The Lord had a problem.
He had to convey to His disciples the inner operations of the Kingdom of God. He had to bring them up to a proper understanding of how God did things in the spiritual realm. And He had only three years to do it.
This must have been the equivalent of teaching quantum physics to a colony of ants. It was so far outside their day-to-day experiences that little of it made sense to the disciples.
They don’t call Jesus the Master Teacher for nothing.
He pulled it off.
How He did it should be called the greatest miracle He performed, although it’s not one you see included in anyone’s list of His feats.
He taught His followers up and down the Galilean hills, in the towns of Judea, and even while the stormy sea was battering them. He gave lessons in short bytes, it appears, and was constantly reiterating the insights. He demonstrated in Himself the principles He taught and was forever surprising the disciples. He did miracles of healing and provision, and turned these events into moments of teaching.
And among His teachings, He gave parables.
“The Kingdom of Heaven is like….” and “the Kingdom of God is like….”
I take the position that when He spoke of the kingdom of Heaven and of God, it was the same thing, that He used these terms interchangeably.
We have tiny examples all around us of the task Jesus was up against.
Missionaries return from their overseas assignment and stand before our churches to tell what things are like where they live. They entertain us with stories of how they learned the languages and mistakes they made. The customs of the citizens seem weird to us, and some are truly bizarre.
That is a tiny illustration of the assignment Jesus had in explaining Heaven’s operation to His followers.
A slightly better example is the foreign visitor who tries to tell you and me of his country. He is the native there and the newcomer here, and he knows his own people better than he does us. We listen intently because he speaks as an authority.
The best example, however, is one we cannot provide. The best illustration of what Jesus was up against would be a visitor from another planet, another world, coming to earth and telling us how things are where he is from.
That task would be formidable, the gap between the two immense, and the time period the alien might require to pull it off would involve years or more. He would have to learn our language, know our customs, and understand our people in order to make parallels from his own world
Jesus did it in three years. And lest anyone miss the point, as He died on the cross, He was heard to say, “It is finished.” He left no part of His assignment undone.
First, let us establish that Jesus Christ was an authority–no, THE authority–on Heaven. He Himself claimed as much.
Jesus said to Nicodemus, “No one has ascended into Heaven except the One who descended from Heaven–the Son of Man.” (John 3:13)
That is, He ought to know what He’s talking about. Jesus is a Native. And furthermore, He has no rival, no counterpart on earth who can add to what He’s saying. No one has been to Heaven except the One who came from there.
That raises a question: what about Elijah and Enoch and the saints of old? Didn’t they go to Heaven? The Bible seems to indicate they did (Genesis 5:24 and II Kings 2:11) and the Lord’s people have spoken on them through the ages as though they did.
Apparently, not to the Heaven Jesus spoke of, but perhaps some intermediate “lesser-Heaven,” if you will. Not yet the final resting place of the saints of God.
But we must leave that question to God and not waste time–for that’s what it would be–speculating on such matters for which God has not given answers.
When it comes to Heaven and the things of God, Jesus is the Authority.
“The Kingdom of Heaven is like….”
Since we are confining ourselves to the parables of Matthew in this study, we will not look at the other gospels.
Jesus began preaching with these words: “Repent, because the kingdom has heaven is at hand.” (or, “has come near.”) (Matthew 4:17)
It’s here and it’s now. It’s not off “out yonder” somewhere.
Think of God’s Kingdom as His rule. He rules over the universe, all of it, far and near. No place in the universe is outside His domain, off-limits to His power.
Through the ages, man has wanted to put God either “out there but not here” or “here but not there.” We read that Cain “went out from the Lord’s presence” in Genesis 4:16. Israel sometimes and Israel’s enemies always struggled with the concept of Yahweh God being the Lord of everything and everywhere, and not a tribal deity whose jurisdiction ended at the county line.
The Beatitudes of Matthew 5:3-12 is bracketed by the line “theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
Jesus seems to be saying, “This is the character of the citizens under God’s rule.” These are the values that matter most.
To no one’s surprise–and to our unending surprise–Heaven does things quite differently from earth. Heaven values the poor in spirit, mourning over that, the meekness which it produces, and the craving for righteousness. Heaven prizes mercy-givers, the pure in heart, and peacemakers.
Those who live by God’s rule here on earth may expect to be treated as misfits and mistreated by those who do not understand. When that happens–when they persecute you–“be glad and rejoice, because great is your reward in heaven.” (5:12)
Kingdom citizens live in the awareness of present hardship and the expectation of future reward.
Entering the kingdom was a major concern for Jesus.
He said, “Except your righteousness exceed that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (5:20)
And later, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord!’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” (7:20)
He continues to give insights throughout His ministry on what it takes to enter the kingdom of heaven and who is going to be excluded. Interestingly, Jesus seems never to have thought of entering the kingdom as a future event, something that occurs after death. In John 10, He spoke of Himself as the door by which people enter in for salvation (10:9).
Who belongs in the kingdom and who will be excluded?
“Many will come from the east and west and recline at the table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness.” (Matthew 8:11-12)
The disciples were stunned that those they thought were the gatekeepers for God’s things are not even going to make it to heaven, while the outsiders and foreigners are going to be seated at the table. They saw quickly matters were not as they had assumed.
Nothing is as we assume. Get used to that.
Earth is not going to receive this news about the kingdom without a fight. This world’s culture is not giving up easily.
“From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been suffering violence, and the violent have been seizing it by force.” (11:12) Say what?
In his commentary on Matthew, Craig Blomberg translates this difficult sentence as “…the kingdom of heaven suffers violence and violent people attack it.” That is to say, this world is opposing God’s new thing. That, you will have noticed, is still going on.
Earlier Jesus has said, “Do not think I have come to bring peace on earth. I did not come to bring peace but a sword.” (10:34)
Anyone looking for a quiet peaceful existence without conflict with anyone had better keep on looking. Those considering following Jesus would do well to remember that the world crucified Him. He cautions would-be disciples that the student is no better than his teacher, that “if they called the head of the house ‘Beelzebul,’ how much more the members of his household” (10:25).
As Paul and Barnabas told the first converts of this missionary work, “We enter the kingdom through much tribulation.” (Acts 14:22)
Jesus’ domination of the devil and his wicked spirits was proof of His work and the kingdom’s nearness.
“If I drive out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has come to you.” (12:28)
You may enjoy seeing how Luke phrased that statement. It’s a little more graphic. “If I drive out demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has come to you.” (Luke 11:20) Somewhere I read where someone translated that as “the little finger of God.” If that’s what Jesus said, it’s a funny picture–the Lord merely flicking His little finger and Satan’s imps are gone.
The secrets of the inner workings of the kingdom of God (or of heaven) are given to people of faith.
They asked Jesus, “Why do you speak in parables?” He answered, “Because the secrets of the kingdom of heaven have been given for you to know….” (13:11)
How was it we used to phrase it as kids: “It’s for me to know and you to find out!” But in this case, the Lord was saying, “These things are for you to know and outsiders to find out.”
The Lord fully intended that His teachings would be incomprehensible–offensive even–to outsiders and opponents. He had no trouble with people being offended by His words. We who call ourselves His disciples but who get upset at the least criticism from those-who-do-not-get-it would do well to absorb this.
Do you find it strange that the Lord is satisfied that some are going to be offended by His teachings? He said it in so many words.
Back in chapter 11, we overhear the Lord praying, “I praise you, Father, lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned and revealed them to infants.” And why did He do this? “Even so, Father, for thus it seemed good in your sight.” (11:25-26)
We may find ourselves being pleased when a member of the intelligentsia goes public with his/her faith in Jesus and becomes a defender of the faith. But we must not be overly impressed. If we do, we run the risk of being devastated when a colleague of theirs–I’m thinking of members of the scientific community–shoots holes in their arguments and writes books attacking belief in God.
Our faith is not dependent on anything the scientific community believes or says or discovers. We’re glad when scientists come on board and appreciate all the encouragement we can get, but we do not need their proofs and evidence.
The seven parables of Matthew 13 are all given to explain some of those kingdom secrets. I hesitate to call them “secrets” because the Gnostics, an early offshoot of Christianity, took this to extremes and taught that God’s truth is given only to a select few, the elite, the ones-who-know.
Think of them as open secrets.
a. The first parable–of the four soils–explains why people react to the gospel in various ways.
b. The second–the tares–explains the presence of hypocrites among the faithful.
c. The third–the mustard seed–helps disciples to understand the Lord’s appreciation for small things, small gifts, small acts, and small people–like themselves.
d. The fourth–the hidden yeast–prepares disciples for the unseen workings of the Spirit and how it will eventually “out.”
e. The fifth–the treasure in the field–tells what finding the kingdom is worth.
f. The sixth–the pearl of great price–explains how it is worth everything and whatever you have to give up is only an investment, not a sacrifice.
g. The seventh–the dragnet–is an insight into the judgement to come when all people will stand before the Lord and be sorted out. We’re not to do the sorting here, the judging. That will be done by One qualified at the right time.
A good place to end this is the 52nd verse of Matthew 13.
“Every student of Scripture instructed in the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who brings out of his storeroom what is new and what is old.”
You’ll keep finding new things about the workings of God, He was saying, so do not think you have arrived. All the old treasures you’ve known for years are still there for you to learn and enjoy and teach. But God has new things to show you.
What a privilege to sit at the feet of the Masterful Teacher, the Lord Jesus Himself.
“Lord, give us teachable spirits, hearts that hunger for more of Thee and minds that long to grasp more of Thy Truth. Amen.”