The Kingdom of Heaven in Matthew (4)

This is from the first draft of my book ‘The Words of the Covenant, Volume 2: New Testament Continuity’.

Part Three

The Parables of the Kingdom (Pt. 1)

            In any study of the Kingdom “the parables of the kingdom,” seven (or eight depending on one’s reckoning) of which are located in Matthew 13 are critical.  Although this is not a Bible commentary, it is important to take a look at these parables because they provide important information about the progress of God’s Kingdom program.[1]  We should remind ourselves that although the majority of OT texts refer to the eschatological Kingdom, there are verses such as Psalm 103:19 which declare, “The LORD has established His throne in heaven, and His kingdom rules over all.”  There is then a sense in which God has a kingdom up in heaven (naturally enough), but this is not the same as the one on earth described in such vibrant terms by the Prophets; the eschatological Kingdom.  As we have seen that Kingdom is very much part of the theology of Luke.

            Prior to chapter 13 Matthew has employed the term “kingdom of heaven” in a futuristic sense.  It is something ahead (Matt. 3:2; 4:17; 5: 3, 10, 19-20; 7:21; 8:11; 10:7; 11:11-12).  In several instances the passages plainly speak of the coming new aeon (Matt. 5:19-20; 8:11), but I submit that all the references ought to be taken in that way.  However, things change in Matthew 13.  

The Parable of the Sower

The first parable, the famous Parable of the Sower (Matt. 13:1-9; 18-23) is the key parable.[2]  This parable does not contain the formula “the kingdom of heaven is like,” which is seen in the other parables in chapter 13. 

The first parable acts as a sort of interpretive guide to the rest of the parables in the chapter.  At its close we see that the parable is all about how one hears.  “He that has ears to hear, let him hear” (Matt. 13:9).  The ear has been made to hear rightly.  Matthew 13:14-16 (which cites Isaiah 6:9-10) relates the misuse of eyes and ears; the problem emanating from the heart!  We see this in Jesus’ interpretation of the first parable where He notes that the seed (i.e., the word) does not find receptive ground.  In Matthew 13:19 the person does not understand the word, and the cause is in the heart.  In Matthew 13:20-21 the word is gladly received, but there is no depth for it to take root.  That is, the heart is not prepared for the word.  The way Jesus puts it is interesting; “he has no root in himself” (Matt. 13:21).  This indicates that although the word was accepted it was accepted rather like a lover of fiction accepts a pile of books only to discover that nothing in the pile strikes their fancy.  Or rather, the books received require more than a mere foray of the imagination.  In Matthew 13:22 the third kind of hearer is too enamored with the world for the word to change their heart.[3]  At last we come to the hearer who “understands” (Matt. 13:23).  Hearers of this sort produce “fruit,” probably in accordance with their abilities and circumstances. 

A true hearer will understand the word.  That is what the Parable of the Sower is about.  Hopefully now we will be attentive to the other parables.

The Parable of the Wheat and the Tares

The Parable of the Wheat and the Tares tells us something crucial about “the kingdom.”  It shows us that the kingdom is something that is “planted,” is growing, and is vulnerable to assault from the Enemy.  This should put us on our mettle; we are not to think of the final eschatological Kingdom here.

In His explanation of the parable (Matt. 13:36-43), Jesus identifies Himself as the Sower of the good seed (Matt. 13:37), the devil as the Enemy who sows bad seed (Matt. 13:39), the field as the world (Matt. 13:38), the wheat as “the sons of the kingdom,” (Matt. 13:38), the tares the “sons of the wicked one,” and the reapers as the angels at the end of the age (Matt. 13:39). 

What Jesus is presenting in these parables is a kingdom in the making, not consummated.  What does this mean?  Some believe that it means that the kingdom of heaven is seen as beginning at the start of Jesus’ public ministry and extending through the visible church till the “end of the age” (Matt. 13:39, 49).  That is a common understanding, especially among Reformed commentators.  But it has problems.  Firstly, we are expressly told that “the field is the world,” not the Church (Matt. 13:38).  This must be carefully pondered, for it means that “the sons of the kingdom” cannot be synonymous with Christians!  And if that is the case then “the sons of the wicked one” cannot be false Christians.  Who then are they?  Perhaps the safest answer (although admittedly frustratingly indeterminate) is that these godly and ungodly “sons” represent two strands of sinners in all ages; the first saved by grace and the second enslaved by the devil?[4]  Also, if the kingdom equates to the Church, then in such a scenario the kingdom lasts only until the close of this dispensation (or until the separation – Matt. 13:39-43).  But surely the age to come (inferred here, though see Matt. 12:32. Cf. Matt. 19:28) is the true age of the Kingdom (cf. Matt. 13:43), as it has been prior to this chapter?  Cutting the kingdom of heaven away from the age to come doesn’t work in any millennial perspective.  The eyes have to be fully open.  For example, one thing that ought to grab the attention, but may slip by is that “His kingdom” in Matthew 13:41 has to be different than “the kingdom of their father” in verse 43.  It is the nuances in the parables that make them challenging.          

I think we have to be clear on what is meant by the phrase “the kingdom of heaven is like.”  And to do that we have to connect it to “the mysteries of the kingdom” (Matt. 13:11).  If we understand the phrase to refer to what was being preached, that is, “the word of the kingdom,” then it is the proclamation of the Kingdom that is primarily in view.  In contrast to the Parable of the Sower, in the Parable of the Wheat and Tares “the word of the kingdom” is not the seed but instead produces the seed, which are “the sons of the kingdom.”[5]  The Sower is Christ who proclaims the word which produces the “seed.”  Continuing this line of thinking we can go one of two ways.  We can assume that the proclamation of the word by Jesus’ followers throughout what we know as Church history is meant, in which case the Church proclaims the Kingdom.  But that view, as we have just seen, is problematical.[6] 

Alternatively, we can say that the “word of the kingdom” was a particular message; one of the immanence of the next age (“the kingdom of heaven is at hand”) which ceased with the ministry of Jesus but perhaps will be resumed when that message is again relevant.  In light of Matthew 24:14 this second position looks to have something going for it, but it cannot account for the growth of the good and bad seed in the Parable of the Wheat and Tares, so it is inadequate.       

To be clear on what I am saying so far, I am proposing that the announcement of the approaching Kingdom (“the kingdom of heaven is at hand”) by John the Baptist and by Christ is the same as “the word of the kingdom” referred to in Matthew 13:19.[7]  But may we go further and claim that this “word of the kingdom” is what is in view in Jesus’ refrain “the kingdom of heaven is like?”  That is to say, is Jesus saying something like “the kingdom represented in Me and My message of its soon approach is like this.”?  To interpret this way is to wrap the Person and Kingdom message of Christ together, which is attractive.  It is here that we must recall that Jesus is teaching about “the mysteries of the kingdom,” and that these mysteries concern its progress toward final consummation, not the consummation per se.  For instance, it cannot be that the devil sows false disciples in the messianic Kingdom itself since in any end times scenario the devil is incapacitated (however Revelation 20 is interpreted).  Let us keep reading.

Therefore as the tares are gathered and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of this age.  The Son of Man will send out His angels, and they will gather out of His kingdom all things that offend, and those who practice lawlessness, and will cast them into the furnace of fire. There will be wailing and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears to hear, let him hear! – Matthew 13:40-43.

            The close of the parable deals with eschatological issues.  The Son sends out His angels “to gather out of His kingdom all things that offend.” (Matt. 13:41 my emphasis).  This has to mean that there is an expression of the Kingdom that predates “the age to come.[8]”  Therefore, the phrase “the kingdom of heaven is like” must refer to an aspect or aspects of it that run from the first to the second advent.  The final piece of the parable finds Jesus speaking of the new aeon; “the kingdom of their Father” (which we know will be mediated by the Son).[9]  When Christ says that His angels will one day “gather out of His Kingdom all things that offend” (Matt. 13:41), He is probably referring to an event that happens right after Christ has returned to the earth.  In which case the “kingdom” in that place is the eschatological Kingdom in its infancy, though perhaps ahead of its formal inauguration.        

            We see then that the term “kingdom of heaven” is somewhat elastic in Matthew 13.  In Matthew 13:41-42 it refers to the eschatological Kingdom, but the phrase “the kingdom of heaven is like” refers to aspects of the kingdom already occurring.    


[1] Often the nuances within these parables are not dealt with adequately.

[2] “In many ways…this is the quintessential parable that opens up our understanding of all Jesus’s parables.” – Andreas J. Kostenberger, The Jesus of the Gospels: An Introduction, Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2020, 92.  This perhaps goes a little too far. 

[3] Of course, we are to understand that the “heart” does not refer just to the emotional side of man, but to his driving impulses. 

[4] I do not mean that the “sons of the wicked one” necessarily include all lost men, but rather those who grow alongside the saints.  Remember, the evil one plants these people.  

[5] In Matthew 8:12 where the term “sons of the kingdom” is applied to Jews who are excluded from the eschatological Kingdom.  This reminds us that every parable must be studied for how words are used within its own story. 

[6] See D. A. Carson, “Matthew,” 316-317, 324-326.   It is also worth noting that the Church has not proclaimed the kingdom, at least not in a major way, unless one wishes to equate the kingdom to the Roman Catholic Church that is!  

[7] This is not controversial.  See e.g., John Nolland, Matthew, 539.

[8] That is to say, the eschatological Kingdom. 

[9] To these considerations we might add the Parable of the Workers in Matthew 20:1-16 and the Parables in Matthew 21:28-32; 22:1-12.  Of course, many writers insist upon relating that parable to the church. 

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