Secrets of the Kingdom
Topic: Expository Scripture: Matthew 13:24–13:52
Synopsis: In Matthew 13:24-52, Jesus continued to teach in parables as he revealed to his disciples the Secrets of the Kingdom. What were these secrets? In what sense was this “new truth” for his disciples? What are the lessons for the church and kingdom workers today?
The second half of Matthew 13 can be a confusing passage. At least I found it so for many years. In part, I blame my seminary training and the commentaries for my confusion. There is considerable disagreement on the interpretation of these parables, and the more I listened to different teachers and read different commentaries the more confused I became.
I think that this confusion comes from trying to make these parables do too much. We ask questions that these parables were not designed to answer, and then we read our theology back into the parables. And because theology or doctrinal convictions sometimes differ, teachers and commentators tend to bend their interpretation of the parables to support their conclusions. Let me give you an example, actually taken from last week’s passage and the parable of the sower and the four kinds of soil. One of the questions I am always asked after teaching from that parable is this: Are the people represented by the second and third kinds of soil saved or lost? It is a good question and an important one. But the parable does not answer the question, nor was it intended to. We must go elsewhere in Scripture to wrestle with that question.
There are many important areas of theology that address many questions; questions about salvation and eternal security; questions about eschatology and the end times; questions about the relationship between Israel and the church. When we try to answer these questions from these parables, things can get very confusing. Because Jesus did not tell these parables to answer these questions.
I believe the best way to approach these parables is to take the simplest approach and try to put ourselves back with the disciples in the boat as Jesus taught and in the house afterward as they had the chance to ask their questions. Because Jesus’ disciples were the primary audience for these stories. Jesus already said to them, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven.” At the end of these particular parables, he asked them, “Have you understood all these things?” When they answered, “Yes,” he did not contradict them. So just what did they understand from these parables? How did these simple stories, along with Jesus’ private explanations, help answer the questions they were asking?
In particular, we need to read these parables in light of the context of Matthew 12 and the Pharisees and scribes and their rejection of Jesus’ claims and his miracles. In fact, the theme of rejection actually bookends these parables. If we skip down to the end of the chapter and Matthew 13:53-58, we read the story of Jesus appearing in Nazareth, his own hometown. He taught in his own synagogue – the synagogue he attended all during his youth and young adulthood. And they took offense at him! He was rejected by his own people. So it is in this light that we must read these parables.
When I step back from the details of the parables and try to step into the sandals of Jesus’ disciples, I begin to see these stories in a different light. As I studied these parables again this week and read and reread them, three simple words came to me that I think summarize what Jesus was trying to convey to his disciples at this critical juncture in his ministry.
The first word is PATIENCE. I see this theme running throughout the chapter. It is implicit in the parable of the sower we looked at last week. Farmers need patience. They have to be able to cope with disappointment and discouragement even as they wait hopefully for the harvest that comes from the good soil.
Patience is also the primary lesson from the parable of the weeds in the field. Here is how I see that theme develop. The disciples had certain expectations of the coming of the Messiah and his kingdom. And that is that the kingdom of heaven would sweep across the nation and from the nation to the world. Righteousness would reign and evil would be stamped out. Instead, Jesus tells this story about a field that contains both sons of the kingdom and sons of the evil one. The impatient workers ask if they should uproot the weeds. But the Master says, “No!...Let both grow together until the harvest.” The time for separating the weeds from the wheat is not now. It is later. In Jesus’ private interpretation of the parable to his disciples, he identifies this later time as the harvest and interprets this as “the end of the age.”
We need to be careful how we proceed here. Jesus is not saying we should make no distinction between the sons of the kingdom and the sons of the evil one in the church. The field is not the church. Jesus clearly states in verse 38 that “the field is the world.”In the world, the righteous sons of the kingdom shall reign. But not now. Later. Be patient. For now, the sons of the kingdom and the sons of the evil one will grow together. Even as the sons of the kingdom grow and multiply and the church grows, we should not expect that the world will become exclusively Christian as a result of our efforts. Sons of the evil one and sons of the kingdom shall exist side by side in the world until the end of the age. This is one of the secrets of the kingdom that the disciples needed to understand. It is a truth that requires patience.
Jesus followed this parable with two more that teach the same lesson of patience. The first is the parable of the mustard seed:
31 He put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. 32 It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”
This is the same lesson, but based on an important nuance of kingdom growth. That is the reality that God loves to start small. That is the contrast that lies at the heart of this parable. A tiny seed becomes a tree. Something tiny becomes big. That is the way the kingdom of heaven is. Never despise small beginnings. The disciples needed this lesson. If they were waiting for a great revival, they were in for a disappointment. The crowds that surrounded Jesus would soon fade away. On Palm Sunday, the multitudes cried “Hosanna!” On Good Friday they cried, “Crucify him!” Following the events of Passion Week, all of the committed followers of Jesus could gather in a single large room. They are numbered at about 120 people. This was all Jesus had to show for 3 years of ministry! A tiny mustard seed! Yet within a generation, the church of Jesus Christ had penetrated every corner of the Roman Empire. The mustard seed became a tree!
Jesus loves to start small and then grow things. But starting small requires patience. In 1972, a small group of English speaking expatriates gathered in the living room of Carl and Barbara Sherbeck’s villa on Hamdan Street, while the children had Sunday School in another room. Now look around! Step out into the foyer and look at the list of churches on the wall. Stand outside in the courtyard and look up at this building. Not only that. Count the churches in India that have been planted largely as an outgrowth of the ministries of this church. Jesus loves to start small and then grow things. But it takes patience. Don’t be in a hurry. And don’t despise small beginnings.
A few years ago, a group of about 30 people gathered in a villa in Khalifa City. The topic of discussion was the possibility of planting a church for the people who live off the island. We talked, we prayed. I challenged the group. “This is a small gathering. But I believe it could be the start of something big.” Today they have their own pastor and close to 200 people gathering every week. When God provides a bigger venue, I have every expectation that they will grow even more rapidly.
We are currently making plans to plant a church in the Musaffah/Mohammed bin Zayed area of the city. This movement is so small it doesn’t even really exist yet, except as a plan and a small committee from our two churches. But Jesus loves to take something small and grow it. As plans develop, we will be challenging some of you to take a step of faith and become part of a small nucleus to form that new congregation. Those of you who accept the challenge will have the exciting opportunity of watching Jesus take something small and make it big – in impact for the kingdom of heaven. But it will take hard work and it will take patience.
Jesus told his disciples another parable.
33 He told them another parable. “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened.”
This parable also teaches us the importance of patience. But it has an important nuance as well. What this parable tells us is that you can’t always see the kingdom growing. It doesn’t grow by force of arms or by political campaigns, or by massive advertising efforts. Over church history, Christians have tried all of these methods. None of them ever resulted in real kingdom growth. Real kingdom growth is subtle, often hidden, life on life, like leaven in a batch of bread dough. It spreads, cell by cell, person by person, family by family – until it has invaded and pervaded every level of society. But because we can’t always see it grow, we will need patience.
In 1948, when the Communist Party took over China, all the foreign missionaries were either killed or forced to flee. They left behind a Chinese church that some estimated at around 5 million in number. Driven underground by an atheist government, without access to outside resources, what would happen to these 5 million followers of Christ? It is difficult to quantify such things, but when the first cracks in the bamboo curtain appeared and the outside world was once again granted access to that huge nation over 30 years later, original research and estimates placed the number of believers at over 50 million and that number has continued to grow – in spite of continuing persecution and hardship in some regions of the country.
God is at work. He is always at work. Jesus is building his church, sometimes in ways we cannot see or even imagine. Be patient.
There is another word that comes to my mind as I think about these same parables. It goes hand in hand with patience. It is the word “PERSEVERANCE”. After all, this was the temptation facing the disciples, was it not? Their expectations for a rapid expansion of the kingdom of heaven that would sweep the nation and then conquer the whole world – were not going to be fulfilled. There was hardship ahead. There would be many disappointments and discouragements. Jesus told these parables to prepare them for what lay ahead and to motivate them to persevere – even when evil and evil men still seemed to thrive and prosper; even when kingdom efforts and impact seemed so tiny; even when they could not see the kingdom and its impact growing and spreading. Keep on keeping on! Be patient! And keep on working.
That brings us to the third word that came to me as a meditated on these parables. It is the word JOY. Jesus told two parables to drive this one home.
44 “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.
45 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, 46 who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it.
I want you to notice a common element in these two stories. Both of the men in these stories made huge sacrifices. They both gave up everything. They both sold all that they had. What sacrifice! What an incredibly high price to pay! But let me ask you a question. Do you feel sorry for either of these men? Why not? Because what they gained was so much more valuable that what they gave up. The predominant emotional impact of these two parables is not sacrifice, but joy. The first parable even says it. “In his joy he goes and sells all he has.” This is the way it is with the kingdom of heaven.
It is important to note that Jesus is not talking about salvation here. That’s the danger of trying to read our doctrine of salvation back into the parables. He is talking about the kingdom of heaven and the growth and spread of that kingdom and our part in that task. What Jesus is telling us is that we should have the same attitude as the two men in these parables. The kingdom of heaven is so precious, so incredibly valuable that we should be ready to sacrifice anything and everything to pursue its advance and its progress in our lives and within our spheres of influence. This parable tells us in story form what Jesus has told us in plain words: “Whoever finds his life will lose it and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”(10:39). It is what Jesus meant when he said, “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things will be added to you.”
Jim Elliot was one of the five young missionaries who were martyred by the Auca Indians on the banks of a jungle river in an attempt to share the gospel with this unreached tribe. He had earlier written in his journal these words: “He is no fool who gives up what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.” This is the attitude of the man who discovered hidden treasure and the merchant who found the pearl of a lifetime. It is a spirit of sacrifice, but one that is driven by joy. This was a truth that Jesus’ disciples needed in order to face the challenges that lay ahead.
So these are the three words I want each of us as disciples of Christ to take away from these parables. Patience. Perseverance. Joy.
But I would be remiss if I stopped there. Because there is another, underlying reality that Jesus lays out in these stories. That is the reality of the “end of the age.” And this reality is important for those who are not members of Christ’s kingdom to consider. It may be easy to look at the world around us and even at our own lives and conclude: “Well, there either isn’t a God, or if there is a God, he doesn’t really care about sin and righteousness, because there is a whole lot of sinning going on, and he doesn’t seem to be doing anything about it. God isn’t doing a lot of weeding of the field.”
Remember the parable of the wheat and the weeds. The day of harvest is coming when the weeds will be separated from the wheat. Jesus concludes this teaching of parables with another parable of coming judgment.
47 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and gathered fish of every kind. 48 When it was full, men drew it ashore and sat down and sorted the good into containers but threw away the bad. 49 So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous 50 and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
The time of separation and judgment is not now. But it is coming. This is an age of grace. But grace should not be taken for granted. The end of the age is coming when the weeds will be separated from the wheat and when the bad fish will be separated from the good. In both cases Jesus uses the image of a fiery furnace and describes it as place where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Do not make the same mistake that some were making near the end of the first generation of the history of the church. These people looked around at the world and concluded that the Lord was not coming back and that God’s judgment would not fall. They began to scoff: “Where is the promise of his coming?”
This is how Peter wrote to them in 2 Peter 3:8-10:
But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed.
The day of the Lord will come. The end of the age will come. Are you wheat? Or are you a weed? Are you a good fish or a bad fish? Are you a son of the kingdom? Or are you a son of the evil one? My final word to you is this: Don’t wait until it’s too late, to find out.
If you are not sure, let me share this powerful gospel truth for you to consider. The verse we’ve just looked at in 1 Peter says that the Lord does not wish any to perish but for all to reach repentance. Paul adds to this in 1 Timothy 2:3-6: This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all…
God has given you time and another opportunity. Don’t waste it.
- Read Matthew 13:24-52 together.
- Think back to Jesus’ disciples and their “Old Testament expectations”. What new truths or “secrets” did these parables reveal to them? (Remember, “new” from their perspective, not ours.)
- Why is the sentence “the field is the world” (v.38) important in interpreting the parable of the wheat and the weeds? Should our approach in the church be different? How and why?
- How are the parables of the mustard seed and the leaven the same? How are they different?
- Share examples you have seen of the mustard seed principle.
- Share examples you have seen of the leaven principle. Can you give examples of times when the church (big C church, not ECC!) has ignored this principle? What was the outcome?
- How do all of these parables of kingdom growth encourage us to patience and to perseverance?
- What important element do the parables of the treasure and the pearl add to our understanding? Why don’t we feel sorry for these men?
- Why is it important to keep the conclusion of the parable of the wheat and the weeds and the parable of the fish net in mind as we engage in kingdom work?