Jesus gave many illustrations of the value and characteristics of the kingdom of God. In one place, Matthew 13:44-46 (NIV), he provided us with two images of the value of the kingdom of heaven. “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.” Jesus also compared the kingdom of God to a mustard seed and yeast (Matthew 13:31-33 and Luke 13:18-20) to illustrate how it will grow large.
In Mark 4:26-32 we have two descriptions of the characteristics of the kingdom. The first says the kingdom of God is like a man sowing seed and then harvesting the grain. The growth of the grain is God’s work through the seed and the soil. The second illustration is that of the mustard seed.
Later in the thirteenth chapter of Matthew we receive a more complex and disturbing picture of the nature of the kingdom of heaven. Let us look at the words of Jesus. “Once again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was let down into the lake and caught all kinds of fish. When it was full, the fishermen pulled it up on the shore. Then they sat down and collected the good fish in baskets, but threw the bad away. This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous and throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” After these words Jesus asks his disciples, “Have you understood all these things?” “Yes,” they replied. “He said to them, ‘Therefore every teacher of the law who has become a disciple in the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old’” (Matthew 13:47-52, NIV).
In this parable the kingdom of heaven is portrayed as containing people with both true and spurious spirituality. The purpose of the parable may have been to show the disciples that not everyone who appeared outwardly spiritual was a true citizen of the kingdom of heaven. The last part of this teaching seems to indicate that true teachers of the law in the kingdom of heaven will go beyond the old teachings of Judaism and redefine spiritual life as more than a performance on earth’s stage.
It is a characteristic of the kingdom of heaven that it includes people who forgive others. Jesus gave a vivid illustration of this in Matthew 18:21-35 when Peter asked him how many times he should forgive a brother who sins against him. Jesus told him seventy-seven times and then followed that with a frightening story known as the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant. This is a dramatic illumination of the words in the Lord’s Prayer “forgive us as we forgive others.” In both cases the teaching is that we will not be forgiven, and thus part of the kingdom of heaven, unless we forgive those who sin against us.
Later, in Matthew 20:1-16, Jesus told the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard which begins, “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard.” If we add Matthew 19:30 (NIV) to the parable, “But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first” we see it is bracketed by this verse and verse 16 “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” We seemingly learn from this parable that all who are called to the kingdom of heaven receive an equal reward. Yet we are also told there are people whose status on earth is reversed in the kingdom of heaven.