|What is earth but God's own field,
Fruit unto His praise to yield?
Wheat and tares therein are sown,
Unto joy or sorrow grown;
* * * * *
Grant, O Lord of Life, that we
Holy grain and pure may be.|
What appeared to be the death-blow of |The Kingdom of Heaven| was but a necessary step in its formation. The King was crucified in weakness, only to be |declared to be the Son of God with power by the resurrection from the dead| (Rom. i.4). And the reason for His humiliation has become clear to us, as expressed in the familiar proverb, |No cross, no crown.| The way to His exaltation upon the throne of His Kingdom led by the cross. His Kingdom must be |purchased with His own Blood| (Acts xx.28). He must |suffer for sins, that He might bring us to God| (1 Pet. iii.18).
But the question now arises, What sort of Kingdom was it that He offered unto men when He preached to them the Gospel of the Kingdom? Has He enabled us to form, from His own recorded words, a definite idea of the nature and character of |The Kingdom of Heaven|?
For the answer we turn naturally to His Parables; because the form of teaching which He most commonly employed was that which is known by the name of Parable. And we find that fully half of them were Parables of the Kingdom; that is to say, they either begin with the words |The Kingdom of Heaven is like unto| such and such things; or they contain some distinct reference to it. And as the first two of these Parables were interpreted to the disciples, we are left in no doubt as to the general meaning of them all.
The Parables of |The Kingdom of Heaven| may be divided into two divisions. Those of the first division relate in a general manner to |The Kingdom of Heaven| or |The Kingdom of God,| under its various aspects, which will be set forth more fully in subsequent chapters; some parables describing the Kingdom as it may be seen on earth; some expressing the inward spiritual reign of the King over the hearts of men; and others teaching that those who fail to use their opportunities as subjects of it here, will lose the glory of sharing in its perfect state hereafter. And the Parables of the second division relate to certain special circumstances which affect the position of its subjects.
The first division consists of the seven Parables collected together in S. Matt. xiii; and begins with the Parable of |The Sower,| which was one of those which our Lord Himself explained. |Hear ye the Parable of the Sower. When any one heareth the Word of the Kingdom, and understandeth it not, then cometh the wicked one and catcheth away that which was sown in his heart| (S. Matt. xiii.18, 19). The good news about |The Kingdom of Heaven| falls like seed. They who hear about it are like the different kinds of soil on which seed is sown. One pays no heed to what he hears, and the birds of folly and thoughtlessness carry off, at once, |that which was sown in his heart.| Others desire to live as subjects of the Kingdom here, and be prepared for its perfect state hereafter, only they are like stony ground, or as soil which is foul with weeds and thorns; they cannot stand against the scorching heat of temptations or petty persecutions, or else the cares and riches of this world choke the word and make them unfruitful. Whilst other men accept the good news of the Kingdom of Jesus Christ, and bear fruit, by living as useful subjects of their King (S. Matt. xiii.18-23).
The next Parable -- |The Tares| -- is a very striking one, because it describes the state of |The Kingdom of Heaven| as being completely different from what men would have expected. It was the Lord's own account beforehand of the sad outward appearance of His Kingdom. It described the work of God as being maliciously injured and marred by Satan, so that good and bad would be found together side by side, so closely intermingled that it would be impossible to separate them, or to distinguish between them. And the separation would not be made until the end of the world, however much men might wish to make it at once (S. Matt. xiii.24-30, 36-43).
We may well pause here for a moment to think about the meaning of these words. Our Blessed Lord was preaching the Gospel of the Kingdom. And when He began to describe the Kingdom which He came to found, He told His disciples at once that it would be very far from being a perfect state, such as some might dream of. They must expect to see evil growing wild in it, like weeds in a field of corn. There would be bad subjects as well as good; and there would be no means of separating them. And as long as this world should last, the outward appearance of |The Kingdom of Heaven| would be like a field of wheat and tares growing together.
At the same time He encouraged His disciples with the prospect of boundless success. In the next Parable -- |The Grain of Mustard Seed| -- He described, prophetically, the outward spread of His Kingdom from very small beginnings, until the nations of the world should find shelter within it. For though nothing could be less promising of success than the first beginnings of |The Kingdom of Heaven,| yet, as a spreading tree may rise from the smallest seed, even so should His Kingdom extend its branches through the world (S. Matt. xiii.31, 32).
And this was not their only ground for encouragement and hope. For this description of the outward extension of the Kingdom, taken by itself, gives a very imperfect idea of its character. He taught them that |The Kingdom of Heaven| would exert a spiritual power over the hearts of men. It would be like leaven working in the meal. It would change the hearts of its subjects. The effect would be such as was afterwards described by the Apostle S. Paul, |If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature| (2 Cor. v.17). And as leaven goes on working until the whole mass of the meal in which it is hid is leavened, even so He would lead us to understand that one heart truly leavened with the Gospel of the Kingdom will affect others; and that, silently and unnoticed, it will extend until it works a moral change in the state of the whole world (S. Matt. xiii.33).
He then went on to describe that as the Kingdom extended, men would begin to find out its value; and for the saving of their souls would gladly give up their worldly prospects. |The Hidden Treasure| and |The Pearl of Great Price| set forth the priceless value of |The Kingdom of Heaven.| The rights and privileges of citizenship are worth more than all the world besides. These two Parables are alike in that both express the great worth of that of which the Gospel tells, viz. the salvation won by our King and Saviour Jesus Christ, and given to the subjects of His Kingdom; but they differ in describing different ways in which men may find it out. One man will find it like a hidden treasure, as we should say by chance (S. Matt. xiii.44). So the woman of Samaria found the long-expected Saviour, when she had only gone to fill her pitcher at the well (S. John iv.28, 29). Others will have to search diligently with the earnest desire to find out |what is truth,| and the truth will be brought home to their souls only after long and patient seeking. Like as it happened to S. Paul, who had long been seeking for |The Pearl,| in being more excessively zealous toward God, but who found it not, until the Voice |Why persecutest thou Me| (Acts ix.4) brought him to Jesus Christ. Furthermore, these two Parables both set forth this truth: that, if men wish to gain the priceless blessings of |The Kingdom of Heaven,| they must be ready, as S. Paul was, to give up all that they have, and |count all things but loss, that they may win Christ| (Phil. iii.8).
The character of |The Kingdom of Heaven| having been thus expressed, we are carried on in the last Parable of the series -- |The Draw-net| -- to the end of this present world. |The Kingdom of Heaven| is described as catching in its net all, both good and bad, who come within its reach. But, at the end, the net will be drawn to shore, and the judgment and separation will be made. The evil will be cast away. The good will be preserved, and admitted to their reward of joy and glory everlasting (S. Matt. xiii.47-49). And |The Kingdom of Heaven| being perfected at length, and |not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing| (Ephes. v.27), will be seen as the glorious Kingdom of righteousness and peace described in the glowing words of prophecy.
Such is the account given by our Blessed Lord of |The Kingdom of Heaven.| In the above Parables we see its nature and character described, from its foundation to the end of this present world. From His own words we learn its history. There is, first, the sowing of the seed; then the apparent spoiling of the design by the intermixture of evil with the good; then the Kingdom is seen to have a power of rapid growth and extension, and a leavening influence over the hearts of men; then its value is declared to be so priceless, that men will give up all things for its sake; and lastly, we are told of a day when all evil will be purged out, and it will become a glorious and perfect Kingdom. But with the exception of this one faint glimpse of eternity, there is not a word in all these Parables respecting what we commonly understand by the term |Heaven.| |The Kingdom of Heaven| is here on earth, and belongs to this present time. It was the will of our Lord to describe His Kingdom as we know it, in its present imperfect state here on earth, in which men have temptations and duties, as well as great privileges and blessings. Whilst of the future condition of His Kingdom in glory, very little has been revealed.
But besides this general description of |The Kingdom of Heaven,| we find other Parables which describe various circumstances relating to the rejection of the Kingdom by the unbelieving, or affecting the position of those who have become its subjects.
For instance, the Apostle Peter was doubtful how often a brother should be forgiven, and our Lord spoke the Parable of |The Unmerciful Servant,| teaching that the subjects of His Kingdom, being themselves in a state of forgiveness, would forfeit all their blessings if they did not unreservedly forgive their brethren. The debt of sin which the King has already forgiven His subjects, in admitting them into a state of salvation, is as it were |ten thousand talents.| The debt incurred by any offending brother is but as |an hundred pence| in comparison (S. Matt. xviii.21-35).
Again, in the Parable of |The Labourers in the Vineyard| He taught that the subjects of His Kingdom must not grudge one against another, if a rebel or one who has been neglecting his duty all his life turns and is accepted at the last. The King cannot do otherwise than what is right. |At the eleventh hour| a labourer may be taken on, and receive his reward. And, on the other hand, one who might have been first in the Kingdom of glory and reward may fall away through an evil spirit of self-glorification, and become last of all (S. Matt. xx.1-16).
Three Parables follow which were spoken with special reference to the Jewish rulers, the Priests, and Scribes, and Pharisees. The first of these -- the Parable of |The Two Sons| -- seems to have been spoken to win them over to a knowledge of their sin and danger, and, if it might be possible, to induce them to accept the Gospel of God, and to enter the Kingdom. The Son in the Parable who at first said, |I will not,| |afterward repented and went.| Even so, the bold and open transgressors of the law were being won over to repentance, and were entering in. But the second son who said, |I go Sir, and went not,| professed a ready obedience and then did not carry it into practice, but held back and refused to enter in. Even so the Pharisees and others who made good profession of zeal for God's service |trusted in themselves that they were righteous| (S. Luke xviii.9), and being satisfied with the mere profession, |rejected the counsel of God against themselves| (S. Luke vii.30). And He thus sorrowfully yet firmly applied it to their own case, saying, |Verily I say unto you, that the publicans and harlots go into the Kingdom of God before you| (S. Matt. xxi.28-31).
They would not be won over; but, on the contrary, their hostility was increased. The consequence was, that the next Parable of |The Wicked Husbandmen| declared the miserable end which would certainly come upon them in judgment. The Kingdom of God was set forth under the figure of a vineyard -- a figure which must have been familiar to them from its frequent use in the Old Testament (Psalm lxxx.8-16; Isaiah v.1-8) -- and the husbandmen, instead of protecting their master's interests, were represented as beating his servants and slaying his son. What, asked the Lord Jesus, will he do with them? And they answered, to their own condemnation, |He will miserably destroy those wicked men, and will let out his vineyard unto other husbandmen.| And He then added these plain words of warning, |Therefore say I unto you, The Kingdom of God shall be taken from you, and given to a nation bringing forth the fruits thereof| (S. Matt. xxi.33-43).
The enmity of the rulers now reached its highest pitch. |They sought to lay hands on Him, but they feared the multitude, because they took Him for a prophet| (S. Matt. xxi.46). And as they had now clearly determined to reject the idea of the Kingdom, which He had come to found, the Parable of |The Marriage of the King's Son| was spoken, describing the call of others into the privileged position which they despised. |Jesus answered and spake unto them again by Parables, and said, The Kingdom of Heaven is like unto a certain king which made a marriage for his son.| And when the invited guests refused to come, |The king was wroth, and sent forth his armies and destroyed those murderers. Then said he to his servants, The wedding is ready, but they which were bidden were not worthy.| Who then should be admitted to the feast? Those from the highways. The Gentiles from far and wide should be called to take the place which the Lord's own people refused to enjoy (S. Matt. xxii.1-10).
Two other Parables of |The Kingdom of Heaven| remain to be considered -- |The Wise and Foolish Virgins| and |The Talents| -- both of which describe the judgment which the subjects of the Kingdom must be prepared to meet at the last day. The lessons to be learned from them are plain. The foolish virgins, who were shut out at the last because their lamps had gone out, are a warning to all who profess the faith of Christ and have once been earnest in the spiritual service of God. They are represented as being shut out, not for profanity and wickedness; but for spiritual negligence -- for not seeking to keep up the supply of grace through prayer and holy ordinances rightly used. Empty lamps were useless. So our Lord warned His future subjects that mere profession of faith and mere outward ordinances, without the Spirit, would be equally useless in preparing them to meet His coming at the Great Day (S. Matt. xxv.1-13).
As the Parable of |The Ten Virgins| is a warning against spiritual negligence, so the Parable of |The Talents| teaches the danger of neglecting the outward service of the King. The powers and opportunities of usefulness which He has given to His subjects, He will expect them to use. All must work according to their talents, or be condemned as |unprofitable servants and cast into outer darkness| (S. Matt. xxv.14-30).
This lesson of warning brings to an end the Parables which describe the nature and conditions of |The Kingdom of Heaven| in its present imperfect state. But to these is added a description, in words of striking clearness, of the day when this present Kingdom of grace and trial will be transformed into, and replaced by, the Kingdom of glory and reward; |When the Son of Man shall come in His glory, and all the holy angels with Him; and before Him shall be gathered all nations; and He shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth the sheep from the goats; and He shall set the sheep on His right hand, but the goats on the left.| Then will He appear as King indeed, seated on His throne of glory; and consequently He now uses that title plainly of Himself. |Then shall the King say unto them on His right hand, Come, ye blessed of My Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world| (S. Matt. xxv.31-34).
Thus the full meaning of the words |The Kingdom of Heaven| is unfolded in the Gospels. It is a Kingdom upon earth, springing from small beginnings, but intended to include the whole human race within its influence. It is the Kingdom of God, and yet imperfect, through the malice of the Evil One, who is ever striving to spoil God's work. And whilst in the world it is not of the world, but wholly spiritual and divine in its origin. For God is ruling over the hearts of its subjects. And His rule working and spreading secretly, like leaven changing the meal, is intended in His loving purpose to convert the whole world unto obedience to Himself.
Thus we see that |The Kingdom of Heaven| is described as being that state of grace and probation into which Christ's people are called at the time of their baptism, and in which they are blessed, and tried, and made fit for His nearer Presence. But, at the same time, we are led to think that a day will come when this present imperfect condition of His Kingdom will be brought to an end; when those who have been tried and found worthless will be cast out; and |The Kingdom of Heaven| as we know it, having been purged of all evil, will become the Kingdom of His glory and joy.
And when this shall come to pass, all the predictions respecting Messiah's Kingdom will at length be realised. |The everlasting Kingdom| (2 Peter i.11) ordained |before the foundation of the world| (Ephes. i.4), will then have embraced all nations, so that |the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea| (Isaiah xi.9). Then will the reign of righteousness and peace of Him, who is |the Lord our Righteousness| (Jer. xxiii.6), appear in all its perfect beauty. God's |people will be all righteous;| and |inherit the land for ever| (Isaiah lx.21), even |the inheritance of the saints in light| (Col. i.12). And Christ, being at length in every sense |the Prince of Peace| (Isaiah ix.6), when no foe will be left to be subdued, and |they shall not hurt nor destroy in all My holy mountain| (Isaiah xi.9), will then be proclaimed |King of Kings and Lord of Lords| (Rev. xix.16).
And then also our daily prayer |Thy Kingdom come| (S. Matt. vi.10) will have received its perfect fulfilment. For all that is now imperfect in His rule will have been set right; through the conversion of the heathen, the repentance of the ungodly, and the sanctification of all who |neglect| not |so great salvation| (Heb. ii.3).
The number of the elect will be accomplished. The Son will |have delivered up the Kingdom to God, even the Father;| God will be |all in all| (1 Cor. xv.24, 28).
To prevent any doubt arising in the mind of the reader, it may be well to state that the expressions |Kingdom of Heaven| and |Kingdom of God| are used indiscriminately and with the same meaning in these Parables. By comparing S. Matt. xiii.31 with S. Mark iv.30 and S. Luke xiii.18 it will be seen that |The Kingdom of Heaven| is |The Kingdom of God,| and |The Kingdom of God| is |The Kingdom of Heaven.| S. Matthew nearly always uses the expression |Kingdom of Heaven,| whilst S. Mark and S. Luke use the expression |Kingdom of God.|
Because leaven is commonly referred to in Holy Scripture as a symbol of evil, some have interpreted this Parable in a very different manner. But the meaning assigned to it above is in accordance with ancient interpretation; and the other explanation is involved in difficulties. For, if the leaven represents a corrupting influence, the Parable would describe the Kingdom of Heaven either as having an evil effect upon the world, or else as progressing itself towards corruption till the whole is corrupted.
The Jewish people and their rulers had formed God's Kingdom upon earth in ancient times; and they were still His chosen people, who would naturally continue to form a part of His Kingdom, now that it was to be extended so as to embrace the world. But the privileges which they despised they would lose; and others who valued them would gain them.