In the Gospel of Matthew, the author spends a lot of time setting Jesus up as the fulfillment of the messianic prophecies of the Old Testament. The entire birth narrative comprises five prophecies given by writers centuries earlier that the events of Jesus’s early life then fulfilled (Matthew 1:1–2:23). The whole of Matthew’s early chapters form the shaft of an arrow driving toward one point—Jesus is here to set up God’s promised kingdom.
But then something puzzling happens. After proclaiming the nearness of God’s kingdom throughout the first part of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus runs into a confrontation with the Pharisees. Up to this point in the story, Jesus has been setting up the kingdom of God as a very real thing that the Jews can expect—and soon. In the Sermon on the Mount, he outlined the expectations for the life of a citizen in that kingdom. He’s promised to fulfill the prophecies of Isaiah where the blind see and the lame walk, and he’s followed through on those promises (4:12–23).
Matthew’s audience would have expected that the trajectory of his story would end with Jesus setting up the full kingdom. He’d overthrow Rome, take the rulership of Israel, and bring the complete fulfillment of all the promises God. But in chapter twelve, the Pharisees challenge Jesus—saying that everything he does and everything he’s already done was by the power of Satan, not God (12:22–32).
It’s a significant shift. Instead of receiving Jesus as the promised messiah, the leadership of the Jewish people condemn him as an agent of the devil. Jesus responds with frustration—declaring that the cities and people who responded to God’s emissaries in the Old Testament would fare better in judgment than the people who’d seen God’s son and rejected him outright.
What follows are Jesus’s parables of the kingdom. It’s easy to jump right to them when reading Matthew and forget everything that went on before. It’s easy to think that Matthew wanted his readers to think that Jesus’s discussion of the kingdom was one unbroken theme. It’s not—but it’s easy to miss the shift.
In the early third of Matthew, Jesus spoke to the people, offering the kingdom in its fullness. All the signs were there. The prophecies were there. Jesus’s presentation of God’s rule over Israel fit. And yet, the people—both esteemed Pharisees and the common people—rejected the one king God had promised for centuries.
So in chapter thirteen, Jesus paints an unusual picture of the kingdom—of any kingdom really. It’s a shift from his listeners’ expectations and should come as a surprise to us as Matthew’s readers. We’ve been expecting a kingdom with walls and armies and a powerful ruler. But instead, Jesus offers something different.
In the first parable (13:1–9), Jesus revisits his theme from the Sermon on the Mount. Those who will enter the kingdom and inherit its blessings are the ones who hear and do the word he proclaims. Unlike for the Pharisees and other religious leaders who’ve consistently remained hardened to his message, the kingdom will be open to the receptive and obedient. In fact, Jesus explains to his disciples that the parables’ whole purpose is to keep the hard-hearted from attempting to enter into the kingdom.
The second parable paints a picture of the kingdom of God growing up in the midst of the kingdom of darkness (13:24–30). Rather than overthrow the evil of Rome and other earthly rulers, the kingdom program will be subversive—a kind if infiltration of the kingdom of darkness.
In the next pairing of parables, Jesus assures his listeners that the kingdom will one day be great, but it will start small—barely visible (13:31–33). The growth over time will fill the earth but it’s not going to happen overnight with a massive military conquest or a coup.
Jesus concludes his series of parables by reinforcing the value of the kingdom—it’s worth giving up everything for—and reminding the disciples that the evil kingdom of darkness will one day be dealt with. But in the meantime, the kingdom must survive in the midst of the gloom (13:44–52).
By organizing his gospel in around the development of God’s kingdom, Matthew invites the reader into the both the excitement and disappointment of the Jewish people. The kingdom’s not going to be what they wanted—but it’s that way because they’ve rejected Jesus for who he is: God’s son.
In fact, Matthew concludes the thirteenth chapter by telling the story of Jesus’s return to Nazareth (13:53–58). In a sort of miniature replay of the entire gospel so far, the people of Jesus’s hometown reject him out-of-hand. They’ve seen his miracles and heard his message, and they want nothing to do with him.
And so the picture of the kingdom changes. Gone is the language of conquest and images of victory. Instead we see a small thing filled with the most unlikely of people—women and tradesmen. And it grows. After Jesus’s death and resurrection, it starts to thrive. Until one day, even though it’s been hounded by the kingdom of darkness for centuries, it fills the whole world.
This kingdom to which you and I belong doesn’t have walls and an army and a king sitting on a golden throne. But that doesn’t mean it’s not alive. Together, believers across the world are a fulfillment of Jesus’s promises. After all, he is the promised king.