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.
One of the benefits of inclusion in the kingdom of God is knowledge of its secrets. Although the kingdom of heaven was only as yet near, Jesus gave special knowledge of it to his disciples. When asked why he spoke in parables, “He replied, ‘Because the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them’” (Matthew 13:11, NIV). Jesus made it clear, as recorded in Mark 4:11-12 (NIV), that it was his intention that those who were not his disciples would not be able to understand his teaching about the kingdom of heaven. “He told them, ‘The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables so that they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding; otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!’” There are similar words in Luke 8:10.
There are other benefits of the kingdom. Paul told the Thessalonians, “You are witnesses, and so is God, of how holy, righteous and blameless we were among you who believed. For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into his kingdom and glory” (1 Thessalonians 2:10-12, NIV). Being in the kingdom of God means that we have help in becoming holy, righteous and blameless not just from reading the words of Paul but by the call of God to enter his kingdom and partake of his glory.
Another feature of the kingdom of heaven is that it is unshakeable. We are told this in Hebrews 12:28 (NIV). “Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe.”
There are people other than the enemies of Jesus who will be excluded from the kingdom of God. The concept of the kingdom of heaven can attract false prophets as Jesus taught his disciples. This warning is recorded in the seventh chapter of Matthew along with other teachings concerning how his followers were to think and do. In regard to those who spoke of him without obeying him Jesus said, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 7:21, NIV).
Later in Matthew we learn that people who were supposed to be in the kingdom of heaven because they were Jews would not necessarily measure up to the admission requirements but because of their lack of faith in Jesus would be excluded. “I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 8:11-12 and Luke 13:28-29, NIV). In Matthew 21:43 (NIV) we read that Jesus told the chief priests and Pharisees, “Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit.”
The first twenty-three verses of the thirteenth chapter of Matthew contain what is called the Parable of the Sower. The parable and Jesus’ explanation of it to the disciples tell us three ways that people who are able to enter the kingdom of heaven because they have received instruction concerning it exclude themselves from it. The first method is from lack of understanding. “When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in their heart. This is the seed sown along the path” (Matthew 13:19, NIV).
The second way people exclude themselves from the kingdom of heaven is to accept the news of the kingdom eagerly but then fall away when trouble or persecution comes. This, in the parable, is the seed that lands on rocky soil. People also exclude themselves when they receive the news of the kingdom but allow worries and the deceit of wealth to keep them from living in it. Or, as the parable puts it, their seed lands among thorny plants and is choked out.
There are also people who will appear to be of the kingdom of heaven until the end of the age. This is how Jesus began telling about it. “Jesus told them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field’” (Matthew 13:24, NIV). It is called The Parable of the Weeds in the NIV. Let’s look at how Jesus explained the parable.
“The field is the world, and the good seed stands for the people of the kingdom. The weeds are the people of the evil one, and the enemy who sows them is the devil. The harvest is the end of the age, and the harvesters are angels.
“As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. They will throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Whoever has ears, let them hear” (Matthew 13:38-43, NIV).
Jesus began another parable by saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son” (Matthew 22:2, NIV). As the parable continues, we find that the invitees refuse to come when first told the banquet is ready. Their rejection is even more vigorous when they get the second notice. Some of the invitees ostentatiously follow their own interests, others mistreat and kill the messengers. So an invitation goes out to people in general, both good and bad, so that the wedding hall is filled with people enjoying good food and drink. We would be happy if the parable ended here but it does not. The king finds one guest not wearing wedding clothes. When asked about it, the man has no answer and so is thrown out of the banquet and into the darkness. The parable ends with these difficult words of Jesus, “For many are invited, but few are chosen” (Matthew 22:14, NIV).