The Kingdom Hope in the Parables of Jesus

Copyright © Tim Warner

The Nature and Purpose of Parables

The Gospels contain several Kingdom parables. But, before we address the meanings of these parables, we need to first look at parables in general.

Matthew 13:34-35
34 All these things Jesus spoke to the multitude in parables; and without a parable He did not speak to them,
35 that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, saying: “I will open My mouth in parables; I will utter things kept secret from the foundation of the world.”

Matthew stated two important facts in the above verses.

First, that Jesus spoke to the crowds exclusively by parables. That is, he did not teach them using plain literal speech. His teaching to them was through cryptic stories that needed to be interpreted before they could be understood. Neither did Jesus expound the meaning of His parables to the crowds. He left them to wonder what they meant, knowing that those with “ears to hear” would indeed hear and understand.

Second, this was in order to fulfill a specific Old Testament prophecy, Psalm 78:2. Jesus was the prophesied One, the one to reveal what had been a mystery up until this time, “kept secret from the crashing down of the world.” His parables were one of the ways Jesus began to reveal the mystery kept secret from the beginning.

After telling the parable of the Sower to the crowds, Jesus ended with His usual comment:“He who has ears to hear, let him hear!” Mark 4:9. Mark recorded an interesting exchange between Jesus and the disciples immediately after His telling this parable. “But when He was alone, those around Him with the twelve asked Him about the parable. And He said to them, ‘To you it has been given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God; but to those who are outside, all things come in parables, so that ‘Seeing they may see and not perceive, and hearing they may hear and not understand; lest they should turn, and their sins be forgiven them’.” (Mark. 4:10-12).

Jesus did not expound the meaning of His parables to the crowds or the religious leaders. Only when He was alone with His followers did He explain the meaning of these cryptic stories in plain language. The disciples asked Him why He did not teach the crowds plainly. Jesus’ reply may seem strange to modern Christians. After all, didn’t He come to offer salvation to the whole world? Yet, Jesus said the reason He did not teach the crowds plainly was because it was not for them to understand the mystery, but only for the disciples.

Jesus used obscure language with the crowds and religious leaders “so that ‘Seeing they may see and not perceive, and hearing they may hear and not understand; lest they should turn, and their sins be forgiven them’.” (Jesus’ quoting Isaiah 6:9-10). In effect, Jesus left them in their self-imposed state of blindness for a reason. His parables were meant to conceal as well as reveal, depending on the audience.

Jesus did not come the first time to convert the whole nation of Israel to His message. Nor did He come merely as a reformer of Israel, or a radical rabbi. Neither did He come to offer them the political Kingdom immediately if they would just believe on Him. He came to be “despised and rejected of men” (Isaiah 53:3), and to be “a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). Keeping the nation of Israel in the dark about the real reason for His first coming was a necessary part of God’s redemptive plan. Jesus first had to be “led as a lamb to the slaughter” (Isaiah 53:7).

In Peter’s first sermon on the Day of Pentecost, he told the Jewish crowd that Jesus was “delivered by the determined purpose and foreknowledge of God.” Yet, they remained guilty. “You have taken by lawless hands, have crucified, and put [Him] to death” (Acts 2:23). The willful rejection of Jesus by the Jews was a crucial component in God’s plan. Their being kept in the dark about the real purpose for Jesus’ first coming was essential if His rejection and crucifixion were to proceed according to the plan of God. 

As we read the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ interaction with the religious leaders, it is increasingly obvious that Jesus provoked them on purpose. The closer we get to the crucifixion, the more blatant and stinging were Jesus’ public rebukes of the scribes, chief priests, and Pharisees. Matthew 23 describes the climax of this antagonism, with Jesus’ open denouncement of the religious leaders as “hypocrites” in front of the crowds of people gathered at the Temple for the Passover week’s festivities. It is as though Jesus was encouraging them to reject Him and crucify Him (to the utter dismay of His disciples).

To those who chose to follow Him, Jesus said it was given to them to understand the mystery of the Kingdom. Jesus taught His true followers by parables, interpreting His own parables, and by plain teaching in literal terms. These are the ones who became Jesus’ Church. These are the men that He later sent out to make converts of the Gentile nations, and teach them to “observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:20).

Jesus explained many things plainly to His disciples, including the events of His second coming. Yet, He did not expound the main reason for His first coming until the day of His resurrection. Yes, He told them on a couple of occasions that He must be killed, and would rise again the third day. But He did not explain why it was necessary for the Jewish Messiah to suffer and be rejected by the nation of Israel. Not until the Sunday of His resurrection did Jesus reveal the whole mystery to His disciples, including the reason it was necessary for Israel to reject Him. Luke, Paul’s traveling companion, is the only one of the four Gospel writers to plainly tell about Jesus’ revelation of the mystery to His disciples just before sending them out to the nations with the Gospel. 

According to Luke, Jesus met two of the disciples walking on the road to Emmaus shortly after His resurrection. For the very first time He clearly explained the purpose of the crucifixion. They were still in mourning, not recognizing Him, nor understanding the reports of the empty tomb. As Jesus joined them, He asked why they were so glum. They recounted the story of the crucifixion, saying that they had believed Jesus was the Messiah of Israel. Jesus responded,

“’O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken! Ought not the Christ to have suffered these things and to enter into His glory?’ And beginning at Moses and all the Prophets, He expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself.” (Luke 24:25-27).

Wouldn’t you have liked to be privy to that sermon? Can you imagine walking with Jesus as He unveiled every Old Testament Scripture about Himself, and the reason for His suffering? The two disciples certainly were deeply moved by this speech. After reflecting on this incident, they said to one another, “’Did not our heart burn within us while He talked with us on the road, and while He opened the Scriptures to us?’” (Luke 24:32). That same afternoon, Jesus appeared to the rest of the disciples gathered in Jerusalem. After their initial shock at seeing Him alive, and handling Him to be sure He was not a ghost, Jesus said to them,

“’These are the words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things must be fulfilled which were written in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms concerning Me.’ And He opened their understanding, that they might comprehend the Scriptures. Then He said to them, ‘Thus it is written, and thus it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead the third day, and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. And you are witnesses of these things. Behold, I send the Promise of My Father upon you; but tarry in the city of Jerusalem until you are endued with power from on high.’” (Luke 24:44-49).

Now it all began to make sense to the disciples. Those strange words and actions of Jesus the night of His betrayal, when He told them all to drink the wine as a symbol of His blood of the New Covenant, and eat of the bread as a symbol of His body broken for them, suddenly became clear. On this resurrection Sunday, Jesus took them through the entire Old Testament, explaining each and every prophetic Scripture that referred to Himself and the atoning work of the Messiah before entering into His glory.

You can bet that the disciples spent considerable time soaking in the meanings of Isaiah 53, Psalm 22, and many other passages that are much more obscure. Yet, there they were, suddenly clearly understood by the disciples. The Messiah had to provide the atonement for sin. The New Covenant had to be inaugurated with the blood of the Messiah Himself, before He could enter into His glory, and rule in His coming Kingdom. All those animal sacrifices they had offered year after year were merely prophetic of Christ and His atoning work.

The mystery had been revealed by Christ through the prophetic Scriptures. It was there all along. But, it was not understood either by the religious leaders, the crowds, or even Jesus’ own disciples. It had to be kept secret for one very important reason. Had all this gotten out before the crucifixion, God’s eternal plan could have been derailed. Paul tells us why. “But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, the hidden wisdom which God ordained before the ages for our glory, which none of the rulers of this age knew; for had they known, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.” (1 Corinthians 2:7-8).

The crucifixion was necessary. Therefore, secrecy from both the Jews and demonic powers was necessary until after Jesus was crucified. This is why Jesus spoke to the crowds and religious leaders in parables, and why when teaching His disciples he spoke plainly of His second coming, but not the reason for His first coming. 

Two Kinds of Kingdom Parables

Many Christians are not aware that there are two types of Kingdom parables. The first type refers to the Kingdom as something that starts very small, and eventually grows into something huge. 

Matthew 13:31-33
31 Another parable He put forth to them, saying: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and sowed in his field,
32 “which indeed is the least of all the seeds; but when it is grown it is greater than the herbs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and nest in its branches.”
33 Another parable He spoke to them: “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven, which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal till it was all leavened.”

In both of these parables, the Kingdom begins very small. A mustard seed is extremely small. Yet, a very large tree grows slowly from a single seed. Likewise, leaven is but a small pinch of powder, added to the dough. Yet, it eventually leavens the whole loaf during the baking process. Both of these parables indicate that the Kingdom would begin in a very small way, and grow over time into something very large. 

Of course, this idea seems to conflict with premillennialism, which sees the Kingdom as coming exclusively at the second coming of Christ in a blaze of glory, and is immediately a universal Kingdom. How do we as premillennialists account for this? On the other hand, amillennialists cannot properly account for the other parables that place the Kingdom on earth after the judgment and second coming.

The reason for this apparent conflict is not because premillennialism is wrong. It is because of the failure of both premillennialists and amillennialists to understand the progressive nature of the Kingdom, and its coming to earth in stages.

The parable of the mustard seed and the parable of the leaven both referred to Jesus’ founding His Church. He started with only a small band of disciples. Yet, His Church has grown into a world-wide body with millions of believers. Eventually it will contain a remnant from every tribe, nation, and language on earth (Revelation 5:9). Yet, Jesus called this the “Kingdom,” in the above parables, during this gradual expansion in the present age.

Are we to assume then that the Kingdom has already come, and there is no future rule of Christ on earth, as amillennialists teach? Absolutely not! Jesus gave more Kingdom parables that fully support the premillennial understanding of the Kingdom.

What many premillennialists have failed to see is that the Kingdom comes in two stages. First, it came as a seed. Jesus called out of Israel a little band of followers. He sent them out into the whole world to preach the Gospel of the Kingdom (Matthew 24:14). They were his “mustard seed,” destined to produce a large tree. They were the “leaven,” sent to leaven the whole “loaf” of mankind. Jesus’ Kingdom came in a small way at first. Those who believed on Him, accepting Him as the Christ, the Son of God, willingly submitted to His rule over them personally. Believers have made Jesus Christ their King voluntarily, and seek to obey Him despite the fact that most of the world around us flatly rejects His dominion.

In the present age, His Kingdom continues to grow, as more and more people submit to Him as their King. The goal of this ever expanding Kingdom now is to make some disciples from every nation and ethnic people. When we pray, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” we are praying and yearning for the goal of this process, when the whole world will bow before Him and submit to His authority as King of kings and Lord of lords.

However, that will not happen for everyone voluntarily. The current expansion of the Kingdom on earth will become large, as Jesus indicated in these parables. But, it will still only include a remnant from each nation. Once that occurs, Jesus will return in person, subdue all the nations, overthrow their armies, and establish His world-wide Kingdom in Jerusalem, taking His seat upon the Throne of David. Those who have voluntarily submitted to His rule in this age, and who have been faithful stewards, will rule with Him in the next over those nations. That is, we as Christians are now being trained and tested for positions of authority in His coming political Kingdom. This second phase of the Kingdom is the topic of the second kind of Kingdom parables.

There is no need to deal with all of the Kingdom parables, since they all teach similar things about Christ’s second coming. Rather, we will deal with the one parable that contains by far the most information, the Wheat and Tares.

The Wheat and Tares

Matthew 13:24-30
24 Another parable He put forth to them, saying: “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field;
25 “but while men slept, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat and went his way.
26 “But when the grain had sprouted and produced a crop, then the tares also appeared.
27 “So the servants of the owner came and said to him, ‘Sir, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have tares?’
28 “He said to them, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The servants said to him, ‘Do you want us then to go and gather them up?’
29 “But he said, ‘No, lest while you gather up the tares you also uproot the wheat with them.
30 ‘Let both grow together until the harvest, and at the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, “First gather together the tares and bind them in bundles to burn them, but gather the wheat into my barn.”‘

This parable is critical, not only because of the clear end-time details, but because it covers the entire age in which we live. It is impossible to chop this parable up, and put its application outside of the “Church age,” as pretribulationists are fond of doing with Jesus’ teaching. The reason is that the wheat and tares are left to grow side by side from Jesus’ time through the present age until the harvest — Christ’s coming. Since the parable obviously includes this time in which we now live, the harvest necessarily concerns Christians. 

Later in the chapter, Jesus explained this parable to His disciples as follows: 

Matthew 13:36-43
36 Then Jesus sent the multitude away and went into the house. And His disciples came to Him, saying, “Explain to us the parable of the tares of the field.”
37 He answered and said to them: “He who sows the good seed is the Son of Man.
38 “The field is the world, the good seeds are the sons of the kingdom, but the tares are the sons of the wicked one.
39 “The enemy who sowed them is the devil, the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are the angels.
40 “Therefore as the tares are gathered and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of this age.
41 “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,
42 “and will cast them into the furnace of fire. There will be wailing and gnashing of teeth.
43 “Then the righteous will shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears to hear, let him hear!

There are several important points we wish to make from this parable.
First, the one sowing the good seed is Christ Himself (v. 37). Jesus (not Paul) was the one to first proclaim the Gospel, and announce the initial coming of the Kingdom. The book of Hebrews, probably written by Paul, concurs. “How shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation, which at the first began to be spoken by the Lord, and was confirmed to us by those who heard Him,” (Hebrews 2:3). Therefore, the “wheat” in this parable are Christians, from the time of Christ’s disciples until the second coming. 

Second, notice the “wheat” living among the tares are the “sons of the Kingdom.” The field is the “world” — that is this present world system in which we live. Those of us who have received the Gospel and subjected ourselves to Christ our King, are now “sons of the Kingdom.” 

Third, the wheat and tares remain mixed together in the field until the harvest. There is no pre-tribulation rapture to remove the wheat seven years before the destruction of the tares. Both grow together until the harvest, and are harvested at the same time. [1] No one is taken to heaven. [2]

Fourth, when the harvest comes at the “end of the age.” the angels “will gather out of His kingdom” all those wholly given to wickedness and lawlessness. The words, “out of His Kingdom,” imply that the Kingdom was present during the former stage when the wheat and tares grew together. Yet, it is also present after the harvest. Jesus goes on to say, “the righteous will shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father.”  Here we have a clear indication that the Kingdom is present on earth both before and after Christ’s return, and the harvest at the end of the age. The purpose of the harvest is to eliminate those wholly given to wickedness, that is, the sons of Satan, planted by him. It is also to elevate the wheat to positions of authority, shining forth “as the sun” in the Kingdom. That is, to advance them to their positions as rulers of the earth in the Kingdom of Jesus Christ.

Conclusion

It is apparent that the Kingdom parables teach a two-staged coming of the Kingdom to earth. The first stage began with Christ’s earthly ministry, calling out of Israel a remnant to begin His Church. (The word “church” simply means a called out assembly, separate and distinct from the whole mass of humanity). His Kingdom grows now through the message of the Gospel. All who are willing can become “sons of the Kingdom” now.  Christ rules His Church now, through our willing submission to Him as our King. But He does not rule the whole world. This is obvious from the fact that most of mankind is in open rebellion against Christ.

Once there is a remnant of “sons of the Kingdom” from all nations, tribes, and ethnic peoples fit to rule the earth with Christ, He will return to harvest both the wheat and tares. The tares (those specifically planted by Satan to disrupt God’s plan) will be destroyed, cast into everlasting punishment. But the wheat will be exalted to places of honor in the Kingdom. Finally, it is the angels who will perform the work of gathering both the wheat for reward, and the tares for destruction.3

Notes

[1]   Both are harvested at the “end of the age” (v. 39). However, in the parable, Jesus said the reapers were ordered to first gather the tares, bind them in bundles for the purpose of being burned (v. 30), and then gather the wheat in the barn. Nothing suggests that the tares were burned before the wheat is gathered into the barn, only bound in bundles. Jesus was using imagery familiar to the disciples who lived in an agricultural society. They were no doubt familiar with the common practice of separating wheat and tares at the time of harvest. The typical procedure was to gather the tares first, bind them in bundles, and leave them in the field. After harvesting the wheat, the fields were burned to get rid of the debris, including the tares left in piles of bundles. This scenario fits a posttribulation rapture perfectly. Joel 3:2, Zech. 14:2, & Rev. 16:12-16 indicate that the wicked opponents of Christ will be gathered and brought down to Jerusalem for the battle of the Day of the Lord. This corresponds to the gathering of the tares first — Satan’s devoted followers bent on defeating Christ at His coming (see Revelation 19:19-21). The gathering of the wheat would then follow the gathering and binding of the tares. Finally, the wicked would be destroyed.

[2]   The concept of the righteous being taken to heaven when Christ returns is not taught in any of Jesus’ parables or plain teaching to His disciples. It is a concept totally foreign to the Gospels. All of Jesus’ Kingdom parables point to either the present state of the Kingdom on earth, or to the inauguration of Christ’s political Kingdom at His coming. The inheritance of the righteous is always related to the Kingdom (eg. Matthew 8:11). Some have mistakenly supposed that Matthew’s use of the term “Kingdom of Heaven” refers to heaven itself. But, the parallel passages in the other Gospels use the phrase, “Kingdom of God.” Both terms are synonymous, meaning the Kingdom of God. Both terms are derived from Daniel’s prophecy of the Kingdom in Daniel 2:44. “And in the days of these kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom which shall never be destroyed…”  In reality, it is the Kingdom of the God of heaven, “Kingdom of God” or “Kingdom of heaven” for short. Many passages in Matthew make it clear that the “Kingdom of heaven” is what was promised to Israel (cf. Matthew 3:2, 4:17, etc). Also, the Sermon on the Mount equates inheritance of the “Kingdom of Heaven” with inheriting the earth. (cf. Matthew 5:3,5 & Psalm 37:9,11, 22).  The idea is that the Kingdom of the God of heaven comes to earth from heaven.

3.   That the angels gather the righteous at Jesus’ coming is further established by Jesus in Matthew 24:31. “And He will send His angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they will gather together His elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.” This is perfectly compatible with Paul’s description of the rapture in 1 Thessalonians 4. Paul wrote that the living would be “caught up.” The Greek word means “to seize, to carry off by force” (Thayer).

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