdom wasn’t all that noticeable at first. Even today, you’d have no idea it’s here unless you know where to look. One day, though, it will spread to cover the whole earth just as the tiny mustard seed grows into a 10- or 25-foot high plant (depending on which species Jesus was talking about) and yeast spreads to fill all the bread dough.
A Field of Wheat and Weeds
The idea of the kingdom as a growing seed extends into other parable as well. It grows behind the scenes, in ways people don’t understand until the harvest (Mark 4:26-28). It starts out as seeds of the Word sown into the world, which can then take root in human hearts (Mark 4:1-20). And it’s like a field where good seed grows alongside weeds.
He presented them with another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a person who sowed good seed in his field. But while everyone was sleeping, an enemy came and sowed darnel among the wheat and went away. When the plants sprouted and produced grain, then the darnel also appeared. So the slaves of the landowner came and said to him, ‘Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Then where did the darnel come from?’ He said, ‘An enemy has done this!’ So the slaves replied, ‘Do you want us to go and gather it?’ But he said, ‘No, since in gathering the darnel you may uproot the wheat along with it. Let both grow together until the harvest. At harvest time I will tell the reapers, “First collect the darnel and tie it in bundles to be burned, but then gather the wheat into my barn.”’”Matthew 13:24-30, NET
Jesus later explains that “the field is the world and the good seed are the people of the kingdom. The poisonous weeds are the people of the evil one” (Matt. 13:38). This puts the kingdom in a broader perspective than we might usually think of, starting from the very beginning when God first “planted” people on earth and the devil first began corrupting them. This parable also talks about the time of the end, when God will sort good from bad, which connects it to the parable of the net Jesus shares a little later (Matt 13:47-50).
A King Who Trusts His Bondservants
The way that God will sort people out at the end of the age is a central theme in several of Jesus’s parables of the kingdom In one of these parables, Jesus says, “The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner” who hired workers for his vineyard throughout the day and then paid them all the same wage (Matt. 20:1-16). Though he gave everyone exactly what he’d promised, the people who’d worked longest and hardest protested it wasn’t fair. The landowner replied kindly, reminding the men that they’d received what was agreed on and asking, “Are you envious because I am generous?” It’s a beautiful illustration of how God’s mind works differently than ours, and how much He wants to give people good things. Those who decide to follow Him later in their lives or closer to the end of the age will be given the exact same blessings He offers to those who’ve followed Him for decades.
God’s kingdom is full of mercy, but we must not forget there is also justice. You can’t have just one–justice and mercy always work together. “The kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his slaves,” and who freely forgave one slave’s enormous debt simply because they asked for mercy. But when that slave devalued the gift and refused to show mercy to others, the mercy given to him was taken back (Matt. 18:23-35). God deeply desires to show us mercy, but His justice also demands that there are consequences if we refuse to respond to His mercy in the right and proper ways (specifically, in this parable, by showing that same mercy to other people).
God entrusts us with a responsibility to live in a certain way while we’re here on the earth. The kingdom, which we’re part of now as we wait for Jesus to return, “is like a man going on a journey, who summoned his slaves and entrusted property to them.” The slaves (or bondservants, depending on the translation) who did anything productive with what the king gave them are rewarded abundantly; only the slave who did nothing to demonstrate his faithfulness is thrown out (Matt. 25:14-30). God deeply desires a good, eternal outcome for us, but a big part of how we’re judged is determined by us and how we choose to respond to what He is doing in our lives right now.
My favorite analogy for the kingdom of God is found in two parables (as well as other scriptures, which I talk about in my book God’s Love Story). In the first of these parables, Jesus said, “The Kingdom of heaven can be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son” (Matt. 22:2, NET). Just that phrase holds a lot of meaning, especially when we think of Revelation 19 and the wedding celebration of the Lamb. The main point of this parable, though, isn’t to talk about the marriage so much as who will be there.
He sent his slaves to summon those who had been invited to the banquet, but they would not come. … Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but the ones who had been invited were not worthy.”Matt. 22:3, 8, NET
You can click here to read the whole parable. As in several other parables we’ve looked at, Jesus is talking about the need for us to properly respond to God’s invitation if we want to be in the kingdom. There’s also a level of preparation involved, as the king expected all the guests to dress in wedding clothes for His banquet. It’s similar to the parable of the 10 virgins in Matthew 25, where “those who were ready went inside” with the bridegroom “to the wedding banquet,” while the unprepared were shut out (Matt. 25:10-12, NET).
The Most Valuable Treasure
Jesus’s parables reveal how much He and the Father want to have all people in their kingdom, while also revealing we have a lot of influence over whether or not we’re actually included in that kingdom. God’s kingdom requires commitment and preparation from us, along with a change in our hearts to become more like God. He makes all of that possible and offers us ongoing forgiveness and support as we follow Him, but we do have to make the choice to actually live His way of life. With the importance of that commitment in mind, two more parables highlight the fact that all the effort we put into following Jesus’s command to “above all pursue his kingdom and righteousness” (Matt. 6:33, NET) will be worth it.
The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure, hidden in a field, that a person found and hid. Then because of joy he went and sold all that he had and bought that field.
Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant searching for fine pearls. When he found a pearl of great value, he went out and sold everything he had and bought it.Matt. 13:44-46, NET
The more fully we grasp the true value of the kingdom of God, the more we realize that nothing else can possibly compare to it. Paul gives us an illustration of what this looks like in real life when he counted the cost of following Christ and concluded that the rewards will be so amazing any suffering we endure will be overshadowed (see Romans 8 and Philippians 3). Today, all of us who’ve received God’s invitation to follow Him have the chance to understand “the secret of the kingdom of heaven,” just like those disciples to whom Jesus spoke these parables so many years ago. Let’s use what we learn to live as part of His kingdom and pursue a faithful relationship with Him.
Featured image by Pearl via Lightstock