As mentioned in a previous post, chapter 13 of Matthew's gospel consists entirely of parables and explanations about those parables. Also, within chapter 13 there are seven parables about the "Kingdom of Heaven" and an eighth, final parable, addressed to the twelve apostles about scribes being "trained" (ESV) or "instructed" (NKJV) for this kingdom of heaven.
But what is all of this language about the "Kingdom of Heaven" supposed to describing?
What exactly is this "Kingdom of Heaven" described in Matthew 13?
Commenting on Matthew 13, dispensationalists Ed Hindson and James Borland insist that the kingdom of heaven mentioned throughout Matthew 13 is a non-political Church-Age interval "during which believers are citizens of the kingdom that is in their midst."1 Commenting further about this spiritualized, non-political kingdom-dispensation, they write:
The principles taught in these parables [of Matt. 13]...seem to point to the Church Age. ...Already sensing His impending rejection [by the Jews], Jesus now expressed the "mystery" form of the kingdom that would be the church. Jesus' early ministry involved a proclamation of the spiritual principles of the kingdom. The Jews, however, seeking a political and nationalist kingdom, were now rejecting Jesus' concept of a spiritual kingdom. To bring in a political kingdom before people were born again would be a travesty.2
Along similar lines of disappointing exegesis, Jakob Van Bruggen, admits the obvious imminence of the kingdom of heaven as preached by Jesus and his apostles, yet he relegates that kingdom of heaven to an entirely future "new order that will become a reality on earth when Christ appears" at the time of the general resurrection of all things. He writes:
Jesus charges the Twelve with the preaching of the imminent coming of the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 10:7; 24:14). Thus in Acts, "preaching the kingdom" is a way of characterizing apostolic preaching in general (Acts 8:12; 14:22; 19:8; 20:25; 28:23). ...[In] the Acts and the Epistles, the path to the kingdom (Christ) is preached more directly and now receives all attention as the trajectory of faith immediately before us. Paul and Peter view the kingdom of God as the new order that will become a reality on earth when Christ appears. The nearness of the kingdom thus becomes the nearness of the Lord (Phil. 4:5; Rev. 22:12).3
The famous millennial preacher and theologian, Charles Spurgeon, in his commentary on Matthew's Gospel, thought the kingdom of heaven was a realm of Spirit-filled Christians, a kingdom promised to grow exponentially in its "conquering, all-pervading influence" until Christ's bodily return at the end of history to judge evildoers.4 In a similar, but not as optimistic dominion-oriented trajectory as Spurgeon, both D. A. Carson and Daniel Doriani interpret Matthew 13 as teaching a partial arrival of the kingdom of heaven already hidden within and among men, and those men are supposed to live with a tremendous hope of being "part" of this "kingdom," while at the same time expecting continued hostility from unbelievers as partial-kingdom participants await a future and final apocalyptic fulfillment at the end of human history.5
Bruner's description of the kingdom of heaven also seems to be an increasingly popular view among scholars today. He doesn't seem to emphasize much of the already/not-yet tension of apocalyptic fulfillment. Instead he describes the kingdom as individuals who encounter Jesus' words and are transformed by them into new creatures as a result, regardless of differing opinions about the timing of apocalyptic fulfillment. Bruner writes:
Jesus' Sermon of Parables is not only doctrine about the kingdom; it is teaching bringing membership in it -- Jesus' parables are "Speech Events" mediating the kingdom's nearness; they are not merely lectures concerning it. ...When the kingdom comes near through Jesus' teaching ...it makes new creatures. The main interim answer to the church's "Thy kingdom come" ...is simply and wonderfully this faith in Jesus.6
Perhaps the most straightforward typological description of the kingdom of heaven has been given by Stanley Hauerwas in his commentary on Matthew, who argues that Jesus is the Kingdom, and since believers are the Body of Christ, united to Him in baptism, then in that sense of union-with-Christ they are body-parts of the Kingdom as much as Jesus is its head. They are, as he describes, "the material reality of the kingdom of heaven" on earth. He writes:
Christians must continue to live as if all hangs on our faithfulness to this man [Jesus], because all does hang on the reality of the kingdom as well as our response to the kingdom that Jesus proclaimed and is. ...The parables of the kingdom of heaven make clear that the kingdom of heaven is not "up there," but rather is a kingdom that creates time and constitutes a space. The time and space that the kingdom constitutes requires that people exist in time and occupy that space. Jesus teaches us through the parables so that we might be for the world the material reality of the kingdom of heaven, for in Jesus we see and hear what many prophets and righteous people had longed to see and hear. Indeed he is the parable of the Father.7
What are we to make of all this?
I can agree with Hauerwas' typology and Spurgeon's optimism. I can even agree with Bruner's emphasis upon Word-transformation as being essential to membership in the kingdom. Admittedly, I'm less hesitant to accept the hopeful dissonance of partial-kingdom realization endorsed by Carson and Doriani, but I am thoroughly confused about Van Bruggen's insistence that the kingdom was pronounced as imminent, but really only was imminent so long as Jesus' physical body was near them, therefore concluding that Christians await a future return of the kingdom along along with the promised future appearing of Jesus. And of course, I am firmly opposed to the arbitrary silliness of dispensational exegesis as found in Hindson and Borland, such silliness as dissecting God's covenant-purposes into "spiritual" and "political" categories, leaving the latter for an entirely future age in which all people must, for some reason, be "born again" for it to be successful.
When all is said and done, I'm not convinced that any of the above authors do justice to the very obvious message of imminence pronounced throughout Matthew's gospel. They all, in some way, shape, or form, skirt Jesus' own emphasis upon first century fulfillment (as I have argued elsewhere), the result of which is an impotent spiritual "form" of kingdom connected with a very distant, other-worldly heaven (i.e. a spiritual kingdom connected to a "real" kingdom in heaven), instead of being here and now the real kingdom of heaven in as much as a mustard-seed is really the same mustard-tree that birds nest on in later years (Matt. 13:31-32). Jesus' own emphasis upon first century fulfillment does not, as far as I can tell, hinder the reality of an earthly-oriented "kingdom of the heavens" beginning in the first century which continues to grow throughout later centuries--a kingdom which doesn't need to have Jesus' body on earth in order for there to be real growth, real expansion, and real fruitfulness as He promised. As God, Jesus can reign over all the earth from heaven under the new covenant, and there is no legitimate reason to presume otherwise. If Jesus' kingdom has already and really come, there seems to be no legitimate reason to conjure up explanations and false dichotomies to the contrary.
As N.T. Wright has argued persuasively elsewhere, if 20th century Christians were one of the original recipients of Matthew's Gospel, we would have interpreted all the references to imminent judgment upon Israel and imminent kingdom coming to that generation.8 The primary connection between a first century fulfillment of imminent judgment and an imminent kingdom is that the kingdom of heaven would not grow exponentially as promised as long as that generation of unrepentant Israelites continued in their rejection of Jesus in order to worship idols at Herod's Temple. Structures of power were bound up in everything that the earthly Temple symbolized, and those structures of power needed to be removed before the royal priesthood of God could reign and serve without hindrance in the new creation.9
If you don't believe me, just consider the progressive revelation of Matthew's Gospel itself.
John the Baptist came preaching, "Repent! For the Kingdom of Heaven is near!" (Matt. 3:2). From the time of John's arrest onward, Jesus then began preaching the exact same message of the kingdom being near (4:17). In the Beatitudes, Jesus ascends a Mount like Moses, and He gives torah (instruction) about the kingdom of heaven belonging to them (5:3, 10). In Matthew 5:19-20, just a few verses after the beatitudes, Jesus tells them that their righteousness must exceed that of the Scribes and Pharisees, and that "righteousness" looks like doing and teaching others to obey Jesus' commandments, not the Pharisaical and scribal traditions. Indeed, it is doing the will of Jesus' father in heaven which is explicitly described as a prerequisite for entering the kingdom of heaven (7:21). And so, by that time in Israel's history, we know there was such a thing as a "kingdom of heaven" that existed, and it was possible for Jesus' audience to enter into it by faithful obedience to the Father and His Son.
In Matthew 8:11, Jesus publicly describes the great faith of the Gentile Centurion who came to Him for healing, and He does so by turning to the crowds following him and declaring that he had not found such a great faith in all of Israel, and for that reason "many shall come from the east and west, and shall sit down with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, in the kingdom of heaven," which seems, in the very least, to imply that the kingdom of heaven consists of future Gentiles who faithfully obey Jesus' Heavenly Father as much as fellow-saints were well known to have done (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, et al.). Another implication of this is that Israel's faith at this time in history, in contrast with the Centurion's, was very distant from their Heavenly Father, of whom Jesus was the Son.
In Matthew 10:7, Jesus commissions his twelve apostles to preach from village to village that the kingdom of heaven was near, and that they would not be able to make it through all the towns in Israel before the Son of Man comes in judgment upon the land (10:23). (See my posts about all of that here, here, here, here, and here.) That language, in the very least, implies that once the Son of Man came in judgment, weeding out evildoers, the great hinderance to first century kingdom growth would be removed and the land could then grow exponentially as promised. That first century fulfillment would therefore become a sure testimony of God's covenant faithfulness to future generations who keep covenant with Him. God would weed out idolatry from the land, just as promised, which ought to encourage Christians today to believe He will subdue all nations under His feet, just as promised. And the means which Yahweh will use to subdue all nations will include future "weeding" as well. There will be times of sowing and reaping, times of planting and times of harvest. But now, under the new covenant, the world becomes Yahweh's wheat-field, not merely the land of promise under the old covenant.
In Matthew 11:11-12, John the Baptist is mentioned again as being the greatest witness to Jesus' messianic role and his soon-coming judgment upon Israel (as seen here and here); however, even the person who is least in the kingdom of heaven will be considered a greater and more effective witness than John the Baptist. The next statement which Jesus speaks flushes this thought out some more (11:12) by implying that the Kingdom of Heaven has already begun in time, in the days of John the Baptist's ministry to the Jews:
...from the days of John the Baptist until now the Kingdom of Heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force.
The next time Matthew writes about the "Kingdom of Heaven," it's in chapter 13 (our present chapter). In verse 11 He tells his apostles (on a private boat where the people on shore can't hear him) that "it is given unto you [apostles] to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it is not given." This is very similar to what Jesus revealed to his apostles in his last private discourse with them in chapter ten. If these "mysteries of the kingdom of heaven" are consistent with all of the other previous comments about the coming kingdom made in private to His apostles, I'm convinced that Matthew's Jewish audience would not have concluded a lot of the strained interpretations as seen by modern commentators [above]. It seems to me that any future entrance into the kingdom of heaven, along with the saints, would still have been interpreted in a sense of nearness in light of Jesus' repeated remarks about soon-coming judgment upon the land of Israel. Entrance into the kingdom of heaven corresponds with entrance into the new covenant in Jesus' body and blood--entrance into his baptism of death and resurrection. If first century Jews wanted entrance into the kingdom of heaven, it would no longer be through an old covenant administration.
So what is the Kingdom of Heaven described as all throughout Matthew 13?
I think it's rather simple. I think the Kingdom of Heaven is described as life in union with God in the new covenant. And as a united-life to God in the new covenant, it's also life under a new creation, not merely life as a new creation. The new creation under the new covenant is a new cosmos in which Jesus reigns over all now and remains the one and only mediator of all now between God and man; and that is set in direct contrast with the old creation under the old covenant. In Jesus we are made new creatures; we live as a new creation. But the cosmos under the reign of Jesus is also a new creation. The old covenant was at best a blueprint for new creation under a ministry of repeated death and temporary redemption for the people of God. But now, in Jesus, the priesthood of believers participate in a ministry which is much greater than the old one, a covenant enacted upon better promises than those given at Sinai.
Why is this life in the kingdom of heaven described as a wheat-field, a mustard-seed, leaven, treasure hidden in a field, a man in search of fine pearls, and a net thrown into the sea of mankind? Because that's what life under the new covenant was promised to be like. It was a life promised to inherit a wheat-field that would have it's weeds uprooted after all its seed had been sown. Even beginning in the first century, when the word of the kingdom was first sown on good soil, the expectant result in that generation was up to as much as one hundred-fold! It was a life of promised exponential growth like a mustard-seed that grows into a tree, and leaven that causes bread to rise to its fullest measure. It was a life promised to receive precious treasure more valuable than all other old-covenant inherited possessions. Such treasure was hidden from some and sought after by others, but like a net this kingdom would gather together all the people of the land, leaving the messengers of Yahweh to sort out the good from the bad, the wheat from the tares, the sheep from the goats. That is why Jesus asks in his final (eighth) parable if his apostles understand the meaning of his parables? If they do, they become "scribes" trained for the kingdom of heaven, bringing out what is new and what is old, in order to teach people the promises of both the old and the new creation.
1. Ed Hindson and James Borland, The Gospel of Matthew: The King is Coming (21st Century Biblical Commentary Series) [Chattanooga, TN: AMG Publishers, 2006] p. 126
2. Ibid. Italics mine for emphasis. Brackets mine.
3. Jakob Van Bruggen, Jesus the Son of God: The Gospel Narratives as Message [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999], p. 82
4. Commenting on the parable of the leaven, Spurgeon writes: "Is not leaven here used simply as another picture of an influence which appears feeble, but turns out to be active, conquering, and at length all-pervading?" Charles Spurgeon (Larry Richards, ser. ed.), The King Has Come [Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1987], pp. 176-7
5. Doriani writes: "The parables of Matthew 13 both give hope and explain disappointment. They say the kingdom is here, in part, without its full might or glory. This creates dissonance for believers. If we know Jesus is Savior and Lord, why doesn't everyone believe in him? If the kingdom is here, why is there so much evil in the world? ...Jesus urges patience; we must expect continued hostility from those who reject him." (italics mine for emphasis). Daniel M. Doriani, Reformed Expository Commentary: Matthew, Volume I: Chapters 1-13 [Phillipsburgh, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2008], p. 570. In a similar vein, Carson endorses the view that "...the Kingdom which is to come finally in apocalyptic power, as foreseen by Daniel, has in fact entered into the world in advance in a hidden form to work secretly within and among men." D.A. Carson, The Expositor's Bible Commentary: Matthew [Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1984], p. 307.
6. Frederick Dale Bruner, Matthew, A Commentary: Volume 2, The Churchbook [Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2007 revised & expanded ed.], p. 1
7. Stanley Hauerwas, Matthew [Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2006], pp. 134-5.
8. See N.T. Wright's The New Testament and the People of God [Fortress Press, 1992]
9. There is a section on this blog which describes much of the temple/tabernacle typology of the Old Covenant administration. See that here: http://www.thisexplainsmore.com/p/blog-page_21.html
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