The terms kingdom of God, kingdom of heaven, and kingdom (with reference to the kingdom of God/heaven) appear nearly 150 times in Scripture. None of these references gives a simple, straightforward definition of the kingdom, and many passages appear to be contradictory.
Yet the kingdom is the primary focus of Jesus’ teaching. Many of his parables describe the kingdom. The apostles preach the “gospel of the kingdom.” And end-times prophecy points us toward the day when God’s kingdom comes in its fullness.
So, what is the kingdom of heaven? Are the kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of God the same thing? Is the kingdom here already, or are we to wait for it? What does it look like? Who’s in the kingdom and who’s not? And what is required to enter the kingdom?
To begin, we need to understand what the Bible says the kingdom of heaven is—and is not.
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).