Last month, we attempted to look at the kingdom parables in Mt.13 from the perspective of the apostles, with focused attention upon their likely kingdom concepts. As young men growing up in an age of Messianic expectation, it seems reasonable that they were expecting a king and rule that were military and temporal in nature. Absent the complete revelation of the “mysteries of the kingdom” (Mt.13.11), even a diligent study of the OT prophecies might naturally lead to such a conclusion. Thus, the intent of Jesus on the occasion of Mt.13 seems to involve properly instructing them regarding the true nature of His reign. He offered seven parables, each of which offers some insight into the characteristics of the kingdom of heaven – characteristics which would not have been true of a military/temporal kingdom.
In summation, these parables were intended to teach them that: many would reject the kingdom (sower); God would not remove evil from the world when He established His king/rule (tares); the influence of the kingdom would certainly spread and fill the world (mustard seed); the influence of the kingdom would not spread due to political or military activity (leaven); some people would not be looking for the kingdom, but would recognize it when they stumbled upon it and would sacrifice all to be a part of it (treasure in the field); some people would be searching for the kingdom, and would also give all for it (pearl merchant); there would be ungodly men who are considered citizens in the kingdom, but God knows who they are and will properly judge them (drag net). As noted previously, these truths would be imperative for the apostles to appreciate in order for them to properly do their work of proclamation.
Such an approach to these parables places great emphasis upon the context in which they were offered and looks to their meaning for the apostles as a guide to properly and fully understanding them. Unfortunately, that is not the way we often approach the study and application of the parables. We are prone to take them out of their original context (particularly this series) and use them independent of each other. We often have our settled explanations and applications. And any different perspective presents some challenges for us in our traditional use of them. But such does not dismiss the practical value of these stories. I do believe that they have a primary purpose. I do believe that they were intended to enlighten the apostles about the true nature of the kingdom. But I do not believe that such makes them useless for disciples today. In fact, I would propose that the value of these parables is enhanced as we appreciate them in their original design. I may not be an apostle who is looking for a military empire to dominate the world, but I can still find great practical use for this series of stories. For instance…
The kingdom parables ought to focus us more upon the rule of Christ.
There are occasions wherein Jesus used parables to emphasize love for the lost (Lk.15) or the import of stewardship (Lk.16) or the unlimited nature of forgiveness (Mt.18.21f). Those are all important elements of His teaching and our training. But every other element of Jesus’ instruction – every other element – falls within the scope of His rule as King. His entrance into the world in order to purchase a people for God’s possession is the ultimate aim of redemption. Yes, His sacrifice was absolutely essential. His priesthood is fundamentally vital. His revelation of the character of God is crucial. But redemption is first and foremost about the sovereign authority of God being re-established in the hearts of men. And while the parables of the kingdom help us to understand various elements about the way God’s kingdom works, it is the fundamental import of that kingdom that ought to impress us the most. In Eph.1.15-23, Paul’s prayer for the Ephesian Christians is that they would come to fully appreciate the hope, glory, and power of God expressed not only in the resurrection of Jesus, but more so in His enthronement “far above all principality and power and might and dominion, and every name that is named…” (v.21). When we come to appreciate Jesus not only as our Savior, but as our King – and the King over everything that exists – then and only then will we begin to perceive the blessings of our redemption, for all such blessings are the result of participation in His rule.
The kingdom parables are vital in correcting false conceptions about the kingdom.
Jesus offered these parables to help His apostles understand things that they misperceived. None of those seven stories properly fit the conception of the Messianic kingdom as a temporal military reign. And they are just as useful to us as we confront the misconceptions of our day. I would note firstly that these parables help us to understand that the kingdom and the church are not synonymous. The very definition of those terms ought to clarify such. “Kingdom” is basileia in the Greek and it means “royal power; kingship; dominion; rule” (Thayer, p.96). “Church” is ekklesia and means “an assembly; an assembly of Christians gathered for worship; a company of Christians” (Thayer, p.196). “Church” always refers to God’s people (or the assembly of such). “Kingdom” always refers to God’s rule. And these parables help to underscore the difference. Yes, there are principles and characteristics of Christ’s kingdom that are seen in His people (the way leaven works, for instance). But one cannot substitute “church” (in its proper definition) for “kingdom” in Mt.13.11,19,24,31,33,38,41,43,44,45,47 and have those verses make sense. That does not underrate the import of God’s people. After all, it is the church that God points to in order to display His wisdom to the “principalities and powers in the heavenly places” (Eph.3:10).The people who belong to God are the practical aim and end of the rule of the Messiah as it is declared in the world. But these parables help us to appreciate that there is a distinction between the people and the kingdom of which they are a part.
But I would also note a second and equally significant realm of misunderstanding where the kingdom parables are of great value. The most widespread and accepted kingdom concept in our day (in the ecumenical “Christian” world) is broadly known as “premillennialism.” In its general sense, premillennialism teaches that Christ came to establish a temporal/earthly kingdom, much like that expected by the apostles. However, the Jews rejected Him and God then implemented a back-up plan. Instead of a physical Jewish kingdom, Jesus established a spiritual people (the church) over whom He reigns until a point in the future when He will return to the earth and accomplish His original design – the establishment of a temporal kingdom on the earth. He will rule over this kingdom on the earth for one thousand years, after which God will exercise final judgment, ushering in heaven and hell. Myriad versions of this concept are taught and accepted, but such is the fundamental idea. In consideration of this popular teaching, it is important to note that none of the kingdom parables fit in any way into the concept of premillennialism. It is my aim to more fully develop this in a later article, but it is worthy of observation here that in no way is “the kingdom of heaven like” that kingdom promoted by those who advocate premillennialism.
The kingdom parables still apply as we attempt to promote the kingdom of heaven.
All of the lessons that the apostles needed to appreciate from this series are equally important to us. They were to be the messengers of Christ – ambassadors of the King. They needed to understand His kingdom if they were to do their work, and they needed to appreciate what to expect when they went into all the world. They needed to brace themselves for rejection, yet knowing that there were folks out there who would receive the kingdom, even if some were not searching for it. They needed to know that God was not going to remove evil from the world, and that their work would be accomplished in the midst of difficulty. They needed reassurance that the influence of the kingdom would spread, even if it did so in ways that they could not observe. They needed to know that some folks would come searching for truth, and that there would inevitably be ungodly people within the citizenry, but that God would know who they were and would properly judge such. They needed that information so that they would not be deterred when faced with the challenges of promoting a righteous, spiritual King in the midst of an ungodly, temporal world.
We need to be reminded of the same, for we still promote a King and kingdom that are not of this world. We must appreciate that some will reject the Lord, that some will obey initially but will fall due to difficulty or distraction, that some will prosper. We need to brace ourselves for the evil around us. We must have confidence that the kingdom stands greater than all others; that the influence of such is not always easily perceived. We need to scatter seed, knowing that some will not be searching for the King and others will be. And we must not be discouraged when we confront hypocrisy and evil among God’s people. God knows who are His. God will properly judge. Our mission is to forge ahead – to serve, glorify, promote the King. All of the initial principles involved in these wonderful parables are just as important to us as they were to the apostles.
The wisdom of God is overwhelming. The King sat in a boat and instructed His disciples about the rule He was establishing. He corrected their misconceptions and prepared them for their work. And that instruction, two thousand years later, still accomplishes its intent. We stand impressed with the import of His reign; we stand corrected in our misunderstandings; we stand prepared to promote our King. “Blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear” (Mt.13.16).