Mark 4 and Matthew 13 offer an important selection of these stories. They are introduced with Mark’s phrase “The kingdom of God is like …” and Matthew’s “The kingdom of heaven is like …” (meaning the same; Matthew, writing to Jews reticent about using the name Yahweh, refers to God indirectly by naming the place from which he rules). In this series of parables, we learn the secret of the kingdom.
1. The kingdom does not come all at once. Though the Jews have expected the kingdom to arrive in fullness immediately, or at least very soon after the Messiah appears, this does not happen. Sometimes as Jesus talks about the kingdom, he speaks of it as if it is present already; at other times he suggests that it is coming in the future. Many of his parables help to explain this seeming contradiction. The parable of the sower and weeds teaches that in the present the kingdom comes by the “sowing” of the gospel. In the future the weeds will be separated from the wheat (Matthew 13:24–30, 36–43). The parables of the mustard seed and the yeast suggest that though the kingdom at present is small and seems insignificant, it will in the future be glorious and impossible to ignore (13:31–33; Mark 4:30–32). The parable of the net teaches that in the present all sorts of fish are gathered in to the kingdom, but in the future there will be a great separation (Matthew 13:47–50).
Thus, the kingdom Jesus describes is both present and future: already begun here, not yet here in fullness. But this is not a contradiction, and Jesus is not mistaken. How then can something as important as God’s kingdom have these two apparently opposite qualities? How does it stand in tension between “already” and “not yet”?
In the parables Jesus offers his bewildered followers a resolution of this “already-not yet” quality of the kingdom. With the coming of the kingdom, the Jews expect the present evil age to pass away quickly. The parable of the weeds teaches them that the power of evil continues alongside the new healing power that has come into the world in Jesus. The age to come overlaps with the old age; the powers of both are present.
2. In the present, the kingdom does not come with irresistible power. The Jews have expected that when God’s kingdom arrives, no enemy would be able to resist it. They remember Nebuchadnezzar’s dream in which a rock not cut by human hands (representing the kingdom of God) strikes a great statue (representing the world kingdoms of Babylon, Media, Persia, Greece, and in later interpretation Rome) and shatters it (Daniel 2). Daniel says: “The God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed.… It will crush all those kingdoms and bring them to an end, but it will itself endure forever” (2:44). Surely God will sweep his enemies away. Who can stand against the power of God?
But Jesus says: “Listen! A farmer went out to sow his seed” (Mark 4:3). And what a different picture emerges in the parable of the sower (4:1–20; Matthew 13:1–23). The Messiah does not come as a military conqueror but as a humble farmer. The kingdom does not arrive in irresistible power and force but by the message of the kingdom. The seed falls on the footpath, in rocky places, and among thorns—producing no fruit. In other words, listeners can reject the call of the kingdom and may well seem to be none the worse for it. Certainly no great rock hurtles from the sky to destroy those who refuse Jesus. The kingdom is hidden in a humble form and makes its way in the world in apparent weakness. In his ministry Jesus announces the message of the kingdom—the gospel—through his words, demonstrates it by his deeds, and embodies it in his life. The gospel is a seed, given to produce the fruit of the kingdom in the soil of receptive and believing hearts. Later Paul speaks of the gospel as the “power of God” (Romans 1:16), yet that power does not trample down or root out all resistance by force. The parable of the weeds gives us a picture of how this works (Matthew 13:24–30, 36–43). Jesus says: “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat.” The wheat and weeds appear together. When the servants want to root out the weeds, the farmer forbids this, explaining that at the harvest he will separate the good plants from the weeds. Some people receive the word, and God’s power brings about the fruit of the kingdom, but others reject that message—and seem to suffer no harm.
3. The final judgment of the kingdom is reserved for the future. Jesus’ hearers expect God’s judgment to fall swiftly on the ungodly. The prophets spoke of a day when God would bring his kingdom in by judging his enemies in his wrath (Isaiah 63:1–6). Redemption and wrath are two sides of one reality: God saves his creation by judging the enemies that have ruined it (61:2; 63:4). But the parable of the weeds (Matthew 13:24–30, 36–43) shows the Jews that the judgment they expect does not fall immediately. The workers in the field want to root out weeds p 148 immediately (13:28), but the owner instructs his servants to allow both wheat and weeds to grow together. At the end of the age the judgment will indeed fall; until then the powers of God’s kingdom and of evil must continue together.
Many other parables similarly illustrate a judgment postponed: good fish will be sorted from bad (13:47–50) and sheep from goats (25:31–46). The master who has entrusted money to his servants will return to settle accounts (25:14–30). Five maidens keep oil for their lamps and are ready for the return of the bridegroom (25:1–13). Two men invest their master’s money wisely and are commended for it; another who merely buries his money is condemned as a “wicked, lazy servant” and thrown into outer darkness (25:14–30). Jesus’ true followers are those whose lives imitate his: they feed the hungry, clothe the naked, offer drink to the thirsty, and visit the prisoner. These faithful ones are invited into the kingdom of the Father. But another group whose lives show nothing of Jesus’ own life are sent away at last to eternal punishment (25:31–46). When Jesus speaks of the final coming of the kingdom in his parables, he stresses readiness and faithfulness in the present. One is to respond to the message of the kingdom and live a life centered in Jesus until the last day.
4. The full revelation of the kingdom is postponed, to allow many to enter it during the present age. Since the coming of the kingdom has already begun in Jesus, why does God not complete his work? Why does he delay the final judgment? Why hide his kingdom’s glory and power? When we find an answer to these questions, we can begin to understand our own place and calling in the biblical story, between Jesus’ inauguration of the kingdom and its final revelation. One of Luke’s parables offers such an answer (Luke 14:15–24). A banquet is being made ready: the table is set and laden with food and drink. But there the host pauses; the guests must wait yet a little while. The enjoyment of the banquet is suspended—but the host has a very good reason for the delay. It is so that the lost can also be brought in to share at the banquet table. All—and especially the poor, the lost, the forgotten ones—are invited and welcomed to share in the banquet that is God’s kingdom. “This gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come” (Matthew 24:14). When the Pharisees mutter that Jesus is welcoming all the wrong people, he tells them three parables: of a lost sheep (Luke 15:3–7), a lost coin (15:8–10), and a lost son (15:11–32). When the lost son (who has for a time wandered from his home and family) repents and turns back, the Father welcomes him with joy and favor.
Jesus tells many parables—at least forty—and we have looked at only a sampling. Yet in these few, the main themes of Jesus’ teaching are p 149 evident: the parables reveal what the kingdom is really like, in contrast to the misunderstandings of Jesus’ hearers.[*]