The Currently Fashionable Interpretation
For pictures of the church at the end of the present age, we can turn to the seven Parables of the Kingdom, recorded in Matthew 13. These simple stories of everyday life must have a deeper meaning. Otherwise, they would be pointless, and Jesus, in requiring us to listen carefully to them (Matt. 13:9, 16, 18), would be wasting our time. Upon penetrating the symbolism cloaking the deeper meaning, many commentators in the past have decided that the parables give us a prophetic overview of the whole Church Age, the period beginning at Pentecost and continuing until the second coming of Christ. This is the leading traditional interpretation.
But reading church history into the parables is no longer popular. Many modern Bible students believe that these seven parables pertain solely to the Tribulation; that is, to the brief, intensely troubled period on the threshold of Christ's return. In the view of such Bible students, God will transport the church to heaven at some unpredictable moment before the Tribulation, and then He will use the remaining years before Christ returns to raise up a body of believers among the Jews. They believe that the Parables of the Kingdom are written to furnish Jewish believers during this period with needed warnings and exhortations.
Two arguments dispose of the currently fashionable interpretation of the Kingdom Parables.
- This interpretation rests on the assumption that throughout His earthly ministry, Jesus was speaking not to the church, but to the Jews. But this assumption puts a curious slant on everything He said concerning the future. It implies that in all His prophetic teaching (and in much of His practical teaching as well), He was primarily giving instruction to those Jews who would be alive during the Tribulation. If this assumption were correct, the great majority of believers during the last two thousand years have been deceived in supposing that the entire New Testament, including the Gospels, is God's Word to the church. Is it likely that the core writings of the Apostles would address mainly the Jews, or that large portions would address only those Jews living during a brief period thousands of years after Christ? The focus of the Gospels is certainly not so restricted and off-center. We must be suspicious of any system of interpretation which decides that part of the Bible does not concern us. The devil will use any ploy he can to keep us from hearing the whole counsel of God.
- The parables themselves do not support this interpretation. We will examine them individually.
First and Eighth Parables
The first parable is the famous Parable of the Sower.
3 And he spake many things unto them in parables, saying, Behold, a sower went forth to sow;
4 And when he sowed, some seeds fell by the way side, and the fowls came and devoured them up:
5 Some fell upon stony places, where they had not much earth: and forthwith they sprung up, because they had no deepness of earth:
6 And when the sun was up, they were scorched; and because they had no root, they withered away.
7 And some fell among thorns; and the thorns sprung up, and choked them:
8 But other fell into good ground, and brought forth fruit, some an hundredfold, some sixtyfold, some thirtyfold.
9 Who hath ears to hear, let him hear.
There is no mystery about the meaning of this parable. Jesus Himself explained it (Matt. 13:18-23). It describes the results of preaching the gospel. Some will hear and reject it, some will accept it gladly but fall away, some will persevere yet never become fruitful in the work of God, and some will bear fruit abundantly. What is the historical setting of this parable? Is it talking about what will happen during the Church Age or during the Tribulation? Sowing seed is the characteristic activity of God's people during the Church Age. After the church is removed from this world, there will be no instrument left to carry out the Great Commission. During the last three and a half years of the Tribulation, the Antichrist will shut down every witness to the truth, forcing God to use angels to preach the gospel (Rev. 14:6).
The eighth Parable of the Kingdom is often overlooked, or treated as separate from the other seven. But it is actually parallel to the first.
Then said he unto them, Therefore every scribe which is instructed unto the kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is an householder, which bringeth forth out of his treasure things new and old.
Whereas the first parable talks about the proclamation of the gospel, the eighth refers to the teaching of deeper Bible truths. The church must present not only the elementary truths pertaining to salvation, but also the whole counsel of God, described here as a storehouse of treasures old and new. The historical setting is obviously again the Church Age, for teaching is a ministry of the church.
Second and Seventh Parables
The second is the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares.
24 Another parable put he forth unto them, saying, The kingdom of heaven is likened unto a man which sowed good seed in his field:
25 But while men slept, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat, and went his way.
26 But when the blade was sprung up, and brought forth fruit, then appeared the tares also.
27 So the servants of the householder came and said unto him, Sir, didst not thou sow good seed in thy field? from whence then hath it tares?
28 He said unto them, An enemy hath done this. The servants said unto him, Wilt thou then that we go and gather them up?
29 But he said, Nay; lest while ye gather up the tares, ye root up also the wheat with them.
30 Let both grow together until the harvest: and in the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, Gather ye together first the tares, and bind them in bundles to burn them: but gather the wheat into my barn. . . .
36 Then Jesus sent the multitude away, and went into the house: and his disciples came unto him, saying, Declare unto us the parable of the tares of the field.
37 He answered and said unto them, He that soweth the good seed is the Son of man;
38 The field is the world; the good seed are the children of the kingdom; but the tares are the children of the wicked one;
39 The enemy that sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the world; and the reapers are the angels.
40 As therefore the tares are gathered and burned in the fire; so shall it be in the end of this world.
41 The Son of man shall send forth his angels, and they shall gather out of his kingdom all things that offend, and them which do iniquity;
42 And shall cast them into a furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth.
43 Then shall the righteous shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Who hath ears to hear, let him hear.
Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
The seventh is the Parable of the Net.
47 Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a net, that was cast into the sea, and gathered of every kind:
48 Which, when it was full, they drew to shore, and sat down, and gathered the good into vessels, but cast the bad away.
49 So shall it be at the end of the world: the angels shall come forth, and sever the wicked from among the just,
50 And shall cast them into the furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth.
Both parables distinguish between two periods of time. The Parable of the Wheat and the Tares speaks of a growing season followed by a harvest. The Parable of the Net glimpses fishermen at work fishing and then at work sorting good fish from the bad. In the former parable, Jesus explicitly states that the harvest represents "the end of the world" (Matt. 13:39) or "the end of this world" (Matt. 13:40). "World" corresponds to a Greek word that means simply "age." Since a harvest is the end of a growing season, we infer that the growing season in the parable must represent the entirety of "this age." The Tribulation will not be age-long. Many Bible students believe that it will last only seven years. The age in question must therefore be the Church Age. The Church Age is likewise the first of the two periods noticed in the Parable of the Net. Only the second period—the time of sorting—is called "the end of the world [age]."
Third and Fourth Parables
The Parable of the Mustard Seed and the Parable of the Leaven offer much the same story.
31 Another parable put he forth unto them, saying, The kingdom of heaven is like to a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and sowed in his field:
32 Which indeed is the least of all seeds: but when it is grown, it is the greatest among herbs, and becometh a tree, so that the birds of the air come and lodge in the branches thereof.
Another parable spake he unto them; The kingdom of heaven is like unto leaven, which a woman took, and hid in three measures of meal, till the whole was leavened.
Both tell of something growing to great size or extent. If these parables pertain to the Tribulation, they must picture the growth of a false church after the true church has been raptured. Yet it is commonly agreed that before the last 3 1/2 years of the Tribulation, the Antichrist who will then emerge will destroy this false church and take all worship to himself (Rev. 17:16-17). Hence, if these parables pertain to the Tribulation, they are misleading, for they show the false church only in its prosperity.
Fifth and Sixth Parables
The parables that decisively settle when all seven will be fulfilled are the fifth and sixth. The fifth is the Parable of the Treasure in the Field.
Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto treasure hid in a field; the which when a man hath found, he hideth, and for joy thereof goeth and selleth all that he hath, and buyeth that field.
The sixth is the Parable of the Pearl of Great Price.
45 Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a merchant man, seeking goodly pearls:
46 Who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had, and bought it.
Many readers have supposed that these two parables speak of the commitment we owe to Christ. Because of the great worth in Christ and in His salvation, we should be willing to give up everything in order to please Him. But in both parables, the seeker obtains the thing of great worth by purchasing it. We cannot purchase Christ. Nor can we purchase our own salvation. What these parables obviously portray is Christ's work of redemption. Just as a man sold all his possessions that he might purchase a field with hidden treasure, and just as another man sold all his possessions that he might obtain a pearl of great price, so Christ sacrificed everything—His heavenly glory, even His life—to redeem the church. Moreover, just as the treasure was hidden in the field, so the church is hidden in the world until that moment when the sons of God will be revealed (Rom. 8:18-19). Thus, the fifth and sixth parables cannot possibly be construed as having special relevance to events during the Tribulation.
Another Erroneous Interpretation
The last six Parables of the Kingdom begin with the same formula, translated, "The kingdom of heaven is likened unto," or, "The kingdom of heaven is like to," or, "The kingdom of heaven is like unto." What does Jesus intend by the phrase "kingdom of heaven"? The phrase reminds us of the familiar words in the Lord's Prayer,
Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.
This prayer, given as a model for the church, implies that throughout the Church Age, the earth will stand outside the kingdom of God. His sovereignty will then be recognized in heaven, but not in the earth. The earth's inhabitants will not submit to His will until that future day when He imposes His kingdom upon them, in fulfillment of the request, "Thy kingdom come." On that day, Christ will descend from heaven to reign upon the earth for a thousand years with a rod of iron.
Some have therefore believed that the Parables of the Kingdom picture the Millennial Kingdom of Christ. But we can decisively reject this interpretation. When Christ wields authority over the earth, He will brook no opposition. Satan, the captain of all rebels, will be kept chained in the bottomless pit (Rev. 20:1-3). Yet, during the period foreseen by the Parables of the Kingdom, Satan is a powerful force resisting the work of God among men. In the first of these parables—the Parable of the Sower—the devil is shown snatching away seeds of truth (Matt. 13:19). In the next parable—the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares—he is shown planting his own people among the people of God (Matt. 13:38-39).
We conclude that when Jesus says, "The kingdom of heaven is like unto," He means that He will describe not the kingdom itself, but the events that will usher in the kingdom. The phrase "kingdom of heaven" is to be understood as a figure of speech, treating complex historical developments as equivalent to their final tendency. He might have said, "The coming of the kingdom of heaven is like unto," but He abbreviates the thought, as we do when we say, "The candidate worked hard at his election" (instead of, "The candidate worked hard at campaigning for his election"), or, "Our last meeting of the choir was devoted to the Christmas program" (instead of, "Our last meeting of the choir was devoted to rehearsal for the Christmas program").