Mysteries of the Kingdom

What Jesus proclaimed about the Kingdom of God was straight out of the Hebrew Scriptures. He claimed to be the Messiah, the Son of God, who would restore Israel and cause them to triumph over their enemies. He claimed to be the King of the long-promised Kingdom of God, who would begin to reign at the end of this age, and usher in an era of peace and prosperity in which God's will is perfectly carried out, and the resurrected faithful would rule with him over the nations.

The Jews' expectation of the Messiah was at an unprecedented high when Jesus of Nazareth came on the scene. The problem was, he did not fulfill their expectations. He did not begin to reign, he did not overthrow Rome or restore the kingdom to Israel, he did not set up the Kingdom that was prophesied. As a result, many of the Jews concluded that he was not, in fact, the Messiah, and therefore must have either been lying or mad, or perhaps both.

On the other hand, many Christians have concluded, since they believe he is the Messiah, that he must not have intended to literally overthrow Rome and set up a political kingdom. He must have meant something different when he spoke of the Kingdom of God, since Rome wasn't overthrown and a new political kingdom did not come to pass. Many think he meant a spiritual kingdom, and/or the rule of God in the hearts of men. The various ways in which the Kingdom has been redefined will be examined in another article. But they all have one thing in common, that is, that whatever the Kingdom of God is, it is present now and means something other than a literal, physical kingdom.

There is a third alternative, however, that is often overlooked. While the primary meaning of Kingdom of God is the reign of Messiah in the age to come, Jesus spoke of a delay before the inauguration of that reign. He announced the good news that the King had come, and that the Kingdom was near, but it was not yet the time when he would begin to reign. He told the parable of the nobleman (Luke 19:11-19) who went away to a far country to receive the kingdom, and then returned after a period of time. Many references are made in the New Testament to Psalm 110:1, "Sit on my right hand, until I make thine enemies thy footstool," and Peter makes a statement in Acts 3:21 about Jesus, "Whom the heaven must receive until the times of restitution of all things." John wrote by revelation these words of Jesus: "But that which ye have already, hold fast till I come. And he that overcometh, and keepeth my works unto the end, to him will I give power over the nations ... To him that overcometh will I grant to sit with me in my throne, even as I also overcame, and am set down with my Father in his throne" (Revelation 2:25-26; 3:21). To Jesus' disciples it became clear that God's plan included an interim period between the initial proclamation of the Kingdom and its inauguration.

While verses like Psalm 110:1 can be seen in hindsight as referring to an interim period, for the most part it was not seen. This is because many prophecies foretold events of both the first and second comings of Christ together, with no indication of any time in between. The classic example is Isaiah 61:1-2. It says that Messiah would "proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all that mourn." Yet when Jesus quoted these words in his first public teaching in Nazareth (Luke 4:16-21), he stopped before "the day of vengeance of our God." He read as far as "proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD" and then closed the book, and said, "This day is this scripture fulfilled in your ears."

He proclaimed the acceptable year of the LORD when he was here the first time, but the day of God's vengeance is still future. Another example of this can be seen in Isaiah 9:6-7, where it speaks of a child being born, and then immediately of his government having no end. Still another is in Zechariah 9:9-10, where it refers to the King riding into Jerusalem on a donkey (fulfilled in Matthew 21:1-11; Mark 11:1-10; Luke 19:29-38; and John 12:12-16) and then immediately speaks of his dominion being to the ends of the earth. Many similar prophecies refer to his first and second comings together, with no indication of the interim period which Jesus revealed.

One of the main reasons for the delay was that he had to suffer and die to pay the price for our sins. When he first began to speak of this to his disciples, they didn't understand him. But in addition to the Old Testament depictions of the Messiah coming to judge and to rule, there were also those of a suffering servant (the "Suffering Servant" songs in Isaiah, and other passages, such as Psalm 22). But many did not know how to reconcile these two images. Some even thought they were two different people.

Nevertheless Jesus declared that, besides preaching the Kingdom of God (Luke 4:43), he came for another purpose: "...the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many" (Matthew 20:28; Mark 10:45). It was not until after his resurrection that he taught his disciples why it was necessary for him to die. In the Book of Acts, they preached concerning the Kingdom of God and the name of Jesus (Acts 8:12; 28:31). They emphasized that the same Jesus who was crucified is also Lord and Christ (Acts 2:36). But even then the full understanding of what his death accomplished was not spelled out in detail until Paul and others wrote about it in the other New Testament writings. The book of Hebrews, especially, explains a lot about the New Covenant that Jesus' death ratified, which we will deal with in the next article.

While Jesus announced that the Kingdom promised in the Prophets was near, he also spoke of other aspects of it which were not immediately understood. He referred to them as "mysteries." A mystery, as noted in another article, is not something that is unknowable, but something which is hidden. It is not understood when first presented but the meaning is later revealed. Jesus often spoke in parables about the mysteries of the Kingdom, but revealed them to his disciples. In Luke 8:10, he told them, "Unto you it is given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of God: but to others in parables; that seeing they might not see, and hearing they might not understand."

The mysteries which Jesus taught his disciples revealed previously unknown aspects of the Kingdom of God. Yet he confirmed the prophecies at other points and never changed their basic meaning. He did not deny that the Kingdom would come with a cataclysmic event that would end this present evil age and usher in God's judgment, and the resurrection of the faithful. He did not deny that the evil systems of this world would be overthrown and that he would rule the world from the throne of God in Jerusalem. However, he revealed that before that time there would be a preparatory period during which the news of the Kingdom was to be preached and the power of the kingdom could be tasted.

The parable of the sower and the seed (in Matthew 13, Mark 4, and Luke 8) described the seed being sown on four types of ground: the wayside, the stony ground, the thorny ground, and the good ground. When the seed is sown on good ground, it brings forth fruit. When the disciples asked Jesus about the parable's meaning, he explained it to them.

Luke 8:
11 Now the parable is this: The seed is the word of God.
12 Those by the way side are they that hear; then cometh the devil, and taketh away the word out of their hearts, lest they should believe and be saved.
13 They on the rock are they, which, when they hear, receive the word with joy; and these have no root, which for a while believe, and in time of temptation fall away.
14 And that which fell among thorns are they, which, when they have heard, go forth, and are choked with cares and riches and pleasures of this life, and bring no fruit to perfection.
15 But that on the good ground are they, which in an honest and good heart, having heard the word, keep it, and bring forth fruit with patience.
[see NASB]

In this parable, we are hearing not of the kingdom coming, but of the gospel of the Kingdom being sown as seed. Here in Luke, it says the seed is "the word of God," while in Mark 4:14 it just says "the Word." But this Word is not just a synonym for the Bible, nor is it the gospel of Jesus' suffering and death. Matthew 13:19 specifically identifies it as "the Word of the Kingdom." The preaching of that Word is likened to sowing seed. This parable is the foundation of all the others, for Jesus said, "Know ye not this parable? and how then will ye know all parables?" (Mark 4:13). The next parable in Matthew 13 also uses an agricultural illustration to describe the Kingdom of God.

Matthew 13:
24 Another parable put he forth unto them, saying, The kingdom of heaven is likened unto a man which sowed good seed in his field:
25 But while men slept, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat, and went his way.
26 But when the blade was sprung up, and brought forth fruit, then appeared the tares also.
27 So the servants of the householder came and said unto him, Sir, didst not thou sow good seed in thy field? from whence then hath it tares?
28 He said unto them, An enemy hath done this. The servants said unto him, Wilt thou then that we go and gather them up?
29 But he said, Nay; lest while ye gather up the tares, ye root up also the wheat with them.
30 Let both grow together until the harvest: and in the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, Gather ye together first the tares, and bind them in bundles to burn them: but gather the wheat into my barn.
[see NASB]

Later on, the disciples ask him about the meaning of this parable.

Matthew 13:
36 Then Jesus sent the multitude away, and went into the house: and his disciples came unto him, saying, Declare unto us the parable of the tares of the field.
37 He answered and said unto them, He that soweth the good seed is the Son of man;
38 The field is the world; the good seed are the children of the kingdom; but the tares are the children of the wicked one;
39 The enemy that sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the world; and the reapers are the angels.
40 As therefore the tares are gathered and burned in the fire; so shall it be in the end of this world.
41 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;
42 And shall cast them into a furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth.
43 Then shall the righteous shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Who hath ears to hear, let him hear.
[see NASB]

Once again, Jesus is not describing the Kingdom having "come" but rather the fact that, after the Word is sown, the children of the Kingdom would live side by side with the children of the enemy's kingdom until the time of the harvest. But it is clear that the kingdom will be at the end of this age, and "Then shall the righteous shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father."

The parable of the net describes still another aspect of that interim period.

Matthew 13:
47 Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a net, that was cast into the sea, and gathered of every kind:
48 Which, when it was full, they drew to shore, and sat down, and gathered the good into vessels, but cast the bad away.
49 So shall it be at the end of the world: the angels shall come forth, and sever the wicked from among the just,
50 And shall cast them into the furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth.
[see NASB]

In this parable the focus is more narrow than the field in which the wheat and tares grow, which represented the world. Those who are drawn in by the gospel will consist of both good fish and bad, and they will be separated by the angels at the end of the age. This explains how there could be evil members even in the Church, as seen in the Book of Acts, and at other times in Church history. "Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven" (Matthew 7:21).

Before Jesus taught these mysteries to his disciples it had not been widely understood that there would be an intervening period between the first coming of Messiah and the establishment of the Kingdom, although in hindsight it can be seen that it was implied in passages like Psalm 110:1, as shown above. Here in these parables we learn about the nature of that period of time. The Kingdom is not inaugurated, but the children of the Kingdom continue to live in this world, in anticipation of, and preparation for, the Age to Come (this will be handled in greater detail in another article).

Another of the mysteries of the kingdom was the fact that it would be offered to the whole world, not just Israel. The promises were originally made to Israel, and it was foretold that Gentiles would be blessed through them. But Jesus spoke of the Kingdom being taken from Israel and given to others (see Only For Israel?). The command to preach the Gospel was expanded to include the whole world. Paul wrote in Ephesians that the Gentiles would now be "fellow heirs and of the same body" as Israel, and partake of the promises made to Israel (Ephesians 3:6). God's promises to Abraham are now extended to all mankind (Galatians 3:14,29).

“Why the big secret?” one may ask.  Paul explained that if the devil and his hordes had known about what the death of Jesus would accomplish and what would be available as a result, they would not have crucified him (I Corinthians 2:7-9).  Not only was the promise of the Kingdom extended to the whole world, but any believer can now have Christ living in him, and all the many benefits that come with that as revealed in the epistles.  This is further examined in the Closer Look article, The Last Days.

The promise of the Kingdom is now being offered to the world, and this was made possible because of what Jesus accomplished on the cross. Jesus commanded his disciples to go and “teach all nations” (Matthew 28:19).  He said, "This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations; and then shall the end come" (Matthew 24:14). Rather than set up the Kingdom immediately, Jesus, like the nobleman in his parable, has gone to a far country and will return to set up the Kingdom. In the meantime we have a foretaste, as we shall see in the following articles.

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Mark Clarke