We've arrived at the last chapter in this book on the parables of the kingdom. Our goal was to understand the nature and character of God's kingdom from the teachings about it found in these kingdom parables.
We are the kingdom. Every time Jesus says, "The kingdom is like…" He is also saying, "The church is like…" or "in the church this is the way things happen or this is what will take place."
Studying these parables is really about studying ourselves. What we've learned so far is that:
1. Small → Powerful. Although small in comparison to others in this world, the church has great proportional influence - even if it is unseen.
2. Great Privilege. It is a valuable privilege to be a member of the church.
3. Different Rates. People in the church grow at different rates depending on how they respond to God's word. Greater obedience = greater growth.
4. Mercy - First and Last. God's mercy is what allows entry into the church; faithfulness toward God and mercy toward others is what keeps you in the church.
5. God will Judge. God will purify His church at the coming of Jesus by removing all the hypocrites, disobedient and unfaithful from the kingdom.
In our final chapter we'll add a few more insights to make our study complete.
Parable of the Seed
26 And He was saying, "The kingdom of God is like a man who casts seed upon the soil; 27 and he goes to bed at night and gets up by day, and the seed sprouts and grows—how, he himself does not know. 28 The soil produces crops by itself; first the blade, then the head, then the mature grain in the head. 29 But when the crop permits, he immediately puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come."
- Mark 4:26-29
This parable is one of the simplest and most ordinary of stories. Jesus simply recounts the cycle of planting and harvest. Once the seed is planted the farmer waits (sleeps) without worry for the harvest to come. The seed and soil do their work independently of the farmer's concern or lack of concern. In the end the harvest will announce itself and it will be time for the farmer to do his work of collecting the crop.
Jesus describes a natural cycle with each thing happening in order and in its own time. As a parable about the kingdom Jesus is saying: once the seed of the kingdom is sown, the cycle of reproduction and harvest has been set into motion.
Despite storms, trouble and time delay the work will come to fruition. The job of the farmer (the workers) is not to figure out how the seed grows, or worry about its rate of growth, or force its growth - but simply to plant the seed and wait for the harvest.
There will be a harvest.
In a larger sense, Jesus is saying that God's plan of sending Jesus to plant the kingdom and then returning for it will come to fruition. Nothing will stop it once it has been set into motion. In a personal sense, He promises all the workers that their planting will be rewarded with a harvest of some kind. They need not worry or become impatient.
The growth of the kingdom is imperceptible it seems, even to those within the kingdom, but the harvest (good works, changed lives, new Christians, etc.) is always visible in the end. This parable adds the idea that the church is fruitful if it follows the natural cycle of planting (the seed / word) and harvesting (good works, saved souls).
The Parable of the Mustard Seed
30 And He said, "How shall we picture the kingdom of God, or by what parable shall we present it? 31 It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the soil, though it is smaller than all the seeds that are upon the soil, 32 yet when it is sown, it grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and forms large branches; so that the birds of the air can nest under its shade."
- Mark 4:30-32
It is interesting that this is the only parable about the kingdom mentioned by three of the four gospels. There are no kingdom parables in John. The story in the parable is of the mustard seed, truly a small speck of a seed compared to other types of plant seeds. However, the plant/bush could grow into a shrub of over 10 feet in just a few weeks in the proper conditions.
People of that place knew the amazing growth rate of this shrub that Jesus has described.
The point of the story was that such a small and insignificant seed could in short order provide shelter for the birds of the air. Something that took regular trees years, even decades to accomplish, was done in a relatively short time by this plant.
Again, the parallel is with the kingdom. The Bible provides a vivid description of the speed of growth the church had in the beginning. The parable speaks of rate of growth and provision for the birds. The parallel to the mustard seed is the story of the Lord's church beginning in dynamic fashion when 3,000 were converted in one day at Pentecost.
- Within a few years there were nearly 50,000 converts in the area.
- Within thirty years it had spread throughout the Roman Empire.
- After four centuries it was the official religion of the Roman world.
Judaism, or any other religion for that matter, had never grown so big or as quickly as Christianity. The birds finding shelter can be the lost finding shelter or safety in the kingdom, or can refer to the fact that the Gentiles found rest and protection within Christianity - something they never found in Judaism or paganism.
The church began with an executed leader and 12 Apostles preaching His message. Christianity overcame every religion and every political and philosophical group in its way. This parable reinforces an idea about the church already made in other kingdom parables: that the church is small and weak looking in comparison to other things, but it has great proportional influence, growth and strength.
Parable of the Workers
1 "For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2 When he had agreed with the laborers for a denarius for the day, he sent them into his vineyard. 3 And he went out about the third hour and saw others standing idle in the market place; 4 and to those he said, 'You also go into the vineyard, and whatever is right I will give you.' And so they went. 5 Again he went out about the sixth and the ninth hour, and did the same thing. 6 And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, 'Why have you been standing here idle all day long?' 7 They said to him, 'Because no one hired us.' He said to them, 'You go into the vineyard too.'
8 "When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, 'Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last group to the first.' 9 When those hired about the eleventh hour came, each one received a denarius. 10 When those hired first came, they thought that they would receive more; but each of them also received a denarius. 11 When they received it, they grumbled at the landowner, 12 saying, 'These last men have worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden and the scorching heat of the day.' 13 But he answered and said to one of them, 'Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for a denarius? 14 Take what is yours and go, but I wish to give to this last man the same as to you. 15 Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with what is my own? Or is your eye envious because I am generous?' 16 So the last shall be first, and the first last."
- Matthew 20:1-16
This story is an unusual one. A man hires people at different times of the day to work in his field. He pays all of them the same wage even though they worked different hours. The first crew grumbled feeling that it wasn't fair that they received the same amount for working all day as those who only worked an hour. The landowner replies that he has been fair. He's paid the first crew what they agreed upon for the work they had been contracted for (a denarius was above average for that time). He paid the other men the same amount, not because of their work but because he wanted to be generous.
He finishes by warning his audience that not all things will be as they seem. Sometimes the first end up being last and those who are last are given a better position. Unlike the parables of the harvest or the mustard seed, this parable has no easy or natural application / parallel in the everyday world.
For the kingdom however, this parable teaches us several things:
1. Being in the Kingdom is a Matter of Grace.
The workers had no jobs (any of them), the money was more than any of them (even the first crew) would normally receive. Being in the church is a matter of God's grace. He finds us through His gospel; we enter in through the blood of Christ; we remain because of His grace; we receive more than we even deserve in material and physical blessings. God initiates our entry into the church, enables us to remain and blesses us every moment of our lives forever, all because of His grace.
2. The Order in the Kingdom is not Like the Order in the World.
The first crew's attitude was indicative of a worldly attitude: I was first, I worked longest, I worked the hardest; I deserve the best, the most.
This may be logical and just in many ways, but this is not the way things work in the kingdom. In the kingdom or church:
- The prize goes to the one who believes, not the one who deserves.
- The reward is for the one who trusts God, not the one who trusts in his work.
The one who pays His workers does so based on His goodness, not the goodness or value of the work of His workers. This is why some who think they are first in God's eyes (like the Jews in the 1st century; or self-righteous people of today) may be last in His eyes; and those who seem to be last (sinners, those who struggle, those who come to Him late in life, those who have little to offer) may be first -- because of His kindness.
In the church the rules of the world are turned upside down:
- The first are last; the last first.
- The weak are strong; the strong are blind.
- The leaders are servants, etc.
So as we finish the study, we add two last ideas to the five major ones we have drawn from the parables about the kingdom:
1. The church will continue to grow until its final harvest when Jesus comes. Nothing will stop it because God is the one who began it and He will be there for the end. Don't worry about the destruction or failure of the church.
2. The church operates based on a different principle than in the world. In its best mode the world operates on a principle of justice or fairness. In the kingdom, everything operates on the principle of grace: God's grace for us, our grace towards each other.
Jesus provides the conclusion and encouragement for these kingdom parables:
51 "Have you understood all these things?" They said to Him, "Yes." 52 And Jesus said to them, "Therefore every scribe who has become a disciple of the kingdom of heaven is like a head of a household, who brings out of his treasure things new and old."
- Matthew 13:51-52
If you understand these things (kingdom parables) you are now like Scribes (those who taught and copied the scriptures), able to teach not only what the Old Testament said and meant but now you can add this new knowledge concerning the fulfillment of the Old Testament in the person of Jesus and His kingdom. If someone knows these things, he knows the full gospel, the revelation of God in Christ and now is qualified to teach the Bible accurately.
I hope each person who reads this will find encouragement and security in the knowledge of these things about the kingdom / church.
I hope also that if you are not a member of Christ's church you will come confessing your faith, repenting of your sins and accept baptism -- for this is the only way you can become a member of the kingdom of God which is the church.