Foundational Framework Part 53 - Clearing Up Confusion About the Kingdom


Foundational Truths: The Bible is God’s self-revelation.
God is the Eternal, Sovereign Creator; all that He creates is good.
Man is a responsible agent, held to a moral standard.
Sin originates within a person, separating us from God.
God declares one righteous by faith alone, apart from works.
The glory of God is the centerpiece and goal of all existence.
God’s glory is maximally realized in the promised, coming Kingdom.

The “word of the kingdom” (Matt 13:19a) has become a matter of great confusion. As with any subject of Scripture, the flaws are alwaysfound in the hermeneutical method being used to interpret various passages. We know, and have confidence, that the text of Scripture is completely free of error (Ps 19:7-10; 2 Tim 33:16-17), so our only other conclusion about the confusion that has ensued is that it is due to a user error. Therefore, there are three areas that must receive our attention so that we can proceed with a biblical understanding of Jesus’ teaching in the parables of Matthew 13. They are:

The Contemporary Understanding of the Kingdom
The Nature of the Kingdom in the Gospels 
The Nature of the Kingdom in the Church Age

While these considerations are not exhaustive, they should help to clear up some of the confusion that often surrounds the subject of the kingdom. 

The Contemporary Understanding of the Kingdom

If you have your ear to the ground in contemporary evangelicalism you will undoubtedly hear ramblings about the “kingdom.” Here are some examples. 

“To spread the kingdom of God is more than simply winning people to Christ. It is also working for the healing of persons, families, relationships, and nations; it is doing deeds of mercy and seeking justice. It is ordering lives and relationships and institutions and communities according to God’s authority to bring inthe blessedness of the kingdom.”[1](emphasis added) 

Notice that Keller advocates that a “Godward” direction for all institutions will eventually “bring in” the kingdom. This is traditionally known as postmillennialism which strives for the Christianization of the world as a precursor for the return of Christ.

“He selected 12 and trained them in a new way of life. He sent them to teach everyone this way of life. Some would believe and become practitioners and teachers of this new way of life, too. Even if only a few would practice this new way, many would benefit. Oppressed people would be free. Poor people would be liberated from poverty. Minorities would be treated with respect. Sinners would be loved, not resented. Industrialists would realize that God cares for sparrows and wildflowers- so their industries should respect, not rape, the environment. The homeless would be invited in for a hot meal. The kingdom of God would come- not everywhere at once, not suddenly, but gradually, like a seed growing in a field, like yeast spreading in a lump of bread dough, like light spreading across the sky at dawn.”[2]

McLaren sees Jesus’ kingdom as a “way of life” that should be instituted in the here and now. The final sentence of this quote demonstrates his misuse of Scripture, especially when compared to Matthew 24:27 and Luke 17:24.

The next quote summarizes the teachings of what is known as “Progressive Dispensationalism,” which blurs the biblical distinctions between the Church and the nation of Israel. 

“Progressive dispensationalists believe the kingdom was present when Christ ministered on earth but His reign was not initiated until His ascension. At that time He took His seat on the throne of David. Thus the kingdom has been inaugurated but will only come in its fullness in the millennium and eternity. The terms ‘already… not yet’ punctuate their discussion.”[3]

The first red flag that should grab our attention is the idea that Jesus is currently seated on the throne of David. At no time is David’s throne ever equated with the “right hand of the Father” in Scripture (Matt 22:44; Mark 12:36; 14:62; 16:19; Luke 20:42; 22:69; Acts 2:25, 33, 34; 5:31; 7:55, 56; Rom 8:34; Eph 1:20; Col 3:1; Heb 1:3, 13; 8:1; 10:12; 12:2; 1 Pet 3:22). This, plus the notion that the kingdom is “already, but not yet” dilutes the clear teachings of Scripture. This is also the perspective of David Platt.

“There’s a sense in which the kingdom of heaven is a present reality: The King is here, and His kingdom is advancing. That’s what we’ve been reading in Matthew—God’s rule and reign over disease and disasters and death is being asserted redemptively through Christ… there’s also a sense in which the kingdom of heaven is still a future realization… The redemptive reign of God in Christ is infiltrating the world now, but His kingdom will not be consummated until later, when Jesus returns. We are, in a sense, living between the times.”[4]

With this quote, Platt promotes, the “already-not yet” concept of the kingdom. He goes on to explain the Parable of the Sower, writing “That message is the message of salvation—the good news of the kingdom—that God will save and redeem sinners through Christ.”[5]This is common today, equating the “word of the kingdom” with “the Gospel of God’s Grace,” which ultimately has served to promote the idea of “works-salvation” throughout the Church. This error of mixing the gospel of the kingdom and the gospel of God’s grace has caused a redefinition of “faith,” attributing works as the result of trusting in Christ. It also goes one step further in concluding that the one who doesn’t have sufficient works (which seems to be according to the  determination of the person making such a comment) is one who was either never truly saved, or has somehow forfeited their salvation. Such conclusions have resulted from not keeping these distinctions clear and reading meanings into the text that are not there. 

Each example provided shows a reinterpretation of what Matthew, and the Old Testament, understood as the “kingdom.” Each fails to consider the context and neglects a consistent handling of the text. Some of this stems from a mishandling of the Gospels.

The Nature of the Kingdom in the Gospels

Context determines the meaning of a word or text. This is a vital principle that we cannot afford to neglect! In regards to understanding the “kingdom,” many have understood verses in the gospels to be referring to the message of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone rather than referring to the kingdom. Some will go as far as to redefine the “kingdom” as a synonym for “salvation/justification.” Again, this loads the gospel of grace with works. 

Mark 1:14-15. We can see at least three major indicators that this passage is not speaking of the Gospel of God’s Grace. First, we are told that it is the “gospel of God” (v.14), which serves as the general heading for the details that follow. The second issue involves those details. Verse 15 records Jesus stating that “the time is fulfilled.” Obviously there is a culmination taking place. There is a conclusion of something on the horizon. Next, we have a clear statement: “the kingdom of God is at hand,” with “is at hand” also being literally rendered as “has come near.” This message is perfectly in sync with what we find in Matthew 3:2 and 4:17. 

We also have the call for repentance in Mark 1:15, which is consistent with Jesus and John’s messages at the beginning of their ministries. Yet, the phrase “believe the gospel” has been reinterpreted to mean “Repent, and put your faith in Jesus for salvation from Hell.” Cole demonstrates this as he writes, “To believe the good news is to believe in Jesus. To believe in Jesus is to follow him, so he called his first disciples, as he still calls us today.”[6]Not only has he equated the kingdom with “going to heaven when you die,” but he has also redefined “faith” to mean “follow” Jesus. However, the idea of “follow” is never associated with the word “faith” or “believe.”[7]

Some commentators have considered the “kingdom” in v.15 as referring to a kingdom rather than “salvation,” but make a critical mistake that strays from the clear Old Testament understanding. Brooks writes, “In Mark it refers to a present, spiritual kingdom rather than a future, earthly one. Therefore the expression refers to the kingly rule, the reign, the dominion, the sovereignty of God in the hearts of people.”[8]Again, this interpretation is not in keeping with the Old Testament Jewish understanding of the kingdom.

Luke 8:11-15. In this passage we find the interpretation of the Parable of the Sower, but with slight variation. Error has persisted in not understanding this parable in the light of Matthew’s Gospel, but also due to a failure to consider the immediate context. For instance, in 8:10 we have a brief explanation given to the disciples about the privileged position that they have in knowing “the mysteries of the kingdom of God.” Therefore, the subject matter is no different than that of Matthew in regards to this parable. So why are there misunderstandings about this parable in Luke?

The understanding that “the seed is the word of God” (v.11b) might take one’s mind to the sharing of the Gospel of God’s Grace. Difficulty arises when the words “believe” and “saved” come across the path of the interpreter because of the 21stcentury tendency to understand these words ONLY in relation to “going to heaven when we die.” For example, in commenting on the 2ndand 3rdsoils (8:13-14), Liefeld  writes, “The superficial reception given the word may be compared to those who ‘believed’ Jesus (John 8:31), only to be called children of the devil (John 8:44). Obviously they did not go on to true liberating faith.”[9]The problem with this comment is two-fold. 

First, it does not address the fact that the “word of the kingdom” is in view, opting instead to consider this a “salvation” passage. Second, the commentator tries to qualify faith as having varying degrees. This is not found in the Bible. To have “faith” is to be convinced or persuaded of something (Heb 11:1). We could also say that it is “trust” and is synonymous with “believing.” However, there is not a distinction such as “superficial faith” and “liberating faith.” There is simply faith. One either believes or they do not. 

In Jesus’ explanation, we have repeated mention of “the word” (8:11, 12, 13, 15). In light of 8:10, and with the parallel passage being in Matthew 13 (and in Mark 4:14-20), we can conclude that the subject is the “word of the kingdom” and the point being pressed is whether one is understanding of it. We should not be surprised that Luke also emphasizes the “kingdom,” seeing that it is mentioned 46 times in his Gospel account. 

As careful Bible students, we must look for indicators to tell us how we should understand the word of the kingdom. The greatest indicator that we can find in the Parable of the Sower is the clear teaching that understanding gives way to fruit. This is important! The first three soils experience tragic ends when compared to the intended goal: bearing fruit (8:15). This is coupled with the concepts of “holding fast” and “perseverance.” These designations provided a greater understanding of exactly what is meant by “bearing fruit,” showing that it is not a free gift, but something that is earned through understanding, implementation, faithfulness, and steadfastness.Since the parable does not deal with the Gospel of God’s Grace which is a free gift, we must ask ourselves if this concept of the kingdom is  consistent with understanding and fruit-bearing in the rest of the Scriptures.

The Nature of the Kingdom in the Church Age

If we return to the point that the announcement of the Kingdom came upon the scene, we would find ourselves in Matthew 3.

Matthew 3:2, 5-10.With the preaching of John the Baptist, we have the call to repentance because “the kingdom of heaven is near” (Matt 3:2). No explanation of the “kingdom” is provided because the Jews were fully aware of what was meant in using the word “Kingdom.” In v.5-10 we find a mass response to this message (undoubtedly due to their understanding of the precise nature of what John meant) and a call to the Pharisees and Sadducees that they should “bear fruit” in keeping with repentance. With this we find two important points.

First, bearing fruit should be a result of repentance and is not considered by John to be one-and-the-same as repentance. Second, “bearing fruit” is obviously in relation to the kingdom, as seen in 3:8 and 10. 

Matthew 21:43. In the parable of the vineyard, Jesus concludes His statement with a direct pronouncement to the Pharisees that the kingdom has been taken from the Jews and has been given to a “people producing the fruit of it.” Again we see that “fruit” is mentioned in connection with the “kingdom.” This is in keeping with our observations from Matthew 3. In addition, we see that another people (ethnos- “nation”) will have the opportunity to bear fruit in relation to the kingdom. We know that the kingdom has been postponed because of Israel’s rejection of their King (Matt 12:24). Having the rest of the Canon of Scripture, we also know that the Church begins in Acts 2, being a “new creation.” 

Chitwood writes, “The parable of the Sower looks out ahead to God’s activity during an entirely separate dispensation, following the removal of the kingdom from Israel and a new nation being brought forth to bear fruit (Matt. 21:33-43). Israel, because of the nation’s barren condition, was to be set aside for a dispensation; and, throughout the dispensation, God would deal with a different nation with respect to fruit-bearingand the kingdom of the heavens.[10]

Matthew 26:26-29.At the Lord’s Supper, Jesus makes a profound statement regarding the kingdom, stating that he will not drink of the fruit of the vine “until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom” (26:29, see also Mark 14:25; Luke 22:15-18). These references, along with Luke 22:29-30 all take place during the Lord’s Supper, with each reference showing that Jesus’ remarks about the kingdom speak of a future time, being the time of His return.[11]

Acts 1:3.Luke’s comments emphasize Jesus’ resurrection, the witnesses that saw Him, the time period involved (40 days), and the subject of Jesus’ teaching during that time, being “the kingdom of God.” Though Israel had rejected their Messiah and He had turned away from offering them the kingdom, He was still teaching this subject to His disciples just before His ascension and the birth of the Church in Acts 2. With the disciples being the recipients of this teaching, we can conclude that “the word of the kingdom” has shifted from Israel to those who are believers in Christ, and that it was to serve in aiding the disciples in establishing the Church. It is noteworthy that Luke records only the “kingdom of God” as the subject that Jesus taught during this time. (See also Acts 1:6).

Acts 14:21-22.During Paul and Barnabas’ travels, they were preaching the gospel and making disciples (14:21). As they passed back through the areas where they had previously established churches, Luke writes that they were “strengthening the souls” of those whom they had converted, encouraging them to abide in the faith. Paul then comments that “through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (14:22). Notice that tribulations (understood as “trouble that inflicts distress, oppression, affliction,”[12]) is a requirement for entering the kingdom. This is in complete alignment with Luke 8:11-15, noting that v.15 emphasized “holding fast” and “perseverance” as qualities that were necessary to bear fruit. Another point to observe is that this is the message that Paul was teaching to those who were disciples in the churches. Therefore, the word of the kingdom is a discipleship/sanctification message for the church.

Acts 20:25-27.Meeting with the Ephesian elders for the last time, Paul makes a comment regarding the content of his teaching to them while he was with them for 3 years, stating that he was “preaching the kingdom” to them (20:25). In 20:20 he noted that he taught them what was “profitable” and in 20:27 he states that he taught them the whole purpose of God. Again, the kingdom is seen as a discipleship message, being the main subject of Paul’s teaching to the Ephesians for 3 years (20:31b). Paul also states that the word of His grace is able to build them up (speaking to growth) and “to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified” (20:32b). As we have previously seen in the Old Testament, the concept of “inheritance” is something that is connected to the future reign of Christ, being His kingdom. 

Acts 28:23-31.Paul’s meeting with the Jews in Rome included the explanation of the charges against him (28:17b-20) but he also emphasized the kingdom of God “and trying to persuade them concerning Jesus, from both the Law of Moses and from the Prophets, from morning until evening” (28:23b). These were not believers in Christ, yet it is only right that Paul would speak to them about the kingdom of God because of their Jewish heritage and the prominent place that the kingdom has in the Old Testament. The fact that Jesus was the Messiah was something that he sought to prove from the Old Testament prophecies so that they would believe and be saved, then becoming part of the Church. Verse 24 states that some believed, but some did not. 

Due to some of the Jews not believing his explanation about Jesus being the promised Messiah of Israel, Paul quotes Isaiah 6:9-10, which was quoted by Jesus to His disciples when explaining why He spoke in parables (Matt 13:14-15). Then he comments about salvation coming to the Gentiles in Acts 28:28 to which Paul was made an apostle (Acts 9:15). Many came to Paul while he was on house arrest in Rome, and when they arrived he preached the kingdom of God and taught them about Jesus (Acts 28:30-31). 


Again, we see the prominence of the word of the kingdom in the teachings of the early Church. This was not something that was “already/not yet,” nor was the kingdom considered the Lord Jesus Christ Himself, nor was it something that was already here in a mystery form, nor is the kingdom something that resides in the hearts of believers, nor do we see any instance where the kingdom is equated with the Church. 

What should we conclude from our findings? 

·     The message of the kingdom involves fruit bearing.

·     One must “understand” in order to bear fruit.

·     Only one-fourth of those who hear the message of the kingdom will be the ones who bear fruit for the kingdom.

·     The kingdom was forfeited by Israel and another “people” would have the opportunity to produce the fruits.

·      The kingdom is a concept that carried over into the Church. 

·     The kingdom is a teaching that is directed toward believers who are disciples.

·     Holding fast, perseverance, and tribulation are all concepts that surround the word of the kingdom and the disciple bearing fruit.

These conclusions find a perfect match in the doctrine of the believer’s sanctification.

[1]Timothy J. Keller, Ministries of Mercy: The Call of the Jericho Road, 2nd ed. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R), p. 54.

[2]Brian D. McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy(Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), p. 121-122.

[3]Stanley Toussaint, “The Church and Israel,” Conservative Theological Journal Volume 2, no. 7 (1998): 353.

[4]David Platt, “Exalting Jesus in Matthew,” Christ-Centered Exposition(Nashville: B&H Academic, 2013), p. 176.

[5]Ibid., p. 177.

[6]R. Alan Cole, “Mark,” New Bible Commentary: 21st Century Edition, ed. D. A. Carson, 4th ed. (Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994), p. 951.

[7]See BDAG, p. 816–818, Louw and Nida, p. 375–376, and Thayer, p. 511–512.

[8]James A. Brooks, Mark, vol. 23, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1991), p. 47.

[9]Walter L. Liefeld, “Luke,” The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Matthew, Mark, Luke, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein, vol. 8 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1984), p. 907.

[10]Arlen L. Chitwood, Mysteries of the Kingdom(Norman, OK: The Lamp Broadcast, Inc., 2011), p. 30.

[11]See Alva J. McClain, The Greatness of the Kingdom (Chicago: Moody Press, 1968), p. 370.

[12]BDAG, p. 457.