The kingdom of heaven

One of the topics that Jesus talked about frequently was the kingdom of heaven. Rather than a place far away, somewhere out in the cosmos, Jesus taught that the kingdom of heaven exists here on planet earth. In order to create a mental image of the place he was talking about, Jesus told a series of parables that are recorded in Matthew 13:24-52. The first of these parables is referred to as the parable of the tares. Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven is likened unto a man which sowed good seed in his field: but while men slept, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat, and went his way” (Matthew 13:24-25). According to the footnote on Matthew 13:25, the tares Jesus spoke of in his parable were “probably darnel, which looks very much like wheat while it is young, but can later be distinguished. This parable does not refer to unbelievers in the church. The field is the world (v. 38). Thus the people of the kingdom live side by side with the people of the evil one.”

Jesus’ illustration of the kingdoms of God and Satan existing side by side in the world was most likely a reference to the Jews dispersion throughout the world after Jesus was resurrected. For almost 1900 years, the Jews didn’t have a homeland, but were integrated among other nations and lived without any political structure to sustain them. It wasn’t until after World War II, when their race was almost exterminated, that the Jews were granted access to the land that was once their inheritance from God. In his second parable, Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven is like unto a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and sowed in his field: which indeed is the least of all seeds: but when it is grown, it is the greatest among herbs, and becometh a tree, so that the birds of the air come and lodge in the branches thereof” (Matthew 13:31-32). Since its reestablishment in 1948, Israel has continued to gain strength as a nation and has attracted worldwide attention because of what appears to be its supernatural preservation in spite of continual military attacks against it.

In his explanation of the parable of the tares, Jesus indicated there would come a time when Satan’s followers would be removed from the world. He told his disciples, “the good seed are the children of the kingdom; but the tares are the children of the wicked one; the enemy that sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the world; and the reapers are the angels. As therefore the tares are gathered and burnt in the fire; so shall it be in the end of this world” (Matthew 13:38-40). After this explanation, Jesus used three illustrations to convey the extreme value of membership in the kingdom of heaven. He likened his kingdom to treasure hid in a field, one pearl of great price, and a net that was able to gather into it every kind of fish in the sea without breaking (Matthew 13:44-48). In his final remark to his disciples, Jesus emphasized the value both the Old and New Testaments of God’s word (Matthew 13:52). Whereas, some might have thought the history of God’s people was irrelevant, Jesus made it clear that it was important for them to know the whole story about God’s establishment of his kingdom on earth.

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Understanding

Jesus’ teaching included some hard sayings that were often misunderstood by those that gathered to hear him speak. After the scribes and Pharisees began to twist his words and take them out of context, Jesus started using stories that were referred to as parables to convey truths about God’s kingdom. Jesus’ parables used comparisons or illustrations from nature and human life to convey messages that might be misconstrued if he were to talk about them openly among unbelievers. On one occasion, when there were so many people gathered by the sea side to listen to him teach that he had to get into a ship to keep from being crushed by the crowd (Matthew 13:1-2), Jesus used the parable of the sower to describe the effects of hearing the word of God. This parable included a key lesson that Jesus later interpreted for his disciples so that they wouldn’t misunderstand the point he was making. Therefore, its meaning was very important and Jesus wanted to make sure they didn’t misinterpret it.

When Jesus’ disciples asked him, “Why speakest thou unto them in parables?” (Matthew 13:10), it says in Matthew 13:11, “He answered and said unto them, Because it is given unto you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it is not given.” The Greek word translated mysteries, musterion (moos-tay’-ree-on) means a secret or mystery (through the idea of silence imposed by initiation into religious rites)” (3466). What Jesus was implying was that membership in God’s kingdom was required for certain information to be revealed. In other words, unbelievers weren’t on the need to know list, therefore, Jesus didn’t tell them everything about the kingdom of heaven. When he explained the parable to his disciples, the key issue Jesus focused on was the unbeliever’s inability to understand or assimilate the word of God. Jesus said, “Therefore speak I to them in parables: because they seeing see not; and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand” (Matthew 13:13).

Understanding of the word of God occurs at a deeper level than information that is processed through our brains. Jesus likened the word of God to seeds because seeds need to be underneath the soil in order for them to germinate. Like farming, Jesus suggested that assimilation of the word of God was a process that took place over time and an important factor that was revealed in his parable was the quality of the soil, or in reality, the condition of a person’s heart. He said, “But he that received the seed into the good ground is he that heareth the word, and understandeth it; which also beareth fruit, and bringeth forth, some an hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. The Greek word Jesus used for understanding, suniemi (soon-ee’-ay-mee) is derived from the word sun (soon) which denotes union; “with or together, i.e. by association, companionship, process, resemblance” (4862). The process of taking in and fully understanding the information and ideas that Jesus taught about the kingdom of God occurred while the disciples were living with him over the course of three years.

Two sisters

Jerusalem and Samaria were described as two adulterous sisters in a parable that was intended to portray the two cities as corrupt and tied to the past by their habitual idolatry. (Ezekiel 23). The origin of the adulterous sisters’ behavior was an early exposure to sexual misconduct in the land of Egypt. The Israelites lived in bondage in Egypt for 430 years. When they were finally delivered from bondage by Moses, they had to be taken out of the land almost by force. During the 40 years they wandered in the wilderness before entering the Promised Land, the Israelites were continually reverting to old habits such as worshipping a golden calf (Exodus 32:4), and engaging in the fertility rites of Baal, the god of the Moabites (Numbers 25:1-2).

The parable of the adulterous sisters opened with a stark picture of violent sexual abuse. God said to Ezekiel, “Son of man, there were two women, the daughters of one mother: and they committed whoredoms in Egypt: they committed whoredoms in their youth: there were their breasts pressed, and there they bruised the teats of their virginity” (Ezekiel 23:2-3). The accusation of having committed whoredom was due to a voluntary and willful choice of a particular lifestyle that was contrary to God’s commandments. As God’s chosen people, the Israelites were forbidden to worship any god other than Jehovah. Even before Moses was given the Ten Commandments, it was clear to Abraham’s descendants that they were not to engage in idolatry. Circumcision was symbolic of God’s ownership rights to Abraham’s offspring, and a token of his entering into a covenant with each man individually (Genesis 17:10).

In the parable of the adulterous sisters, Jerusalem, capital of the nation of Judah, was designated as the younger sister, Aholibah, who followed in the footsteps of her older sister, Aholah, who represented Samaria, the capital of the northern kingdom of Israel (Ezekiel 23:4). After the fall of Samaria, Jerusalem was expected to heed God’s warning and turn back to him, but instead, Jerusalem became even more corrupt than Samaria by defiling God’s holy temple. The result was alienation from God and isolation from his messengers, the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel.

In the parable, Ezekiel was told, “And when her sister Aholibah saw this, she was more corrupt in her inordinate love than she…She doted upon the Assyrians her neighbors, captains and rulers clothed most gorgeously, horsemen riding upon horses, all of them desirable young men” (Ezekiel 23:11-12). Jerusalem’s reliance on military strength rather than God’s protection was evident when king Jehoiakim paid tribute or ransom money in order to receive protection from Pharaoh-nechoh of Egypt (2 Kings 23:35). In the end, king Hezekiah of Judah invited the Babylonians to view the treasures of his kingdom which were later taken by king Nebuchadnezzar (2 Kings 20:13; Ezekiel 23:16).

The royal bloodline

The princes of Israel were descendants of king David that ascended to the throne through a selective process that was intended to preserve the royal bloodline until the Messiah was born. Initially, when Jacob blessed his twelve sons, Judah was singled out as the designated leader of the family. It says in Genesis 49:8, “Judah, thou art he whom thy brethren shall praise: thy hand shall be in the neck of thine enemies; thy father’s children shall bow down before thee.”

Judah’s blessing foretold of the sovereignty, strength and courage with which the kings of Judah would rule over the people. Judah was portrayed as a lion’s whelp or cub that would be trained to kill (Genesis 49:9). In his prophetic discourse, Jacob declared, “The sceptre shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet, until Shiloh come; and unto him shall the gathering of the people be” (Genesis 49:10). The scepter was symbolic of authority in the hands of a ruler (7626) and Shiloh was an epithet of the Messiah (7886).

Clearly, it was foreseen that the sons of Jacob would multiply into a nation of people that would be ruled by the Messiah. What was most likely misunderstood about the reign of the Messiah was that it would mark the end of human rulership and was expected to put the entire world under the Messiah’s authority. As the kings of Judah gained strength and became skilled warriors, their power to rule over God’s kingdom became less and less effective, until finally, it was evident that they were unfit to represent God among his people.

In his parable about Israel’s princes, Ezekiel showed that the kings of Judah were acting in their own strength and according to their own human nature. The kings’ exercise of authority drew their enemies attention away from the fact that God was the true leader of Israel and made it seem as if the Nation of Israel could be conquered like any other kingdom. The capture of king Jehoiachin and placement of Zedekiah on the throne was an attempt by Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon to abdicate God’s sovereign rule over his people.

In order to maintain control over the lineage of the Messiah, God removed the infrastructure that had supported the kings of Israel and Judah. Putting an end to their ability to rule, God showed the kings he would not allow them to usurp his authority. Speaking metaphorically of the royal bloodline, God said, “And now is she planted in the wilderness in a dry and thirsty ground. And fire is gone out of a rod of her branches, which hath devoured her fruit, so that she hath no strong rod to be a sceptre to rule” (Ezekiel 19:13-14).

The harlot

The city of Jerusalem was likened to a harlot or prostitute because of the idolatry that took place within her walls. God described Jerusalem as the child of prominent parents that was abandoned at birth, perhaps the result of a failed abortion. God said, “And as for thy nativity, in the day thou wast born thy naval wast not cut, neither wast thou washed in water to supple thee; thou wast not salted at all, nor swaddled at all. None eye pitied thee, to do any of these unto thee, to have compassion upon thee; but thou wast cast out in the open field, to the loathing of thy person, in the day that thou wast born” (Ezekiel 16:4-5).

God’s claim to the city of Jerusalem was based on a covenant he likened to a marriage contract. He said, “Now when I passed by thee, and looked upon thee, behold thy time was the time of love; and I spread my skirt over thee, and covered thy nakedness; yea, I sware unto thee, and entered into a covenant with thee, saith the Lord GOD, and thou becamest mine” (Ezekiel 16:8). God’s relationship with his people was dependent on a land that would belong to them throughout eternity. In order to fulfill his promise to Abraham, God selected Jerusalem as the home where he would dwell with his people.

God’s commitment to the city of Jerusalem was met when king David made Jerusalem the capital of Israel and Solomon built his temple there. It was only because Good had chosen Jerusalem beforehand that these things were able to take place. Like a bride on her wedding day, God said, “Thus wast thou decked with gold and silver; and thy raiment was of fine linen, and silk, and broidered work; thou didst eat fine flour, and honey, and oil; and thou wast exceeding beautiful, and thou didst prosper as a kingdom” (Ezekiel 16:13).

The city of Jerusalem became attractive to foreign kings because of the wealth that flowed into her gates as a result of God’s blessing. Without fully realizing what he was doing, king Hezekiah invited dignitaries from Babylon to tour his capital. It says in 2 Kings 20:13, “And Hezekiah hearkened unto them, and shewed them all the house of his precious things, the silver, and the gold, and the spices, and the precious ointment, and all the house of his armour, and all that was found in his treasures: there was nothing in his house, nor in all his dominion, that Hezekiah shewed them not.”

So that no one would be able to inhabit the city of Jerusalem besides his chosen people, God judged the land and caused it to become barren while his people went into exile. As if the land had committed adultery, God said of Jerusalem, “And in thine abominations and thy whoredoms thou hast not remembered the days of thy youth, when thou wast naked and bare, and wast polluted with blood…Behold, therefore, I have stretched out my hand over thee, and have diminished thine ordinary food, and delivered thee unto the will of them that hate thee, the daughters of the Philistines, which are ashamed of thy lewd way” (Ezekiel 16:27).

The vineyard

The nation of Israel was likened unto a vineyard that was planted in the midst of hostile territory (Psalm 80:8-13). Isaiah’s parable of the vineyard began with an introduction that expressed God’s emotionally attachment to his people. He said, “Now will I sing to my wellbeloved a song of my beloved touching his vineyard. My wellbeloved hath a vineyard in a very fruitful hill: and he fenced it, and gathered out the stones thereof, and planted it with the choicest vine, and built a tower in the midst of it, and also made a winepress therein: and he looked that it should bring forth grapes, and it brought forth wild grapes” (Isaiah 5:1-2).

The Hebrew word translated wild in Isaiah 5:2, beushiym means poison-berries (891). The implication being that the fruit of the vineyard was inedible. God’s intention in establishing the nation of Israel was for it to be a witness to others of his existence and of his involvement with mankind. In spite of the painstaking effort God made to bless his people and to show them his loving-kindness, he was continually rejected and replaced with the pagan gods of other nations. Exasperated, God asked the question, “What could have been done more to my vineyard, that I have not done in it?” (Isaiah 5:4).

Ezekiel’s parable of the vineyard revealed that God’s people were useless to him because they refused to listen to and obey his commands. God asked Ezekiel, “Son of man, What is the vine tree more than any tree, or than a branch which is among the trees of the forest? Shall wood be taken thereof to do any work? or will men take a pin of it to hang any vessel thereon?” (Ezekiel 15:2-3). The point God was trying to make was that the purpose of the vine was not to produce wood, but to produce fruit. The vine was necessary, actually essential for producing fruit, but the problem was God’s people were no different than the people that lived around them. They were unable to perform the ministry they had been chosen for because the Israelites’ hearts did not belong to God.

Referring to Israel’s ability to minister to the nations around them, God asked Ezekiel, “Behold, when it was whole, it was meet for no work, how much less shall it be meet yet for any work, when the fire hath devoured it, and it is burned?” (Ezekiel 15:5). In other words, the nation of Israel was corrupt from the beginning. Even when king David ruled, there was conflict and dissention among God’s people. David’s brief reign of 40 years represented the best that Israel had to offer, and yet, David’s sin of adultery, and the family conflict that followed, no doubt caused God’s kingdom to suffer disgrace in the eyes of unbelievers.

God’s final judgment of his people was necessary to purge the pride and self-sufficiency that was evident to everyone. God told Ezekiel, “And I will set my face against them; they shall go out from one fire, and another fire shall devour them; and ye shall know that I am the LORD, when I set my face against them, and I will make the land desolate, because they have committed a trespass, saith the Lord GOD” (Ezekiel 15:7-8). The use of the name Lord GOD as opposed to LORD or Jehovah, God’s personal name, meant that when God set his face against his people, he would be dealing with them as the Lord of Lords or divine ruler of the universe, a.k.a. Jesus.

Potter and clay

The parable of the potter and clay is a common, and probably the most popular, illustration of God’s sovereign control over mankind. Isaiah used this illustration in his message of doom to the city of Jerusalem (Isaiah 29:15-16). The LORD told Jeremiah, “Arise, and go down to the potter’s house, and there I will cause thee to hear my words” (Jeremiah 18:2). Jeremiah was given a first-hand account of the LORD’s plan to change his people into a different kind of “vessel” for his use. Jeremiah said, “Then I went down to the potter’s house, and behold, he wrought a work on the wheels. And the vessel that he made of clay was marred in the hand of the potter: so he made it again another vessel, as seemed good to the potter to make it” (Jeremiah 18:3).

One of the key points in the message Jeremiah received was shown in the actions of the potter. It says in Jeremiah 18:3, the potter “wrought a work.” He was making a valuable object that he intended to sell for money. The Hebrew word translated work in this verse is derived from the root word malak, which means to dispatch as a deputy; a messenger (4397). The purpose of the vessel the potter created was most likely a container for storing and preserving important documents. The LORD was depicting his people as receptacles, perhaps, of the gospel. They were to be used to transport his message around the world. The fact that the vessel was formed on “wheels” indicated the potter was using motion to facilitate the process of his work.

The illustration of the potter and clay may have suggested that Israel was no longer fit to be used by God as messengers of the gospel. After Jeremiah’s life was threatened a second time for speaking God’s word, he was told to “Go and get a potter’s earthen bottle, and take of the ancients of the people, and of the ancients of the priests and go forth unto the valley of the son of Hinnom” (Jeremiah 19:1-2), the place where human sacrifices were made. There, he was instructed, “Then shalt thou break the bottle in the sight of the men that go with thee. And shalt say unto them, Thus saith the LORD of hosts; Even so will I break this people and this city, as one breaketh a potter’s vessel, that cannot be made whole again” (Jeremiah 19:10-11).

The breaking of the clay bottle signified not only the destruction of Jerusalem and God’s temple, but also the breaking of the covenant between God and his chosen people. The Hebrew word used for break in this passage is the same word used in Exodus 32:19 where it is recorded that Moses cast the stone tablets that contained the Ten Commandments out of his hands when he saw the golden calf that Aaron had made the people worship. The clay bottle, as well as the stone tablets, were not merely broken, but completely shattered. The LORD’s reference to the bottle not being able to be made whole again indicated that the clay bottle also may have signified the heart’s of his people. To be made whole meant you were healed or cured of a disease (7495). Apparently, the hearts of the people of Judah were so hardened toward God that he could no longer cure them of their idolatry.