Read the series.
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
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 saints2), 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.
Paul Martin Henebury is a native of Manchester, England and a graduate of London Theological Seminary and Tyndale Theological Seminary (MDiv, PhD). He has been a Church-planter, pastor and a professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics. He was also editor of the Conservative Theological Journal (suggesting its new name, Journal of Dispensational Theology, prior to leaving that post). He is now the President of Telos School of Theology.