The Kingdom of Heaven in Matthew (5)

Part Four

The Parables of the Kingdom (Pt. 2)

The Parable of the Mustard Seed

            The other five (or six) parables are shorter.  The Parable of the Mustard Seed (Matt. 13:31-32) speaks of the “kingdom of heaven” beginning almost imperceptibly like a tiny seed but growing until it becomes a tree that can hold bird’s nests.  Does this depict positive or negative growth?  The wheat or the tares?  It is hard to say, but I side with the majority who see it as positive growth.

The Parable of the Woman Hiding Leaven

            The Parable of the Leaven (Matt. 13:33) has of course been interpreted as illustrating the private growth of the “kingdom” or Gospel in the world throughout history.  But this way of thinking about it would be foreign to the initial hearers of the message.  “Leaven” is not equated with good things in the Bible.  Jesus Himself consistently uses leaven as a negative figure elsewhere (Matt. 16:6, 11-12. Cf. Mk. 8:15).  Paul does the same (1 Cor. 5:6-8; Gal. 5:9).  When we come to the OT things do not change (e.g., Exod. 12:15, 19; 34:25; Lev. 2:11; 10:12; Deut. 16:4; Amos 4:5).  Are we now to believe that this word would be understood positively in this single case?  No, the growth of the leaven, which is “hid” remember (linking it with the devil’s surreptitious sowing in Matthew 13:25, 39), refers to the “tares.”  In my opinion it is best to understand the hidden growth of evil in history, not simply as the general impact of the unrighteous, but of a certain line of usually powerful men whose ambition and greed make them foils in Satan’s hands.  It is something like this that John is alluding to when he writes about the whole world being “under the sway of the wicked one” (1 Jn. 5:19).    

The Parable of the Hidden Treasure

            The next parable is the Parable of the Hidden Treasure (Matt. 13:44) where a man sells everything once he discovers treasure in a field.  The treasure isn’t his until he owns the field!  The joy of the man and the value of the treasure show that this relates to the positive aspect of the “kingdom.” 

The Parable of the Pearl of Great Price

Likewise with the parable which follows: a man finds “a pearl of great price” (Matt. 13:45-46).  Since a pearl is a thing of beauty it seems natural to infer that this depicts a positive aspect of the “kingdom”; perhaps the truth of the message preached?

The Parable of the Dragnet

            Finally, we read the Parable of the Dragnet (Matt. 13:47-50).  In this parable we see good and bad (clean and unclean) fish pictured, which reminds us of the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares. 

The Parable of the Householder

            After He has recited the seven parables of the kingdom Jesus closes with a parable likening the good listener; the one who comprehends Him, to a householder who can produce old and new treasures from what he has learned (Matt. 13:52).  This suits the disciples cum Apostles who bring truth out of both the OT and the teachings of Jesus.[1] 

A Summary 

            What one is left with after studying these parables is the crucial importance of hearing correctly (paying attention), the joint growth of lookalike good and bad (true and false) disciples, the secret insidious growth of what Satan has sown within the sphere of the kingdom (cf. Matt. 15:13), the surpassing value of having found the truth, and the job of separating the true followers from the false that is given to the angels at the second coming.  In this chapter “the kingdom of heaven” does not refer to the eschatological reign of peace but to the progress of “the word of the kingdom” in conflicting circumstances.  I think we are left with the following:

  1. The “word of the kingdom” is the same as the announcement “the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”  That certainly was “the word” that had been proclaimed up until then.
  2. The phrase “the mysteries of the kingdom” relates to the several aspects or perspectives about the progress of the kingdom before its consummation in the messianic age to come.
  3. This means that the majority of Jesus’s usages of “the kingdom of heaven” in these parables, as well as the other parables where we read “the kingdom of heaven is like” (i.e., Matt. 18:23; 20:1 ff.; 22:2; 25:14) do not refer to the eschatological Kingdom but rather to the growth activity toward that Kingdom.     
  4. All the parables that include the introductory formula “the kingdom of heaven is like” (which is peculiar to Matthew) describe either positive or negative characteristics of this growth or both.
  5. However, in Matthew 13:41, 43 and 44 the kingdom of heaven is the eschatological kingdom either just before its proper inception or in its consummation.

It is exceptionally difficult to decide exactly what form the progress of the kingdom of heaven takes since the message “the kingdom of heaven is at hand” is not the message of the Church.  I confess to not feeling able to take a decided position on the matter.  In my view the best option is to understand these Matthean parables as describing the route that elect, whether in the Church or not (i.e. Tribulation saints[2]), travel towards the coming age of fulfillment.[3]      

[1] Andreas J. Kostenberger, The Jesus of the Gospels, 93.

[2] By saying this I am showing my hand.  It lies ahead of me to try to prove that the NT distinguishes Church saints from pre and post Church saints (e.g., Israel and the Nations).  Unless we insist upon spiritualizing Revelation 21:23-26 we can readily see a distinction of peoples in the New Creation. It will also be my duty to argue for the removal of the Church before the Tribulation period.    

[3] Another less discussed yet glaring issue is the stubborn fact that the kingdom message of Jesus in the Gospels is not the same as the “Pauline” message of the Church.  Like it or not, the crowds were not hearing about the pending substitutionary death and resurrection of the Lord from either Him or His (clueless) disciples.  I shall seek to establish this fact later in this book. 


7 thoughts on “The Kingdom of Heaven in Matthew (5)”

  1. Thanks very much for this.

    I’ve understood also that John the Baptist’s and Jesus’ “the kingdom of heaven is at hand” message is not the same as the Church’s.
    But I’ve seen it argued that when Jesus was rejected in Mt 13 that message ceased and we can see evidence of his ministry taking a different turn in terms of the kinds of parables he taught, and the things he said, etc. Arnold Fruchtenbaum for instance teaches this. It is vague with me now but I recall many years ago thinking that this could be demonstrated in Matthew but when looking at harmonies of the gospels that kind of evidence was not so clear cut.
    If I understand you correctly you don’t take this view anyway. In your 18 Oct post you write “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.”
    I really am puzzled on the relationship between the original message of the kingdom being at hand and the mysteries of the kingdom.

    1. Justin,

      The course-correction at Matt. 13 is standard Dispensational teaching and carries some justification. But as you say, once one factors in a harmony of the Gospels it becomes hard to maintain, especially because of Matthew’s thematic arrangement. Further to this, how could Jesus talk about “the word of the kingdom” in the middle of teaching in parables without a prior reference point? And where would that be unless it be the message Jesus and the disciples were preaching (“the kingdom of heaven is at hand”)?
      As for being puzzled, well, I am trying to set out a path that makes sense of the data.

      1. Good thanks very much for this response.

        It seems both theologically and logically sound to require that the kingdom John the Baptist and Jesus referred to would have been comprehended readily by their audience (the prior reference point argument). This rules out “spiritualising” OT concepts of the kingdom. But even if we can’t find clear evidence of a transition in Jesus’ teaching (once the gospels are harmonised) there must have been a change since he was being rejected.

        If though we do use this “prior reference point” argument to establish this point about the nature of the kingdom being preached, we are also then obliged to see some sort of continuity when Jesus talks about the word of the kingdom. So I see what you mean. Are you suggesting that there was a course correction in the message regarding the timing of the kingdom but concepts regarding growth, maturity, the fact that many would reject the kingdom were now brought to the fore in Jesus’ teaching? In other words, the parables don’t reflect a change in the nature of the kingdom. The parables are about how the word of the kingdom is received. I’m sorry. I’m just one of those guys who needs everything spelt out!

  2. You’re on the right track. I believe the (pre-known) rejection of Jesus in time meant that the kingdom itself became once more “eschatological”, although the offer was still there (e,g, Acts 3:19-21). The phrase “the kingdom of heaven is like” cannot be applied to the final eschatological kingdom. Therefore it has to apply to some other thing. I think it applies to the process through which the final kingdom comes about.

  3. That’s great, thanks very much. So there is no change in the nature of the kingdom. What then do we do with the phrase “mysteries of the kingdom” (Mt 13:11). If I’m understanding mysteries right there must be something in the parables that is newly revealed. Pentecost says the mystery is that “an entire age would intervene between the offer of the kingdom by the Messiah and Israel’s reception of the King and employment of full kingdom blessings” (Thy Kingdom Come, 1990 p. 219). Barbieri takes the same view (Bible Knowledge Commentary, p. 49). That makes sense as there is an intervening age due to the rejection of Jesus. But is this the meaning and not something else? Thanks again.

    1. Good question. The “mysteries of the kingdom” cannot mean the separation of the two advents of Christ (because that can be divined from the OT), but I do think Pentecost is right about the long intervention of “an entire age” (of the Church). That works.

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