When we understand it, we can know how God is working across the planet today. And we can understand Christ’s parables that proclaim its mystery.
Recall that the kingdom of God has been defined in this series as God’s rule and power and reign and authority and sovereignty. People can enter his kingdom by surrendering to those wonderful things.
However, there is currently a subtle and humble and quiet aspect to it—for now. To understand this, we must look at a subtler topic, as Matt. 13:11, Mark 4:11, and Luke 8:10 call it: the mystery of the kingdom.
Let’s first define a biblical mystery.
It is not a riddle, a deep secret that should not be revealed, as the Greco-Roman pagan mystery religions taught. To this day, specialists don’t know anything close to the details of these secret, mysterious pagan rites and customs. They were designed to be kept secret to all outsiders. Even some of the initiates or beginners didn’t fully know what they were.
In contrast, a biblical mystery is a truth or plan that was kept in the council chamber of God, sprinkled here and there in in the OT, and finally revealed fully in Jesus Christ.
See my post: What Is a Biblical Mystery?
Here is Paul explaining what a biblical mystery is:
Now to him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but has only now been disclosed and through prophetic writings has been made known to all nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith. (Rom. 16:25-26, ESV)
Notice how the mystery was kept secret for long ages, but was revealed through the prophets, notably Isaiah, and others too. What was the mystery formerly hidden now revealed? Paul says it is the gospel of Jesus Christ. One primary example in the prophetic writings is Jesus the Messiah. Is. 53 and Ps. 22:18; Exod. 12:46 and Num. 9:32; Ps. 34:20; Zech. 12:10 say that Jesus was supposed to suffer and die. Zech. 13:7 says that when the shepherd is struck down, the sheep will scatter, later interpreted to mean his disciples. However, in contemporary Jewish belief, the Messiah was supposed to wipe out all rival kingdoms and bring peace to the earth.
For example, Daniel interpreted King Nebuchadnezzar’s dream in which he saw a succession of kingdoms. Then God revealed to the king a kingdom that shall never be destroyed and will break in pieces all other kingdoms.
And in the days of those kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed, nor shall the kingdom be left to another people. It shall break in pieces all those kingdoms and bring them to an end, and it shall stand forever. (Dan. 2:44, ESV; see Zech. 9).
How can this be expectation of irresistible power and majesty be fulfilled, when those OT prophecies referenced above say that Jesus would not eliminate all competing kingdoms, but instead he would die and his followers would scatter?
The answer is the mystery of the kingdom that Jesus preached, if you know where to look for it. The kingdom of God would not be so powerful that it would be irresistible. It would not wipe out human free will, but rather it would quietly and unobtrusively and even secretly circulate in teaching and preaching the gospel—built into the gospel itself—to lost humanity who needs its heart to be transformed from the inside out.
Let’s look at some key Scriptures in the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke).
John predicted that the Messiah would baptize people in the Spirit and burn away their inner chaff in unquenchable fire (Luke 3:16-17). Yet when he was unjustly thrown in prison, he sent his disciples to ask whether Jesus was the long-expected Messiah (Luke 7:20). Why did he ask that? He must have been asking himself where the baptism in the Spirit and the fires of judgment were. When was the chaff of human injustice—John’s unjust, selfish persecutors—going to be burned with unquenchable fire? John wanted an apocalyptic Messiah as he had read in Daniel and Zechariah. Jesus replied that the works of the Messiah were being done: the blind receive sight, the lame walk, those with skin disease are healed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed (Luke 7:22). Jesus was ushering in the kingdom with those deeds, but not in its fulness. Instead, it must proceed secretly and without irresistible power.
In Luke 8:4-15, Jesus told the Parable of the Sower (or the Parable of the Four Soils). A farmer threw seeds, as he swung his handful of seeds back and forth. Some seeds fell on the path, and it was trampled on, so it did not grow. Other seeds fell on rocky soil, and the plants sprouted up but it withered in the hot sum (cf. Matt. 13:6). Still other seeds fell among thorns, which were the worries of life and life’s riches and pleasures, and these things choked out the plants. Finally, other seeds fell on good soil, so the plants grew up and produced a harvest. So we see in this parable that the kingdom goes into the heart and can be rejected. The mystery or secret of the kingdom is that it is so quiet and unobtrusive that it does bowl people over. In fact Satan can steal or eat the seeds (8:12). The kingdom comes with persuasion and wooing. I really like what Ladd wrote about this parable: “The mystery of the kingdom is like this: The Kingdom of God is here but not with irresistible power. The kingdom of God has come, but it is not s stone grinding an image into powder. It is not now destroying wickedness” (p. 56).
In Luke 13:18-21 Jesus told two related similes (“this is like that” is a simile). A mustard seed is like the kingdom of God. The seed is small and unobtrusive, not much to look at. What good can come of it? In Jewish thought at the time, a mustard seed connoted something unimportant. Jesus uses the image and says that the kingdom is like this small seed. It will grow up into a large shrub so that birds can perch in it. The point: the kingdom appears insignificant, but God is in it, so that it will grow large, but without majestic power and glory. I like what Ladd wrote about this simile: “One truth is set forth: the Kingdom of God which will one day shall fill the earth is here among men but in a form which was never before expected. It is like an insignificant seed of mustard. The tiny thing is, however, God’s kingdom and is therefore not to be despised (p. 59, emphasis original).
The second related simile says that the kingdom is like a small amount of yeast or leaven put in a large lump of dough. The yeast is insignificant, but it will work quietly, unseen, and grow the lump of dough. That’s the mystery of the kingdom. It works in the hearts of people and cause spiritual growth, quietly, without fanfare or trumpet blasts. Ladd again: “The leaven does not here refer to evil. It illustrates the truth that the Kingdom of God may sometimes seem to be a small, insignificant thing. The world may despise and ignore it. What could a Galilean carpenter and a dozen Jews accomplish? But do not be dismayed, the day will come when God’s Kingdom will fill all the earth, even as the leaven fills the whole bowl. God’s purposes will not be frustrated” (p. 62).
The kingdom is a mystery, for now. When Jesus returns at his Second Coming, he will then eliminate all rival kingdoms. Then all political systems will wither and die, instantly, and be thrown in the ash heap. The kingdom will one day transform the entire worldly order has entered This Age to bless people, but without transforming the world order. The kingdom of Satan is still a reality right now, but the kingdom of God has invaded the kingdom of Satan. We may now be delivered from Satan’s grip (Col. 1:13) and from the dominion of sin (Rom. 6:12, 14). and worked among people. His purpose was to bring them the life and blessings of the kingdom. He worked miracles for their healing and deliverance from Satan. This liberation and miracle working happens because the future kingdom has entered among people in a secret and quiet revelation, to work among men.
Yes, at present the kingdom works quietly and seemingly insignificantly and humbly. It was revealed when Jesus came to earth, entered history It still comes quietly and humbly without fire from heaven or worldly kingdoms being flattened or splitting mounts in two or the skies opening up in a blaze of glory. Instead, it comes like a seed that is planted in the hearts of people, who can then resist or reject it. The kingdom does not force itself on people. It can be choked out and wither and die. Despite all of this, the kingdom of God is real and subtly powerful. It leads them to God’s divine rule and sovereignty. “It is the supernatural work of God’s grace” (Ladd 64-65).
How does this post help me to know God more intimately and preach more effectively?
Those who preach the gospel must not use authoritarian compulsion. They are emissaries of God who plead, but not demand. God will not drive people into his kingdom. Yes, the preaching takes on a quality of strength, so that the listener can feel compelled to come in, but it is not by violent coercion from the outside (Luke 14:23; 16:16). The emissaries of the kingdom pray for the people’s hearts to be open, so the people can voluntarily invite and surrender to his sovereignty and rule and reign and authority and power of the kingdom. This surrender and invitation does not come with irresistible force that crushes all inner questions.
Ladd is right:
The Kingdom of God is a miracle. It is the act of God. It is supernatural. Men cannot build the Kingdom, they cannot erect it. The Kingdom is the Kingdom of God; it is God’s reign, God’s rule. God has entrusted the Gospel of the Kingdom to men. It is our responsibility to proclaim the Good News about the Kingdom. But the actual working of the Kingdom is God’s working. The fruitage is produced not by human effort or skill but by the life of the Kingdom itself. It is God’s deed. (p. 64).
Once you ministers of the gospel understand how the kingdom works right now, you can pray for the power to work miracles that Jesus and the apostolic community did and preach as he and his first-century emissaries did. Then you can watch God’s supernatural kingdom cause growth in humanity that surrenders to it.
ARTICLES IN THE SERIES
6 The Mystery of the Kingdom
At that link, look for Ladd’s little book published in 1959. It’s still wonderful.