"The Spread of the Kingdom"
(Delivered Sunday, October 22, 2006 at Bethany Bible Church. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are taken from The Holy Bible, New King James Version; copyright 1982, Thomas Nelson, Inc.)
We've been studying the thirteenth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew. In this chapter, we find that the greatest of all authorities on world events (that is, the Lord Jesus Christ) reveals key truths about the greatest of all themes (that is, His kingdom rule upon this earth).
This chapter contains seven parables; and in these seven parables, Jesus discloses “the mysteries of the kingdom” (v. 11). Already, we have looked at two of these parables. In the first one—the parable of the four types of soil (which is spoken by our Lord in verses 3-9, and is then explained by Him in verses 18-23), we learned a crucial truth about the commencement of His kingdom upon this earth. It is sown by the message of His gospel; and the reception of this message reveals the heart of the person who hears it. That's how it was begun on this earth—through the sowing of His gospel and by its reception on the part of those in whom it produces fruit. That is how it continues to grow even today. Other kingdoms were begun on this earth by the force of the sword. But Jesus' kingdom—the greatest of all kingdoms that will ever reign upon this earth—was not begun in the way other kingdoms were begun. Rather, it was begun and is advanced by the preaching and proclaiming of the message of who Jesus is and what He has done.
Then, we looked at the second parable—the parable of the wheat and the tares (which is spoken by the Lord in verses 24-30, and is then explained by Him to the disciples in verses 36-43). And in this one, we learned something of the nature of this kingdom that was commenced upon this earth—that it will grow and progress in this world along side wickedness and evil. The “weeds” or “tares” of sin and wickedness and ungodliness will not be eradicated from this earth as His kingdom spreads on it. Instead, His kingdom citizens have to tolerate the reality of evil in this world—but only until the end of this age. At that time, He will send forth His angels into this world; and they will serve as His reapers. They will separate from out of His kingdom “all things that offend, and those who practice lawlessness”. The tares will be cast into the furnace of fire; but the righteous will shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of the Father.
I hope you understand that these are great things that are being revealed to us! Jesus Himself said that we, who hear them, are blessed; “for assuredly,” He said, “I say to you that many prophets and righteous men desired to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it” (v. 17). Your heart and my heart should thrill to hear these things! We should count it the greatest possible privilege that these things have been disclosed to us! In knowing these things, we know more about the destiny the kingdoms of this world than the wisest and most learned earthly scholars and historians and futurists from whom these things have been hidden!
This morning, we look at two more of these great “kingdom” parables. The focus of these two parables is on the spread of this marvelous kingdom on the earth. And they give us very good news of great encouragement!
They are found in verses 31-35;
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Before we look at the details of these two parables, let's look first at the fact that lies behind them. It's a fact that is so obvious that it might be easy, at first glance, to pass by. But it is a fact that is vital to benefiting from the instructions He gives us about His kingdom. It is the rather obvious but crucial fact that . . .
I. THE TRUTH OF HIS KINGDOM IS REVEALED TO US IN PARABLES (vv. 34-35).
Look at verses 34-35. There, we're told that Jesus spoke all of these kingdom truths that He revealed in “parables”. In fact, He spoke nothing of these truths to the crowds except by parables. They were stories that were deliberately designed by Him to reveal truth in a very careful way. He used figures of speech and similitudes rather than straight-forward words.
People often say that Jesus was the greatest of all teachers; and I certainly agree that He was. He was, truly, the Master-teacher! No one else spoke as He spoke, or taught as He taught. He literally revealed “mysteries” to mankind—things that could only be known as God graciously revealed them to mankind. But I feel that we have to qualify the idea of Jesus being a great “Teacher”. In fact, He was a greatly “discriminating” Teacher. He clearly didn't teach in such a way that everyone could understand what He was saying. His method certainly revealed that He was the greatest Teacher; but it also revealed that not everyone who heard Him were very good students!
Do you remember that, as His disciples listened to Him teach the multitudes, they were baffled by His method? I believe they could see the confused looks on many of the faces of those who heard Him. The disciples even came to Him, in verse 10, and asked, “Why do You speak to them in parables?” It was as if they were saying, “Lord; if you truly want to teach people, why are you speaking in such a mysterious way? Why do you speak in seeming 'riddles'? Shouldn't you be clear? Shouldn't you be straight-forward? Wouldn't people have an easier time of understanding you if you didn't speak in parables?”
And here's the remarkable thing that they discovered. He truly intended to speak forth the truths of the kingdom; but in doing so, He didn't intend for everyone to understand those truths. He answered the disciples' question of why He spoke in parables by saying,
A grasp of the truths of the kingdom of Jesus Christ—the very things that we are hearing in this chapter—is a selective matter. The speaking-forth of these things is for everyone; but the understanding of them—the true “hearing” and “seeing” of them, is not. That's why we're told that Jesus spoke these things “to the multitude in parables”; and that, “without a parable He did not speak to them . . .”
And what's more as we find from our passage today, this was in accordance with Scripture. The “multitudes” to whom Jesus spoke these things were Jewish. Jesus was their long-awaited King; and it was to them that the kingdom was, first of all, being offered. But it would not be by all of them that this glorious kingdom would be understood, or believed, or even welcomed. It would only be received by those—not only of the Jewish family, but also to people from out of the Gentile world—who, as He said, had “ears to hear” (v. 9). Jesus, the Master-teacher, taught in parables to reveal who truly had such “ears to hear” what He said.
Now; the Jewish people to whom He spoke in parables should have known this. When Matthew—who was himself a Jew—explained that Jesus spoke only to the multitudes in parables, he said that this was so “that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet” (v. 35); and he then quoted Psalm 78:2. Psalm 78 is a long psalm that outlines the history of the Jewish people. It was a psalm that the Jewish people knew well. It speaks of God's constant grace to them, and of their persistent hardness of heart toward Him. And it begins with an appeal:
Think of that call: “Give ear! Incline your ears!” That was Jesus' cry to the people; “He who has ears to hear, let him hear!” (Matthew 13:9). And here is this Jesus, who is the great hope of the Jewish people, speaking to them in the very manner that it was foretold that He would speak to them—that is, in parables. And yet, He also makes the appeal to those who hear Him to “Give ear, O my people . . .”
And now, let me ask you: How do you hear these things? Do you have ears to hear? Do you tune out when you hear them? Do you fall asleep when they are presented to you? Do you close your ears to them? Or does your heart thrill; and do you long to hear more?
The things that Jesus says in these parables are the greatest truths that can be known by man. They reveal “the mysteries of the kingdom”. Personally, I find that I am growing to be deeply conscious of the great responsibility I have in speaking these things to you today. They cause me to tremble. I feel a sense of urgency to speak them carefully and truthfully. They are made available to whoever truly wishes to know them; but are not cheap things! They are of eternal value and of eternal consequence. If they truly grip our hearts, they will change everything about us. They will cause us to radically revise our priorities. They will make the advancement of His kingdom our great, consuming concern. Do you have ears for them? Do you hear them? Can you hear them?
The fact is that they were deliberately revealed by our Lord in “parables”; and because this is so, they thus reveal the heart condition of those who hear them. They are heard by the ear; and yet they stand in judgment of those whose heart rejects them—to those who stop their ears up to them, and who close their eyes to the truths revealed in them. They disclose truth to those who truly long to hear truth; but at the same time conceal the saving power of the truth from those who truly do not want salvation and who reject the One who spoke them.
You'd have to say that there is no greater thing about a person—no more determinative fact—than how they hear these things! A woman's or a man's eternal destiny hinges on how these things are heard by them! Given all this, I hope that you will, personally and from the heart, pay attention to Jesus' warning:
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Now; that's the important fact that we have to begin with; that the truths that Jesus speaks to us concerning the kingdom are revealed to us in parables. They are made available to all to hear; but they are not meant to be understood except by those who have “ears” to hear.
And that leads us, then, to another important thing we learn from Jesus' words in this passage. It's a truth that is greatly encouraging to those of us who do hear of His kingdom, and who do long for it, and who do pray, “Thy kingdom come!”; and that is that . . .
2. THE TRUTH REVEALED ABOUT THE KINGDOM IN THESE PARABLES
ASSURES US OF ITS SUCCESS.
Here we find two parables from the lips of the Son of God; and the focus of them both is very much the same. They are concerned with the spread of His kingdom on earth. It's a kingdom which is fought against and resisted; but that will, ultimately, succeed.
The first of these two parables teaches us . . .
A. That though seemingly “least” at its planting, His kingdom will grow to be the greatest of all kingdoms (vv. 31-32).
To those who have ears to hear, Jesus says that the kingdom of heaven “is like a mustard seed”. Mustard seeds are proverbial in the Bible. They symbolize that which is small, and which seems—at first glance—to be utterly insignificant.
Do you remember when the disciples once came to Jesus and said, “Increase our faith”? Jesus told them that it wasn't a matter of having great amounts of faith; because He said, “If you have faith as a mustard seed”—that is, just a small amount, just the tiniest little amount—“you can say to this mulberry tree, 'Be pulled up by the roots and be planted in the sea,' and it would obey you” (Luke 17:5-6). On another occasion, He told them that “if you have faith as a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there,' and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you” (Matthew 17:20).
Now; I have to pause and tell you about a fellow student I knew in Bible college. This verse in our passage this morning caused him so much difficulty that he nearly abandoned his faith in the Bible. Jesus says in it that the mustard seed was “the least of all seeds”. This young man knew enough about seeds, apparently, to say that it wasn't true that the mustard seed is the smallest of all seeds. He knew of others that were smaller; and so, this led him to doubt that the Bible is the word of God. He believed that there were errors in the Bible; and that it couldn't entirely be trusted in what it said.
Now; I don't know which “smaller” seed it was that he was thinking of. Perhaps there were some that were smaller. But I believe it's very important to note the context. Jesus was talking to a specific group of people—that is, the Jewish people in the first century. If there was a seed that was smaller elsewhere in the world, they would not have known what it was. For them, the mustard seed would have been the smallest they could have known. And it would have been the “least” of its type—which was of herbs that the Jewish people were familiar with. What's more, it would have been the seed best illustrates the lesson that Jesus was seeking to teach—that something so remarkably small grew into something far beyond proportion with respect to its beginning.
That was the point that our Lord was seeking to make. The tiny mustard seed grew into a large brush—almost like a tree in size. The mustard bush sometimes reached a height of ten to twelve feet! Such mustard bushes had branches that spread out, and were strong enough for birds to light on and rest. And that's the picture that Jesus is seeking to paint for us—that the kingdom of heaven is like that seed. At its beginning, it was something very small and tiny—something that no one would ever expect to grow into something so big that birds could rest on its branches.
Did you know that the Bible often uses the picture of a tree with great branches as a way of describing great kingdoms that were prosperous and a blessing to those who were under it? In the Book of Daniel, for example, God gave King Nebuchadnezzar—the king of the mighty Babylonian empire—a vision; and in that vision, Nebuchadnezzar saw his own kingdom as
God even uses these same terms to describe the future glory of Israel, when Jesus returns to reign from it. In Ezekiel 17, God speaks of the eventual downfall of Babylon and of the exaltation of Israel when He says;
Jesus is teaching us, then, that His kingdom on this earth is like that tiny mustard seed. It was small in its beginning. There didn't seem to be much about it that would have impressed anyone that it would come to much of anything. It began with a humble Teacher who organized no army or assumed no political office. He gathered a group of men around Himself—a tiny band of twelve. One of them would betray Him, one of them would deny Him, and all of them would eventually desert Him. And He Himself would be rejected by the people He presented Himself to as King. They would crucify Him as a despised criminal. And from these humble, “mustard seed” beginnings, who would have expected anything great?
And yet, Jesus promised that his kingdom would—nevertheless—grow like a great tree whose branches would spread out, and in whom the birds of the air would find shelter and blessing. His kingdom is that very kingdom which was promised to Abraham of old; when God told him that “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3). Jesus' kingdom is that kingdom foretold by the prophet Daniel; “the stone cut without hands” that struck all other nations at the base and caused them to crumble, and that then “became a great mountain” that “filled the whole earth” (Daniel 2:34-35).
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So the first thing we learn from the first of Jesus' two parables about the spread of His kingdom is this; that though it is small and seemingly insignificant at its “planting” into this world, it will eventually grow to be the greatest of all kingdoms in the world—the kingdom that will truly bring about the blessing of all the families of the earth. What a marvelous truth this is to be allowed to know and understand!
And a second thing we learn about Jesus' kingdom, from the second of these two parables, is . . .
B. That though seemingly “hidden” in this world, His kingdom will grow to permeate the whole earth (v. 33).
Jesus says that His kingdom is like “leaven”. Leaven is that substance that is used to ferment a lump of dough; which causes it to rise in the oven when baked into bread. The chief characteristic of leaven is that it spreads throughout whatever it is put into; until it permeates the whole thing.
Do you remember that time when Jesus taught His disciples, “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy” (Luke 12:2)? He called their hypocritical behavior and teaching “leaven” because, once allowed to make an entry into our hearts, such hypocrisy spreads itself throughout our whole life and thinking. Or do you remember when the apostle Paul had to rebuke the Corinthian believers for tolerating sinful behavior in the church? He warned them, “Your glorying is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump?” (1 Corinthians 5:6). Once sin is permitted to come in, and once its presence is tolerated, it spreads itself and corrupts everything!
Well; these passages show that leaven was sometimes used as a way to illustrate the deadly ease with which sin will spread in our lives if we allow it to. It spreads like leaven through a lump of dough! It permeates the whole thing. It corrupts the whole lump! But I don't believe that, in the parable before us, Jesus was meaning to communicate the idea of the pervasive and corrupting power of sin. He was simply using leaven as a way to illustrate how the kingdom of heaven would spread in this world.
In this parable, Jesus gives us a picture of something every household would have been familiar with—that is, a woman who took a bit of leaven and “hid” it into three measures of meal. That amount, by the way, would be significant amount of meal. It would have been the rough equivalent of almost three dry gallons of meal; and it would have made enough bread to feed several scores of people! Scholars tell us that it was about all that the average woman could have baked in one day! And this generous amount of meal is meant to serve as an illustration—something “big” into which something comparatively “little” was introduced.
The woman “hid” the leaven in the dough. This would have meant that she worked it deeply into the dough—turning it, and folding it, and kneading it, and pushing it in. By the time she was through, you couldn't see the small amount of leaven that was put into it. The leaven was hidden from view. But it was there; and its influence was very present. And it would spread—until “it was all leavened”. The leaven will end up permeating every part of the very large lump of dough.
And think of what a picture this is of Jesus' kingdom. In contrast to this vast world, Jesus' kingdom was very small and tiny in its beginning. It began in just a little strip of land in the Middle-East—a land that, at that time, was made rather insignificant by the fact that it was under occupation by the mighty Roman empire. In fact, Jesus' kingdom was not taught about and commenced in the great palaces and capitals of a great empire; but rather on the roads and highways, and in the marketplaces, and in the homes of this tiny occupied land. What's more, many people who saw Jesus wanted to make Him “King” then and there; but He wouldn't allow them to do it (John 6:15). He didn't spread His message to the furthest places of the world when He walked on this earth. In fact, He never traveled very far from His own home town. He sought to make His earthly ministry a relatively quiet one. He would heal people and perform miracles for them; and then command them to tell no one what He had done (Matthew 8:4; 9:30; 12:16). He restricted His preaching to the Jewish people only. He didn't quarrel or cry out. His voice was not heard in the streets. He didn't bruise a single reed, or quench a single smoking flax (Matthew 12:19-20). From the standpoint of how the kingdoms of this world were established, His own seemed “hidden” at its beginning.
Yet, look at what has happened! He died on the cross, and rose gloriously from the dead. And before He ascended to the Father, He told His disciples, “But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). He told His disciples, Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations” (Matthew 28:19); promising that “this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world as a witness to all the nations” (Matthew 24:14).
And look were we are today! Here we sit two thousand years later—in a building dedicated to His worship, reading His word, and encouraging one another to walk faithfully with Him and to serve Him until He returns to this earth—and we're doing so in a spot that is on nearly the exact opposite side of the globe from where it all began. We're just one church hundreds of thousands scattered across our nation—and just one nation among many in the world—that worships Him! His kingdom has truly spread throughout this vast globe like leaven throughout dough! It has permeated the whole world; and is spreading in the world all the more even as we speak!
By the way; what mere man could have predicted the spread of his own kingdom into such a vast, global influence—two-thousand years after the prediction was made—when its beginnings were so small and humble? Who, but the Son of God would have known that such a thing would happen. But Jesus' kingdom has spread just as He said it would. It will continue to do so—surviving every attempt to eradicate it; enduring every persecution from the devil designed to destroy it—until the day when Jesus returns, and the announcement is finally made: “The kingdoms of this world have become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever” (Revelation 11:15)!
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If you are a follower of Jesus Christ, then I hope—dear brother or sister—that you draw encouragement and strength from the truth being taught to us in these two wonderful little parables! Never despise the apparent “smallness” of the success of Jesus' kingdom on this earth. It began as something very small; but its expansion and growth is assured, and it's success in this world is absolutely guaranteed—no matter what.
And if you are not yet a follower of this great King, then the good news of His kingdom is being offered to you. He will, one day, return to this earth to claim His rightful rule; and you will stand before Him then. May you be given the ears to hear the news of His kingdom now—in this day of grace; and may you trust Him today as your Savior and Lord!
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