This article is adapted from an excerpt of a talk titled “Things New and Old,” given at Reformation Fellowship (a church in Eugene, Oregon) on April 17, 2011, as the fifteenth talk in the series “The Mind of Christ.”
The Old Testament prophets spoke of a future time when God would send a king, the Messiah, the Christ, to rule over all creation. Through the rule of the Messiah, God’s perfect will would be established throughout the world: no longer would evil rulers resist God; no longer would death rob us of life. The kingdom of God and the kingdom of the Messiah would be the same kingdom: God’s rule would be fully established everywhere, and the world would be filled with righteousness and life through the rule of God’s chosen king, the Messiah. At the time of Jesus, the Jews were waiting expectantly for this kingdom, and yet their expectations left no room for a Messiah such as Jesus. They certainly believed that the coming of the Messiah, the King, would inaugurate the kingdom, but they did not expect a Messiah who would come and begin the process of establishing His kingdom—and then leave.
Well aware of His hearers’ misconceptions, Jesus gave a body of teaching that we now call “the kingdom parables.” These parables, found in the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 13, provide a new perspective on the nature of the kingdom Jesus came to establish. The scribes of Jesus’ day, the students and teachers of the law, were partly right and partly wrong in their expectations for the kingdom. They rightly believed that God’s kingdom would ultimately prevail over all ungodly opposition and that God’s people would live blessed lives as citizens of that kingdom forever. Where they went wrong is in expecting that the Messiah would come and do all that immediately. They were expecting the Messiah to come and do something big, obvious, immediate, and decisive. That is exactly not the picture that Jesus paints in the kingdom parables. Our purpose in this article, then, is to explore the very different picture of the kingdom found in Jesus’ kingdom parables.
Jesus starts with the parable (13:3-8) of the sower whose seed falls in various places: beside a road, on rocky places, among thorns, and on good soil. This parable portrays the Messiah coming as a preacher, proclaiming the word of the kingdom. The different places the seed falls illustrate the kinds of hearts upon which the word falls. The point of the parable is that the state of the heart that hears that gospel is what is most important. If we are not committed enough to the gospel to withstand the disapproval of others, then we will not last. If we love the riches of this world more than the kingdom, then we will not last. Only those who deeply and personally embrace the gospel from a sincere heart will make it into the kingdom. The Messiah does not come in power and throw out the Romans; He comes as a preacher with a message that must be heeded.
Next, Jesus tells a parable (13:24-30) about a man who sows good seed, but whose enemy sneaks in and sows tares among the good plants. The wheat and the tares are indistinguishable at first, so the farmer waits until the crops grow up, and only then does he pull out the weeds. The Messiah is doing this same thing: He has “planted” His true followers in the world; but there are also evil people among the faithful, and He is just going to let them grow together until the end. The Messiah does not come to immediately throw out the pagans and bless the Jews; He preaches His message and waits patiently while the believers and unbelievers live together.
The next parable (13:31-32) also highlights the need for patience. Jesus says that the kingdom is like a mustard seed, which is very small but which eventually grows into the biggest plant in the garden. The Jews expected a Messiah who would start big and stay big, whereas Jesus taught that the Messiah comes and starts His kingdom in such a small way that one can hardly see it. Eventually, however, it will overwhelm everything else. In fact, it starts with a peasant-nobody, a wandering preacher who has a few followers and then is executed—not an auspicious beginning for a kingdom.
A very similar point is made by the next parable (13:33), which says that the kingdom is like leaven, like a little piece of yeast that gets hidden in dough but ultimately leavens the whole loaf of bread. Again, this is a picture of something that starts small and hidden and yet ultimately prevails. That is not the kind of Messiah the Jews were expecting.
In the next parable (13:44-46), Jesus rejects the idea that the kingdom comes in an obvious and glorious way. Instead, He says the kingdom is like a treasure hidden in a field. A man finds the treasure, and then he hides it again and goes and buys the field. The man is glad to give everything he owns for that field, but everyone else looks and thinks, “Why would he pay so much for a stupid field?” Jesus is saying that it takes discerning eyes to see the value of the kingdom and give everything you have to pursue it. The scribes of Jesus’ day would not say this; rather they believed the Messiah would come and establish a kingdom so obviously big and powerful and grand that any fool could see how great it is. And anyway, why would anyone have to pay a price to get into the kingdom after the Messiah comes?
Jesus makes the same point when He tells the story (13:45-46) of a pearl merchant, who recognizes a pearl that is so valuable that he would give everything he has to get it. Again, it is the one with discernment that recognizes the true worth of the kingdom. But the Jews would not expect the kingdom to operate in this way. Why would anyone be trying to sort out whether the kingdom is valuable after the Messiah comes?
In the last story (13:47-48), Jesus highlights the idea of time again. He tells a story about a fisherman who throws out a dragnet. He catches all kinds of things in the net, but only at the end of the day does he sit down and sort through it, keeping only the good fish. Again, we see that for a while the good and bad will be mixed together, and it is only at the end that they will be sorted out.
Here, then, is the picture that emerges from Jesus’ kingdom parables: The Messiah has come, and yet He has not come to wrap things up. Rather He has come to preach a message, and He is calling true hearts to believe Him. For a long time the progress of the kingdom will be slow and hidden, but the people of the Messiah will see the hidden value of the kingdom He proclaims. In fact, the discerning person will hear in the Messiah’s message something so valuable that he or she would gladly give anything to have it. The Messiah’s people must be willing to face the rejection of the world to follow Him; they must want the kingdom more than they want the riches of the world. For a long time the power and victory of the kingdom will be hidden. Only at the end, when the Messiah comes again, will His people be gathered into His kingdom and His enemies be defeated. In other words, the Messiah comes first to call for repentance and to plant the seeds of His kingdom. Only later will what He started come to its fruition. In the meantime, what is most important is repentance and faith.
The kingdom that Jesus proclaims, therefore, is in some ways similar and in other ways very different from the expectations of the Jewish scribes. Jesus highlights this point at the end of the kingdom parables with an interesting mini-parable (13:52). He asks His disciples whether they have understood what they have just heard, and when they answer, “yes,” He tells them:
Therefore every scribe who has become a disciple of the kingdom of heaven is like a head of a household, who brings forth out of his treasure things new and old.
Jesus is speaking to the twelve, to the ones whom He has chosen to be His representatives. It is going to be their job to teach us all what Jesus has been saying; in that sense, they will be like the scribes, the teachers of the law. They are going to teach about the kingdom of heaven found in the Scriptures, but they are going to teach about it from their perspective as disciples of Jesus. Jesus, therefore, is telling them that their understanding of His teaching is going to lead them to act like a householder whose treasures include both the new and the old.
Let’s think about the householder Jesus describes here. The householder brings forth out of his treasure things he has gathered over time that contribute to his wealth, security, and happiness. Some are “old” and some are “new.” The wise householder is a pragmatist; he keeps old and new things—old things with enduring value, new things to replace old things that are broken down and worthless. Jesus is asking his disciples to consider how a smart householder thinks: he keeps what is valuable and makes him wealthy. He does not keep stuff just because it is old or just because it is new; if the old is valuable, he keeps it; but if not, then he throws it out and gets something new.
The scribe who has become a disciple of Jesus, who has embraced Jesus’ vision of the kingdom, will think like the prudent householder. The prudent scribe is not a traditionalist, teaching what is old just because it is traditional; nor is he a revolutionary, throwing away all traditions and only teaching what is new. The prudent scribe teaches what has value, which will be some old things and some new things. He will still proclaim the kingdom that the Scriptures have always proclaimed: the Messiah is ultimately going to establish the rule of God over all the earth. But this scribe will have to correct His traditional picture of how that will happen: the Messiah does not start with power and glory; He starts with a message and a ministry, calling a people to Himself. Only those with sincere hearts and eyes to see will respond. And it will be a long time before the kingdom finally grows up into the world-conquering power it will eventually be.
Jesus’ concept of the kingdom, as portrayed in the kingdom parables, is both traditional and revolutionary. He has not rejected the idea that one day God’s kingdom will conquer all evil and death, but He has shifted the focus from the external to the internal. The Messiah did not come to immediately solve our worldly problems; He has come to demand something of us. He has come to test our hearts. We have to decide whether we want to find a place in His kingdom. We have to decide whether we will persevere in seeking His kingdom even if the world hates us for it. We have to decide whether we want the kingdom more than worldly wealth and power. We have to have “eyes to see”—that is, we have to recognize that a kingdom of righteousness and life is worth more than anything. And we have to wait with patience and trust for that kingdom to come.