In my previous posts, I explored the Old Testament usage of “kingdom” as well as the usage of “kingdom” in the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament. Now there remains one final frontier to explore: Jesus’ parables on the kingdom. I imagine that there will be a fair amount of disagreement here, but these parables need to be understood in the light of two things:
a. All the previous posts.
b. The understanding that parables are not meant to communicate all aspects of complex and multifaceted theological concepts. Parables are simple illustrative stories that serve the purpose of making one main point. To attempt to pull 15 different ideas, related to five totally separate topics, from a parable is to misunderstand the entire nature of parables in the first place.
These are some notes and thoughts about the kingdom parables in the gospels (which are mostly Matthew). I hope this blesses, or at least stimulates some thought in those who wildly disagree with me:
The Parables of the kingdom:
a. The Sower (Matt. 13:1-9 & 13:10-23)
– The point – One’s response to the gospel shows one’s relationship to the kingdom.
– In Matt. 13:19 calls the gospel “the word of the kingdom”.
– Matt. 13:19 comments on those who hear the gospel and don’t respond, Matt. 13:20-22 comments on those who hear and respond positively (but not in saving faith), and Matt.13:23 comments on those who hear and respond in saving faith; namely the message of the gospel produces fruit (though that “fruit” isn’t explained, but Matt. 13:18-23 suggest that it has something to do with persevering in trial, as well as avoiding “the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches“. It would see to be some sort of vague “fruit” that is the natural product of saving faith; perseverance and righteousness.).
b. The Weeds (Matt. 13:24-29, 13:36-43)
– The point – The kingdom isn’t what it looks like; it includes both true and false converts who will be sorted out at the final judgment (Matt. 13:39-40).
– The true converts are the plants, planted by Christ (Matt. 13:37), that “came up and bore grain” in order to show that they’re citizens of the kingdom (Matt. 13:26, 38) and the false converts are the weeds, sown by the enemy (Matt. 13:28, 38). Both the grain-bearing plants and the weeds remain together until the harvest where the weeds are bundled and burned in a fiery furnace (Matt. 13:42) and the plants are brought into the master’s barn.
– Matthew 13:41-42 also seems to be talking about the gathering of the wicked at the end of the tribulation, where the angels will “gather out of his kingdom all the causes of sin and all law-breakers”. This is the “end of the age”, not necessarily meaning the last calendar day of the millennium (or any other specific time), but that seems to be most fitting if “the kingdom” is an earthly kingdom. It’s also worth noting that the place of “gnashing of teeth” is always outside the kingdom, and following the casting out in Matt. 13:41-42, the righteous “shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father“. The kingdom of Christ would seem to be a different kingdom, mostly because both “the Son” and “the Father” are “God”, but “the Son” is never called “the Father” in scripture.
c. The Mustard Seed (Matt. 13:31-32)
– The point – The kingdom’s beginning is not reflective of its end.
– Like the growing mustard seed, the kingdom is inaugurated with an insignificant manifestation that will change in time; in time the smallest and most insignificant kingdom will become “larger than all the garden plants” (Matt. 13:32). This seems to sound like the language used in places like Dan. 2:35.
d. The Leaven (Matt. 13:33)
– The point – The point of this parable is that the effect of the kingdom is (initially) difficult to detect.
– Like the invisible leavening effect of yeast in flour, the kingdom entered the world with little pyrotechnics. This is suggested by the fact that the woman “hid” the leaven in the flour, and also that the woman was using “three measures” (grk – saton – 16 lbs x 3 = 48 lbs) of flour; a vast amount of flour to leaven. The kingdom has a tremendous effect (the leaven was hidden in the flour “till it was all leavened“), but on initial glance the kingdom doesn’t look like much and doesn’t seem to have a massive impact.
– I’d suggest that this is related to how Jesus seemed to look nothing like the king that the Jews were expected (especially the whole crucifixion part)…but once the leaven has had its full effect, things look very different with regards to the expectations of the kingdom (i.e. in the Millennium, Israel will be the seat of a global government).
e. The Treasure in the Field (Matt. 13:44)
– The point – The point of this parable is that the kingdom is worth tremendous value.
– It’s worth noting that the fact of the treasure being hidden suggests that the kingdom isn’t an obvious, out-in-the-open treasure, that everyone can equally see. Rather the kingdom is a treasure that is discovered through no skill in the one who stumbles upon it.
– It’s worth noting that the individual re-hid the treasure once he found it, to ensure that nobody else stumbled across it like he did and stole it (which insinuates the vast value of it).
– It’s also worth noting is how the individual went off and bought the field, with joy. As the field cost him all he had, the treasure was more far more valuable than the sum of this man’s resources (probably quite significantly, considering he was delighted to lose everything he had to acquire the field).
f. The Pearl of Great Price (Matt. 13:45)
– The point – The point of this parable is that the kingdom is worth tremendous value.
– The merchant was a pearl finder, and he would have spent his life basically traveling and searching for pearls…but like treasure seekers, pearl seekers don’t find perfect pearls because of their skill or ability. Once he found a wondrous pearl for an unlikely low price, he sold everything he had and bought it. The reason I say that the pearl was found for an unlikely low price was that the merchant sold everything he had to buy it at its current price, which insinuates that its true value exceeded the value of everything he had.
– I would suggest that the parables of the treasure and the pearl are essentially synonymous; once one discovers the kingdom, it’s worth liquidating everything one has to acquire it (since it’s worth far more than whatever “wealth” you currently have).
g. The Net (Matt. 13:47-50)
– The point – The point of this parable is similar to the parable of the weeds; the kingdom currently appears in a mixed form with both true and false kingdom citizens in it.
– The good fish (believers/true citizens) and the bad fish (disbelievers/false citizens) appear together in the net (likely the church) and will be separated at the end of the age when the good fish are packed up and the bad fish are burned.
h. The Unforgiving Servant (Matt. 18:23-35)
– The point – The point of this parable is that citizens of the kingdom are marked by forgiveness.
– Kingdom citizens are aware of their immense and immeasurable debt of sin toward God that is removed from them in order to enter the kingdom, and therefore don’t hold the exceedingly meager debts of sin toward them against their debtors. Those who do aren’t actually citizens of the kingdom.
i. The Laborers in the Vineyard (Matt. 20:1-16)
– The point – The point of this parable is that the citizens of the kingdom all equally receive entrance into the kingdom as a gift of unmerited grace, without respect to their own perceptions of worth or qualifications for reward.
– Also, the idea of the parable is a bit of a rebuke to Peter’s attitude expressed in Matt. 19:27; Peter was expecting reward for his following of Jesus but Jesus was teaching that all who follow him get the same great reward (eternal life and entrance into the kingdom). This isn’t to say that Matt. 19:28-30 isn’t true, but rather that one does not enter the kingdom via service or sacrifice. The ultimate reward of the kingdom is eternal life, not a position of power and prestige (though there will be positions of power and prestige in the kingdom).
j. The Two Sons (Matt. 21:28-32)
– The point – The point of this parable is quite straight forward; those who believe “the way of righteousness” (the gospel/teaching of Christ and the prophets) do the will of the Father and gain access to the kingdom.
– This parable is about the response of the “sinners” (in the eyes of the Pharisees) to the teaching of Christ and the prophets. The parable closes with a simple explanation of how John gave instruction in the “way of righteousness” and the Pharisees disbelieved, even when they saw prostitutes and tax collectors recognizing Christ for who he was and believing his message.
– The Pharisees were the son who agreed to work in the Father’s vineyard but never actually went. To unpack the metaphor, the Pharisees were the ones who, by their religious proclamation and teaching, aligned themselves with Moses and the prophets…but when the greatest prophet showed up, they not only disbelieved his message but also taught others to disbelieve and ultimately wanted to kill him to silence his message.
k. The Tenants (Matt. 21:33-46)
– The point – The point of this parable is quite straight forward; a negative response to the person or message of Christ bars entrance to the kingdom.
– This parable is about the response of the “righteous” (in the eyes of the Pharisees) to the Gospel. The parable closes off with the Pharisees giving commentary on the just reward to the wicked tenants, who killed the master’s slaves and son, as needing to be put to a “miserable death”. The Pharisees are the wicked tenants and condemn themselves with their own verdict, which they realize in Matt. 21:45, but did not mention as they were afraid of the crowds (Matt. 21:46).
l. The Wedding Feast (Matt. 22:1-14)
– The point – The point of this parable is that the invitation to enter the kingdom open to all, though not all enter.
– It’s worth noting that the original guests were executed on the basis of their apathy towards the invitation and treatment of the king’s messengers, but the new guest was executed because he was improperly dressed. Both are sinful and highly dishonoring to the king, and both are somewhat parallel responses; one didn’t come and didn’t care about the invitation, one came and didn’t care about dishonoring to the king. Both are improper responses to the invitation to the wedding feast, and both categories are barred from the wedding feast due to lacking the worthiness necessary to gain access (Matt. 22:8, 12), and that worthiness is essentially “righteousness”. It would seem that the original invitation went to the Jews (and was rejected) and the second invitation went to all (and was rejected by some).
m. The Ten Virgins (Matt. 25:1-13)
– The point – The point of this parable is that the kingdom will arrive when you do not expect it, so one must diligently await the kingdom.
– This is explained in the closing verse (Matt. 25:13), and I suspect that this parable was given in order to explain the dichotomy between the expectations of the kingdom and the appearance of the ministry of Christ. Even when Christ was on earth, the kingdom had not fully come…but the timing of the full inauguration of the kingdom was a mystery throughout the life and ministry (and even post-resurrection) of Christ.
n. The Talents (Matt. 25:14-30)
– The point – The point of this parable is to help the disciples understand what to do in the light of the realization that the kingdom is a future reality.
– The master went on a journey, entrusted his wealth to their management, and rewarded or punished them accordingly when he returned. The details may be slightly uncertain (i.e. a talent might well be “spiritual responsibility”, or “spiritual gifts”, or “knowledge”, etc.), but the thrust of the parable is clear; the slaves should only bother themselves with fulfilling the master’s commission and be as good a steward as they could with what they’ve been given. I would guess that the talent is most likely something along “knowledge of the teaching of Christ and the prophets”, and those who know much and do much with that knowledge will be rewarded, but those who know little and ignore what little they know will be punished for their disobedience. This parable isn’t commenting on who is saved and who isn’t, but rather on the responsibility of all people to properly respond to the kingdom instruction that they’ve received. (This is similar to the parable of the lamp in Mark 4:21-25).
o. The Seed (Mark 4:26-29)
– The point – The point of this parable is the invisible and mysterious growth of the kingdom (like the parable of the leaven in Matt. 13:33).
– The farmer plans the seed and “the seed sprouts and grows; he does not know how”. The idea is that the kingdom comes about through its own means, not through any efforts of any person.
Those are some rather brief notes about all the parables of the kingdom, but as I read through and consider the parables of the kingdom, it seems difficult to find a whole lot of generally assumed ideas about the kingdom. Once a person has looked at the terminology (even partially) and the parables of the kingdom, there emerges a rather over-arching conceptual framework regarding the kingdom that is not overthrown by one difficult text…and I imagine that a good number of the difficult texts have been dealt with in this series. The kingdom is an almost entirely future reality that all believers should prepare for by living a life characterized by patient expectation and disciplined obedience to the word of God. The kingdom is the first stage of everlasting rewards that God will lavish upon believers.
Seeing that I’ve had a ton of somewhat related questions, I’ll close off with one question that addresses many of the questions I’ve received:
Do you live a Cross-centered or Kingdom-centered life?
Well, that’s an entire series of posts on it’s own, but let me give you a hint for some of the thoughts that have been rolling around in my head for a few years:
The cross was about entering the kingdom.
Sure, a believer has their sins forgiven and escapes the coming wrath of God by Christ’s death on the cross…but the forgiveness of sins isn’t an end in itself.
Forgiveness of sins is necessary in order to enter the kingdom, but if you constantly focus on forgiveness you partially miss the meaning of the cross (and then there’s the 40 pages I could write on the kingdom significance of those little events that followed the cross: the resurrection and the ascension).
This is partially why eschatology is far more important than you think.
To put it another way, do you fix your eyes on where Christ is headed from (the cross) or where Christ is headed to (the kingdom)? (Heb. 10:12-13; 12:1-2)
Creation has the right focus (Rom. 8:18-22)
Your own body has the right focus (Rom. 8:23-24)
The Thessalonians had the right focus (1 Thess. 1:9-10, 2:11-12; 2 Thess. 1:3-8)
Paul had the right focus (Acts 23:6, 24:14-16, 26:4-8, 28:20-31; Phil. 3:7-11; 2 Tim. 4:14-18 – Notice that Paul talked about the resurrection as his hope in Acts.)
Do you have the right focus? (here’s a few hints: 1 Cor. 1:4-9, 15:12-25; Gal. 5:5-6; Eph. 1:11-21; Titus 2:11-14, 3:4-7; Heb. 9:27-28, 12:25-29; Jam. 2:5, 5:7-11; 1 John 3:1-3; 2 Pet. 1:3-11, 3:11-14; Jude 1:21)
I’m not at all suggesting that the cross is unimportant, but part of the problem of the church is that we fawn over how spiritually mature it sounds when a person talks about a “Cross-centered life”. The cross isn’t where we’re called to, and Christians aren’t supposed to “die daily”. We’re called to live and hope (see. Rom. 6:2-13, 8:10-34; Gal 2:19-20; 1 Pet. 2:24 and also the previous list of passages).
It’s time we straightened out our focus.