The Kingdom of God: Now and Not Yet
Jesus taught that the kingdom of God is present now, breaking into the lives of those who turn from their sin and place their faith in Him as Savior and Lord. He also taught that the kingdom of God is coming in glory someday. The kingdom of God is now and not yet. He taught parables to illustrate the now and the not yet. Today I want to look at two parables that illustrate the now.
The Kingdom of God Is Like Leaven (Matthew 13:33)
People in Jesus' day were expecting the kingdom of God to enter history with the violent, visible overthrow of every human empire and government and the re-establishment of the glory of Israel under the rule of Messiah. The problem they had with Jesus was that He proclaimed the presence of the kingdom, yet the world went on as before. He told this parable to explain what seemed to be a contradiction.
“The kingdom of heaven is like leaven, which a woman took and hid in three pecks of flour until it was all leavened ” (Matt. 13:33) Another translation says, “The Kingdom of Heaven is like the yeast a woman used in making bread. Even though she put only a little yeast in three measures of flour, it permeated every part of the dough” (New Spirit Filled Life Bible).
And that’s what leaven does, it transforms the entire loaf of bread from within. In the same way, Jesus brings the rule and reign of God into the heart of a believer and transforms that individual from the inside out. Transformed men and women then are like leaven in the world. Wherever true, Scriptural Christianity has spread there has been a gradual transforming of the world.
Keep in mind that only a very little leaven is needed to make the dough rise. The influence of the kingdom of God in the world is not related to the number of church members or size of a ministry budget or grandeur of the cathedral or the political clout that religious organizations think they exercise. None of those factors advance the kingdom of God nor do they have significant influence on the kingdoms of the world. Whatever impact the kingdom of God has on the world is due to the life of Jesus, the truth of His word and the power of the Holy Spirit established in and expressed through His disciples.
Notice that Jesus said the leaven was hidden in the dough. Buried deeply in the dough, it works from the inside out. A man had experienced multiple revolutions in his nation, none of which had changed society for the better. In exasperation he said, “We don’t need a new government. We need new people.”
This is the Good News of the kingdom of God. We are new creations in Christ and transformed people transform their world. The source of this transforming power is the Word of God and the Spirit of God. By His Word the living God created the heavens and the earth. That word is powerful, dynamic, creative. Peter reminds us that we “have been born again not of seed which is perishable but imperishable, that is, through the living and enduring word of God” (I Peter 1:23). When the Spirit of God energizes the preaching of the word of God, light penetrates darkness, strongholds fall, souls and cities are transformed.
The first asylum for the blind was begun by a Christian monk named Thalasius. The first recorded hospital was begun by a Christian woman, Fabiola. The first orphanages were begun by the church in response to the common but cruel practice of infanticide (abandoning unwanted infants). An English believer named Wilberforce launched the movement that abolished slavery in the British Empire. The holiness revival in early 19th century America fed directly into the movement to abolish slavery in this nation. Transformed people transform their world.
Jesus began His ministry quoting the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me because He has anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor. He has sent Me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are oppressed, to proclaim the favorable year of the Lord” (Luke 4:18,19, from Isaiah 61:1,2). Wherever true Christianity has spread, the voice of Jesus has spoken and the hand of Jesus has reached out to touch and to redeem through people who have been touched and redeemed by Jesus.
In the early days of the church, a Christian monk was living in the desert. He had left corrupt society for a life of communion and solitude with God. But he heard the call of God to go to Rome. Rome by then was nominally Christian, but still greatly infested with pagan influence.
One of the crueler features of that time was the gladiatorial games, where slaves fought to the death for the entertainment of the crowd. This humble follower of Jesus went to the Colosseum and was outraged at the slaughter. He leaped into the arena and placed himself between the two combatants. The crowd booed, the warriors shoved him back. Again he stepped in, interposing his own body. A command rang out, a sword flashed and the monk was cut down. Suddenly a hush fell over the stadium. A holy man lay dead and the Spirit of the living God convicted the crowd. A sense of shame rose up in many hearts and that day, the slaughter of the gladiators was ended forever.
One man, insignificant, small, humble as a tiny seed
communities of men and women, hidden like leaven in dough
transformed men and women transforming nations and empires:
this is a picture of what God is doing in us and through us.
The Wheat and the Tares (Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43)
Another picture of the now of the kingdom is found in the parable of the wheat and the tares: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field.”
The sower is the Son of Man, a Messianic title which Jesus frequently applied to Himself (Matt. 13:37). The field is the world (13:38). The seed is the sons of the kingdom (Matt. 13:38). (The seed also is the word of the kingdom (13:19). The seed of God’s word produces children of the kingdom.)
Notice that the Lord sows His seed, the sons of the kingdom, into the world (13:38). Someday the Lord will remove His church from the world but that day is not today. The church has been placed in the world to shine the light of God’s presence. We are His voice speaking His truth, His hands performing His works of mercy and grace. We are His transforming leaven.
There is a second sower, an enemy, who sows tares in the night (13:25). A tare is a variety of weed known as darnel which resembles wheat but is not wheat. Darnel is nutritionally worthless and not only bitter to the taste but also somewhat poisonous. The tares are “the sons of the evil one” (13:38), sown into the world even as the sons of the kingdom are sown into the world by the Son of Man. The enemy who sowed the tares is the devil (13:39), working in darkness, hidden, subtle, away from the light that would reveal him.
The sons of the evil one often become obvious, exposed by demonic values and ungodly lifestyles. But if we will be consistent with this parable, we must keep in mind that a tare, darnel, is a weed that resembles wheat. Even as the evil one hides his sowing in the night (13:25), he also often conceals his children in the disguise of righteousness. Paul reminds us, “Satan disguises himself as an angel of light” (2 Cor. 11:14) and surely he also disguises his messengers.
These sons of the evil one may be respectable members of the community, members of the church, may even be ordained as priests, pastors and bishops. But they have never been redeemed from slavery to sin and death, have never been spiritually regenerated and reconciled to God through faith in Jesus Christ.
They may have an appearance of righteousness but it is not the true righteousness that comes through the blood of Christ. It is a self-made righteousness, the product of works and rituals. Satan plants these tares among the redeemed and they do far greater damage within the church than those secular powers that persecute the church from the outside. They bring poisonous doctrine and bitter division into Christ’s church.
False religions are another example of tares. For all of their impressive ritual, doctrine and philosophy, for all of their promises of enlightenment, the world’s religions bring no one into relationship with the true and living God. Jesus said, “I am the Way and the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me” (John 14:6).
Wheat serves to nourish people. The true church offers Jesus, the bread of life, to a spiritually hungry world. Weeds nourish no one and neither do false religions. Most cults have at least some appearance of truth and some have, at a glance, a superficial similarity to Christianity. But a cultist is not a Christian any more than a weed is wheat.
There is a subtle point here. The Son of Man sowed the good seed but the seed of the enemy was sown while people were sleeping (13:25). In times when the church has been spiritually asleep, undiscerning, indifferent to the Holy Spirit and seduced by the spirit of the age; Scripturally illiterate and unable to discern false doctrine, compromised by sin; when those who should have been watchmen have been dulled or deceived by false doctrine or bought off by denominational bribes in the form of salaries or positions of influence or lulled into complacency by comfort; in those times of sleep, the enemy has sown evil seed amongst the good.
A seed contains in it all the qualities that the plant will be someday. An acorn produces an oak tree. A pumpkin seed produces a pumpkin. God’s seed — the imperishable seed which is the living and abiding word of God (I Peter 1:23) is like God — righteous, everlasting, destined to produce sons and daughters who resemble Him.
The seed of the evil one is as lethal as the good seed is alive. It is as poisonous as the good seed is nourishing. The bad seed produces nothing other than children of the devil and can never produce anything other.
From the time of Cain and Abel to this present day, there have been, as the Apostle John said, the children of God and the children of the evil one (I John 3:10). The children of the evil one may have some of the characteristics of the children of God, just as tares have some similarities to wheat. They may be members of a church. There were righteous prophets in the days of Israel, but also false prophets. In the early church there were true apostles but also false apostles, true shepherds and false shepherds; teachers of truth and teachers of lies. There have always been Godly bishops, pastors and church members but also ungodly.
There have always been sheep and wolves in sheep's clothing. John says the difference is obvious, “By this the children of God and the children of the devil are obvious: anyone who does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor the one who does not love his brother” (I John 3:10). Righteousness and brotherly love validate the confession of Jesus Christ as Lord (also I John 4:2,3).
Righteousness refers to our relationship with Christ, a spiritual union demonstrated through obedience to His word. Love for those around us is a visible, tangible expression of our union with Christ. He establishes His loving rule in us and releases His love through us.
Jesus Himself said, “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments” (John 14:15). Our obedience to His teaching demonstrates our love for Him and submission to His Lordship. How can we say that we are living in His kingdom, the sphere of His rule, while disobeying His word? Jesus asked, “Why do you call Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?” (Luke 6:46).
The Lord clearly warns us, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name and in Your name cast out demons and in Your name perform many miracles?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me you who practice lawlessness’” (Matt. 7:21-23).
“In that day” refers to the day of God’s judgment at the end of time, that day when the truth will be clearly seen. On that day men and women will be exposed who were actively involved in the work of the church but were not in a redeemed relationship with the Lord. He will say, “I never knew you.” Jesus does not mean that He does not know the truth about someone’s life. He means that they were never related to Him in a holy communion of intimate love.
What is the proof that they did not know the Lord? Their disobedience — they “practice lawlessness.” They may have confessed the Lordship of Christ with their words but their deeds, the way they lived their lives, denied His Lordship. Profession of faith is not merely a matter of words but lifestyle.
The Apostle John says, “If we say that we have fellowship with Him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth; but if we walk in the Light as He Himself is in the Light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” ( I Jn. 1:6-9).
“By this we know that we have come to know Him, if we keep His commandments. The one who says, ‘I have come to know Him,’ and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him” (I Jn. 2:3,4).
“Little children, make sure no one deceives you; the one who practices righteousness is righteous, just as He is righteous; the one who practices sin is of the devil; for the devil has sinned from the beginning. The Son of God appeared for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil. No one who is born of God practices sin, because His seed abides in him; and he cannot sin, because he is born of God. By this the children of God and the children of the devil are obvious: anyone who does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor the one who does not love his brother” (I Jn. 3:7-10).
John is not talking about the perfection of the heart. He is talking about the direction of the heart, a refusal to make sin our practice, a desire to please the Lord and a willingness to repent when we do sin. More than a verbal profession of doctrinal creeds, true discipleship is a living confession of Christ. True wheat lives that confession. Tares may speak that confession but they deny it with their living.
Jesus says that “when the wheat sprouted and bore grain”, the tares became evident (Matt. 13:26). In the early growth of the grain, it is difficult to discern the difference between tares and wheat. Not until both mature is the difference obvious. As the true children of God grow into the likeness of Christ, that which is of the devil becomes apparent. The implication is that if the wheat does not mature, the tares remain hidden. In the company of immature believers, the children of the devil are not so obvious.
In those times and places where the church has been compromised and worldly, it has been hard to discern the difference between the children of God and children of the evil one. Just as tares and wheat look alike, so does the spiritual counterfeit often resemble the authentic, until the authentic matures.
The remedy is not that we should waste our time trying to identify and pull up counterfeit believers. Rather, the true children of God must be diligent to mature in Christ. True Christ-likeness will expose that which is false.
Therefore the Apostle Paul exhorts us, “To attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fulness of Christ ... but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ” (Ephesians 4:13,15a). How do we maintain the unity of the faith? By growing up in Christ. How do we expose that which is false? By growing up in Christ.
The servants of the landowner wanted to pull up the tares (Matt. 13:28). They may even have questioned how the owner could have allowed this to happen. So do some people accuse God, “How could God allow so many false, seducing religions? Why does God allow such corruption and hypocrisy within the church? Why does God allow so much evil and tragedy in this world if it is His field?”
The answer is two fold. First, it wasn't the landowner (God) who fell asleep; God does not sleep. It was the servants who slept. Further, God does not corrupt anyone or anything. All people are free moral agents and as such are free to submit to God or to the devil, free to receive Godly seed or demonic seed, free to become children of God or children of the devil, free to do good or evil.
As long as God allows freedom, there will be tares among the wheat. Evil is the cost of freedom.
The owner denies the servants’ request to pull up the tares because, as we have said, that which is false is not always so obvious to our imperfect human eye and heart. Further, some of the wheat may not have matured yet and might be mistaken for tares and thus, uprooted (13:29).
Also, growing close together might mean that some roots are intertwined — pulling up the tares might injure the roots of the wheat (again, 13:29). Rooting out that which is false is a violent act and we cannot destroy evil with violence. In those times that the church has tried to overpower false religions, convert unbelievers by force or purge itself through violent means, it has only committed and created far greater evil.
Most tragically, the church, in its zeal to root out tares, has at times put to death true believers. At other times, guided by tares — false shepherds — the church has persecuted the true wheat. Thus the owner denies their request, “Lest you pull up the wheat.”
Jesus urges patience; the wheat and the tares will grow together. There will come a time of separation, at the end of the age (Matt. 13:30,41-43). God will send His own angelic reapers who will gather the tares, “those who commit lawlessness” (13:41) and they will be consigned to the fire, to eternal hell (13:42). The true wheat, “the righteous,” will shine like the sun in the kingdom of God (13:43).
The Lord’s prohibition against pulling up tares reveals the largeness of God’s grace, who is “not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). The purpose of the church age is evangelism. This is the age of grace, not judgment. We are not called to pull up tares and neither are we qualified — we possess neither the wisdom, the discernment or the purity. Further, many of the tares may someday be redeemed and converted into wheat (though I am violating the intent of the parable here.)
One of the last acts of Jesus on the cross was to forgive His enemies. It appears that the Roman officer in charge of the crucifixion, and possibly some of his soldiers, made a profession of faith in Christ or at least recognized His Deity (Matt. 27:54 Mark 15:39 Luke 23:47). We know that later “a great many of the priests were becoming obedient to the faith” (Acts 6:7). Possibly some of them heard Jesus’ words of forgiveness from the cross. Tares can became wheat.
As Stephen was being martyred, he forgave his murderers (Acts 7:60). One of those standing by was a young man, Saul, who later become the great Apostle Paul. By the exercise of God’s grace, a tare became wheat. In fact, we all once were tares. Paul says that we all “formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience” and “were by nature children of wrath” (Eph. 2:2,3). We were tares. But we were redeemed, transformed into wheat.
Jesus began His ministry proclaiming, “The kingdom of God is at hand, repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15). Gospel means good news. The good news is that though there is a day of judgment coming, today God offers forgiving grace to all who repent and believe in Jesus, the holy Lamb and risen Lord. We are among those who have heard the Good News and responded with repentance and faith. And now, we, the church have been commissioned to go into all the world, we are sown into the world, to preach this gospel and make disciples.
It is not our place to judge sinners but to call sinners to repentance and faith in Christ. There is a day of judgment coming when the tares will be consigned to hell. Hell is real and terrible beyond imagination, a place of weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matt. 13:42). But the Lord says that the day of judgment is at the end of the age. This is the age of grace.
In this present season of grace, the kingdom of God is sometimes obscured, even hidden among the weeds of the counterfeit, the unbelieving and ungodly. This should motivate the true church to seek maturity, “The measure of the stature which belongs to the fulness of Christ” (Eph. 4:13), since it is the mature wheat that reveals the tares. This should inspire us to pray for those seasons of revival, renewal, restoration and cleansing which God sovereignly pours out upon the church. This should drive us to the mercy seat of Christ, where we cry out for the purifying of our own hearts, that we might visibly and truly be pure sons and daughters of Christ. This should drive us to the altar of intercession for a world of lost tares living heedlessly toward eternal fire.
I am reminded of the occasion when the sons of the prophets made a pot of stew and did not realize that they had put poisonous gourds into the pot. When they tasted it, they cried out to Elisha, “O man of God, there is death in the pot” (2 Kings 4:40). Elisha poured grain into the stew and the poison was neutralized.
How many of our generation, young and old, are sitting at the table of poison, ingesting the toxic ways of a dying world. May we, good grain, born of the seed of the kingdom, be poured out into this generation and by God’s grace, may the manifold poisons of this age be nullified by grace and light and mercy and truth.
Someday, Jesus says, we will “shine forth as the sun in the kingdom” of our Father (Matt. 13:43). Even now may our light shine before the world in such a way as to illumine the true and living God and draw sinners to the mercy and grace of our loving Lord.
At the end of the age, God will separate the wheat from the tares. Only God is wise enough and just enough to do this. Jesus closes this teaching as He implores us, “He who has ears, let him hear” (Matt. 13:43).
1. How is the kingdom of God like leaven?
2. What are some of the differences between tares and wheat and how can you discern the difference?