This column was first published in Baptist Press following the release of The Kingdom According to Jesus.
The term “kingdom” has in many respects become archaic in 21st century lingo. Unless you’re talking taxonomy – the No. 1 context according to Google – or a theme park in Florida, the word “kingdom” conjures up images of ancient empires, epic quests and faded glory.
Even in the church, the most important – and perhaps least understood – kingdom of all is rooted in the ancient texts of Scripture: the kingdom of heaven, also called the kingdom of God, or, simply, the kingdom. Some find this an obsolete expression better suited to first-century believers than modern-day Christians navigating the Twitterverse.
But the kingdom of heaven is of exceptional relevance today, especially when we understand its meaning and explore its value.
Defined simply, the kingdom of heaven is God’s reign, or His authority to rule. The primary meaning of the Hebrew word malkuth and the Greek word basileia is the rank, authority and sovereignty exercised by a king, according to George Eldon Ladd in The Gospel of the Kingdom. Certainly, a kingdom needs territory and people, but God’s kingdom first and foremost is His authority to rule them all.
Yes, the kingdom still matters today. Here’s why:
It matters to Jesus. The kingdom of heaven is the primary focus of Jesus’ teaching. Matthew records no fewer than 13 of Jesus’ parables of the kingdom of heaven, in which He uses mustard seeds and bridesmaids to reveal the “mystery” of the kingdom (Matt. 13:11). The Jews are looking for a political and military Messiah based on their understanding of the Hebrew Scriptures, but they miss the prophecies that point to the Suffering Servant. Jesus’ parables make it clear that the kingdom must first come without fanfare in the Lamb of God who, through His death, burial and resurrection, will take away the sin of the world. The kingdom will come in power and great glory one day when Jesus returns as the Lion of the Tribe of Judah (see Rev. 19:11-16). The King of kings is still very much interested in His kingdom.
It matters to the church. The kingdom of heaven and the church are not the same, since Christ’s authority extends beyond New Testament believers. Yet the kingdom involves the church as God’s primary means of communicating and expanding His kingdom in this age. The apostle Paul preached the gospel of the kingdom, as the church is to do today so that many will enter in by faith. The kingdom is God’s conquest, through Jesus Christ, of His enemies: sin, Satan and death. This is the heart of the Gospel message the church is commissioned to proclaim.
It matters to Satan. In Matthew 12, Jesus confronts the religious leaders who accuse Him of casting out demons by Satan’s power. His response is revealing. “If I cast out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has come to you. How can someone enter a strong man’s house and steal his possessions unless he first ties up the strong man? Then he can rob his house” (Matt. 12:28-29). Satan is the prince of his own rogue kingdom, a kingdom of darkness and bondage. In the incarnation, Jesus invades Satan’s kingdom, binding the “strong man” and plundering his goods by transporting lost sinners from Satan’s kingdom into God’s kingdom. Satan is defeated. His time is short. And when the kingdom comes in fullness with the glorious appearing of Jesus, Satan will be cast into hell, which was created for him (Matt. 25:41).
It matters to creation. The apostle Paul writes that “the whole creation has been groaning together with labor pains until now” (Rom. 8:22). Since Adam’s fall, the creation has been under a curse. But the curse will be lifted (Rev. 22:3) when the kingdom comes in fullness, when this sinful and fallen world is purged of sin (2 Peter 3:10-13). The new heavens and earth will no longer bear the weight of sin. And the pinnacle of God’s creation – human beings – will be perfected with glorified bodies that are fit for eternal worship and service unto God.
It matters to you. In the end, you will spend eternity in one of two places: the kingdom, or outer darkness. Where you spend eternity is determined, not by some future balancing of the scales, but in how you answer the question today that Jesus asked in Matt. 16:15: “Who do you say that I am?” In the end, every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord (Phil. 2:10), but not everyone will enter the kingdom. Make no mistake: Many will be denied entrance. But they will go into outer darkness of their own choosing because, as the characters in Jesus’ parable of the 10 minas say, “We don’t want this man to rule over us” (Luke 19:14).
While man-made kingdoms come and go, the kingdom of heaven stands forever. It has Christ as King, believers as subjects, redemption as its mission, and the universe as its realm.
1 “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like 10 virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the groom.
2 Five of them were foolish and five were sensible.
3 When the foolish took their lamps, they didn’t take oil with them.
4 But the sensible ones took oil in their flasks with their lamps.
5 Since the groom was delayed, they all became drowsy and fell asleep.
6 In the middle of the night there was a shout: ‘Here’s the groom! Come out to meet him.’
7 Then all those virgins got up and trimmed their lamps.
8 But the foolish ones said to the sensible ones, ‘Give us some of your oil, because our lamps are going out.’
9 The sensible ones answered, ‘No, there won’t be enough for us and for you. Go instead to those who sell, and buy oil for yourselves.’
10 When they had gone to buy some, the groom arrived. Then those who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet, and the door was shut.
11 Later the rest of the virgins also came and said, ‘Master, master, open up for us!’
12 But he replied, ‘I assure you: I do not know you!’
13 Therefore be alert, because you don’t know either the day or the hour.”
Jesus is on the Mount of Olives with his disciples, responding to their questions about the future destruction of the Temple and the end of the age. Just before this, in Matthew 23, Jesus pronounces woes on the Jewish leaders for their hypocrisy. Then, leaving the Temple and crossing over the Kidron Valley, He tells His disciples that the Temple, a glistening monument to Jewish nationalism (but a stale house of worship where He was rejected as Messiah), would soon be demolished. Shocked by this prediction, His disciples ask him in Matt. 24:3, “When will these things happen (the destruction of the Temple)? And what is the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” Jesus responds in the rest of Matthew 24-25 in what is known as the Olivet Discourse. The parable of the 10 virgins comes in the middle of this message.
The central theme of this parable is that people should stay alert and be prepared for the return of Christ.
The central character in this parable is the bridegroom, or Christ, who is delayed in his coming for the bride, the church. Scripture often refers to the church as the bride and Christ as the bridegroom (Matt. 9:15; Mark 2:19-20; Luke 5:34-35; John 3:29). Believers are “espoused” or “betrothed” to Jesus, who promises He will come one day and take them to His Father’s house (John 14:1-3).
An understanding of the Jewish wedding custom is helpful in navigating this parable. In Jesus’ day, if a young man has acquired sufficient means to provide a marriage dowry – or payment for a bride – then his parents select a girl for him, call in a “friend of the bridegroom” (John 3:29) to represent them and begin negotiations with the bride’s father, who also selects a representative. If consent is given for the bride to be married, and if there is agreement on the amount to be paid, congratulations are exchanged, coffee is brought out and everyone drinks as a seal of the marriage covenant. Later, the families of the bride and groom meet. The young man gives the young woman a gold ring, some article of value, or simply a document in which he promises to marry her, saying, “See by this ring (or this token) thou art set apart for me, according to the law of Moses and of Israel.” The young man then leaves his bride-to-be, promising to return once he has prepared a place for her.
He then returns to his father’s home and, under his father’s supervision, prepares a wedding chamber for his bride. The period of betrothal normally lasts a year or more and may only be broken by obtaining a bill of divorcement. While the bridegroom works on the wedding chamber, the bride prepares herself for the wedding and remains chaste – covering her face with a veil in public to show she is pledged to be married.
At last, the father gives word to his son that all is ready and the night of the wedding arrives. The groom dresses as much like a king as possible. If he is wealthy enough, he wears a gold crown; otherwise, it is a garland of fresh flowers. The bride, meanwhile, goes through an elaborate and costly adorning. Every effort is made to make her complexion glossy and shining like marble. Her dark locks of hair are braided with gold and pearls, and she is decked with all the precious stones and jewels her family has inherited from previous generations.
The groom sets out from his father’s house to the home of the bride in a night-time procession attended by wedding guests bearing torches. The bride steps out to meet him, receives the blessing of her relatives, and then proceeds across town with the groom to his father’s home. A grand procession follows them. The invited guests who did not go to the bride’s home are allowed to join the march along the way, and go with the whole group to the marriage feast. Since the streets are dark, the guests need a torch or lamp, without which they may not join the procession or enter the feast.
There are demonstrations of joy all along the route. Family members hand out ears of parched grain to the children, musical instruments are played, and there is dancing and shouts of “Behold, the bridegroom comes!” At last they reach the home of the bridegroom’s father, where the specially built wedding chamber is prepared. Together they enter the suite and shut the door, and for seven days they stay inside, alone. Meanwhile, a seven-day celebration breaks out. At the end of the seven days, the bride and groom emerge, leave the father’s house and set out to establish their own home.
This is the context in which Jesus’ disciples hear the parable, so the truths about the bridegroom going away, preparing a place and returning are well-known, as are the elements of delay and surprise. This parable clearly is a teaching that Jesus, after His suffering, death and resurrection, would return to His Father, prepare a place in heaven for believers, and then call His bride to meet Him in the air in an event known as the rapture (1 Cor. 15:50-57; 1 Thess. 4:13-18). The seven-day honeymoon perhaps depicts the seven years the church is in heaven while the tribulation takes place on earth. And the leaving of the father’s house after the honeymoon may picture the glorious appearing of Christ when He returns to earth with the saints, sitting on the throne of David, and ruling the earth with His bride.
It is interesting to note that the bride is not mentioned in this parable. While Scripture often refers to Christ’s church as His bride, the focus in this parable is on the bridegroom and the virgins, or attendants. It is not necessary for believers to be represented as both bride and bridal attendants, or this would present difficulties Jesus did not intend. Remember that His parables generally illustrate one key spiritual truth – and this parable warns all those who profess Christianity to make sure they are ready for Christ’s return.
Therefore, let’s see the virgins as professors of the faith, those who claim to know the Bridegroom and await His coming. Some are “wise” and some are “foolish” – not good and bad. There is at least a degree of goodwill, and good intentions, in the foolish as well as in the wise. The difference is in the depth of their commitment, which is evident by their readiness for the Bridegroom’s coming.
The wise virgins are those who truly know Christ and are known by Him. They understand that His coming may be delayed, so they are prepared with an abundance of oil, “that inward reality of grace which alone will stand when He appears whose eyes are as a flame of fire” (Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary). They may not be excused for slumbering while the Bridegroom tarries – even Christ’s closest followers could not stay awake one hour while He prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane – yet they persevere and are allowed into the marriage feast.
The foolish virgins are those who profess to know Christ but lack a genuine relationship with Him. They carry their lamps – an outward profession of their faith in the Messiah – but they lack the reserve of oil that is the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit. When the Bridegroom comes, their lamps are dark.
The supply of oil may be seen as that inward grace of Christ that has enduring character. Whereas God’s grace is given to all in a general sense, only those who have entered into a relationship with Him receive His Spirit Who, like the oil of the wise, is abundant and sufficient.
Nothing should be made of the fact that there are 10 virgins, other than that Jews would not hold synagogue, a wedding or another ceremony without at least 10 witnesses. The fact that five of the virgins are wise and five are foolish should not be taken to mean that half of all professing Christians are lost. There is folly in reading too much into the details of Christ’s parables.
All 10 of the virgins “slumbered and slept.” The word “slumbered” signifies “nodding off” or “becoming drowsy.” The word “slept” is the usual word for lying down to sleep. This denotes two states of spiritual stupor – first, “that half-involuntary lethargy or drowsiness which is apt to steal over one who falls into inactivity; and then a conscious, deliberate yielding to it, after a little vain resistance” (Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary).
The lamps are of two general kinds. The first consists of rags wrapped around one end of a wooden pole and dipped in oil. The second, and most likely, consists of a “round receptacle for pitch or oil for the wick. This was placed in a hollow cup or deep saucer … which was fastened by a pointed end into a long wooden pole, on which it was born a loft” (Dr. Alfred Edersheim, quoted in Manners and Customs of Bible Lands).
When the bridegroom comes at last, the foolish virgins need oil, for their lamps are going out, and so they ask the wise for oil. The response of the wise is important in two respects. First, they deny the request for oil – not out of selfishness or a judgmental nature, but because all 10 virgins would be undone. Salvation is not to be acquired from believers but from God. Second, the wise virgins tell the foolish to buy their own reserve of oil. This does not imply that salvation may be purchased, only that the foolish need to acquire salvation the same way the wise did.
When the bridegroom comes, the wise are ready. They join the wedding procession with their blazing lamps and are welcomed in. The foolish come too late, after the door has been shut, and are excluded from the wedding feast. Today, believers and unbelievers populate the visible church; in a day to come, God will separate those who merely profess to know Christ from those who truly do.
There is no improving on the words of Jesus, “Therefore be alert, because you don’t know either the day or the hour” when the Bridegroom will come (Matt. 25:13).
21 Then Peter came to Him and said, “Lord, how many times could my brother sin against me and I forgive him? As many as seven times?”
22 “I tell you, not as many as seven,” Jesus said to him, “but 70 times seven.
23 For this reason, the kingdom of heaven can be compared to a king who wanted to settle accounts with his slaves.
24 When he began to settle accounts, one who owed 10,000 talents was brought before him.
25 Since he had no way to pay it back, his master commanded that he, his wife, his children, and everything he had be sold to pay the debt.
26 At this, the slave fell facedown before him and said, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you everything!’
27 Then the master of that slave had compassion, released him, and forgave him the loan.
28 But that slave went out and found one of his fellow slaves who owed him 100 denarii. He grabbed him, started choking him, and said, ‘Pay what you owe!’
29 At this, his fellow slave fell down and began begging him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.’
30 But he wasn’t willing. On the contrary, he went and threw him into prison until he could pay what was owed.
31 When the other slaves saw what had taken place, they were deeply distressed and went and reported to their master everything that had happened.
32 Then, after he had summoned him, his master said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you begged me.
33 ’Shouldn’t you also have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’
34 And his master got angry and handed him over to the jailers until he could pay everything that was owed.
35 So My heavenly Father will also do to you if each of you does not forgive his brother from his heart.”
Jesus is with His disciples and has been teaching them about humility. In Matt. 18:1, the disciples ask Jesus, “Who is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” And in verses 2-9, He responds by calling over a child and telling His disciples that without childlike faith, no one may enter the kingdom. Further, He says that the one who humbles himself like a child is greatest in the kingdom; humility, not pride or performance, is most highly valued in the kingdom. Jesus is the ultimate example of humility, having set aside His heavenly glory to come to earth as the Suffering Servant. He reminds His disciples that the lost are of great value as He shares the parable of the lost sheep (verses 10-14), and He gives them instruction in the proper way to settle disagreements (verses 15-20). Now He turns His attention to Peter’s question about how many times a disciple should forgive his brother. Jesus responds with the parable of the unmerciful servant.
The central theme of this parable is that Christians take on the character of their Heavenly Father, who is merciful beyond human measure. Forgiveness is not a question of arithmetic; it’s a matter of character. Peter asks, “Lord, how many times could my brother sin against me and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” He thinks he is being more gracious than the law requires. The Jews taught that a person was to forgive another three times, but not four. But Jesus’ response – “70 times seven” – drives home the point that citizens of the kingdom naturally forgive others because much has been forgiven them.
The central character in this parable is the king, who forgives a massive debt. The term is “myriads of talents,” the highest number known in Greek arithmetical notation, according to commentator Adam Clarke. Depending on whether the talents are silver or gold, and whether they are Roman or Jewish coins, estimates of their current value range from $7.5 million to $150 million. In any case, it’s a huge sum of money that one man could never repay.
The king is a picture of our Heavenly Father, who was so moved with compassion toward sinful mankind that He forgave our unfathomable sin debt by paying the price Himself through His only Son (Rom. 5:8).
The unmerciful servant likely is a tax collector. In ancient times, kings often farmed out, or sold for a price, the taxes of particular provinces. This ensured the king a known sum, but gave the tax collector in each province the opportunity to oppress his own people for personal gain. In this case, the servant no doubt was so dishonest that he denied the king his rightful cut. What a picture of the unbeliever! Matthew Henry comments: “He promises payment; Have patience awhile, and I will pay thee all. Note, It is the folly of many who are under convictions of sin, to imagine that they can make God satisfaction for the wrong they have done him … He that had nothing to pay with (v. 25) fancied he could pay all. See how close pride sticks, even to awakened sinners; they are convinced, but not humbled.”
The unpayable debt in this parable illustrates the enormity of our sins, which we are too impoverished to pay. According to Jewish law, debtors could be sold into servitude, along with their wives and children, until a family member redeemed them by paying the debt. But it is doubtful that any family had sufficient funds to pay off the massive debt this servant owed the king (see 2 Kings 4:1).
The forgiveness of the king represents God’s justification, declaring us in right standing with Him as He transfers our sin debt to His Son’s account. Matthew Henry writes, “Every sin we commit is a debt to God…. There is an account kept of these debts … some are more in debt, by reason of sin, than others…. The God of infinite mercy is very ready, out of pure compassion, to forgive the sins of those that humble themselves before him.”
The unmerciful servant, just loosed from his crushing debt, now confronts a fellow servant over what is likely a paltry $12-14 debt and sends him to prison until the debt is paid. This so distresses the other slaves that they go to the king and report what has happened. The king, in turn, summons the unmerciful servant and turns him over to the “jailers/torturers/tormentors.” Albert Barnes comments: “Torments were inflicted on criminals, not on debtors. They were inflicted by stretching the limbs, or pinching the flesh, or taking out the eyes, or taking off the skin while alive, etc. It is not probable that anything of this kind is intended, but only that the servant was punished by imprisonment till the debt should be paid.”
So, does this mean God takes away a believer’s justification if he or she does not forgive others? No. “This is not intended to teach us that God reverses his pardons to any, but that he denies them to those that are unqualified for them…. Those that do not forgive their brother’s trespasses did never truly repent of their own, and therefore that which is taken away is only what they seemed to have. This is intended to teach us, that they shall have judgment without mercy, that have showed no mercy (James 2:13) (Matthew Henry’s Unabridged Commentary).” See also Matt. 6:14-15.
Having been pardoned of a sin debt we could never repay, citizens of the kingdom take on the character of their King and graciously forgive others of their wrongs against us. An unforgiving person demonstrates that he or she is not a true child of the King.
1 On that day Jesus went out of the house and was sitting by the sea.
2 Such large crowds gathered around Him that He got into a boat and sat down, while the whole crowd stood on the shore.
3 Then He told them many things in parables, saying: “Consider the sower who went out to sow.
4 As he was sowing, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and ate them up.
5 Others fell on rocky ground, where there wasn’t much soil, and they sprang up quickly since the soil wasn’t deep.
6 But when the sun came up they were scorched, and since they had no root, they withered.
7 Others fell among thorns, and the thorns came up and choked them.
8 Still others fell on good ground, and produced a crop: some 100, some 60, and some 30 times [what was sown].
9 Anyone who has ears should listen!”
18 “You, then, listen to the parable of the sower:
19 When anyone hears the word about the kingdom and doesn’t understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in his heart. This is the one sown along the path.
20 And the one sown on rocky ground—this is one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy.
21 Yet he has no root in himself, but is short-lived. When pressure or persecution comes because of the word, immediately he stumbles.
22 Now the one sown among the thorns—this is one who hears the word, but the worries of this age and the seduction of wealth choke the word, and it becomes unfruitful.
23 But the one sown on the good ground—this is one who hears and understands the word, who does bear fruit and yields: some 100, some 60, some 30 times [what was sown].”
(This parable also is found in Mark 4:1-9, 13-20 and in Luke 8:4-8, 11-15.)
Jesus probably is staying with Peter at his home in Capernaum. He has just tussled with the scribes and Pharisees who accused him of eating “unlawfully” and of healing on the Sabbath. He has foiled a plot by the Pharisees to kill Him. He has cast a demon out of a man and then answered the Pharisees’ accusation that He is casting out demons by Satan’s power. He has rebuked the Pharisees for demanding a sign that He is the Christ. And he has denied his own family’s request to see Him by declaring that His family consists of all who believe in Him. Now, in chapter 13, the Scripture says in verse one, “On that day Jesus went out of the house and was sitting by the sea [of Galilee].”
It is significant that in chapter 12 Jesus shows clear evidence He is the Messiah and that His kingdom has invaded Satan’s kingdom:
- He declares Himself greater than the Temple and is indeed “Lord of the Sabbath.”
- He casts out demons and heals the sick.
- He foretells His death, burial and resurrection as the one sure sign He is the Son of God.
- He rebukes the Jews of His generation for their wickedness and foretells their judgment (which falls in 70 A.D.).
- And He declares that His true family is not earthly but heavenly, not of flesh and blood but of spirit.
Matt. 12:28 is crucial in setting the stage for Jesus’ parables in chapter 13: “If I drive out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has come to you.” Jesus declares that the long-awaited kingdom of heaven has come – but not in the way the Jewish leaders were expecting. Rather than as a political and military machine, the kingdom has come quietly and with great spiritual power, invading Satan’s kingdom and binding him (the “strong man” of Matt. 12:29) so that He may plunder the evil one’s kingdom.
The scribes and Pharisees will have none of this teaching and reject the King and His kingdom. So in chapter 13, as Jesus leaves Peter’s house and sits beside the sea, multitudes gather around Him, having witnessed His miracles and having heard His declaration that the kingdom of heaven has come. So Jesus gets into a boat – perhaps Peter’s boat or a boat made available for Jesus’ use whenever He needed it – and begins a series of eight parables on the kingdom of heaven. In this first parable – the parable of the sower – it is possible that farmers on the hillsides along the sea were in their fields sowing seed, with the ever-present birds hovering in the air above them.
The central theme of this parable is that the kingdom of heaven has come among men and yet men can reject it. As George Eldon Ladd writes, “The mystery of the Kingdom is this: The Kingdom of God is here but not with irresistible power. The Kingdom of God has come, but it is not like a stone grinding an image to powder. It is not now destroying wickedness. On the contrary, it is like a man sowing seed. It does not force itself upon men…. This was a staggering thing to one who knew only the Old Testament…. One day God will indeed manifest His mighty power to purge the earth of wickedness, sin and evil; but not now. God’s Kingdom is working among men, but God will not compel them to bow before it. They must receive it; the response must come from a willing heart and a submissive will” (The Gospel of the Kingdom, pp. 56-57).
Christ no doubt is the sower, but in a sense every believer who shares the gospel is a sower as well. In Jesus’ day, farmers walked through their fields scattering seed by hand broadly across their property, knowing that a high percentage of the seed would not bear fruit. Normally, another member of the family would follow the sower closely and plow the seed under. But many of the seeds were eaten by birds as they fell on footpaths; others landed in shallow soil with a stratum of rock beneath; and others fell at the fringes of the property among thorn bushes that the farmers used to build small cooking fires. Still, the seed is broadcast widely, and some seed finds the good soil, thus raising up a crop.
Jesus interprets the parable for His disciples:
- The seed is the word of God (Luke 8:11) – the good news that the kingdom has come in the Person of Jesus the Messiah and that all may enter into the kingdom by faith in Him, the Word (Logos, John 1:1).
- The birds represent Satan, who “takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved” (Luke 8:12).
- The seed along the path stands for the impact of the word on hearers who do not understand. Their hearts are hardened like the footpaths winding through ancient wheat fields. They cannot believe because they will not believe, much like the Jewish leaders Jesus described in Matt. 13:12-15.
- The seed on the rocky ground represents the impact of the word on shallow, uncommitted hearers. They may have an emotional response to the gospel but walk away when the reality of kingdom living – which may include pressure or persecution – sets in. Jesus’ followers who left him in John 6:66 are examples of those who loved Jesus’ miracles but balked at the call to discipleship.
- The seed among the thorns illustrates the impact of the word on worldly hearers. Though understanding the gospel of the kingdom, they prefer the “worries, riches, and pleasures of life” (Luke 8:14). The rich young ruler who encountered Jesus falls into this category of hearers (Luke 18:18-23).
- The seed in the good ground represents the impact of the word on those who, “having heard the word with an honest and good heart, hold on to it and by enduring, bear fruit” (Luke 8:15) – “some 100, some 60, some 30 times [what was sown]” (Matt. 13:23).
In Jesus’ day, farmers sowed widely across their fields, knowing that perhaps one in three seeds would grow to maturity. As believers, we are to sow the gospel of the kingdom widely and indiscriminately, trusting God to grant the harvest.
Regarding the kingdom, Jesus’ parable of the sower is a clear message that His kingdom would not at this time come in power and great glory; instead, it would reside in the hearts of willing believers and be resisted by many. This is not what the Jews were expecting, and many rejected Jesus and His call to the kingdom because He is not the political and military leader they are seeking. At the same time, Satan, whose kingdom Jesus has invaded, will hover watchfully and snatch the gospel away from those whose hearts are hardened against it, lest, person by person, he lose power as “the god of this age” (2 Cor. 4:4).
Matt. 13:10-17, 34-35 (HCSB)
10 Then the disciples came up and asked Him, “Why do You speak to them in parables?”
11 He answered them, “Because the secrets of the kingdom of heaven have been given for you to know, but it has not been given to them.
12 For whoever has, [more] will be given to him, and he will have more than enough. But whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him.
13 For this reason I speak to them in parables, because looking they do not see, and hearing they do not listen or understand.
14 Isaiah’s prophecy is fulfilled in them, which says: You will listen and listen, yet never understand; and you will look and look, yet never perceive.
15 For this people’s heart has grown callous; their ears are hard of hearing, and they have shut their eyes; otherwise they might see with their eyes and hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn back— and I would cure them.
16 But your eyes are blessed because they do see, and your ears because they do hear!
17 For I assure you: Many prophets and righteous people longed to see the things you see yet didn’t see them; to hear the things you hear yet didn’t hear them.”
34 Jesus told the crowds all these things in parables, and He would not speak anything to them without a parable,
35 so that what was spoken through the prophet might be fulfilled: I will open My mouth in parables; I will declare things kept secret from the foundation of the world.
A parable is a story drawn from everyday experience to illustrate a deeper truth – in Scripture, a spiritual truth. The teaching of parables goes back to antiquity. The first parable recorded in the Bible is that of the trees choosing for themselves a king (Judges 9:7-15). There are numerous parables in both the Old and New Testaments, but the most common parables are those taught by Jesus. While Jesus was not the first to use parables, He endowed them with unparalleled originality and spiritual depth. In fact, more than one-third of all His recorded sayings are parables.
Two Greek words are translated “parable” in the New Testament: parabole (48 times), meaning “to represent or stand for something,” and paroimia (four times in John), meaning “an adage, dark saying, proverb, a presentation deviating from the usual means of speaking.” As Herbert Lockyer writes in All the Parables of the Bible, “Parables prove that the external is the mirror in which we may behold the internal and the spiritual.” Parables also reward the faithful learner. As Matthew Henry writes in his unabridged commentary, “A parable is a shell that keeps good fruit for the diligent, but keeps it from the slothful.”
Parables and the mystery of the kingdom
Many of Jesus’ parables describe “the mystery/secret of the kingdom of God” (Mark 4:11). The term “mystery” means something God has held in secret throughout the ages but has finally disclosed in a new revelation of His redemptive work. In this case, the mystery of the kingdom is that God’s kingdom has come in an unexpected way – a way not fully revealed in the Old Testament.
With the coming of Jesus the Messiah as the Lamb of God, or the Suffering Servant, He invades Satan’s kingdom and reigns in the hearts of men. Yes, the day will come when God’s kingdom overcomes human authority, when the Lion of Judah appears in power and great glory to sit on the throne of David and rule the earth, but first He must come humbly and lay down His life as a ransom for lost sinners, destroying the enemies of God: sin, Satan and death. Jesus uses parables to reveal these previously hidden truths about the kingdom.
George Eldon Ladd puts it this way in The Gospel of the Kingdom: “But the mystery, the new revelation, is that this very Kingdom of God has now come to work among men but in an utterly unexpected way. It is not now destroying human rule; it is not now abolishing sin from the earth; it is not now bringing the baptism of fire that John had announced. It has come quietly, unobtrusively, secretly. It can work among men and never be recognized by the crowds. In the spiritual realm, the Kingdom now offers to men the blessings of God’s rule, delivering them from the power of Satan and sin. The Kingdom of God is an offer, a gift which may be accepted or rejected. The Kingdom is now here with persuasion rather than with power.” (p. 55).
Why Jesus used parables
In Matthew 13, after Jesus tells the parable of the sower, His disciples ask Him why He is now employing this form of teaching. His answer is revealing:
- Because the mysteries/secrets of the kingdom have been given to Jesus’ disciples but not to others (v. 11). Jesus would spend three full years with the apostles, teaching them about the necessity of His death, burial and resurrection. Others would be taught the mystery in parables and, if they inclined their hearts toward God, would understand.
- Those who received the gospel of the kingdom would benefit from the truths revealed in Jesus’ parables, while those who insisted on a political and military Messiah would no longer be entrusted with the Scriptures – a reference to the Jewish religious leaders (v. 12).
- Those who already are rejecting Jesus as Messiah are so hard of heart they cannot understand these simple parables. Just as the Jews in Isaiah’s days had rejected God – leading to judgment – so the unbelieving Jews of Jesus’ day would face judgment in the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D., as well as judgment after the kingdom comes in power (vv. 13-15). As Matthew Henry has written, “A parable, like the pillar of cloud and fire, turns a dark side towards Egyptians, which confounds them, but a light side towards the Israelites, which comforts them, and so answers a double intention.”
- Jesus’ parables of the kingdom reveal spiritual truths that the prophets of old could only see in shadow form; the apostles should rejoice that they are witnessing the coming of the kingdom in mystery (vv. 16-17).
- Jesus’ parables fulfill prophecy. The psalmist wrote that Messiah would “declare wise sayings; I will speak mysteries from the past” (Ps. 78:2), and that’s exactly what Jesus did (v. 35). See also Deut. 29:29; Rom. 16:25; 1 Cor. 2:7; Eph. 3:9; and Col. 1:26.
How we should study Jesus’ parables of the kingdom
We will study Jesus’ parables of the kingdom by considering:
- Context. We will ask: To whom is Jesus speaking? When? Where? Why? Who else is present? How does this parable compare with other parables and teachings of Jesus, and with other Scriptures?
- Theme. We will locate the central theme. Parables normally focus on a single key point. Jesus’ parables of the kingdom reveal key aspects of His reign.
- Character(s). We will identify the central character or characters and see how he, she, it or they relate to the central theme. We’ll also ask what role the other characters play in the parable.
- Details. We will look at the details of each parable, being careful not to impose unintended meanings.
- Personal application. We will explore what understanding, attitude or action Jesus is demanding of His listeners – and of us.
The design of speaking in parables
According to Barnes’ Notes on the New Testament, Jesus has the following four things in mind as He tells each parable:
1. To convey truth in a more interesting manner to the mind; adding to the truth conveyed the beauty of a lovely image or narrative.
2. To teach spiritual truth so as to arrest the attention of ignorant people, making an appeal to them through the senses.
3. To convey some offensive truth, some pointed personal rebuke, in such a way as to bring it home to the conscience. Of this kind was the parable which Nathan delivered to David (2 Sam. 12:1-7) and many of our Savior’s parables addressed to the Jews.
4. To conceal from one part of his audience truths which he intended others should understand. Thus Christ often, by this means, delivered truths to his disciples in the presence of the Jews, which he well knew the Jews would not understand; truths pertaining to them particularly, and which he was under no obligations to explain to the Jews (see Matt. 13:13-16; Mark 4:33).