Kingdom Growth (Matthew 13:31-33)

We have already looked at two of the parables of the visible kingdom that Jesus taught. In the parable of the sower, he taught that there would be genuine disciples and temporary disciples. In the parable of the weeds, he taught that evil would exist alongside the kingdom of God and would penetrate it. We know that both of those features are obvious. Now we move on to consider another two of the seven parables in this chapter.

John Laidlaw, who was a Free Church professor in the nineteenth century, observed that in this two stories we have a parable, a prophecy and a promise all in one. He compares them with the previous two parables – those of the soils and the weeds which have disturbing elements – and observes that this next two parables ‘give encouragement in the strongest form’. He points out the beginnings were small, the process of growth is secret, and the result is success.

The disciples of Jesus would have noticed changes in the responses of the public to the teaching of their Master. As we have noticed before, timewise they have entered the year of unpopularity and increasing hostility in the three years of Jesus’ public ministry, features that were to reach a climax in the way he was put to death. The previous year had been very different, with great crowds following Jesus and acclaiming him as important, if not the Messiah himself. Would the disciples know such success again? What would they have thought as they listened to these two parables?

One of the problems that Christians face is that they always seem to be in the minority, and often a very small minority. Sometimes they may be the only Christian in their workplace or classroom. Even in situations where there may be a reasonable number of Christians, such as in a university Christian fellowship, they will be very small in comparison to the number of students. After all, a Christian fellowship of 50 or 100 looks small in a university with several thousand students. What do such people think as they listen to Jesus’ two parables?

A common concern that churches have is the ineffectiveness of evangelism. They try lots of initiatives and often there is little, if any, positive responses. People they contact don’t show much interest in the gospel. It is rare to find churches that grow through having times when lots of people are converted. What do such churches think when they read these two parables?

Those who claim to know inform us that there are more Christians in the world today than there has been in previous times. Yet we are also told that there have been more martyrs in the last century than there were in previous centuries combined. So, growth and opposition are taking place alongside one another. What do we think this pair of parables have to say about this global situation?

What is Jesus’ message?
In this set of parables (the grain of mustard seed and the leaven), Jesus teaches that there will be an incredible growth of the kingdom. Some interpreters regard these parables as indicating there would be illegitimate growth, but that is not how they seem to me. Instead, the kingdom of Jesus will grow and grow, and do so from small beginnings.

Of course, this is not the only occasion when Jesus had indicated that he anticipated large numbers of converts. On a previous occasion, he had healed a centurion’s servant and commented on the centurion’s insightful faith. Then he stated that many would come from the east and from the west (Gentiles) and sit down with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in heaven. Later, he was to say that if he was lifted up from the earth, which could be a reference to his crucifixion or his ascension or to both, he would draw all kinds of people to himself, which at the least indicates global response to what had happened to him.

The two parables present two sides of the growth of the kingdom. Although the mustard seed is small, it becomes a tree and people could see the progress. In contrast, the yeast’s activity in the cake cannot be observed by an onlooker because the effect is not visible. So, Jesus was teaching his disciples to remember both sides of the growth of the kingdom.

How should we respond?
First, we need to bear in mind that most of the growth of the church is hidden from the eyes of humans. This is the case whether we are speaking about the conversion of an individual or the conversion of a large number. After all, we cannot predict who the next convert is going to be, nor can we even tell when someone has been converted. We will be able to see spiritual fruit at a later stage, but we don’t know when the process began. Sometimes the individual concerned may not know either. So, there is an element of hiddenness regarding the growth of the church.

Second, our membership of the kingdom should be a reason for humility. We are not in it because we somehow are sharper intellectually than others. The only reason why we are in the kingdom is because God explained the gospel to us. He may have done so through a book or through a sermon or through a conversation. But there is no guarantee that another person will be so influenced. Say, you were converted under a sermon on John 3:16. Sitting beside you was a friend who had come to the service with you. Your heart was opened, like Lydia’s. The heart of your friend remained unmoved at that time. Our response is not to speculate about God’s dealings with other people, but to respond humbly with gratitude to the One who is building his church.

Third, the growth of the church is true historically. There are many examples of this. One is what took place with the disciples at the time of the resurrection. They were a small number, but soon they increased dramatically. Another example is what occurred at the Reformation, the onset of which is being remembered this year. It too had small beginnings and grew into a great movement. Often, we see this happening in revivals, as stage church grows. And there have been several places where there has been a lot of increase in the twentieth century (China, South America).

Fourth, the real growth is true from a heavenly perspective. By this I mean that the number of the heavenly citizens increases continually. We might say that things are worse here today than they were a century ago. If the two occasions in contrast were frozen, then that might be the case. Our perspective should be how many believers have been added to the church in Inverness in the last century. When we think that way, we will realise that the church is much bigger than it was.

Fifth, the ongoing growth of the church is the evidence that the Father is honouring his Son. Jesus said on one occasion that the will of the Father was for all men to honour the Son. The Father invited Jesus to sit at his right hand until enemies become his footstool. One way of that happening is by conversions when they confess that Jesus is Lord.

Sixth, we are involved in a great harvest of souls. There is not really a harvest in Scotland or a harvest in England or in other places, although sometimes we speak like that in order to communicate what we mean. Instead, there is a world harvest and we contribute to it by our witness, evangelising, praying and financial support. It would be fair to say that the more we do in sowing, the greater our contribution to the harvest.

Seventh, the parables of the growth of the kingdom should make us very hopeful about the future of the church. There are two kinds of analysts going around today, and both are usually pessimistic. Politicians assess the future and readers of the times assess the future. The problem with both types is that neither of them know the future. But here Jesus tells us the future of his kingdom – it will grow. So, while we have to be realistic, we must be optimistic.

Eighth, we should hunger for God to fulfil his promises. Jesus said that his people would hunger and thirst after righteousness and included in righteousness is the possession of saving grace by as many as possible. Paul indicates in Romans 11 that the greatest ingathering of sinners into the kingdom is connected to the conversion of the Jews as a race. That has not happened yet, and we should pray for it to happen.

Ninth, the reality of promised growth should make us patient. Jesus has said that this will happen, but he has not said it will happen in 2017. He is in charge of the timing because all things are under his control. There are great days ahead for the church, far greater than we can imagine. Our forefathers could not imagine the size of the current worldwide church, and if they could have they would have rejoiced.

Tenth, this pair of parables should cause us to give homage to Jesus. Here he is on the road of rejection, the path to the cross, and he speaks of a complete victory for his kingdom. Jesus did not merely wish that this would happen. Instead, he announced that it would take place. So, as we see the problems connected to the first two parables of the kingdom, with their mixture of positive and negative aspects, we should worship him for the sense of comfort and certainty that he gives through the third and fourth parables about his kingdom.

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