What Is the Kingdom of Heaven Like?

What Is the Kingdom of Heaven Like?

I’ve gotten lucky these past few weeks since both parables we’ve covered have included Jesus’ interpretation of them. This week, however, we’re going to look at five short parables—some only a sentence or two long—and since Jesus only comments upon one of them, we’re going to have to work at understanding their meaning so that we can better appreciate and apply them.

What we do know from our two weeks of considering parables is that Jesus used them to teach about the kingdom of heaven and as we’ll see this week’s parables are no exception. Short thpugh some of these parables may be, they’re about God’s kingdom having arrived in Jesus Christ, the King. Specifically this week we’re going to consider how or in what way or ways the kingdom of heaven is like:

  1. A mustard seed
  2. Yeast
  3. Treasure hidden in a field
  4. A merchant looking for fine pearls
  5. A net full of all kinds of fish

At first blush, it isn’t clear what these disparate items have in common or how each in its own way is able to provide some information about what the kingdom of heaven is like.

Taken in the order in which Jesus presented them, at least in Matthew’s telling, I’m going to suggest that these five parables—or parablettes as the case may be!—address three aspects of the kingdom of heaven, telling us: 1) How it grows; 2) How valuable it is; and 3) How it will one day be purified.

So first, how does the kingdom of heaven grow?

The parable of the mustard seed[1] addresses this question. Jesus begins by noting that the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that a man took and planted in his field (v. 31). He next notes that though the mustard seed is the smallest of all seeds, when it grows it is the largest of garden plants eventually becoming a tree—a tree large enough for birds to come and perch in its branches (v. 32).[2] Though not a huge tree, a mustard seed could grow to be between eight and twelve feet.[3]

Now before addressing the actual parable I want to make a quick—and tangential—note about Jesus calling the mustard seed the “smallest of all seeds.” Some who have sought to challenge Scripture’s authority have used this parable (among other passages) as a means of discounting biblical authority. They point out that since the mustard seed isn’t in fact the “smallest of all seeds” the Bible therefore could not possibly have come from God because it’s wrong on this point; the Bible has made an error of fact. What this criticism misses or actually misunderstands is that, as we’ve noted, by definition a parable uses everyday items or events to make a deeper point. In other words, Jesus isn’t making a scientific point here. He isn’t teaching that the smallest seed ever discovered on earth is a mustard seed. There certainly are seeds that are smaller than a mustard seed—for example, a sesame or poppy seed are both smaller. But since Jesus seeks to communicate and connect with his audience, he refers to a very small seed with which they all would have been familiar—a mustard seed. There’s no point in talking about the actual smallest seed in existence if in naming it your audience is going to look at you blankly because no one has ever heard of it!

So returning to the parable, Jesus’ point is simply that like a mustard seed, this smallest of seeds, God’s kingdom will start small but will grow and grow and grow.[4] And we who are living in the 21st century can bear witness to this. When Christ Jesus, the King of heaven’s kingdom, came to earth his kingdom initially consisted of twelve apostles. But, oh, did it ever spread! According to a Pew Center Study from December of 2012,[5] if we take into account all branches of Christianity, Christians now number 2.2 billion or about one-in-three people worldwide. As the study states, “Christianity has spread far from its historical origins and is geographically widespread. Indeed, the vast majority of Christians (99%) live outside the Middle East-North Africa region where Christianity began.” In fact less than 1% of the world’s Christians are found in the Middle East and North Africa. But in keeping with the language of the parable, today the greatest number of “birds”—or Christians—that are perched in the tree of Christianity come from:

Europe (26%),

Latin America and the Caribbean (24%),

and sub-Saharan Africa (24%).

About 13% live in Asia and the Pacific

and only 12% in North America.

If you combine them all together, that’s a lot of birds perched on Christianity’s branches. And yet, given that this only represents about a third of the world’s population, there are still many areas to which God’s kingdom needs to extend. Though the mustard seed of Christianity has grown into a tree, we still need laborers to go out to this harvest field.

The parable of the yeast[6] similarly tells how the kingdom of God grows. In verse 33 we read “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough.” As a small amount of yeast is able to spread through a large amount of flour, so too, did God’s small number of initial disciples spread throughout the world. We should take heart in reading this. So even though Christians comprise only 12% of religious believers in North America, we needn’t be discouraged. Even though, as we learned a few weeks ago, Massachusetts is tied for last—next to our neighbor New Hampshire—among those in the United States who consider themselves religious,[7] never mind Christian, we can nonetheless be encouraged. For as we live faithfully and testify to Christ day-by-day, God’s kingdom is able to grow like leaven. Though not yet fully visible, like leaven that slowly and surely spreads God’s kingdom is active and able to spread to those around us as we seek to live and speak truth in love to those who don’t yet know Christ Jesus, the King of heaven and earth.

So how does the kingdom of heaven grow? It grows like a small seed into a plant and then a tree with many branches. It grows like a small amount of yeast that is able to spread into a large amount of flour.

Next Jesus next addresses of what value the kingdom of heaven is. He does so by providing two parables, each of which is only a couple of sentences long. First, God’s kingdom “is like treasure hidden in a field.” I heard someone once explain the significance of this hidden treasure by noting that since banks didn’t exist during this time, when people were in a position of danger or war, they might bury their most prized possessions in the hope of returning one day to reclaim it. However, if the people were taken hostage or long periods of time lapsed or they died, these treasures might be lost or forgotten. This practice may explain how it is that a treasure came to be buried in a field to begin with.

Now when the man found this treasure, he realized it was of the highest worth. So much so that when he came across it, he “hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field” (v. 44). It doesn’t get much clearer than this. All of our worldly goods combined can’t begin to compare with the treasure of God’s kingdom. This man sold everything he had that he might own this treasure of immeasurable worth. This parable is reminiscent of a real-life encounter Jesus had with a young man we’ve come to refer to as the rich young ruler.[8] But in that case we have a different outcome. When the young ruler was told by Jesus to sell his possessions and give to the poor in order that he might have treasure in heaven, “he went away sad, because he had great wealth” (v. 21). And lest we judge too quickly—lest we too quickly see the speck in the eyes of another and miss the plank in our own[9]—we should search our own hearts and admit that the desire for wealth can be a lure to all of us. And even for those of us who are believers, it can be difficult to believe or imagine that as children of our heavenly Father we already own the greatest treasure available, that of knowing our Maker and LORD and his eternal Son, our Redeemer Jesus Christ, and his Holy Spirit who indwells us and who, along with Christ,[10] prays for us and has promised, along with the Father and Christ never to leave us or forsake us.[11] And interestingly, and certainly not coincidentally, in the passage in Hebrews which speaks of God never leaving or forsaking us, what immediately precedes this exhortation is, “Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said ‘Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.’” The point is that if we have God, that is, if we know and love God and know that we are known and loved by him, then what more could we possibly need or desire for even if we suffer or even if we die, he is with us and will welcome us into his heavenly kingdom? That is the value of the kingdom of heaven.

The second brief parable speaking of the worth of the kingdom of heaven similarly displays the single-minded focus that should typify our lives as kingdom people, as citizens of God’s kingdom. Here the kingdom of heaven is likened to, “a merchant looking for fine pearls” (v. 45) and just like the man who found the treasure in the field, the merchant, too, “When he found [a pearl] of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.” Even the riches of Solomon can’t compare with the riches of knowing God. Isn’t this why, as we recently noted, Jesus taught us to “Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things”—food, drink, clothing—“will be given to you as well”?[12] Knowing God and living according to the values of his kingdom—peace, justice, mercy, compassion, long-suffering; doing what we can that his will be done on earth as it is in heaven—these are the principles, these are the beliefs, these are the virtues that should characterize our lives—that should characterize our priorities—that should govern the decisions we make during our time here on earth.

Now Jesus’ final parable indicates, as did the parable of the wheat and tares (or weeds) last week, that one day, at the end of the earthly age God’s kingdom will be purified. Or another way of saying it, God’s kingdom will come and God’s will will be done on earth as it is in heaven. God’s will being done throughout heaven and earth will be a reality; it will be a matter of fact and no longer a matter merely of petition or prayer. Though when Christ the King arrived on earth, he inaugurated his Kingdom on earth, one day when he returns he will consummate it, he will bring it to completion. But for the time being both believers and unbelievers will continue to co-exist on this earth as God’s kingdom spreads. But one day, when the number comprising his kingdom is complete, the ungodly—that is, those who have rejected King Jesus—will be removed. And this is the theme addressed in the final parable we’ll be considering this morning.

Beginning with verse 47, Jesus said, “47 Once again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was let down into the lake and caught all kinds of fish. 48 When it was full, the fishermen pulled it up on the shore. Then they sat down and collected the good fish in baskets, but threw the bad away.” And with the final parable in this chapter Jesus does provide an explanation beginning with verse 49: “49 This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous 50 and throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” “There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” This is now the second time in as many weeks that we’ve seen this phrase. We saw it last week when Jesus explained the significance of the weeds to his disciples and concluded by saying that his angels would “throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (v. 42).

This is a part of the Gospel we don’t like to think about. This is a part of the Gospel I don’t like to think about. Yet if in sharing Christ’s Gospel we don’t speak of God’s judgment and the reality of heaven and hell, then we aren’t speaking the Gospel. For the Gospel is good news, yes; it’s good news about the Kingdom of heaven having arrived in Christ Jesus the King, God’s Son. But as we’ve noted, whether we’re talking about prophecy or parables, to neglect God’s communication, to neglect God’s Word to us, to neglect Christ’s Word to us, to neglect Christ’s life given for us will result in judgment. In this final parable we see yet again that the wicked who reject Christ and his Word will be separated from the righteous—that is, will be separated from those who accept and embrace Christ and his Word and are thereby righteous not by virtue of their own obedience and good works but by virtue of Christ’s obedience and good works. And these wicked ones, these bad fish, will be thrown “into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (v. 50). The reality of this, the sobering truth of what Jesus is teaching here should spur us, should encourage us, should convict us of the importance of sharing the totality about the truth of who Christ is with those who don’t yet know him. Though not all beliefs have eternal consequences, this one does. And so we should feel burdened and motivated to tell others the Good News about what God in Christ has done for us and our salvation; we should feel burdened and motivated to tell others about the greatness of God’s love and how he has offered up his Son in exchange for us that we might know, love, and enjoy him not only now now but forevermore.

Jesus concludes this parable by asking his disciples if they’ve “understood all these things?” and they indicate they have (v. 51). So Jesus then said to them, “Therefore every teacher of the law who has become a disciple in the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old” (52). As Matthew tells us earlier beginning with verse 34: “34 Jesus spoke all these things to the crowd in parables; he did not say anything to them without using a parable. 35 So was fulfilled what was spoken through the prophet:[13] ‘I will open my mouth in parables, I will utter things hidden since the creation of the world.’” By means of teaching in parables, Jesus has taken matters that were hidden, that were only partially disclosed by God to his prophets during Old Testament, and has now revealed them; has now disclosed them. The new treasure he speaks of in verse 52 is the clearer revelation, the more complete communication from God found in the New Testament. Jesus built upon the old treasure found in the storeroom of the Old Testament and so should we. And, again, the new treasure he provides now comprises our New Testament. These Old and New Testament treasures of God’s kingdom, these treasures of God’s Word, should ever guide and shape our lives in all that we do.

Sisters and brothers of Jesus Christ, our King; daughters and sons of God our heavenly Father, do you realize that all who know Christ have already been given the greatest treasure we could ever have—that of knowing, loving, and being known and loved by the God in whose image we’ve been made—and by whose Son we have been redeemed and reconciled to God—and by whose Holy Spirit we are indwelled and conformed to the beauty of his image?

Do you realize that we are the means he now chooses to cause his kingdom to grow on earth? That we are how the kingdom of heaven grows?

Do you realize that we are the ones entrusted with the message that all our earthly goods aren’t ours but his and so as good stewards we should use them to help expand his kingdom?

Do you realize that though one day all of earth will be judged that God desires to use us to draw as many to himself as possible? We are those who believe and understand that there’s a price, there’s a cost, to following Christ for he demands our greatest and highest love and devotion; but we also believe and understand that there’s a price, there’s a cost, to rejecting Christ and so we should be motivated to share the good news of his Kingdom with those whom he brings into our lives. Because we who are living in these great United States of America are a minority representing only 12% of those in N. America who profess faith in Christ, let us seek to be salt—and light—and laborers that our King Jesus might be lifted up and indeed draw all people to himself, by the wooing of his Spirit, to the glory of our kind and heavenly Father.

“Whoever has ears, let them hear.”[14]

Let us pray.

[1] Also found in Mark 4:30–32: 30 Again he said, “What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it? 31 It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest of all seeds on earth. 32 Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds can perch in its shade.” Luke 13:18–19: 18 Then Jesus asked, “What is the kingdom of God like? What shall I compare it to? 19 It is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his garden. It grew and became a tree, and the birds perched in its branches.”

[2] The image of the birds in the trees, may come from a reference to Gentiles in Ezekiel 17:23. According to the Reformation Study Bible, in this verse “the birds represent the Gentile nations taking refuge in the Messiah and enjoying the blessings of the covenant.” Ezekiel 17:22–24: 22 “This is what the Sovereign Lord says: ‘I myself will take a shoot from the very top of a cedar and plant it; I will break off a tender sprig from its topmost shoots and plant it on a high and lofty mountain. 23 On the mountain heights of Israel I will plant it; it will produce branches and bear fruit and become a splendid cedar. Birds of every kind will nest in it; they will find shelter in the shade of its branches. 24 All the trees of the forest will know that I the Lord bring down the tall tree and make the low tree grow tall. I dry up the green tree and make the dry tree flourish. I the Lord have spoken, and I will do it.’” Another suggestion from the Zondervan NIV Study Bible is that the image is taken from Daniel 4:21, “suggesting that the kingdom of heaven will expand to world dominion and that people from all nations will find rest in it (cf. Da 2:35, 44–45; 7:27; Rev 11:15).” Daniel 4:19b–22: Belteshazzar answered, “My lord, if only the dream applied to your enemies and its meaning to your adversaries! 20 The tree you saw, which grew large and strong, with its top touching the sky, visible to the whole earth, 21 with beautiful leaves and abundant fruit, providing food for all, giving shelter to the wild animals, and having nesting places in its branches for the birds— 22 Your Majesty, you are that tree! You have become great and strong; your greatness has grown until it reaches the sky, and your dominion extends to distant parts of the earth.

[3] Crossway ESV Study Bible.

[4] Matthew 17:20 later uses the mustard seed to represent how even just a little faith (vs. God’s kingdom) is able to have a large effect. Matthew 17:14–20: 14 When they came to the crowd, a man approached Jesus and knelt before him. 15 “Lord, have mercy on my son,” he said. “He has seizures and is suffering greatly. He often falls into the fire or into the water. 16 I brought him to your disciples, but they could not heal him.” 17 “You unbelieving and perverse generation,” Jesus replied, “how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring the boy here to me.” 18 Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of the boy, and he was healed at that moment. 19 Then the disciples came to Jesus in private and asked, “Why couldn’t we drive it out?” 20 He replied, “Because you have so little faith. Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.”

[5] < http://www.pewforum.org/2012/12/18/global-religious-landscape-christians/> Emphasis added.

[6] Also found in Luke 13:20–21: 20 Again he asked, “What shall I compare the kingdom of God to? 21 It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough.”

[7] “What Shall We Do?” Sermon on May 7, 2017 on Acts 2:14a, 37–47. The reference, also from Pew, is from: <http://pewrsr.ch/24wScqE> “What does it mean to be “highly religious”? In our analysis, this includes any adult who reports at least two of four highly observant behaviors – attending religious services at least weekly, praying at least daily, believing in God with absolute certainty and saying that religion is very important to them — while not reporting a low level of religious observance in any of these areas, such as seldom or never attending religious services, seldom or never praying, not believing in God and saying that religion is “not too” or “not at all” important in their life. We also define a person as “highly religious” if they report three highly religious behaviors and a low level of religiosity on a fourth measure.”

[8] Matthew 19:16–30: 16 Just then a man came up to Jesus and asked, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?” 17 “Why do you ask me about what is good?” Jesus replied. “There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, keep the commandments.” 18 “Which ones?” he inquired. Jesus replied, “‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, 19 honor your father and mother,’ and ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’” 20 “All these I have kept,” the young man said. “What do I still lack?” 21 Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” 22 When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth. 23 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. 24 Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” 25 When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, “Who then can be saved?” 26 Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” 27 Peter answered him, “We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?” 28 Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. 29 And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life. 30 But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first. (Parallels may be found in: Mark 10:17–27; Luke 18:18–27.)

[9] Matthew 7:5; Luke 6:41.

[10] On Jesus Christ praying for us, see: John 17:20–22: 20 “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 21 that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. Romans 8:34: Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.; On the Holy Spirit praying for us, see Romans 8:26–27: 26 In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. 27 And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.

[11] Deuteronomy 31:6: Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the Lord your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you. Hebrews 13:5: Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.”

[12] Matthew 6:33.

[13] Psalm 78:2 referred to as a maskil of Asaph. Psalm 78:1–3:My people, hear my teaching; listen to the words of my mouth. I will open my mouth with a parable; I will utter hidden things, things from of old— things we have heard and known, things our ancestors have told us. We will not hide them from their descendants; we will tell the next generation the praiseworthy deeds of the Lord, his power, and the wonders he has done.

[14] v. 9—parable of the sower; and 43b—parable of the sower explained.

Leave a Reply