“The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” Matthew 13.31, 32
The parables and teachings of our Lord Jesus Christ concerning the Kingdom of God reveal just how important this new reality was to His mission. As we have seen, the Kingdom of God held the primacy in Jesus message. It was the defining motif and the overarching objective in all His work and teaching.
Jesus, moreover, insisted on the proximity of the Kingdom, that it had come and was being “brought near” by Him and His mission, and would come in an even fuller and more significant way within the lifetimes of those who heard Him.
Given the primacy and priority of the Kingdom, it is to be expected that Jesus would enlarge on the priorities of that heavenly domain which He had now brought into the sphere of human history. Those priorities – knowing the Lord and bearing lasting fruit – would be identifying marks of all who followed Jesus in seeking, proclaiming, and serving in the Kingdom of God.
A final element of our Lord’s vision of the Kingdom involves His unmistakable sense that the Kingdom of God would grow and make progress upon the earth, by the means and according to the characteristics He exemplified and taught throughout His earthly ministry. We cannot read the gospel accounts of Jesus’ teaching about the Kingdom and not see that, in His mind, the Kingdom He had brought near, by His saving work and Gospel proclamation, would, wherever it took root, make progress and grow to bring forth the fruit evidenced in His own life and insisted on in His teaching.
We may observe this insistence on the progress of the Kingdom in four ways, after which we will summarize two implications that arise from Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom of God.
Parables and miracles of growth
Many of the parables Jesus taught about the Kingdom of God have to do with the idea of growth, as, for example, the parable of the mustard seed.
The Kingdom is “sown” into the earth – symbolic of the preaching of the Word – and, wherever it finds welcoming soil, it takes root and begins to grow. As it grows it becomes visible, prominent, fruit-bearing, and beneficial to all who participate in its fruit.
The parables in Matthew 13 are typical of this emphasis (we’ll hold off on the parable of the wheat and tares for the moment). In the parable of the sower, good seed grows in good soil and bears fruit for those for whom it is intended (vv. 1-8, 18-23).
The parables of the mustard seed and the leaven equally emphasize the growing and expanding character of the Kingdom (vv. 31-33). The parable of the fish net (vv. 47-50) is interesting in that it demonstrates that not all those who are gathered into the “net” of the Kingdom are actually among those for whom the Kingdom is intended. Many, it seems, will enjoy the benefits introduced by the Kingdom of God, and perhaps even consider themselves full-fledged citizens therein, only to be disqualified in the end because they neither know the Lord nor bear the fruit which such knowledge produces (cf. Matt. 7.21-23).
Such parables, accompanied by miracles emphasizing astonishing multiplications (feeding the thousands, water into wine, sudden large catches of fish) impress us not only with Jesus’ sense of the inevitability of the progress of His Kingdom, but of His determination and ability to bring that progress to pass. This is a vision of the Kingdom which, as we have seen comports well with what previous Kingdom visionaries also anticipated.
Called to bear fruit
It is inconceivable that Jesus would have commanded His disciples to bear fruit in the four ways we previously noted unless He actually intended them to do so, and expected them to strive for such fruit.
Jesus envisioned His rule growing in and through His followers unto love for God and men, righteousness, the multiplication of disciples, and the reconciliation of all things to God through Him. This expectation of and command for fruitfulness marked out specific parameters of Kingdom progress for the followers of Christ, both as individuals and as communities, and is a second evidence that Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom was one of progress and development.
Resistance and persecution
Jesus taught His followers that they should expect to be opposed, even to the point of persecution, by advocates of the prevailing worldviews (cf. Jn. 15.18-25). These words do not appear to have been intended only for His immediate circle of disciples, any more than was His prayer in John 17 (cf. v. 20). The first Christians were persecuted in conjunction with the growth and spread of the Christian faith, as it challenged the religious, political, and social and cultural worldviews of the day. If the Gospel had not spread, and if it had not promoted a way of life which challenged the existing worldviews, the Christians would have been left to their religion, just like all the other cults and sects of the day.
But it was the expansive nature of the Gospel, coupled with the radical claims of the Kingdom and the dramatic evidence of the power of the Spirit, that provoked advocates of the settled worldviews to persecute the Church, and have done so in every age. Men will not sit quietly by while their familiar way of life is being turned upside-down, unless, of course, they have been subdued by a love which they cannot ignore and transformed by a power they cannot resist.
Jesus knew His followers would be persecuted in every age because He foresaw the continuing enlargement and advance of His Kingdom on earth, as it is in heaven, as a powerful presence challenging and overthrowing every pretense of men (cf. Dan. 2.44, 45).
The parable of the wheat and the tares
This is perhaps the most paradigmatic of Jesus’ parables concerning the Kingdom of God (Matt. 13.24-30, 36-43). In this parable Jesus envisioned the impact of the Kingdom through all of time, from the first sowing of the Gospel to the final harvest of the saints. He spoke in terms of the whole world, and envisioned it as a field throughout which the Gospel is sown and the Kingdom brings forth fruit among the entire population of the earth. He understood there would be opposition – symbolized by the tares – but, in the end, when the angels return to harvest the field, the world will be, as Jesus saw it, a wheat field, ready to be harvested, and not a weed field, waiting to be burned.
Jesus brought a new era, a new realm and power, into the affairs of men and nation. And He was persuaded that nothing, not even the gates of hell, would be able to prevent the progress and growth of this new Kingdom which His coming heralded and brought near (Matt. 16.18).
Two implications attend to this aspect of Jesus vision. We may state these succinctly.
First, Jesus did not envision His Kingdom coming in it full and complete form prior to His own return in glory. While the Kingdom will make progress, as His followers evangelize the world and build the Church, the full realization of that promised realm awaits the consummation of history, the day of judgment, and the new heavens and new earth.
So we must not overly confident concerning how much real progress we may expect to achieve in this life. At the same time, the followers of Christ must always strive to live up to His vision of progress along the four fronts we considered in our last installment, even in the face of stiff resistance.
Second, the progress of the Kingdom reinforces the priority of the Kingdom and makes seeking the Kingdom and its righteousness all that much more important as the commanding perspective of the life of faith (Matt. 6.33). Jesus did come to bring a faith with merely personal and subjective applications. He came to bring near a Kingdom, a Kingdom that is filling and transforming the nations of the world, and He calls us to seek that Kingdom, as a mighty struggle, in the full expectation that progress can be achieved, even if complete victory must wait.
- Would you describe your experience of being a Christian thus far as eagerly expecting progress in the rule of Christ in and through your life? Why or why not?
- If all the churches in a community shared this vision of the Kingdom, and them as the agents of that Kingdom, would you expect this to impact the community in any particular ways? Which?
- Why do you think that, for most believers – or so it seems – the Kingdom of God is little more than a tenet of faith to profess, rather than, say, a set or marching orders to obey?
T. M. Moore