A literal approach to Bible prophecy demands that a certain and glorious future remains for the nation of Israel and this prospect, as revealed in the Old Testament prophets, is indissolubly linked to the coming of Messiah to establish a world-wide kingdom. Israel will then be re-united, spiritually restored to Jehovah and regathered to her beloved homeland. This theological stance refutes the viewpoint that these Old Testament predictions are now fulfilled spiritually in the church which, it is claimed, has now become Israel. The literal method of interpretation contends that the church stands unique in God’s programme for this world and that during the church period God’s prophetic timetable has, in a sense, been paused.
The Kingdom parables stand as one of the greatest challenges to this literal interpretation of Bible prophecy. They have stretched the minds of generations of Bible students, sparked heated debate, and left many Christians feeling perplexed and uncertain as to their true meaning. What exactly is the Kingdom of God in Matthew chapter 13 and how does it relate to other mentions in the Bible, especially the Gospels? As with any other Bible study thread, we cannot study these parables in isolation, cut off from all other mentions of this concept in the Bible. Rather, we must view them in the context of scripture as a whole. To achieve this we will begin by explaining what the Kingdom of God is, firstly in the Old Testament, then in the New Testament Gospel records with the exception of the parables of the mysteries of the Kingdom of God. We will then show, from the Epistles, how Christian believers fit into God’s Kingdom programme. And having done these things, we will attempt to analyze the parables of the mysteries of the Kingdom of God, in their immediate context, and in relation to the scriptures as a whole.
What is the Kingdom of God?
The Kingdom of God, put very simply, is the sphere of God’s rule, where He holds sovereign control. In the Bible, the Kingdom of God appears to divide into two main phases: universal and mediatorial, ‘the first referring to the extent of the rule, the latter to the method of rule’.1 In the eternal state, universal and mediatorial aspects of the Kingdom of God will be one. God’s Kingdom is ‘everlasting’, Ps. 145. 13, having neither beginning nor end, and ‘over all’, Ps. 103. 19, without boundary – this is the universal aspect. The mediatorial aspect of the Kingdom of God is a more complex issue. It has been defined as: ‘(a) the rule of God through a divinely chosen representative who not only speaks and acts for God but also represents the people before God; (b) a rule which has especial reference to the earth; and (c) having as its mediatorial ruler one who is always a member of the human race’.2 I suggest two additional features: (d) God’s immediate presence; and (e) Israel the nation playing a central role – this seems to be the case as the biblical record unfolds.
When God gave Adam authority over creation He showed that it was His intention to rule this world through a human mediator, Gen. 1. 26. Adam forfeited this position of dominion and, ever since, God has been working in human history towards His initial objective of ruling this world through a man. After the flood – divine judgement on a world filled with unrestrained wickedness – God promised that He would never again destroy the world with a flood of waters; this covenant was signalled by a rainbow, Gen. 9. 11. Hand-in-hand with this promise was the introduction of human government, designed to restrain evil, Gen. 9. 6; cf. Rom. 13. 1- 4. The patriarchal period saw Hebrew men of faith ruling authoritatively over their households, God’s chosen line of humanity, as divinely appointed mediators. However, it was not until the children of Israel, as a nation, were delivered from Egyptian bondage and arrived at Mount Sinai that God’s mediatorial Kingdom in the Old Testament was finally established, Moses acting as God’s ruling mediator. Although Moses is not specifically described as a monarch, he held a kingly position, ‘The same did God send to be a ruler and a deliverer’, Acts 7. 35. God promised Israel, ‘Ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation’, Exod. 19. 6. It is significant that the first mention of God reigning in the Bible is in the song of Moses, immediately following Israel’s deliverance from Egypt, anticipating their final settlement in the Promised Land, ‘The Lord shall reign for ever and ever’, Exod. 15. 18. From this time, right through the period of the kings, God ruled in the nation through mediators, God Himself being Israel’s King, 1 Sam. 8. 7; cf. Zeph. 3. 15. And this mediatorial Kingdom continued until, after centuries of relentless idolatry, God’s glory reluctantly departed eastward from Jerusalem over the Mount of Olives, Ezek. 11. 23, God then transferring political supremacy to the Gentiles, Hos. 3. 4. The mediatorial Kingdom was withdrawn. This is the past.
The Old Testament prophets foresaw a future aspect to the mediatorial Kingdom. It will again have its administrative centre in Jerusalem, Isa. 24. 23; Micah 4. 8, commence at a definite point in time, Dan. 2. 44 and, this time, be governed by God’s beloved Son, Ps. 2. 6, 7. God’s universal supremacy as King over all the earth has always been closely linked to power and glory, 1 Chr. 29. 11. The future mediatorial Kingdom is no exception. It too will be characterized by the combined glory of Father and Son, Matt. 26. 27; Luke. 9. 26 and exhibitions of divine power, Mark 9. 1. This power will transform the earth’s climate and agricultural capacity, Isa. 30. 23-26; Ezek. 47. 1- 12; Joel 2. 21-26; Zech. 14. 8; bring about geographical changes, Isa. 2. 1, 2; annihilate all insurrection, Ps. 2. 9; generate international peace between nations, Isa. 2. 3, 4; and the animal kingdom, Isa. 11. 6-9; eradicate illness, Isa. 35. 5, 6; and, in so doing, extend the average life-span, Isa. 65. 20-22. God will again rule this world through a human mediator and dwell among His people – all in the Person of Messiah, Dan. 7. 13, 14.
Sadly, the tabernacle of David fell into disrepair, Acts 15. 16. Israel was scattered, Deut. 28. 64, and heaven was silent. Nevertheless, God’s promises of a new dawn, when the mediatorial Kingdom of God would be re-established on this earth under the benevolent and powerful reign of Messiah, still held true. And, in Israel, a godly remnant still looked expectantly for Messiah’s coming, Mark 15. 43; Luke 2. 38; 23. 51. God finally broke 400 years of silence by giving further promises of Messiah, the setting up of His Kingdom and His forerunner, John the Baptist, who came in the spirit and power of Elijah, Mal. 4. 5, 6; Matt. 11. 14; 17. 12.
The Kingdom of God in the Gospels
The expressions ‘Kingdom of God’ and ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ appear to be synonymous. For instance, in the prophecy of Daniel, in relation to God setting up an everlasting Kingdom, God is called the God of heaven, ‘In the days of these kings shall the God of heaven set up a kingdom, which shall never be destroyed … and it shall stand for ever’, Dan. 2. 44. When Matthew records the Lord Jesus preaching ‘the kingdom of heaven’, Matthew chapter 4 verse 17 is another example, for Mark refers to it as ‘the kingdom of God’, Mark 1. 14. Other expressions also seem to refer to the future millennial kingdom, ‘Then shall the righteous shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father’, Matt. 13. 43. ‘The Son of man shall send forth his angels, and they shall gather out of his kingdom all things that offend, and them which do iniquity’, Matt. 13. 41. In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, the Kingdom of God and Christ are equivalent terms, Eph. 5. 5. These different phrases are not at variance, but rather complement each other, adding richly to our understanding of the Kingdom of God.
John the Baptist burst on to the scene with a message of repentance in light of an imminent Kingdom, Matt. 3. 1, 2. Although he did no miracles, John 10. 41, his preaching captivated the hearts of fellow-Israelites, filling them with hope. He was a voice crying in the wilderness, ‘Prepare ye the way of the Lord’, Isa. 40. 3. The Lord Jesus and His apostles continued to preach ‘the Kingdom of God’, Matt. 4. 17; Mark. 1. 14, 15; Luke 4. 43; 8. 1. Their preaching was largely restricted to Israelites, Matt. 10. 7, and accompanied by powerful messianic confirmatory miracles, Matt. 4. 23; 9. 35; Luke 8. 1; 9. 2, 11; 10. 9. The Kingdom was never explained. It could mean only one thing. The mediatorial Kingdom, as predicted in the Old Testament prophets, was at hand in the beginning of Christ’s ministry, though not so at the end, Luke 19. 11. Why the change? Although the crowds enthused, with time opposition raised its ugly head, so it could be said, ‘The kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force’, Matt. 11. 12, ‘and every man presseth into it’, Luke 16. 16. The religious leaders blasphemously attributed Christ’s works to Satan’s power, Matt. 12. 24; Mark 3. 22. His own kinsmen accused Him of madness, Mark 3. 23, and it was not long before ‘many of his disciples went back, and walked no more with Him’, John 6. 66. The nation’s inevitable rejection of Messiah necessitated a postponement of the setting up of the visible Kingdom of God, something not clearly revealed in the Old Testament. The Saviour warned, ‘The kingdom of God shall be taken from you, and given to a nation [a repentant generation of Israelites] bringing forth the fruits thereof’, Matt. 21. 43; cf. Rom. 11. 15, 25. If Israel had received the Lord Jesus as their Messiah, John the Baptist, who came in Elijah’s spirit and power, Luke 1. 17, would have fulfilled the Old Testament prophecy concerning him, Mal. 4. 5, 6; Matt. 11. 14; 17. 12, and the Kingdom would have been set up. Instead, Israel mistreated both John and Christ, thus necessitating another forerunner – Elijah himself – and a second coming of the King.
To be continued.